My daily routine reminds me of the electric toy cars my siblings and I had as kids, mindlessly circling the race tracks over and over again with no purpose. Zrrrt! But now I feel less in control, like someone secured my wheels into the the grooves of the track and keeps holding down the “go” button. Round and round I go until the remote control’s batteries die, or the race is no longer interesting to the owner of the remote.
I try to leap the tracks from time to time in order to answer the question: how has the rest of the world figured out how to drive? Or are they as clueless as me?
Every minor and major day-to-day decision seems like a result of centuries of atmospheric, economic, and supernatural forces. Perhaps I’m unfulfilled by my own, or frustrated that I didn’t get to choose my own, so I seek out others located 12 time zones away.
I leapt the tracks and landed in the Philippines. The country is a unique quilt, made from threads of Spanish, American, and Japanese cultures, each having occupied the region at one time or another. I was excited to experience life as a bumbling idiot in a foreign land, a minority, a ghastly white-skinned, auburn-haired specimen attracting stares, grins, and not-so-subtle cell phone snapshots.
After a week of exploring remote beaches and pristine reefs on islands so beautiful they melt your face, I entered a condo building in Manila and approached the elevator bank.
“Sorry, boss,” a man working in the building muttered with his head down, exiting an elevator with the customary hand on over his heart. He apologized, from what I could tell, only because he was in my presence without my asking him to be.
Boss? The term shook me. Rather than achieve the feeling of an outsider looking in, I felt like some Great White Hope parading through a city set up to please the transient Western travelers. I had come to the Philippines hoping to reflect on a new way of life, but the whole experience felt as though something quite different was happening. The Philippines was trying to reflect me, mirror some kind of lifestyle they thought I wanted or needed.
Boss is used between just about everyone in the Philippines. It’s not the fratty term of endearment used by ambitious young bucks in the halls of Goldman Sachs. Rather, it is very telling of a prevailing attitude across the country. It denotes act of servitude. It’s quite literal — you are my boss in this moment.
I couldn’t help but think of the sign that hung in the front window of the biggest tourist trap in my hometown, Geno’s Steaks, requiring people to order in English. My culture, the way I drove through the tracks most of my life, was in a city prideful of its icy receptions and deliberate insularity. This “being welcoming” thing was throwing me for a loop.
I wandered into stores, restaurants, and megamalls, at the suggestion of Filipinos, trying to understand why and how megamalls could possibly be an integral part of any culture. All I found were customer service automatons gasping at my arrival, as if every time I walked in, I was a surprise guest they were not prepared to serve.
[Gasp!] FOREIGNERS IN RESTAURANT. COMMENCE EXCEPTIONAL SERVICE PROGRAM.
“Hi sir! How are you, boss?”
These overly polite automatons stuck to my heel immediately, a smile plastered across their faces like a loyal labradors greeting their owner. In Manila, I didn’t find the sales hustle you find in other countries while shopping, which I tend to admire. I found a feverish obligation to smother serve customers that is one part impressive, five parts awkward.
Particularly if they can’t fulfill your request.
“Hi, yes, can we have the Sizzling Sisig?
“Uh…no…sir, ma’am…sorry…I…uhhhh…we are out of this, so sorry, sir.”
You can see the brain circuitry shorting out. Their faces freeze to nervously reveal teeth. I stand several inches taller, staring, wondering if an electrical fire will start in their brains.
Any jokes to relieve the tension will corrupt the customer service computer program:
“No sisig? Ah worst day ever!” I ribbed with a smile, trying to let them know it will all be okay.
“Sir, let me see, sir, and double check with the kitchen and my boss, sir [Server scurries away].”
“It’s okay…it was just…”
My final day in Manila, I finally made a stop at a bake shop I had been aggressively eyeing up. It produced extravagant cookies the size of my hand, from wrist to fingertip. Every one looked like it had an orgasm baked into it. They even let you Chipotle-fy your cookie and make your own.
The owner of the establishment saw us approach and nervously started rambling off the backstory of the bakeshop, and his other bakeshops, and rued not having enough fresh cookies for us to choose from. He wanted us to try everything and nearly died when he discovered our flight was later that night. To remedy this situation, he said make two of your own cookies, it’s on us. Then choose three of the other pre-made cookies, that way you won’t have FOMO after contracting diabetes and cavities.
It was so over the top. He even made sure to name drop famous bakeries in New York City that he modeled his store after, in an attempt to gain legitimacy with us Americans. So generous and sincere, yet misguided.
But it was impossible to adore this man’s delirious attempt to feed me sugar.
This man wanted us to love his cookies, his shop, and most of all, his representation of the Philippines. Really no different than every automaton I came across.
I mistook the proliferation of cheesy malls and smothering automatons as an overt attempt to copy Western materialism, putting our culture on a pedestal.
But the culture wasn’t “shopping” per se, it was service. Any reason to serve another person is a good one, and that’s what every Filipino wanted me to know about their culture. They don’t just make me feel like boss, they make everyone feel that way.