(Do you understand me?)
Even if you travel to a foreign country that speaks your native language, you can still get yourself in trouble by not understanding the locals. For example, an American woman who hears a British person say that something is "pear-shaped" may take it the wrong way; in the UK, "pear-shaped" is slang for a situation that's gone wrong. Although many Filipinos speak English as well as Tagalog, one of the benefits of learning their native language is getting a small preview of Filipino culture.
Although Filipinos in Manila speak English, they are not Westerners. Despite having spent "400 years in the convent and 50 in Hollywood," Filipino culture--and their communication--is unique. Although Americans living in Manila have the luxury of being able to speak English with the locals, we need to have a general understanding of the cultural communication differences. The two that follow were especially interesting to me:
Although both American and Filipino parents teach their children that it's rude to point, in the US the level of rudeness depends on the context. In the Philippines, pointing at something is, if not always rude, usually weird. Filipinos point with their lips. The term "boondocks" originated in the early 20th century with disoriented American soldiers stationed in the Philippines who, hearing the locals use the word "bundock" (Tagalog for mountain) began using the term "boondocks" to refer to the middle of nowhere. My Tagalog teacher suggested that when the American soldiers asked the Filipinos for directions, the response would have been to point with their lips towards a mountain, hence the Americans' general confusion.
I suppose I need to train myself to point with my lips, and in the meantime, if it looks like I'm making a kissy face at you, don't take it the wrong way.
In addition to differences in nonverbal communication, it is important to remember that when you translate a word literally the subtlety of usage may be lost. In the US, we sometimes refer to our elected representatives as "my/your Congressperson." Although we are using a possessive pronoun, we do not think that the government official actually belongs to us. American political culture is both individualistic and collective--we are individualistic in our opinions, but collective in that we feel a sense of responsibility about our government's actions.
However, in our class we have learned that when some Filipinos hear Americans use a possessive to refer to a government official, they think it sounds strange. Remind me to refer to Governor Crist as ang (the) Gobernador.
Although I know that we are only getting a micro preview of certain aspects of Filipino culture, I still find it interesting. After all, one of the reasons we chose to enter the Foreign Service was to have the opportunity to learn and explore. If those of you who have lived or living in Manila have anything to add to the above, I'd love to hear from you.