It was 9:30 a.m. on a Monday; not a time usually given, at our house anyway, to the peaceful emptiness of morning reveries. No, at Surigao City’s Punta Bilar where my wife and I are building our dream house, Monday mornings – in fact, every morning save Sunday – is generally filled with the strangely soothing sounds of hammers crunching nails, saws biting wood and the indecipherable yet jocularly reassuring repartee of construction workers embarking on a day of work.
This day, though, was different; instead of hammers and saws, only the distant braying of dogs disturbed the morning’s uncanny calm.
“Is it a holiday?” I asked Ivy.
“Not that I know of,” she said.
A few hours and several text messages later, the mystery had been unraveled: our entire construction crew, hung over from a night of drinking at their nearby barangay’s fiesta, had decided to take the day off. “I thought these guys needed the work,” I complained to their foreman who, responding to our urgent request, finally showed up to deliver the bad news in person. “I thought they had families to support.”
Taking a deep breath, he tried to explain as best he could. “Well, it’s like this,” the man began in Visaya. Here is my wife’s rough translation his next several words: in the Philippines, if you have a sack and there’s rice in it, even just a little, you stay home. Only when the sack is empty do you go to work. Which, of course, is generally more often than not.
Ok, before continuing this saga-of-woe, let me make a confession: this sort of thing has happened before. Once, in fact, after a particularly energetic Christmas party, our entire work crew disappeared, without notice, for more than a week. Which brings us to a sensitive subject; culture.
In America, people speak with pride of something called the “Puritan work ethic,” i.e. the pilgrims’ sacrifice on which the country was supposedly built. Reduced to its essence, it means this: that you work as long as you can as often as you can and, if you don’t show up one day because you’re hung over, well, you get fired. Period.
Contrast that to the Philippines, where so-called “Filipino time” – often a subject of jest – is actually a real thing, as anyone who’s ever spent any of it here can readily attest. I believe it stems from the country’s laid-back Spanish heritage typified, among other things, by two linguistically-related phenomena, both of which are frequent and long; siestas and fiestas. One country sharing that heritage, of course, is Mexico, which, in the days before America’s current orgy of political correctness, often found itself at the butt-end of jokes by unenlightened northern gringos regarding “manana culture.”
Many Americans would argue, probably with some justification, that the Puritan work ethic vs. manana culture is one of the reasons the USA has managed to provide perhaps the highest standard of living for the greatest number of people in the history of the world while Mexico and the Philippines are still, well, to put it politely, developing countries.
But here’s the thing; that’s not all bad. While Filipinos are consistently judged to be among the world’s happiest and friendliest people, Americans are known primarily for their high levels of stress and depression, disintegrating families, addiction to work, alienation from society and each other, mass violence, annoying outspokenness and impatient, demanding personalities. Bottom line; like most things in life, it’s complicated.
Which is why, when Ivy and I noticed our workers putting in full shifts on Labor Day, a public holiday on which, by all rights, they could have called in sick, we wanted to somehow show our appreciation.
“What doesn’t cost too much that they would really enjoy?” Ivy wondered.
“Got it,” I said. “A bottle of Tanduay to share after work.”
Our fervent hope: that they won’t be too hung over to come back tomorrow.
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.)