People shout happy things at you all the time in the Philippines. It's the friendliest place I've lived and, everywhere I went, people would see me and holler 'saan ka pupunta?!', which means 'Where are you going?!' or 'maganda!' -- beautiful.
Because I was learning Tagalog, I'd carefully remember these happy greetings to ask my university students. They were good teachers and I soon knew how to say hello to a grandma and ask for change at the market.
Then I came across a brand new saying. I was watching a basketball game and one player shouted to another 'putang inamo, bak'la!
My students will love this one!
After class, I matter-of-factly asked what it means. I was feeling so proud of myself for remembering the phrase, thinking it meant 'great job, team' or 'hey what are you doing?'
But my students weren't thrilled. They giggled. They fidgeted. They blushed. Eventually one timidly told me: "Your mother's a c***, and you're gay."
Before I could apologise, a discussion had broken out about whether it's 'your mother's a c***' or 'your mother's a prostitute'.
Turns out it's a versatile insult that means both, and neither.
Once I knew what it meant, I heard it everywhere. Between people playing cards. Cussing at the traffic. At the market when someone's charging too much for pineapples. Kids playing video games in the internet cafe.
In the same way Australians will use a monstrous swear word casually, some Filipinos are known to spit this insult after a few drinks, in a cheeky tone, and I got used to it.
I'd forgotten all about the insult until the President Rodrigo Duterte called the Philippines Ambassador to the U.S. a "gay son of a whore" and president Obama a "son of a whore" all in the space of two weeks.
There's that cheeky insult again, except it doesn't sound so harmless on an international stage.
There's no excuse for that language, especially at a presidential level, but let's not be too quick to judge. After all, wasn't it our PM who suggested a bunch of Chinese delegates were 'trying to rat-f**k us'? And aren't Aussies infamous for dropping the c-bomb as a term of endearment?
Insults are cultural, and while it's not cool to call anyone's mum a prostitute, you need to consider the context of a cuss.
I'd been in the Philippines about nine months when it finally happened to me. I was in a tricee on my way home, and I'd had an uncharacteristically unfriendly day. The market was a hot, sweaty, fish dripping nightmare, I couldn't buy a new phone card and I had the sense I'd been ripped off on my tricee fare, so I gave the driver 30 pesos, which I thought was fair.
He asked for more. I stood my ground. Then finally he got angry, he threw my money on the ground and shouted 'putang inamo, bak'la!'.
Here's the thing though, the next day, I was travelling the same route with my Filipino friends and they paid the driver double what I did. I realised I had underpaid the driver and then behaved like an entitled, rude foreigner about it. I totally deserved it.
But Obama doesn't deserve it and neither does the U.S. ambassador. Unless they underpaid a tricee driver, or charged too much for pineapples.