It is fun to observe the cultural peculiarities of the countries of the world, and to learn about the languages people speak. I think of myself as an ambitious amateur anthropologist and a cunning linguist. One aspect I find quite interesting is how people talk about their family and sex lifes in different countries.
If you know me you’ll know that I spent a few years in Japan. I didn’t leave as a fan of the country, but it was certainly an interesting time. In many ways, Japan is on one end of the axes of possible societal ways of doing things: chaotic/organized, relaxed/neurotic, late/on time, open/private Japan is always on the latter end of these axes. The Philippines, where I am living now, is typically on the other end. This makes for interesting contrasts.
This is nowhere more evident then in how people talk about their relationship status. In Japan, that was considered very privileged information. I remember one instance when one of my few Japanese friends let me in on the secret that a boring secretary and a soul-less grad student were a couple. Two boring people fucking. It did not seem very exciting news to me, but it was clear from my friend’s demeanor that she was telling me something she thought to be spicy. People in Japan would hide their relationship status often even from their own parents. My girlfriend of 2 years never introduced me to her mom & dad, and made sure they visited our house only when I was traveling for work. I wonder what she told them why she, as an unemployed waitress, was living in such a nice residence? I assume she didn’t mention a (foreign!) boyfriend – living together while unmarried is still shameful in the land of the plastic smiles.
In contrast, in the Philippines I have the following, or a very similar conversation a few times a week, either in English or Visayan:
A tricylce driver or a fruit sales lady whom I had just met minutes earlier asks me:
You have Filipina wife?
Instead of how are you doing? the initial question is whom are you doing?
I then either tell the truth
Not now, previously I had one
or say something semi-funny along the lines of
Not now, but I am holding try outs for one!
One on each island (there are 7107 islands in the Republic of the Philippines)
The conversation then usually goes to the question why I don’t have one right now, and why I don’t have any kids (I know of), and how many kids the tricylce driver/fruit sales lady has (usually many). They give me good tips on how to find a new wife, and recommend that I have a couple of kids, too. I enjoy these chats. People here are pretty witty and funny.
According to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, a language reflects the thinking of its speakers. Accordingly, Visayan distinguishes bata (a child, young person) and anak (my/your child). There are also countless words for younger brother, respected older sister, ect. The vocabulary for family relations is more developed than in English or German, since that’s what people talk about a lot (we have more words for beers though).
What makes different cultures so different in how openly they talk about relationships and family? Why did these things diverge so much between two archipelagos on the same side of the Pacific? I don’t know. Is it a historical accident? A consequence of the economics and politics of the place? We can only speculate.