2020-05-28 20:43 (Thu)
Cultural Curiosities in Context
Cultural Curiosities in Context
  • C. J. Cruz, J. Park, S. T. De Guzman
  • Approved 2019.11.20 22:23
  • Comments 0
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Getting to know foreign cultures has always been about the standards: cuisine, beliefs, traditions, among others. But certain cultural stereotypes can be taboo topics for a conversation. In this month’s spotlight, we explore some of these curiosities you might have encountered before, and provide meaningful context to their authenticity.

Always an Hour Late

If you’ve ever had a Filipino friend who was often late, then you’ve encountered a classic example of “Filipino time”. As a Filipino, I’m afraid I sometimes find myself guilty of this habit, too.

What exactly is “Filipino time”? Many Filipinos use this term to describe a common acceptance of tardiness. For example, a program scheduled for 3:00 p.m. would end up starting much later, with the implicit understanding that most attendees would not arrive on time.

The phrase “Filipino time” was coined by Americans during their occupation of the Philippines from 1898 to 1946, when they noticed that Filipinos didn’t observe punctuality on most occasions. Ever since, Filipinos have picked up on using this term. Now, the phrase is widely used in the country, with tardiness still being a common occurrence.

But how did Filipinos develop this habit of being late in the first place?

Before the American occupation, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for more than 300 years. Because of this, Filipino culture was largely influenced by the Spanish colonizers. A passage in Noli Me Tangere, a book written by Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal during the Spanish occupation, described the tardiness of high-ranking Spanish officials. It explicitly notes that, for the colonizers, the more important a person is, the later they must arrive. Filipinos then began to develop this attitude.

More than a century after the Philippines escaped Spanish rule, Filipinos still haven’t escaped the grasp of “Filipino time”. Back home, when my friends and I have meetups, it’s common — accepted, even — to arrive later than the agreed time.  There is an unspoken but shared sentiment that everyone else is going to be late anyway. Even in school programs, guests of honor (especially government officials) usually come later than scheduled and delay everything.

Tardiness as a status symbol has been passed down through generations, cultivating a widespread tolerance of an otherwise negative trait. However, with the advent of modern technology and the fast-paced lifestyle that comes with it, it’s easier and more essential to keep track of the time and follow schedules. Make no mistake, plenty of Filipinos still follow “Filipino time”. But, there are at least institutional pressures in place to discourage such practices. More and more Filipinos are realizing the importance of punctuality in school and at work.

It’s difficult to get rid of a widespread and long-established practice, but punctual habits that Filipinos are developing in formal institutions should hopefully work their way into everyday life. Admittedly, it’s about time to leave “Filipino time” behind.

More than the Music

My non-Korean friend once joked, gesturing to a nearby keyboard, “Can you play the piano for me?” Noticing my baffled expression, he explained that he was referring to the stereotype that every Korean student knows how to play the piano. At first, it just sounded like one of the more hilarious and innocent stereotypes, but the more I pondered upon it, I realized it is a genuine trait shared by a certain group of Koreans.

Statistics from 2016 show that 32% of Koreans in their twenties know how to play the piano, making it the most widely-played instrument in the country. This phenomenon, though, is not a result of piano’s popularity  — classical and instrumental music isn’t particularly favored in Korea.  Rather, it is a consequence of the drastically changing role of women in the modernized and westernized family.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, women from middle-class families drove a fad of having their children learn to play the piano. In such families, which adhered to traditional gender roles, women had a huge responsibility for their children’s education. At the time, pianists were highly regarded as well-educated members of society. As the patriarchal system had consistently denied women opportunities for quality education; they instead projected their desire for education onto their children, to ensure that they would reap the benefits of a pianist’s strong reputation, regardless of the child’s talents or interest in the instrument. This desire led to the widespread appearance of piano academies and private music tutoring.

The popularity of the piano seemed to waver when the 1997 Asian financial crisis left many middle-class families in financial jeopardy. But at the turn of the century, a nationwide trend of early childhood education took the whole country by storm. Many Korean parents bought the idea that learning musical instruments would aid their children’s creativity and academic success later in life. Piano was the most suitable instrument since children needed not to own one but rather just go to a piano academy, which meant less financial burden. This gave birth to a new generation of Korean children learning to play the piano, and this continues to reverberate even in the current Korean society.

I used to play the piano when I was young, encouraged by my parents, but I eventually stopped playing as I became busier with schoolwork. If more focus had been given to the music and instrument itself for the sake of appreciating it, I might have actually enjoyed playing the piano and been able to satisfy my friend’s request today.

Absolute Taste for Vodka

Russians are stereotypically known to be heavy consumers of alcohol, especially vodka. I’ve seen this stereotype portrayed in many movies, television shows, and even internet memes. One can’t help but wonder: is it true that Russians drink a lot?

The World Health Organization’s 2011 global status report on alcohol and health puts Russia as the fourth highest in alcohol consumption per capita, with the average Russian drinking 15.1 liters of pure alcohol a year. And spirits, such as vodka, constitute 51% of Russians’ alcohol consumption. So, it turns out, Russians do drink more than most people — and much of that is vodka indeed.

How did alcohol consumption in Russia get so high in the first place? While the origin of vodka is unclear, the first Russian vodkas were likely distilled in the 15th century. In the 1540s, the first Tsar of Russia set up taverns that served vodka in major cities to earn money for the empire. Because of the government’s promotion of vodka consumption to increase its revenue, Russians quickly became accustomed to the drink. By the 1860s, 40% of the government’s revenue came from taxes on vodka.

Since then, the Russian government has consistently made efforts to discourage alcohol consumption among the population, such as anti-alcohol campaigns, excise taxes, price hikes, and partial bans. Of course, there have been a few exceptions to this trend. During World War II, when the government needed more funds, the Bolsheviks once again established a state monopoly on vodka to generate revenue. Also, when a national financial crisis hit Russia in 2014, the government reduced vodka prices as part of its efforts to mitigate economic decline. But nowadays, they seem to be doing a good job of getting people to drink less: alcohol consumption in Russia decreased to 13.5 liters in 2013, and alcohol-related deaths are also steadily decreasing.

Seemingly, the Russian government knows that in times of crisis, they can rely on vodka for revenue. But, the rest of the time, the government recognizes alcohol consumption as a problem in itself that needs to be addressed. Either way, their actions tell us one thing: Russians do love their vodka.

Sorry I'm Sorry

An apology is typically an act of repentance, but for Canadians, it seems to mean so much more. They’re quite notorious for their unusually frequent tendency to say sorry for even the most trivial reasons. They could literally be standing still on the sidewalk, and when somebody bumps them, they’d say sorry to the person when they really don’t have to. Or, upon seeing a man drop his wallet, they would pick it up and give it back while saying, “I’m sorry, you dropped your wallet”. 

Interestingly, their accustomed act of apologizing went so overboard that Canada passed the Apology Act in 2009, which states that any form of apology indicates “an expression of sympathy or regret” and not “an admission of fault or liability”.  Furthermore, it is clearly a deeply embedded habit; a book entitled How To Be A Canadian (Even If You Already Are One) by Ian and Will Ferguson even describes how Canadian apologies have diversified and could be classified into twelve different types.

To some people, this may seem like a sign of weak will and a lack of assertiveness. But the Canadians’ habit of saying sorry is due to several factors beyond this presumed passiveness. Writer Emily Keeler hypothesizes that it could be an inherited trait from British colonization. Several studies further indicate that young people value the act of apologizing as a manner of maintaining good relationships. Mutually apologizing after an incident deters a potential confrontation, which works well for both parties who may be too busy to even deal with a petty problem. After all, the 2018 results of the Expat Insider survey on the friendliest countries in the world revealed that Canada impressively stands at tenth.

Besides, the word “sorry” in itself already holds variable meanings wherever you go. It can either come out of sincerity or merely uttered for modesty. Language evolves along with culture, and judging one’s assertiveness through simple spoken nuances is somewhat hasty. While extra caution in apologizing is needed to preserve its true essence, understanding on both ends is equally important to prevent misinterpretation.


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