Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Culture Clash

Sunday was a tough day: I had a frustrating lesson in Filipino etiquette, which I must confess, I find incomprehensible at times. It’s only an ‘ordinary’ work anecdote, but here it is:

I had a Night Dive booked, it was the last dive of a Course and my student was flying home the following morning. The dive had been scheduled for a couple of days, but when Sunday came, the weather was ugly: grey, windy and rainy. I don’t think any of us really felt like diving, but it was my students’ last day – we had no choice. Although the weather was bad, there are sheltered areas on the backside of the island where it’s still safe to dive and that’s where I was planning to go.

At 4pm on Sunday afternoon my Boat Captain dropped a bombshell: he told me our boat was not licensed for Night Diving, and we couldn’t go. He apologised and shrugged. I know our boat does Night Dives – so I suspected he had a hot date he didn’t want to miss, or maybe he just didn’t like the weather - neither did I, but I wasn't very impressed. I was also surprised – usually this guy is a hard worker and very enthusiastic. I told him we had to go. He insisted the boat was not licensed and he would get a large fine, our Shop Supervisor agreed this was the case – p10,000 they said, an enormous amount. I sighed, and said I would get another boat. They both nodded earnestly, safe in the knowledge that the chances of me getting another boat at 4.15pm were very, very slim indeed.

I called my friend L, who is the Manager of a Dive Shop further down the beach. He confirmed that there is no such license. We just have to give a manifest to the Coastguard. I told the Supervisor, who pretended that this was news to him and promptly busied himself in the filing cabinet. Moments later he told me, with a shrug, ‘so sorry’ but they had run out of the manifest forms and so I couldn’t dive tonight.

“But the manifest needs to be given to the Coastguard” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “but we have no more forms”
“The Coastguard will have forms,” I said “take the names and fill out the form there”
“Ah” he said. He shuffled his feet and stared at the floor, then he said he would call the Coastguard.
“It takes a long time to get approval” he told me, “many other dive shops tell me this. I don’t think we will get approval tonight.”
“We don’t need approval,” I said “we just need to submit the manifest”
“I do not think this is correct – from who did you hear this?”
“The Manager, L, from C Divers”
“Ah” he said.

He called the Coastguard, spoke to them in Visayan (the local dialect) then told me, very apologetically, that the Coastguard said we couldn’t dive. “So sorry,” he shrugged. I asked to speak to the Coastguard. He spoke again into the phone, this time in English “I have an Instructor here who is insisting,” he said, and passed the phone over, looking nervous.

“It is very bad weather!” said the Coastguard “not nice for diving!”
“I agree,” I said “but I have a course to finish, we must dive tonight”
“Oh” he said “but it is not safe to go deep!”
“We’re not going deep” I said “five metres”
“But you cannot go far!” he said, “there are waves!” I wanted to tell him, it's the ocean – there are always waves! I realised my Supervisor had asked him to talk me out of it. I sighed, “We will not go out far – only to five metres depth”
“You could shore dive,” he said.
“That is not safe” I replied, “there are waves and many sea urchins
“Ah… yes,” he said.
“So we will bring down the manifest…”
“Yes… but… it is very bad weather!”
“I know, but it is still safe to dive at Tambisaan, isn’t it?”
“Yes… but, diving late at night is not safe.”
“We are not going late, we are going straight after sunset. So I will get the manifest to you now…”
“Yes” he said sorrowfully. The Supervisor and Boat Captain looked crestfallen. I hung up. We all looked at each other. “Please take the names to the Coastguard” I said.
“Ah” said the Supervisor, looking at his watch “but there is no time now,” he shrugged, “already it is 5 o’clock! So sorry.”

There is a very particular shrug, peculiar to the Philippines – half nonchalant, half resigned: it begins with a sad face which says – ‘that’s life and life is tough sometimes’, it continues with an upbeat shoulder-lift which says – ‘but hey! Things could be worse!’ Then it finishes with a hopeful half-smile which says – “and it not really a big deal anyway!’ Sometimes this can be amusing, even charming, but other times it’s very irritating. At 5pm on Sunday afternoon, I was finding it extremely annoying. We appeared to have reached some kind of gridlock. I was getting tight-lipped and slightly fierce; my Filipino colleagues were giving me that blank, impassive stare with which there is no reasoning.

I decided to try talking to the Boat Captain again; after all, we are usually friends. I told him that I sympathised, I felt the same – the weather was horrible, I didn’t want to go either, but I promised him we would not go far, and it would not be a long dive. But, I explained, I had to finish this course or I would not get paid. Lastly, I said, “they might tip!” He listened, but looked very embarrassed. Then he disappeared into the backroom for a conference with the other ‘backroom boys’. I waited.

After a few minutes he returned. He looked shamefaced and would not make eye contact – I was expecting some terrible confession. He took a deep breath and said
“Now it is low tide. Last time we make night dive in low tide, I hit a rock. It damage the propeller and the old manager make me pay – for long time I pay,” he said. He looked close to tears: propellers are very expensive and boat captains are not well paid. “I cannot pay again,” he said.
“No, of course not” I said. “I will speak to the manager.” My friend, the Boat Captain, looked absolutely dejected, I worried he might cry with embarrassment.

And so, I spoke to the manager and the manager spoke to the Boat Captain and, in just a few minutes, the tension dissipated, the Boat Captain was back to his usual happy self and we went out to dive; where he waited patiently, in the pouring rain, while we dived and afterwards greeted my customers with smiles and not one word of complaint. When we got back I got the beers in, and now it seems, we are all friends again.

What frustrates me is that he had a legitimate reason to worry – why not just say that at 4pm?! Or even the day before? It was because, so friends tell me, to give me the real reason, would be to admit two things: that he was nervous and that he might make a mistake. The Filipino man cannot admit either possibility. The sad thing is that I should have known this. Our Supervisor and the Coastguard were backing him up, because they understood, and did not want to shame the Boat Captain by making him admit this out-loud. By forcing him to spell it out, I shamed him.

If I had not been there to force the issue – the Night Dive would have been cancelled, and the guys, through various hints and off-hand comments would have slowly got the message back to our boss that they were worried about Night Diving on the backside during low tide. Nothing would have been said directly but over a few days it would be been dealt with. It’s true, the shop would have lost some business in the mean time – but [shrug] that’s life and life is tough sometimes… but hey! Things could be worse and, in the end, it’s no big deal.

I'm sure if one of my Filipino colleagues was writing this blog the emphasis would be on the strange Englishwoman who is mostly OK (I hope), but sometimes… ‘oh my God, she can be so stubborn, so inflexible – so unwilling to ‘go with the flow’ like a normal person. Worst of all, sometimes, she is so outspoken, so outrageously direct, that one hardly knows where to look!’ But I am a ‘long-nose’, a foreigner, and foreigners often behave very strangely – so I think I have been forgiven. I also think the beers helped.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I,m with the Boat Captain. The strange Englishwoman can be very stubborn, inflexible, outspoken and outrageously direct.