A Letter from Nowhere Part Two
By Small-Town USA

In my last post, I had the audacity to pass opinion, inter alia, on Thai bargirls. Despite the fact that I’ve never visited Thailand, never mind met a single bargirl. But I felt ‘somewhat’ comfortable doing so, having read a good proportion of the 7,500+ readers' submissions...and relying upon my own experience with women...from Asia and beyond...and a belief that all human-beings aren’t really that different. But I’m fully open to the charge I’m not qualified to make an opinion.

But now my topic is more personally relevant and I don’t have a clue what’s going on. It concerns problems in communication. Not problems based upon a different language, but communication problems based upon deeper cultural differences.

Why personally relevant? Because I’m getting increasingly attached to a 43 year-old Filipino who lives in Mindanao (in Surigao City...and boy, does the nearby Surigao Island look beautiful...a place called ‘Cloud Nine’ is a surfers paradise, though I’m no surfer myself).

Let’s call her Mary. A well-educated Filipino nurse with a Masters degree in nursing. Raised two kids on her own (since separating from her husband in 2000), on a pittance of a nurse's salary (around $7000 USD is the norm, I believe). She had to pay for her Bachelors and Masters degree education herself. I believe her. With 12 siblings, I very much doubt her parents had the money to buy Christmas presents for all their kids, never mind take care of their kids' education expenses.

All these factors, rightly or wrongly, drew me closer to her. As well as the most enigmatic of smiles and an eternal optimism (she never whines and moans, unlike me).

She clearly isn’t looking to marry a Westerner to escape her plight. As many readers may be aware, divorce is still not allowed in the Philippines, so she won’t be getting divorced anytime soon. Never once asked for a ‘little’ gift...and has been so effusive in her thanks when I sent her (unsolicited) some cheap $30 flowers the other day.

By way of an aside, what’s with the Philippines and their ‘no-divorce’ law? (aside from some very limited grounds for annulment). It’s the only country in the world where such a restrictive law exists, apart from the few square miles radius of the Vatican. And the near impossibility of a Filipino getting just a tourist visa to just visit the US gnaws at me, but I digress.

Maybe she’s playing the long-con, but I’m struggling to see how it could work. She knows by now I’m no Bill Gates, so I doubt sponsorship is her end-game.

But, given that background, back to the main topic.

As she’s from the Philippines and she’s well-educated, her command of the English language is almost second-to-none. My jokes can have subtle irony, but she still gets them. I can sometimes ‘hint’...and she always gets the hint. I can give brief, noncommittal answers to her questions...and she quickly picks up that something is not all right.

Our conversations have progressed the normal way I guess. First on an internet dating site. Then to personal emails. Then to Skype SMS. Then to webcam Skype. And despite our mutual ‘alleged’ good boy/good girl profiles, the webcam chats have become really rather exciting, both verbally and visually. But I digress...

The problem is that sometimes our conversations stall...and can sometimes get rather unpleasant and frustrating (for me at least). Especially when I ask her a direct question about her personal life or become the slightest bit critical of something she’s said or has not said (in reply to a question). Which concerns me. Am I being too confrontational for her Filipino/Asian culture...or am I touching on something she’d rather not talk about?

I’m well aware of the Asian need to save face. But is there something more in play? Something to hide or just a cultural norm? In that respect, this issue seems to have some relevance with a lot of Stickman posts I’ve read. When asked a more ‘direct’, personal question, is that Thai bargirl really (always) being deceptive or is she merely not accustomed to Western expectations of full verbal expression/explanation when she replies in rather ‘concise’ or ‘obtuse’ terms?

As I don’t want this nascent relationship to fail because of mere communication/cultural misinterpretations, I did my research.

I may be preaching to the choir, but I came across some seminal research by the anthropologist Edward Hall and his talk of high vs. low context cultures.

I won’t bore readers with a diatribe on all the differences, but in essence they’re as follows:

High Context (e.g. Asia)

• Less verbally explicit communication, less written/formal information
• More internalized understandings of what is communicated
• Multiple cross-cutting ties and intersections with others
• Long term relationships
• Strong boundaries- who is accepted as belonging vs who is considered an "outsider"
• Knowledge is situational, relational.
• Decisions and activities focus around personal face-to-face relationships, often around a central person who has authority.
Low Context (e.g US & UK)
• Rule oriented, people play by external rules
• More knowledge is codified, public, external, and accessible.
• Sequencing, separation--of time, of space, of activities, of relationships
• More interpersonal connections of shorter duration
• Knowledge is more often transferable
• Task-centered. Decisions and activities focus around what needs to be done, division of responsibilities.

With regard to ‘communications’, here’s the rub: “The USA is a low context culture. People in low context cultures tend to express themselves with more words. They are more animated and colorful in their speech. They may say the same thing in more than one way to make sure their meaning is understood. In a high context culture like the Philippines (or Thailand?), fewer words are spoken. A Filipino expects you to understand them with fewer words. If you try to expound on their meaning, they will likely politely repeat what they already said.

This can cause a foreigner to think the Filipino (or Thai?) is being rude when they are not. They think you are rude for going on and on about something they already explained. They are unlikely to change the position. “This is our policy,” accept it or move on.”

For me, this creates a ‘double-whammy.’ Many girls, in Bangkok or the Philippines, may be less-than-forthcoming when asked a direct question by a Westerner. Placing them in a no-win situation whereby their answer is either perceived as deceitful or rude. But rarely honest or acceptable.

The defacto interpretation from a typical Westerner (especially if it’s asked of a bargirl) is that an obtuse or non-committal answer equals a lie...or something to hide. But can’t it also just reflect a cultural norm of being unwilling to be fully expressive?
I’m a pragmatist and a realist...and realize many bargirls inevitably have a lot to hide...or want to just say what they think their Farang wants to hear. But I’m also getting attached to a non-bargirl Filipino. And I’m just as wary of her veracity, however unkind and untrusting that may seem. Is a less-than-comprehensive answer evidence of deceit...or just something more benign?

So what’s the answer? I don’t know, but maybe fellow Stickman readers have more experience in these matters. Any advice?

Stickman's thoughts:

Please tell me you have actually met this lady!  If you haven't, then do you think it might actually be a good idea to meet her for real?  Maybe you were thinking of marrying her before you meet her?!  Forgive the sarcasm, but I have heard so many stories from people who go on and on about a woman they know online but have yet to meet in person and spend any time together.  And when they do finally meet, it is not always quite what they expected...  That's why I say the Internet is a good place to *meet* people, but not a good place to get to know them.

Hunt for a submission by Caveman which I think was published late last year where he outlines how he had got to know a Filipina online.  He travelled to the Philippines and met her in person, but quickly realised that things would not work between them.  Interesting reading...

The author can be contacted at : mgthom@hotmail.com.

The publisher of this website, NOT this article, can be contacted at: stickmanbangkok@gmail.com.