I’ve been here for a couple days now, and I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of things, or at least know what to expect in certain places. I’ll share here some of what I’ve learned so far, a “Filipino Culture 101” kind of thing:
The Philippines is an archipelagic nation, and there’s a running joke that how many islands it’s composed of depends on whether it’s low or high tide. But the number is about 7,001 – 400 of which are named, and fewer that are inhabited. The three main island groupings are, from north to south, Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Manila, the capitol, is in the northernmost of these, in Luzon. The Philippines is no stranger to disaster – it’s geographic location makes it prone to typhoons, earthquakes, flash floods, and volcanic eruptions, and these are compounded by social problems like extreme poverty, unemployment, environmental exploitation, and terrorist activity relating to mining rights in the south. They’ve also had a history – past and present – of colonization and occupation by foreign powers. But despite all of this, the Filipino people are some of the friendliest and happiest I’ve ever met, characterized by a love of singing, food, piety, and generosity.
The Philippines was “discovered” in the 1500s and colonized by Spain (who named this new land after their king, Philip). They were ruled by Spain for over 800 years, and this legacy can still be seen in the Hispanic names of the majority of the population and the deep Catholic faith the people here have. Although there are some Protestant and Muslim minorities, the religious demographics are overwhelmingly Catholic.
The Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898, largely due to the influence of Jose Rizal, a man of many professions and talents who inspired the people to revolution through his writing and ideas. Rizal is heralded today as the “national hero” of the Philippines, garnering respect and admiration much like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln do in the States. Unfortunately, this independence did not last long, as the Philippines soon became an annex to the United States when Spain “ceded” it to America after the Battle of Manila Bay. In 1942, the Japanese had a military presence here and bombed much of Manila and elsewhere, although the US attempted to challenge the Japanese hold on what they considered their territory.
Today, the Philippines is considered its own Republic, but it exists in a neocolonial state, as its economy is a source of cheap labor and raw materials for foreign nations and remains a captive market for foreign goods. The Philippines exports people, not products, as many Filipinos find that working abroad pays better. This means that useful services are leaving the country instead of benefitting their own native people. There are 11.2 million here who are un/underemployed, and this year marks the worst jobs crisis in the history of the Filipino economy. There are 23.7 million “official poor,” but the poverty line is established at P52, which is a little over ONE US dollar. If you can afford to buy one bottle of family-sized Coke per day, you’re not considered poor here. 80,000 children a year die of preventable diseases (it’s very common to see very young children sleeping and begging in the streets), and 60% of Filipinos die having never seen a doctor in their life. For those that do visit hospitals, the conditions are extremely unsavory – one single person bed is often forced to accommodate three patients who share it. Education is also problematic: 66% have an elementary education, 43% finish high school, and only 14% of Filipinos earn a college degree. Although the Philippines is an extremely rich country in terms of natural resources, it is not the Filipino people who decide what happens to them: their economy is controlled by foreign investments and influences who control the economy. For example, although the Philippines has extensive nickel and coppers reserves, they have no steel industry, and 98% of their mineral production is exported.
On a brighter note, the Philippines has one of the highest biodiversities in the world. Of 105 amphibious species in the world, 85 are found in the Philippines. Of 179 land mammals, 111 are found here. This is home to two-thirds of the world’s reptiles, and 69.8% of all known insect species. The Philippines has the highest coral count in the world, and is home to the world’s largest eagle (Philippine Eagle), the largest terrestrial venomous snake (King Cobra), the largest snake (Reticulated Python), the largest species of turtle (Leatherback), the largest shark (Whale Shark), and the largest species of stingray!
Here are some other things I’ve noticed so far:
- Random strangers on the street will acknowledge us because we’re white and obviously foreign. We’ll get waved at, and “Hello ma’am” is commonly heard, which confused me at first because with the accent I thought they were calling me “mom”!
- Lots of stray animals – dogs and cats just relaxing on the sidewalk in the way of pedestrian traffic, not caring at all.
- Malls and some retail stores have (armed!) guards stationed at entrances and exits to check your bags.
- SO MANY EMPLOYEES. I mentioned unemployment rates, but you wouldn’t know it by looking in the stores! Even very small restaurants have a large staff, but this is most pronounced in malls and retails stores, because employees in department stores are employed by the brand, not the store. So each brand being sold in-store sends 2-3 salespeople to that section. In an appliance store, in a department store, this holds ture. This is not secure work, however, as these salespeople work on 5 month contracts after which they are let go. No benefits, no security. Still, this was quite the culture shock coming from somewhere where you have to wander the store in search of an employee to answer your question or direct you – here they practically leap at you offering their help or advertising their brand.
- TRAFFIC IS HAZARDOUS. Manila traffic is legendary. Entire mornings and afternoons can be last trying to get from point A to point B, and a safe bet is to always double your estimated travel time. Two hour journeys to provinces outside of Manila can easily become four. And Manila is not at all pedestrian friendly – very few walk signals, a guard who enforces stoplights (sometimes they’re treated as just a suggestion!) if you’re lucky. Oftentimes if you want to cross the street, you just have to confidently assert yourself and insert yourself into traffic with an air that says you expect traffic to stop for you. Most of the times it will – most. But you really have to watch out for pedicabs, motorbikes, and other small vehicles that will try to make 3rd, 4th, and 5th lanes in the road, squeezing in where they can. You also have to watch for cars and jeepneys turning into your path unexpectedly, having cut across several lanes of traffic or disregarding their red light at an intersection to do so.
- “Comfort Rooms,” the polite term for toilets here. These can be a challenge. It’s advised that you bring a roll of TP with you when you go out, because there’s no guarantee that a public restroom will have a supply. A lot of toilets here are the squatting kind, and have very short doors that even I at 5’ 2” stand head and shoulders above.
- At least where we’re staying, we have a bucket and a dipper, and no hot water. Although the showerhead works, it’s wasteful. To conserve water, it’s expected we fill up our pail and use the dipper to pour over ourselves and rinse off.
- Families living on the street. (Kids, babies, and pets too). Many live inside pedicabs, which are very very small. I’ve seen hammocks strung up inside vendor carts, and my favorite, strung up between a street sign and a tree on the street corner dangling precariously close to traffic (especially given the way people drive here).
- Street children begging. I was shocked to look out the window of my taxi stopped at an intersection to see a child pressing his face to the window, looking at me and gesturing for coins. Oftentimes they’ll come right up to you on the street and tug at your clothing or dance around you as you’re walking. It’s best to just avert your eyes and keep going.
- When multiple people order in a restaurant, the food is brought out when ready, and dishes do not come out all at once. It can be a good 15 minutes from the time your friend gets their meal that you’ll get to eat. Most Filipinos eat family style though, so the first dish that arrives gets sampled by all until their food comes later and is likewise shared.
- Unlimited rice. Filipinos eat rice with everything, so it’s not uncommon to see someone coming around with a bucket of rice and an ice cream scoop, doling out extra scoops. Even in fast food places.
- Cheap cost of services. I went to a restaurant the other day that turned out to be much fancier than I’d expected, requiring you to order a set menu with an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. No problem though, the whole meal (of which my entrée was gourmet duck leg in an orange glaze and au gratin potatoes) amounted to the equivalent of $13.
- Service charge included. The cheap cost of food is including tax and tip which is all listed in one bundled price on the menu.
- In the States, public laundromats are self-serve, and you bring your own detergent and pay to operate the machines. Here, you bring your clothes in, pay a fixed amount per kilo, and pick them up laundered and folded two days later.
- American iconography. Pedicabs can be amusing in the symbols and phrases they choose to borrow and display to appear Western and hip. I’ve seen bastardized depictions of Spongebob, Bugs Bunny, Hello Kitty, Superwoman, the McDonalds logo, and other things like a chess piece, a unicorn, a dinosaur, and my personal favorite, the BMW logo inscribed under the words “Bon Jovi.” Images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are also common illustrations.
- Curfew in women’s dormitories. Ours is 10pm (with lights-out at 10:30pm), and I hear this is common practice. We also have to sign in and out whenever we come and go, and if we want to go out past dark, it’s at the guard’s discretion. Whether he lets us out or not depends on if he’s heard the okay from the housemother, so any “nightlife” plans and intentions in the city must be discussed beforehand.
- At St. Scho the school week is Monday through Saturday, with Monday and Saturday as half-days. The school year here typically starts in June, with April and May being the summer months, as these are typically the hottest months when Filipinos can vacation in the mountains, which are cooler. Also, in the Philippines, high school does not included 11th and 12th grade – these are considered years one and two of college. However, he Philippine educational system is in a period of transition in an attempt to sync up with the West – adding the two additional years to high school and moving the school year start to August. Many people are not happy with this though, as the “summer vacation” will now be scheduled during the rainy months of June-August and the hiccups from “getting rid” of two years of college to add them to high school will cause faculty layoffs. The schools are getting no money from the government to assist with the bumps that will come from this transition.
- “Sari-Sari” stores are everywhere. These are small little shacks, wagons, or lean-to’s where one can find all sorts of items for a very cheap price, sold in the smallest unit possible. You can buy one stick of gum, or one cigarette, etc. There’s no standardization to what these stores sell, as these are privately set up with whatever the vendor gets his hands on and decides to sell on the street.
- “Filipino time.” A promise to be picked up at 8am might mean 8:30am or later, but mostly everyone is okay with this because there’s an understanding that there could be more important things that that person is doing. It’s a very “I’ll get to it when I get to it and I’m not going to stress about it” attitude.