Two Months Later, First Thoughts on the Philippines

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Two Months Later, First Thoughts on the Philippines

Right now I’m writing this article 7,700 miles away from home in a busy Coffee Bean. It’s the same store I’d be in if I were back home in California. If I were in Arizona then I’d be at my old Starbucks/Barnes & Noble combo. Ah, I miss Barnes & Noble.

I’ve been getting a lot of readers asking me about what I’ve been up to in the Philippines which made me realize I’ve been a bit secretive lately.

Although there are plenty things I won’t be sharing, I felt it’s only fair to talk about my first impressions of this foreign country.

What I Like

First of all, the people are absolutely amazing. My friends from back home only knew about Manila and so they were concerned I’d be in an awfully crowded city with tons of traffic and swindlers. The truth is, I’m actually in the fourth safest city in the world, Davao.

Almost everyone in Davao has a completely different attitude compared to the western world.

Back in the states, time is money and we’re all in a rush to be somewhere. We’re angry, anxious, and we don’t treat everyone as nicely as we should.

From my observations, it seems like everyone in this city loves one another. Conversations seem more genuine, smiles are wider, and laughter has a cheerful tone despite the impoverished state of many people living here. Time is slower and you can enjoy the little things more in this environment, something I really like.

I’m a bit boring, you know. I appreciate the quietness and lack of action at every corner. If you’re into the party scene, you wouldn’t enjoy this place nearly as much as I do.

It’s funny to see security guards holding shotguns with a big smile on their face. Seriously, you can’t go into any mall without being quickly patted down and your car or taxi being inspected for bombs.

These safety measures happens a lot faster than you would think, as these aren’t airport TSA patdowns and security checkpoints. It’s just a part of daily life that no one really minds.

All of the extra security is intimidating at first, but you get used to it almost immediately. Maybe when I go back home I’ll find it weird I didn’t get patted down and checked for weapons.

If you’re light-skinned, you better get ready to be stared at everywhere you go. People will look at you with a smile on their face and a look of curiosity. “Whoa! What are you doing in my country?” They’ll think you’re just the coolest.

Funny enough, I blend in pretty well. Most strangers speak the local language with me because they think I look Filipino. Usually people will guess I’m either half-Filipino with a mix of either Japanese or Chinese (which people tell me is a good thing, so yay me!)

When I first got here, one of my bosses told me about how women you meet will text you to make sure you ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No, not like a “If you haven’t eaten dinner yet then maybe we can meet up to eat!” It’s more like your mom checking up on you to make sure you don’t starve yourself to death. I thought he was joking but it does indeed happen.

But hey, try not to get freaked out. It’s their way of showing they care and that they’re thinking of you. It’s pretty sweet in a way. Although I still find it weird, I chalk it up to cultural differences.

What I Dislike

As much as I love the people here, there are a few frustrating things. The cultural differences often lead to hilarious moments, but you’ll be disappointed if you think you can go about your day in a quick pace.

Why?

Things here are incredibly slow and everything seems almost half-assed.

I’m not talking about just the internet (which seems to be stuck in 2007 speeds.) I was at the mall yesterday and there were six employees standing around one cash register while two of them manned it. There were four people in front of me and it took a good 20 minutes for me to get to the front and another few minutes to ring up two small items.

One thing you could never expect is to be able to find a specific item in a reasonable amount of time when you go to the mall. No employee will be able to tell you where it is but will instead point you to a random aisle where you’ll have to ask yet another person (who will also guide to you the wrong place.)

My boss taught me to laugh at the absurdity instead of letting my blood boil every time something goes wrong. Since I’m not exactly the most patient guy in the world, and I tend to have a short fuse, it took a while for me to learn to expect headaches. It used to get to me but not so much these days.

I’ve realized not getting upset at this country’s inefficiency is necessary if you want to avoid rupturing a vein. If you’ve got a temper, you won’t like this place.

For those of you who haven’t been in a city that relies on taxis and motorcycles, you’d be just as surprised as I was. There are a lot of people who own cars driving around, but I’m not used to driving in a taxi on a daily basis.

Taxis have its upsides, but I definitely miss being able to hop into my Honda Civic and driving over to a friend’s house. Meeting up with people here means getting into a taxi and finding each other 45 minutes later than planned. We call it Running on Filipino Time and it happens to everyone. You can’t really avoid it.

Growing up in Southern California, I was used to having amazing ethnic food whenever I wanted. Mexican food? Check. Vietnamese? Check. Korean, Peruvian, or even Salvadorian? You bet.

Ask any foreigner out here what you have to try and they’ll laugh while they tell you the food here isn’t great. You really have to lower your expectations when it comes to eating out.

Food that would make you shrug your shoulders back home and say with an unenthused “Eh” would probably be the best you can get in most places here. If it doesn’t taste horrible then you found a good place. Luckily for me, we have a maid that cooks great American food from recipes we find online.

The hardest thing to accept about the Philippines is seeing poverty up so close and personal. Children begging on the streets, people visibly struggling to make a decent living, and the rundown areas of town pull at my heartstrings even today. In some ways, I’m still struggling with trying to save the world and accepting reality for what it is. I have to remind myself I can’t help everyone.

Despite the common person’s struggles, long work hours, and meager salaries, people seem so content. They’re happier than the people back in the U.S. making six-figures a year. They find life more meaningful than people majoring in a field they hate. They’re okay with having less and they don’t gush over the newest iPhone or Android.

The Philippines’ optimism is a testament that anyone can see the good in life despite financial hardship.

The combination of things I like and dislike about this place is what makes it unique. Despite the minor inconveniences, I’m glad I can call the Philippines my home. It will be nearly impossible for me to leave this place now.

Thank you Self Stairway for getting me to where I am today and also a huge thanks to Empire Flippers for bringing me out here. You all treat me so well.

If you’re wondering if Southeast Asia is worth exploring, I say hell yes. Davao has been my only stop so far, but from what I hear, the rest of this side of the world has a lot to offer.

If you happen to be in the area, shoot me an email and we’ll hang out.

Photo Credit: Keith Bacongco – Flickr

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Vincent Nguyen is the author of Self Stairway. After landing his dream job with Empire Flippers he dropped out of school and moved to Davao, Philippines to work closely with the company's founders. Don't worry, he still publishes every Monday and hasn't missed a single week since starting this site in January 2013.

Latest posts by Vincent Nguyen (see all)

36 responses to Two Months Later, First Thoughts on the Philippines

  1. Great post as always man ;) Think you hit every point I could come up with out here as well. I would say though get traveling a bit while you are here, it’s cheap to travel around and if you dont you will regret the day you get back to the US (If you do that is!)

  2. Nice article, Vince. If you can, drop by here in Subic and keep in touch.

  3. Haha, the part about light skinned people is the same as in Japan I hear. Although in Japan a lot the time they’ll wait till you’ve walked past them, then turn and stare apparently. Haha meal reminders, that’s priceless. At least they’re caring about your well-being I guess?

    Hmmm. The part about poverty sounds hard to swallow. It can be difficult to find a balance between caring too much, too little and doing what you can without bringing yourself down into misery. I sometimes let myself get overly concerned with world issues at times, and even though I’m not an expert I look into studies, and do thought experiments and at the end of the day probably waste my time in a sense, looking for solutions that might not even be there.

    The contentness is a sharp contrast to where I live. In Norway I feel like people always find some new minor thing to get obsessed over. If you read the newspapers people will complain about the gas prices or other living expenses, even though when seen in the context of median household income they are the comparatively the lowest in Europe.

    I think I’m going to have to visit Davao this year.

    • I was teasing my friend about how she doesn’t remind me about meals. My boss always jokes with his girlfriend that he hasn’t eaten all day because she didn’t text to remind him.

      Sounds like Norway and where I’m from have similar attitudes. Definitely come down here!

  4. Hey Vincent,
    Glad to see you got this post out.

    “When I first got here, one of my bosses told me about how women you meet will text you to make sure you ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

    —>Hahaha. This is something that Swedish women need to learn. They can barely cook.

    “Thank you Self Stairway for getting me to where I am today..”

    –> You did it yourself by hustling, man! ;)

    Overall, nice read. I’ve been curious about how things are going over there.

    Are people good at speaking/writing English btw?

    • Hah! I guess I should be grateful that the culture here is so motherly and loving. I can definitely get used to that but I may miss it when I eventually leave.

      Yes, actually. Pretty much everyone here speaks English because they’re taught in school. Some people are better than others so it’s not like everyone is completely fluent, but it’s enough that you can understand everyone.

      They have a saying here called “nosebleeding” which they jokingly say when an English-speaker is incomprehensible to them or if they’re struggling to translate themselves.

  5. So happy to hear you’re enjoying it, Vincent! I love your honest critique and, am finally realizing, that slowing down is the way to go!

  6. Sure miss you Vincent.
    Loved this piece .

  7. Vincent,

    My wife and I travel as much as we can. The SE Asia area has been of some interest to us, but we fear that our dietary needs would be challenged.

    We are both vegetarian, nearly vegan. We are under the assumption that we might be quite challenged to find any food for ourselves to eat in that part of the world. What say you?

    You indirectly answered my question in your description of Filipino food. Are we restricted from Asia?

    I am glad for your great life experience!

    Paul

    • Vegetarian. Damn, that is a tough one. I honestly can’t answer this because I don’t take much notice to that sort of thing. I believe my region is primarily Catholic and so abstaining from meat isn’t a religious thing here.

      My guess though, is that it will be very tough to find GOOD vegetarian food.

      Haha, you may be restricted from the PI if you’re looking for amazing cuisine. :P

    • As vegetarians, you should definitely visit Chiang Mai in Thailand. So many great cheap vegetarian restaurants! I was able to find decent cheap vegetarian food in Manila, but unfortunately didn’t visit any other parts of the Philippines. Consider visiting India. I’ve never been, but a lot of the population is vegetarian. Also in most of SE Asia you should be able to find lots of good fresh produce. Happy travels!

  8. Vincent,

    This is so powerful. I’m not the most patient person either – and I know that part of the trip would be challenging for me too. But hearing how content people are despite being in such poverty is truly humbling and challenging. Thanks for sharing this – really needed it.

  9. Would totally love to visit…Vincent:) Thanks for sharing your take on the Philipines ! Sounds so interesting…although I too would probably have a tough time waiting and waiting for something;( Love the fact that the people are so happy despite poverty… a lesson us Westerners could learn for sure… Thanks for sharing!

    • You are more than welcome to stop by and visit! Although it’s a quiet city, there are definitely things worth seeing. I haven’t seen much of them yet, but they’re out there!

  10. That is awesome! I have a friend at the gym. He is black and married a Filipino woman. He absolutely loves spending his summers there, though he did say the poverty is very strange compared to the western world. Have a great time, Vincent…and make sure you eat all your meals. ;)

  11. So very glad to read this post Vincent. Thanks for going into detail about your travels and life experiences. We miss hearing from you at Tribe Writers, but it sounds like you are doing well!

  12. I can relate to so much of this, Vincent. When I moved to Paris 18 months ago from London, I figured ‘what’s one capital city over another? There’ll be similarities, right? OK, so I can’t speak French yet, but hey, it’s a cosmopolitan place.’

    I couldn’t have been more wrong!

    The French culture (arriving late to *everything*, not mixing work with personal life, befriending you only to improve their English) was one of the shockers. But also, I’ve met so many awesome expats here and the fact that we share that in common has bonded us.

    Weird to see so many French stereotypes to hold true, but I love it here all the same. SO much to learn; about the French and about myself.

    • Interesting examples you used! You can run into people like that here as well. “Running on Filipino Time” sounds about the same as your description of the French. Some people love talking to English-speakers because they want to improve their own (but they mean no harm by it.) Hah, it’s amazing to see how different things are. :)

  13. Hi there Vincent,

    Davao seems like a swell place to live. I have always complained to my father on why our family wouldn’t go to a vacation in other places in South East Asia such as Philippine, Brunei, and other countries. He is enamoured with Indonesia and that’s the only place we went for vacation all these while. Oh well…I’ll travel to those places myself after college(or maybe the next holiday)

    “I’m a bit boring, you know. I appreciate the quietness and lack of action at every corner.” – Haha I’m also like that. Although, I still can’t understand why people associate being quiet and lacking action as boring? Don’t they know that most of us that they see as boring is moving a lot in our mind?

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    • Indonesia I’ve heard is a great place to go. I hear stories about how all you see are high-end cars on the street. Is that true?

      • Haha it’s the opposite really. In the capital city (Jakarta) perhaps?

        The place I went – Padang and Sumatra – were usually filled with average cars and whenever there’s a stall in the traffic, peddlers and street artists would go to our car and ask us to buy their stuff or tips for their singing.

        I still can’t get used to that haha.

        But still, Indonesia is beautiful and vibrant especially their hills. I don’t know why but the colour of the plants on the hills are unnaturally green in the sense that it looks natural. I still can’t get the image of it out of my mind.

        • It probably does depend on the area. Either that or I got the wrong place. :P

          There are a lot of amazing sights to see. I wonder if I really want to see them all or it’s just one of those things I think I want. Plenty of time to find out!

  14. I’ve been to Davao in the city about twice for one or two days. You probably know better. Some of your impressions may only be in there and not necessarily elsewhere especially in Manila. :) But yes, Filipino time! You gotta get used to that.

  15. Hey, glad to see it’s all going so well over there,

    I think the best cities in the world are indeed those that aren’t quite in the top 2/3 most famous of that given country.

    For example in the UK, everyone knows about London, but if the likes of Bristol offer so much more and the people are super friendly (as far the UK goes anyway haha).

    My friend in Medellin, Colombia, used to moan at me because I joked with her that it’s all cocaine and guns over there, but after I learned about the city it seems an amazing place. She too said that being a white guy, I would have women going nuts over there – especially because everyone is super friendly.

    It’s posts like this that make want to get out of Starbucks (seriously, that’s where I am now) and into another one… but in a nicer part of the world. :D

    • I think Davao is the 3rd largest city in the PI yet none of my Filipino/a friends in the states have ever heard of it!

      Whoa! You’re saying it’s not all cocaine and guns? Damn…

  16. Great review. This experience will be career-altering. Having lived in Japan and having spent time in Vietnam, China, Canada and Mexico I appreciate that the key to happiness is to appreciate the better an not stress out over the not better. There’s good everywhere.

    • Hi, Mr. Bradley! Glad to see a familiar name from back home. I trust that you are doing well?

      Definitely a great mindset to have there and it’s something I’m still working on internalizing.

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