Adel Gabot (agabot) wrote,
Adel Gabot


Much as most words have English equivalents in my native language of Tagalog (my government prefers to call it by the more nationalistic name Pilipino - which most folk have a problem with since in truth other dialects are more widely spoken here), there are many words that still don't have directly proportional equivalents - one of them being this one: nagkahiyaan. That's because it's not just a word. It's a concept, a philosophy, a national neurosis.

I'll try. Here goes:

The closest I can think of is embarrassment, although that word's woefully inadequate. I can give it better justice with a long-winded phrase than just a word: nagkahiyaan means because of pride, or fear of looking like they are taking advantage, or fear of looking greedy, of meddling, being inconsiderate or looking needy, even when it would perfectly all right to do the obviously proper, fair and correct thing, people do nothing.

Complicated, right?

I can get my non-Filipino readers to better understand the concept with a specific example.

At a sit-down dinner, there is a plate of spring rolls. They are good, but there are barely enough to go around. Everyone eats a piece. Then only one is left, but no one wants to take it, even if it's obvious everyone does. So the last piece is left there while everyone pretends not to notice it. Everyone talks around it, talking about everything else except that one single spring roll. So it stays there, ignored, unmentioned, in silence, for hours until everyone goes home. Later, it will eventually get thrown out.


It's a cultural thing, a Filipino quirk, and while it might be present in other cultures, I don't think it goes to the same extremes as it does in my country.

I mention this because of an incident on the train the other morning. The main thoroughfare was especially clogged, so more people were using the MRT that day - with the result that it was next to impossible to get on. Five, six trains go by and you couldn't even squeeze in edgewise.

When I finally did, it was Sardine City. As the doors opened you could feel the miasma, the hot human humidity hit you like a wall. No kid. Made going into that pile of sweaty humanity even more unappealing.

Inside it was worse. Hot as hell. Standing in the aisle cheek to jowl with Manila's not-so-finest, I was thankful I was standing under an airconditioning duct. It was so packed I didn't have to hold onto a handrail, the crush of people would keep me up even if I fainted.

So when someone who had a seat stood up to get off at an early stop, I was expecting a rush of folk to try for the vacancy. Lo and behold one did.

When no one sat down right away, everyone else hesitated, and the long awkward pause became longer, and longer, and longer. No one took it even after the train had pulled away from the station. So there we were, a solid, uncomfortable mass of people racing along in a train bursting at the seams with humanity - with a one-seat gap in the middle.

One of the people near it could have just plopped down on the seat, and eased pressure on the ones left standing. Yet everyone pretended it wasn't there, looking away nonchalantly, looking like idiots. So why didn't anyone take the seat?


Jeez. I think I would've taken the seat, but I was too far. Or so goes my excuse. It's a common enough phenomenon. Common enough that this sort of neurosis extends to all things Filipino.

Like calling out the jerk who sneaks into a long queue at the moviehouse. Telling off someone who insists on smoking in a No Smoking zone. Yelling at that dork making his own counterflow lane in traffic. Telling some politician to get off his high horse and just do his job instead of constantly picking on what the other guys are doing. Telling off some cops buying pirated DVDs. Getting that last spring roll. Or taking that empty seat.

We all know what to do, what we should do. But no one's brave enough to take the obvious first move. So no one else does. Aye, there's the rub.


Ridiculous habit. And we're going to hell because of it. To use a related term that's simpler to translate, that habit is truly nakakahiya. That's the Tagalog word that means "embarrassing".

At the next party I'll be that guy who'll grab that last lumpia and munch on it with gusto.
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