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‘Mano po’ and other treasures

/ 05:08 AM December 26, 2017

This is the season for “mano po”—a traditional Filipino gesture to honor our elders by bowing to them or pressing one’s forehead on their offered hand. The person giving respect may say “mano po” (literally, “your hand, please”) to the elder to initiate the gesture, while the elder normally responds with “God bless you” or a silent blessing on the person giving respect. It especially finds wide use during Christmas, when children go on the annual ritual of visiting their “ninong/ninang” (godfather/mother) to ask for their blessing, but also to ask for an “aguinaldo” or Christmas gift, usually given in the form of cash. Hence the joke that “money po” would be the more apt greeting for the occasion. Beyond Christmas, we also do it with our elders upon leaving or coming home, or upon seeing them after some absence. Catholics do it at the end of a Mass or family prayer, and is especially done to a priest or bishop as a gesture of respect and subservience. It’s not only children or young people who do it, as any elder or anyone to whom respect is due, whether older or younger than us, is considered worthy of the gesture.

When I lived in culture-rich Japan as a visiting research fellow at Kyoto University many years ago, I found renewed value and appreciation for the practice being one of the few distinctive features of our culture, many of which are fading. In the midst of the polite Japanese who routinely bow in respect for one another, I saw our mano po to be our closest equivalent everyday gesture, though not as universally applied. I began to silently lament how the “beso-beso” (cheek to cheek kiss) has replaced it in many families including my own (I now regret not having raised my own children on the practice, especially when I see friends whose children dutifully do a mano po with them.) While it was something I took for granted as my own parents raised us on the practice, I now find its much deeper meaning and value that I wish there could be a conscious effort to revive and preserve it in our society, and not because I’m advancing in age myself.

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There are a number of other distinctive practices and traits we Filipinos have that we ought to take pride in and preserve for posterity. One is the “bayanihan” or mutual assistance among community members, exemplified in the image of neighbors literally carrying a nipa house on their shoulders to help the owner relocate it. Many see it as a dying value and practice, as Filipinos have increasingly imbibed a to-each-his-own (kanya-kanya) mentality with wider urbanization. Gone are the days when we would occasionally borrow a cup of sugar, rice or whatever from the neighbors when we ran out. Now, few people know their neighbors at all, or bother to do so, even in an apartment building where they are literally next door.

Hospitality is another positive trait we Filipinos have traditionally been known for. I recall how in my teenage years, friends of my parents overseas gave up their master bedroom in their small home for my wife and me as we stopped over in their city while traveling. They chose to sleep on couches in their living room for our sake, to our great discomfort (and possibly more theirs). We would indeed bend over backwards to make our guests feel comfortable often to the point of self sacrifice, and happily, this Filipino trait may not necessarily be fading as fast as mano po appears to be.

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We Filipinos are also said to be both creative and resourceful. I need not elaborate on the former, as we are usually seen and envied by others as being particularly talented in the arts (whether in the performing arts or in design). I recall how a visiting professor colleague was once impressed with Filipino resourcefulness when his imported American car, with no spare parts available locally, got a dose of what his mechanics described to him as “remedyo Filipino,” when he had a problem with the vehicle.

It’s often said that we Filipinos have a tendency for self-flagellation. But in this season for counting our blessings, we should be mindful of the positive traits we Filipinos could treasure and take pride in.

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