The past week was primarily spent giving talks with my co-workers to schoolchildren about the importance of solid waste management and coastal resource management. Between holding the complete attention of a high school, getting frustrated at the incredible amount of side conversations that elementary schoolers partake in while I speak, getting mobbed for autographs and pictures, and stuffing myself full of sweet treats and Coke (Filipino hospitality is on strong display when you visit a school), I also made my most hilarious language blunder yet.
While trying to encourage participation from a quiet group who wasn't shouting out any ideas for why mangroves are important, I tried to say "Don't be shy!", which came out as "Wala mo'y ulaw!". There were some laughs, they got the point, and I moved on with my presentation. Only after, at lunch, was I told that what I had actually said was more along the lines of "You have no shame!" or "Aren't you ashamed of yourselves?". (I should have said Ayaw mo'y kaulaw!) I couldn't stop laughing at the thought that I'd admonished an entire high school for not participating more, especially because to be called shameless is one of the biggest insults you could say to a Filipino.
How did this happen? In the Philippines, even when speaking English, "shy" and "ashamed" mean the same thing. If a child is hiding his eyes from you and not answering your friendly greetings, his mother is likely to say "He is ashamed." Ashamed of what? you wonder. Does he have a third arm hiding behind your leg that he doesn't want me to see? But of course, she just means that the child is shy. Because of this, when I said wala (no, none) instead of ayaw (don't), it became a harsh admonishment instead of a friendly coaxing. They understood what I meant, though, and I picked up a handy new phrase as well,