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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Alabang, Philippines

Submitted by annilita

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?

I had lived in Wales for half a year in college, so I knew that even countries that seem very similar to my home country had hidden differences. As far as Philippines-specific preparation, my husband had lived here for two years when he was 19-21, and so I'd heard all his stories of his life here. I'd also read a book (My Life as a Principal's Wife) by an expat who'd lived here in the 80s. All my other training was after the move in the school of hard knocks.

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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?

My husband speaks Tagalog fluently. When I'm in the city, almost everyone is able to speak English well enough for us to understand each other. I've picked up about 100 words of Tagalog, but I'm really bad with languages and I only regularly hear it spoken once a week, so my progress has been slow. We've been here three years, and just committed to 5 more, so I'm biting the bullet and taking formal lessons in Tagalog in the new year.

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

I was very cocky about my ability to handle the culture shock, mostly because I assumed that my husband's experience had prepared me for whatever would come my way.

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

Profound and overwhelming. I grew up in a town of 4,000 people, went to college in a town of 40,000, and spent the 10 years before we moved here in a western suburb with wide streets and strict city planning laws. In the first few weeks, there were moments of extreme claustrophobia even in very open, public areas. (At this point, 3+ years later, my biggest issues have to do more with being comfortable in a small town, but living in a crowded city than with the actual cultural issues.) I felt that everyone was staring at me, which I now know they were, because it's so very obvious to everyone when someone is new here. Newbies walk around looking shell-shocked and wide-eyed, taking in their new surroundings. Other people pick up on this and stare, even your fellow expats who are likely staring at you out of pity and remembering what it was like for them in their first weeks here.

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?

The phases listed actually describe my experience very well. All I would add is that the process is very fluid. One may finally reach the cultural adjustment phase, only to find that after 3 or 4 months they spend a week back in the irritation-to-anger stage. This is normal. Just because you have a bad week does not mean that you should start pricing movers and plane tickets. Just stick with it and you'll get back to a healthier mindset.

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.

In the beginning, I had moments of anger, anxiety, a LOT of frustration, and homesickness. At this point, I mainly feel annoyance at appropriate times (like when I know someone is trying to take advantage of me because I'm foreign), and the odd moment of homesickness every few months. For the most part, the Philippines has become home and I'm pretty comfortable living here. Culture shock doesn't always cause negative changes. I would add that in the long run, I have found that I'm much more patient with people. I am far more understanding of differences. I am more willing to take my time. I am less apt to buy things just to buy them. I'm not as quick to assume that I know people's motives. There are many positive lessons we learn through going through the culture shock experience.

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

One thing that bothers me about sites for expats is that they seem to be a sounding board for frustrations, so I'm so glad that this question is here. By far, the best thing about the Philippines is the people. I have never encountered a more optimistic group in all my life. They help one another when they are in trouble. Families are close. For the most part, the people are not driven by what brands they wear or type of car they drive (though sadly there are signs that this is starting to slowly change in the metro areas). Filipinos will break out into song or dance the newest pop-dance while living in conditions that would have Americans lying on the floor crying. I have had so many strangers try to feed me, just because we were out and about somewhere and happened to pass a birthday party or family gathering. Everyone is welcome at all times.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Filipinos, generally speaking, do not do sarcasm. I've had to learn how to dial my sarcasm way, way back. On the flipside, when they do try sarcasm, they are generally really bad at it, and it can come off as just purely mean. So you have to learn to have thick skin. Also, ignoring sarcasm all together, there are different observational boundaries here. They will openly comment on your appearance in ways that Americans won't. (Wow, you're fat! You're SO tall! Your feet are HUGE!) This will sometimes be accompanied with pokes or pinches. This is all observational. Nothing mean is meant by it, despite how we've been conditioned to hear it. As a parent, the other thing that has been very hard to get used to is that women I've never seen before will touch my children. There is still a belief here among some that what a mother sees or touches while she's pregnant will affect the looks of her unborn child. The Philippines is a country that, right or wrong, aesthetically prizes light skin and European noses, so it's not uncommon for young women to come up to my children when we are out and about and just start stroking their cheeks. Sometimes you also come across older ladies who just like to stroke and pet cute little kids, no matter what their race, and feel free to do so. My kids are used to it now, but I still have to control the urge to tell these women to step back and keep their hands to themselves. Nothing untoward is meant by it, and it's actually a complement; they are saying they think my kids are cute. So, thanks for that? I just bite my tongue and move us along as soon as we can.

I know a lot of expats struggle with the feeling of being overcharged for items or services. This does happen. Do your research beforehand on what things should cost. If you think the price is too high, just stand there for a moment, holding or looking at the item and often they will lower the price. You can try asking what their "last price" is. Sometimes asking them what the price would be if you need a receipt will lower the price, too, especially if they are just working the booth and not the owners, because they would get fired if the booth owner sees they are overcharging and pocketing the difference. Agree to prices before you get into a tricycle or get a massage or any sort of service agreement. Finally, if the price is only slightly inflated, and you can afford it, consider just paying it. Unless you are here living on a Filipino salary yourself and honestly can't afford the "foreigner tax", then look at the extra dollar or two as a form of charity.

Do not let your retail experiences contaminate your feelings toward all Filipinos. My Filipino friends are embarrassed and shocked to hear what shopping can be like for me.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

1. I had my "what the crap am I doing in this country?!" moment in the middle of a small mall in a rural province, including full-on sobs. That was an interesting moment of my life. *ahem*

2. I have gotten in trouble over food before. I *hate* fish and seafood, and in a country where the people both eat a lot of those foods AND like to feed other people, I know I have caused offense by refusing to try certain dishes. At this point, I claim it's an allergy and people aren't offended when I say no. If you do try something, never, NEVER insult it or insinuate that you don't like it. Even if it is cake with cheese on top.

3. Once, I got so out-of-my-mind frustrated with an employee in a store that I started yelling at him. I very, very rarely ever get to the point of yelling. It's happened maybe twice before this story. But it was a very frustrating situation, and getting that point would have been understood in the US. Here, if you get to that point, you can instantly see that the person you are yelling at has lost all respect for you. You are acting like a child and you've given them permission to completely ignore you at that point. The more frustrated you are, the more polite you need to get if you expect to get anything done.

4. All of that said, the most embarrassing series of events I ever witnessed was when we went away with 3 other American couples for a weekend. Two of the other ladies decided they didn't like the music playing in the seaside restaurant where we were having dinner, so they went over and plugged in an ipod to the sound system and just took it over. The staff didn't know what to do, so they just let them do it, but the quality of the service we received from that moment forth was awful. Later, we went on a boat ride over the ocean and up a river a little ways to see the stars and some fireflies and the whole time, these people were filling the beautiful night with loud insults about the Philippines and jokes about poop like they were 12 year-olds. I don't know what they were thinking. If your behavior would brand you as a self-centered moron in your home country, then the fact that you act that way in a foreign country and think it's ok because you are paying the people around you or you assume they can't understand what you are saying makes you a complete and total ingrate. Don't do those things.

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

When I first arrived, I joined a local group for expat women. I was excited to meet other people in my situation and make some friends. However, it soon became evident that the majority of the activities prominently featured alcohol. Even the meetings for the charity subgroup would end with several glasses of wine.

Activities starting at 10 am would flow freely with alcohol. The price of the tickets to the yearly charity ball went more to the booze than to the charity. I'm not a drinker, and I wasn't getting much out of my membership, so I let my it lapse at the end of the year, but a good friend of mine continued and told me about women who also heavily used pot and even cocaine to fill their days.

Culture shock can be very, very hard to deal with. But, when you take normal culture shock and add to it an expectation that women who are not able to work in-country will hire helpers to do all of their household (and sometimes child care) tasks for them, you end up with women who are at a loss for what to do. The easiest way to deal with this is to turn to alcohol or drugs. It is such a waste. There are so many opportunities here. All sorts of lessons are available at a fraction of the price you'd find in the western world. There are people who could use job and English training, or one could volunteer at a school, hospital, or museum. One could seek out a university that would allow them to add a Southeast Asian Studies certificate to their degree via distance learning and local experience. You could homeschool your kids instead of paying crazy tuition prices to send them to a private school. Do what it takes to start or improve the library in the area. Find something. There is plenty that can be done!

You will never get through your culture shock unless you actually ride the wave. Don't try to drink it away. It's hard, and at times it sucks, but it will get better on its own, faster and healthier, if you just let yourself experience it. You don't need to drink this time away. These can be the most fulfilling years of your life if you use them to find your passion and pursue it.


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