As a Filipino-Canadian in living in South Korea, I used to catch the eye of other Filipinos, especially in my old neighborhood where many Filipino expats among other foreign nationals live. Foreigners sense each others’ presence; it’s just a thing among foreigners in South Korea and I’m sure everywhere else. It happens among different races as long as they’re non-native. The thing is, and it’s a bad habit, no matter how innocent the curiosity is, when it comes to some Filipinos, it comes off as them looking at me suspiciously, almost menacingly, and it make me uncomfortable. Perhaps the stares can sometimes be too long. This uncomfortable stare is one of the things that made my wife feel uncomfortable when we were traveling in the Philippines a few years ago. She felt like someone is always observing her or us. Let’s all try to be subtle, people.
But the thing is, once you get beyond that, the minute you get a little familiar with Filipinos, then it’s almost like you have an instant extended family. While I was living in my old neighborhood, now and then I’d hear “hoy, kabayan! (Hey, fellow countryman!)” or even better, “Kain na tayo. (Let’s eat!)”
Being invited to eat or share a meal by strangers is something I find quite unique and I don’t normally hear this from strangers of other nationality. Say you pass by someone you are sorta familiar with and they happen to be Japanese, Korean, or whatever nationality, do they invite you to join them? I think this might be a Filipino thing.
More than once, I’ve been offered to join Filipinos as I pass by while they are eating. This could be in a Filipino store or a restaurant. A couple of times in a Filipino store I happen to frequent, the owner insisted on me having his packed dinner because he was sure it was a dish I miss eating or he was insistent that I should try his wife’s cooking. I ended up bringing them home and enjoying them each time. I don’t even remember us introducing ourselves to one another. All he knows is that I most likely have a Filipino background due to my frequency in his establishment (and that I looked really hungry?).
The closest I can compare this to is when Koreans ask, “Bap mokosoyo? (Have you eaten?)” It is a common expression with roots going back to years of wartime poverty and starvation. As a Confucian society, Koreans generally have community-centered ethos, and this is reflected in the expression inquiring about their neighbors’ well-being and whether they’ve had anything to eat for the day.
Times are tough, have you had anything to eat? If not, here, have some food.
South Korea has a long history of being invaded by the Chinese and being under the rule of Imperial Japan. There’s been repeated times of struggle, starvation, and injustice under foreigner conquerors. The same is true with the Philippines. It was the Spanish colony for hundreds of years, then the country was ruled by the Japanese, then by the United States. Frequently poor throughout history, the simple pleasure of having a meal, sharing it with a countryman is akin to ensuring the survival of one’s neighbor, of one’s own family.
So when I’m shopping at a Filipino store in Seoul (or any city overseas) and I see the owner bringing some food in to eat and they politely offer, “Sir, kain na muna tayo. (Sir, let’s eat first.)” It brings to mind the same history of wartime poverty, starvation, and shared perseverance the Koreans and Filipinos went through. I’m sure there must be similar sentiments regarding food among other nationalities other than Koreans and Filipinos, but from my experience, I’ve only seen it among the two.
Sharing a meal to bring two parties closer together is universal. From kings of old age, to modern dignitaries; from families during holidays; and even simple dates among couples; it is one of the most basic ways to bond with one another. But from my experience, with Filipinos, there is eagerness to share and to bond simply by being Filipino, even to mere acquaintances.
“You’re Filipino. I’m Filipino. We’re both in a foreign country. How about sharing a meal?”
Around 20 percent of the Philippine population live below the poverty line. More than fifty percent of Filipino households struggle with food insecurity according to a 2019 estimate. This, along with the frequency of natural disasters, could suddenly turn a middle-class family to one that is struggling with food. The act of sharing what little food people have is a communal reaction to poverty or at least to the ever-present looming threat of food insecurity. Perhaps it is an act of Christian kindness (even if the offer is insincere or just made in an attempt at being polite) while the offerer is still capable of being generous. Who knows when food will be scarce? Might as well be kind and generous given the opportunity.
I didn’t grow up in a rich environment. And foolish as it may be, I’ve seen family members come into money for a short while and instead of saving it or investing it in something more productive, the initial instinct was to share the sudden windfall, to be generous while they still can. The money never lasted of course, but there was a tendency to be generous in an almost haphazard “you only live once,” sort of way. And who can blame them for thinking so? So many people are financially starving. The chance to be generous to others, to spread goodwill, or in some cases, return goodwill, might never come again.
Filipinos can often be accused of crab mentality. See crabs, when put in a bucket, don’t need to have a lid to prevent them from escaping. The crabs will pull down on one another and thus make escaping futile. Filipinos sometimes put down others who are more successful or people who are about to be more successful than they are. It’s ugly. But whenever I hear “kabayan” or “kain na tayo” from complete strangers, I hear the complete opposite of crab mentality. I hear people rooting for me. I hear people checking to see if I have eaten and whether I would share a meal with them. Life is hard, let’s work through it together. Here, have a meal.