I recently had quite a significant culture shock moment from a most unexpected place. And really, that makes sense: culture shock comes upon you when you couldn’t have imagined things going any differently from your expectations and then you suddenly find that you have no idea how to manage and your world is turned upside down for a while.
My plan for the day seemed simple enough: I had received a package from home and I had to go to the post office with the care-of designee from St. Scho to retrieve it, and while I was there I planned to mail the stack of postcards I’d been accumulating in my time here. Accomplishing those two things took all morning. And I couldn’t have prepared myself for the experience.
First off, parcel pick-up took us to the basement of the post office, where I had to pay PhP 100 when I turned in the slip that had notified me that I had a package to retrieve. After handing over my ID and signing a form, we were told to wait while they looked for my package. After they found it, we had to go over to another counter while they opened it to inspect it. Ms. Mae, the care-of designee for the parcel, told me they had to see if there was anything of value in there that I’d have to pay taxes on, like jewelry or new clothes. Since I was only expecting a few extra Milwaukee/Wisconsin themed trinkets like magnets and keychains to give as gifts to people I’d befriended and worked with here, I wasn’t worried. However, the first thing the postal worker unwrapped in the package was a small Wisconsin-shaped block of cheese, so I ended up having to pay PhP 1,701 in tax and duty on the parcel – about $40. Of course, that was only after having to fill out more forms and wait again for three postal workers to argue about my package in rapid-fire Tagalog. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they sounded frustrated, and Ms. Mae seemed a bit stressed about their conversation as well.
After paying the wholly unexpected tax, which hurt my soul all the more because PhP 1,700 is enough to live off of for a week here, even at 3 meals a day, we went upstairs to mail my postcards and be done with it. After asking at one window, and waiting in line at another, we finally found the correct window to inquire about foreign mail. I handed the postal worker my stack of postcards, and she was going to put them through a machine that would stamp the postage value on them, but Ms. Mae told her that I wanted stamps. (I had let her know I also wanted to get stamps and mail my postcards when we went to pick up the parcel). This seemed to agitate the worker, and Ms. Mae again asked me “meter or stamps”? Thinking that it wouldn’t be too much extra effort to buy the real stamps to send home on my postcards, I said stamps would be fine. This angered the worker still further, and she and Ms. Mae were having a somewhat heated conversation in Tagalog, after which she passed a large sheet of stamps and a small pot under the window towards us. Unbeknownst to me, stamps here in the Philippines are not adhesive – you have to glue each one on individually, and postcards to the US are PhP 13 – so one PhP 10 stamp and three PhP 1 stamps per card. This took me so off-guard, and I couldn’t even figure out how to get glue out of the pot with the little plastic applicator she had provided, so Ms. Mae patiently glued on the stamps for each of the 14 items I was mailing.
I felt so bad –I had not realized how much of a hassle it would be to get a package here (I didn’t even expect to have to go to the post office, because I’ve ordered things internationally from Amazon that have arrived at my door with the customs declaration taped to the outside), and when I included Ms. Mae as the designee from St. Scho on the address I gave my dad, I implicated her in this process. Then I replied “stamps” to what I thought was a simple “either/or” question and created even more trouble for her and the employees here. And all the while, each step required lengthy conversations in Tagalog which I did not understand and which seemed angry (on the part of the postal workers, directed towards me). I felt so confused and thrown off today, not understanding the process, the work it took to accomplish fairly straightforward things, or the conversations taking place about me. I couldn’t even understand how to affix the stamps to the postcards! On the one hand, I’m so glad Ms. Mae was with me, but I feel terrible for subjecting her to all of the hassle.
Tomorrow I get another taste of bureaucracy, and I’m not sure what to expect, as Ms. Mae hardly bat an eyelash at today’s post office hassle, but she’s praying for us for the ordeal we’ll face tomorrow. We have to go to the Immigration Office to renew our visas, as the ones we were issued are only good for 59, and we’re staying for a total of 63 days. Originally we were advised to pay a fine for overstaying 4 days at the airport when we arrived to go through customs and catch our flight home, but after I looked into it I realized that on our visas (which are not the standard 30 day pass that the above situation would have been viable for) overstaying would have been a serious offense, we would have been detained in the airport jail, prevented from leaving the country, and gotten black marks on our records. So after subsequent follow-up I got confirmation that we really do need to have our visas extended – even though it means paying for the default 30 day extension that we’ll only use 4 days of. I’m preparing for tomorrow to be a lot of long lines and red tape, but hopefully at the end of it all we’ll be cleared to stay in the country until our return flight. Fingers crossed!