Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Po troubles

Something that's interesting and a little frustrating for me in trying to use Tagalog is the word "po." It's not even really a word. In english it would be a tone of voice, or maybe a manner of speaking to someone. Basically, by adding "po" at various points during a sentence you are showing the person you're speaking to respect. You really only use it when speaking to older people, especially older people of some importance (mayor, your boss, etc). Some places use it more than others, some places use "ho" more often, which is slightly less formal. They use "po" a lot in Manila, apparently, and I'd say they use it a lot on Mindoro too. At least I do. Actually I probably over use it simply because I'm still not %100 on the terms and conditions of using it. I think the main problem for an english speaker is that we don't really have a direct equivalent to it. I think "sir" or "ma'am" is about as close as we get, and even then you probably have to think of 1950s US when that was much more common. Basically to give a quick example I'll give you a few very common ways it's used. The word for "yes" in Tagalog is "Oo" (pronounced 'o' and then 'o'). If you want to say yes in a respectful way, you say "Opo." "Good morning" is "Magandang umaga" but if you want to make it respectful, you just add a "po" (magandang umaga po). When you get into sentences it gets a little more complicated as the po does not always get attached to the end, for example "Magcano po ang pamasaje?" is a respectful way of asking how much fare is (for the bus, etc).

Now people say the english language, and American english in particular, is very informal, which is somewhat true, I suppose. We have less formality built directly into our language, but although there are many informal workplaces, I think it's safe to say most business still maintain some sense of formality. There's the tone and manner you use with your boss, and then there's the one you use with your coworkers. I mean, it's not like people here don't kid and joke with their superiors at work, but when it comes down to it there's still a hierarchy that people stick to. And out on the street, I'm not "sir-ing" and "ma'am-ing" every older person I see, and even if I do start out respectful with certain people, that usually breaks down after a while into a more informal tone. My problem here is I still am not sure about those kinds of things. Don't get me wrong, it's not that big of a deal. If I "po" someone I'm not supposed to, or I forget to "po" someone I am supposed to, it doesn't make that much of a difference, especially since I'm a foreigner. They're amazed I know anything at all (and rightly so). But I'm always wondering if I should "opo" the older tricycle driver or waiter. I mean, they're older than me, but they're also serving me. Is there a point at which you stop "po-ing" someone and speak more informally? I've discovered there is, but I still feel uncomfortable sometimes.

It basically just comes down to me wanting to learn the language a little quicker, because as true as this in most countries, it's doubly true here: you are automatically labeled "sucker tourist" from the get go, and knowing language is the only way to counteract that. The funny side effect to that though is that if you do know even the smallest bit of language, they automatically assume you are a missionary. I thought that was really weird that there are missionaries here since it's a roman-catholic country, but I forgot about the Mormons. Those little fresh faced kids in their white short-sleeved shirts and black ties are everywhere. There are also some born again types here too. I always get a laugh out of it though because they always ask me when I'm sitting shirtless on a beach drinking a beer or something, and I just want to ask them "do I look like a Mormon?"

The whole tourist image is an impossible and very annoying image to shake however, and it can really annoy you sometimes. Basically the only white people who come here or live here are rich by provincial standards, even if they're just dirty backpackers. Some guy asks them for p100 ($2) for a 15 minute tricycle ride and they think that's cheap, or normal price because they don't know any better, so they go along with it, even though it's double, triple the price. We were in a cab once in Manila, and the cabbie told us that an American had once paid him p3000 ($60) for a ride down to Batangas, which is about 2 hrs away from Manila. That's a great price by American standards, but the bus ride down there is p150 ($3). So it's no wonder people try and rip us off. And for us we know the prices, we know how to bargain, so it's much less of a problem. Unfortunately (I forgot to mention this in the last post), but the downside of living near a tourist destination is being labeled a tourist in your own town. More than a few times I've had this conversation, in Tagalog, with a tricycle driver:

"Where are you going?"
"Sta Maria Village" (the name of our barangay)
Two minutes later he sticks his head in an says:
"Jeepney terminal?"
"No, Santa maria village"
"Puerto Galera?"
"NO! Sta maria village!"
3 minutes later:
"Jeepney terminal?"

Pretty much except for the people we know and the places we frequent, we are assumed to be a) from Puerto Galera or b) traveling through to Boracay. Or secret choice c) Mormom missionaries. Ahhh! But by and large, it's not that much of a problem. Mostly people take us where we want, for the right price without having to quibble with them, and only occasionally do they try and rip us off, so it's not as bad as maybe I just made it sound, but sometimes, when you're having a rough day and you're tired, it's the last thing you want to deal with.


Anonymous said...

Hi Owen and Abby:
Interesting comments about the language. Any news about how Abby's ear problem will be treated?
Did you celebrate Halloween?
Aunt Con


Whats up you guys?! long time no talk.
how are the Phillipenes treatin ya?
from what I read it sounds like an interesting place to live.I have been doin ok bac k in stl (it keeps sucking me back!!) oh well I have some good friends here and of course mom. I hate typing so im gonna stop now but e-mail me
take care
much luv

SPG said...

Let the Po go, it's way overrated