In the dining area for the youth boys at my center, there is a wall clock. The clock reads 7.42.47. The clock always reads either 7.42.47 or 7.42.48, because the seconds hand is locked in perpetual trembling indecision between the two moments. On the clock in the common area, the hands lay claim to the time 3.55.14. My cell phone asserts militaristically in big, bold numbers that the time is in fact 15.29, while the little digital clock in the corner of my computer screen, the one that synchronizes itself with some far-off atomic station every time I connect to the internet, smugly – like the brainy student in class, the one whose silence after the return of a test grade is itself a show of arrogance – blinks over to 3.42.
Of these, the only clock intentionally set to a wrong time is the one I set myself. Although “Filipino time” is a stereotype, it’s often a true one, and I’ve been ragged on as the punctual American on several occasions. To preempt this, I set the time on my phone several minutes behind the actual time. But it’s hard to be intentionally late, and I still often have to remind myself that “We’ll leave by 10am” really means “Show up before lunch,” and that time estimates for travel will often trip into the absurd: once, inquiring after a town on the far side of Iloilo City from my site, I was told that a roundtrip would take half an hour. In reality, that is less time than it takes to get to the city itself. The actual drive took over two hours. Once I took a visual survey of timepieces on a jeepney, and forty minutes separated the earliest and latest claims.
In some areas I’m making progress. Appointments “in the afternoon” or at “lunchtime” no longer bother me for their lack of numerals. “Tomorrow” has long ceased to signify anything other than “not today,” and I don’t even use the word “yesterday” much, unless I want to explain just which yesterday I’m talking about.
Sometimes the lack of punctuality can still be frustrating. I originally scheduled my photography classes for two hours in the hope that I would get sixty minutes of instruction out of it, but it still irritates me when my students trickle in whenever they feel like it. And I’m flat-out sick of trying to get them to put up the cameras when we’re finished with our Friday night sessions, explaining that while they might not run by a clock, the night jeepneys do (albeit loosely) and I need to get out of my center soon after 9pm if I want to catch one home. And sometimes I’ll still absent-mindedly arrive on time for an event and face the desolate venue with that horrible sinking feeling in my gut; and if I can find a place to hide for a few minutes, a nook somewhere into which I can duck until someone else arrives, you bet I’ll take it.
Actually, Filipinos are not as un-time-conscious as generalities might have one believe. Often the stereotype results in a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: Filipinos don’t show up on time because they know nobody will be there – since everyone else is thinking the same thing. I remember during our training in Bacolod when I was getting ready to attend a party at another volunteer’s host family’s place. A few of the neighborhood kids were hanging out with me, and I pointed out that it was time to go. They protested. They knew exactly what time it was (I showed them), but they just wouldn’t get going. Okay, I thought, I’ll humor them. Eventually I thought it must be getting late even by Filipino standards and I finally dragged them along to the party, where we were the only guests for the next twenty minutes.
This kind of thing is most typical. But once in a while a mysterious confluence of events will result in everyone being exactly on time, and then my intentional lateness gets me mocked for acting Filipino. I can’t really win.
Often Filipinos just do things slowly. I’ve seen that this week because I’m serving as an understudy bantay – the watcher, sort of an unofficial supervisor – for our youth boys while their real supervisors are in Davao for training. This basically means I sleep at the center so there will be someone there if the boys have a problem, since they live in a different facility from the rest of the kids. This doesn’t really involve much extra work on my part, but it does force me to wake up at five-thirty in the morning to eat breakfast with them. They have to get up this early because their classes begin at seven-thirty, which gives them only two hours to eat and get dressed. And many of them are still late, even though the two schools they attend are three- and five-minute walks from the center. It’s fascinating to watch them plink away at this time: they wander in and out of their rooms, bursting into spontaneous snatches of ill-remembered English songs while inching along with that shuffling, oblivious walk that always makes me want to knock sidewalk pedestrians out of the way. But I lose the thread just as the mystery seems prepared to make itself transparent. Draining unused time is just an ingrained talent here, a vital skill.
It’s a skill I’ve been trying to cultivate myself. It’s a good thing to know – or to accept – to be able to let tedious hours pass unstressfully, and it’s something I hope doesn’t leave me completely when I leave the Philippines for more punctual locales. In the States I would feel like an empty hour calls for a task, or at least a distraction, otherwise it’s wasted time that can never be picked up, smoothed and reused – a very linear interpretation. But since I’ve come here I think I’ve come to regard time perhaps more holistically, not as something to be used up but rather something that can be just as valuable empty as full. I’m not saying Filipinos are enlightened; those masses of Filipino men you pass along the highway who are sitting on ledges staring off at nothing aren’t busy transcending our sordid reality, they just don’t have jobs. But the disregard for strict timelines does tend to make you realize how easy it is in the West to become a slave to agendas. To me it does seem that segmenting off the day in neat boxes can kind of, well, kill it.
At the same time, I still often have a hard time with the sheer looseness here. One of the reasons is that, to earn points and keep Filipinos happy, I often attend events I don’t really want to go to. And those events can drag way past the point of tedium. It gets tiresome to be waiting hours for an event to start, especially when the activities are often on weekends and I give up my own precious free time to attend them.
Another reason is that, not matter how much I try, I will always be more time-concerned than Filipinos, which makes work more stressful. I think of living here as kind of a game, and my success is largely based on how well I conform to the rules of culture. (I can imagine Filipinos visiting the United States thinking the same way.) Every gaffe is like losing a pawn in chess or landing on Monopoly’s Luxury Tax. The one time in the past eighteen months that I’ve flatly and openly refused to play the game, to accept the fragile imagination-and-puffed-air walls we’d built around our play-life, was because I was trying to finish a job – a job that shouldn’t have been mine in the first place – and my coworkers were eating snacks and wouldn’t get up from the table simply to unlock an office door for me. That’s a frequent narrative, food taking precedence over everything else, but the difference in this case is that I was trying to get the work finished so I wouldn’t miss the last jeepney ride home. I was already extremely stressed by a impressively long string of miscalculations that transformed an event at which I was supposed to be a minor contributor into a mire of screwed-up tasks which were unilaterally handed to me to fix. So when I couldn’t get anyone to open the door, I bluntly refused to join my coworkers for snacks (a very rude act), and stormed off to procure some actual help – and later, to pay for my sins, a mortgage on Park Place.