Cultural Train Wrecks:  Mano Po and a Scarcity of Pizza

Thirty two years ago, I was a ten year old visiting the Philippines with my family.  All of the relatives on my mama’s side had gathered for my grandmother’s funeral.  The other American-born cousins had been here before, but this was the first time for my sister and I.  My sister was three years old and remembers nothing.  

There were all kinds of crazy things I could blog about; the wailing, the water pumps, the lucky house lizards, the trip to the emergency room.  One of the most interesting things is all of the horrible culture-clash moments that I had as a 10 year old, just a horribly, horribly embarrassing cultural train wreck; things that my parents, cousins, and relatives all watched me commit without much comment.  

One of the things was the custom called “mano po” in which a child takes takes the hand of an elder and touches the elder’s knuckles to the kid’s forehead.  If you ever want to see it, go to a Mass in your town when the bishop is celebrating; the Filipino kids have to stay after Mass and “bless” the bishop with “mano po” regardless of his ethnicity.  From what I’ve seen, the bishops LOVE it, but I digress.  

Me, I didn’t know shit about mano po, so when elders would extend their hand to me, I’d shake it.  Big, hearty, embarrassing, American shake.  When people laughed, I started kissing those extended hands. Hand kissing was something I had seen before, I had previous knowledge of it.  What the hell did I know.  Was I somehow supposed to intuit that the knuckles go to to my freaking forehad?  Oh, of course, that’s logical.  

It was my younger American cousins who explained the custom to me.  Of course, I was in disbelief; it seemed so unlikely.  That’s what culture shock is; it’s not different styles of native dance, it’s the disbelief that people’s cultural differences now somehow apply to you.  I was ten.  

Why in the hell didn’t anyone counsel me on this?  There were culturally competent adults all around me!  Maybe they thought there was some genetic knowledge in my blood that would take over suddenly and make me act like Lapu Lapu or Aguinaldo. Maybe my parents were told that children learn best through mortifying culture clashes.  I actually asked my mama, why she didn’t at SOME point just explain the custom of “mano po” to me.  Her answer was, “oh…. I don’t like that custom.”  She found it patronizing and demeaning.  

I wish she had sat me down and said, John Patrick, there is a patronizing and demeaning custom that I don’t like, here’s what it is, and here are some alternatives.  If my mama had sat me down like that, I would have believed her, and I could have made an informed choice.  

But alas, there was very little cultural preparation.  

The worst was that they didn’t tell me about the scarcity of pizza.  

You wouldn’t know it now; there’s pizza here up to the elbows now.  But in 1983 that was not a thing in the Republic of the Philippines.  Of course nobody had told me that.  

So about once a week, I’d get sick of fresh fish, veggies, and rice, and ask my parents if we could just go out for pizza.  There answer was always, “there’s no pizza here” or some bullshit, and I thought,  “I KNOW there’s no pizza HERE, that’s why we have to LEAVE HERE and GO OUT for pizza, duh!”  There’s a lot of information lost in the gap between Filipino English and American English.  

One uncle said, oh, I brought a pizza!  smiling broadly, I brought a Filipino pizza! and he unwraped a steaming hot disk of food that looked like it had melted cheese on top, never mind that it came wrapped in a banana leaf.  And everyone gushed joyfully about Filipino pizza and what a special treat.  

Note:  this ends poorly and there will be adult language.  

I could not wait to get a bite of that thing, and everyone was cooing and gushing, and Filipinos are the SLOWEST MOVING PEOPLE ON EARTH if you want something, so after what seemed like a hour there was finally a wedge on a plate destined moving toward me.  It’s a Filipino pizza! I could not wait for the tomato sauce, the cheese, whatever meat I know it was going to be gooooood.  And all my uncles and aunties and my parents were all cooing about how good it was going to be.  So I took a bite and then gagged and then dropped the syrupy sweet, coconutty lump of Satan’s toejam from my gaping mouth back onto the plate and looked up at everyone in tears.  

THIS IS BIBINKA, I said, accusing them, murderously.  They all laughed at my dumb ass.  Bibinka is a sticky rice dessert and the thought of it 32 years later still makes me mad enough to want to puke on it and then destroy the table with an aluminum bat, I hate it so much.  Oh my dear lord I hate bibinka so much, and it all came from that day they tricked me.  

I’m sure I am not remembering this correctly, but in my memory I cursed out everyone in that room individually and then stormed upstairs because I was embarrassed for crying.  My cousins were waiting for me upstairs, wondering why I was mad, why I was a dumbass.  

Nobody ever mentioned that they were sorry for misleading me.  Of course it’s cultural.  In the early 80s Filipinos lied to their children all the time.  That kind of emotional manipulation was an expectation.  There was no inkling back then that the kid might grow up resentful and then document those lies in highly biased and exaggerated blog posts.  Another culture clash.  

Near the end of that four weeks, I was not doing well.  I was had 11 stiches in my arm, and had hives from the antibiotics they made me take.   I was blind because my skin was allergic to the metal in my glasses, so rather than wearing glasses I went around squinting and guessing. It was bad.   

Also I was fatigued from sitting in relatives’ living rooms.  For my parents, this month in the Philippines was a super rare slice of their childhoods, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see everyone again and just to “be.”  But for my cousins and I it was merciless; desperately boring.  Days of sitting in a living room, followed by days of sitting in a different living room.  We ran out of things to play.  We made up lyrics to songs we *remembered* from the radio in the states.  The boys resorted to playing jump rope with the girls, which we all abandonded after a certain point.  

So it was by some sort of miracle that I suddenly found myself sitting in a PIzza Hut in Shoemart, it might have been that my parents actually felt bad for me and thought they could spare me a single moment of satisfaction. One afternoon where I didn’t have to feel like a stupid pile of shit.  

They hadn’t told me where we were going, and when we showed up at the restaurant, I think I was supposed to be surprised.  But I was already a different person than the kid I was before the Great Bibinka Deceipt (GBD).   

Post-GBD me hates surprises, even good surprises, and I show zero joy at surprises because I feel zero joy at surprises.  People know this about me, now, but when someone does try to do a nice surprise for me, you can see in my face that I’m calculating to say something gracious.  Mostly I really am thankful, the thought is always nice, but I just don’t have that ecstatic pleasure response that other people are trying to manufacture.  I just don’t.  I won’t get invested emotionally in a surprise, not even after it’s been sprung.  

I played it cool when we got to the restaurant.  At any point, I thought, this could turn out to be a deception.  

My mama is surprised that I can even remember the taste of this pizza, but I remember it clearly.  It came to the table screaming hot, and there was too much rich, fragrant tomato sauce and too much cheezy stringy screaming hot cheese.  It was miraculous for me.  It was a miraculous experience to eat that pizza, a sign of God on Earth among us.  I was so happy to eat that pizza.  I wonder now if they were happy to be there with me, if it was too expensive a treat, too out of the way, or if it was a wasted afternoon they could have spent with childhood friends.   I remember now that there were wide slices of salami on it, and sausage crumbles, and the smell of red sauce.  We sat by a window.  It was sunny outside.  

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