The Things I Know

“Wow, you’ve lived on this island for fourteen years! You must really fit in — I mean, you’re not a gringo anymore” said a vacationing American to me recently. I had to think about that for a few seconds, before I answered.

“No, I don’t fit in at all”, I said. “We’ll always be gringos here. But I guess I’ve been a pretty successful gringo — I mean, I’m still here.”

That short conversation started me thinking about the way expats assimilate into our adopted cultures. As a Canadian, I’m always surprised when I hear of an immigrant who has lived in Toronto for twenty years and can’t speak a word of English or French. “How is that possible?”, I have wondered.

Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve lived in the Philippines for fourteen years and cannot speak Tagalog. My Filipino neighbors and friends seem to accept my ignorance and graciously greet me in English whenever they see me. Where I live, Filipinos speak English fluently — which makes it easy to be lazy and not learn their language. I’m sorry.

Yes, there are a few local customs that I know. For example, I’ve learned that if I’m sitting on a jeepney waiting for it to fill with passengers so we can leave, and a friend comes along and offers me a ride in his car, and I accept his offer, I must pay the jeepney driver his fare anyway. And if a neighbor dies, I will go to her house where she will be laid out in the living room (it costs a lot of money to be laid out in a funeral parlor) and I will pay my condolences to her family and make a donation for the funeral expenses, although I should not stay too long. It is not expected that I should stay too long.

Fourteen years is a long time to live in a foreign country. If I had been born here fourteen years ago, even as an expat child, I would no doubt have a far greater understanding of Filipino culture than I do now. And if I were a fourteen-year-old Filipino living on this island, not only would I know how to use a computer and a cellphone, I would also know when it’s time to burn the fields, how to open a coconut, what kind of leaves to feed a goat, and which plant cures a headache.

But I do know a few things that I did not know when I lived in Montreal and Paris and Tokyo:

I know how it is to rise with the sun each day. I know that the ocean has many moods and can change its color whenever it wants. I know that the calmest seas will come when the monsoons are in transition and neither one is in control. I know that the three-foot-long brown snake that curled up behind my refrigerator was not poisonous but needed to be relocated into the jungle because who can live knowing that there is a three-foot-long snake roaming around their house? I know that my hibiscus plants like to be heavily watered, preferably at night, while orchids like to feed early in the morning. I know that my bougainvillea will explode with color if I add a small amount of urine to to their water, and of course I should not plant banana trees too close to the house because they will attract mosquitoes. I know that mosquitoes which carry dengue fever fly during the day, while those that carry malaria fly at night (there is no malaria where I live, though there is much dengue). I know that there are men who can heal who live up in the hills of this island. I know that an island can reject or accept a person. I know what a super typhoon feels like and what it’s like to wake up and find that most of the trees in your yard have been blown down, but you’re lucky because your neighbors lost their roof and have no money to replace it. I know that you can feel cold when the temperature is 75 degrees. I know how it is to live without 911. I know that people die because they can’t afford to pay for treatments that would save their lives. I know that children live without their mothers or fathers because in this part of the world, parents must work in places like Dubai and Hong Kong and on ships at sea so they can pay to send their children to school. I know that children can be happy without expensive toys and iPads. I know what is going on inside my neighbors’ houses and I know that they know what’s going on inside mine because we all live with our windows wide open. I know that all people are the same inside: we all just want to be happy.

I know that I love living on a tropical island in the Philippines…


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