I was telling someone a funny story that happened to me recently, and I figured why not share it … I’m too damn serious about a lot of these things anyway, or so people tell me.
First of all, “lang” is a Filipino word that literally translates to the English word “only”. That’s one reason you see ads or price signs frequently written as P20 Only … becuase in normal conversation someone will often say “20 Pesos lang” when asked the cost of somehting … it’s not always clear to me if the word is being used as an adjective to try to assure you that the cost is ‘only 20 pesos’, as in “very cheap”, or just as a sort of a punctuation to emphasize they have answered you pricing question. Not really something I want to try to define here anyway.
Anyway, “lang” is also used in the sense that something has only one meaning … to avoid misunderstandings. It’s common to hear “Joke, lang” when the joke teller wants to make it clear that what was siad is only a joke and not to be taken seriously.
A week or two ago my dear wife and I were driving home from our little farm operation up north in Zambales when we stopped at a Pizza Hut franchise in one to the NLEX (North Luzon Expressway).
We went in and ordered some food to take home with us for dinner. While I was sitting at a table near the ordering counter I happened to notice that two of the young waitresses seemed to be discussing something between themselves and kind of handing a folder of some sort back and forth between themselves.
One of them obviously “lost the bet” or something, and started walking, with the folder in hand, over to where Mita was standing a few feet away from me. I saw Mita quickly say something to the younger lady and point toward me. The waitress looked toward me and slowly began walking toward me as if she were really scared. Frankly I figured it was going to be some sad story about being “out of stock” on some of the food items we had ordered. This is sort of a common occurrence.
Apparently, no Filipino chef ever tells the wait staff when an item has run out in the kitchen .. nobody wants to deliver bad news, you know, so just keep quiet, perhaps no one will notice.
Wait staff never want to tell you in advance that an item isn’t available either .. again, the bad news thing … “I’m not going to be the one to deliver the bad news”.
It’s very common to get your order taken, wait a while and then get a visit from a reluctant waiter to tell you that you aren’t going to get your order after all. Don’t ask me why, it just works that way.
So as I was waiting for this young lady to drag her way over to me, I was already starting to review what I had ordered in my mind and decide on a suitable substitute … which of course I could have ordered five minutes ago had I know that what I did order was out of stock. Remember the rule here … “after the fact”
But no, my sour “take” on the proceedings was all wrong. What the waitress was reluctant to do, but what she basically had to do, was to approach each customer and ‘sell’ them on a “feed the children” type charity program that Pizza Hut was sponsoring.
After a careful and very understandable presentation, the girl asked me if I would care to contribute … and of course, sitting there waiting for about P500 worth of takeout to be served I really could not say no to giving something to feed a hungry child, especially since the program was internal to the Philippines and was focused mainly on the the hundreds of thousands of displaced families in Mindanao .. the ones that Manilanos don’t even acknowledge as they drive home to dinner in their chauffeured BMW’s and Beans (oops, Benz’s). So I handed the young lady, now all relieved that she had made it through a conversation with the “big, old Kano” successfully, a P100 note.
She whipped open her folder and began the process of filling up the inevitable receipt, which I didn’t want, and told her so … “I’ll be happy to contribute, but I won’t fill up a form.”
Her response was, “OK sir, but you do win a little appreciation gift for your contribution,” She named some sort of gee-gaw, a bracelet or something, can’t remember now, but I didn’t want one. I asked what other gifts were available.
She replied, “Well sir, the gift for a P50 contribution is a small desktop calendar.”
I stopped her then and there … it’s hard to get calendars here in the Philippines, and even harder to get little small ones that will sit on your desk out of the way, so I asked her to give me two, and if anyone asked why I was getting the “wrong” gift, just say I had contributed 50 pesos twice.
The waitress seemed very happy at that little problem being solved, but as she started to turn away my wife called out to her, “Make sure they are not 2009 calendars, it’s already December you know.”
Now that might have sounded petty obvious, but I was in National Bookstore, the Philippine’s largest book and stationery store just recently … in November, and they were, selling 2009 calendars (at full price) in November of 2009, so Mita’s comment was more than appropriate. That’s the way things are here … new stock doesn’t come out until the old stock is gone, even when it is time sensitive or dated material … 2010 cars aren’t out yet, as an example, becuase there are still 2009 models unsold.
“Calendar Girl”, happy until Dave came along
But the girl must have had that question thrown at her before , becuase she confidently turned our way and said, “Oh no ma’am, no sir, they are not 20 ‘Oh’ 9 calendars, they are 20 ‘Oh’ 10 calendars, lang”
Now I of course have a reputation as a curmudgeon, and I can also admit to always having sort of a ‘thing’ about people using imprecise terms regarding numbers. For 10 years now, we have had people saying things like 20 “Oh” 8 when they ought to he saying “”two thousand eight”, but of course I seldom say anything, becuase even though it is ‘wrong’, who cares, the meaning is clear.
But 20 “Oh” 10? That would “translate” to the year 20,010, roughly 18,001 years from now … a time I am highly unlikely to be around waiting on a calendar.
So thinking I’d apply a little humorous correction to her improper communication, I looked at her and said, “20 “Oh” 10? No need for the calendars then, I won’t live that long.”
I, of course, figured she would “get it” and realize that after 9 or 10 years of ‘slang’ usage, things would have to change in a month when the 3rd digit of the year changed. The decade of 20 “Oh” something was drawing to a close.
Well, as I have said before, “Culture Shock” doesn’t just mean taking a cold shower with a dipper and a bucket, or having a plate of crickets served in a restaurant. You don’t joke about death here, especially to an impressionable young person, and especially if the “joke” can be construed as predicting your own death in less than a month.
The poor girl turned literally ashen in color. She went and got the calendars and handed them to me with a look on her face as if she’d just seen her favorite puppy run over by a bus. Or like she was looking at a ghost, or a “dead man walking.”
I wanted to say something, but somehow I knew that the common “Joke, lang” wouldn’t make up for the shock I’d given her. And I knew that if I tried to explain the issue about the “20 Oh” expression it would only make things worse, because it would only come out as criticism of her English skills. personally. In my clumsy “joke”, I was only adding to the fear she had to overcome when she summoned up the courage to approach me in the first place.
She just didn’t “get it” at all, and you know how it is, especially when you suffer through a bad comedian on TV … if you don’t “get” a joke, all the explaining in the worlds doesn’t make it any funnier. And espcially if the joke turns out to be hurtful, explanations just make it worse.
Our food came then, delivered by the other waitress, and my wife and I said our thank yous and slipped out the side door to our car.
I couldn’t resist a look back to my “calendar girl”, and the last thing I remember is her soulful eyes looking at me the way I imagine the eyes of people in the Titanic’s lifeboats watched as the ship went down while they could only sit helpless and watch the tragedy unfold.
Every time I pull a culture/language related “boner” like this I resolve never to get myself in the same position again … but of course I am sure I will. There’s an old saying that laughter is the best medicine, and it’s a true saying, but just be very careful you know, in advance, what people are going to laugh at … preferably before you make the joke. It’s really, really, really hard in this life to ‘un-say” something 😉
By the way, if this story made you feel a bit sorry or concerned about hungry children, good, that was the intention. We who hail from America, no matter how hard we think the times are back there these days, are so well off it is amazing to most of the ‘real world’.
The poorest person in America, saddled with credit card and mortgage debts and coming to the end of unemployment benefits is still richer by a huge amount than the every day standard for millions of Filipinos.
We’re not talking an occasionally “missing a meal”, we’re talking one thin meal a day, on good days that is, … “missing a meal” is synonymous with no food that whole day at all. Millions of children in this country are sent to bed without their supper every night, just as a matter of the way life is.
There are thousands of worthy charities out there … please consider sharing some of your bounty this Christmas season … if you don’t have a particular one in mind, my friend Bob runs his own, 100% volunteer Christmas food program in Mindanao … think about it if you will … hunger, children and Christmas are three words that just never fit together properly … they clash like one of Dave Starr’s clumsy jokes.