I was a cocky 32-year-old creative director in advertising when I did an awful, anti-culture offense against my 80-year-old stepfather. I quit making mano po (the physical and oral gesture of respect for elders) in protest at his involvement in a silly and petty scam that is too embarrassing to mention here.
My mother begged me to resume my mano po act, but I stubbornly refused. In 1967, my stepfather suffered a stroke and, on his deathbed, I instinctively took his weakened hand and lifted it gently to touch my forehead as I softly said, “Mano po, Papa.” He looked at me with his glazed eyes, and badly shaken, he sobbed like a child.
I was confused whether his tears were tears of sorrow or tears of joy. I felt compunction, but I was happy, too, because I recovered not only my manners but also my duty to respect old people. My stepfather died after a week.
By the ’80s and ’90s, my parents, grandparents, granduncles, grandaunts, former school principals, ex-town mayors and parish priests had all died. With them gone, I missed doing my mano po rituals. In ad agencies where I spent 40 years of creating advertising, the courtesies and decorum are centered on concerns about our ad effectiveness and clients’ brand sales. No mano po Filipino custom at all. It’s not chic.
When I retired from advertising in 2007, I became a homey househusband enjoying many bonding hours with my teenage son. To my surprise and delight, he sought me out everyday to make mano po the old-fashioned way. He did it the moment he arrived from school.
My wife taught my son to make mano po when he was a toddler, but he did it only when told. Now as a young man, he makes mano po everyday. I’m overwhelmed. I feel loved, the intimate and personal kind.
People of various cultures express the eloquence of courteousness by graceful gestures of their friendship and acceptance of a person’s presence. To strangers, these gestures instantly disarm and befriend.
I worked in Bangkok in the ’70s and I lovingly adopted one of the most winsome, courteous gestures in the world, the Thai Wai. With both hands clasped in prayer form I raise them gently, the Buddhist way, in front of my chin, head lightly bowed, eyes glancing at the person in front of me as I say with a smile, “Sawadee Kap.” If one does it the Thai way with as much grace and elegance, the admiration is profuse. It acknowledges good breeding.
The profound Japanese body bow is reciprocal. One bows, too, the Japanese way, when bowed to. Literally, it is a humble act, an exchange of humility between two individuals. It strikes at the root of Japanese culture, which is discipline. The humble bow symbolizes to the Japanese submission to the discipline of their home life, their social obligations, their arts, their cuisine, and their coping mechanism for earthquakes and tsunamis, their samurai and bushido warfare ethos.
The olfactory appeal of nose-to-nose contact by Eskimos generates sexuality. The male Eskimo is famous for his generosity in lending his wife as bedmate to a male friend (or a stranger) spending the night as house guest in the igloo. Whew!
Old people in the Chinese culture are highly revered and considered as immortals. Confucian ethics placed great value on the wisdom that elders transferred to the succeeding generations. The Chinese believe and practice ancestor worship as the dimension of their faith in the afterlife.
The lingua franca of social courteousness in western urban societies is the good old, all-purpose handshake. Tight or loose, it’s done by holding hands and pumping them to signify exchange of energy and acceptance.
The most ominous of all courtesy acts is the Sicilian Mafia hug. It’s double-edged. It can mean you have been initiated to the brotherhood, or about to be thrown into the Hudson River with a block of stone tied to the legs.
Honor thy parents
When it comes to courtesies, nothing beats our mano po. Perhaps because its origin is written in Moses’ stone tablet: Honor thy mother and thy father. Our mano po ritual was institutionalized by the Catholic Church with the tolling of tower bells at dusk. It’s the call to pray the Angelus, a ritual that pays tribute to the Blessed Virgin for her act of obedience and humility in accepting the task to be the Mother of Jesus, the God-incarnate.
The praying of the Angelus is communal and cultural. The whole family prays and the climax is the making of mano po by the young to their elders. Mano po is central to our culture of family solidarity and love.
Mano po is one of our cultural traits that need not be made irrelevant by the depersonalizing effect of modern communication technology, which promotes brevity, speed and convenience as the be-all and end-all of the consumerist lifestyle, the way cellphone texting promotes bad grammar and lacerated spelling. Example: “Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me,” is the idiotic title of a movie being shown today.
It’s a shame. Why are we going back to infantile talk?