Having taught English in Asian countries for more than a little while now, I've become quite used to talking to total strangers about their lives, their hopes, their hobbies, their jobs -- but I have to admit that today left me a little stumped.
Usually non-native speakers of English are, understandably, shy and nervous talking about themselves in a foreign tongue, so talking about their jobs is a natural conversation starter.
Today, while eating spicy-chicken and rice at Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food staple, two young women asked if they could sit in the seats next to me. (The place was crowded as hell, as Jollibee usually is.) I said sure.
They asked me what I was doing in Baguio. I told them. I asked what they were doing in Baguio.
One was a Baquio resident, studying computers at a local college.
"What about you?" I asked the other one. Turns out she was up visiting from Manila. "Are you a student, too?" (Both looked about twenty-one, tops, so I thought it was a pretty safe question.)
"No," she said. "I'm a model."
"Oh," I said, never having got that answer in nine-plus years of the classroom. (Granted, this wasn't the classroom, and Filipinos are, essentially, native English speakers, so this wasn't a typical ESL experience, but still.)
"What kind of model are you?" I asked. (The question sounded strange to my ears, but I didn't quite know how else to word it.)
"I'm an underwear model," she said.
At first I thought she was putting me on, but no, I soon realized she was serious.
She modelled in Manila, and she modelled underwear. Had been doing so for two years, now.
I found myself stuck. Where do you take the conversation from there?
I asked if it paid well; she said it did. I asked if she wanted to do other kinds of modelling; she said she had. A shampoo commercial.
And that was that.
Usually, simply because it's such an easy topic to discuss, I probe people about their jobs, because it tells me a lot about who they are.
But asking endless questions to an underwear model felt very, very odd. (And I suddenly felt very, very old. And slightly sleazy.) She didn't seem embarrassed, or arrogant; she was matter-of-fact. Not conceited. Almost shy, the way that a lot of Filipinos can seem when speaking to a foreigner.
Even so, what more could I ask? Every avenue open to me seemed to lead either to embarrassment or innocuous questions that would inevitably sound strange, no matter the intent.
So, other small talk was made. About computer schools, and trips to Italy, and boyfriends who are nurses in London.
I said good-bye, and left them to their rice.
I kept thinking: What an odd job for such a young person, especially in a Catholic, conservative country like the Philippines.
How did she get into it? What did her parents think? Is the underwear-industry in the Philippines sleazy? Is it an entry into other, more dangerous areas? How do you train to be an underwear model? Is underwear all you model? Can you make a living just by posing in your gotchies?
Alas, some questions are better left unasked.
(Especially in a family restaurant.)