On my first trip to the Philippines in 2008, my then-girlfriend (now wife) Menchu and I were in a store at a mall when I noticed a woman with a small boy near us.
The boy was about 5 or 6 and he kept looking at me. I nudged Menchu and pointed the boy out. We both smiled at him and as we did, his mother turned around toward us. She saw us smiling, leaned down, and said something to the boy.
Before I knew it, he was standing in front of me, holding out his hand. Confused, I looked at Menchu for help.
“Give him your hand,” she said.
I held out my hand and the boy took it in his, pressing my knuckles against his forehead.
What in the world was this, I thought. In the U.S., adults don’t touch the children of strangers. Adult men especially don’t touch children or women that they don’t know. Here was an unknown small boy pressing my hand against his forehead with the smiling approval of his mother.
What It Was, Was Mano
The word mano is Spanish for hand while the word po is often used in Filipino culture and language at the end of each sentence as a sign of respect when addressing someone older. Put together, mano po literally translates to your hand please…
For a long time, the gesture made me feel very awkward. It felt like a servant bowing to a master. Being a white American, I connected that servant/master feeling with our colonialism as practiced here in the Philippines. I actually used to avoid mano whenever I could do so without offending anyone.
Since then, I’ve become sort of used to mano or pagmamano. It’s easier for me when small children of my friends offer their hands. Where it still feels awkward is when teenagers or those older do. I usually try to shake hands with the older teens and young adults. Or I just wave.
It’s hard to shake my American resentment for class, even when I know that mano po is just respect for elders and has nothing to do with me being seen as rich or powerful (ha!).
This is my little Buddy. I have no idea what his real name is but he’s like a giant ray of sunshine turned on me when I see him.
He lives in a house across the main street here. And he gets super, super excited when he sees me.
I don’t see him very much because he’s usually in school when my wife and I go out.
The first time I saw Buddy was two years ago. Menchu and I were at the end of our road trying to hail a tricycle and he suddenly appeared across the street. He was jumping up and down, waving and shouting, “Amerikano! Amerikano!”
He’s done the same thing the four or five times I’ve seen him. Once, I pointed at him and shouted, “Filipino! Filipino!” That seemed to make him happy.
A couple of weeks ago, Menchu and I were on his side of the road, trying to hail a tricycle, on a weekday around noontime. That’s the time the school kids are let out for lunch. Many kids live nearby and simply go home to eat.
Sure enough, Buddy was home and saw us cross the street. He came running up to me. “Amerikano! Amerikano!” he said excitedly. And then he grabbed my right hand and pressed it to his forehead.
He went straight back to his house where a woman who looked like his grandmother came out. He spoke excitedly to her and pointed at us. She looked over at us and smiled. A few minutes later, a girl who I assumed was his younger sister came out and Buddy did the same thing to her.
Right over to us she came, grabbed my hand and pressed it against her forehead.
Mano is all right with me.
I have not been able to identify the artist who painted the header photo. If you know, please drop me a note so that I can credit them. Salamat!