FILIPINO COURTESYManila, June 18, 2003 By Tingting Cojuangco (STAR) Last week, I was reading excerpts of Gracia Burnham’s In the Presence of My Enemies as lifted by the newspapers. According to her, amid a half-burning hospital and intense gun battle, "a muscular bandit known as Bro came running down the hall...As he tiptoed between people’s legs and bodies, he kept saying, ‘Excuse me...excuse me....excuse me..." It was, Gracia writes, "so typical of Filipino courtesy." I found it amusing the way she described the demeanor of her kidnappers during the Lamitan siege.

If there’s a trait characteristic of a Filipino, it’s courtesy and hospitality. They are qualities that have been passed on from one generation to the next that it’s pretty much like reflex action. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise if we’re generally well-mannered and polite especially towards our elders. For example, from birth, we lovingly call our mothers inay or nanay (mama or mommy) and our fathers, itay or tatay (papa or dad). We are taught this, that it’s almost obscene to hear a child calling his or her parents by their first names.

It is also usual for a Filipino to refer to older people as tita or tito (aunt or uncle), even if they are not related by blood. The person could be a parent’s close friend, a sibling’s godparents or simply a kind neighbor. A foreigner once said to me, "Everyone in the Philippines seems to be related." Well, we are, aren’t we?

This courtesy spills over into the community. Older members of the neighborhood are either called Aling or Mang, never solely by their first names. In the workplace, it’s the same. We don’t call our superiors by their given names, either. It would be irreverent. Bosses are usually referred to as Sir or Ma’am or Mr. so and so or Mrs. so and so.

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Our vernacular is also filled with words that show respect. Po or opo are words that either punctuate or end the usual conversational sentences. Please or the equivalent paki is ever present, so is sorry and excuse me. Of course, thank you or salamat is also a most important word. Elders openly reprimand their young when they forget to say these polite words. And, apart from being generous with uttering them, the singsong tone of our voices is indicative of our politeness.

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But actions speak louder than words, or so the saying goes. In deeds, as in words, Filipinos exhibit their courteousness. We either greet our parents by kissing them on the cheeks or on the forehead. We also make mano as courtesy to our lolos and lolas. In Mindanao, Assalam Alaikum is a greeting of courtesy. The right hand used for the handshake is placed on the right chest, a symbol of sincerity which, by the way, is disappearing. Our race is, after all, by and large peace loving.

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Apart from being courteous, polite and respectful, Filipinos are also typically hospitable. It’s a trait that has helped our tourism industry and earned our country some of that much-needed revenue. In most Filipino homes, a visitor is considered a VIP. Being ever gracious hosts, we always give our visitors the best of what we have. We prepare the best food our kitchens can prepare.

For their semestral break, a group of seminarians taking up philosophy proposed to their father superior that they be given a survival course. The father superior approved the idea and a proposal was sent to the Boy Scout Headquarters in District III of Quezon City. Yes! Training would be conducted in Mt. Makiling in Laguna.

The scout master formed these men in white into four troops, each troop consisted of six scouters with one scout leader. He then sent them in four directions – north, south, east and west. He instructed the scouters to each bring one pack of soda crackers and a bottle of water, their provision for one whole night and one whole day until they returned to their point of origin.

The seminarians were excited. They said they were used to fasting so that rationing would be no problem for them. They started trekking and followed the markers in the forms of a stone, a knot of branches, a tree without a bark, a stream with dead snakes, and a vine with a flower. They had walked for almost a day but saw no sign of any human being nor habitation.

Their provision did not last, and they were tired. Luckily down the reef, they saw smoke coming from a hut. Rushing downward, they found a couple with a baby, tending to their copra. The seminarians explained their ordeal to the surprised young couple. Eager to be of help, the wife gave them sweet camote and water while the husband tried to catch some chickens. After several hours of preparation, the couple invited them to eat. The husband told them, "Pasensya na kayo sa amin, kasi malayo ang palengke, hindi kami nakabili ng sardinas. Pagdamutan n’yo na lang itong tinolang manok, lechong manok at mga papaya. Iyan lang ang aming nakayanan." (Please forgive us, the market is far from our place. We were not able to buy sardines. Please just take advantage of our boiled and roasted chickens and papaya. That is all we can afford.)

The seminarians were astonished at the feast and ate all the food. Some of the seminarians have become priests and they still visit the couple in Mt. Makiling. Chicken is still not the couple’s favorite dish. Sardines is their status symbol.

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We bring out the best tablecloth, the best plates and the best utensils. If we have guests staying overnight, we always give them the best bedroom in the house, the best bed covers, the best sheets and the best towels. If the Filipino host isn’t well off, it isn’t surprising for them to get into a debt just to be able to give his visitor the best. We’re hospitable... sometimes to a fault.

The Filipino guest is equally as courteous. I once invited nephews of Governor George Hoffer of Zamboanga Sibugay, Richard and Banjo, to my Cotabato house. On the third day, I said my water heater was fooling around. "It’s so hot, then so cold I have to jump in and out of the shower." All my guests converged and said, "Ours too." They washed their faces every morning as fast as they could before the water turned boiling hot. Once Banjo forgot and scalded his face. He had to open the cold shower to relieve the pain. In true Filipino fashion, they took their dilemma silently.

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For my birthday at Bongao, a young Moro came to give me his Rolex watch. It must have been a supreme offering. In those parts, a watch like that is a status symbol. I rejected it thinking he was a wee bit unstable. He had, in fact, also waited so long for me by the railings of the little bridge connecting to my house. "Ma’am Tingting sa iyo ito." I handed it over to the Colonel to return it while the young man stared at me. In no time, he had 12 men parade before us with a huge cannon! The story was that he’d been selling his father’s ammunitions to get his highs. He did show some power!

It is unfortunate that I had to brag about something very Filipino in a most embarrassing episode in our history. But because these traits are typically Pinoy, as Gracia Burnham remembers, we carry it even in the most stressful situations.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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