On the surface, life in Cebu may seem quite similar to life in Western industrialized countries. But where love and dating are concerned, the norms and values that were standard in the West fifty years ago still apply here. This quaintness is part of the charm, but it can pose potential hazards for the uninitiated.

For instance, while it has been relegated to wildlife documentaries in the West, the verb "to court" is commonly used in Cebu to describe the initial phase of romance. The male is expected to court his "crush," with offerings such as flowers, friendly gestures, but primarily through a unremitting series of contacts, such as phone calls, visits, and (these days) text messages - actions which might fall within the realm of stalking in the US.

If it is the girl who has the crush, she may make it known that she wants to be courted, by flirtatious actions, sending a card on Valentine's Day, etc. But as the courtship progresses, the girl's role is to entertain the guy just enough to keep him interested. It is acceptable for a girl to be courted by two or more guys at once. I suppose the US equivalent of this phase is "hanging out."

If one party is a foreigner, he or she may be in for a shock at this stage, as it is considered acceptable for the person being courted - or even the person doing the courting - to fish around for information behind the other person's back. Mutual friends, servants, coworkers will be quietly taken aside and asked if you are "buotan" [a nice person]. If the answer is in the affirmative ("Oh yes, so-and-so is very buotan!") the courtship continues. This sneaky spying may go against your value system, but if you are in Cebu, you may wish to try your hand at it yourself.

If the courtship is successful, the couple will become what is known as "officially on." In other words, the guy, in the culmination of his courting activities, will have asked the girl to be his girlfriend, and she will have acceded. Their mutual friends will start spreading the chika [rumor] that the happy pair are "officially on." It is important for the rumor to spread rapidly and widely, in order to ensure that everyone understands the ground rules - from this point onward no-one may court either constituent of the couple. I suppose the US equivalent of this phase is "going out."

The moment a couple becomes officially on constitutes a stark dividing line. Once they are officially on, the pair are supposed to start calling each other "darling" or "sweetheart" or something along those lines, and text each other often - constantly - with cute messages such as "miss u" or "143" (which stands for "I love you"). They will be in each others' lives to the hilt, and involvement with someone else - even just holding hands - becomes a crime of high treason.

In a peculiar Filipino quirk, the couple will also be constantly reminding each other about mealtimes ("It's lunchtime!"), and asking each other if they have eaten or if they are full. If you are in love with someone, apparently, you ought to make a show of worrying about the state of their stomach - I suppose this makes sense.

If the relationship suffers a setback at this stage, and one of the pair breaks up with the other, they will be known to be "officially off." However, for a couple to be officially off, one of the pair must explicitely state that he/she is breaking up with his/her lover. Simply ignoring phone calls and not returning text messages is not good enough - you'd still be officially on, only on bad terms.

Now, in the Philippines you'll find the whole spectrum of individuals, ranging from the ultra-conservative to the totally liberated. However, I'd venture to say that almost all couples start having sex once they are officially on. The parents and other relatives will pretend not to know about this, and the couple will do their best to perpetuate the myth. For instance, most of the nocturnal activity will take place in motels, since Cebuanos live with their families (I doubt that there is, in all of Cebu province, even a single person who lives alone).

It may go against your preconceptions of the Philippines, but the thing is that a couple can be officially on for years and years without getting married. In fact, many will even start living together and have kids. It must be said, however, that in most case the couple does start making plans for marriage once the girl gets pregnant. A priest once remarked that in 80 percent of weddings the bride is pregnant.

The engagement and marriage process are pretty much the same as in Western society. The girl gets a rock, and the weddding - planned months in advance - will feature bridesmaids, ring bearers, etc.

There are no Vegas weddings in Cebu; the paperwork required makes it impossible to get married in a hurry. Both the bride and the groom will require birth certificates, Barangay Clearance and various other documents. If one party is a foreigner, he or she must proffer documents proving that the proposed marriage will not be bigamous. The couple are also forced to attend a seminar and a counseling session. Moreover, a notice must be posted at the Department of Social Welfare for a period of at least ten days, proclaiming the impending marriage. This all usually takes at least a month, though, like a lot of other problems, it can be fast-tracked a little with an envelope of full of cash and a fixer.

If the marriage doesn't work out, the couple cannot get a divorce, because divorce is illegal in the Philippines. However, they can get an annulment, which is essentially the same thing. Personally, I think this is insane, because you can get an annulment even if the marriage has been consummated and you already have grown-up kids. If the couple has already separated and agreed to go separate ways, the only impediment to an annulment is the price; I'm told the legal proceedings cost between PhP 25,000 and 80,000, which few people can afford.


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