Hospitality: An Asian Virtue

Filipinos are known to be very hospitable towards foreign visitors. Such hospitality is exceptional. It's demonstrated time and again by their willingness to entertain visitors, accept them into their homes and even invite a guest to eat with them if he or she unexpectedly arrives during meal time. They will even invite a guest to sleep at their best bed and room while they themselves will sleep on the floor. Filipinos can be hospitable almost to a fault. Many times they will spend beyond their means just to entertain a guest.

Such hospitality is not limited to Filipinos however. A few years ago, on a visit to Jhelum in the Punjab, Pakistan (near the ancient site of Alexander the Great’s Battle of the Hydaspes), I sat down for a snack at a local store. The shop owner was curious and asked me where I was from. After engaging him in a friendly conversation I had to leave and pay for my snack. He returned my money, telling me I was his guest. Hmmm. Never happened to me before. Not even in the Philippines.

travelers at the Khyber Pass looking across  the Pakistani border into Afghanistan
Travelers at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border looking towards an Afghan village, Khyber Pass

Sometime after that episode I went on an assignment to the Afghan refugee camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) inside Pakistan. This was part of a project of our organization back in 2000 to help the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan at that time. My impressions of the Pashtuns, a tribal people living in those parts and in nearby Afghanistan, were not so flattering, based as they were on historical accounts by Westerners and on the media. I had visions of an unfriendly and inhospitable people who would fiercely fight to the death any foreign intrusion into their domain. The experience of the British and the Russians (and now the Americans) in trying to subdue this independent people served to reinforce this notion. And weren’t the Pashtuns the main ethnic contingent in the Taliban? However, my initial thoughts about the Pashtuns as an inhospitable people would change on the dusty road to the Afghan border along the historic Khyber Pass.
Pashtun market vendor at his shop, a market in Peshawar, Pakistan

Foreigners are only allowed to travel to this region with a police escort. Ours was in the form of two young, black-clad guards cradling ubiquitous Kalashnikovs. But once we entered Landi Kotal at the foot of the Khyber Pass, it seemed that our guards might not be enough. It appeared to me that 1 in every 3 male Pashtuns that we met carried an AK-47. If these guys decided we would make good hostages… But all we met were smiles. I was feeling nervous but a New Zealander in our group even managed to borrow an assault rifle from one of the guys and to pose with him for a photograph. After a while I began to feel more relaxed. We didn’t get a chance to visit one of the mud houses in this area but I was told the Pashtuns will not refuse a guest. Their tribal code requires them to defend their guests with their very lives. No wonder Osama bin Laden seems very comfortable hiding in these parts (it also helps that he has the money). One Pashtun even said that if an American soldier seeks refuge in his house he will protect that American with his life. I believe him because part of their tradition or principles is to show hospitality to all visitors regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status. Many a Pashtun family will slaughter its last remaining lamb just to prepare a meal for a visitor. Pashtuns are reputed to be the most hospitable people in the planet.

the Khyber Pass in PakistanThe Khyber Pass. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

What could make some cultures seemingly go to such extremes in the eyes of others when it comes to entertaining guests? Perhaps in the case of the Pashtun and other societies the fact that they are living in desert-like, inhospitable geography and under extreme weather conditions might help explain things. Maybe it is a way of mutually caring for each other. You help a traveler find food and shelter and when it is your turn, you can easily find someone who will reciprocate.

Whatever the reason we’re only too willing to lavish our guests with care. Maybe it comes with being Filipino and Asian. Perhaps it has something to do with expectations. Whatever it is, it’s a virtue we hope will not change with the times.

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