Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Awkwardness in Asia with Ania and Ange

Awkwardness is inevitable when crossing cultures, even if its one where you have kind family members trying to help guide you and are in a country where most people, particularly in urban Quezon City, speak English. From day 1, we have managed to offend, confuse and make things complicated. This is just a snapshot. We have also had a number of "not noticing the posted price" fails where we ended up paying ridiculous amounts of money for meals (one small buffet dinner cost us the equivalent of 56 hamburgers or small fries) but we avoid McDonald's now anyway after Ania annoyed the cashier by failing to tell her in advance that she didn't want a "regular" meal --which means with Coca-Cola-- and actually wanted iced tea. Haven't witnessed a glare like that...possibly ever. In the interest of keeping things semi-brief, here are our highlights so far:

Clothing Awkwardness

As established in our packing entry, Ange packed very minimally but aimed to be inoffensive. Mainly, concerned that in the more conservative countries like Cambodia, she figured she would need to cover her shoulders and knees when traveling in those areas. Not quite. We realized pretty quickly that while legs are fine, female shoulders are not generally exposed, even in the polluted heat of Quezon City. Within a couple of hours of entering the country on Friday, she abandoned converted her halter dress into a skirt and threw on a shoulder-covering t-shirt before heading to the Eastwood Mall for dinner. A cardigan was first on the list for shopping on Saturday. Ania, in the meanwhile figured out soon enough that she will be stared at no matter what, and having no family pride to maintain, busted out the tank top on day 2.
peak of the sexy non-church friendly bikini (and Ania trying halo-halo for the first time)
On the 19th, Uncle Randy and Auntie Vera took us to Tagaytay for a view of the Taal Volcano and lunch. On the way back, we stopped at an outdoor pool in a housing complex where they own land. Ange's modest tankini was similar to the only other female swimsuit at the pool. Otherwise, it was full of young people –all of the girls in t-shirts and shorts. Ania, with her 'blond' hair, blue eyes and pink-white skin, was already a spectacle but felt even more uncomfortable in her striped bikini. After being reassured by Auntie Vera that it was fine, we felt a bit better about it. Until dinner the following day when Auntie Vera mentioned it was a church group there for a celebration. Nice.

Washing our trashy clothing has been a whole other adventure. We were told it very cheap to have laundry done, less than $1 per kilo. Ange's grandfather explained that we could simply leave our laundry at the front desk and it would be picked up. One to two days for washing, Auntie Vera told us. We have not been so lucky. After 1) failing to pick it up on Saturday, then 2) being falsely told it had been returned to the lobby unwashed after Sunday's pick up so we wouldn't have to wait 3 days, and 3) a call asking if we actually wanted them to process it for Thursday when it hadn't actually been returned, no wait, Friday morning, we are not confident that we will ever get our clothes back.

Technical Difficulty Awkwardness

Ange's laptop decided that it did not want to be in one complete piece anymore as we left the Taipei airport. The screen split, front and back, with some wires sticking out the front and screws falling out of the inside. It wouldn't open without falling completely open. (Ania joked that since Dell has a call centre in the neighbourhood, we should show up, saying that we flew all the way from Canada to have our problem dealt with since their customer service is so bad.)

Saturday morning, instead of giving her the name of a repair shop, the condo receptionist called over the building maintenance man. Very nice, he came up to the room and proceeded, as Ania tried to study for her LSATs, to use full sized pliers and a screwdriver to completely detach the hinges on one side of the laptop. Okay, fine, now is the part where you put it back together! Right? Right??? He asked if we had oil. Any kind of oil, even vegetable. Ange pretended to look for vegetable oil while he explained to Ania that the metal inside the hinges had corroded. After finding some leftover deep-frying oil, Ange lied and said we had none. Mr. Fix-It left to find oil.

Ania, freaking out at the prospect of our only laptop being covered in cooking oil, set to work at fixing it herself. While Ange jammed in the wires that were sticking out of the edge of the screen with a pair of sharp scissors, Ania quickly used her Swiss Army knife to put the main screw holding the screen together back on. Ange shoved the rubber screw cover (a technical term, I'm sure) back on and the screen opened fine. What the two other tiny internal screws are for is probably unimportant, at least when considering the prospect of olive oiling the computer. Ania definitely saved the day on this one as Ange was so shocked at the whole thing that she probably would have permitted the dumping of oil on the detached hinge of her computer.

Financial Awkwardness

The most awkward moment was still to come. Spending the day in Mega Mall (Filipinos like their malls), we navigated buying phones whose SIM cards we can change in each country to stay in touch. This took forever as each store seemed to think different phones were capable of doing this, even though they all had, more or less, the same stock of phones. Ania suspects that her skin colour may have been the reason why “the cheapest phone you have that takes a SIM card that we can use across Southeast Asia” seemed to never actually be the cheapest phone. After Googling to make sure that the phones would be compatible, we invested about $25 each in phones, plus $1 for the SIM cards. Exhausting, especially since Ange had no voice, but not really that awkward.

The awkwardness came when computer-addicted Ania decided to shop around for netbooks for completing her law school applications and making our Wi-Fi trips more efficient. Despite most of the computers being manufactured in Asia, netbooks here are about $100 more expensive than in Canada! Finally finding an Indigo-brand computer (i.e. non-brand) for $288 including the operating system, she committed. We went on a search for a shoulder-covering shirt for Ange while the very helpful salesperson “installed the operating system and programs, ma'am”. After returning for the computer, Ania was told that foreign credit cards are not accepted there. We had left our debit cards at the condo. After over half a dozen attempts to retrieve money from multiple ATMs using our respective Visa cards, it was clear that we would not be able to withdraw cash.

Ania, tail between her legs, went back to the store and said that she would not be able to buy the computer. This is after about 3 hours, 4 visits to the store, the salesman loading Windows 7 as well as a large number of programs onto the computer and Ania accidentally tossing a cellphone and software CD into her purse as she left the 2nd time after she had looked at them. The salesman was very nice about it but Ania got a good glare-down from his coworker.

Beyond the awkwardness...

Development Nerd Alert

We got our first taste of corruption within 5 minutes of being on the road in Manila. After failing to stop when traffic was being directed to do so (there are basically no traffic lights here, only police officers who stand in the middle of gigantic intersections, waving people with their hands), Auntie Vera was pulled over. Awkward, mainly for her. After a few minutes of talking, the police officer requested 500 pesos (~$11) to let her go. Otherwise, she would have to take a full-day driver course and take another driving test.

On our way to Manila Bay to go to Corregidor, we drove by an EPZ. After learning for years about Export Processing Zones in our program, it was weird to have it explained to us by a Filipina woman (the famous Auntie Vera): “big companies come here because they don't have to pay taxes”. We kept it light at 7 am and didn't ask questions about them. Yet.

While diving off of the island of Busuanga (more to come on this) Ania learned that environmental preservation is something that Filipinos take quite seriously. The islands are surrounded by vast systems of mangroves protected by the Department of Natural Resources. The penalty for cutting any of the trees? Nine years in jail plus a 100 000 peso fine. That is, unless you’re the government, in which case it’s ok to cut down trees in order to build a fancy new resort….awkward.  


  1. There is a foreign exchange office at Eastwood, in the building that has Jollibee, Goldilocks bakery & the call centres, 3 floors of boutiques. Don't worry too much about what you wear. Hope you get out of Manila more & travel to other less populated towns. Ask relatives for advice on getting cash & where to use credit cards.

  2. oh man. I hope things start to get easier soon! (PS you can do lots and lots of laundry for free in China!)