White on the Outside, Poor in the Middle

The White Man’s Really a Poor

One of the things I do in these articles is to try and take the Filipino perspective into consideration. Being a foreigner, it’s not always possible to do that sincerely as I can’t help being a foreigner and that alone puts limitations on how deeply you can get inside of everyday life for the normal Filipino. No matter what circles I move in, I will always be a foreigner obviously. I won’t be treated the same naturally and some unfortunate mindsets prevent many Filipinos seeing you as anything other than a comfortably off foreigner.

Due to having already spent some months there previously, I had got to know many people. Coming from Metro Manila, it always felt good to simply not be in any rush for anything. Life is slow in Catigan but I enjoyed that aspect. Going to the store which was a 20 minute walk away could take 4 hours. Most times I went to the store; I would get sidetracked by people armed with Tanduay or Tuba. It was impossible to escape them as they would be sat outside the store you were going to.

I have my own demons and weaknesses so I was rarely strong enough to say no and refusal was something many wouldn’t accept anyway. I was always given drinks, almost daily. Only on a couple of occasions was I ever asked to buy a bottle. Most times it was give, give, give and I would take, take, and take.

A shift in mindset happened because it was about this time that people started to realise that the big fat Americano who isn’t an Americano “is not a rich, he’s a poor”. At least, those were the words used to describe the general drift of conversation which got reported back to me.

Due to some calamity in my financial world, I was suddenly cut off from income. I was left to live on debt repayments of 6000 pesos less than $140 a month. That was all I had to feed myself, my twin sons of 4 years of age and their mom. I had less than many of the people here and on par with most whilst most were certainly doing better than me. I really was even more than ever in the same flip flops as those around me, having just enough. This meant the basics, food, water, rent and electric being our only overheads. If you eat what is around you, it cuts down your costs and lashings of rice to fill your stomach, you get by.

I stopped buying my cherished Mighty red cigarettes at 30 pesos a pack to tobacco (Fresbie), 10 pesos a small block and rolled it in newspaper or notepaper. They turn out ok once you get used to it and at this level, cigarettes, even cheap ones was a luxury.

I don’t know what made the penny drop with the locals as regards my poor standing in the financial world but there was a change of mindset compared to my previous visit. Maybe it just seemed more obvious because just like the locals, I was crediting. With people always being sat outside the store, all gets noticed and spread around the community via the verbal media machine.

However, I will say that although I was not doing well on my last visit with finances, I had more cash than I had now. The mindset at that time was I’m a rich foreigner as is usual with many all over the Philippines even though I had no outward signs of wealth. On this visit, that mindset was successfully altered by my obvious lack of money.

My cash crisis started on my first visit to Catigan 4 months previous to this visit. However, I had some put by and it made things easier. On this second visit, the funds were depleted. I was down to $140 a month repaid debt money and it showed.

I stopped being the centre of financial conversations and they soon stopped wondering which piece of land I had come to invest my millions of dollars in. It came to rest that I was not the wealthy foreigner that it’s always assumed you are when you are a foreigner, or at least as many people see it here. Did it mean they treated me differently? No, not really. For that I have to give a little credit.

Like many of us grumpy foreigners here, I was too often of the mindset of thinking people sometimes are only interested in your money. It’s something very apparent to every foreigner here. Yes, there were many occasions, situations and conversations that told me this was still in the thinking of many in my locality. Having said that, it’s not right to fail to point out that many, even most, treated me no different on the realisation that I wasn’t what they expected.

Ways of Seeing You

This leads me to talking about acceptance as regards being a foreigner. You will never completely get away from the money mindset when you’re a foreigner. When they turn on the TV, they see foreign films, mostly American. It’s a world of big houses, everyone having a car, fitted kitchens and lush furnishings and your house isn’t made of wood. If you live how millions do here, that looks mighty damned rich. It gets tiresome but you have to remind yourself how it looks through their eyes.

You come from that world, you’re rich; just realise why they think it and learn to live with it. It is particularly hard to deal with it when you’re not exactly rich but struggling to survive. It just feels all wrong when you’re down on your arse but you’re thought of as rich. That was my problem; it was pointless getting pissed as they don’t know about my misfortune.

What was more interesting was how those that came to know I was having a hard time did not noticeably change towards me. I was still given shots almost every time I went to the sari-sari. The majority remained friendly but yes there was some bad mouthing from a minority and of course, those that never get to accept that you’re anything other than rich if you’re a foreigner.

Showing Respect through Language

When I conversed with the genuine majority, I was frequently asked if I spoke Visayan. Shamefully, I would always say no and fraudulently say I spoke Konti lang (little) Tagalog. I only said it as a deflection away from my shame at my own uselessness at never being good at picking up on tongues.

I quietly prayed after my exaggerated claim to having a little Tagalog knowledge that they won’t speak to me in Tagalog and expose my obvious false statement. I know several words in Tagalog but have never been able to put them together into anything like a sentence, and I’m not proud of that at all.

It really gladdens a Filipino when a foreigner even tries, even if badly to speak in the local dialect. I guess, it’s a sign of respect. Naturally enough, being asked about my competence in the local Bagobo language wasn’t a feature but it seemed they expected me to be speaking Visayan. I managed to camouflage it by saying I’ve been living in Manila so wouldn’t have had the need to know Visayan.

To my knowledge, I was spoken badly of by one or two for not having any knowledge of Visayan. It was said “7 years in the Philippines and can’t speak the language, tsk tsk”. This was not put to me in Manila so much or any of its surrounding provinces. It was definitely important to some of these people that I should speak Visayan. It’s a fair comment to say I should be at least speaking Tagalog by now and I see their point. I say this to point out that it may be a good idea to at least know a little, even if it’s just the very basics. It earns you a lot of respect for trying.

Despite my lack of language, I felt pretty much accepted by most and never really felt any hostility. A few slanted remarks are normal and if you can’t take that then best not leave your own country.

However, apart from passing through other rural areas, my 2 visits to Catigan in Davao was my first experience of rural life. I hope future travels will show me that each place has its own quirks.

This is Mindanao where it’s as diverse as it gets. I was living among mostly Bagobo people. I don’t feel I learned a great deal about them nor did I see too much outward evidence of a rich culture. However, I also knew that my lack of language skills and the fact that they just live as any of us do possibly meant I missed a lot.

The culture is now very vague it appeared to me. Many outsiders live among them and it’s not too surprising that their tribal roots are only something in the background. However, I’m also aware I was not one of them and I was probably simply not seeing things. I learnt a few things about how they live, their everyday life but real knowledge, of course not.

Everyday Pictures

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Filed under Culture, Impressions, Philippines, Travel

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