Monday, December 5, 2016

"Tumataba ka ngayon"; "Pumapayat ka ngayon": Why we greet each other with physical appearances

by Gideon Lasco

In the Philippines, family and friends sometimes greet each other by commenting on changes in their physical appearances. Common examples include:

“Tumataba ka ngayon ah!” (You’re getting fat nowadays!)
"Bakit parang nangangayayat ka?" (Why is it that you're becoming thinner?)
“Bagong gupit!” (New hair!)
“Blooming ka ngayon ah!” (You’re 'blooming' today!)

Many have wondered why physical appearances figure in Filipino greetings, and some have frowned upon - or even ridiuculed - this practice. But before we form a negative opinion about it, let us first examine what this form of greeting does in our everyday lives. In what follows, I offer my insights based on my personal experiences:

First, it establishes when people last saw each other. By using the body as a clock, people are able to date their previous encounters. Take note that the greeting is not “You’re fat”, but “you’re getting fat”; tumataba, not mataba. The progressive tense links past and present, and invites people to talk about what transpired in between.

I realized this when, in a previous reunion, one of my titas said I was getting fat, and another said I was getting thin. At first I thought that such contradictory comments are proof of the greetings’ perfunctory (and therefore meaningless) nature - people just say it because they feel compelled to say something. But it later dawned upon me that the two titas actually saw me in different times: one saw me after I arrived from the US (where I almost always gain weight thanks to my relatives), and the other saw me after my PhD in Europe (where I almost always lose weight due to the pricey food and my tight budget).

The fact that I had to explain my changed body by telling them where I traveled, and what transpired in those travels, made me realize that the body, by establishing previous encounters, serves as a starting point for further conversation.

Second, it communicates a concern for one another’s health and beauty, as when, instead of just asking “how are you today?”, a family member comments on your growing belly. Take note that in these greetings, people are not measured against other individuals, but against their own (previous) selves.

We can see this during high school and college reunions, where people tease their former classmates for having gained weight, fully expecting them to return the ‘compliment’. Can we not link these greetings, then, to a shared nostalgia of our former bodies?

Finally, it speaks of a different kind of openness in our culture. We always think of Filipinos as more reserved (“mahiyain”) in the way we express our feelings, compared to the more straightforward Westerners. But there are also aspects of our lives where we are more open. Filipino psychologists speak of our notion of “kapwa” as proof that our society has never seen the "self" and the "other" as fully distinct - and I think we should move towards "embodied" way of looking at this intersubjectivity.

***

As Christmas draws near, we will hear more and more of these greetings in parties and gatherings. Surely, one year of cross-fit will earn for a young man a “ang ganda na ng katawan ni Junior!” from his doting grandparents; the young woman who cuts her hair short will not go unnoticed. On the other hand, when I hear stories of people who suffer beneath their smiles, I also agree that in some contexts, this way of greeting has become offensive in a day and age when people have increasingly staked their identities and notions of self-worth in their physical appearances.

One way of dealing with this problematique is to reserve our appraisal in settings where people share the same level of intimacy: I don’t think it’s a good idea to comment about your teenage niece’s weight in front of her barkada. Another is to be sensitive for instances when it can be offensive: surely, someone who is struggling with weight not need be to be reminded of her obesity. In other words, we must learn to appraise not just other people’s physical appearances, but their feelings.

These concerns notwithstanding, I hope we can appreciate the good in our customs, and not always resort to self-disparagement. Our way of greeting, I submit, invokes an intersubjectivity that involves not just our social selves, but our physical bodies; a concern for each other’s health and beauty, and a desire to link the present and the past. In the Philippines, we greet each other by commenting on changes in physical appearance, and I think that's wonderful.

Los Banos
December 5, 2016