What Happens on Thursdays
Every Thursday morning, I go downstairs after waking up from school to an empty house other than my sleeping brother in the bedroom upstairs. That’s because every Thursday morning my two maids go to the Agora Market for our fresh grocery needs. All I knew about the market was that it had fresh meat and poultry, fruits and vegetables, and other miscellaneous things. I have been to many different outdoor markets, indoor supermarkets in malls, and places called tianges like Divisoria and Greenhills that sell different things like clothes and accessories in little cramped lined up stalls. The main difference with the Agora Market to all these other places was that it was an indoor semi-underground fresh market.
I told our maids on Wednesday night that I would be joining them the next Thursday for their weekly trip, and the two of them got instantly excited to show me around. The next morning, I woke up early and got ready for the trip.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the stairway to the market downstairs was the pungent smell of the place. It hit me all at once, and it took me a while to steady myself and try not to gag at the stench. It was really a bad combination of all the strong smells inside; the raw meat, fish, poultry, coconut milk, vegetables, cheese, fruits, flowers, and so much more. They were all just mixed together and very over powering, and the stench only got stronger the deeper inside you went. When you first enter the market, aside from the strong smell, you notice how dim the lights are, and how squishy the floor is from the cases of ice, water, and produce that are carried in and out of the market every day. All around you are the sounds of people laughing, shouting, and talking, accompanied by the regular beat of the meat cleaver and the splashes of fish guts being thrown into buckets.
Being there and taking it all in at once made me feel quite uncomfortable. I was unused to the stench and the messy environment, and though I’ve been to many other markets, none had been as grimy, for lack of a better word, as the Agora Market. I had to keep my hand over my nose at some points where the smell was particularly stronger, and I was careful to keep my shoes from stepping into especially muddy or wet places, and that my shoulders didn’t touch anything.
Because of my Western looks (being half European) I have always been used to people looking my way when I go places in the Philippines. In the Agora market, I noticed this same thing happening, except it seemed to be more widespread. This was probably due to the fact that there are hardly, if there are at all, any foreigners who frequent the market. As I walked through the stalls, I could feel eyes on me wondering what I was doing there. I walked along the part of the market where they sold things other than food products, and saw a full length mirror that I had hoped to find cheap. I asked how much it was in Tagalog, and the store keeper immediately exclaimed in surprise, “Ay!! MARUNONG magtagalog!!” (Oh! She can speak Tagalog!!) and started calling her co-workers to share the surprising news. They all started laughing in awe, and turned to my companion, LynLyn, to ask her about her alaga (person under the care of). They started making jokes seemed to refer to some American movie of some sort, while teasing each other about their English proficiency, and asked me what I was there for and why I had a pen and paper in my hand. I replied saying I just wanted to see the place and buy some things. After I paid for my mirror and turned to leave, one of the women shouted at me, “Bye Ganda!!” (Bye Beautiful) and smiled happily as I waved back at her.
After this, LynLyn and I walked back towards the middle of the market where the fresh meat was being sold, and we passed by some people who told her that our companion is looking for us. I asked LynLyn how they knew it was her that Minerva, our house cook, was looking for. She said that these people were all their sukis (patron seller) and knew that the two of them were together every Thursday. We soon met up with Minerva and went on to buy the fresh meat, chicken, and fish. The two of them walked very briskly since I had apparently slowed down their usual timing in the market, and they efficiently went from one stall to the next, giving their orders and then going back to get them. When we reached the meat section, LynLyn introduced me to their suki who sold meat, and they all started asking me questions about my age and schooling. Someone then started to kid Minerva by calling her yaya which means nanny, and many of them followed suit, saying things like “here, yaya, your meat is ready” as they gave her her order. It was all very playful and light teasing, but this showed me that it was apparent to them that I seemed of upper-class, where kids even at my age would call our maids nanny(I don’t though). LynLyn and Minerva were then prasied by their sukis that their alaga actually accompanied them along on this trip, since most wouldn’t. They all seemed happy to meet me, and it was very interesting seeing how they took and gave the people’s orders.
As we walked out of the market, several people waived at goodbye at me smiling and laughing, even though I hadn’t met them. This was something I was used to, however, since many Filipinos do this to me in different places, because they think I am a tourist, and, as most know, Filipinos are very friendly to foreigners.
Back in the car on the way home, LynLyn and Minerva started telling me a few things about the market that I hadn’t been able to observe. They told me that they referred to each suki based on what they were selling, and even called them by that name. For example, for the woman selling beef, they referred to as Ate Beef , or Kuya Fish for the man selling the fish, Ate meaning elder sister and Kuya meaning elder brother. This was the same for Ate Vegetables and Ate Chicken, and all the other different sellers. It was apparently a very normal thing, and even as they ordered, they would call each suki by this name.
All in all, the whole experience had been very interesting for me. I had gone through an hour and half observing this market that our maids go to every Thursday, and saw and, well, smelled what the Agora Market was like. I came home with a 100 peso full length mirror, a big and pretty bouquet of 50 peso flowers for my mom, and a head full of new knowledge about fresh indoor markets in the Philippines.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
When I had first stepped into the market, the first things I noticed was the horrible smell and the horrible sight of the dingy place. I would have thought that this place was a terrible place to work in if I had not participated. After trying to keep my shoes clean and shielding away from the mucky looking walls, I talked to the people at the market through my purchases and as I was introduced to them. I realized that everyone there was very happy with there job, being able to meet new people, and joke around with each other. It was a very relaxed and full workplace with a lot of things going on. I realized that after actually participating in the event of the market morning, I found that the place was really not that bad, and in fact could be quite fun and interesting.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Having LynLyn and Minerva there with me helped me a lot in not only navigating the place, but also in understanding it. They explained to me the many questions I had about telling the stall keepers your order, and how to go about it, about where the meat come from and how the different people came to be there. They also gave me insights that I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and things I wouldn’t have even thought to ask about such as the names that the people who work there have. Without the two of them, I wouldn’t have been as informed I am about the market, and my whole experience would have been completely different.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
In an interview, I would have only found out technical things like the times the market opened and closed, where the food came from, and short descriptions of the place. With my own participant observation, I saw through my own eyes, ears, and nose what the place really was all about. I actually experienced the market instead of studying, and that obviously makes a huge difference. The observation became something that I was more fully capable of talking about since I had been there myself, and knew the place myself. It also gave me the opportunity to actually interact with the people in the market and get my own personal insights about the whole place and the people there.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
I think that an interview could have been very useful for a more in-depth view on technical things such as what I mentioned in the question before. It would have enabled me to form my questions more precisely and I would have gotten more straightforward and organized answers. I could’ve asked many follow up questions and taken a shorter time in getting a picture of what the place was like and how the event worked.