Those of you who know me are aware that I am a ferociously independent person. I left home to study when I was 18, lived alone in a studio apartment for years and hate people touching me in my sleep. In short, “don’t touch my stuff!”
One of my hardest adjustments in the Philippines is the lack of personal space and privacy. Not surprising in a country where the average family size is six, with a birth rate much higher in poorer regions like Samar. Privacy is a luxury that doesn’t exist here.
This also seems to manifest in Pinoys treating your possessions as theirs: rearranging your shelves at home or files on your desk, borrowing your headphones, mouse-pad, Tupperware without asking and general stuff-touching activities.
There is also an alarming lack of personal space for my Western sensibilities. If you have ever travelled on a jeepney, tricycle or the MRT in peak-hour you know what I’m talking about.
One of my more comical personal space invasions was my first day of work. I walked to work denying all pedicab offers due to my fear of the deep fried banana and white rice diet catching up with me. I arrived at work with laptop, water bottle and text books in tow dripping with sweat. The treasure of the Board smiles at me sympathetically, touches my glistening brow, and then rubs my sweat between her fingers, “You’re not use to this climate yet.”
It only dawns on me later that a complete stranger has just rubbed and played with the sweat off my face!
Another Pinoy trait that I found exasperating at first was the eternal question, “Where are you going (paka in ka)?” “None of your God-damn business” is my in-built Sydneysider retort. After a while I realised that the phrase is like “How are you?” You don’t want a real update on a person’s mental or medical wellbeing; it’s simply a polite greeting. It’s a form of placing you in society, an extension of kinship which is particularly important in the provinces.
With my mabusag (white skin) and waray (nothing) Waray Waray language skills I will never belong here, nor do I intend to. When living in a foreign country you have a subconscious values audit, what do I appropriate and what do I stay true to?
I share my food, lend my things, hold hands with my workmates in town, accept comments about my body during workshops, eat with my hands (which is awesome) and generally go with the flow. But I draw the line at touching me in my sleep, walang ‘just friends’ spooning with the mabusag!