Philippine Culture, From a Confused American's Perspective

What I Really Think Of The Philippines - Travel blog
Honest Observations From a Westerner On His Way Home
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A little girl taking a break from digging through trash in Intramuros, Manila
A little girl taking a break from digging through trash in Intramuros, Manila



You may think that what I capture in my travel blog is nothing like the real Philippines - what the world sees on the news...the poverty, the despair, the suffering.  Well to an extent, this is true. 


However, now that I've lived all over this country for 12 months, I believe the media just focuses on and exaggerates the worst side of things. Sure, many Filipinos don't have money, but that doesn't stop them from enjoying their lives. Somehow, people in the west can't get used to the idea that Filipinos could actually be happy.


Anyway, I've had requests for an honest, in-depth look at Philippine culture - both the good and the bad. Well, after one year living and traveling all over the Philippines, here are my thoughts:


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Yes, there is a lot of poverty.  So much poverty.  I have really been smacked in the face with it now that I'm finally leaving.  I tend to make the most of wherever I am; to overlook the bad and only see the good in every situation - or at least try to.  If you're a westerner traveling through some of the poorer parts of the Philippines for 12 months like I have, this is kind of a necessity. 


However, now I think I am seeing things a bit more clearly, because my "coping mechanism" is allowing me to (basically because I am leaving). This is a tiny country with over 97 MILLION people in it.  The lack of education and the Catholic Church's stance on birth control doesn't seem to have helped the situation here.



Still, I believe non-profit organizations don't always portray life in the Philippines accurately (unfortunately, there's money to be made from sensationalizing the situation). I have noticed a huge distinction between the heartbreaking "culture of poverty" in big cities like Cebu and Manila, and what I experienced in the provinces, which is just villagers who simply don't have money.  You see, many people out in the villages, they are happy.  They have very little, and they don't seem to want for more - I believe "poverty" is in the wanting, the longing for things one doesn't have. 


A Filipino Family in the Provinces Can Live a Rich, Full Life - Regardless of Money


The family I stayed with in El Nido is a good example of this.  They have each other, their faith, their friends, and (hopefully) plenty of food that they can grow themselves or farm from the sea. A Filipino Family like this lives so simply, but again, they are happy. From my perspective, there is a lot to be learned from this simplicity.  It illustrated to me how, in many cases, poverty is just a state of mind.

(Continued below...)



The skyline of Makati, Manila
The skyline of Makati, Manila






There is money in this's just that it's almost all in the hands of only a few families (dynasties).  It's very similar to the U.S. in this respect, though the disparity here is much greater. 


"He never imagined the Philippines looked like this."


Manila and Cebu are rapidly becoming high-tech modern metropolises.  My brother was shocked to see this photo I took of the skyline in Makati, Manila (above, or on the left).  He never imagined the Philippines looked like this.  If you have the means, you can easily spend hundreds of dollars (USD) on a fancy dinner in an upscale restaurant. 


Consumerism - Creating a "Mall Culture"?

This is one of two (see below) negative aspects of U.S. "culture" that I fear have been exported to the Philippines - especially in Manila and Cebu.  However, I suppose they are responsible for economic growth here.  Manila is a massive urban sprawl, and while it has a few nice (in my opinion) tourist attractions such as Intramuros and Rizal Park, to many foreigners it seems to be just one giant shopping mall


It's one of the main things people DO in Manila.  They just go to the mall.


For the sake of "fitting in" and looking fabulous, they spend a very disproportionate amount of their income on a Frappuccino at Starbucks or a new pair of designer jeans.  Then they take a jeepney (public transportation) back home to the slums in some cases - with barely a roof over their head.  Again, this is that "culture of poverty", and I think it's a byproduct of U.S. style consumerism.


Fast Food Culture

American fast food chains like McDonald's, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, and Dunkin' Donuts are EVERYWHERE - and when you look at the average income here, you realize that these places are not exactly cheap.  They are very unhealthy of course, and are ironically considered somewhat of a "luxury" by many.  I worry about the amount of soda many people drink as well.  It is such a common thing for a Filipino family to drink soda with each meal, and in a country where people don't always have access to dentists or health care (for sugar-related conditions like diabetes), it concerns me.



*Just so you know, if you've only been to Manila, you haven't really been to the Philippines.  Pretty much all western tourists agree that once they got out of Manila they began to really love the country.  To be fair, it *could* be that Manila is not "exotic" enough for tourists who are looking for a real change of pace from their normal lives. 


Speaking of pace, the pace in the Philippines is slowwwww.  This is island life.  I found as a westerner that in Manila specifically, the pace is just infuriating (you could be in that cashier's line for a LONG time, trust me...and that's once you've spent a few hours just getting through traffic to GET to the store in the first place). 


I  guess I just had this idea of what a major city is "supposed" to be like, and that notion must be thrown out the window when it comes to Manila.  However, once you get out to the islands (AKA paradise), you'll find that the slow pace is just right


Manila Has Preserved a Sense of Community on a Massive Scale...

Another interesting thing is that to me, Manila is essentially a giant version of a Filipino barangay, or neighborhood - and in this sense it's quite impressiveI don't know of any other major city in the world that has preserved a sense of community on such a massive scale.  It's a testament to the ultra-communal Filipino culture, which I'll touch on later.



Cathedral stained-glass in Naga, Bicol
Cathedral stained-glass in Naga, Bicol

When I first arrived in the Philippines, the religiosity was overwhelming.  I say this coming from a place like San Francisco in California, and Europeans certainly agree with me on this one.  There are even churches in shopping malls here.  I remember being very shocked to read a prominent sign in an elementary school that read:  "We are a God-fearing school". 


Such a bold religious statement, displayed in a public school - this was so fascinating to me!  Europeans think the U.S. is overly religious, but it's nothing compared to here. 


However, as time has gone by, I have come to appreciate and embrace the "church culture" here.  I see the good that it does people, and I now frequently use quiet chapels here to reflect and go over all the things I am very grateful for - as often as possible. I have actually found quite a few similarities between the way I was raised (Mormon, though just in my youth) and Filipino culture.  Both cultures have strong family values, and both are also generally considered to be quite warm and friendly. 


In a way, I think being welcomed as a part of the "Filipino family" has reconnected me with my own culture.


What's fascinating to me are all the contradictions, given that it is one of the most religious countries in the world.  Gambling, drinking, and men with mistresses seem to be common, and this certainly goes against traditional god-fearing Filipino beliefs. I remember reading a book about Philippine stated that a man with a mistress is not only accepted, it's almost even encouraged.  It's a sign of machismo


As much as some of my Filipino friends may want to deny this, in my experience it does seem to be true.  I do agree that times seem to be changing, though.



The other interesting thing is the bakla (gay) culture here.  It's quite prevalent, and on the surface, seems to be very accepted.  There are very famous gay stars, and almost every Filipino family seems to have at least one gay uncle or brother.  This is why I am surprised there are so many men here that really seem gay but would never admit it


I suppose it's because of the church's influence, but for such a tolerant country with so many widely celebrated gay stars/contributors to society, it's a bit odd to me.  For a bit of background, I grew up in the very liberal (gay friendly) San Francisco bay area in the U.S.

Filipino Beliefs and Folklore

Woman walking along the tracks in Naga, Philippines
Woman walking along the tracks in Naga, Philippines

The vast majority of people in the Philippines live and breathe Catholicism, yet Filipino beliefs often include the existence of many horrific, non-Christian creatures.


The most famous is the aswang, which is a shape-shifting woman with her entrails hanging out (she can separate at the torso and fly). She waits on the roof until a pregnant woman falls asleep, then extends a very fine proboscis into her womb and feeds off the unborn fetus. Wow, a belief in a creature like that would put the fear in anybody!


She is said to have a taste for human liver, and feeds on small children as well.


Other Filipino beliefs include the kapre, which is a cigar-smoking giant that hides in trees and takes control of small children playing at night. The only way the child can regain control is to turn his clothes inside out.


I wonder where all these stories comes from...are the Spanish responsible for introducing this folklore, or are these uniquely Filipino beliefs? I mean, there is little doubt that a belief in these creatures is quite separate from the teachings of the Catholic Church.


Fear - In Many Forms

It is said that parents use these stories to keep children afraid and well behaved, but that's ironic, because usually the parents believe these stories as well.

Filipinos always tell me to be careful when going anywhere, and many of them seem to be a bit afraid of all kinds of things aside from these creatures (weather, criminals, other superstitions). In the past, the church definitely used fear as a tool, and this brand of "old school" Catholicism does seem to be alive and well here in the Philippines. Just like in the US, the news programs on TV here can be very negative, dramatic, and in my opinion, even unethical at times as well.


However, I think geography may play a part as well.  The country is comprised of over 7,000 islands, so different groups were usually quite cut off from each other.  It is human nature to have a fear of the unknown, and traditionally, a Filipino family sticks together and has little need to travel. 


I met countless people in the provinces who had the means but had never made the 30 minute journey to the next village - and they were 50 year-old men and women!  I'll touch on this later, but there's not just one Filipino language...the evolution of several languages (and over 120 dialects) here is another testament to the "isolated island" theory.  Of course, one more explanation is the constant threat of typhoons, earthquakes, and weather-related catastrophes in general.  


* With a growing economy and the very successful new "It's More Fun In The Philippines" tourism campaign, more Filipinos are now starting to branch out and explore their country (and the rest of the world).  I think this is great!


In any case, as a foreigner, locals are always extra concerned for my safety.  The irony is that I believe it is more dangerous for other Filipinos than it is for foreigners!  It could just be that I'm not an easy target, but usually people were just shocked and fascinated to see me walking through their neighborhoods in the middle of the night.  Perhaps the language barrier is intimidating to them, or they just don't know how a foreigner will react to being robbed (they don't want to take the risk?).


Not sure, but I just know that in all this time I have never had a problem.   As for my Filipino friends, I have heard some stories from them - stories of armed robbery, shootings...stabbings.  It does happen, I'm just saying that if you are a foreigner (at least one my size?), the risk is not as high as people might have you believe.  Just like in the U.S., the perceived risk seems to be much greater than the actual risk. 


*    "Joe" is the nickname given to American soldiers, as in "G.I. Joe" - from the war days.


Young dancer in the Ati Ati Han festival
Young dancer in the Ati Ati Han festival

When I made my way down south to Cebu and the Visayas, I was shocked that people were not impressed with my meager knowledge of Tagalog.  I say this because in Manila (and up north in general), people are often completely flattered that you can speak ANY Tagalog.  Down south, not only were they not impressed with my Tagalog, but they demanded to know why I couldn't already speak Bisaya - their dialect!  Haha.  At first I found them kind of rude, honestly, but soon began to really appreciate their sense of pride.  I really came to love the people and culture down there. 


Some Bisaya people don't like Tagalog because they believe that the majority of people in the Philippines speak Bisaya, and that it should have been chosen as the national language instead of Tagalog.  Unfortunately they are also looked down on by many people in Manila.


If somebody from Manila visits the Visayas and speaks to the locals in Tagalog, the locals will answer back in English, even though they can speak Tagalog well (they must learn it in school).  Again, the point is I love this sense of pride that Bisaya people have in their language, culture, and food...and I wish that people up north weren't quite so "western-worshipping". 


There were times when I almost seemed to embarrass people in Manila by speaking their own language (Tagalog), as if they were ashamed of it.  I don't mean to promote regionalism here - it's just that Filipinos have so much wonderful culture and heritage, and I would like to see all Filipinos celebrate and take pride in it. 

Filipino Language

Speaking of which, I was shocked to realize that there are so many languages in the Philippines! Many people outside of the country think that there is only one. Not only that, but there are over 120 dialects as well! This is quite amazing, because schools nationwide teach the national Filipino language (known as Tagalog), along with English...


When you consider that people almost always speak their own regional dialect / language as well, you realize that almost everybody who grows up outside of Manila speaks 3 different languages...sometimes more, if one parent is from yet another region! Impressive. Most Americans are lucky if they can speak 2 (including their own).


What Do I Love About Philippine Culture?

  • Wonderful People - Over 7,000 islands full of the the world's most soulful, genuine, hospitable and HAPPY individuals. 
  • Karaoke / Videoke - At this point I'm pretty sure every Filipino is born with a mic in their hand, most likely singing a Lionel Richie song. 
  • Family-Oriented Culture - Filipinos seem to have this figured out.  Family is EVERYTHING.  We are so disconnected in the west.
  • Most Stunning Beaches / Mountains / Landscapes - Have you seen my photos from my time here?  Check my El Nido post.  More soon.    
  • Fascinating Culture / Delicious Food - For me, the region of Bicol takes the cake.  Spicy!!  Pinangat and pili nuts are my favorites!  Adventurous foods I have tried:  Balut (many times), BBQ pig's blood, Isaw, Dinuguan, Papaitan, Bulalo...etc.
  • Food/Drinks/Housing is all Very Affordable - Beer is barely more expensive than water (and San Miguel Pale Pilsen is GOOD).  The cheapest room I ever stayed in was on the stunning island of Camiguin, and I believe it was $3.75 USD a night.  Usually it's more like $15-$20, though.
  • Colorful Jeepney Rides as Daily Transportation - Getting around is even more fun here.  Sit on top for the best (and most thrilling) view!
  • Relaxed Attitudes - "Bahala na" is the Filipino term meaning "It's in God's hands...we have no control over this, let's just smile and move on!"
Children near the Banaue Rice Terraces
Children near the Banaue Rice Terraces
"Tour A" lunch on an El Nido island hopping tour
"Tour A" lunch on an El Nido island hopping tour


A "robot" in front of an actual armed forces facility
A "robot" in front of an actual armed forces facility

• Filipinos use the expression "nosebleed" when a foreigner comes up to them and asks a question in English.  They are so caught off guard and/or intimidated that it's like having a nosebleed suddenly.  I still don't quite understand this one, but it is SUCH a common joke here.   


• "Filipino time" is basically the same as "island time" in Hawaii.  "I'll get there....eventually."  "I'll get it done....eventually".

Cebu Pacific Airlines has a cartoon airplane for a logo, dancing stewardesses, and hip hop music playing as you board - even at 7AM.  It makes the whole "flying experience" much more relaxed for those who find it stressful.


• People sing "Happy Birthday" here just like we do in the U.S., except they don't use the person's name.  They just repeat "happy birthday" one more time instead.  My joke is that families here are SO big (LOTS of birthdays), that it's easier to do it this way and not have to know/remember the person's actual name!!




This is something that I hear Filipinos in customer service say all the time.  Of course, from a western perspective this is the LAST thing you want to say to your customers, and I try to explain to Filipinos that it's basically like saying to your customer:  "OK sir, just sit here and wait a LONG TIME".  


However, due to a few failed experiments with sarcasm, I realized that Filipinos are VERY literal.  "Wait for a while" actually makes a LOT more sense than "please wait just a moment", or "wait just a sec", like we say in the west.  We are not going to only be a moment or a second...what we probably mean is actually "a while"!!   Oh, the irony.  Filipinos have that one figured out. 


It made me realize that English really doesn't make much sense in general, and I'm so glad that I didn't have to learn it as an adult.  Tagalog is a great language!  It just makes so much more sense to me.  I can see a brand new word, and the chances that I will be able to pronounce it correctly on the first try are very high.  Phonetically accurate languages are much appreciated!


A jeepney in Palawan
A jeepney in Palawan

This is a "jeepney" - a vehicle left over from the war that was re-purposed for public transportation.  Filipinos are world-class "repurposers".  They are so ingenious, and can fix or create just about anything with parts lying around!  In Cebu, drivers patrol the streets looking for passengers.  When they see somebody waiting or walking on the side of the road, the driver leans out the window and makes a loud "kissing" (lip-smacking) sound to get their attention! 


I was in total disbelief the first time I witnessed this.  Doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman.  From the best of my knowledge, riders inside of the jeepney can also do this to indicate to the driver that they would like him to stop.  You can also just bang a coin on the metal parts of the jeepney to get his attention.  A jeepney ride costs less than 25 cents (US).


Everybody on the jeepney works together to pass the driver each person's fare as he or she gets on.  There is an honor system - and I guess with that many eyes on you as you enter, there is pressure on you to make sure and pay - not to mention it's just the right thing to do!




This is an uber social + communal culture, and food is the centerpiece of all get-togethers.  In the Philippines, "Have you eaten yet??" is actually a form of greeting.  From the minute a Filipino is born, he or she has an extensive network of relatives who are constantly involved in his or life.  It is no wonder that Filipinos rarely travel alone, or do anything alone for that matter. 




One afternoon I was sitting on the beach in El Nido just staring out into the sea in appreciation.  A group of little girls came up to me and asked "malungkot ka?"  (Are you sad?)  I was actually quite content, and was appreciating the stunning view before me.  This question, because I was alone, perfectly illustrates one of the key differences between the Philippines and the western world. 


A Culture of Sharing...EVERYTHING


If you pull it out, you better be ready to share it. That's right, everything is's the Philippine way. Filipinos might feel uncomfortable eating  a snack on a crowded bus without offering some to those around them.  There is quite a bit of social etiquette in this culture.  Dinner for a group is ordered "family-style", and you'll always find that nobody wants to be the one to eat the last bite of food (the "piece of shame" on the plate. Not even I will do this anymore!


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A Look at the Filipino Family

We, as westerners, are independent; Filipinos are interdependent.  We grow up and are encouraged to "leave the nest" when we turn 18...Filipino parents may be devastated if their children ever decide to leave home! Yes, in many ways, a Filipino family is the complete opposite of ours. Our parents may feel that they brought us into this world, and that they owe us.


Traditionally, children in the Philippines owe their parents everything. Of course, the most mentioned difference is sending our parents to a "center for the elderly" when they get older.  A traditional Filipino family would never consider such an option - and it has very little to do with economics. Almost every Filipino family is headed by a father whose dream it is to support his children all the way to a college graduation - preferably with honors.


"Ultra" Modesty - and its Possible Negative Effects?

From a western perspective, modesty seems to be practiced to extremes here - nobody wants to appear to be overacting or "O.A.".  It seems like kids growing up in a Filipino family are discouraged from being too proud of their abilities and accomplishments.  Sometimes I wonder if the fear of being perceived as a "show off" might keep some Filipinos from "aiming higher" and really pursuing success.

Customer Service

One area where westerners get frustrated here is customer service.  I think perhaps because many Filipino customers don't want to complain and cause an employee to "lose face", the overall service at a restaurant or hotel suffers in the long run.


Standards just seem to be lower (*update* - things seem to be improving since I wrote this 2 years ago!).  I've heard it's a very "American" thing to complain about services and products, though Europeans definitely do it, too. It may seem like a bad thing, but I believe it can really "raise the bar" for all establishments over time, and the customers are the ones who win in the end. 


For the sake of being globally competitive, I would like to see the service-standards in the Philippines raised, while somehow preserving that traditional Filipino politeness and etiquette at the same time. 


Filipinos: Demand more!  You work hard for your money, I say get the most out of it. 


Tipping Culture in the Philippines

* One thing worth mentioning is that it's not really a "tipping culture" here, so servers don't have the same incentive to provide exceptional service.  Sadly, not only do they not receive tips, but people in these sectors really don't get paid much at all, either.  So foreigners, please go easy on them.  Another thing to mention is that locals in Manila are much better at speaking up and complaining than anywhere else.

White sand beach - Panglao, Bohol
White sand beach - Panglao, Bohol
Black sand beach - Dauin, Negros
Black sand beach - Dauin, Negros


Bahay Kubo in Siquijor
Bahay Kubo in Siquijor

Be patient This is not your country, things work differently here.  Learn to relax, enjoy life a bit more, realize that life's too short to run yourself into the ground and get too wound up over bad traffic or "slow" service.


Scams and Warnings

Filipinos don't generally try to rip people off like it happens in places like Thailand and Vietnam.  Still though, it's a good idea to always count your change.  We are very used to just putting the change in our pocket without a second thought - and some sneaky employees (in Manila and Cebu) know that. 


I've heard this from locals AND expats:  Filipinos are very patient and very tolerant, but do NOT push them too far.  It's very hard, but once you get them to THAT point, their personal sense of pride and/or honor may come into play, and if you start fighting, they may not stop until they've finished the job. 



Drama and Jealousy in Philippine Culture?

If you end up in a relationship here, buckle your seat belt.  Perhaps it's the Spanish blood, but relationships here can be passionateFiery...and with loads of jealousy and drama.  Drama seems to be a form of entertainment here, and as a local explained to me, maybe it comes from the close-knit family dynamic.


Locally known as "chismis". Everybody knows everybody's business, and gossiping about it also seems to be a form of entertainment.  Watching a "telenovela" (soap opera) on TV will give you a good idea of just how dramatic the culture can possibly be.  I guess when you look at the situation with men's wives and mistresses, it makes sense that jealousy would be a part of the equation.

The Misconception About Filipinas Marrying For a Green Card


Yes, it is largely untrue. In fact, I know a lot of expats who have escaped their own countries to come live in the Philippines - a place where life is good; no cold winters, everything is affordable, and regulations are more relaxed.  Again, when you realize how close-knit the Filipino family is, you realize being on the other side of the world is probably the LAST thing a Filipina want to do.


Sunset in Siquijor
Sunset in Siquijor
Island hopping in El Nido
Island hopping in El Nido

1 Year Living In the Philippines - Time To Say Goodbye

Local man looking out over the Batad Rice Terraces, Ifugao
Local man looking out over the Batad Rice Terraces, Ifugao

I have spent an entire year exploring and living in this beautiful country.  I became a student of Philippine culture, and I have tried to learn not just the Filipino language, but Cebuano, and 3 other dialects as well. On multiple occasions I have actually even ENJOYED balut (fertilized duck egg). I found "my voice" while exploring countless videoke bars in the provinces...I have been known to sing "Pusong Bato" and "My Way" (Filipino karaoke classics) when I get the chance. I slept in a candle-lit nipa hut in the lush green mountains of Luzon. I swam with giant sea turtles off of Apo Island.


In Manila I crossed Edsa on foot and learned the complex jeepney routes. I went fishing in Bacuit Bay, rode "top load" (on top of the jeepney) on one of the world's most dangerous roads in Ifugao, and went to a "witchdoctor's" festival on the island of Siquijor.


I don't know how it's possible, but I have been both hardened AND softened by my experience here. This is a good thing. I have tried my best to curb my judgment and accept this culture just as it is. I love the Philippines.


To all I have met along the way, I sincerely thank you for making me feel so welcome and at home here. When I look through my friends list on Facebook, it's pretty clear that I have my very own "Filipino Family" now! I seem to have just as many connections on this side of the world as I do on the other!


When I get on the plane tomorrow I imagine it's going to be VERY hard. 


We WILL meet again. 


- Nathan Allen



PS...these are my perceptions based on my time here.  If you have anything to add or correct, please do post and let me know! 


If you "like" I Dreamed Of This on FB (see below), there are hundreds more photos and stories from my time in the country. I just started this site 2 weeks ago and really appreciate all the wonderful support and feedback!


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About The Author

Nathan Allen is the creator of the travel blog and website "I Dreamed Of This".  His dream as a little boy was to travel to far off lands and immerse himself in the different cultures of the world.  You can follow him by liking the FB page HERE.

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Nathan Allen has spent 2 years taking photos and documenting the Philippines.  A long-term traveler, he lives by the motto "spend less, see more".  Follow him HERE.


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