Lost in Translation

Lost In Translation

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DUMAGUETE, NEGROS ORIENTAL — I realize I speak quickly, and also have a distinct Irish accent. Nor do I speak any Filipino languages. Those factors certainly contribute to my seemingly-endless experiences with miscommunication here. But I suspect, even if I were fluent in every dialect, there is a distinct Filipino method of processing thoughts and delivering language so distinctive, there would still be communication issues. The following are recent examples that were confusing but also amusing.

Yesterday, in a hotel restaurant in Cebu, I asked what was available, as opposed to what was listed on the menu. I did that because I usually have to ask for three items before getting one they actually have available. “So is there anything *not* available that’s shown here on the menu?” That was met with a blank stare from the waiter who then said “Yes, you can order appetizers if you wish.” Then he disappeared and another waiter asked for my order.

The menu said Crispy Fried Chicken or Roasted Half Chicken. I asked for the half chicken order. “I repeat your order, sir, Crispy Fried Chicken.” Where did that come from?

“No, a roasted half chicken, please.” “Wait, sir, I need to check and see if it’s available.” I was soon listening to the seemingly inevitable response.

Minutes later, I was at Jollibee asking for a leg of chicken and rice. The order taker said she has to check on its availability. I smiled and wondered momentarily if I was unwittingly part of some reality TV program. And yes, you guessed correctly regarding the non-availability of my order.

Last week I went into Robinsons in Dumaguete.

“Hello, do you have a pharmacist here?

“Yes, sir.” Silence.

“Well could I please speak to her or him?

“Yes, sir”. More silence.

“When could I do that?”

“She’s on break now, sir.”

“When will she be back?”

“When she returns, sir.”

“And when will that be?”

“After her break ends, sir.”

I walked away shaking my head, feeling the need for a glass or three of Irish whiskey.

Later that same day in a restaurant: “I’d like a vegetarian omelette, please, with rice.”

“OK, Sir, I repeat your order: Vegetable soup and side order of rice.”


I was back at Robinsons in Dumaguete. On the second floor near the fast foods area is a travel agency I’d not used before to book my flights. So I ventured in, and yet another adventure unfolds. I saw a sign in big bold letters proclaiming ASSISTANCE WITH YOUR EXIT VISA! I eagerly asked for details.

“Oh, we don’t do that anymore, sir. You need to go to Cebu for that.”

“Then why’s the sign there?”

I’m met with a polite smile but no verbal response. This apparently is the routine response here to any question that has no rational answer.

I then ask to purchase a round trip Dumaguete-Cebu air ticket and offer a credit card as payment.

“There’s a three percent charge for that, sir.”


“Because there is.”

I know enough rather than to question this; for me, it’s unusual business practice.

“OK, please run my card.”

“Sorry, sir, our system is down.”

“That’s OK. I‘ll go for a meal, and come back in an hour.”

“No, sir, come back sometime tomorrow. They will fix it from Cebu.”

Wondering why she didn’t simply tell me right away I couldn’t pay by credit card, I walked over to my usual agent, and bought the ticket there.

I’m in a taxi from Mactan airport to Cebu City. “How much to drive me to Balamban?” “How about P5,000?” suggests the driver. “How about I remind you this is July. Christmas is not until December?” “How about P3,000?” he then suggests. “How long will it take you to drive to Balamban from downtown Cebu?” Pause…. “Almost three hours, sir.” No. “It takes one hour and fifteen, one and a half hours with bad traffic.” I responded since I’m familiar with the drive. A pause while he considers another strategy, then the inevitable, irrational comeback: “But I don’t take the main highway, I go another way.” “So your way takes twice as long: almost three hours?” “Yes, sir.” “I’ll be paying you less than P300 for you to drive me from the airport to downtown Cebu. It will take you an hour, yes? And to drive another hour, you want P3000 or 10 times that amount, yes?” “Yes, sir.” End of conversation. I asked him to drop me off at the van section at the excellent, SM City shopping mall in Cebu. After giving him a decent tip for his imagination, I paid 500 pesos for two seats in the front of a new, air-conditioned van, and enjoyed a comfortable one hour drive to Balamban.

I stayed that night at a resort in Balamban I’d been referred to. It offered “24-hour room service” but only “from 7 am to 9 pm”.

Next morning, my friend Vhie and I had breakfast. I asked for scrambled eggs and fresh-brewed coffee. What I got was a half cup of coffee that could have fueled a rocket ship to the moon, and no second cup was available. And the scrambled eggs turned out to be an omelet made with onions, ham, and tomatoes.

We moved to an upmarket resort near Toledo. The room was lovely, the resort well-maintained. We went to the restaurant where I asked for a cappuccino. “No cappuccino. Only from a packet, sir” “That’s fine. I’ll also have a chicken sandwich. Breast, please.” This was met with blank looks. “Please give me a breast of chicken sandwich.” “Only chicken spread, sir.” OK, so no food again. “Mango shake, please” “No shake; only mango juice in cans.” “OK, mango, please.” “No mango; only four seasons and pineapple.”

So is the purpose of this article to endlessly whine and complain? Not at all. It’s a recognition that this is the way life is in the Philippines. When viewed from the perspective that it’s only a minor inconvenience, its actually amusing, if not hilarious.

Irrational disruption is accepted as the norm for daily life here. It has the capacity to render most Westerners speechless, babbling, sometimes frothing at the mouth, at the apparent insanity of it all. And that reaction is understandable, but self-defeating.

I would argue that this dysfunction permeates most, if not all, levels of Philippine society. To arrive at 10 am for a 9 am meeting is to be a half-hour early. And it doesn’t change when educated Filipinos emigrate. My dear friend Binky, a highly-respected professional in Sacramento, California, once invited a bunch of us for a midday Sunday picnic in the park. When 3 pm came, and still no sign of Binky, we began to realize it was a no-go. Next day, when asked what had happened, Binky didn’t bat an eyelid, even gave us the “Binky look” that suggested the person asking the question was the source of the problem.

A foreigner must accept this reality, or face, at a minimum, regular anger, or at worst, a complete nervous breakdown.

But if willing to tolerate if not accept it, this represents a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the many joys the Philippines offers the outsider.

For me, it also represents a unique opportunity to overcome one of my greatest character defects. And that’s impatience. I’m one of the most impatient individuals you could ever meet. It’s toxic. I pollute everybody with my attitude.

But living in the Philippines offers me a wonderful option to work on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute basis, to overcome my impatience.

When the morning comes, and I wake up *wanting*, not needing, to embrace the opportunity to learn patience that living in the Philippines requires, I will rejoice at that moment, and be grateful for receiving yet another gift from living here.

This article first appeared on dumaguetemetropost.com


michael's life in dumaguete

Shortly after arriving into Dumaguete, Michael  intuitively knew it was the right place for him. Everything seemed to be right. It was and is. In addition to enjoying the way of life, he also met a special Pinay, and is living contentedly with her near the city.

He now operates Veritas Consulting Group, a company dedicated to helping other expats and Returning Filipinos with their transition to life in Dumaguete City and surrounding areas

Contact – info@vcg.ph


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