Last year in June (2022) was my first visit to the Philippines! I had three missions:
- Help Leigh pack her apartment up in Manila to rent out
- Get to know her besties
- Spend quality time with her family
Missions accomplished! Much of my enjoyment of the Philippines was because Leigh had given me a book on the history of Filipino-American relations, which gave me a ton of context (and I finally can explain the Spanish-American War which turned out to have nothing to do with an argument about how to pronounce “pollo”), and she taught me about 20 phrases in Bisaya, the local language spoken on the island of Cebu.
Author’s note: As mentioned, this was my first visit and a lot of what is written below is not a complete picture of the Philippines, but I am sharing my foreigner’s first impression (i.e. mostly ignorance) from my two weeks there. Please don’t take offence because I need to hang on to all the offence I have.
🇵🇭 The friendliest people on the planet
I have heard so many people talk about how courteous the entire country is, not just the legion of customer support representatives that Australian and American companies now employ. From my experience, it’s true/ These people have the patience of saints, the polished manners of seasoned sommeliers, and the best smiles. The best example of this is Tony, who drove us everywhere in Manila and Cebu. Despite Tony and I not having a common language, we could understand each other just with a look or a facial expression.
There are so many smart, hard working, friendly people across the country — and there are now programs for entrepreneurs in climate as well. And the largest solar farm in Australia is being built by a Filipino company!
🍤 How small shrimp become big shrimp
My highlight visit for the trip was to the Leigh’s dad’s shrimp farm. I knew nothing about the shrimp (a.k.a. “prawn” here in Australia) industry and how it works.
Take a TON of electricity, fry (baby shrimp), clean water ponds, feed, and labor, and you have the start of it. But managing it all at scale and still turning a profit takes a keen operator and being smart about quality and cost.
The light bulb moment for me is that the size of the shrimp have nothing to do with it being different families of shrimp — it’s just a matter of harvest. Cocktail shrimp? Probably something like an adolescent. Jumbo prawn? Probably the last of the harvest. I could go on for hours about the wonders of shrimp farms. I asked so many questions at one point people wondered if I planned on starting a competitor. I did try and build a business case for solar powered shrimp farms. Someday!
🌏 Spanish, American, Japanese, Filipino!
While the Spanish colonial period left a great influence on The Phillipines, the US has had a massive impact on modern Filipino culture. While the Japanese occupation (WWII) was short lived, the atrocities will not be forgotten. And the local, original cultures are still alive and present. Since Magellan met his end in Mactan, maybe those Filipinos had the right idea all along? The best way to deal with colonialism is to kill the colonialists. Let that be a lesson to you, aggressive Martians!
🤯 Bong Bong
The only phrase I demanded that Leigh teach me was “@#$%! How did you elect Bong Bong Marcos?!” I can remember watching (as a high schooler) the NBC news reports of the departure of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, who had embezzled billions from the country and committed atrocities — and then were exiled, and now their son has been elected President? And seems to be trying to rewrite the history of his horrible dispicable parents. This would be even worse than having a US President who is clearly mentally ill (sociopathic narcissism) and who tried to subvert the democratic process. Can you imagine? I’m sure no one would go along with such a leader. And there’s no way that if they ran a second time that they could win their party’s nomination…
💰Class is in session
While in the US we carefully hide our class system and pretend like we don’t have one (when we definitely do), in the Philippines it is fully on display.
There are the wealthy, the 1% living in gated communities, mostly of Spanish descent but with a growing representation of Asians. Then there are the middle class, who fill out the ranks of growing Filipino corporations and represent the future, long term potential and stability of the country. And then there are the masses of the lower class — many living as squatters without steady income, or living in homes as servants.
My first visit to Jamaica opened my eyes to class disparity — and I’ve seen it in many other countries. India is still the worst I’ve ever seen. The Philippines has a 114 million people, so it cannot change overnight, but I hope that by 2050 we’ll see a positive shift in upward mobility, but it will depend on whether the Phillipines can stem the infestation of corruption in their political system.
🐽 A cheat day that will life in infamy
Even before I landed, apparently a national Filipino emergency had been declared because “A vegetarian or vegan is entering our beloved country, and we’re not entirely sure what those words mean but we know he won’t eat lechon so what are we going to feed this scrawny Americano during his two weeks here?”
At every meal, the panicked, perspiration-filled speed reading of the menu were quickly followed with, “See! They have something for you here.” Everyone was very concerned that I eat! Like many cultures, in the Philippines, you express your love by force feeding someone.
Last year, I started a tradition of a cheat day, or one day a year where I eat meat. Last year: KFC. This year: Tito Tony’s shrimp, and lechon. Lechon is the food that in Filipino lore was handed down to the people directly by the gods, until one of the gods had a bite, and then she reached down and took back the lechon. A thousand years war between humans and gods followed, the stalemate finally resolved that both sides could eat lechon. A lot of people will say, “Yes, I know lechon — it’s pork.” NO. It’s the entire pig, based and roasted for a day and served whole.
It was tasty, I have to admit. I had chosen my cheat day well, even though it was the day before I flew out and my entire digestive system seized up that night and didn’t return to normal for 24 hours. Worth it.
🏡 Thanks is not enough
I would not have seen 1/100th as much if I had traveled through the Phillipines on my own — Leigh’s family and friends were the best hosts I’ve ever experienced visiting a new country. I felt out of place, over-heated, grumpy, often misunderstood, but everyone were wholeheartedly friendly, kind, and more generous than I could have imagined, to the point where it was wonderfully uncomfortable. From letting me swim at their club, to taking me diving, to driving to Santander to swim in the ocean, to so many many other things, the hospitality and kindness were top notch.
Salamat, Filipinos. Salamat, Phillipines. Putang ina! Ngano na elected si Bong Bong?!