Oh, Behave

Public transit is an eye-opener. Three days in a row, the same group of teenagers get on the subway with me at the same time and proceed to treat the train car as their own private man cave. Boisterous laughter, dangling from the overhead bars, talking at the top of their lungs. It’s a nightmare. And it’s not just the teens. The adults are guilty of being inconsiderate too. They’ll sit there fiddling with their smartphones, ignoring their screaming offspring, not even bothering to give them the silent (but effective!) glare of death. Oh, and if they don’t get you with sound, they’ll get you with smell. Each year brings Toronto’s Summer of the Armpit and Winter of the Unwashed. Sometimes the smell is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

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I’m pretty happy with the many Filipinos I’ve encountered in public transit. It’s rare to see one misbehaving, or cutting in line, or being rude, or having children that are loud, or smelling like three-day old dried sweat and forcing everyone to breathe through their mouths. It’s like we’re almost always on our best behavior, especially in public. Why is that?

Some will call it an incredibly strong sense of propriety. Others call it delicadeza. Whatever name it goes by, for Filipinos one of the worst things a person can be is someone who has no consideration for others and is not afraid to show it. It doesn’t speak well of that person’s upbringing.

Filipinos can be the most judgmental people on the face of the earth. (Which also explains our mania for beauty pageants.)  My theory – based on non-existent research and pure gut feel –  is that our consideration for others is actually a defence mechanism against being judged and found wanting.

This has turned us into ninjas at hiding our innate messiness. Take one of the things we are most known for: hospitality. A Filipino host will go all out when it comes to having guests, even going so far as to give up the master bedroom just to ensure the guest’s comfort. It’s unthinkable to me to invite someone over for a party and have the house in shambles. If we’re having friends over, Le Hubs knows our place is going to turn into Ground Zero the day before they arrive. I will go into neurotic overdrive – out comes the broom, the vacuum, the cleaning rags, the brushes, the Lysol, the Windex, the Swiffer, the everything, and I turn into a Tasmanian cleaning devil.

He has come to expect this, although he does not fully understand my need to ensure that everything be spic-and-span, sparkling, dust-free. “Just tidy up a little,” he ventures feebly, knowing even as he watches me dart past him, brandishing a broom, that it is useless. “No one must know!” I hiss, my face a frozen rictus of desperation. “But no one will care,” he protests, as I shoo him away to clean corners of our house that never see the light of day.  “I will care,” I mutter, my eyes feverishly ablaze, teasing dust bunnies out of hiding as he backs away slowly from the madwoman he married.

Sometimes, we can be our own worst critic. And we do judge. We judge ourselves hard. This is why Filipinos almost always put their best foot forward in public, especially when we move to a different country. Because that thing we have about propriety, about refusing to be an embarrassment to oneself and one’s family? It just kicks in. It’s the force that drives us to always smell good, look presentable and remember our manners. And that is always a good thing.

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