Yesterday I went to visit my friend who is a vendor on the street outside where we used to live. She sells banana-Q, a yummy banana fried in oil and brown sugar and served on a stick. We were happily catching up on the latest happenings in life since I hadn’t seen her since our return from Canada.
A rather well-dressed man with slicked down hair appeared out of nowhere and flashed a toothy smile at us. Judging by the stack of glossy pamphlets in his hand I had a feeling we were in for a sales pitch. I was right.
“Good morning, Ma’am, I am speaking to you on behalf of so-and-so Fancy Spa Company,” Slick Street Sales Guy began in flawless, yet somehow slightly awkward, English. He pulled out one of the pamphlets and laid it on my friend’s vendor cart.
I exchanged a look with my friend who raised her eyebrows at me slightly. I could tell she wasn’t going to help me out. “I’m not interested, sir. But thank you,” I declined politely.
He pushed it. “Oh Ma’am, we have five main and easily accessible locations as you can see listed here in our brochure. Please may I tell you about a special deal we have for you, today only, ma’am.” He paused briefly then plunged bravely on.
“We have a special deal, ma’am, and free services worth thousands of pesos, all for the low, low price of 460 pesos if you would just fill out your name and number here in the space provided. Let me tell you about the services you may avail of, ma’am.”
I glanced at my friend again. She wasn’t even listening anymore and was quietly having a conversation with another friend nearby. Sighing, I turned my attention back to Slick.
“First, ma’am, your free offer that I may draw your attention to is a free diamond peel service worth 1600 pesos. This ma’am is yours for free, no questions asked.” He looked at my face. I tried to look pleasant but was failing to find value in what clearly sounded like a painful procedure.
“Next, ma’am, may I direct your attention here to the second free offer at our spa.” I could tell he felt was on a roll. “A free session of skin whitening, ma’am!” He triumphantly pointed to the offer on the pamphlet.
At this point I’m wondering if he is thinking about his potential client (me) at all. I looked at him with round eyes and protested in shock, “Skin whitening? Like a ghost?” I was hoping that he would crack a smile. Ok, I was actually hoping he’d stop the sales pitch. But after one humorless chuckle he quickly recovered, “Perhaps you may give that part to a friend.”
Moving quickly on he said, “Perhaps you would like to avail yourself of other services at the spa then, ma’am.” His eyes quickly scanned me up and down. I knew where this was heading.
“Here, ma’am!” He pointed to a list printed on the brochure. “Did you know that we provide many services for your beautification, like for example, if you want to become sexy?”
I feel the need to interrupt here because I’m treading on some ground I haven’t yet covered on my blog: Filipinos and their use of the word ‘sexy.’ I was shocked when I first came to the Philippines and heard this word used so often. Like Inigo Montoya’s quote in the movie, “The Princess Bride,” I often feel the urge to say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I’m actually not completely sure what the word means to them, but my first clue that it wasn’t defined the way I thought was when my four year old daughter was called sexy. Umm, ok…? Somehow the word is linked to beauty in a way that is well, nonsexual. (Really hoping I haven’t lost any sensitive readers at this point- it’s the culture here, folks, I’m just telling it like it is.)
It is also perfectly acceptable in this culture to discuss another’s weight and body image. Imagine my shock when a stranger at the market declared that her vegetables from her stall would further me on my journey to “being sexy” (oh, that really endears me to you, thank you very much). After attempting to discretely inquire among friends about the subject and beauty perceptions here I was told repeatedly that discussion of weight, even with a total stranger, is totally acceptable and doesn’t carry with it the connotations of judgment that we in our culture so quickly associate with the subject. Indeed, it seems to be true- the topic is not taboo and thus we all must develop a very thick skin in order to survive here.
So having that clarification hopefully you have been able to pick your jaw up off the floor and we can continue the story with some understanding.
“Did you know,” he said, “that we provide many services for your beautification, like for example, if you want to become sexy?” I knew where this was headed and steeled myself for some typical (or should I say ‘blunt’ by my culture’s standards) remarks on the subject.
“Hmmm,” I murmured, trying to warn him with a half-smile and a raised eyebrow that he was treading on dangerous ground.
“You know, ma’am, let’s say for example that you wanted to become smaller in your, um…” he eyed my torso, “your…” his hands skimmed the air in a curve, “you know, ma’am, in your abdomen. To become slimmer.” He paused. “We have services for that, ma’am.” His finger rested on the list of services.
I looked Slick straight in the eyes. “Sir, buntis ako," I stated flatly. He ignored me and continued to mutter things about slimming and services. “Sir!,” I interrupted more clearly, “Buntis ako! I’m pregnant!”
After staring at me for a few moments he vainly attempted to continue but all I heard was unintelligible gurgles. Recovery from that faux pas was apparently insurmountable even for Slick. He finally gave a nod and a quick, “Ok ma’am; if you’re sure, ma’am,” conceding defeat. He ambled away, presumably to find a more fitting candidate for his spa.
Perhaps he needed a better training course on knowing his target demographic. Rule number one: don’t offer slimming services to a pregnant woman.