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What I have Learned From a Year in the Philippines

As those of you who follow my adventures already know, I now live in the Philippines as a scuba instructor, independent scientist and author. It’s an interesting country – 99 million people on over 7000 very diverse islands, from tiny specks of sand like Malapascua to large landmasses with 3000 meter high mountains like Mindanao. The Filipinos as a nation speak more than 30 different languages and live in large, congested cities like Manila or Cebu City, or in tiny settlements with only rudimentary infrastructure in the mountains. I have lived in more countries than most people do in their lives, namely Austria (where I was born and raised), the UK, Germany, USA, Japan and Australia, but the Philippines are something different all together. It’s a poorer place than all those other countries, but culturally very refreshing and the Filipinos, on average, have a mentality which makes it more fun to live here than in many other places.

The late Bill Hicks said that “if you are in advertising, kill yourself”. Advertising, so thinks Hicks, and not only Hicks, is a synonym for public lying. One of the few advertising slogans I know which  I think is completely and utterly true is the Phil Department of Tourism’s “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” It is.

Despite nuances emphasized by the Austrians and Germans, Austria and Germany are quite similar culturally, and so are the US, UK and Australia. Japan is economically comparable to other rich countries like Germany or the US. Culturally it’s something completely different to western countries – and in many respects the polar opposite of the Philippines. Especially when visiting the ‘Pinas first, while still living in the land of Sushi & plastic smiles, I couldn’t stop myself from comparing: While I found Japan to be disciplined, private, rule-obsessed, orderly, clean and boring, I find the Philippines a “libertarian’s paradise” (In the words of my mate David), wild, creative, extroverted, a bit dirty and fun. I like it here.


Basketball is big in the ‘Pinas.

You want to put your girlfriend, your brother and her brother on the same motorcycle, and ride through town like that, without anyone wearing a helmet? Go ahead.  There is no nanny state here. If you get hurt, you will have to deal with the consequences, but you are not being treated like a kindergardner by society and the state. You can’t be a mindless robot – you have to look to the left and right when you are riding that overcrowded motorcycle. You can’t sue the owner of the dog which might run across the street in front of you, because the dog might not even have an owner. These beyond-capacity motorcycles are so eye-catching that you see them on the cover of many tourist guides about the Philippines. They do serve as a very good metaphor for society here: Born out of a scarcity of resources, made possible by the lack of strict & repressive rules, the 3-or-more motorcycle riding is actually a lot of fun. The way to the store becomes a crazy adventure and not a boring chore. And you might even get close to someone sexy in front of you on the bike, while on the road!

Life here is so much more social than in all Western countries. People are generally open and interested in who you are, where you are from, what you think about music, if you have a Filipina wife (that question comes up very quickly, usually). So often I get invited to share a beer by dudes on the roadside (the way of drinking here is to buy one big bottle for several drinkers, and then pour glasses for each drinker, often over ice to keep the beer cold in the tropical heat). There is so much less concern with who you are in terms of rank and status; you don’t have to explain what work you do and what kind of degree you have. People will talk to you even if they weren’t officially introduced by a mutual friend who gave them a summary about your job, where you grew up, and your standing in the community. It’s much more about if you are someone fun to talk to.

Yes, some folks see $ signs when they spot a foreigner. But I believe that most of the openness is genuine and true. I found the social openness to be more the case in the Visayas than in Palawan, but it’s still very friendly over there.

Life is also more public. Sure, the warm weather plays a role in that. You can barely hang out outdoors on a couch all evening in Austria in January. You would freeze solid. Still, even in the summer in Austria you don’t have this level of outdoor social interaction. People hang out in front of their houses and chat, play cards, drink, look after kids. It’s almost like people’s living rooms extend out into the streets. You just never ever feel alone in this country.

And people are simply not yet so full of shit as in the West. Rather than worrying how exactly they are perceived by their peers, people are interested in having a good time. You don’t see so many angry & confused looking youth in a long-running process of finding themselves here. I don’t see many kids who think they need to join this or that subculture and make themselves stand out by picking particular clothing and hairstyles. And while women are typically more in charge of things than men (“The Filipino guys are out of control and only want to party. That’s why women need to take care of business.” in the words of a young but wise Filipina friend of mine) there is no obsession with nit-picking feminist ideology here. A friendly comment about someone’s nice hair is not taken as an act of evil sexist aggression.

It’s just a relaxed place here.

(On a side not, this is an excellent history of the Philippines, and the author also makes the point that pre-contact Filipino society was very big on women’s rights:

End of side note.)

Yes, people like things here, as everywhere. But they are not obsessed about them, and are not willing to sacrifice their family and social lifes for the sake of having a living room and a garage full of status symbols which serve little pragmatic purpose. I don’t want to romanticize poverty. But it seems that above a certain amount of material wealth people don’t do better in their lives. You need enough money for healthy food, healthcare, a place to stay and some transportation. A bit of a treat and some toys once in a while, yes. But if you tailor your life-decisions to primarily make sure you maximize the size of your house, car and TV, then you are not making yourself happier. And it makes more sense to party now than to wait with having fun for that mythical day when you have everything you want and when work will not bother you anymore. The Filipinos understand that more than the people of many other nations I have visited.

Linapacan Sunrise II

It’s undeniable that living in a country changes the expat. How have the Philippines changed me? I think that I have become more relaxed in my time here. I have started thinking more about priorities in life. My mind is not dominated by the next deadline anymore. Experiences, friendships, laughs and new impressions are at least as important as money and a lot of stuff. I probably wasn’t the most materialistic dude to begin with, but my time here has enhanced this attitude.

“Friends & Sunsets not Deadlines & Morning commutes”…. that kind of statement would make a good Facebook meme, in bold letters above a photograph of a serene sunset. It’s one thing to click on the “like” button below it, and then go back to your mind-numbing office work. I recommend living it.



1 Comment

  1. Brendan

    Sounds wonderful!

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