The Philippines is a hugely misunderstood country – at least to most of the Hong Kongers. I was fortunate to be there for Christmas this year to know the people better.

What comes first to most people’s mind is that lots of Filipino women work here as a domestic helper. A lot of kids in Hong Kong grow up with one. They are often called “je je” – which means elder sister in Cantonese. And as the name suggests, they are the caretakers.

In most people’s eyes, they are labour exported to overseas for foreign currency and they camp out on the streets all over Hong Kong on Sunday, which is their only day off.

Despite a big community here – around 140,000 of them in Hong Kong, very little is asked about their culture, very little is known their hospitality and generosity, and very few of us take the initiative to explore beyond the stereotypes.

And most importantly, their delicacy is hugely overlooked.

Truth to be told, like most of the Hong Kongers, I knew nothing about the Filipino culture and I barely knew anyone from there until I met Mercury. She is my first Filipino friend who introduced me to everything about her country.

I met Mercury during one of my solo trips to China. We were both in a rock climbing tour.

“I was a marine engineer sailing on oil ships around the world for eight years,” she told me. I was in awe of her immediately.

That day, Mercury told me more stories that I couldn’t imagine – sailing to the farthest corners in the world, encountering pirates in Somalia, fighting off sexual discrimination on ships and enduring hopelessness in life.

And what’s more surprising was that she was working in Hong Kong, so we stayed in touch and quickly bonded.

On a hiking trip on a Saturday afternoon, we came up with this random idea: spending Christmas together with her family in her hometown Bacolod, a city in the central Philippines.

I booked my flights. I was all set to go.

“Sorry dear, I have to stay in Hong Kong to process my Canadian work visa so I cannot go to the Philippines for Christmas,” Mercury told me the day before our trip. She has taken on a new job in Canada and is moving there next month.

So I ended up going there alone, replacing her to fulfill the daughter’s role. I was told that my “foster family” would pick me up at the airport and they had already made plans for me.

“You’re my first foreign friend who comes visit my hometown,” Mercury told me. “It’s a big deal for my family.”

She did not exaggerate.

Once I stepped outside the airport, I spotted two colourful handwritten signs amid the crowd that read “Welcome to Bacolod City” with my name on them. Mercury’s father drove her mom, her aunt and two nieces to the airport to greet me.

For the next few days, they toured me around town, told me history, showed me the local delicacies and shared their lives with me.

Being in the family is a big part of life there. Filipinos are always seen in groups and loners are very rare. They like to get together to eat and chat. The food does not need to be fancy – it can be simple pasta, chicken and rice. It’s more important to enjoy each other’s company rather than the food.

Mercury’s family accepted me right away. We had family outings and ate so much together.

One moment I will always remember is my new foster mom buying me four balut eggs – fertilized bird eggs that are a popular snack in Southeast Asia. I told her four eggs were too much, but she insisted, with sincere kindness. Who can say no to a sweet old lady?

“They are full of protein and will make you pretty,” she said. I ate them with courage, and they were actually quite tasty.

My foster father also showed me green mango, which is crispy. You bite off small pieces and eat them with shrimp paste. It’s a very exotic taste to me.

One dish I love the most is Halo-halo, which means “mix mix” in Tagalog. It is the ultimate dessert dish that has everything ranging from ice-cream to tapioca, slush ice, fruit and pudding. The family bought me a huge one on my first day there.

Another dish I like is Sisig – pork ears and livers chopped finely and served on a hotplate with rice. The crunchiness and softness come together to make a savory dish.

And of course lechon, a roasted suckling piglet with crispy skin. A party cannot be made without it, and families get together to share one whole piglet.

On Christmas’ eve, we went to a beach resort for some quiet and cosy family time, away from the fireworks and big family parties that widely take place to celebrate this festive occasion.

Filipinos are Catholic and Christmas is an important festival. The celebration starts in September. Families put on decorations, children sing carols, people go to the churches, everyone plays with firecrackers, and at midnight on Christmas’ eve, parents wake children up to tell them “Santa Claus has stopped by to leave you a sock with gifts in”.

My Christmas’ eve was different. Mercury’s mom and niece and I sat by the beach to have a nice long chat. Her mom is proud of her children, who are all achievers and professionals. Her niece is also an English major student who aspires to teach Korean people English.

The family has produced a lot of engineers, teachers and nurses. Mercury’s mom, who is 70 years old, speaks fluent English.

While the skills are there, job opportunities aren’t. The talented people have no choice but to leave for foreign countries.

One thing that Mercury never quite mentioned to me was the misperception she received from Hong Kongers, who probably assumed she was one of the domestic helpers. In fact, she’s an engineer who leads a team of 15 people – all men.

“She would fight back when the Chinese looked down to her,” her mom told me.

At that moment, I felt so ashamed of my people.

The Filipinos, regardless of their occupations in Hong Kong, are some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. They are way more fun than the locals and they instantly welcomed me to the group. One time I was invited by Mercury to go hiking and coasteering with them. Oh my, they are the most daring and adventurous people I’ve ever known, always going off the beaten track.

I remember that day one young woman telling me how she disagreed with the parenting here. The protective Hong Kong parents did not let their kid try anything, whereas she encouraged the kid to explore.

In many ways, I have great respect for the Filipinos and have always enjoyed being with them. After all, they are the most joyful people I know of. There is always laughter.

This can be proven by my Christmas with them.

After we came back from the beach resort, we went to a family party on Christmas day. It took place in a very lovely house with lots of Christmas decorations. There were so many guests, so much food and so much joy.

The moment I stepped into the house, Mercury’s aunt dragged me around to introduce me to everybody. I sat down with them to eat, danced with them and drank beer with the men. We took dozens of photos together.

I don’t remember the last time I had a big family party like this, and I envy them. As mentioned, family is a big part of life there.

Even though Mercury and her siblings all work and live abroad, they still keep a presence in the house with many family photos hanged everywhere.

Through them, I experienced Filipino hospitality, which is one of the warmest I’ve ever received. They were very willing to welcome me and tell me so many things about their country. Now I have learned a few useful words, known what’s trending there, and understood them better.

We came home after the big family party, getting ready for a quiet and easy evening. A voice came outside the house. My dear friend Mercury surprised us all – she made it back home, just in time for the last hours of Christmas.