“My friend, where are you going?”
The question is a fair and reasonable one, since I am a young, white man towering, somewhat confusedly, over a sea of Filipinos.
However, months of experience have taught me that an honest answer to this particular inquiry is not likely to yield much in the way of directions or impartial touristic advice. An admonition to buy some unidentified meat is much more likely. Now I happen to be a big fan of unidentified meat – some of my best friends are unidentified meat – but if I stopped every time I was called I wouldn’t get very far in this city.
It was never going to be possible for me to blend in here, no matter how much Ilokano I learned. Figuring out all the ins and outs of any new culture is hard; it’s just much more obvious when you look so different as well.
Still, the market seems to have been specially designed to thwart my vegetable-purchasing aspirations, which brings us back to the question: “where am I going?”
Actually, I wouldn’t mind backing up even further than that. “Where am I?” seems worthy of consideration as well. The market is a ceilinged labyrinth of stalls filled with an even mix of things I recognize and things I don’t.
I would, ideally, like to float around the market, unnoticed until I have verbally expressed my desire to purchase some beans. Fat chance. I stick out like an abnormally tall thumb, and am accosted accordingly. But herein lies my salvation from becoming lost forever: I navigate via catcalls.
I know that if I make a right turn at the three ladies selling mangos (“Sweet mangos, Sir!”) I can walk straight past the good onions to the egg stand with the woman who tries to set me up with her daughter. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and jump through the rice gauntlet of single female venders (“do you have a girlfriend?”) and past the pineapple stands where everyone has figured out that I can speak a little Ilokano (“ada ti girlfriend mo?”). The smell of the fish section guides me the rest of the way back to the street.
I’ve mastered a variety of polite replies and retorts that propel me from one encounter to the next; surrounded by helpful people but only slowly unlocking the cultural formulas which enable me to ask the right questions. And yet, I fear that time is running out (in more ways than one) and sooner or later I am bound to answer “yes” to a query I didn’t properly understand and find that I have entered into a legally binding contract to marry all five of somebody’s children.
For now, I bounce happily around the market, searching for that elusive smell so that I can finally answer the age-old question.
“I am going toward the fish.”