Monday, August 6, 2018

Musings on Leaving Home

Today marks 54 years since I left home for California at the age of 19. When I think back on that trip and the early days after my arrival in L.A., so many changes have taken place in my life since then, it's as though that early me was someone else.

Of course I suppose almost all adults experience that kind of realization.  Yet, in my wildest dreams back then  I never thought I'd wind up spending my twilight years living abroad, let alone in the Philippines,  a place which at that time  I knew very little about. Naturally, I had even less of an inkling that I would eventually meet and marry someone from there and that we would wind up   leaving the U.S. to live in that country. 

Contrast all that with some of my high school classmates with whom I've reconnected on Facebook who've  never left my home town, except maybe for college but which was also in the same state. I sometimes reflect on what life must be like to stay in the same city from childhood through  old age. And I have to wonder whether those who do so ever fully mature for not having engaged in the real world outside their comfort zone. 

How about you, fellow expats? Do you ever ask yourself how you would have turned out if you hadn't left the place where you spent your childhood years, and for that matter your country of origin?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Digging In For the Long Haul

When my wife Lydia and I retired  and relocated from the U.S.  to the Philippines, in 2005  it was mainly for financial considerations. I didn't expect that we would ever return to the States. Yet despite my eagerness for us to start a new life In Lydia's native country I  was sorry to have to leave America and wished that it weren't necessary to take that step..

Now It so happened that at that time George W. Bush had recently begun his second term as  POTUS, and I really considered  him a dumb incompetent and that  his political and economic policies, especially the ones  that eventually  resulted in the Great Recession in 2007 were abhorrent. Then there was his mishandling  of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.

Yet as bumbling and inept as Bush was through all his missteps, one thing I never considered him to  be was malicious and demagogic. Donald Trump of course is these and more. He has  unleashed a climate of bigotry among his base of supporters that has turned the U.S. into an ideological cesspool by among other recent actions lending support including  a pardon for a federal conviction to right wing extremist and ant-Semite  Dinesh D'Souza.   Further, Trump has disgraced  the office of the presidency with his narcissistic erratic behavior and destructive discourse. He lies like a rug almost daily and should have already impeached based on his violation of the Constitution's Emoluments Clause .  I shudder at the prospect of ever having  to  repatriate to a country with this sad excuse of a human being as its leader.  

Life  in the Philippines is often frustrating. But  the difficulties that we've  encountered in living here for the past 13 years pale in comparison to the hardships we would likely face if we were to repatriate. And those in turn would be compounded by the constant awareness  that it's Trump and his fellow Republicans who are largely responsible  for growing economic difficulties that elderly and other Americans of modest means are experiencing. 

So Lydia and I are content with the life that we've made here. In fact when people often ask whether I ever wish I could go home, my reply is that I'm already there. And with the state of affairs  in the they are now, that's more  the case than ever.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Philippine Poverty and Overpopulation: Dire But Not Hopeless

In a given society where the majority of its members live in poverty, this condition is usually structural. And you can really see that  in the Philippines where there's not much upward mobility from the lower ranks because the odds are stacked against them. What rigs the game of course is their sheer numbers and their percentage of the total population. So under these circumstances in a supply and demand setting, naturally the lowest bidder will get the job. This is despite a national minimum wage law which is not very effective because it's base is too low, has many exemptions, and it's is not well enforced anyway, especially outside of Metro-Manila.

So it's no wonder that members of the middle class and above here are often too lazy to wash their own dishes or raise their own children. They can--and do--get live-in domestic help for a song. Recent legislation has required that these employers pay into SSS (the counterpart  of security) for their helpers. But it's questionable as to how many will really comply with this law .

On the other hand, Filipinos on the whole do value higher education (or at least the prestige in having a degree) Formerly,  primary and secondary public schooling was limited to a combined total of 10 years. With  with the recent addition of seventh and eighth grades it's  now 12 years. And starting next year tuition-free college education at public colleges and universities will become available.

But all these reforms will be for naught if the people here, especially the poor,   don't start practicing birth control on a wide scale,  Now that the Reproductive Health act is in effect, it will be easier for them to do so despite  the Catholic Church's pressure to keep them barefoot and pregnant. But they need to be shown how limiting family size will work to their advantage. If this happens, a positive response may well  finally break the cycle of poverty that has stranded the Philippines in a third world economy and may also ameliorate the damaged culture that has accompanied it as well. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gimme (A Tax) Shelter

For various reasons including poor service I had planned to rollover my 401(k) account form my present custodian to a new financial institution. In  doing so, I have discovered a serious problem that potentially affects all American expatriates who also  have retirement accounts in U.S.based financial firms.  The door is closing or has already closed against American citizens living abroad who  hold such assets. And many of these companies are not only refusing to accept rollovers or other fund transfers, some are kicking existing account holders to the curb by unilaterally closing and paying off their accounts, possible  tax repercussions to these customers notwithstanding.

Why are they doing this? The reason is explained very well in an article in "International Advisor: us institutions to expats take your retirement''.  Briefly, since the early 2000's security has  become a paramount issue with banks and other financial  institutions. So they want to know whom they're dealing with in their  customer base, which they really can't for account holders who live abroad. But it's only recently that they've intensifying this campaign and at the expense of us expats. Further, partly thanks to FATCA, foreign governments have started reciprocally creating unnecessary red tape for U.S. financial custodians firms whose expat customers. reside in their jurisdictions. So these firms just don't feel that dealing with overseas Americans is worth all this hassle. They are taking the easy way out, and there are no federal regulations to stop them.

A few days ago I contacted a financial consultant who was mentioned in the above ''International Advisor''piece, He suggested Charles Schwab as a possible option for stranded expats, and according to their website  ''Explore Schwab’s services for U.S. Expats''  they do indeed accept accounts for Americans living abroad. However a responder in the ''International Advisor'' comment section said that's not so, Charles Schwab is also giving their expat customers the boot. Sure enough I found a site that confirms this policy  ''Charles Schwab Announces Account Closures For US Citizens In Five Countries, More Expected''.

The Trump administration favors deregulation of  the finance industry. Hence  it it's unlikely that  Americans residing outside the country will get any relief for our predicament in the near future from that government  branch. However the legislative branch may be a different story when it comes to recourse. So today I sent a message regarding this issue to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren who as a political and economic progressive and member  the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs may be of  assistance in correcting this state of affairs.  Whether that actually happens of course remains to be seen. So at least for the time being,  limited options may be a brick in the wall that we expats, despite our being American citizens, will just have to put up with.

Friday, June 17, 2016


My wife Lydia recently had some matters to take care of at the Bureau of Immigration, but she arrived  early and the office was still closed. So she went to a nearby Starbucks to kill time and have a refreshment until the the doors opened.  This got me to thinking: What if Starbucks operated like the BI or for that matter like most government offices in the Philippines that serve the public. I suppose the procedure for,  say, getting a cup of coffee would go something like this:

Upon entering Starbucks, proceed to Window 1. Submit  two pieces of identification plus two  1x1 photos, and request Application Form SBA in duplicate.

Complete the original SBA and file it at  Window 6.

Present  the completed SBA duplicate copy at Window 4 and request order form SBO in triplicate. If you want cream and sugar, complete Form SBCS and attach it to the SBO.

Present the completed SBO forms A,B, and C to the Cashier and pay the required amount along with a P50  Express Lane fee. Retain the duplicate copies along with your payment receipt.

Present your SBO duplicate copies B and C and your payment receipt at Window 3 for approval and  validation of your order.

To complete your purchase return to Window 4 and submit your validated SBO duplicate copy B.  Retain Copy C.

Allow 7 working days for preparation and completion of your purchase.

To receive your order, present SBO Copy C plus two forms of identification at Window 2. Your purchase will then be released.

Now wouldn't it be great instead if  Government offices were run like Starbucks? To this  end here's what President-Elect had this to say as per an article  'No Queues Please'' in the Malaya Business Insight: ''I hate seeing people queueing (sic). My proposal is that clearances and business permits will be processed within 72 hours''.  If he can institute these kinds of reform when  he takes office, imagine walking up to the counter (no more windows) of a government agency and hearing the clerk  say "Good morning, may I take your order?''

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Retired But Not Retiring

Until the early 2000's when I was still living and working in California, I never would have dreamed that I would be spending my "golden years" in the Philippines. Yet as a result of my wife Lydia's persuasiveness and careful planning, it's been more than 10 years now since we retired and expatriated to this country.And as I have mentioned in previous posts, it was one of the smartest moves we ever made.In February I will celebrate my 71st birthday. This puts me well into the senior range, which in the Philippines officially begins at age 60.

As a foreigner,  with the exception  of  20% senior citizens discount on certain goods and services,  I still receive many of the perks and privileges that come with advanced age in this country, such as access to the senior checkout and lanes  in supermarkets and priority service at government offices. Another is the option to use the senior section on the MRT and LRT commuter trains here in Metro-Manila.That is a benefit which I very much appreciate. It's not much fun to have to ride in the other rail cars which are often jam packed with passengers, face to armpit and where I was pick-pocketed not just once but twice. 

But aside from  necessary excursions outside the home where they might avail of the above services, traditionally, the elderly in the Philippines often just  stay indoors where they are encouraged to spend their remaining years in a sedentary manner while family members and / or house help take care of them. And if they do go out, it's usually with  assistance.In that regard, as seniors my wife and I are anomalies. We don't live with family members and don't have hired help. For despite our ages,  we are fortunately able to maintain an independent lifestyle.  Lydia is a few years older than I am but still moves like a teenager and does extensive housework daily. And despite an acute and occasionally painful medical condition, I still have the stamina to run errands and manage personal affairs for both of us that occasionally require day trips outside local community. Lydia also does this as well, and in addition she travels to her home province at least once a month where she is following up on a complicated legal case, and which is one that requires the  energy and knowledge that would exhaust a person half her age. To that end, I spend much of my time acting as her "gofer" to ease her burden in this matter, which of course is  the least I can do.

However,  for us as seniors,  circumstances such as physical and mental fitness can turn on a dime for the worse. So  the question is whether there will come a time when our years catch up to us and we are no longer capable of conducting our present autonomous lifestyle. Lydia's response is not to pretend that scenario can't happen but rather to enjoy life in the present while taking appropriate precautions for the future.  I  think that's sage advice which is as reasonably optimistic as it sensibleat any age.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Jac Liner: Unsafe and Insincere?

I suppose that by now I should be used to the overall substandard quality of customer service that businesses in the Philippines provide. Still  it's really irritating when companies and government offices as well give the impression of concern  for consumer satisfaction by furnishing  a page in their website for receiving complaints but then ignore the comments or correspondence placed therein. Such were two experiences that I had with the bus company Jac Liner Inc.

In order to register one complaint (regarding lack of rest stops on a particular route)  I completed their "Contact Us" page but received no response. So in the matter of my second problem, which involved personal safety, this time I sent a letter via email attachment directly  to the Customer Service Manager. Here's what generated this correspondence: A few weeks ago, when I boarded a Jac Liner bus in Lucena City, Quezon, I arranged with both the driver and the conductor to let me off at the SM Megamall stop in Mandaulyong City, Metro-Mla. Instead  with no warning the driver passed up that location and dropped me further upon Edsa into the middle of the busy intersection with Ortigas that had no access to the curb, and it was only with great difficulty that I extricated myself out of that hazardous situation.

When I didn't get a reply to my letter, I then followed up by contacting a government regulatory agency that oversees the operations of public transportation companies, the LTFRB,  via their website contact page and (not surprisingly)  did not get a response.

In my letter to Jac Liner, I gave notice that if they chose to ignore my concern that I would take the matter public. So if nothing else, I hope that this post will alert those who utilize this transportation company's services or are otherwise  interested about this company's  apparent negligence and indifference to passenger safety.

In short there's no excuse for  such companies to disregard the concerns of the very public who after all keep them in business in the first place.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Milestone

August 27 marked the 10th anniversary of my arrival in the Philippines. Overall despite some bumps in the road, my wife Lydia and I have had a good life here as expatriate retirees.  How this all began was that Lydia had  dreamed of and had actually planned for us to make this move a few years before she  told me about her desire for us to relocate to her native land. Initially I was reluctant to go along with what I considered to be an outlandish idea. But the more I thought about it, the more  I realized how in many ways it made sense. After a while, I was totally on board.

However, we had no guarantee that our plans would succeed. And in order to accomplish our goal, this meant taking risks from which there was no turning back.  Giving up our materially comfortable lives in California and starting over in a foreign environment was not an easy consideration. And dissatisfied as I was with my work, leaving my job with its steady paycheck was a daunting prospect. But once we took these giant leaps and began our lives anew in Metro-Manila, everything more or less fell into place.One thing I will always remember about that time is that  thanks to Lydia, who arrived here nine months earlier in order to pave the way and get us settled in, we were able to establish our lives in this country rather smoothly. And to that end, Lydia's family members were also--and still are very supportive--for which I am most grateful.

Adjusting to retirement itself was no problem at all, even  to the much smaller income that we are now receiving than when we were working. This is because living expenses in the Philippines are for the most part less than that in the U.S. So the  dollar goes a lot further here. And even after all this time, hardly a day goes by that I'm not thankful for the freedom of no longer having to toil for a living.  I've never understood those who dread the prospect of hanging it up because they think they will be condemned to a life of boredom. Personally, during  these last 10 years my life has been much more meaningful  and productive than it was while I was  employed.

And speaking of adjustments, relocating to a different country of course entails challenges such as adapting to cultural differences. One of these in our case was giving up driving and becoming totally dependent on public transpiration to get around. We have not been behind the wheel once in all the time that we've been here.  Motorists in the Philippines, especially  here in Metro-Manila where we reside, are extremely undisciplined. and traffic is chaotic. Lydia and I spent many years driving in California which has more than its share of crazy drivers and traffic problems, but these are not nearly as nightmarish as local conditions.

Another important matter is health care which for seniors like Lydia and me  is an especially important issue. On the whole, we are satisfied with the quality of medical and dental treatment which we've received here . But  a problem  is the attendant expenses which can really mount up. Overall these costs are a lot less than that in the U.S. However, as a percent  to our retirement income, they have had a serious impact. We do carry private health insurance, but its premiums are steep and its benefits inadequate, leaving us to cover a lot of bills out of our pocket. There is a government healthcare program in the Philippines to which we subscribe called Philhealth, but its coverage is also limited. And speaking of government health care, there's talk that that eventually Medicare from the U.S. will become available for American senior citizens living abroad, which of course would be wonderful. However,  I don't see this happening soon.

The biggest and most time consuming issue that we've encountered is an emotionally bruising and ongoing encounter with the  Philippine legal  system which grinds slowly and inefficiently and like other government branches here has a problem with corruption.  Lydia is a plaintiff in three pending civil  cases, involving personal and /or  family land and title matters. The oldest of these has been dragging on since 2009! 

But regardless of the above shortcomings and hassles, my attachment to and Lydia's roots in the Philippines run deep. In fact we  plan to spend the rest of our lives here. And despite our advanced ages, we still  have projects in the works. For example we are currently  in the midst of renovating  a property  that we own in Lydia's hometown for our visits there. Whether eventually this will become more than just an occasional place to crash remains to be seen.

Lydia and I have come a long way since 2005. Through a continuation of the careful planning and good fortune that has brought us this far, we can only hope that we will be able to sustain the same  modest but comfortable lifestyle that we have enjoyed here for the future as well.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shaking Off an Illusion

What would happen if a 7.2 earthquake were to strike Metro-Manila? Recently, the  MMDA (Metro-Manila Development Authority)  held an area-wide drill that included officials and  the public as well in order to address this concern and prepare people here for such an event. But was this goal accomplished?

Well first of all, according to official estimates in the event of such a quake casualties and property damage would be as follows: 38,000 fatalities and 100,000 injured. Out of 170,000 residences, 22,000 will collapse and 1,200, 000 people will be left homeless.

Yet even as an average person with no training in engineering , I can't help but wonder if these figures are a  serious underestimation. Here's why. For one thing, Residences here are overcrowded due to large families and widespread poverty. In turn the structures that they live in are likely to be unsafe  (which also describes many business buildings in Metro-Manila) due to  overworked, underpaid and hence  sometimes corrupt building inspectors--and many of the buildings may have never been inspected in the first place). So for example when a house collapses, it will likely fall on more than just a few occupants. Imagine that scenario involving thousands of such homes and of course businesses such as malls and highrise office buildings and condos.

Then there is the culture issue. Most Filipinos are not safety conscious. Instead the predominant mentality here is one of fatalism and which is expressed in the popular phrase bahala na. Loosely translated, this maeans "leave it to God". And as a country with a very high rate of observant theists, mainly Roman Catholics,  the tendency here is for people to pray for a favorable outcome through divine intervention, rather than take action to achieve it themselves.  For the most part it seems that they would rather pray than plan.

Another issue is the  the possibility of  panic and stampedes  in crowded venues during this strong temblor, and the looting that would likely follow it.The  MMDA Chairman, Francis Tolentino claims  that thanks to instructions and practice given in the earthquake drill, people would now automatically know to drop, cover, and hold. But will most of them really do that when the time comes?  A national trait in the Philippines  is ningas cogon which is a tendency of people here to be stirred up into feeling a strong interest in or enthusiasm for something today (such as earthquake preparedness) only for it to fade away tomorrow. So whatever lessons or advice those who participated in the quake exercise might have so eagerly learned that day may well have been forgotten or disregarded when it's "go" time.

And what is the status of preparedness  by the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to address looting and other forms of lawlessness following a catastrophic quake?  Are they prepared to enforce a possible executive declaration of martial law if necessary? 

The time of day and day of the week make a difference in this kind of disaster. Obviously, it's going to be a lot worse if it happens at high noon on a weekday than on an early Sunday morning. But a night time quake of this magnitude also has its own hazards e.g. when the lights go out from a likely power interruption. Imagine trying to locate casualties in collapsed buildings under these conditions. And digging them out even in daylight will be difficult given the state of the  art of search and rescue equipment in this third world country.  However, to its credit, Pasig City did conduct their drill at night complete with a blackout of street lights and street closures in some areas to simulate difficult conditions.

In the aftermath of intense seismic activity, providing assistance including shelter, food,and water to millions of displaced survivors could be a nightmare, even though post-quake evacuation sites have already been designated.. Look what happened in Typhoon Yolanda. That was over two years ago and some victims still haven't been adequately cared for. And unlike typhoons and other natural disasters, earthquakes give no warning before they occur. There would be no chance for lowering the casualty rate by taking cover,  preemptive evacuation, or running for high ground.

I posit all the above scenarios as one who like millions of others in the world  has experienced numerous earthquakes under varying conditions. Personally, I've never become accustomed to them and likely never will.  But I do want a realistic assessment from government  authorities of what will likely happen  in the event that a strong one should occur. Unfortunately, for those of us here in Metro-Manila, such a convincing scenario has yet to be presented.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

And She's Got To Get Herself Back to the Garden

For over four years I have been unable to accompany my wife Lydia on her monthly visits to her home province of Quezon in Southern Luzon. This week I  finally did so. Our destination was the  town of Gumaca which is about 6 1/2 hours by bus from Metro Manila.  The scenery along the way in the countryside between towns is lush and verdant,.  which combined with the fact that there were no major delays made the ride fairly pleasant.

This was a special trip for me not just due to the length of time since my last visit, but mainly because this is first time that I've seen the work that has been done on a special project that Lydia started several months ago: renovation of our old house that we had built there many years ago, but which had fallen into ruin as it had not been occupied or properly attended to after we returned to the U.S. and subsequent occupants failed to properly maintain the property. Finally, it was abandoned altogether. and thieves stripped away many of the furnishings. 

Initially, when we returned to the Philippines 10 years ago,  we had planned to sell the property. However,  it turns out that all along  Lydia had really wanted us to have a house in the barrio, a place that we could call our own  no matter how modest and to which we could escape every so often from the urban jungle of Metro-Manila. to the very type of green countryside environment that I saw en route to Gumaca. Importantly, she wanted us to have a place to which we could also permanently relocate if for whatever reason life in the city should become unbearable.

Moreover, she wanted to be able  fulfill her passion for gardening  and landscaping as well as for interior design.  Lydia has done a beautiful job with the latter here in our leased condominium in Eastwood City.  Yet in her mind it's just not the same as decorating one's own home. Now she will be able to indulge her passion for both inside and outside artistry  to her heart's content. In fact she is well on her way to realizing her vision via the unique style in which she is having our house rebuilt. The design  that Lydia created is what she calls   "Hobbit House" and as such is rather whimsical. The roof is a burgundy red;  the front door which is oval shaped(!) will be painted blue-gray; the living room window is circular; and the back door has flower carvings. The cottage itself  is surrounded by a garden with flowers in splashing colors, and right behind the house is a mountain which completes the storybook-like setting. 

And now that I've finally seen the results for myself, I'm totally onboard and couldn't be more proud of her dreams and the  steps that she taken to fulfill them.