Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Resistance is Futile

A few weeks ago we rented Outsourced, a movie about an American call center manager who travels to India to train his replacement. I recommend this movie to all American expats, and especially to those who have lived or traveled extensively in a developing country. In one scene, the main character, desperate for a cheeseburger, drives to Delhi in pursuit of a McDonald's, only to find that they do not carry beef. Frustrated and generally discontented, he meets another American expat, who, after recommending the veggie burger, counsels the man to stop resisting India.

In Outsourced, this single conversation is a turning point for the main character, who immediately starts embracing life in India. For the rest of us, embracing a culture that is so dramatically different from our own may take a bit more than a single conversation.

The first few months in a new country are difficult, but at first it's easy to be positive. You may find certain aspects of the new culture grating, but in the first months they haven't annoyed you long enough for the irritation to seep into your bones. Once you move past four/five months, the cumulative effect of hundreds of small irritations begins to settle over your mind like a net, and you find yourself trapped in a constant state of resistance.

There are many things about life in Manila an American may resist. You could spend your entire tour should-ing all over everything. There are some aspects I will never love: the environmental catastrophe that is metro Manila, the traffic, and the general lack of structure in most aspects of daily life--with the exception of checking out, which requires one to sign fifteen pieces of paper and visit ten different counters to have one's receipt scribbled upon.

Yet there are many aspects of Manila life that I enjoy, and they are not all related to enjoying the company of my fellow Foreign Service community members. The elastic state of "rules" and "policies" often works in one's favor: take five minutes to stand your ground and you may end up with a discount instead of being ripped off. It doesn't get much better than an hour long massage from a skilled therapist in a clean facility for $10 USD. And it's easy to live in harmony with people who are good-natured, happy, and totally unwilling to engage in conflict. 

I may never embrace the smell of car exhaust greeting me when I step outside my door in the morning, but hopefully, in my second six months in Manila, I can learn to embrace the flow of daily life. I have tried resistance, and discovered that it is indeed futile.

Some things in Manila just make sense.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Holy Moly Holidays

Americans who are living in the Philippines sometimes make the mistake of thinking that because the country--or at least Manila--imitates American commercialism, the two cultures are similar. But beyond a similar fondness for Starbucks, I have experienced the two cultures as being vastly different.

Every first tour family may find their first holiday season away from home difficult, which is partially why we spent December 25th in Singapore. However, beyond the emotional aspects of missing family and friends, I found the holiday season in Manila to be more stressful than in the US.

Philippine culture is family and group oriented, and in general, Filipinos are very generous. If you have something, you must share it, even if doing so is a hardship. You may be poor, but there's someone in your extended family who is poorer, and you are expected to contribute some of your income to that person. Especially at Christmas time.

The expectation to GIVE can feel, to an American, overwhelming, but based on the traffic, aggression, and general tension in the city starting November 1st and only breaking on January 1st, it must be stressful for Filipinos as well.

The culture also has high expectations regarding spending. For example, the required contribution for a nearby domestic helper/driver holiday gathering was a day's salary--give or take a little depending on one's earning power. What would you do if you learned your required contribution to your office party was a day's pay?

Filipinos embrace life with a positive, live in the moment, bahala na (Leave it to God) attitude that make such cultural traditions enjoyable. It is this same attitude that Filipinos draw upon when they are smiling through extreme hardship.

Meanwhile, I am already working on spending November and December 2011 on an isolated beach.

New Year's Eve, however, is fantastic. Find someplace high to watch the panoramic view of the surprisingly large fireworks coming from everywhere you look. Viewed from a safe distance, the show is wonderful, even when someone is shooting fireworks horizontally off their high rise balcony, and someone else is launching them towards this same balcony, so that the fireworks appear to be hitting the side of the building. Unfortunately, this fantastic show is not without consequences, and the latest count of New Year's injuries is up to 929. Because after all, if you don't have any fireworks, shoot your gun instead. It's all about the noise.

The following image is from 2010, but it gives you an idea.

New Year's Fireworks Manila 2010, Manila, Philippines
This travel blog photo's source is TravelPod page: Happy New Year!