Why is it hard not to laugh while having a conversation in the Philippines

When you go and check out the jungle.

[In Manila. In the crazy capital of the Philippines]

“Does this time suit you?” I’m asking my friend when to have dinner.


“When then?” I’m demanding.

“I said already “mkm”.”

“Mhm, that’s why I am asking.”

I’m confused. My friend is confused. We burst out laughing – this is the way you solve all the awkward situations here. You don’t know what to say? Just start laughing. The emotion is what counts.

That “mkm” means “mhm” in Filipino culture, I find out moments later. Thankfully.

“You have to try THIS. It’s not THAT bad!” says my German colleague and passes on a local bun, cheese and sugar on top.

She looks enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic. I give up, I agree on to try. Sighing I grab the fork and the knife. We exchange looks. Pure excitement reflects from her face. “Could it really be true?” slight hope raising its head. I chop a tiny piece of the bun. I raise it to my mouth. I chew. I look at my colleague. It tastes exactly like a cheese bun with sugar should taste like. “Yes,” I agree, “it isn’t THAT bad.” My colleague looks victorious and I give her the satisfaction. We have suffered enough, eating mostly rice and noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Soaked in oil, few pieces of veggies here and there. Cheese bun with sugar coating really seems worth the excitement.

“How many children do you have?” I try to make a small talk with the local driver.

“A thousand,” he says without moving a single muscle in his face.

I don’t understand if he is joking. Maybe he just didn’t understand the question. I don’t know if I should laugh – he might have thought he is saying “two” and then I would just seem extremely rude. So I push down my urge to laugh, I stay quiet. Was it then a language barrier or a high level joke, but the humor here is very playful. And family topics are very straight forward.  Filipinos often talk very seriously and a second later they burst out laughing “Did you really believe me?”. And we laugh, we laugh like hyenas.

 “How does a rooster crow in Tagalog language?” I am asking a question of a great life importance.

“Tiktilao,” I get a specific answer.

“Sorry, how?”

“Tiktilao, tilaaaaaao!” my table companion crows out loud.

After a training we are sitting with my colleagues at the table near to the seaside. Far away we can hear a rooster crow. “Kikerikii,” I answer to the question how they crow in Estonian then. “Sorry, how?” the locals are laughing and it seems for them a great source of fun.

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of roosters here in the Philippines. More in the countryside, but you know what? I live on the 33th floor in the capital. Happens that I open the door of my balcony and I hear – through howling traffic – somewhere far below a single rooster crowing! In a metropolitan city. But it isn’t that remarkable. Roosters are brought up here for rooster fights.

By the way, there are around 120 different dialects spoken in the Philippines. Maybe even more among the roosters.

“How far is the restaurant?” I am asking my local friend in the taxi on the way there.

“About 10 minutes driving. Without traffic,” she answers.

“And when there is no traffic?”

“At night, 3 AM.”

Yes, surely we are in Manila. In the capital where there are 15 times more inhabitants than in Estonia in the whole country. In a city that never sleeps – traffic jams, air pollution reaches the clouds, getting to your destination always takes an hour longer than planned. Maybe even two. “How can you do this?” I ask several times from my local colleague, who claims that 1,5 hours of commuting time to work is superb. Because sometimes it is 3 hours. I reminisce times back in Estonia when the bus trip between Tallinn and Tartu seemed to drag on. Dragged on as the time spent in the dentist’s chair. I will take my words back.

“I am soooo full, I can’t eat more,” my friend is saying while gesticulating how full her stomach is, “let’s order some more rice”.

We are sitting in a rare restaurant where you can also order other than rice and noodles. You can order seafood. This is a huge advantage living in the Philippines – the fresh seafood. But now the plates are finished, sole fish head drifting in the last bit of broth in the pot. I really do feel full. But there is always more space for rice for Filipinos. That stays as a mystery for me forever. Rice is life. Rice flows in their veins, you can’t go on living your life without rice.

To be continued…

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