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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Manila, Philippines

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?


Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?


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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

In the Philippines, English is one of the official languages. The other is Tagalog (sometimes referred to as Filipino). There are also many regional dialects. It's well worth learning a little Tagalog not that it's necessary to use it all day every day, but, as always, it's polite to your hosts.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

Yes, I've lived and worked in eight different countries. However well prepared and accustomed to moving and re-settling I think I am, culture shock still strikes.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Fairly significant, mostly because the Philippines seems so Western on the surface, but actually isn't when you dig a little deeper. The culture shock I experienced wasn't so much because of differences between Filipino and my own culture, but between Filipino and the cultures of other places in SE Asia where I'd lived. My expectations were all over the place!

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

Absolutely, it's like the letter W. You start on a high, then hit a low somewhere between three to six months later. Then you decide to dig deeper and decide what life in the new place is really about, so you go on a high again as you work it out, becoming more involved and committed. Later, there are little lows as you encounter some specific frustration or something happens to family or friends in your own country that makes everything difficult.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

All of the above! However, just recognizing that it's not 'me', but culture shock that causes the weird behavior helped. Also, knowing that I might be in a low today, but I'll likely be better tomorrow (or next week) helped me through. For me writing about it is you can see!

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

This seems to be the most open culture that I've encountered in SE Asia. People are willing to open up to friendships beyond the superficial. The Filipino people embody stoicism in the face of hardship, cheerfulness, kindness, empathy: there are many, many positives.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Communication is somewhat indirect. It's so important to watch body language, in particular changes in body language (rather than overt gestures) that indicate 'something's up'.

Corruption, when encountered, is upsetting and frustrating.

The inefficiency of anything official from receipt giving to getting the driver's licence (though there are notable exceptions). The plus side is that inefficiency is almost always accompanied by a smile.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Getting connected is absolutely key. So often I have encountered people who've waited to get the house perfect before socializing and not taken an early opportunity to get out and meet others. This means that suddenly they are not 'newcomers' any more and those perfect opportunities for making new friends have drited by. It's pretty dispiriting sitting in that perfect house all alone and miserable!

Join everything, try everything you possibly can, then work out what really works for you and refine your involvement. Try something you've never done before - this could be a golden opportunity.

Be easy on yourself. In a new culture it takes much longer to achieve anything, particularly if there's a language barrier as well. You may have run a large department, taught classes of difficult teenagers, run your own business at home, managed a family of five kids under ten, but overseas, especially in the early days, you'll find yourself comparatively inefficient. Don't take this to mean you are not functioning, it's just cultural differences, process adjustments and misunderstandings getting in the way, slowing you down.

Talk about how you feel, to friends and to your spouse. They're likely feeling the same way too. However, try not to get into a 'moan-fest'. Have a whine, laugh about it and then move on to something more inspiring. Interact with positive people when you can.

This is hard to say, but...know that you can leave. There will be consequences (financial, career, relationship), but you can actually leave. Just knowing that makes you stay. It's like having an open door. You might not go through it, but you do have an escape route, even if you never use it.

Find a cultural bridge to guide you: someone who knows your culture, but who is from the culture to which you are adjusting. Invaluable!

Above all, watch and listen: observation skills are crucial to understanding the values and expectations of your hosts.

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Comments about this Report

Dec 24, 2011 13:44

All I can say is WOW! Really insightful information. I am planning to move to Boracay next year. I will try to keep all of this in mind to adjust. Appreciate the report, Rick

Jun 5, 2012 20:48

all i can say is thanks!

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