Posts Tagged ‘communication environment’

communication environment series 5: wensha spa

This article is the fifth in a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments. For the introduction and  theoretical framework, see Part 1. To know more: Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

Professor Julienne Baldo took our Communication Environment class to visit a spa, not only for us to relax at the end of the semester, but also to examine our ideas of body image vis-a-vis current cultural definitions and standards.

On the surface a spa seems like an ordinary, even boring, place to go, where not much happens by way of communication. After all, people go there to rest, not to talk. But as communication scholars always say, communication happens everywhere, anytime – even in places you’d least expect it. And the silence of the spa spoke volumes.

Wensha Spa: Exploring Body Image  and Wellness

The Architecture

The facade of this – and any – establishment conveys meanings that give clues to the kind of place it is and the patrons that frequent it.

First, the sign. Wensha Spa at Timog Avenue corner Quezon Avenue is open 24/7 , and makes this information known via a huge yellow and green neon sign. Mounted on a wall faced with Mactan stone, the bright sign beckons; it can be seen a long way off.

Next, the parking lot – it was crammed with late-model sedans and SUVs, with other patrons being dropped off by cabs.

The use of comparatively simple materials in the sign and the number and type of cars in the parking lot  convey to passersby that the place is upscale but still within a price range that is affordable to those of a certain socio-economic status; that it is decent and perhaps not too expensive, as, say, the same services at a five-star hotel. One can derive meaning from these signs to assess if he or she can afford this establishment’s services or not.

The entrance is of transparent glass, allowing people from the street to see within. Thus, it attracts; an opaque front would be a barrier to walk-in customers because it could denote exclusivity. Since one can peek within, she is aided in her decision-making on whether to enter or not. The impression is one of cleanliness and good service, with a welcoming air.

Once inside, the place offers more clues about its nature. A sofa greets patrons on the left side of the lobby; here, one can wait and view the menu of services. (At the time of our visit, Wensha was offering a promotional discount package of P680 for a massage and all-you-can-eat buffet for a six-hour stay.)

Further into the lobby on the right side is an altar, painted red, upon which are displayed Buddhist statues and offerings of fruit and candy. This leads to the assumption that the owner is Buddhist and is Filipino-Chinese, if not a Chinese national.  Right across the altar is the reception counter, where harried front-desk clerks check in customers, take their shoes, and issue claim tags and locker room keys. One must pay in advance for the chosen services.

At the end of the lobby is a curving staircase. The color scheme changes from bland to black and gold. A huge painting on the upper part of the wall is a surprise. One would not expect to see this, an image that depicts “the bath” in a confused jumble of themes, with a Roman-style bath surrounded by nude Chinese beauties, echoing the “harem” themes of the Orientalist paintings of Gerome and Grecian-inspired ditto of  Alma-Tadema that were so popular among the Victorians during the late 19th century.

The image is replete with meanings and ideas. Are these ladies the concubines of an emperor, perhaps? What would seeing this image make female customers think – that they should look as curvaceous as these painted ladies, so that the “emperors” in their life will take notice of them? that one should be as sensual and sensuous as they are? For male customers – what ideas will they carry away after looking at this painting? That the women in their life should look like this, or aspire to? Would this painting lead someone to believe that frequent bathing at Wensha will make one’s appearance mirror that of the ladies?

Upon reaching the second floor, guests are greeted with a buffet spread of food. It is nondescript and too oily. There  are hardly any vegetable dishes, no fresh fruit, and desserts are kept behind glass cases and cost extra. Do not, under any account, think of coming here for the food. As for drinks, there are dispensers of too-sweet Tang and Nestea. It is all self-service, though waiters scurry around clearing the twelve or fifteen tables that bristle with diners clad in street clothes or spa-supplied bathrobes.

Shabu-shabu is offered, the tiny gas-powered stoves placed directly on the dining tables. Some of the couches are covered in badly-cracked vinyl that pinch skin horribly, especially if one is wearing shorts or a skirt. That lack of attention to the furniture disappoints; with comfort diminished, the estimation of the place is lowered.

The men’s and women’s bathing areas are separate. This reflects cultural norms. Entering the bathing area, guests pass first through a door and into a corridor with more doors on both sides leading to common area (shared) and VIP (exclusive) massage rooms. At the end is a dressing counter with mirrors and one hair dryer – a problem when there are many women getting ready to leave after their baths. At the end are the locker rooms. Guests are issued one towel and one robe. All are expected to undress to bare skin. Clad only in the robe, the baths beckon.

The spaces up to this point are small and narrow, acting as conduits for the guests, leading them inevitably to the baths, which are in a wide and low-ceilinged space, contributing to a feeling of coziness and shelter. However, these are precisely the attributes, along with the lack of windows on the entire second floor, that might induce claustrophobia in those who cannot bear to be in enclosed areas.

The Artifacts and Activities

Inside the “wet” area are several rooms, stalls, and a couple of pools. First on the right is a “body scrub” room, which is tiled and has drains, shower hoses, and a padded waterproof table. Beside this room, along the right-hand wall, are rows of hot-and-cold shower stalls. Then comes the sauna with glass walls; beside it is the steam room, always fogged over; and a toilet.

In the center of the space are the two pools, raised above the surface of the floor – one filled with hot water, the other with ice-cold. Guests first take a bath in the shower stalls with the supplied liquid soap, then step into the hot pool, staying in it for as long as they can possibly stand before switching to the cold pool.

A television set mounted on the wall gives bored bathers something to focus on. There were also TV sets in the dining room, showing the ubiquity of the mass media, and that many people nowadays prefer or require the electronic buzz to stimulate their brains, instead of giving their entire attention to their companions.

First-timers will mostly experience timidity and shyness when disrobing, especially with friends. With strangers, the anxiety is less, but, Julienne assured us, it diminishes with subsequent visits and after one gets used to the experience of bathing nude with strangers.

Bea, Gia, and I, all newbies to the public bath experience, whipped off our towels and stepped into the hot bath as quickly as possible while trying to cover what we could of our private parts, until we were fully hidden by the water. Chitchat opted to merely dip her feet in the pool, admitting her reluctance to disrobe. Julienne was more relaxed and comfortable with herself, and showed no shyness in being nude, although being pregnant, she could not stay in the pool for long.

We had all taken Dr Sylvia Claudio’s class on Gender and Sexuality (Women and Development 227 at the UP-Diliman College of Social Work and Development), where body image was heavily discussed and debated, and agreed that the spa experience forces one to directly confront issues about self and image. How does one perceive beauty? What are one’s standards – do they subscribe to the cultural norm that is Western-based, idolizing a “Barbie” frame – thin waist, big bust – and mestiza looks – fair skin and tall nose? Or is one content with what she looks like, glorifying in her body, with health and glowing skin the prized assets?

The sauna and steam room have a more relaxed ambience, as towels are allowed. Skin takes on a ruddy hue, and, as sweat breaks, one imagines dirt and toxins leaving the body through opened pores. A bucket of ice cubes, drinking water dispenser, and plastic cups are nearby. Rubbing ice over skin helps one take the heat and stay longer in the steam and sauna rooms, where chatting is more animated since the distraction of nudity is eliminated.

After the bath, sauna, and steam, massage is next. Still in a robe, nude or with panties, one chooses a common room, shared with strangers, or VIP rooms that can hold up to three friends. The rooms are dimly lit and there is unobtrusive Asian muzak in the background.

A masseuse approaches and asks if one wants a hard or moderate massage. I ask for “Whatever, and if it hurts I’ll tell you.” I am kneaded and pummeled and rubbed into a state of gelatinous relaxation. I feel almost boneless until she lifts me and cracks my spine. After the massage, one may sleep. (There are charges for every extra hour spent at the spa over six hours.) But before you doze off, the masseuse hands you a ticket upon which different tips amounts are printed. Though a tip is customary in such circumstances, being reminded of this, forcibly, detracts from the entire experiences as one is unpleasantly jerked back to the realization that this is a commercial establishment.

The Spa Goers

In the dining area, which is open to both men and women, there are quite a few foreigners – Koreans, Chinese, Middle Easterners, Caucasians. Most of the patrons were young to middle-aged people, many looking like professionals.  There were people with their arms around each other – lovers, perhaps – but only hetero couples.

We saw no same-sex couples in the women’s area, but Rod said there were in the men’s area. His assessment was that for many of the couples, the hours spent at Wensha were a treat, to unwind and relax after a stressful day’s work. Certainly all the spa goers looked refreshed. Any problems they had were put on hold as they, with their visit to the spa, consciously sought to set aside their cares for a time and attend to themselves for once through this method of alternative healing and recuperation.

After dinner, bath, and massage, Chitchat, Julienne, I, Rod, and Bea glow for the camera. For obvious reasons, photography is not allowed within the bath and massage areas.

Rod, Bea, and I rode a cab home together. We processed our experiences during the trip. Soc-sci geeks forever!

Wensha Spa is at Timog corner Quezon Avenue, Quezon City. There is a branch at Buendia Avenue, near Sofitel.

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communication environment series part 3: santa ana park in naic, cavite

This article is the third in a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments. See Part 1 for an introduction to the topic of the communication environment and its relationship to culture. Read Part 2 to know more.

As part of the requirements for our Communication Environment PhD class, I took my professor and classmates to the horse races.

Santa Ana Park: A Day at the Races

January 6, 2009 was a monumental day for Philippine horseracing fans.  It was the day the first races were held at the new Santa Ana Park in Naic, Cavite. While the new place is extensive and spacious, capable of holding the sport’s growing number of racehorses, many miss the old venue once located in Makati City, close to the boundary of Manila.

The old Santa Ana Park was built in 1937 in the Art Deco style popular at the time. Among its contemporaries in architecture were the Manila Jockey Club’s San Lazaro Hippodrome in Sta. Cruz, Manila, and the Jai Alai building along Taft Avenue, both torn down some years ago to make way for modern edifices; and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office building, formerly the Quezon Institute, which the Department of Public Works and Highways has ordered demolished due to structural unsoundness.

In the case of horseracing, the buildings go, but the sport stays. It is flourishing at the new site in Naic chosen by the Philippine Racing Club.

The Architecture

The new track at Naic covers around 70 hectares, nearly three times as large as the 25-hectare facility at Makati. The old venue was cramped, unable to accommodate the horses enthusiastic players were breeding and buying, resulting in stables being built nearly on top of one another, affecting the horses’ health. Today there are clean stables arranged behind the far turn and home turn (the red roofs in picture above), with hotwalking areas inside each stable and easy access to the track for morning workouts and races.

The grandstand is of modest size compared to the old ones at Makati, but then the number of visitors here is not expected to be as high as at the old place, where track attendance was booming especially during big racing festivals and stakes race days.

The place is tall and white, looking very clean against the blue sky. Painting the edifice white connotes not only cleanliness but also purity; on a semiotic level, it could be seen as an attempt to ‘whitewash’ the sport, which suffers a degree of stigma in mainstream Philippine society because of its wagering aspect.

With lots of open seating, there’s a feeling of airiness and freedom. Leeway is given to patrons to walk all the way up to the plants edging the rail of the parade ground, which is just several feet away from the track itself. During mile races, the starting gate is right in front of the finish line, in full view from the parade ground allowing close scrutiny of the warm-up, loading, and jump-out.

The rest of the building is nondescript, with VIP rooms on the third floor, huge green-tinted glass windows overlooking the track, while the fourth floor houses racing officials – race stewards, judges, and racecallers. The spatial orientation of the building forces everyone to face towards the track and observe the activity there, reinforcing the concept that it is the sport that is the reason for the facility’s existence and the racing community’s continued sustenance over time and in different places.

The Artifacts

For visitors who know nothing about the sport, the track is a sensory overload. One can barely keep up with the barrage of information that, without a framework, is often difficult to interpret and may leave people overwhelmed, unless they have a friend in the know to explain things to them. Starting gate. Rails. Finish line. Racing programs. Jockeys. Betting matrix. And so on. The language – salitang karera - is also an artifact, one unique to this milieu.

Trophies deserve special mention here. As an artifact, for owners and trainers they symbolize more than a victory gained by one horse, one rider, in one race – they are also bragging rights and a reminder of the accomplishments of their stable. For the jockey, they commemorate personal triumphs along the timeline of his life. In other words, trophies orient achievements in spatial and temporal dimensions.

The Racegoers

People travel all the way to Naic for one reason, and that is to watch races and bet on them. Thus their activities at the venue are in line with this purpose. They may be seen studying racing programs (Dividendazo, Silip sa Tiyempo, Winning Time), texting sources such as horseowners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, and tipsters for racing tips, and scribbling their ruta (betting combinations) on scraps of paper. From time to time they glance up at the many monitors that line the interior walls of the building to view the betting matrix ( a grid of numbers that show estimated dividends for betting combinations).

When the patrons are ready, they line up in front of the betting windows to place their bets, then watch the race from the viewing area beside the track or on the monitors.

The exchange of money through betting is a significant activity in this sport; economics, therefore, is very much a key concept in this context, to a greater degree than in other sports that have no formal betting element. Racegoers communicate to each other, in words and actions, their excitement and anticipation upon placing their bets, suspense while watching the race, and elation upon winning or disappointment upon loss.

Since horseracing is not a mere game of chance that relies on the turn of the card or roll of the die, as in casino gambling, but a sport that requires knowledge about a myriad factors, being able to apply analytical methods to come up with winners leads to a feeling of vindication and even smugness when one is proven right and goes to the betting window to collect dividends. Losing a bet is equated not only with the loss of money, but also with being wrong, with error. Then the tendency is to try, try again.

At the track, there is camaraderie among the patrons, of belonging to a special group – kami (us) – na taga-karera or karerista, who are not understood by sila (them) – but then that is one of the draws of the sport, the sense of the arcane and mysterious, a flavor of the forbidden.

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communication environment series part 1 – my manila: seng guan temple

This article starts a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments.

I had seen its carved facade before, on a trip with fellow fountain pen collectors to look for pens in the wilds of downtown Manila. A drive-by along that street left me intrigued. I had no idea then that a year later, I would discover the wonder of the temple’s glittering, golden interior.

In this semester’s PhD Communication Environment class at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, our professor, Dr. Joey Lacson, said that it was best for us to learn about communication in different environments by actually visiting them. He and each of us students had to take the rest of the class to a place the others hadn’t visited before.

For her trip, Nina Villena chose to take us to Seng Guan temple in the heart of Binondo – a serendipitous random happenstance that opened my eyes and mind to a different side of my Manila.

From the outside, the temple looks like a hodgepodge of buildings that have sprouted in haphazard fashion through the years. But look closer to discover the wonderful things that abound inside.

The Communication Environment

Communication is, quite simply, the sharing of meaning. It always occurs within context, and this context is rooted in the environment. A person may use varying communication styles depending where she might be – for instance, she may use more formal and academic language while in class, and shift to a more informal way of speaking when with friends or at home.

The environment also conveys information that a person will organize and interpret to derive meaning. The semiotic model helps explain this process by conceiving data as a set of signs that bring up corresponding concepts in the mind. Signs may then be arranged into codes. Languages are examples of complex codes.

Non-verbal signs, touch (haptics), artifacts, and even space and distance (proxemics) may also be   part of a code that will impart meanings within a system of interrelated message senders and receivers.

A system cannot survive without its environment. An environment is active, and this activity creates further impact on the system. Since humans are always immersed in an environment, this reinforces the truism that it is impossible for people not to engage in communication wherever they may be.

Communication and Culture

Culture is “the complex collection of knowledge, folklore, language, rules, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and customs that link and give a common identity to a particular group of people at a specific point in time.” These elements that comprise a culture are constructed by society, meaning that negotiation takes place between the members of that society regarding the meanings attached to these elements until agreement is reached.

The relationship between communication and culture is complex and intertwined. Cultural elements, taken as artifacts along with their constructed meanings, form the communication environment. These artifacts may also be considered as “text”, the ‘what’ of communication that is observed and subjected to textual analysis so that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of communication may be understood.

Consequently, any part of an environment may be studied as an artifact in order to derive and interpret meaning from it – meaning that can help the observer understand the context he is in, and guide his actions and responses within that environment.

Seng  Guan Temple: A Trove of Cross-Cultural Communication

The temple, established in 1936, espouses the Mahayana style of Buddhism, specifically that of the Pure Land sect. Part of the sect’s belief system is that nirvana (cessation of existence), the ultimate goal after countless cycles of life,  is no longer achievable during modern times, but that a way to heaven (the “Pure Land”) may still be achieved by good works and endlessly chanting the name of the Buddha – “Amitabha, Amitabha.”

The Architecture

The facade of the entrance is ornately carved in a style that is distinctly Chinese, exotic to eyes not exposed to the culture. There is no gate. The lack of a barrier at the entrance projects an aura of welcome reaches out to visitors and draws them in. Just within the entrance, a jolly Maitreya Buddha greets worshippers and visitors with a smile.

A stone lion, one of a pair, stands guard in front of the Buddha statue. The carving is deep and ornate, the subject a ‘cute’ mythological creature, inviting you to run your fingers over the runnels and recesses in the stone, and reach for the ball in the lion’s mouth. Again it is an artifact that beckons one to enter, approach, and touch.

Mr. Carlos Tan, who works at the temple, offered to be our tour guide and showed us around. Practically nothing was off limits; one feels a deep sense of acceptance for and tolerance of visitors, something that one does not readily experience in churches of other faiths. Although it is not stated directly, the license to explore comes with a common-sense caveat: the temple is a place of worship, and as such a visitor must conduct himself with proper respect for the place and its purpose.

The halls are wide and expansive, with high ceilings and spaces that entice one to roam around. Having an expanse of space is made possible by the practice of not providing seats for worshippers, only red-upholstered kneelers that are tucked away in small storage rooms on off-days.

The interior of the ground floor, with three Buddha images flanked by fresh and faux flowers and offerings of fruit.

The hall on the second floor is even grander, decorated with carvings depicting scenes from the life of Sakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha. The statues are made of silk mache and are hollow. Everywhere, one sees the glint of gold and the vibrancy of red, colors that signify prosperity and happiness.

Largest and grandest of all is this hall just off the second level. It is airconditioned on days when services are held. The Buddha statues here are large and dominant, matching the scale of the room, meant to inspire awe and reverence.

The Artifacts

Inside the temple are many things that are unfamiliar to non-Buddhists but, taken in context, are obviously ritual items. There was a drum that a saffron-robed monk beat in time to the chanting of other monks and worshippers. There was a red book with gold Chinese characters stamped on its cover (sutras?). There was a stick-like object that rested on the books, something that looked like a fan or a paddle, cymbals through which yellow scarves were knotted, and cinnabar-red squat carved figures beside which were padded sticks. Were the figures struck with the sticks?

I deliberately refrained from asking Mr. Tan, preferring to experience the environment as an observer, and trying to derive meaning from what was familiar, and gauging the extent of the unfamiliar. In this instance, much was an unknown quantity.

There were always offertory tables positioned in front of the images. The tables are heavily carved, some gilded as well. The tables bear offerings of fruit and flowers, because according to Buddhist tenets, “Only vegetarian offerings are allowed,” said Mr. Tan.

The Worshippers

Through observing their stance and actions in context, it can be seen how worshippers convey their sense of faith and participate in the rituals of their religion. Two women knelt in front of the Maitreya Buddha’s image holding incense sticks and waving them while chanting Buddha’s name. At the same time, at the second floor hall, monks held a service for a deceased man. The relatives were all clad in white, their culture’s color of mourning. Since no seats are provided, worshippers either kneel or stand and chant along with the monks.

The chanting was atonal, in a language I was unfamiliar with (Chinese, presumably), and sounded utterly alien to my ears. For that reason I found it fascinating; language is not an insurmountable barrier to understanding, because all that is required is a translation. On that initial exposure, the impression I obtained from the chanting was a sense of immense antiquity, that these words had been sung in this manner for centuries, the ritual kept alive by devotion and strict adherence to tradition.

Off that hall was a room where the dead man’s picture was displayed. Red marks pocked the picture “so he can breathe,” someone explained. On an offertory table were sweetmeats in covered glass dishes and plenty of fruit. Red lamps were lit. Just outside that room, people rolled paper into the boat shape of ancient Chinese currency, paper money for the dead to use in the afterlife.

Paper printed with gold Chinese characters, rolled into the proper shape, symbolize money for use in the afterlife. To show respect for the deceased, sacks upon sacks of these are laboriously prepared.

After the service, the portraits are moved to the ancestor worship hall on the ground floor, to be displayed beside the pictures of deceased persons whose relatives are waiting for a memorial service to be held in their behalf. Offerings of canned fruit are arranged in front of them – fruit cocktail, peaches, lychees. Chinese are practical; fresh fruit, they say, will spoil.

A woman lights joss sticks that she places in a large bronze urn, one of several placed in each of the temple’s many halls. The air in the temple is fogged with the heavy fragrance of incense carrying prayers to Buddha.

Inside the ancestor hall are serried rows of shrines that carried pictures of the deceased. Some are ‘double’ shrines for couples. A picture placed in the shrine frame denotes that the person was deceased; a plain red backing, that the person the shrine is reserved for is still alive. A fee is charged by the temple for the storage of the shrines – the more prominent the position, the higher the fee. It costs around one hundred thousand pesos for a central location for a shrine.

From time to time, people entered the hall, knelt before the shrines, said a prayer or meditated, and lit joss sticks before leaving.

Mr Tan also showed us pairs of red, kidney-shaped wooden blocks used in divination, a practice that dates back to China’s prehistory, when animal entrails were used to predict the future and reveal answers to questions. One throws the blocks up in the air; depending on how they fall, the answer to the devotee’s query is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

He often used the Tagalog word misa – as in Catholic Mass – to refer to their services. It may be the word actually used by Filipino Buddhists, or it may have been his way of making concepts easy for non-Buddhists to understand.

Overall, though I could not interpret a great deal of the information I was picking up from my surroundings, I understood enough and connected it with previously-read or gleaned facts and materials that enriched my appreciation of this particular environment.

I came away refreshed in spirit by the aura of peace and tranquility permeating every fragrant corner of the temple, fascinated by its art and history, and above all deeply appreciative of the warm welcome and acceptance extended by Mr. Tan and the others at the temple.

The Seng Guan Temple is along Narra Street, near Jose Abad Santos Street, Manila.

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