‘Tabo’ cultureBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
RAYA SCHOOL, a progressive school in Quezon City, recently asked me to talk to their teachers about cultural literacy, a fancy phrase which means an understanding of culture or, in the Philippine context, getting a sense of what it is to be Filipino.
Raya believes cultural literacy should be instilled as early as preschool, and I totally agree. Especially among our upper and middle classes, kids pick up more about other cultures, especially American, than they do about the Philippines.
I didn’t want to end up dictating the “must-haves” for a cultural literacy curriculum. After all, Raya is connected to Aklat Adarna, which has already made its mark in creating cultural literacy in the Philippines through its numerous bilingual children’s books, including two volumes on cultural icons in the Philippines.
But I did think it would be good to have some kind of focus to explain what cultural literacy meant and I ended up bringing a tabo. I didn’t bring a plastic one and used instead a traditional one, made out of a coconut shell, with a long bamboo handle.
I wanted to get Raya’s teachers to look at the many different cultural aspects of this traditional tabo. Culture is, after all, more than just arts and crafts. Each artifact, meaning something created by humans, has many stories to tell, and teachers can have very lively classroom discussions getting students to tell those stories.
Tabo is sometimes translated into English as a dipper, but that translation is weak. The tabo is more, much more, than a water dipper. The plastic tabo is an almost indispensable fixture in the Filipino home, so much so that even Filipinos living overseas will bring their own tabo, or if they forget one, ask relatives to send one over. The plastic tabo is kept mainly in the toilet, used as a water dipper for various functions. The operative word is “clean”: You use it to get water to clean the toilet floor. You use it as well to get water to flush the toilet. Most importantly though, it is used to get water for personal cleanliness: for washing the hands, for shampooing, for bathing the whole body, or for cleaning more intimate parts of the body.
I will be polite and refer to one of those parts as the “output” part (emphasis on “put” as a sound). The tabo is our version of the French bidet, with many Filipinos actually preferring a tabo dousing to toilet paper, the latter being considered inadequate or even dirty.
Some years back, I wrote two columns about the tabo after a Filipino in Australia got into trouble with an improvised tabo. He went to the toilet with a bottle of water, apparently using it as an improvised tabo. But that turned to be a violation of company rules and he almost lost his job. I understand that his labor union defended him and he was able to keep his job.
Following the first column, I got numerous e-mail from people confirming how important it is to use the tabo, including advice on the fine art of using this dipper. Used incorrectly, you can make a mess in the toilet.
A graduate student of mine sent photos of tabo exhibited in Madrid’s museum, the coconut and bamboo ones dating back to the Spanish period. This traditional tabo was actually not a toilet implement. We have to remember that the toilet, at least within the house (en suite if we want to be fancy about it), is a fairly recent development. Even the English word outhouse reflects how toilets, if they were to be found at all, were detached from home.
The tabo and its equivalent in many traditional homes in Southeast Asia is not so much a toilet item than an all-purpose household object. It is found at the entrance, next to a terra-cotta water jar, a palayok, so guests can wash their feet and hands before entering the house. There, the tabo speaks of courtesies, the host’s as well as the guest’s.
In the traditional kitchen, the tabo is again found with the palayok, which contains drinking water. The palayok is another cultural icon, which keeps water clean and cool. The tabo is there to take out water to drink, or to wash one’s hands, or dishes. The tabo reflects an obsession with cleanliness, one which seems to have declined over time as the palayok and the tabo disappeared, or, in the case of the tabo, was relegated to the toilet and limited to the escatological.
In a recent column, I mentioned that in the 17th century, the Jesuit Ignacio Alcina noticed how many words were used in “Bisaya” to refer to washing (the feet, the hands, private parts). One of my readers wrote to confirm this, giving the many verbs for different types of washing, many of which probably involved the tabo. Due to space limitations, I have to save his list, together with some other fascinating information about Bisaya, for another column.
I did want to connect the tabo to a bit more on language, and I’m warning readers not to read this while eating. Note that there is a Tagalog slang word, burnik, that refers to anal hair. When I first learned this, I was perplexed: why on earth did we have to even coin such a word? Then I learned later burnik had mutated over time and that originally, it referred not to the hair itself but to things that got stuck on the hair—if you were negligent with hygiene. See now how important the tabo is . . . and how anal our obsession with cleanliness could get? (I did tell the Raya teachers they should assess when it might be appropriate, if at all, to talk about burnik and the tabo.)
Finally, let me tackle the tabo as culture, in the sense of adaptation to the environment. The tabo is crafted out of two of the more ubiquitous items in our natural environment, themselves cultural icons and a must for any discussion of cultural literacy: coconut and bamboo.
The use of the tabo is ecological in the way it recycles coconut shells. More importantly, in the toilet, it allows an economical use of water, often a scarce resource in many of our homes. Note that for this purpose, the traditional tabo loses to the modern plastic version. The traditional tabo was developed in a pre-toilet era. It takes less water than the plastic one, not enough for flushing the toilet. The plastic one takes just about the right amount of water, which can have enough force for flushing, but that also requires some degree of artistry in the way you douse the water, different from the flair you need for using the tabo after toilet duty.
See now what I mean by cultural literacy, using what seems to be the lowly tabo? We see culture as adaptation, culture as values and social norms. The tabo is iconic because it resonates, links up to language, to the body and its movements and to performance.
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