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The Filipino Character

There are many compelling reasons to live in the Philippines: the tropical weather, stunning beaches of white sand and warm, caressing water, low cost of living just to name a few. The most compelling reason of all, however are the Filipino people. While generalizations are inherently misguided and most often wrong, there are some clearly observable and unique traits among the Filipinos which apply to a very broad spectrum of the population.

Marian RiveraFirst, a bit of background color. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I assert that the most valuable export of the Philippines is the Filipino. According to the most recent (2010) Philippines census data available, there are 2 million Filipinos working overseas, sending or bringing home 141.2 billion pesos (US$3.3 billion) of foreign income during the second half of 2010. They are referred to as OFWs, or Overseas Filipino Workers. The women work as nurses, maids, au pairs and alike in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK and many other countries. The men work as sailors, IT technicians, laborers, etc. all over the world. You will find them in fisheries in Alaska, aboard freighters in the Indian Ocean, in hospitals in Christchurch, New Zealand and all places in between. In the Philippines, there is a special financial services industry segment which caters to OFWs (remittances, money transfer and money exchange).

Unskilled laborers earn about 150 pesos (US$3.50) per day in the Philippines while skilled workers about twice that amount. By working overseas, a Filipino can earn from 2 to 5 times as much. They are perfectly OK sleeping on a plywood platform or even just a couple sheets of corrugated cardboard, eating a couple of lumps of rice, maybe with a few pieces of chicken or fish thrown on, and "showering" from a barrel of cold water with a pan. In spite of conditions most westerners would consider horrid, they never complain, never demand, work hard and follow orders and rarely if ever ask for anything. I know a very smart and pretty young lady (Michelle) who works (and lives) in a small convenience store (called sari-sari) for 1,500 pesos (US$35.30) per month. She wakes up at 5:30 every morning and opens the store at 6 AM. She does not stop until the store closes at 10 PM, then she closes the books for the day and finally goes to bed at 10:30 or 11 at night, thanking God for the wonderful life she has. She does this six days a week. On Sundays, when the store is closed, she cleans the store and the house, does the household laundry and other chores as needed. She cooks, cleans, chops firewood, stocks inventory, tends to customers and does all the menial work around the house and store. All the while, she has a smile on her face and a kind word for everyone.

Filipinos are very amiable, to the point of avoiding conflict at any cost. They are eager to serve and to please, they greet strangers with a broad smile and a friendly "hello". They do not insist or demand and they are not in the least judgmental. They are also very sensitive to criticism and tolerant of others to the extreme. Most Filipinos ave very shy and do not talk to strangers easily unless approached and even then, responses tend to be monosyllabic single words.

Filipinos are very happy people, they tend to have a sunny disposition. They love to have fun, to sing, to have a party. There is a fiesta somewhere in the Philippines every day and on those days businesses (and often major streets) close. Filipinos do not need an occasion to celebrate, only an opportunity. "Christmas" here starts at the end of August and lasts until the end of February.

Manila PollutionSounds like heaven? Not so fast. All these wonderful and admirable traits have a dark side as well. Being tolerant in the extreme means that Filipino society willingly accepts and tolerates behavior not condoned anywhere else. Taxi and jeepney drivers pull over to the sidewalk in the middle of the city and urinate on the wall in broad daylight. Cars, trucks, buses, jeepneys honk at pedestrians and each other every chance they get and the noise can be deafening. Children throw trash wherever they please and no one says a thing. Children play in the middle of busy streets in the city, screaming at the top of their lungs for hours and no one considers this behavior unfit for civilized society. Drivers routinely cross into the wrong side of the street or road, run red lights, drive the wrong way in one-way streets, park anywhere including the middle of the road, turn without signaling or even looking. Speed limits and stop signs are ignored more often than obeyed. The only observable law of traffic is the law of physics: the bigger vehicle has the right of way. All this is accepted as the "way things are". Amazingly, accidents are quite rare.

Vehicles belch black smoke into the air already polluted by sidewalk barbecues burning wood from coconut trees. All trucks and jeepneys run on bald tires. This must be a local ordinance or divine law since I have not seen any exceptions. All commercial and government systems are incredibly bureaucratic, involve reams of paperwork and lots of waiting. Tap water is non-potable, drinking water is sold in plastic bags by sari-sari stores for 1 peso, in bottles of varying sizes up to 5 gallons (35 pesos) by water filtering outlets. Cities have no storm-water drainage, so during periods of heavy rain, many streets are flooded. Pedestrians cross wherever they feel like, sometimes wading in knee-deep water (remember, most Filipinos are quite short).

Pinoy MenGovernment services are a joke and one must hire "fixers" at various offices to get things done, or "wait for a while", a favorite Filipino expression. I bought a Yamaha motorcycle last December (9 months ago). The dealer was supposed arrange for the required documentation, registration and license. I am still waiting for my registration, conduction permit and "annual" registration sticker. It is all good, since the cops never bothered me about any of these things. There are taxes and fees (mostly petty nuisance) for the things one would not expect, such as a fee for using the terminal at the airport (on top of the 1,620 peso "foreign travel tax" Filipinos and permanent residents must pay when traveling overseas), or a fee for using the restroom. There are fees for every sheet of document the government produces, plus of course the inescapable 12% value-added tax (VAT) on top of it all. There are fees I have never heard of and may not even have an English translation (what on Earth is "arrestre"?) All this is accepted with incredible grace and aplomb.

Finally (I know I have taken up too much of your time already), Filipinos have some rather strange mannerisms. Affirmative answers are rarely verbalized but indicated not with a nod but with a slight raising of both eyebrows. If you miss the eyebrow action, you might miss the response. Negative questions are usually answered affirmatively, which means "you are correct." The question "Don't you have any Dr. Pepper?" will be responded to with the aforementioned eyebrow action, meaning "yes". This should be interpreted as "Yes, you are correct, we do not have any Dr. Pepper." Westerners are used to a different kind of response, such as "Of course, we have Dr. Pepper" or "I am very sorry, but we are temporarily out" or perhaps a negative response, "No, we do not." This can be very confusing.

Miss PhilippinesFilipinos point not with their finger(s) but with their lips, as if they are trying kiss someone. They pucker at the thing or person they intend to point out. This gesture can easily be misconstrued as a romantic advance, when in fact it is quite innocuous. Filipinos beckon one another with their hands pointed downward instead of up. When a cop's arm is swinging in the downward direction as if they wanted to slap their knee, it means move ahead or come here. Silence here means not acquiescence but disagreement and "yes" does not mean agreement but an acknowledgement that your utterance has been heard (although it may not have been understood). The western concept of "personal space" is unknown here or if it is, it is measured in millimeters and not inches or feet. If a Filipino does not make a lot of noise (talking, singing, playing the music oh so loudly, buying special de-mufflers for their vehicles, honking incessantly), then he is either unhappy or very ill.

All in all, the Filipinos are lovable, easy-going, stoical, tolerant, fun-loving people. It is a joy to live among them, even if they are far more loud than their western counterparts.