Life in the Philippines – a Westerner’s view

I found myself thinking hard about the differences in cultures lately between my homeland and the Philippines as I was back in America for about 10 days the first part of July. Although I had a good time being amongst friends and family, I really missed Angeles City, my new friends, and new family in the Philippines. The reason I was back in America on such short notice was that I had to go back to California for family business as my grandmother had just passed away after an accident and I wanted to attend the memorial service. Just a quick trip back to the States and then home again to AC in just about a week and a half.It has been two years since I had been back to America and as I suspected there was a slight sense of culture shock that crept in over the time I was there. Not as severe as the last time I was away from home this long.

That time this culture shock in my home country occurred I was in Korea for an extended time while I was in the service and by the time I got back to California from that trip I was thoroughly indoctrinated into the Korean culture and just got used to things not making sense. It is amazing how quickly one starts to disregard sounds around you and not tune into general talking and reading of signs, ads, posters, and the like. When I got back to an English speaking nation it was almost sensory overload as billboards, casual conversations, pop culture, radio, TV, movies, EVERYTHING just screamed out at me for my attention.

One gets used to almost ignoring things and aurally blocking out voices when living in a culture that’s native language is completely foreign to you. Even after living in South Korea for eight years I didn’t speak and read enough Hangul mal (Korean language) to try and take in 100 percent of what I saw and heard day to day. I just sort of walked around ignoring people unless I saw they were directly addressing me. I wasn’t trying to be rude but one could go crazy if you tried to follow every conversation.

So when I got back into America that time all passing conversation seemed to just invade my ears and insist that I listen and process whatever was being said regardless if the talk was directed at me or not. It took quite a while to get used to English being spoken everywhere.

Funny story: Once during that trip I was in a video store my parents had a membership to and the owners were Korean. I overheard them speaking Korean to each other and didn’t even register it in my brain. When I picked out a few titles I spoke to them in Korean to complete the transaction. It wasn’t until I looked up due to the silence on their part and saw their slanted eyes open wide as possible. I’m sure the last thing they expected was this six foot four very white guy speaking their native tongue. I had to do a mental rewind to realize that I had spoken Korean and actually apologized for some reason. They quickly became fast friends and loved when I would visit home. My mother said she never got better service in her life after I left as she continued to use this place.

Anyway, this sense of weirdness was not the case this time as in the Philippines English is so widely used the foreigner is much more comfortable and kind to the senses. No, the culture shock this time wasn’t from language or even music, movies, TV or any other pop reference as I kept up to date pretty well in Angeles. In fact I had seen more current movies than the rest of my family members here in the states.

The differences that struck me the most this trip was the pace of life and sense of purpose everyone seemed to have in America as opposed to the Philippines. Everyone here in America seemed to be in a rush to go somewhere. Hurry and go to the store! Quick, we must get to the restaurant! No time to spare, get your ass to work! Faster! Faster! Faster!

In the Philippines the old joke of being on “Philippine Time” really is a marker to attitude and sense of purpose and not just some trite cliché. It seems that here in the islands nothing is really that important that must be done today. That is unless someone is trying to collect money you owe them, then of course it is imperative you pay at once. Try this the other way around though and attempt collect a debt on time and you will surly get the “come back tomorrow” speech. However, everything else in the RP is just loosely based on a time requirement or focused on any deadline.

This at first drives the Westerner crazy as they are used to watching the clock like a hawk. But once one gets used to this facet of Filipino culture you will have a much better time in these lands and not go crazy thinking everyone you deal with is simply rude and have no work ethic at all. I know some reading this will laugh at the concept of a Filipino work ethic, but away from the bars and clubs there really is one. You just have to look for it.

I have come to learn that the only true motto here is “live for today”. (Unfortunately most Filipinos always seem to be one day behind.)

This concept of only seemingly to care about the here and now invades all levels of the Philippine society. From the way they shop, to the way they drive, to their seemingly care less attitude when it comes to the environment, and even to family structure and support. It seems the only forward planning a Filipino does is to have kids so they will support them when they can no longer work just as they supported their folks when they became adults. Most Filipinos wouldn’t know what a savings account is much less a retirement plan if it bit them on the ass.

I of course am only speaking generally and there are of course many exceptions to this insight, but time and time again I run into the same attitudes and feelings when it comes to money and forward thinking. An example of this is a friend of mine who also lives here in Angeles City and his experience with a local vendor. At least 3 times a week for over a year he stopped by the same lechon manok (BBQ Chicken) stand and bought a chicken for 110 pesos on the way home. One day at the same place, talking to the same guy, buying the same thing he was told by the seller that the price was now 130 pesos. My friend told the guy who he now knew by first name that he did not want to pay that price. He said that the guy had two choices. One, he would pay the 130 pesos but it would be the last time he would buy chicken from this stand, or two, he would pay 110 pesos and continue to patronize this stand for as long as he lived there in Angeles City. Already my friend had spent well over 15,000 pesos on chicken here over the past year but of course the Filipino man wanted the 130 pesos and for a 20 peso profit he lost a customer for life.

This kind of story is not unique. I have heard story after story of incidents like this all across the city. Time after time the Filipino only seems to look forward in time for about 24 hours.

Walk into a grocery store and look at the products for sale. Most items come in small individual sizes. It’s as if everything is travel size. From shampoo to toothpaste to laundry soap to bags of chips to individually wrapped pieces of candy and gum, they are all sold in one time serve containers. Even at the local bulk item store you can only buy cases of the individual serving size products. It is even hard to buy a case of Coke. All sodas are sold one at a time, can by can. I haven’t seen one of those plastic doohickeys that hold together a six pack since I’ve been here.

Another area in the Philippines that strike me as radically different from the states is the lack of manners or conduct when in general society and away from home. Or in more blunt terms: Why the hell is this place so dirty?

Filipinos seem to look at anything that is not personally theirs as inconsequential. Trash is simply thrown down on the ground and it’s assumed someone else will pick it up and clean up after them. This isn’t done in their homes of course. In their own living quarters they are very meticulous and keep their own home very clean, often washing the entire house many times a day because of all the dust in the air. However when away from home they seem to care less how filthy a place is or even acknowledge they are adding to the mess.

I have seen a person sneeze into their hands and then wipe them clean on curtains or seats or anything else that is within reach. I have seen people eating various items such as mangos or pumpkin seeds or peeling an orange and whatever is not eaten is casually tossed down into the street or on the sidewalk. Although public urination has been outlawed for years one can still see many Filipino males simply whip it out and start to write their names on walls with their golden flow. The well known guy that may or may not have been a bold film star that is now sometimes confined to a wheelchair and sits close to Margarita Station won’t even look for some sort of cover when he relieves himself. He just stands up right close to that Internet Center and money exchange place and pees right into the street or on the sidewalk. No one even bats an eye; they just simply walk around him and give him some room. Keep that in mind the next time you are walking to the Ville and see a puddle of water but know it didn’t rain all day. I’d step well clear of that small river of germs if I were you…

The point is that there seems to be no sense of public responsibility. People play their stereos in private residential areas as loud as they want and at all times of the day. Lord help you if there is a birthday party or any sort of special event. The Karaoke machines come out and you will be bombarded with the wailings of someone who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere close to a microphone. (Why does every Filipina think they can sing like Celene Dion?) Speaking of loud obnoxious music, it still cracks me up in a weird way when I hear inappropriate music at certain places. I have heard loud gangster rap with cussing and swearing that would make a prisoner blush played at kid’s birthday parties. I have heard youngsters around the age of 10 to 12 singing Shaggy songs, “…there we were buck naked, banging on the bathroom floor.” with all the gusto of Shaggy himself. Just plain weird…

The invasion of privacy is no stronger when they think it is good for you as well. This last Holy Week I had the extreme displeasure of having one of the Holy Booths with the loud speaker about 2 doors down from my house. For 5 days 24 hours a day I was tortured to religious ranting being screamed monosyllabically into a cheap stereo that cracked the reader’s voice. The shrill was loud enough to keep me up until I simply passed out from exhaustion. Holy Week is the only time I prayed for a brown out. They were the only relief from that constant noise.

It may seem as if I am becoming bitter about life here in the Philippines but that is certainly not the case. I just really like American’s sense of public responsibility and the ability to look beyond today. I enjoy eating good food at any hour of the day. (The best Korean BBQ I have ever had is right in my home town of San Jose, California.) I love being able to find what I want and in a decent size that will last longer than that afternoon in stores. (You will never see anything labeled “Family Size” in the Philippines.)

Events and things like these make me miss home sometimes where a man’s home is his castle but when in public there still are some societal rules most people follow. There are exceptions to all of this of course, but for the most part this area of Filipino “culture” is one I do not appreciate about the country. If I could only get the slow easy pace of life, prices for things, and most of all those warm Filipinas so accommodating to be with at home in the states and I would really have the best of both worlds.

However that is just not possible. I of course pigged out on Taco Bell and Togo’s and enjoyed being in America, but to tell the truth I couldn’t wait to get back to my dusty little town of Angeles.


– Jung

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