I do love my life in the Philippines.
I repeat that to myself several times a day these days. I just got back from a long vacation abroad, you see. Long enough that I had to slip into habits I don’t have here, and do things for myself that I pay others to do for me here. Not to mention that vacation life in general is way cooler and packed with fun stuff compared to your daily life. I am almost through the adjustment period this time around, so I thought that while it’s still fresh, I’d write a post about it.
A lot of expats have a hard time adjusting after being gone for a month or more. The first thing you have to do is remind yourself that this is normal. Many of us go back to our home countries where we slip back into lives where we are much more independent. We go back to doing our own laundry and cleaning up after ourselves. We drive ourselves to the store. We do our shopping in massive shopping centers where the clerks are few and far between and leave us alone to do what we need to do. For many of us, this is an easy transition to make, because it’s the type of life we grew up in. The habits quickly feel familiar and comfortable again.
And then vacation is over and you head back to the Philippines.
It’s not that life is bad here. AT ALL. In fact, you may even be like me and really love it here. But the fact of the matter is that the way of life here is probably different from the culture of your birth, so slipping back into your Filipino Lifestyle habits isn’t so easy. You may miss washing a dish without having someone jump in to do it for you. Maybe you remember that you never did show your helper how you like your bed made just so, and you are annoyed that you now have to decide whether to show her or to put up with it. Maybe you aren’t quite ready to be greeted by 7 different employees when you walk through a store to grab some milk. It all just sort of grates on you. And the worst thing is that you know it’s all little, unimportant stuff, so you get to feel shallow and petty on top of it all.
To illustrate how silly it all is, let me categorize my list of complaints as we returned from a month away:
1. Before we left, I spent months sewing curtains for our bedroom, only to leave the last panel on the floor so we could go to lunch as a family. When I got back, all ready to hang it up, I found that one of my helpers had let the dog in the room and shut him in. He peed on the curtain, which caused the colors to run. I had no time to resew the panel before we left, so it had to go up with a massive blotchy stain on it. The first thing I saw when I walked into the room was that massive blotchy stain. Grrr…
2. For some reason, both my helpers will make the bed with the bedspread trailing off on the floor by a good 6 inches. I don’t know why. Normally, I’m too busy to care, but right now I’m not working, so I fixate on that weirdly arranged bed and it bugs me to the point that I remake the bed myself. Do I ask my helpers to do it differently? No, I just make it myself, because I’m passive aggressive like that.
3. The kitchen has hooks above the sink, and my helpers have taken to hanging pots up there to dry. However, that means a little bit of water pools in the bottom of the pot, and they get put away like that. I did actually say something to them about that. That’s personal growth right there.
4. I walked into the local grocery store and 4 people said hello to me before I reached for a cart. All at once. All quite loudly. How dare they be so friendly?
5. We went to the mall and I was called “Sir/Ma’am” 5 times in the space of about 10 minutes by various store greeters. I know that there are probably corporate manuals instructing staff to greet people by saying, “Hello, Sir/Ma’am” and it hasn’t occurred to the staff that what this means is to say, “Hello, Sir” if it’s a man and “Hello, Ma’am” if it’s a woman. So, they just say “Hello, Sir/Ma’am” to everyone and this has always driven me crazy, because OH MY GOSH, I AM NOT A HERMAPHRODITE.
6. An appointment for dinner with some local friends started a full hour late, because Filipino Time is a real thing. I’m usually used to that, but I’m out of practice.
7. I can’t throw anything away without it being picked through.
8. I can’t just walk into my bedroom, because if I do while my helpers are cleaning, they freak out and bolt, and they don’t always make it back in to finish the job. So I have to approach quietly, listening for signs of where they might be working, and then back away before they hear me if they are where I need to go.
9. I experience traffic.
10. I witness extreme poverty.
See what I mean? Really earth shattering stuff there. I feel like a superstar for letting it all annoy me, let me tell you. I *see* poverty; I don’t experience it. And my bed isn’t made right.
Try calling a friend from home and complaining that your maid doesn’t make your bed right.
Yeah… I don’t want to make that phone call, either. To really make friends, wait for her to bring up the question of a $15 minimum hourly wage, and tell her you know a family who lives on $2.50 a day. Someone’s going to start looking for a way to get off that phone conversation.
It doesn’t help that the transition comes with monster jet lag for most of us. And that many of use haven’t exercised properly in weeks. So we’re dealing with fatigue on top of all our grumbling.
So, yeah. I get you, fellow expats. Cut yourselves some slack. We have very weird lives that not many people can understand or think we have a right to have any complaints about. But it is our lives, and when you aren’t completely comfortable in it, it’s hard. Doesn’t matter if you’re the Pope or a fry cook. You’re human, and humans like patterns and routines, and when we are exposed to new patterns and routines, it doesn’t feel right.
Yes, in the greater comparative world, your complaints may very well be minor, but taken as a whole, they add up to a minor case of culture shock. The good news is that if your initial experience with culture shock was a case of the flu, post-vacation culture shock is more like a minor tummy upset. You will regain your perspective. You will remember all the good things about being here as the days go by. The routines will come. The sooner you embrace your routines the better. Breathe. Get some sunshine. Get back into your life.