Readers' Submissions

Time: A Relative Concept



I am a Brit living in Cyprus. I have a number of Filipina friends all of whom, I am relieved to say after a few fraught moments, are platonic. They have taught me many things.

I have read a number of books and watched several television documentaries about the concept of time, seen various diagrammatic explanations about ‘time’ as a bouncing ball on a stretchy elastic mattress, watched illustrations of spaceships outdistancing time, and so on. I used to think I was reasonably intelligent but I could never quite get the grasp of all this.

It took me a relationship with a Filipina girl to really understand that time is a relative concept and quite distinct from the normal and settled dimensions in which most of us live.

I was born and raised in Western Europe where to most people time is an absolute, or at least a very near approximation. For example, an arrangement to meet at 7.30 pm usually means that within 10 or 15 minutes of the arranged time you will actually meet at the agreed place. More loosely, if one agrees to meet on a certain evening between (say) 8 pm and 10 pm at a venue, there is a very good chance that this will happen.

In any form of relationship with a Filipina (and I dare to say by extraction, any SE Asian girl) you follow these precedents or ‘rules’ at your peril.

The Filipina clock has no hands or numbers. The Filipina calendar is a blank sheet. The ‘ball’ is bouncing crazily on a super-stretchy mattress in no discernible pattern.

Some examples:

1. I had a Filipina girlfriend living with me. She wanted to ask some girlfriends for dinner. No problem. I went with her to the supermarket, where we (I) bought enough chicken feet, fatty pork, chillies, rice, etc., to feed most of the world’s developing countries in one go. Supplemented by fruit juices, cola, brandy, scotch and vodka. She prepared, chopped, cooked and cooked. (I had to go out and buy a bigger pot.) The appointed time came and went … and went. About a couple of hours after the appointed ‘time’ (but remember it’s relative) she called her friends. They had decided to go 10-pin bowling instead. (I discovered that bowling is a major Filipina pastime, especially when enlivened by – to my mind – seriously stupid amounts of money in bets. No, they didn’t come for dinner that night, or the next or the next (but I ate fairly well) but turned up a week or so later – late at night – and were disappointed to find that I (we) were in bed and there was no food on offer.

2. My Filipina friend had to catch a bus to work, which meant that she had to get up at 6.30 am. Sometimes her employer would collect her – but she still had to get up at 6.45 am. I, on the other hand, had no pressing reason to get up until the bars opened. Guess who had to set his (gosh, I’ve given it away!) alarm clock for 6.15 am to make the coffee and get little Buddha out of bed so she didn’t lose her job? And practically kick her out the door for her bus / ride?

3. Just two days ago I had an unnerving experience. I bumped into a Filipina who had stayed with me for two months on an entirely platonic basis (her boyfriend, a friend of mine, died suddenly and she was left in all kinds of excrement). She was at traffic lights on her scooter. She is tiny, so is her scooter, and she reminded me of a Lego figure. She called to me as I walked past and when I spoke to her she suddenly broke down in tears. I asked her what the problem was, and she sniffed and told me she would call later that evening. She didn’t, so I called her. She said she’d call the next day at 7 pm. She didn’t. Maybe she will call in the next day, week, month … who knows?

So time is a relative concept – but now we come to the serious bit, and the bit I would welcome feedback on. In the west, relationships (it seems to me) go relatively quickly. Meet, fall in love, get engaged, marry etc. But I have seen / noticed / experienced a much longer time-scale in relationships with or between SE Asians. Again, some examples.

1. My uncle met and fell in love with a Chinese Malay lady. He was a shy, bachelor 50 something, university lecturer, she was an MA student 25 years his junior from a wealthy family. He ‘courted’ her for a few years, met her family in KL many times, and they have been very happily married for 20+ years. They live in the UK where she has a very good job. It took a number of years between them meeting and marrying.

2. I have a (male) Thai friend here. He is married back in Thailand with daughters aged 10 and 8. He has a four year visa / work permit here, which means that he will not see his wife and girls until they are 14 and 12. He accepts this.

3. My Thai friend above: after leaving home in the north he worked in Phuket for 2 years. He had a girlfriend there. When we go out to local places, he wants two sets of photos, one for his wife and daughters, the other for his girlfriend. I spoke to my Thai ‘girlfriend’ about this and told her that to me, if you were married, you didn’t take on anyone else. Her response was that if you knew you were to be away for a long time a girlfriend was OK.

4. My own Thai ‘girlfriend’. I have not seen her for about 10 months. Hopefully, she will come here for a holiday in a couple of months' time. We talk by phone most days. When I first met her, and told her I liked her, her response was ‘can you wait for me for three years?’ because she had a work permit / visa for that time. I was taken aback (and knew I couldn’t) but that was the mentality.

I have been struck many times by the SE Asian attitude to time – and especially by the long (by western standards) periods involved before people can marry or be together. I must confess that with my (western) notions of pretty much instant gratification it seems hard to accept.

There we go, a frivolous and a serious submission in one.

As for me, and as for my Thai girlfriend – only time will tell …

Stickman's thoughts:

When it comes to being late, I play by the 15 minute rule. 15 minutes late and I am gone. No excuses!