Chapter 29: Cultural Observations

We also took notes of cultural observations on cards similar to those on which we had made our vocabulary list. These notes described how the Itawes did certain things, such as comments concerning their food and manner of preparation, how they dressed, etc. These note cards were filled in after we got home from the occasion. When we were invited to a social affair, we went. The Purisimas took us everywhere at first, introduced us to people, and eventually we were invited separately and were able to be on our own. They clued us in as to what was appropriate to wear, what to take, if anything, and at what time to go. Seeing that “Filipino time” is very different from “American time,” we learned the hard way not to get there too early.

We were caught up in the social whirl, but it was distinctly different from what we were used to in the US. In the first place, it was with the upper socio-economic level, the wealthy socialites, and we aren’t in that category in the States. In the second place, most of the activities we attended seemed to be an ‘occasion,’ the celebration of one of a certain number of events in the life cycle, for which they go all-out. In describing an occasion, they talk about what they had and how much they spent: the number of pigs, cows, and/or water buffaloes slaughtered, the quantities of rice, flour, vegetables, beverages (sometimes including liquor) purchased, the variety of dishes, and the number of guests served. They may eat skimpy meals for months in order to save up for the occasion. Relatives in the States may send several hundred dollars to help finance it. Only a handful of people may attend the ceremony in the church building, but dozens, scores, or even hundreds of people come to the buffet-style banquet in the home afterwards.

In addition to the major holidays, there appear to be three major life events that called for an occasion: death, marriage, and christening—in that order of significance. Perhaps because of the high infant mortality rate, births did not seem to be celebrated—at least, we hadn’t heard of any. If the child survived for a few months, he was christened, and that called for an occasion. But most of those we attended were associated with a death. On the day of the death, while the body was still in the house (we didn’t have a funeral parlor in Piat), people came to the house. Actually, they kept coming as long as the body was still in the house. They stayed as long as possible with the family of the deceased to keep them company. The family took turns staying up around the clock day and night. They say it is that way because they are guarding the body. Different ones took time out to sleep as others in the family took over the watch. While the visitors were there, they either talked and visited with the family and friends, or they might play cards or a game of mahjong. (Mahjong is a game of Chinese origin, usually played by four persons, with 136 or 144 pieces resembling dominoes, marked in suits, and called tiles: the object is to build combinations or sets by drawing, discarding, and exchanging tiles.) In these games of chance, small amounts of money were bet, and when the game was over, the winner paid a certain percent of his winnings to the family. This was called the tong. It helped to pay for the snacks that were given from time to time to those who came to visit.

Sometimes the body was in the home for several days depending on the return of various family members from distant places. Then they had a burial service at the church and all walked behind the casket of the deceased as it was carried to the cemetery. Sometimes a funeral coach carried the casket and there were any number of people following behind it while it went slowly along the road. Some people rode in calesas or triceys or their own personal cars to go to the cemetery. Following the burial, everyone went back to the home of the deceased where much food was served. Again some might play mahjong or cards or just sit around talking until everyone had eaten. At about that time, they served a snack of special kinds of rice candy, a drink called ‘sukalate,’ (very rich chocolate drink), and rolls or other things. Finally, when it seemed the time was right, a person went to the family and let them know he was now leaving. Not to pay this courtesy to the family was considered very bad manners. One needed to say his goodbye.

Possibly because a death is often unexpected, the custom was to give a cash gift to the family to help cover the cost of the food. There was an occasion on the ninth day after the death, one on the fortieth day, at which light refreshments were served, and one on the first anniversary. We attended a second anniversary occasion, and one which was held on the tenth anniversary of the death of the one being remembered.

Usually there was a short service at some point, led by the parish priest or his representative, but the general atmosphere was one of socializing. We used these occasions to tell people why we were in Piat, and to practice our Itawes. We got better at it, but it took a long time to be good enough to carry on a conversation. Inevitably, we switched back to English, which the people in that social level all knew quite well.

We attended our first wedding in a barrio quite a distance from Piat. Our “adopted” Filipino son had come to us, saying he needed “help” with his wedding. We said we’d be glad to help all we could, not knowing it was the groom who pays for the wedding in the Philippines. So it turned out that we had consented to see that they had an acceptable church wedding with feast immediately following. We took pictures of the gala event and had them in our next newsletter. A social faux pas on our part was avoided when the Lord led us to leave our wedding clothes behind that morning, so that we were dressed simply as were the rest of the brethren there that day.

Not all occasions are connected to deaths, marriages and christenings. We attended one social on Christmas night which involved an admission charge. A minimum of food was served, and everything beyond expenses was used to help the poor. That was something we wanted to do, but had no idea where to begin or end. We were happy to contribute to that, and leave the job of deciding to whom it should go to people far more qualified to make the decision.

In Piat, we learned the Catholic Church had quite a celebration at Christmas time. For ten days before Christmas, they held what is known as the Misa de Gallo, or Mass of the Rooster. About four o’clock in the morning, the church bells rang out loud and clear so the members of their church knew it was time to get up and go to mass. Then on the night before Christmas, instead of having the Misa de Gallo, they celebrated a mass at midnight in the church, and this was a very special mass. We actually never attended one ourselves, but those who did said that it was a beautiful occasion.

This first Christmas time, though, we decided to spend the holidays in Piat instead of with the Americans in Aparri. We wanted to be as much a part of an Itawes Christmas as we could. Chuck was invited to be the speaker at the local elementary school Christmas program, the first time anyone other than a clergyman in the Roman Catholic Church had ever done it. He wrote out what he wanted to say in English, translated it into Itawes. He then checked his translation with our cook and Mrs. Purisima, who made numerous corrections, interspersed with gales of laughter at some of his sentences, puzzled looks over others, and an occasional nod of approval at a correct one. On the program, he was the only one who spoke in Itawes. The children spoke and sang mostly in English and sang a few songs in Pilipino or Tagalog, the national language.

Christmas day, Mrs. Purisima invited us to have dinner with her. Her husband, sister, and oldest son went next door to eat at a ‘family reunion’ with her aunt and some cousins. She stayed home and fixed dinner for us, her mother, two younger sons, and two household helpers. When we expressed dismay at her missing the reunion to fix dinner for us, she said she would not have gone anyway, because she would not have left the house unattended. (Apparently nothing is ever regarded as secure). We had strictly Filipino foods which were delicious. Her family returned after their dinner, and we stayed and visited a while, and they spoke mostly in Itawes, and we were encouraged at how much we were able to understand.

While we visited, the town band stopped and serenaded us on their tour around the town. This was a group of about seven or eight men, mostly older men, who own their own instruments. They are invited to play at various occasions, but at Christmas time, they go around to play for homes. Contributions are made to them to show the appreciation of the folks listening. We contributed a few pesos which Mrs. Purisima said would probably go toward buying another instrument for the band. They were good, and we enjoyed them very much. We recorded a song, but upon playing it back, we discovered that our recorder wasn’t recording properly, and we could hardly hear them. At some time during this season, carolers started coming by each house to sing good tidings of Christmas cheer. Here the favorite songs were, “Whispering Hope” and “O Holy Night.” The carolers were more like “Trick-or-Treat-ers” of Halloween in the States, for they came to sing for money or candy, and the incentive was the handout rather than the joy of singing.

At our home, the children came by in droves. Word got out that we were giving out lollipops instead of money, so the older folks were discouraged, but the youngsters came unashamedly, singing whatever they knew, the best they could even if they had just picked up a few of the sounds of a song whose tune they had learned very minimally. I tended to get impatient with the continuous groups of children, most seeming to sing in the same voices, making the same mistakes, looking so much like the same children, but Chuck was full of the Spirit of Christ and went to the door, his pockets bulging with lollipops. Each time the little ones stood there waiting patiently, and then sang back, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. and Mrs.” Then I realized how it must have felt to be Scrooge, remembering that we are rich indeed, and felt admonished to respond more lovingly to these who are only following their own cultural ways, truly enjoying the excitement and entering into the joy of the season.

About seven in the morning on New Year’s Eve day, we heard firecrackers here and there, and we wondered what that would develop into. We remembered New Year’s Eve ten years earlier, when we were in Cebu, in the southern Philippines, with Ray and Imogene Carlson, missionaries who lived and worked there. The firecrackers were going off all night long. This year, in the early evening, the kids came around caroling again, same kids, same songs, same mistakes, and we gave out the same lollipops. They stopped coming by eight o’clock.

By 9:00 P.M. things were almost as quiet as on any other night, which is usually total silence, except for an occasional dog barking or the crowing of a rooster who has gotten his time signals mixed up. There wasn’t much reason to do otherwise, so we went to bed shortly after that at our usual time. We were awakened at midnight by a brief flurry of firecrackers, but were soon sound asleep again.

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