WORKING IN A CROSS CULTURAL TEAM
Unlike in the UK where we are always thinking 3 steps ahead, there is a real sense of living in the "now" and enjoying each and every moment. At home I have often let whole days pass me by without properly engaging with another person because I have been so wrapped up in my thoughts. (N.B. Just to clarify I am not a social recluse, I am referring to those days where you talk AT people but fail to listen to them- e.g. when I call my mum and rant for half and hour and then just as she starts to tell me about herself, I will claim to be busy and hang up. Or when you are out with and friend and you start texting mid-conversation). My experience of Filipinos is quite the opposite. However busy, they will always make time for you and give you 100% of themselves. Last night, I attempted to hand wash my clothes much to the amusement of the Filipinos. But they took so much time to teach me the tricks of the trade (3 rinses not 2, otherwise you'll end up with soapy clothes!) And I could see that they genuinely enjoyed helping me. Whilst the western world trades in capital, in the Philippines they appear to trade in happiness. And even when it's raining (and I'm talking typhoon-style raining), they still keep smiling.
I think the biggest difference between the UK volunteers and the in-country volunteers is the way we form relationships. In the UK we are quick to jump straight into friendships and will happily 'banter' with people we barely know. We feel like we are forming lots of friendships, making connections and widening our social circle, but in a crisis we often have very few "friends" that we can actually turn to. In Filipino culture people are much more cautious when forming friendships. Initially, they can come across as shy, but this is just there way of observing and evaluating you. Crucially, before they will open up, you will have to gain their trust. 'Trust' is a huge part of the culture and is at the basis of all of their relationships: once formed it allows everyone to be open and honest with each other.
An example of this can be seen in their comments on appearance. I was slightly taken aback when some of the girls started teasing a girl about her weight, saying stuff like "don't stand there you'll crack the tiles!" But the girl didn't mind at all because as they put it "it's the same as saying you have brown hair or blue eyes- it's just a characteristic!" She told me that she loves food, she loves to eat, so really it's her choice to be fat! Unlike in western culture where we wrongly associate being overweight with being a failure, lazy or unsuccessful, the word 'fat' does not come with the same negative connotations and is often a desirable quality. I experienced this first hand when one of the girls described me as 'chubby.' I couldn't help but feel offended by this remark because of the western ideologies ascribed to the term. But it is not the word that is loaded with negativity, but the social implications that are attached to it. In this culture her comment was pointing out the obvious- that I'm bigger than her- but in my head the word triggered insecurity and a sense of not being good enough.
But this is trust - Filipino style.
At home, there are very few people who I could be this honest with. Whereas in the Filipino community, this level of honesty is the standard for friendship.
I think by rushing our friendships in the UK, we are skipping steps and consequently never fully form 'trust' with one another. The banter example perfectly illustrates this. After just a day, the UK volunteers were mocking each other- from hair colour to intelligence- without really knowing whether this would offend the other person. This sort of interaction has characterised the team and makes us seem as if we are really comfortable with each other. But we are not. We barely know each other. Conversely, the filippino team were much more reserved with each other at the start, but participated in more formal introductions- finding out about each others families, jobs etc... After a few days of gaining each others 'trust' they have a solid foundation on which to stack a friendship. When they are pissed off, they tell each other. My counterpart wanted some time to herself today, so she told me. This is the level of 'black-and-white' honesty that comes with Filipino trust.
This culture of saying what you are really thinking or feeling also makes the dating scene a whole lot simpler. There is none of this 'playing hard to get' bullshit (particularly from the boys). Again, as with friendships, there is a heavy 'vetting' process when it comes to picking a boyfriend or girlfriend, which involves a whole lot of courting (chasing by the guy) and making sure that your family like them. One of the girls was courted for a year and a half by a boy at uni. Every day he bought her roses (EVERYDAY!!) and would openly express his feelings. After a year and a half he 'proposed' to her in a public arena (and had all her friends present) to ask her to be his girlfriend. Now I'm not saying that we should necessarily date like this. To be honest I don't think anyone in the UK has the patience to court someone for a month, let alone 18! But I think the point I am trying to make is that in the Philippines people do not let themselves get into vulnerable situations because their relationships have a solid foundation based on 'trust.'
An obvious example of this is how in the UK it is commonplace to sleep with someone, then maybe get to know them later. Which is the reverse of here. We jump right in, then find out about the person later- which can make us vulnerable.
Perhaps are 'backwards' way of forming relationships is the reason for the high depression rates within our society- as maybe these not-so-strong 'friendships' that we are forming are leading to feelings of isolation. The Filipinos always have friends and families to fall back on in times of need, but do we have this same support network available to us in the UK?- Of course I am generalising, as there is so much cultural difference within each culture. And I've come to the conclusion that culture is an impossible 'thing' to pin down or define. It is not within the context of a textbook in which to define a certain community or country, because each one is diverse, dynamic and unique.
Just to clarify I'm not preaching. This is just a collection of thoughts about cultural difference. I don't think any one culture is right or wrong. Because we are all individuals. But I think my aim is to take bits of culture from everywhere I have travelled and in a sense, create my own personal culture.
But then again- is this an example of western individualism????