I’d never eaten part of a cow’s intestine before. That was before I tried Kare Kare, a traditional Filipino stew consisting of meat and vegetables in a savoury peanut sauce. Kuya S (I’m still not sure what relation I am to him, though I know it’s not by blood) took us all out for lunch at Max’s and everyone insisted I try Filipino foods I hadn’t before.
“Don’t worry, it’s been boiled many times so there are no germs”, ate M reassured me. “I hope”, she added.
When in Rome, and all that. I tried it, chewing it as best I could for it was slimy on my tongue, and concluded I’d much prefer Kare Kare without part of a cow’s digestive track, and was careful not to put any more on my plate. I also had Tofu Adobong, which I liked very much.
After a pleasant meal and tita L’s insistances that we take photos for Facebook (she’s addicted), the plan was for us to all go to Market Market. Alas, as always with my family, plans can change on a dime, and when all of us, apart from kuya S who had somewhere to be, had piled into two Ubers, Jen and I found out we were being taken to Venice Grand Canal Mall for the second day in a row.
We wandered around for forty-five minutes, taking photos here and there, but we’d seen all we’d wanted to the day before, and there wasn’t all that much to see beyond the initial novelty of the gondolas. When the family had reconvened outside Jollibee, Jen and I decided to head to the Mall of Asia while the others took the babies home. Tita L joined us in the taxi, as she was heading in the same direction to get transport to Atimonan. A short ride later, we alighted, bade her farewell (for now) and ventured into the massive Mall of Asia.
The Philippines loves a big mall. Four of the twenty largest malls in the world reside on the archipelago, MoA sitting at 4th in the country and 11th in the world and covering an area of 406,962 square meters. My village could comfortably fit inside it’s walls. Still, I remember it feeling bigger; when I last visited, in 2011, it was ranked 2nd largest mall in the Philippines, before being knocked down the table by SM Megamall’s 2011 extension and the opening of SM Seaside City Cebu in 2015.
We wandered around, often aimlessly, Jen munching on giga cheese fries from Potato Corner. I was sad to see that a few shops I had planned to revisit had shut and been replaced, most notable Fujifilm, for I didn’t know where else to buy camera film (that wasn’t Instax).
There are only two facets of Filipino life that genuinely give me culture shock, and it’s not the food, regardless of whether there’s cow intestine or not. One: most public toilets in the country don’t come with toilet paper (and you can’t flush tissue either). And two: the nature of customer service in shops.
Shopping in the Philippines, while great, has certain frustrations. For one thing, even the largest malls, such as MoA and Megamall, have a pitiful number of maps. You’d think buildings that are the size of small towns would provide shoppers with the courtesy of knowing where they are and where they want to go is actually located. That being said, the maps these gigantic malls do have are interactive and very useful, allowing you to search for specific stores and showing you the exact route. But I only found two in the entirety of MoA, and the average mall may contain no maps at all, leaving consumers to wander around aimlessly, though that’s probably what they want.
Then there is the customer service. I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to browse at my leisure and ask for assistance should I require it, but you’re often not given that option. Again, many places are just fine. I find the staff in Smart and Globe stores very helpful, and love Toy Kingdom (the staff in there have to deal so many excitable kids), but venture into a less frequented area of an SM department store and you’ll find a group of six or seven staff members with folded arms and glum expressions, standing around like a gang in an alleyway. Should they hear you approach, their heads will turn in unison to stare, expectant, daring you to enter into their territory. It’s at this point that I usually dart down a sidetrack, but if you’re unfortunate enough to actually need something in the section they occupy, prepare to be surrounded. Their faces will lighten, smiles breaking, while they greet you with ‘Hi, sir. Hi, Ma’am’, before barraging you with options and sizes and designs and prices. I, for one, can’t stand so much attention. Nor can I understand why there needs to be so many staff members in every section; you don’t need seven on suitcases, that’s just a fact.
It was a similar story in Art Bar, a lovely little art shop and cafe we visited in BGC the day before. The amount of staff on the first floor alone outnumbered customers 2:1. And that was when there were other customers other than our little group; at one point we had the floor to ourselves. The shop seemed vastly overstaffed: barring the man in the cafe, the one of the door, and the one who approached us, very few of them were doing any work. I counted seven people stood behind the till, chatting quietly, staring at us, and one or two were even on their phone. Two of the girls were so bored they started dancing, slowly twirling each other around in time to the coffee shop soundtrack. The shop only opened at the beginning of the year; we’ll have to see how long it lasts since it seems to be paying for a pointless amount of staff.
With such an abundance of staff in shops you’d think service would be pretty zippy, but that is often not the case. At one point I spent fifteen minutes queuing in Watsons to buy tissues. There was only one woman on the till, and as people in front of me were buying prescriptions, it’s understandable there’d be a wait. What wasn’t understandable was that another women, who I presumed to be the supervisor, stood behind the till, and instead of opening another like I expected, simply took the items of those standing in line and places them next to the register before wandering off again. As you can imagine, this caused a little confusion for the woman serving, as she couldn’t work out whose items were whose, and had to ask us customers. It was an exercise in futility.
And then there’s Comic Alley, a shop that I would be absolutely in love with were it not for the irritating staff. I don’t know why, but they are trained to be like leeches, sticking to you relentlessly, offering redundant comments such as ‘dalawang designs, sir’, while you’re literally holding the dalawang designs in your hand. (A game I like to play is to walk in a figure of eight around the store, not looking at anything, just to see how long someone will follow me around.) On this occasion, I was greeted by an energetic girl with a nice smile, who skipped alongside me and clapped loudly along with the anime soundtracks on the speakers. I could barely concentrate on what I was looking at. After a few minutes of clapping in my ear, she tagged in a colleague, but I was about done, and left the One-Punch Man backpack I’d had my eye on on the shelf. If the staff were less cloying, I’d spend so much money in Comic Alley.
I asked friends why the customer service is this way. Jen, who unlike me grew up in the Philippines, seems to find many shop assistants as annoying as I do. “They’re just overenthusiastic about making sales”, she believes. A friend I asked had a different interpretation: “I guess it’s our culture. We’ve always been hospitable, and maybe sometimes we overdo it”, she explained. “I also hate it when they hover around me”. I always thought part of being hospitable was making guests feel comfortable. No one I know in the Philippines, whether relative or friend, seems to find it any less than annoying. (If anyone who is in customer service in the Philippines knows why things are the way they are, please leave a comment, I’m genuinely interested to know).
In many respects, you’ll get a better customer experience in local markets and changi. While stall owners do tend to hover as well, you’re only dealing with one person, and I’ve found they are more helpful and less pushy than their counterparts in the middle-class stores and malls of Manila.
MoA attracts on average 200,000 people a day, and thought it is vast and spacious, entrances and exits can get congested. We braved the throngs of shoppers across the bridge and down to the bay area, where you can find more restaurants, a Ferris wheel and fun fair rides, and innumerable people sitting along the seawall, waiting for the famed sunsets of Manila bay. The day was overcast and humid; the possibility of a good sunset low, but still the wall was packed for as far as the eye can see in either direction with groups of young people happily chatting while staring out to sea, with no space for newcomers. We retreated back up to the bridge, slightly disappointed, the broken escalator adding a little frustration to the mix. We didn’t need to worry though, the next day we’d set our gaze on the true majesty of a sunset at Manila Bay.
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