Guide to an ancient pleasure to refuse visitors

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I come from a culture that people like. There, I said it. Instead of confronting awkward social situations, Filipinos tend to avoid them at all costs.

Growing up, I was taught to practice “harmonious interpersonal relations” – the Filipino way of prioritizing unity and group harmony above all else. Part of this is ‘pakikisama’ or being able to get along with others which avoids everything outwards signs of conflict.

The key word here, of course, being “outward”.

So, even if everything seems to be going well, deep down inside you, all the “Yes, no problem!” will gnaw at you until you are completely exhausted. Well, that’s exactly what happened to me. I kept saying yes until one day I was a huge mess. Later, when I sought help from several mental health professionals, their advice all shared the same theme: boundaries.

That was almost five years ago. Since then, I’ve gotten much better at setting boundaries and developed a muscle for saying no.

In other words, with the exception of a scenario.

When friends and family from the Philippines came to visit me, I almost always returned to my older-pleasing self.

Filipinos are a very hospitable people. When a guest comes to your home, they are expected to offer the best bed and the best food. We are socialized to make the customer feel special. If we don’t, it’s “nakakahiya” or disgrace to your guest and others.

When a guest comes to your home, they are expected to offer the best bed and the best food.

I remember visiting the mountainous province when I was in high school, as a volunteer teaching English in a remote community. In return, my classmate and I were offered a place to sleep at a local woodcarver. We also received several carved animals made by our host. It was a touching gesture, but I knew those wooden carvings were more than his income for a day.

And now, as an adult living in Australia, despite being thousands of miles from home, all of those internalized expectations came up every time a guest from the Philippines came to visit.

Recently, I offered to host a friend passing through my house. But as the day approached, I was surprised to learn that my guest had invited three other people to stay in my tiny one-bedroom apartment.

I had neither the space nor the facilities for such a large group. Working from home, my apartment is also my workplace. I was clearly uncomfortable with the situation. I could feel the stress in my body growing, but I had trouble speaking. I was afraid of disappointing my friend and her companions. What kind of friend would I be? What would everyone say? what would they do think? I could hear the “hiya” (shame) rooted in my head, loud and clear.

Only this time, a small voice answered. “But ashamed of what?” he asked. Is it a shame not to be a good host? Shame for not doing what is expected in Filipino society?

I now know that denying my own wishes and needs can lead to resentment and anxiety.

Pakikisama means giving in to the wishes of the majority, even if it sometimes contradicts one’s own wishes. But five years of counseling and therapy have taught me this: too much pakikisama can kill your spark. I now know that denying my own wishes and needs can lead to resentment and anxiety. I also realized that I am not responsible for how people react to my actions. I can only be responsible for my own actions.

Although it’s still a struggle, I’m happy to report that I stuck to my limits. I had said no and clearly verbalized that I could only accommodate one guest. Of course, it was embarrassing to break the news. But I had done nothing wrong, I only supported what was important to me.

To other Filipinos and migrants who find it difficult to refuse guests from your home country, you can say no. Often your visitors will not fully understand your current living situation. They may not be aware of your physical, mental, emotional and financial ability to host, or even how much time you have. But know that those who truly love and care about you will understand.

Boundaries may come naturally in some cultures, but to delight people in recovery, it’s a muscle that I continue to strengthen and develop.

Maida Pineda is a freelance food and travel writer and author of two books. Follow her on IG at @themaidastouch or Facebook at Maida’s Touch.

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