11/26/2009

Salamat Po

My father tried to teach me his dialect, Tagalog, off and on when I was a child and young teen. Some words were round and made my mouth feel like it was full of marbles. Others sat in the back of my mouth, buzzed against the my hard palate. Mostly I couldn't figure out how to change my tongue and throat to match the sounds that slipped so easily past his lips.

They tell me I had a better time of it when we visited the Philippines when I was six. I followed my cousins around the neighborhood and they pointed at things, giving me the name of each thing - the word for grass, the word for house, the word for tree.

I don't remember the words. I can count to 8 successfully - isa, dalawa, tatlo, apat, lima, anim, pito, walu - and I remember a few lines of "Bahay Kubo" which lists a few vegetables being grown behind a house, "bahay." I'm more comfortable saying "hindi na" - Nope - than "o-o" - Yes. I sometimes remember that "Mabuhay" means long life and good fortune.

My ear recognizes it when it's spoken, and my husband tells me that I've responded in English without thinking to questions and conversations in Tagalog. I guess I've lived in translation for so long that it's become second nature.

"Salamat Po" - thank you very much, honored one - is a strange phrase. The ssss rises up my spine and I feel my shoulders hunch as the "ahhh" blends to "lahhh." I want to shorten it to just "Salamat" but to say that, one must start with "Ai" as in "Ai Salamat!" - oh thank you! "Salamat" by itself sounds terse, the kind of thing you'd say at the grocery store when the butcher hands you your order, a thoughtless thing, really, something that lacks a certain connection to gratitude. "Po" is the honorific, the recognition that the person you are thanking is higher in status, or better said, the recognition that you are lower in status because you're the one thanking, instead of being thanked.

Perhaps that's why it trips me up, this idea of status tied up with gratitude, a sense of beholden. My parents would probably say it's from being brought up "in this country" that being beholden is a bad thing. Independence, the ability to fend for myself, to provide all my own needs without needing anyone else is something opposite of "po" perhaps. I don't know if it's from being brought up in the US or not, but I do have a hard time with feeling beholden.

I want to feel grateful and I certainly don't think I feel entitled to anything I've been granted - is there something between beholden and entitlement, a middle ground where both parties retain their sense of honor and wholeness?

When someone thanks me for something, gives thanks in a "salamat po" sort of way, I don't feel entitled - I usually feel grateful for the opportunity to give and that it made someone else feel special. I don't need anything else, and I don't feel entitled to something from them in the future. But when I'm on the other side of the counter, I feel a tension in my gut and it's all bound up in questions - what do they want? what will they want? do I need to give something of equal or better value later? what should I say on my thank you card? how long do I have before I have to send that card? if I give in return, will they give again, when I just would rather not continue this relationship any more?

Today, it's hard /not/ to think of all those grade school stories of Pilgrims starving their first winter, of gracious, noble Indians (note: no Eastern Seaboard tribes were ever taught to me, much to my chagrin now) who gave them food to eat and taught them the principles of nitrogen fixing for better crops, and in return, our country stole or murdered for their land. Embarrassment and shame co-mingle with our Thanksgiving feasts here in the US, so much so that some of our friends protest the holiday yearly, fleeing to Canada for the day. Maybe my knee jerk reaction to "salamat po" or even the concept of gratitude comes from knowing that even the celebration of Thanksgiving is tainted by something very opposite to being thankful.

I don't know the word for "I" in Tagalog - if "po" means the 'honored/honorable you' is there a word which recognizes my own nobility? A quick google search reveals "ako" which covers both "I" and "me" depending on placement relative to the verb. I remember hearing my mother say "Ako na" which felt like "I will" and usually meant she was volunteering to do something, setting aside a personal priority to help someone else. "You" translates to "ikaw" which I remember was usually a question "ikaw?" or "How about you?"

The online Tagalog dictionary reveals that "po" emphasizes respect and politeness, often falling in combination with "Oo" an for "O'po" or "Yes sir/ma'am!" And I think about all the houseboys and servants of US servicemen and their wives and how often they said "O'po!" to the most routine and undignified tasks more suitable for a "little brown brother" than for anyone hoping to advance in the world.

But then there is this "Tao Po" - I am a human being. "Tao" - person/people - is linked with the honorific "Po" revealing that not only can I claim being human but can claim being a Person of Nobility. And when you respond "Tuloy!" - come share my world - you not only recognize me as a fellow human being but invite me to share in your Noble Personage.

That's the space I want to inhabit when I say "Salamat Po" - I am grateful for your continued human nobility, and I believe you can be noble, and make noble choices now and in the future. Why? Not because you've given me something, but because I can already see (always already) my own nobility, believe I can make noble choices when I interact with others and not shrink away from community out of fear of becoming beholden. Level playing field for all concerned.

Salamat Po - I am grateful for the potential of nobility in humanity. I am grateful for the attempt to be a person of honor and hope for my own growth as a person of "Po"