Conversations with Diplomats

During the ASEAN Regional Forum in April 2016, I had the chance to meet and have conversations with diplomats from Russia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, and the United States. I’d like to share with you some (of the many) fascinating things I learned:

1. I asked the diplomat from Russia (who had been staying in the Philippines for two years) what are the things he found unusual about the Philippines when he first visited our country. He said, “First, I didn’t understand why many Filipino families have many children, even those who are so poor. Now, I understand it somehow… Also, I find the people here so relaxed. They don’t seem to hurry when they walk. For example, at the pedestrian lane, Filipinos can see the number 5, 4, 3 yet they still walk slowly and still chatter with others as they cross the street.”  I smiled at his observation because it was obviously right in most cases.

2. At one meal time during the event, I was seated beside a Lt. Colonel from Vietnam, whose lean frame and medium build belied his position. When I told him my observation that most Vietnamese I have met are slim, he said that it’s because they are a hard working people. He added too, with a laugh, that in many cases, it’s because they like to drink so they don’t get hungry. He was kidding of course, but some delegates seated around the table nodded amusedly. I jokingly thanked him for giving me an idea on how to maintain weight.

3. I learned from conversing with the Malaysian delegates that there are so many words in Tagalog, which are similar to their native terms. These are sarap, silaw, babi, kanan (right), bansa (nation), etc. We were amazed about that and we thought of the possibility that the languages in Asia might have come from a main language that branched out into different varieties. (As a former English teacher, I thought of the dialect vs. language issue, of how mutual intelligibility distinguishes between the two, although I didn’t really mention it that time.)

4. During the networking/cocktails, I (and another batch mate) had the privilege to be in the company of veteran diplomats from the United States and Japan. We had a good one and a half hour talk. We discussed food, the Foreign Service Officer exam (I learned that it varies from country to country with Japan having only three levels, taking less than a year, and the FSOE passers grouped into two: generalists and specialists, and that they are sent abroad for two years to learn a foreign language), their families, their relationship with their children, their experiences abroad. The diplomat from the US was multilingual owing to his studies abroad as well as his foreign posts. He said he loves beer too and was wondering why beer isn’t so popular in the Philippines. He asked for the translation into Tagalog of some English expressions, which my batch mate and I readily translated.

5. A Japanese diplomat, who has a certificate course in Phil. History from the University of the Philippines in Diliman and who openly expresses his love for the Philippines said that he feels partly guilty for the heavy traffic in Manila. I asked him why. He said it’s because a lot of cars he sees are made in Japan. He made that remark as we were riding a bus, “cruising” along the busy congested street, and weaving in and out traffic with the police convoy leading the way to Malacanang. A naturally funny man, he shouted “Weee!” and raised his hands every time the driver deftly maneuvered the bus past the cars and motorcycles.  We were both seated at the front seat of the bus, so it was indeed an unforgettable ride! 

P.S. This was originally a Facebook post written a week after the event. A few details were added for clarity. I recall that I intentionally did not include the diplomats’ names then for confidentiality, but now, I couldn’t remember the names anymore. I feel that I should have kept a personal record.

P.P.S. In the featured photo taken in August 2016, I was with my colleagues (L-R: Alfer, Karen, Chini, Mariel and me) in the Sociocultural Division of the Office of ASEAN Affairs of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

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