A Year Living in the Philippines - And An Honest Look At Philippine Culture - By Nathan Allen
IS THE PHILIPPINES REALLY THAT BEAUTIFUL?
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 have some better perspective, I believe the media just 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. After one year living in the Philippines (in the north and the south), here are my thoughts:
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 the poorer parts of the Philippines, 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.
WEALTH AND HAPPINESS - BIG CITIES VS. THE PROVINCES
Still, I believe nonprofit 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.
You see, very few people in the villages have money - but they are happy. They own very little, but 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 plenty of food they can farm from the sea. A Filipino family like this lives simply, but again, they are happy. From my perspective, this simplicity can teach valuable lessons. It illustrates how, in some cases, poverty is just a state of mind.
ECONOMIC GROWTH - AND THE REPERCUSSIONS
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
There is money in this country...it'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 booming, high tech cities. My brother was shocked to see this photo I took of the Makati, Manila skyline. He never imagined living in the Philippines could be like this. If you have the means, you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on a fancy dinner in an upscale restaurant.
Consumerism - Creating a "Mall Culture"?
This is one of two 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. While it has a few nice tourist attractions such as Intramuros and Rizal Park, to many foreigners, Manila is 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 might spend a good chunk of their income on Frappuccinos and a pair of designer jeans. Then take a jeepney (public transportation) back home to the slums in some cases - with barely a roof over their head. Again, this is the "culture of poverty", and I think it's a byproduct of U.S. style consumerism.
Fast Food - Has it Become Part of Philippine 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.
IT'S MORE FUN....OUTSIDE OF MANILA
*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 city lives.
Speaking of pace, in the Philippines, it's slow. This is island life. In Manila specifically, the traffic and crowds are infuriating. You could spend an hour in line at the grocery store, after you spent 2 hours in traffic just to get there.
(Still, many expats living in the Philippines prefer to stay in Manila. Sleepy island life is great for a week or two, but the city has much more nightlife and things to do.)
If you're interested, I spent a lot of time doing Manila Street Photography - check it out!
I guess I 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...
To me, Manila is essentially a giant version of a Filipino barangay, or neighborhood - and in this sense it's quite impressive. I 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 incredibly social Philippine culture, which I'll touch on later.
A "GOD FEARING" COUNTRY
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 in the Philippines. I remember being 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 culture...it stated that a man with a mistress is not only accepted, it's almost even encouraged.
It's a sign of machismo.
From what I observed while living in the Philippines, it did seem to be true. Things appear to be changing with the younger generations, 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 countless gay stars and celebrities. Almost every Filipino family seems to have at least one openly gay relative. That's why it's surprising there are so many Filipinos that seem to be gay, but are not open about it.
Is it the church's influence? For such a tolerant country with a widely accepted gay population, it's an interesting contradiction. For a bit of background, I grew up in the (gay friendly) state of California.
Filipino Beliefs and Folklore
While living in the Philippines, I began to hear some strange and fascinating stories...
The vast majority of people in the Philippines are Catholic, yet many Filipino beliefs include 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 feeds off her unborn fetus. She also preys on small children, with a specific taste for liver. I'm not making this up!
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...did the Spanish inject this folklore into Philippine culture, or are these uniquely Filipino beliefs? There is little doubt that a belief in these creatures goes against the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Fear - In Many Forms
Parents use these stories to keep their kids well behaved. That's ironic, because many parents seem to believe these stories as well.
While living in the Philippines, locals always told me to be extra careful when going places. Many seemed to fear weather, criminals, and superstitions quite a bit. 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 U.S., news programs here can also be quite negative, dramatic, and even unethical at times.
However, I think geography may play a part as well. The country is comprised of over 7,000 islands, so different groups were usually isolated from each other. It's human nature to fear 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 time and money, but never made the 30 minute journey to the next village - in 50 years of life!)
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 real and constant threat of typhoons, earthquakes, and weather related catastrophes in general.
* With a growing economy and the success of the "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!
FOREIGNERS LIVING IN THE PHILIPPINES - AND THEIR SAFETY
Again, as an expat, locals are always especially concerned for my safety. The irony is that I think it's more dangerous for Filipinos than it is for expats! I've walked alone through many areas of Manila and Cebu at night. It could be that I'm not an easy target, but usually people just smile and yell out "Hey Joe!". Perhaps they're so surprised that they end up forgetting to mug me...Haha.
I suppose the language barrier might intimidate criminals, or they just don't know how a foreigner will react to being robbed (they don't want to risk us fighting back?).
Not sure, but living in the Philippines is much safer than I imagined. In all this time I have never had a problem. As for my Filipino friends, I've heard stories of armed robbery, shootings...etc. 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.
When I headed down south to Cebu and the Visayas, I was shocked that people weren't impressed with the bit of Tagalog I knew. I say this because in Manila, people were flattered that I could speak ANY Tagalog...I guess I got used to it. In Cebu, this wasn't the case...AND they demanded to know why I couldn't already speak Bisaya - their own regional language! Haha.
Honestly, at first I found them kind of rude...but soon began to appreciate their direct communication and 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. They think it should have been chosen as the national language instead of Tagalog. Unfortunately they are also looked down on by many people in Manila.
Cebuanos Prefer English
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...up north it seems to be more watered down - more "western worshiping".
There were times when I almost seemed to embarrass people in Manila by speaking their own language (Tagalog). It was 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 love to see all Filipinos celebrate and take pride in it.
Speaking of which, I was shocked to realize there are so many languages in the Philippines! Many people outside the country think there's 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...
However, when you consider that people speak their own regional language as well, it means that almost everybody 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 languages (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 - I'm pretty sure every Filipino is born with a mic in their hand, singing an Air Supply song.
- Family Oriented Culture - A Filipino Family has a strong bond. Living in the Philippines helps you realize how disconnected we are in the west.
- Most Stunning Beaches / Mountains / Landscapes - Have you seen my photos from my time here? Pictures say a thousand words.
- 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, 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, for just $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!"
Fun Filipino Quirks:
- Filipinos point with their lips... seriously, it's true!
- Filipinos use the expression "nosebleed" when a foreigner comes up to them and asks a question in English. It's like being under so much pressure that they get 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". I got used to this while living in the Philippines.
- Cebu Pacific Airlines has a cartoon airplane for a logo, dancing flight attendants, 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 Filipino families are SO big ( a LOT of birthdays), it's easier to do it this way and not have to remember everybody's name!
"PLEASE WAIT FOR A WHILE SIR"
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. I try to explain to Filipinos that it's basically like saying: "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 a moment", or "wait a sec", like we say in the west. We are not going to only be a moment or a second...what we actually mean is "a while"!! Oh, the irony. Filipinos have that one figured out.
Living in the Philippines has helped me realize that English doesn't always make sense, and I'm glad I didn't have to learn it as an adult. Tagalog is a great language! It just seems more straightforward to me. I can see a brand new word and often pronounce it correctly on the first try. No confusing silent letters, like with English.
THE "KISSING" JEEPNEY DRIVERS...
This is a "jeepney" - a World War 2 jeep converted into public transportation (Filipinos are famous for this - creating 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!
The first time I witnessed this, I was in total disbelief. Doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman. Riders inside the jeepney also smack their lips to tell the driver to stop. Either that, or they 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 fares up to the driver. There is an honor system - but I guess with that many eyes on you as you board, there is tremendous pressure for you to pay!
COMMUNITY, MODESTY, AND "SAVING FACE"
Philippine culture is incredibly social, and food is at the heart of all gatherings. Here, "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, gazing out to the sea. A group of little girls came up to me and asked "malungkot ka?" (Are you sad?) I was actually quite content, just 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. Living in the Philippines, I learned that everything is communal. 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 is ordered "family style", and nobody wants to be the one to take the last bite of food on the plate. This is known as "the piece of shame", and not even I will eat it anymore!
A Look at the Filipino Family
We, as westerners, are independent; Filipinos tend to love being in a group. We "leave the nest" when we grow up and turn 18. Living in the Philippines, your parents may be devastated if you 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. In Philippine culture, children owe their parents everything. We might send 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.
"Ultra" Modesty - and its Possible Negative Effects?
To outsiders, Filipinos may come across as ultra modest. Nobody wants to appear to be overacting or "O.A." Kids are discouraged from being too proud of their accomplishments. Sometimes I wonder, could this fear of being perceived as a "show off" keep some Filipinos from "aiming higher" and pursuing success?
Customer service can be frustrating for expats living in the Philippines. Perhaps Filipino customers don't want to complain and cause an employee to "lose face". This could lower the overall service at a restaurant or hotel in the long run.
Standards just seem to be lower (*update* - things seem to be improving since I wrote this 5 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 complaints may help "raise the bar" over time. Customers are the ones who win in the end.
(*Actually, locals in Manila seem to be better at speaking up and complaining than anywhere else)
For the sake of being globally competitive, I hope the service standards in the Philippines will rise. I suppose the challenge will be preserving that traditional Filipino politeness and etiquette at the same time.
Tipping Culture in the Philippines
* Tipping doesn't seem too common in Philippine culture - servers aren't paid well, either. This could explain why they don't always provide the best service. So foreigners, please go easy on them.
ADVICE FOR TRAVEL / LIVING IN THE PHILIPPINES
Let It Go.
Be patient, this is not your country. Learn to relax. Life is too short to get all wound up about slow service and traffic. The greatest lesson I learned from Filipinos was letting things go.
This is more than just good advice - in a city like Manila, it's quite literally the only way to hold on to your sanity.
Money Scams and Warnings
Filipinos generally don't try to rip people off in like in Thailand or Vietnam. Still though, if you're living in the Philippines (in Manila or Cebu), it's always a good idea to count your change. We usually put the change in our pocket without a second thought. Some sneaky employees know that.
I've heard this from locals AND expats: Filipinos are very tolerant and patient, but do NOT push them too far. It's rare, but if their sense of pride & honor is damaged, they'll reach a boiling point. If you start fighting then, they may not stop until they've finished the job.
Drama and Jealousy in Philippine Culture?
If you're an expat and end up in a relationship here, buckle your seat belt. Perhaps it's the Spanish blood, but relationships can be passionate. Fiery...and with loads of jealousy and drama. In fact, drama seems to be a form of entertainment here. Speaking of which, now for one of my least favorite things about living in the Philippines...
Locally known as "chismis". Everybody knows everybody's business, and they love to pass the time with gossip. Watching a "telenovela" (soap opera) on TV will give you an idea idea of how dramatic Philippine culture can be. When you look at the situation with men's wives and mistresses, the jealousy does make sense.
The Misconception About Filipinas Marrying For a Green Card
Yes, it is largely untrue. In fact, I know a lot of expats who left their own countries to start living in the Philippines. It's a place where life is good; no cold winters, most everything is affordable, and regulations are more relaxed. Again, think about how close knit the Filipino family is. Being on the other side of the world is probably the LAST thing a Filipina wants to do.
Hotels and Guest Houses
Every price range is available in the Philippines. Manila, Boracay, and Bohol have top notch accommodations. I recommend Booking.com.
1 Year Living In the Philippines
I spent 12 months exploring and living in the Philippines...and became a student of Philippine culture in the process. I tried my best 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 sang Filipino videoke classics "Pusong Bato" and "My Way".
In Manila I crossed Edsa on foot and learned the complex jeepney routes. In the lush mountains of Luzon, I slept in a candle lit nipa hut. I swam with giant sea turtles off of Apo Island.
I went fishing in Bacuit Bay, and rode "top load" on a jeepney in Ifugao. I even attended a "witch doctor's" festival on the enchanted island of Siquijor.
Time to say Goodbye, Philippines
My experiences here have both hardened AND softened me. This is a good thing. I have tried my best to curb my judgment and accept this culture just as it is. Living in the Philippines was truly unforgettable - and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
To all I have met here, I sincerely thank you for making me feel so welcome. When I look through my friends list on Facebook, it's pretty clear I have my own "Filipino Family" now! I have more connections here than I do at home!
When I get on the plane tomorrow I imagine it's going to be VERY hard.
We WILL meet again.
PS...these are my perceptions based on time living in the Philippines. If you have anything to add or correct, please do post and let me know!
Updated October 2, 2018
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