There are 3 different words for rice in Tagalog: kanin (cooked rice), bigas (unhusked, uncooked rice), palay (rice plant). Furthermore “ulam” literally means “food eaten with rice” and is a general term for everything else. And the word “kain” means “to eat.”
American food culture revolves around bread as the major source of carbohydrates, while Filipinos eat rice with every meal (so much so that a meal without rice is not a meal and a Filipino will likely want to eat again a short while later). Which is better? Bread and rice offer similar nutritional content, especially when eating white bread or white rice, which generally lack the vitamins and minerals found in their brown counterparts. Rice deals a higher dose of carbohydrates per serving, which may or may not be advantageous depending on your specific dietary requirements. Wheat bread and brown rice differ more significantly in the amount of micronutrients: brown rice has more magnesium, used to make lipids and DNA, regulate hormone balance and support cell communication; wheat bread has more iron needed to transport and store oxygen; both contain similar amounts of fiber.1 What about gluten?! Read this article and decide for yourself whether choosing rice is preferable merely because it is gluten-free: http://toitangata.co.nz/uploads/files/Gluten-free_Julia_Buhs-Catterall.pdf
Be it production or texture, America is more of a bread culture, but the Philippines is very much a rice culture. In an attempt to more fully understand rice culture, I recently visited a rice field and learned to harvest rice alongside Filipinos.
While living in the Philippines has not completely cured me of my tendency toward bread, I do eat rice (at least a little) for lunch and dinner everyday. To explore another carbohydrate option, I have found corn to be available, cheaper, and more nutritious than rice. So why does rice account for 85% of Filipino cereal consumption, while corn is a meager 10%?* Corn is generally considered ‘poor man’s food,’ while rice is historically associated with the elite. In pre-colonial times2:
Rice was a prestige food, produced in limited quantities by labor-intensive means.
Rice was given as tribute to chiefs and overlords.
Rice was consumed in large quantities in postharvest feasting.
Rice was an article of trade.
*Note that the remaining 5% is bread and pastas. Some traditions may be engrained in culture, however in urbanized areas, like Metro Manila, a much higher proportion of bread, noodles, biscuits…etc. are consumed regularly.2
Here in the Philippines, the bathroom is referred to as the Comfort Room or the CR for short. Using the CR in the Philippines is a very different experience than in the States. Most toilets do not have a seat and are merely a toilet bowl on the floor. The question of how to flush this lone standing bowl was a confusing puzzle the first time I used it. The solution is to pour a cupful of water (much more for number 2) into the bowl. Gravity then pulls the extra water down into the pipe system – flushed! I am fortunate enough to have the comfort of a toilet seat and a handle for flushing within my Filipino home. However, the CR experience is still very different from America for a second reason: there is no toilet paper1 in the Philippines! For many Americans this may be an impossibility. However, consider that the average American uses approximately 57 sheets of toilet paper per day, amounting to 3.2 million tons of toilet paper consumed in America annually and 54 million trees cut down each year to support such practice.2 On the other hand, the average Filipino produces zero paper waste whatsoever.3 A Filipino accomplishes this magical task with the help of a tabo, a water dipping cup. After you finish using the toilet, you fill the tabo with water and pour it to clean yourself. If you are squatting over a toilet bowl, you might consider putting one hand on the back wall to brace yourself as you pour water down your front or back. For particularly messy dumps, you then use your hand to clean yourself, along with more water. Then, consider shaking yourself dry a little if need be. Following the gravity-assisted flush, proceed to wash your hands and hope that there is soap (Maybe keep track of your wiping hand and your eating hand haha).
While it may seem like a big adjustment to first break the habit of tossing toilet paper immediately into the toilet and then secondly to eliminate the use of toilet paper at all, be reassured that it is possible and this country has been operating toilet paper-free for generations. If you are feeling adventurous give this method a try the next time you use the bathroom at home.
Toilet paper can be purchased from local drug stores, but it is not typically used. If you want the comforts of Charmin Ultra Soft when you finish your business you should plan to bring your own and also carry it out with you when you finish. Filipino piping systems cannot handle tissue and easily become clogged. The occasional fancy CR equipped with toilet paper will also feature a small trashcan to dispose of this waste.
Diapers are a common waste problem here. They can be found floating in the ocean and washed up along beaches. Luckily, the beaches of Romblon are mostly free of diaper pollution, however shorelines that face the China Sea receive a much greater abundance of beach litter.
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17