Last week, when my language teacher, Bebe Metillo, came to my house for my Cebuano lesson, an interesting discussion ensued between the two of us. In fact, the discussion was so deep and interesting that to be honest, we never did get to the language lesson!
One of the things I enjoy about Bebe is that not only does she teach me the language, but she teaches me Filipino Culture as well. In the early days of my lessons this was not really the case, but as I have become more advanced in my knowledge of the language, we have veered off more into cultural issues than language at times. Normally, even when culture is the talk of the day, we still spent at least half of our time on language learning, but not last week.
It all started when Bebe and I were making small talk at the beginning of our lesson. You know, the normal stuff – “how was your week” that kind of thing. Somehow, I don’t recall exactly how, the topic of “ulaw” came up. Ulaw is the Cebuano term that is the equivalent of “hiya” in Tagalog. In English, ulaw or hiya means shame, shyness or similar meanings. If a child is shy, that is ulaw. If a person is displaying shame, they are displaying ulaw. It is a deep part of Philippine Culture. As I have written many times before, Philippine Culture is based on a system called SIR, which stands for Smooth Interpersonal Relationships.
When Bebe and I got onto the topic of ulaw, I said to Bebe that ulaw was the part of the Philippine culture which I really hated. Immediately, I could see a look on Bebe’s face that she was quite shocked that I said that. I could tell that she could not understand why I would say that. So, we talked more about it, and I explained what I meant to Bebe. What I meant when I said I hated it was that I don’t like kids being taught that they should be shy or ashamed. I feel that in many ways, Filipino kids are ingrained with a lack of self worth, lack of self esteem due to ulaw being forced upon them at a young age. These Filipino kids, through the teaching of the society, come to feel that they are inferior to others (especially toward foreigners) just because they have less money, fewer means, etc. It is something that really rubs me the wrong way. In fact, I honestly believe that many kids have it so driven into their heads that they are inferior that it is nearly impossible for them to have much success in life. They aren’t good enough (in their minds), so why even try?
Some of the points we discussed:
If you were to tell a Filipino that “wala kay ulaw” (translated, it means “you have no shame”) it is probably one of the most shameful things that somebody can be told here. No worse words can be said to a Filipino. However, if I were talking about my niece, Nicole, and told Feyma “wala shay ulaw” (meaning “she has no shame” or “she is not embarrassed”) that could actually be a complement! So, if I say it to Nicole, it is a huge insult. If I say the same thing about Nicole, but direct it to Feyma, it can be a compliment. How can you make sense out of such a thing? I can find no way to make sense of it in my mind.
Another example… If Nicole would come to me and say “Daddy, can you give me 5 Pesos?” (Nicole always calls me “Daddy”), that would be something that she should be very ashamed to say. However, if a stranger on the street comes up to me and demands 5 Pesos from me, there is nothing in Filipino culture that would make that shameful at all! So, a person that I love dearly (Nicole) asking me for P5 is terrible, but a stranger demanding it from me is no big deal. To me, it should be the opposite! Even if Nicole asked me for P100, I might not give it to her (or I might), but I certainly would think nothing of it, and would not think badly of her for asking. If the stranger came up demanding P100 and getting in my face about it would be terrible in my mind, and I would want to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. Strange, don’t you think? Again, the Filipino thinking would be the exact opposite of mine, and I suspect the opposite of most foreigners.
As Bebe and I went on with our discussion of ulaw for over an hour and a half, a lot of interesting points were raised by each of us. In fact, the longer the discussion went on, I could see that Bebe was beginning to see my side of the argument, and I was also seeing hers. However, we came to the conclusion that ulaw is probably the most difficult aspect of Filipino Culture for a foreigner to understand, and probably made the biggest gap between Filipino thinking and Foreigner thinking. As a matter of fact, in the end, I believe that we both reached the conclusion that it is probably impossible for us to understand each other on this particular issue. I began to understand more than I did before the discussion, but so much of the whole thinking just baffles me.
What do you think? Can you grasp the concept?