Soon after I arrived in the Philippines I was comparing notes with another newly arrived European at the UN agency where I worked. We agreed that our local colleagues’ encyclopedic knowledge of the names and details of the rest of the workforce was something we had not encountered elsewhere. Colleagues we had never met seemed to know who we were and which departments we worked in. The databanks that the Filipino staff carried around in their heads were particularly impressive because, not only was the office itself quite large (over 350 employees), it was complemented by a large floating population of consultants who came and went. None of this seemed to faze the sponge-like memory of our Filipino colleagues, who had no apparent difficulty in recalling the name of a visiting consultant whose only previous visit to Manila had been four years previously.
Over the years, I have become a rather desensitized to this remarkable facility and have come to take it for granted, but every once I am reminded of it. For example, we have a coffee stand at my current place of work and girls who work it not only have to remember the names of hundreds of customers but their favourite tipples too. Yet they manage this with no difficulty at all, despite the fact that the names of my Central European colleagues must be totally alien to them.
These days I have decided to spare the rest of you my rather erratic road skills and have employed a driver, who is another walking hard disk. Not only is his knowledge of Manila’s complex road layout note perfect, he can remember our lives better than frayed and I can, pointing out restaurants where we dined three years ago in a long forgotten dinner.
There seem to me to be at least three explanations of Filipinos’ elephantine memories.
First, you remember what is important to you and one of the truisms about Filipinos is that they are very people-oriented.
Second, all the examples I have quoted were all of people remembering details of people higher up the social scale than themselves. Given the quasi-feudal nature of much of Philippine society, perhaps it is not surprising to find Filipinos making it their business to store up information about their “betters”.
Third, perhaps it has something to do with the size of families here? If six siblings each have six kids themselves, each one of those will have 35 first cousins. That’s not a bad start to the databank. (By contrast, my family is incredibly small, even by European standards, and I don’t have a single first cousin.)
Still, those features (people-orientation, quasi-feudalism, and large families) are characteristic of many societies in the developing world and I’ve not met quite such an almost scary level of recall in other countries. So let’s hear it for the Philippine memory—one of the best in the world!