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A Sense Of Being Filipino, Shared Spaces

The rooms in a farmer's bamboo but are few and small. Up front, there is a porch, then a receiving room which leads to a dining room, a kitchen and, finally, a rear porch for washing things. There may be only one bedroom or sometimes bedroom space is merely marked off by a row of closets. Yet the household might consist of eight children of various ages, parents, grandparents, as well as unmarried aunts.

How do they manage without getting into each other's way? By sharing space. Every space in the house has multiple uses. And every bit of space is shared by all. At the front porch, strangers are received; family members and neighbors sit around to catch a breeze often amid sacks of freshly milled rice, for the porch is storage space as well. Inside, the dining and living rooms-one continuous space - are where familiars are invited for refreshments or where the children play while mother sews or irons. Afternoons and evenings find the family unrolling straw mats, not only in the bedroom but throughout the length of these rooms as well.

There seems to be no privacy, as the walls are made of thin bamboo strips. Conversations are easily over hear since there are usually no interior doors Still there are boundaries. A sudden lowering of a voice warns the children that serious matters are being discussed. When a mother bares her breast to nurse her baby, the rest of the family to looks elsewhere

Towering above the farmers huts are the grand houses in which the town gentry have lived for centuries. These are made of expensive materials: cut stone or brick, polished hardwood and lustrous shell-paned panels for the wide windows.

The rooms in these houses are larger and more numerous. On the first level are rooms for family vehicles and silver floats where ivory saints stand at processions. Upstairs is a hallway big enough to contain a farmer's but Then follow an elegant drawing room, a large dining room and a kitchen. Yet even in these homes there are only a few bedrooms, perhaps two or four at the most, a number way out of proportion to the extended families that used to occupy them. In their heyday, several generations lived together: septuagenarians, their several married children and their dozens of grandchildren. Plus, of course, unmarried relatives and servants, effectively shrinking the available space even in an expansive house.

The limitation of space was compensated for by sharing. The extended family ate as one at the long dining table. Every meal was like a party, reminisces an old timer who has since relocated to a smaller, more manageable apartment. Sleeping was communal too. In addition to the ornate four-poster beds, straw mats would be rolled out in the bedroom, living room or dining room. This is where the children slept, with either their parents or favorite aunts, uncles or cousins.

In modern Manila, though middle- and upper-income homes may have specialized rooms - including a library and a family room - some traditional notions of sharing persist. Children, who have their own rooms, still snuggle in with their parents unannounced and often study at the dining table.

As may be expected, architecture follows lifestyle. A farmer's hut is a woven basket through which light and air circulate. The traditional gentry house has been compared to a bird cage because it is all windows. Like their homes, boundaries between Filipinos and their relatives are as thin and as permeable.

A child is never alone, never lonely. Other relatives are only too eager to take him in if the parents are busy or away. As one lady expressed it to her sister, Your children are mine, as mine are yours.

So likewise is it with friends. A friend is called kaibigan,meaning a fellow who loves likewise. As graphic is another term for friend: kahirarnan ng suklay, or a fellow from whom a comb can be borrowed. For a friend is one who gladly shares everything with another without being asked.

Each culture has its own way of defining space. Two Americans talking will stand several feet apart. In contrast, Filipinos feel the need to draw closer to each other. Friends hug and clasp hands while talking, to the horror of other Asians or Westerners. That's because among Filipinos, a friend is one who accurately senses what the other feels - without being told. And friends can do so because they willingly share inner space.

Relationships, like rooms, are multi-purpose. A cousin may be a workmate as well, for many enterprises are family-owned. He may also be a favorite drinking partner. On the other hand, a friend inevitably becomes a member of the family. Being Juan's friend, he gets invited to family parties. Soon, Juan's mother begins regarding him as another son. Eventually, he becomes Juan's compadre, officially bestowing him kinship.

The rules in our culture are clear when we relate with our relatives and friends, namely, that we must watch out for their interests. But these rules become cloudy when the other is a stranger. A nephew applies for a job but an outsider performs better on the tests. Who should get the job? A close friend approaches a high official to ask him to use his influence in obtaining an exemption on importing goods. Whose interest should prevail: the friend's or the anonymous public's?

For centuries, Philippine villages were independent of each other and of a central government. To a certain extent, Philippine society today is very much like our ancient's village. We prefer a small intimate circle of known relatives and friends; we are indifferent to the outsider. Our society resembles the insular village built in the shallow waters of the Sulu Sea where the houses are interconnected with bamboo bridges in a self-contained cluster. But to meet the challenges of the 21st century, perhaps it is time we build linkages with other villages, with those who are neither relatives nor friends.

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