Thursday, August 7, 2008

An Expat's Perspective on Life in The Philippines (Part 2)

Favorite spectator sports here are basketball, horse-racing, and jai alai. However, there is almost no interest in baseball and American-style football. The term “football” here refers to soccer, which is another moderately popular sport.

Eating, drinking, and conversations about food are important features of Philippine culture. In fact, a common greeting here translates to “Have you eaten?” Personally, I’m very fond of the cuisine here, which is based on a combination of Spanish, Chinese, and Malaysian influences. Lydia is a great cook, and we have most of our meals at home. However, the heat and humidity here along with lax enforcement of health and safety codes in food handling can spell trouble for those who are fond of dining out. So if you’re in that category, stick with well known and reputable (and of course air-conditioned) restaurants before you become adventurous at least until your digestive system has had a chance to acclimate. And even then, don’t let your guard down.

The same advice holds true for water. The drinking water in Manila is chlorinated and supposedly potable, but Lydia and I use bottled water and brand name beverages just to be on the safe side. When ordering drinks in a restaurant, avoid ice as it may come from an unsafe source, and bacteria can readily survive freezing.

Two extra added amounts that you will find tacked on to your restaurant check are a mandatory VAT (value added tax) in the amount of 12% and usually a service charge of10%, so tipping is not necessary. Of course if the service was exceptional, it’s your option to leave an extra amount for the server. (By the way, the VAT is added to just about all merchandise and services, even medicines and doctor’s fees.)

So if paying an additional 22% for eating out is a turn-off or if you just like to cook your own meals, apply the universal rules when preparing perishables. Get only fresh meat and cook it thoroughly, and wash fresh produce well before serving or cooking, and speaking of food preparation, stoves here are powered by electricity or LPG.

Strangely, eggs which are a highly perishable product are not kept in the refrigerated section of supermarkets here. (However, the better stores are air conditioned and, the egg cartons do carry instructions to refrigerate after purchase.)

Personally, I’m very particular about food handling and had a problem accepting this practice. However, so far Lydia and I have not experienced any egg related illnesses here. Perhaps chicken growers in the Philippines don’t feed antibiotics to their birds the way they do in the U.S., This would result in a lower incidence of resistance-induced salmonella in fowl and their eggs. Another oddity is that despite their being unrefrigerated, the stated shelf life of eggs sold at the supermarkets is about 2—3 weeks. Nevertheless, logic dictates buying and using eggs long before their expiration date, cooking them well, and discarding any that have an off smell and /or do not present a firm yolk.

Supermarkets here offer a wide variety of food including American and other foreign products, often produced under license in the Philippines or other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia. This keeps the cost down.

A common sight at supermarkets in more affluent areas, along with the shopper is his or her maid, pushing the basket while the employer selects the merchandise. In the Philippines, domestic servants, referred to here as “house help” are an integral part of thousands of households, from lower middle-class through the upper reaches of society, differing only in the number that one can afford to hire. And I’m not talking about someone who comes in once a week to do the cleaning. These maids, nannies, etc. are usually live-in.

Frankly, this utilization of helpers is one aspect of Philippine society that irks me to no end. I look at it as a throwback to the feudal times when this country was a Spanish colony and the natives were exploited as little more than slaves. The Spanish are gone, but now the Filipinos exploit their own. In fact even the word Tagalog word alila which means “slave” is still often casually used in referring to a domestic helper. The tenant farming system which has kept small farmers under the control of large landholders for generations is another manifestation of this socio-economic inequality. Overall, attempts at land reform have not been successful.

I strongly believe that this deeply ingrained attitude and dependence on others to perform tasks that a healthy person or a couple is capable of doing on his/ their own, such as house cleaning and child care is one of the customs that is keeping the Philippines from progressing.

So if you hear Filipinos bragging to Westerners how, for example, family members here take care of each other and don’t stick their elderly parents into nursing homes the way Americans do, chances are there’s at least one domestic helper—usually female—in the household. These girls who are often little older than children whom they care for are the ones doing the heavy lifting, literally, by attending to the physical needs of the infirmed aged and looking after the children while their employers just sit back and gives orders. And speaking of children, child labor is another blot on Philippine society. As I mentioned, a large number of maids and nannies are teen-age girls. Young boys often work as laborers. In poor households, small children of both genders often drop out of school to collect and sell scrap to help support their families—or themselves. It’s like something out of 19th century London as depicted in a Charles Dickens’ novel.

Sadly, the very religious establishment in the Philippines that pressures the people to have as many children as physically possible, no matter how poor or unfit they might be for as parents, does not support a single orphanage to take in the children whose parents cannot or will not support them. As a result, there are a large number of homeless children in Metro-Manila as young as four years old who are often exploited by syndicates that send them out to beg on the streets. There is a government Department of Social Welfare that is responsible for dealing with these children, but there’s only so much that they can do with their limited resources, which are just as subject to internal theft and graft as any other government agency here.

Another dysfunctional feature of Philippine society is disregard for or indifference towards the basic essentials of private and public sanitation, an example of which is lack of running hot water, even in middle income dwellings such as our condominium. Water heaters and devices can be purchased aftermarket and installed into the household water supply system. But they are not considered essential enough to be routinely built into most residences and businesses (except, of course, hotels). One argument for this practice is that because of the tropical weather, hot water is unnecessary for bathing. This overlooks the fact that bathing or washing clothes and dishes with just cold water—even with soap is harder and is inadequate for good hygiene and sterilization. So it's no surprise that personal and public health is another area where priorities are misplaced. Some examples: Public restrooms are usually wretched. Toilets there often don’t work; toilet paper is ordinarily not provided, and as mentioned there is no running hot water available from the sink faucets, even in the public restrooms of first class hospitals.

The Philippines is supposedly a poor country. Yet smoking, which can be a very expensive addiction, is common here among both genders. In fact compared to other Asian countries, Filipino women, for example, have the highest rate of tobacco use. Street vendors even sell cigarettes by the piece for those who can’t “afford” to buy a pack. However, in all fairness what’s truly amazing is that given the general negative attitude here towards public safety and obedience to government ordinances, people here do comply with the ban on smoking in stores and restaurants.

One major part of the economy and a diversion for the people is entertainment, which comes in all forms and price ranges, from cheap bars to the Cultural Center of the Philippines and everything in between. Besides being resilient and sociable, Filipinos are a festive and musically inclined people, so there is a vibrant night life in Metro-Manila and many other locales.
Gambling is another popular past time and can be found in many forms and venues. For the wealthy there are casinos. For the less well-to-do there are the Philippine Sweepstakes Charity Organization lottery, Small Town Lotteries, cockfights, and an illegal numbers game known as jueteng, just to name a few betting activities.

The local movie and television industry is an important part of the culture. Paradoxically, even though public figures here are often the butt of jokes and rumors, there is a tendency here towards undue celebrity worship. Many politicians, including a former president, past and current legislators, mayors, and provincial governors got their start in show business. CD’s, DVD’s, and VCD’s—a hybrid between the two discs are readily available, both in their legitimate and pirated formats. Filipinos are well known in Southeast Asia as a musically talented people, and singers and bands from here are in demand throughout the region.

Because the Philippines was ruled by America for over 50 years until 1946, with U.S. military bases remaining until the early 1990’s, colonial mentality here is alive and well. So movies, television shows, and music, and just about anything originating from the U.S. are extremely popular and imitated. (The most popular soap products especially for women are those that claim to whiten skin.)

English is the second language in the Philippines and is the medium of instruction in many colleges and universities. However, there is a movement afoot to change this, and replace English with Pilipino (Tagalog). Yet even this campaign is opposed by many natives who are from regions that speak other languages and dialects other than Tagalog.

Add to this the fact that many of the customs and words are Spanish in origin from the 300 years when the Philippines was a colony of Spain and administered by officials in Mexico who did their best to erase the earlier influences of Chinese and Arab traders on the people, the result is a huge national identity crisis that manifests itself in odd ways. For example, even though many Filipinos have Chinese ancestry, there is a lingering prejudice among the natives against local Chinese, no matter how many generations they may have been in the Philippines. As recently as the 1970’s, Chinese who were born in the Philippines were not considered citizens and had to apply for naturalization like foreign immigrants.

The local fascination with anything foreign, especially from the Western world extends to fashion-consciousness. Filipinos have a flair for sophisticated apparel design. Along with Hong Kong and Taiwan, they are trend setters for Southeast Asia. It’s no wonder that most of the sections in the daily broadsheets are little more than fashion ads and photo-ops.

Not long ago I attended a debut for one of Lydia’s grandnieces. Of course it was a formal affair, one of the few that I’ve gone to since I’ve been here. So I bought and wore a barong, which is a traditional native long-sleeve men’s top, especially appropriate for these occasions. Imagine my surprise to see that almost every other male at the party was wearing a coat and tie. This may have been a fluke because according to Lydia, when she attended a wedding of another relative in early 2005, shortly before I arrived here, most of the men were wearing barongs. On the other hand, even in the short span of time since then, this particular men’s apparel may losing favor at least with the younger generation.

There are a couple large department stores in Metro-Manila, one of which has branched out into the provinces as well. And speaking of stores, another popular form of entertainment and gathering place is the ubiquitous malls, which are just about identical with their American counterparts in terms of crowds and the shopping experience. In fact, one of the largest malls in the world is located in Metro-Manila.

However, there is a quality control problem with many of the consumer goods manufactured and sold in the Philippines. Some of the upmarket furniture items made here that Lydia bought including those from a first-class department store became defective almost immediately after their one year warranty lapsed. When purchasing furniture here, the best place to shop for quality goods is at antique stores. Older furnishings were crafted more carefully and were built to last.

As with other facets of business, there are laws on the books here to protect consumers, but as with other regulations in the Philippines, enforcement is spotty at best. Also, customer service on the selling floors and from management in retail stores is uneven.

Once Lydia wanted to return an item that she has bought for cash at a well known department store, and she brought it back within the 7day period specified on the sales check. But to her dismay, the store would not refund her cash. Instead the sales person offered her a gift certificate for the amount of the purchase and said this was store policy. However, nowhere on the receipt was it stated “no cash refunds allowed, gift certificates only”. Lydia eventually got her money back but only after she protested this policy to the store customer service manager. And even that was a hassle due to lost time in traveling to and from the store plus the time it took to complete the transaction even though she had called ahead of time.

I also had a negative experience a few years ago when I purchased a cell phone from a well known appliance chain here. The unit was a lemon, breaking down twice within a month after I bought it. Yet the store refused to accept it back or issue a replacement because the phone was under manufacturers’ warranty, and I refused to got through the inconvenience of taking it in for repair at the off site service center after the first malfunction.

There is a government agency called the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) which among its other functions goes to bat in behalf of disgruntled consumers against unscrupulous merchants. However, I was unaware of this office when I experienced the issue with the defective cell phone, which by the way was finally credited as a merchandise dispute by the issuer of the credit card that I used for making the purchase. At this writing I have not been able to determine the DTI’s effectiveness in resolving customer complaints against merchants. One of the few local products that is in demand here is footwear that is made in the city of Marikina which is just outside of Metro-Manila. Shoes from that locale are competitive in quality and price with their foreign counterparts. Another local product that’s in demand is rattan, which is very sturdy. When we were still in the U.S we had a sofa that was made in the Philippines with this product, and it lasted for years.

While many areas of the country do not even have paved roads, let alone malls, the country is technologically not completely backwards, at least at the consumer level. Computers and the Internet are very popular in the Philippines, and broadband is available in Metro-Manila and other parts of the country. (In fact, at this writing, a project to connect government offices via broadband was the source of a recent scandal that rocked the government all the way to the President and her husband, but that’s a topic for another article.) For those who can’t afford to buy their own computers, there are Internet cafes.

Cell phones including those with Internet connectivity are also extremely popular even in the poorest and most remote areas. In fact Filipinos hold the world’s record in text messaging volume. Signal towers for this means of communication are a common sight even in rural parts of the country that lack basic conveniences as a municipal electric and water supply.

Telephone landline availability can more problematic. But this service is now less in demand with the advent of cell phones, which is just as well. Before mobile phones, obtaining a land line was very difficult, and from the time an order was placed, it could take months to get one installed. As a result, bribery became a means to expedite the process, only to receive access to a communications utility that was second-rate at best. Landline service has improved somewhat over the past couple years and is now fairly modern and convenient. National and international direct dialing are available and inexpensive.

Strangely, one piece of telephone equipment that is difficult to find here is the answering machine, either as a stand alone device or as an optional phone feature. I’ve searched various retail and electronic stores as well as the local internet merchants and have found only one phone model that has this item.

Despite all the hardships and missteps, somehow life in the Philippines goes on, due, at least in part, to the resiliency and sociability of the people. For better or worse they manage not to take life too seriously and find relief in such diversions as gathering with their families or barkadas (circle of friends) to eat, drink, relax, and perhaps engage in the national past time of exchanging jokes and gossiping about public figures and entertainers.

As ruthless as this society has become, there are occasional flashes of compassion and the old bayanihan (community) spirit of cooperation when strangers help each other, such as a usually cold-hearted jeepney driver rushing someone who collapsed on the street to a hospital.

Commerce and businesses manage to operate. Goods and services find a market—but not very efficiently. Government agencies function, albeit not adequately or honestly. Some public works projects do get completed—eventually. These low standards of everyday living are the cause and effect of another flaw in the thinking here: A performance that is barely adequate is still acceptable because it’s better than nothing at all. So the miracle is not that the whole system hasn’t collapsed by now, but that some how, like the Energizer bunny, it just keeps on going.

I hope that I have presented the reader with a representative view of life in the Philippines, in terms of the both the overall picture and of day-to-day living. Following is a list of websites that you might find useful in learning more about travel requirements from the U.S. and various government agencies in the Philippines.

U.S. Government:

Passport Agency

American Embassy in the Philippines

Private mail forwarding services:

U.S. Global Mail

Philippine Government offices and their acronyms by which they are more commonly referred to in the Philippines:

Bureau of Immigration (BI)

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)

Land Transportation Office (LTO)

Land Transportation Franchise & Regulatory Board (LTFRB)

Bureau of Internal Revenue(BIR)

Department of Tourism (DOT)

Bureau of Customs (BOC)

A noteworthy non-government website whose title speaks for itself

An important non-government agency for drivers is the AAP.

Want advice on planning a move to the Philippines? Click here and learn from my relocation experiences.


Champ2244 said...

Another forwarding company that will give you a US address is Bongo International. Don't know how they do it, but they have unbelievably low rates compared to the other guys.

anabellapena said...

Agree with Champ2244. I have been using Bongo for almost a year now and love them. I used to use usa2me, but their rates got to high with the fuel surcharges.

hannah said...

your website is awesome. I must say that lots of informative articles found in here. I will tell my friend who wants to relocate in the Philippines to visit this site. Thanks