For a foreigner visiting the Philippines for the first time, many Filipino practices might seem outright strange (The roaring jeepneys! Cigarettes sold by the stick! Too much texting!) and it is easy to err and, perhaps, cause the amusement of some locals. But this really should not worry the foreign traveler; Filipinos are a considerate people – perhaps more so here in Davao – and we would be all-too willing to guide you on how to do things our way.
Now, perhaps the customs that you, the foreigner, need to familiarize first is that of Filipino dining because eating, as it is in most cultures, is a central social activity here in the Philippines. You may measure your acceptance in a family or group – if you are sensitive enough – by how you are treated during meal. So in order to acquaint you to our “ways of eating,” I have listed here some of the things you may wonder about during mealtime and the answers to each of them.
(Note that the imagined setting here is in a Filipino home and not in a restaurant.)
Should I act here as I would in Rome?
Not necessarily. The adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” applies here only to an extent. For example, you may remain using your utensils even when the locals are eating by their hands — we have certain foods which we think are more savored when eaten by hand — but you, being an honored guest, must always eat in the same table as the host. When in doubt, you can always ask the person nearest to you how you should proceed. Also, it would be better to have a close friend to serve as your liaison to the rest of the group.
What time should I arrive?
The more intimate the social gathering, the more one is expected to arrive on time. Although certain cliques may find it chic to come in late, arriving at the appointed time is never an offense. Curiously though, even if Filipinos are said to be always late in arriving, we always prepare for people to arrive on time. See also, The Filipino Time article.
Should I bring anything?
Anything would be welcome, although some gifts may be more appreciated than others. Wine may not be a very good idea since only a small percentage of Filipinos really enjoy the liquor. Local fruits may also not have a lot of impact; chances are your hosts already have some chilling in the fridge. The safest thing to bring is perhaps some sweets/chocolates, or better yet, something you made yourself with a recipe from your home country. (Note that guests are not really required to bring anything, your gift is only a token of your appreciation for being invited, a form of giving back.)
Why is everyone fussing over me?
Relax — it’s just how we are. Filipinos are known to be accommodating, so just enjoy the attention. We give special treatments to our guests, and to foreigners more so. Expect to be offered the first piece, slice, or serving of everything on the table, and if you finish your food quickly, get ready for a second helping. Don’t hesitate to make requests — but do say so politely — and accept offers with grace and humility.
Would anybody mind if I smoke?
Actually, yes. Cigarettes are a lot cheaper here than in some other countries, and this might tempt the smoker to horde up and puff away. Pay attention, however, to where you smoke: only do it outside of the house or in allotted areas. (Also, refrain from doing it while in a large crowd or in public since Davao has an anti-smoking city ordinance.)
Is it safe to eat this bloody little thing over here?
It depends: do you have a strong stomach? Filipino cuisine may not be the best Asia has to offer, but we do come up with some of the most interesting foods (the balut, adidas, and papait, for example). So if you have a sense of adventure — and the gastronomic tolerance to match it with — then feel free to try all the culinary wonders (in terms of being exotic, that is) that may grace your table. Who knows, you might even develop a liking.
Who pays for what?
In a home setting, the hosts normally provide for everything — from the welcome beverage to the dessert. The guest is only required to bring some good humor and a sense of appreciation. However, if you are visiting a family or group that is not very well-to-do, it is not impolite to slip in some cash to the host to help with the expenses. (Just practice this with discretion, as Filipinos are easily embarrassed.)
When dining in a restaurant, on the other hand, it is often the one who invites who pays for the meal.
What’s after dinner?
There is what we locally call painom, or the drinking session. In this particular form of socializing, it is expected for the guest — or the cause of the celebration — to be the sponsor, as a way for him to show his gratitude. Although the ladies may not join in, few men would refuse to take part in this activity. For Filipinos, the importance of drinking in a group is perhaps indicated by the preferred “family size” bottle, which everybody takes turns to drink from, underscoring how drinking goes beyond just the imbibing of drink — it celebrates social intercourse.
“Who Pays For What?” And Other Mealtime Queries is written by Gabriel Millado.