By Geo Ong
[This is the second part of a three-part article. If you haven't already done so, read the first part here.]
Manila reminded me in many ways of my hometown, Los Angeles. Again, I found myself in the backseat of a car, looking out the window, watching whole lives whiz before my eyes – which pleased me, because the culture shock, at first, wasn’t as shocking as I had feared.
Like Los Angeles in 2001 (and I suppose still to this day), Manila in 2001 was proud of its malls. We were staying with relatives who lived not too far from the SM Megamall, which was as massive as the name suggested. My brother and I, your typical American consumers, were excited to go, and our cousin, Jay, offered to take us, along with my mother, to see it.
On the way there, my mother said to us, ‘When you’re in the stores, don’t let anyone hear you speak English. If you want to tell me something, whisper it in my ear.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘If they know you’re American, they’ll hike up the prices.’
I didn’t quite understand, but I was willing to obey, since the repercussions sounded threatening. It was the first time since arriving in the Philippines that I was suddenly aware that I was different, despite looking like everyone around me. It wasn’t going to be the last time, either.
The mall, while impressively large, looked quite similar to any big mall I’d seen in Los Angeles. There were, of course, minute differences, such as the dominant presence of Filipino food in the food court, as well as the dominant presence of Filipino people in general. We went into a shoe store; my mother’s warning was ringing through my ears, so I clenched my teeth and clamped my lips. No one, however, thought to remind my four-year-old brother, who right away pointed to something and shouted, ‘Whoa, cool!’
In the food court, my mother asked me to buy a soda for her. She very well knew I didn’t speak Tagalog. ‘But what do I say?’
‘I only want you keeping quiet in stores,’ my mother said. ‘You can speak English to the cashier. Everyone speaks English here.’
That reassured me, and rightfully so because it was a fact. Along with the various Filipino dialects, English is an official language of the country. What my mother didn’t tell me was that, while everyone spoke English in the Philippines, no one spoke it first. After admitting to the cashier that I didn’t speak Tagalog, I felt an embarrassment that I hadn’t felt before and, as I brought a soda back to my mother, vowed never to speak to another stranger while I was here.
Despite that little lesson, I was contented so far with the trip. While I missed my house and my bed and my television shows in English, I began to think that maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad. After all, there were malls here.
‘Look,’ Jay said as he drove us home, pointing through the window. There, just off the side of the road, were a collection of tiny, makeshift shacks, assembled from mismatched sheets of corrugated metal, situated on wooden stilts above a stream of trash-filled water. ‘That’s a shantytown, where the poorest Filipinos live.’
My stomach turned at the sight of it. I had never seen anything like it. People live there? was the question I tried to blurt out, but physically I couldn’t speak, and I remained silent as Jay drove us back to our air-conditioned guest room.
[Check out the final section of this story.]