Mano Po Must Live

If you’re patient and willing to wade through any number of unremarkable, familiar duplications, you will eventually find someone or something at the mall that will hold your attention. This past weekend I was not disappointed. I witnessed an exquisite event – something I never expected to see nor shall I ever forget.

Much like bird watching in an aviary, I watch for rare and fascinating people at the mall.  I initially focused on an Asian boy and girl who had each purchased a large Starbuck’s coffee.  The boy was dressed in all the latest gear, head shaved, hat to the back, jewelry, chains – the works.  The girl wore equally trendy clothing, pink Keds, a tribal arm tattoo and various facial piercings. I was taken by the contrast between the cool, rough-neck, hip-hop look the boy was desperately trying to preserve as he delicately sprinkled cinnamon onto his grande coffee in a venti cup with two pumps hazelnut, two pumps vanilla, two pumps caramel, two Equals and four Sweet’N Low, filled to the top with cream – extra cream on the side, double cupped with no sleeve, a stir stick and stopper in the top. I looked away with a grin and sipped my plain, black coffee.  Over the rim of my cup I encountered the eyes of an Asian man intent on me.  He was dressed in Western clothing, but was also wearing a barong, his black and gray hair neatly combed to one side.  We each casually looked away, recovering smoothly from our accidental encounter.

The Asian man was with a young, teenage girl who I imagined was his daughter.  The two sat for a moment, not talking.  The man seemed to be settling in, taking in his surroundings before committing to sitting in that particular spot.  The girl was a bit jumpy, anticipatory, looking from side to side and checking her phone for texts. Before long the man carefully took money from his billfold and handed it to the girl.  She bolted toward Starbucks, taking her place at the back of the line. She gave two small, excited jumps, outwardly energized by some thought she was having.  Her movements were quick, rapid, unlike her father who seemed to move in slow motion, as if performing tai chi, adjusting his chair and settling in contentedly. He folded his arms over his chest and crossed one leg over the other.

It wasn’t long before the girl was joined by the boy and girl I had been observing earlier.  The jumpy girl apparently knew the Keds girl because, when they saw one another, they initiated an animated, dance-like greeting, gripping each other around the forearms and jumping up and down. The boy stood, sipping his coffee, still focused on maintaining his emotional distance. The girl pointed in the direction of her father, and the teens waved in his direction.  The man nodded back.

Not long after, the girl, followed by her friends, carried a tray of refreshments to her table. The hip-hop boy put down his coffee and approached the man.  He greeted him, referring to him as Uncle, and then took the man’s fingers in his hand and raised them to his forehead.  The Keds girl did the same.  I imagined that I must be in the presence of royalty, or at least someone who was very wealthy or possibly famous – someone who deserved this level of respect.  I looked at his ring finger, expecting to see a wide, ostentatious red ruby.  The man wore no jewelry. The teens stood for a few minutes and chatted, but soon left, bowing their heads once more in the man’s direction.


One of the most wonderful things I find about today’s technology is that I can locate information about nearly anything in just a few second.  I typed some keywords into Google on my cell phone and learned that what I had witnessed was a Filipino greeting called mano po – mano meaning hand; po is placed at the end of a sentence when addressing elders.  It appears that Filipino children and young people greet or say goodbye to their elders by taking the right hand of the elder with their right hand and touching the back the elder’s hand lightly on their forehead. Mono po is a Filipino custom for showing respect to elders and receiving their blessing.  This gesture of deference is not, as I had supposed, reserved for the wealthy, the famous or the politically connected.  Mano po is performed as a sign of respect with all elders by Filipino youth, regardless of the status or social class of the elder.

Mano po represented a striking contrast to the people with whom I am more familiar in my own culture – people who shout orders and demands, swear, discuss intimate and private matters of national television, cough into the open air, shoot one another over a parking space, push, pull, grab and generally behave selfishly and inconsiderately.  How magnificent, I thought, to live one’s life long enough to be honored for enduring this short, yet chaotic journey?  To be prized for one’s experience and knowledge – to have achieved an even higher degree of personal value and social significance as a consequence of normal aging.

In my lifetime, older people have never been greeted with any particular degree of enthusiasm. It seems, instead, after a certain age, older people become more or less invisible, incidental, imaginary and tedious – much like the appreciation we show when cleaning the underside of a toilet bowl. We know it’s there and we know it needs attention, so we take care of it now and then, just to keep up appearances. The aging person, placed under these harmful psychological pressures, can, instead of the gift of mano po, expect aging to be a frightening period, more likely to instill dread – even terror, than a sense of achievement let alone esteem.

Seconds after the two Filipino teens left, the man and the girl stood to leave.  The girl was still quite excitable.  I watched as the older man rose confidently, pushed his chair neatly under the table and collected the trash from the tabletop. The man handed the girl her own empty cup and she accepted it and dropped it into the bin. Once on their way, the older man placed his hand lightly on the young woman’s shoulder and the bounce in her walk seemed to slow a bit.  He slightly increased his own step and the two found a balanced cadence, a tempo with which they could both walk comfortably together.  They disappeared into the crowd.

Do you know anyone who would benefit from a gesture of mano po?

Would you willingly offer mano po to the elders in your own life?

Are you willing to replace a handshake with a gesture of mano po?

The gesture of mano po makes certain that there will always be cooperation between elder and youth, Filipino and Filipina.  It is a gesture that represents equality, possibility and hope.  In its magnificent simplicity, Mano po makes experience and strength a dynamic of dreams; and, because of that, Mano po must never die.

Each new generation wants to believe it holds a unique perspective on the future – so we ignore our elders and the advantage of their insight.  As a result, we have either lost our ability to build rapport with older people or we simply have never developed the skill to talk across generations. Regardless of its cause, ageism keeps us divided, ignorant, ineffective and hopeless.

We have so much more potential than that.