Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Things I miss from civilisation

Now I'm living here for the medium-term at least, I guess it's time for another deliberately confrontational Philippines-bashing post, because this is the country in my thoughts and in my face right now, and a few days spent in the heavily regulated comfort of Singapore was enough to make me nostalgic for when I lived in a country that at least pretended to care about its people.

It's not my fault I was spoiled by a first world upbringing that gave me high standards (working class if that's any excuse?) I was lucky enough to have the chance to be successful and make what I wanted of my life, so choosing to end up in a corrupt third world country where people shout at me and demand money all the time would be ridiculous for any other reason than wanting to be near someone who lives here. It isn't even as cheap as you might imagine, especially with the 3,500 pesos required to extend my tourist visa every 59 days or the alternative of taking more expensive connecting flights out and in every 21 days.

I'm making a lot of sacrifices so we can be together, but time and my patience threshold will tell how far this goes. What if we have kids one day? Being conditioned by a country where hungry mouths outnumber food and means, Jackie will obviously want to. Would I want to raise them here, where education standards are slipping from inadequate to terrible, and to give them the burden of being a Filipino citizen when they grow up, looked down on the world over and having their suffering country trashed by spiteful bloggers? It really does help to write these thoughts down.

Here are assorted reasons my phuture in the Philippines would be phrustrating.


Obviously, my offence at bigotry is on behalf of other people.
There's nothing funny about me

Political correctness is less of a pressing issue in many Asian countries than it is in the 'West' (Australia and New Zealand are west of Asia, right? WHAT? How am I supposed to make wild, inaccurate generalisations if you keep taking these terms away from me?) But despite what a racist visitor's first impressions may be, ethnic divides and other types of segregation are just as widespread in many of these countries, particularly the scattered islands of the Philippines, and I don't just mean the aesthetic preference for light skin tones.

You can blame a lot of it on the Catholic church, which retains its stranglehold on this country's society and politics long after its independence from colonial rule (and as far as the average Filipino is concerned, the institution has a spotless record). I'm living in the southern island of Mindanao, which has a sizeable Muslim minority, and the tension between Muslim and Christian Filipinos is the most strained I've seen since Israel.

In this nation of low education and low aspirations, religion is an understandable crutch that helps people feel better about their lot in life, but which also specifically teaches intolerance to the other, apparently incorrect faiths. I'm several years past the point where I can be bothered to get into arguments about reason versus superstition that leave both sides feeling exhausted, angry and victorious, and there's enough tantalising mystery in the cosmos that I can be comfortable in the humble middle ground of ignorance. It doesn't make any difference to the happiness of our relationship whether my girlfriend believes that life evolved as every aspect of our anatomy suggests or from two Caucasian people as depicted by Renaissance frescoes. Where it matters is tolerance, which is in short supply, especially for those who are sinfully born homosexual.

Gay love scenes may be routinely excised from imported films and TV shows,
but there are no laws stopping knobheads from doing this to walls

We had that conversation a long time ago and everything's fine. I haven't hesitated to end relationships when I found out people were bigots before. But I get the feeling there'll be lots of instances where someone's offhand comment or joke will rub me up the wrong way and I'll have to choose between preserving the peace and letting bigotry pass or confronting the remark in my ongoing, futile quest to make the world a more liberal place. I'm not good at keeping my mouth shut.

The Philippines has an impressive track record with women in employment and government, but there's a great deal of inequality there too. Despite being fluent in English and university educated, my girlfriend had never heard of the concept of feminism. Could I really raise a daughter here?


Sixteen glorious floors of library in Singapore.
(Just ignore that the actual library books are all shoved into one floor underground)

Now we've got the trifling human rights issue of equality out of the way, it's time to focus on a more pressing issue: libraries in the Philippines are rubbish. One of the positive aspects of this country as a potential future home is that English is widely spoken, and most books are printed in English too. The problem is, 'most books' comprises Bible study supplements, easy reading books for children and a couple of international bestsellers that are obviously too mainstream for my tastes. They're not big on the sciences either.

The Philippines boasts of a high literacy rate, but just like in Thailand, no one seems to put these skills into practice beyond reading Facebook comments. I get strange looks when I read a book on the jeepney, but then I get strange looks all the time. It's a depressing reminder of Bill Hicks' "what are you reading for?" routine, in a country that's placated by light entertainment to the extent that they elect celebrities regardless of the content or existence of their campaigns. They're up against some tough global competition in that regard, but I think the Philippines is the runaway victor.

I recently paid a visit to my 'local' library, about an hour's travel from the village by jeepney as there either isn't enough money or interest (probably neither) to have more than one library in the entire Davao area. The library occupies part of the third floor of a government building and has been almost entirely usurped by internet services. I found a book store in a mall, but it was closed indefinitely.

If I do wake up one morning with a craving to sit in a comfy chair, listen to the snores of old men and desperately lose myself in a fictional world, I can at least console myself that Singapore National Library is just two flights and ten MRT stops away. Maybe it's time to start a bookshelf.


If Singapore spoiled me with anything, it was with clean pavements wide enough for two humans to pass each other from opposite directions without one having to step into the muddy road and risk getting bisected by a motorbike, which, by the way, aren't allowed on the pavements because they are fucking vehicles.

Walking along the street and crossing the road in the Philippines isn't anywhere near as harrowing as somewhere like Vietnam, but if I need to make that extreme comparison at all, the situation can't be too good. Davao City itself is blessed with wide pavements (the homeless people need somewhere to lay their cardboard beds), but out in the barrios it's lumpy dirt tracks all the way. That's fun for a day of trekking, not so much when I'm just heading out to buy biscuits and need to leap over puddles and muddy tyre gashes.


I've gradually been easing/forcing myself back into writing fiction this year, because if nothing else this enveloping activity helps me forget I'm in the Philippines for the entire day. While I can see myself churning out many never-to-be-published-books' worth of stories each year from my temperature-controlled bedroom bubble, it would also be nice to interact with people who share my interests and beliefs. All those churches are starting to make sense now.

Unfortunately, due to the cultural rather than the language barrier, it doesn't look like it'll be very easy to join or set up a writing group in Davao, and even if I was still keen to do some paranormal investigations like in the old days, the country's medieval blasphemy laws would likely want to put a stop to that.

When I happily whiled away most of my time in Australia down in Haylie's basement (a lot less dingy than it sounds), I checked out sites like Gumtree and and considered heading down to an obscure film screening or futile UFO vigil in the Blue Mountains, just to give me something to do on a listless Saturday. But I wasn't going to be staying, so I didn't get involved.

The burden of choice

Here in Davao, community websites are sadly deficient in fun, time-wasting activities and are mostly consumed by prostitutes and old men looking for prostitutes:

That's not the sort of fun, time-wasting activity I was looking for

I should make it clear that I won't be looking for a group of fellow white people to hang out with just because of our shared European ancestry. Call me picky, but I have some standards from friends I want to spend time with, like actually liking them. Call me judgemental, but most white people I see around here aren't the type of people I'm likely to like.


Seriously, why is everybody staring at me?
It's out now, might as well get mileage from it (Halloween '08)

Provincial Filipinos are skilled in making me feel unwelcome. I can't walk anywhere outside of major cities without people staring and shouting at me when they want to sell me something or just because they're bored and a passing foreigner passes as entertainment.

At the other end of the scale, customer service can be too friendly, with omnipresent security guards opening and closing doors for me everywhere in the city centre like I'm a paranoid aristocratic woman afraid of contracting the Norovirus off a handle. Then there are the staff who always urge me to sit down during the two minutes it takes to make a burger when I'd rather stand, like they think I'm asthmatic or something.

All I want is to be left alone. Being able to walk down the street being completely ignored and feeling like I don't exist is a privilege that's been denied to me for most of the last three years, though I was able to enjoy it briefly in Australia. Apparently there's a not insubstantial risk that as a foreigner I could be kidnapped by terrorists if I go walking in the rural areas around my house too - gossip says it supposedly happened a few months ago, though Google doesn't back that up. Call me introverted, but this is all just too much attention.


Would be nice


Once you've had beanbag-sized samosas, you don't go fun-size again

I've dealt with this before, but Filipino cuisine isn't exactly the most appealing in Asia. To be fair, they're up against the toughest competition in the world, and a lot of the native food of my own country is bland and unpleasant, but at least there people have the option of foreign food.

There are foreign restaurants here, mostly limited to the nations with higher expat populations like the US, China and Japan, but there's less demand for these considering most local people's income isn't disproportionately higher than their outgoings like mine. I pretty much always cooked for myself when I earned below average in the UK too, I do get it. Seriously, I get this, you don't need to leave a comment. I just really want Indian food sometimes, okay?

The supermarkets are pretty strange too, with most prices being similar to those of Sainsburys back home in a Kwik Save set-up. Snacks and beauty products are bound together in impractically large quantities, presumably intended for unambitious entrepreneurs stocking up for their village shops, but I've never seen more than two carrots or three potatoes packaged together in a set, because who in their right mind would want to eat more than that in a week?

The paucity of cuisine at least meant I could enjoy seeing Jackie's reaction when tasting international foods for the first time in multicultural Malaysia and Singapore. Turns out she doesn't like Indian food. Our relationship is doomed. So problem solved, I guess - let's get back on the road! Bloody love.


  1. Totally off topic, but is the punky looking girl in the photo of you during Halloween 08 called Nicki? If so I think I know her! We went to university together. She told me she liked my top once and I got flustered and said "I like your style!" I should probably read The Game before interacting with any more women :(

    1. Yes, she joined our sceptical paranormal group towards the end (how I met my Edinburgh friends) and fit right in. That's actually a Halloween party, but not a million miles away from how she dressed normally.