Don’t be racist.

I’m not going to lie. I completely forgot about this blog until yesterday. I am a bad expat advisor, I know. Sometimes, life, though, you know?

Let’s dive in deep today and talk about racism.

Yay! So much fun–wait, where are you going? COME BACK!

This is important stuff.

First, you need to remember that people are people, no matter where they live. They have the same basic needs to be filled, the same basic hopes for the future. The differences lie in people’s wants and how they prioritize those wants. Different cultures tend to create people who have similar wants and priorities. Where your wants and priorities class with another person’s wants and priorities is where we find a minor culture clash. This happens all the time in our home countries. Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy gets to know girl and finds that his priorities (a, b, c, d, e) don’t quite match up with girl’s priorities (a, c, b, f, d). Sometimes this is no big thing. Sometimes it’s enough for boy to go find another girl. But since, within a given culture, our wants tend to come from the same general list and the order of priorities fall into a normative set of combinations, we don’t think much of it. We chalk it up to an acceptable difference and move on.

Now, take yourself to a different culture, and you will find that your wants (a, b, c, d, e) come up against your intended beau’s (6, ε, a, Σ. b) and you find yourself in a real conundrum. This is where we end up with a major culture clash. And this isn’t just in romantic relationships. This happens in employment situations, religious communities, at the shoe store, with a traffic enforcement officer, and really pretty much everywhere you go in a new homeland.

It might be that you can’t understand why the cashier insists on stapling your receipt to the outside of the bag instead of just handing it to you so you can put it in your pocket. In this case, your wants to not lose the receipt or have nosey folks checking out how much you spent is running up against the store’s want to have both the receipt clearly visible to security personnel and to prevent you from slipping anything else into the bag on your way out.

It might be that you can’t fathom why your house helper would insist on unplugging every appliance she encounters as she does her daily cleaning. Your want to have to convenience of being able to turn something on without having to plug it in first is running up against her want to not burn to death in a horrible fire caused by a poorly wired electronic item that was left plugged in unattended.*

These sorts of clashes happen in any cross-cultural encounter. The problems arise when you don’t stop and figure out why they want to do things their way. Sometimes, like with the receipts. it still annoys you, but maybe knowing that it’s a loss prevention method for the store makes you thankful that there are some policies in place that mean you usually pay less for things here than in your home country because they have less of an issue with shoplifting. (I don’t know if that’s true. I choose to believe it is so I don’t go batty over the stupid receipt flapping around on my bags.) Sometimes, like with the electronics, you can explain to your helper that your way really is ok, because you have better wiring in your home and the appliances are of a better quality. Problems solved.

However, if you don’t take a deep breath and try to see the issue from their side, you can easily start forming a perception of Filipinos that is less than positive. In time, you’ll end up sounding just as bad as, if not worse than, your crazy, racist uncle that you try to avoid at family reunions. For some reason, everyone is very against Crazy, Racist Uncle, but get a group of expats together, especially those who have been around less than a year, and there is a fair-to-middling chance that things will devolve into discussions that Crazy, Racist Uncle would feel right at home participating in.

Don’t be that expat. Remember that there are more ways to do things than the way you are used to. That you have to take a culture as a whole. You can’t take one piece of how you do things in your home country and fit it in to your new culture, because there are structures and customs in place that make it so that the way it’s being done is really how it works here.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways that the Philippines can be better. (Or any country, for that matter, including some first-world ones I know that shall remain nameless.) But, cultural change happens slowly, not because a foreigner showed up and had a hissy fit, because the shoe salesman told her that they were out of size 8s, and asked if she would like to try a size 5.** Or because you found yourself next to a politician at a dinner party and ever-so-cleverly decided to help “fix” the Philippines by suggesting to him that the police not be corrupt and slow to act.

Basically, remember that people are people no matter their skin tone, country of origin, language, or religion. Don’t expand your negative experiences with a handful of Filipinos as you learn to navigate their culture in their country to include all Filipinos unless you really have met many, many, many of them from different backgrounds and walks of life. And even then, don’t act as if their differences make them lesser in anyway. People are people.

* This happens. A massive fire destroyed 13 homes and killed someone in a village near-by not too long ago, because someone had left a cheaply made fan plugged in unattended. That is not the first time I’ve heard about this happening, either. BE WARY about trying to save a few pisos and buy quality merchandise!

** This happens. A lot. I have theories about why. One is that you really can’t be sure that your size 8 feet aren’t a size 5 in the shoes they have in stock, so it’s worth trying. The other is that I see people in the wrong size shoes here all the time. Sometimes I think it’s that the person just really wanted that style and was wiling to have their pinky toe touch the ground, because that’s what it meant had to happen in order to wear that style. Sometimes I think it’s out of financial necessity. You will see many people out and about in a nice outfit and just assume that they live a middle class life. If you follow them home, though, you might find that that one nice outfit is their one nice outfit. So they wear it out whenever they leave their neighborhood. And their one nice pair of shoes gave out at a time when the local ukay-ukay store*** only had shoes that were too small/big/wide/narrow in stock, so that’s what they bought. Some people here are just used to wearing shoes that don’t fit properly, so they ask if you are willing to try on shoes outside of your shoe range, because, hey, maybe you are used to wearing shoes that don’t fit properly, too.

*** An ukay-ukay store is a second hand store. They may be a brick-and-mortar building, or they may be run under a tree somewhere in the neighborhood, not unlike a yard sale. Often, these are stocked with clothing from the US that was donated to Goodwill-type stores. These donation centers get far many donations than they can resell in the US, so they bundle them up and sell them on to third world countries at a very cheap price. Enterprising folks buy the bundles and resell them in the local market for the equivalent of $.10-1.00 or so per item. This is how many of the poor gets their clothing here. It’s also something to keep in mind when you are making clothing donations. Please make sure it’s still actually in usable condition before you shove it in the donation bins. It’s also a reason why clothing is fairly rarely needed here as far as donations go. It’s very cheap to replace in the local market. People can generally afford to replace clothing when they are affected by natural disaster and they can usually find decent clothing if they shop around at the ukay-ukay shops. When your generosity juices start flowing, rather than donating clothing, which is expensive to ship here and generally not needed, think about donating to the Philippine Red Cross, LDS Humanitarian Services, or other organizations that already have infrastructure in place to provide assistance during disasters or to improve daily lives.


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