I TELL strangers this “secret”: I’m 46.
Some people guard their real age like a state secret. Yet, when strangers offer me seats during rush hour at the MRT or usher me to the front of a long, twisting queue, I set the record straight because their generosity rests on the presumption that I’m a senior citizen.
Warring with dismay is embarrassment that I am offered entitlements I’ve not earned yet—and feel sorely tempted to try.
Vanity usually wins. Sometimes, though I’ve corrected the misimpression, a few continue to doubt, like the lady who swept her eagle vision like a searchlight over my graying tresses, daring the lies to come out and surrender like the pale roots of dyed hair.
Most, though, are really well-intentioned. Although it’s said that gallantry is endangered, many Filipinos have a soft spot for the elderly.
Although a friend makes it a principle to quarrel every jeepney dispatcher who calls her, “Mader (mother),” I’ve been called this and many others: “‘Nang (diminutive of ‘Manang (Older Sister)’),” Mom (local pronunciation of “Ma’am”), “‘Nay (“Nanay”),” even “’Iya (“Tiya (Aunt)”.
Dispatchers, not best known for tact, must reserve for a reason these names for us, citizens of the grey.
Yet, though we honor our elders as only Asians can, we have biases that cloud our views.
In our eagerness to help, we may ignore their preference to do things the way they want to. A young man in nursing whites gave up his seat for me at the MRT. It was rush hour and he had been cradling a heavy knapsack.
I did my usual pantomime of smiling and refusing the seat, but later gave in when he stood up and, also smiling, insisted I take the seat. I’m not sure which was the greater discomfort: arguing with his offer or sitting down and having a forest of crotches at eye level.
To be old is not to be disabled. Yet, some attendants routinely bellow or make elaborate signals. I think they’ve checked me in three boxes: old, deaf and slow.
Early one morning, I was enjoying an MRT escalator, perhaps the last slow thing in Manila, when I was overtaken by a little old lady. She had a head of pure white and wore sleek black walking shoes. She took the steps two at a time, dainty as a bird and as spry. Later, at the MRT, after I gave in to the insistently polite young man, I saw her eyes on me, reproaching.
Even families need to empathize more with their elders. To claim documents at the National Statistics Office (NSO), I joined a queue in a narrow, steep stairwell. When we finally could sit down, a lady asked her elderly neighbor how her knees were faring.
Overhearing them, an NSO officer said that they only allow senior citizens to go ahead of the line when they’re claiming their own documents. They noted a pattern of workers asking their parents and other elderly relatives to process applications.
The elderly may have a lot of time on their hands. Their place is definitely not in a queue in a cramped, hot place.
Dropping by at a teahouse in Binondo, we found Algier, the owner, in a funk. While he honors the 20-percent discount on dining granted to senior citizens, he experienced some abuse, if not by the elderly then by their family.
One couple, for instance, orders several dishes, avails of the senior citizens’ discount, nibbles and then leaves. Guess who’s finishing all that take-home food? Algier asks.
Grey is just a color. It looks like ash but isn’t.
Never—and I’m quoting a man who exterminates for a living termites and all pests—underestimate the living.
*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 10, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column