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.


  1. I think it's funny (or maybe it's just a moment of synchronocity) that you and Aaron are both advocating for the same thing in your latest posts ( Although I think it's easy to fall into the trap of comparing your new home to your old home (or, in my case, homes) and to spend all your time with other Americans. It does take quite a bit of effort to go out and make local friends and find your niche. Especially when we're dealing with a very limited 2-year timeframe. I wonder how you've been managing...what do you do to meet the locals? What do you do when you crave, above all else, just a touch of American efficiency (or whatever)? How do you cope?

  2. Yay for shout-outs! lol.

    I think we had it lucky in that we got a post so close to home. It's easy to forget we've actually gone anywhere. Other than that language barrier thing. I wonder how we will cope in our next post.

  3. If you're looking for efficiency in Manila, you leave and go to Singapore or HK, although Singapore beats the US in efficiency by a long shot. I have found that the best way to meet locals is to be involved in local activities. In my case this is the yoga community, and others with special interests such as hiking have found similar opportunities to make friends with locals. Having local friends is very rewarding, but it's not a cure for resistance. You have to learn how to accept the different culture before you can immerse yourself in it.

  4. Well said Diane! Just had a similar discussion here with some fellow expats'.
    Thank goodness for local groups, theaters and volunteering opportunities. These have been life savers. If you want sthg US here, you drive to the Accra... commissary :)
    We love that movie too.