On finding home abroad

At the workplace when I’m introduced to our donors, visiting foreign staff, or resource persons from abroad, my first words are, so, how do you find the Philippines? because usually they’re already in the country a few days prior to such meetings.  Individuals who I won’t be working with directly would go, oh, the food is great, the hotel staff are kind, but I somehow got lost coming here from the hotel– things any other traveler would say which is fine because I wouldn’t know how to react to more honest observations in the very limited time of introductions. But for those who I had longer time to interact with, usually fellow researchers or resource persons, they were open to telling me more, if I asked them that is.

As a researcher and evaluator, I’m piqued by the outsider’s impressions of the country because they may have relatively new perspectives that insiders such as I fail to see.  I also wanted to cross-check between what’s said about the country written in the world’s dailies as against first-hand views from citizens there.  But mostly I just want to be caught up in the exchange with people from different cultures.

But when foreigners particularly citizens of developed countries extend their stay and actually live in the country, that somehow astounds me and I get as curious as other Filipinos are, because the norm has been the opposite which is the diaspora of Filipinos abroad especially to the ‘Land of the Free’ in quest of the ‘American Dream’.

But, at the same time that I’m asking why, I also understand why.  During a working visit to Phnom Penh, I was met with a teeming and vibrant population of expats mostly Westerners.  After circulating in the City observing this, I thought to myself that I could see myself migrating and living here as well.  Why?  It’s not the infrastructures because it still lacks the crucial ones.  It’s also not the language because I spoke to people in the study areas through translators knowing only a few phrases myself and I don’t think I could ever learn to speak in theirs fluently.  It’s the sense of becoming a part of the change happening in the City and throughout the country, as it’s in the brink of shedding it’s closed economy under Pol Pot. It’s also the cost of living.  For one, theirs is a dual currency and second food is relatively cheap.  And it mattered that when I bought my iPod there the shop attendants were very helpful even if they spoke little English and seeing that my passport says Filipino (foreigners at the time have to present their passports whenever they make purchases) they loaded my unit with a thousand original songs; that when I visited the Angkor Wat alone, the driver of the car which I rented for the entire day didn’t rip me off with extra charges and that he made sure I was safe.  It’s basically the basic and day to day stuff, like human connection, quality of service and facilities, opportunity costs.  One is constantly weighing what one’s giving up on one hand and on the other what one would gain in exchange.

So, anyway, early this year, a Dutch expat, Robert Howard, publicized a quick survey he did – on Survey Monkey, by the way, which I’ve also tried and found helpful if you want to reach out to respondents in a relatively short time – of 134 other expats who have lived in the country for at least a year.  His study looked at reasons for their move to the Philippines as well as their profile, experiences, and general well being living in the country. The results of his novel research are eye-openers:

Little is known about Western expats in the Philippines. The country is a bit off the well-trod tourist routes and has a dangerous reputation. However, the East/West cultural gap is not quite as great as elsewhere and most Filipinos speak an English dialect. The nation reputedly is foreigner-friendly and many locals see marrying a Westerner as like winning the lottery. Is moving there a good option and for whom?

The 2010 Philippines census lists 54,246 Western residents but many actually may be of Filipino descent and some Western residents are not counted. They live in-country only part of the year or are on successive tourist visas. From various embassy estimates, I calculate very roughly around 218,350 Western residents of non-Filipino descent.

Most of the 134 survey respondents are male retirees, with a median age of 56 years old. Nearly half are from the United States. Most are married to a Filipina or have a live-in Filipina partner. Of the three female respondents, one was married to a Filipino, one to a non-Filipino, and one was single. Most hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Their median length of stay in-country was four years and median annual income was U.S. $45,000, with over half living on pensions and/ or investments.

The most common cited reasons to move to the Philippines by far were the low living costs (cited by six as the only motive) and the climate.

Reason/s moved to Philippines. Percentage citing each alternative.

Low living costs 65.67
Climate 54.48
Filipino Lifestyle 31.34
Dislike home country 26.12
Filipino partner returned 17.91
Availability of sex partners 15.67
To take up job 9.0
Others 36.57

Some comments were

‘… pension adequate to live here, not in U. S.’,

‘to survive on a low income’ and

‘ … everything here is super-cheap’.

Some had come to an expat job arranged overseas and 17.91% had a Filipino partner who had wanted to return. A few met a Filipina online and moved to the Philippines to be with her. Some disliked their home country. Some comments were

‘Too much red tape, taxation. Government watches your every move’ and

‘We were very dissatisfied with the U.S. in general’

An open-ended question asked for what they missed least about life in the West and some comments were

‘High cost of living and too much work and not enough holiday time’

‘A life that revolves around work’

‘Surveillance state, taxation, extreme political correctness’, and

‘Cold weather, cops on every corner ready to write a ticket, unfriendly and rude people’.

Additional stated motives were

‘Low stress and low taxes’ and

‘English widely used and understood’.

For the advantages of living in the Philippines, 50% cited the low cost of living, 28.36% the possibility of having a Filipina wife and a family, and 20.15% the climate. Some comments were

‘Easy way of life’ and

‘Less stress and great family life’.

What did they miss most about life in the West? Some just said ‘Nothing’ but 19.4% cited the food and 15.67% cited family and friends. Comments were

‘People obeying laws and rules’,

‘… parks, playgrounds, cleanliness’,

‘Intellectual conversations’,

‘Non-Mafia police, sane driving, unblocked sidewalks, people who speak English’ and

‘Mental kinship’.

On the main problems they had experienced living in the Philippines, 10.45% cited health care (high cost, low quality) as concerns. Some comments were

‘Most medical facilities are unclean and have low-skilled practitioners’ and

‘You have to pay for all medical care upfront. No money. No care’.

Others cited legal problems

‘Westerners have no rights in legal disputes with a Filipino. You will lose’.

On what they liked least about living in the Philippines, corruption was most often cited, followed by trash and general lack of cleanliness. Some comments were

‘The food sucks and you are viewed as a cow to be milked’,

‘Pollution and heat drive me nuts, along with the traffic’,

‘Insane traffic’,

‘Lack of pride in workmanship’ and

‘Nobody seems to want to do anything well or better’.

A recurring theme on expat websites is problems with a Filipina partner, particularly sending money to her family. One Internet poster summarised a common Western attitude with

The best advice …regarding marrying a Filipina is live at least two islands or six hours away from her family’.

Another recommended marrying only an orphan. But few respondents cited this problem. One comment was

‘My wife’s family think we are ATM machines’.

Two cited their main dislikes as

‘The common attitude that all foreigners are rich and should therefore hand out money to everybody around them’ and

‘People always asking for money’.

About one third of survey respondents reported that local crime was a concern but nearly half were unconcerned, sometimes because they lived in a peaceful rural setting. Some comments were

‘Many thieves and low-level crimes’,

‘There is never an opportunity to let your guard down’,

‘Need to be very security aware all the time. If there are two or more Filipinos present, they start talking in the local dialect, even if they speak English very well’ and

‘Limitation of personal freedom due to danger of crimes’.

Nearly 40% had been a crime victim. Some comments were

‘Have been held up at knife point’,

‘Burgled twice’,

‘Gold chain snatched from around my neck’,

‘Pick pocket gang once in Manila’,

‘ATM card skimmed’, and

‘In three years I have been robbed seven times’.

Overall quality of life for foreigners in general

Excellent 16.42
Good 50
Neutral 25.37
Poor 5/22
Very poor 2.24
No response 0.7

(Read the rest of the survey results here)

I’ve presented research results myself and particularly when the subject matter is rather controversial as this one is in the country a lull descends the room and although it’s not the reaction expected from your audience it’s fine by me because then I knew the information reached not only their heads but also their hearts.  The survey results are eye openers in the sense that they evidentially support what locals already know albeit circulated among themselves as mere gossip and what local planners continue to ignore to address in their local development plans.  And who was it who said that one of the loneliest groups of people are the migrants?In the news we regularly hear of foreigners stabbed to death or whatever gruesome and unfortunate end they had in the hands of locals, but if Filipinos really think about it would they want the same fate abroad where they are the foreigners?  No.  I would want my host government to also think about my well-being as it crafts it’s policies and plans.

In analyzing the survey results further, several paradigms are applicable, but in keeping with the theme of this post, I’d like to zero in on the concept of liveable cities as also a goal in the NUDHF.  ‘Liveable’ calls up the related agenda on healthy cities (Agenda 21), child-friendly cities, resilient cities, and competitive cities among others.  Cross cutting issues such as non-discrimination apply as with the matter on human safety and security for example. This is a right of each and every human being everywhere, regardless of race, color, and gender.

But, whatever the reason foreigners have in deciding to live in the country, their influx, which shows an increasing trend as for instance among Koreans, is a positive sign that we have something relatively better to offer them which should drive us to make their stay and experiences here as if they haven’t left home. That’s true hospitality.  It’s not just the food, dancing, and the fiestas.  It’s creating a place that everyone living in it can call home.  That’s being competitive.  That’s world class.

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