Back home in Manila, and feeling out of place

Back home in Manila, and feeling out of place
In Manila, an escalator - as long as it's moving - is meant to be stood on. People don't clear the right-hand side to give way to those in a hurry. Anyone trying to move past other people on a moving escalator is considered boorish.

MANILA - A month in Manila, and I am dazed and confused - even terrified.

For seven years, Singapore was my home, and it was very good to me. It kept me safe and comfortable, and I knew I could always count on it.

I could always jog around Yishun park in the wee hours of the morning, certain no one with a gun in his hand would jump out of a bush to relieve me of my iPhone and running shoes.

I knew that when I turned on the tap, water would flow from it - sweet water I could drink. I never had to worry about an hours-long blackout in the middle of a hot, humid, mosquito-infested night.

Buses mostly arrived on the dot, and the train schedules were so predictable I could arrange to meet someone right inside the train. All I had to do was provide the time I'd get on the train at my station and which carriage I would be in - near the front, somewhere in the middle, or further back.

Then, last month, The Straits Times sent me to Manila to work from there as its Philippines Correspondent.

I grew up in Manila. I spent more than three-fourths of my 40-odd years there.

In the past seven years, however, Manila had been more or less like Las Vegas or Disneyland: I returned to break the monotony, enjoy the place, even when I suspected I was being had.

I could stand all the inanities and profanities Manila could throw at me because I knew that, in the end, I would be heading back to Singapore.

In Singapore, I always enjoyed the cab ride from the airport to my humble flat in Yishun after each long vacation in Manila.

In that precious hour, I'd peer out the window and take in everything I missed about Singapore: the clean streets; the wide, smooth roads; the Lego-like, perfectly stacked HDB blocks; the magnificent skyline; and the uncle behind the wheel talking about everything from the weather to politics and foreign affairs.

I left Singapore on Feb 18, and I don't think I'll be back any time soon. The uncertainty has been particularly jarring.

I know Manila, and I speak its language, but having been away for seven years has frankly made it somewhat a stranger, and I think it finds me odd as well.

I sometimes speak in a funny way, for instance.

Here in Manila, words like "take-away", "having here", "lift" and "going back", not to mention "tapao" and calling any senior citizen "uncle" and white guy "ang moh", are taken differently.

Here, it's "take-out", "dine-in", "elevator" and "heading home".

"Uncle" is reserved for your father's brother. "Ang moh"? That's just an alien word.

The other day I told a cashier at a KFC outlet that I'd "take away" my two-piece chicken with rice, and she insisted I meant "take out".

I said "take away" three more times before I gave up when she started looking at me like I didn't know how to speak English properly.

"Take out," I conceded.

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