“What will you do after this?” Ariel asked me, dividing his attention between the conversation, the barbeque chicken, and the shockingly pretty girl at the table across from us.
I knew it was late. Ariel and I had left our boarding house around dusk to play basketball at the Mormon Church (Ariel had been converted by missionaries a few years back, and anyway, the Mormons had the best court in Tacloban City. We’d played four games, and even though I towered over most of the players–I was frequently asked if I could dunk–I’d been humbled by Filipino basketball prowess. But it had been good fun).
After basketball, we’d wandered to a barbeque joint downtown. The girl had wandered in moments after us and Ariel had become transfixed. She was tall for a Filipina, smartly dressed, had a beauty mark where her chin met her neck. I winced at the obviousness of Ariel’s stare. Surely the girl saw it, or at least felt it. But she said nothing.
Yes, it was late now. What would we do? I assumed we would go home and sleep. But how late?
“Ano nga oras?” What time is it?
Ariel tore his glance from the girl and gazed at his watch. A gold watch, or so it looked to me–not that I knew the difference between paint and plate. My boardinghouse-mate smiled, weakly, as if to acknowledge the irony. “Actually, I do not know the exact time.”
I looked at his watch. It showed five-thirty. It was dark and it was late and it was nowhere near five-thirty.
I had no watch. I’d brought one with me to the Philippines but as soon as I got a cellphone, the watch had disappeared into the drawer. But now I had no cellphone either. I’d lost it earlier while riding a pedicab. It had slipped out of my pocket and when I realized and ran back to find the pedicab driver, the phone was long gone.
“Ambot,” the driver had said, shrugging. “Who knows?”
I had trudged back home, planning buy a new phone the next day. I’d read for a while, and then, some time later, found myself instinctively reaching to check the time. No cellphone. I considered digging the wristwatch out of my drawer. But then I stopped. When was the last time I’d got out of bed without checking the time? Or eaten lunch without knowing whether it was lunchtime? I resolved to drift through the rest of my day with no clock, no crutch.
“Women these days,” said Ariel. Now that the barbeque was done he stared at the girl full-time. “They are too proud, and they think they are the equals of men.”
“Can you…can you give me an example of how women think they are equal to men? And, uh, shall we just go home? I’m tired.”
Ariel rose from his seat. “They think they should be able to earn as much, or more money, than a man.”
I thought about all the unemployed Filipino men I knew, their wives working at department stores or fastfood joints or schools. It seemed women were bearing everything to support the family. But to Ariel it seemed that for these men who had few options for work, it was emasculating, unfair, wrong.
“Even if she did like me,” Ariel said, waving at the table behind us, “nothing would happen. Because I want to marry someone from my church.”
“Maybe if you two got to know each other you could encourage her to try Mormonism.” My hand went into my pocket. Oh, right. No cellphone.
Ariel said nothing as we got into his car. He started the engine and I watched the dashboard clock flicker on. One-thirty. It was nowhere near one-thirty.
The experts call it Polychronic Time. The Filipinos call it Filipino Time. Whatever the name, it was one of the first cultural nuances we volunteers noticed, and for some of us, one of the hardest to assimilate. Heck, I knew I’d never assimilate. I was enough to try to begin to understand all those details that seemed so foreign–the fact that clock-hands in classrooms didn’t move, that internet cafe computers lived in time zones halfway across the world, that Ariel’s gold watch was nothing more than jewelry.
That day did little to stifle my nagging internal chronometer: when I bought a replacement cellphone the next afternoon, the first thing I did was set the date and time. It wasn’t fun, but that day did allow me to feel the freefall absence of measured time, to glide through time set only by the sun and your friends and what you happen to be doing, right then, right there, that moment.