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So Why Would I Want to Move to a Third World Country?

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Someone in the Blogcritics Politics section recently asked me in an incredulous tone why I, as an avowed liberal, would want to leave the “nanny state” of America to go to a third-world country like the Philippines.

Now Clavos knows whereof he speaks – he has a clue as to how bad third-world countries can be. Corrupt, dirty, unsanitary, often unsafe, strongly lacking in educational and social infrastructure, highly vulnerable to natural disasters…the laundry list goes on, and correlates in many ways with what I see in the Philippines. Let me enumerate some of these:

– When on the road in the city, it’s normal for the road ahead in the distance to be somewhat obscured by a black cloud of exhaust…and later, when one cleans out one’s nose, out comes black particles that came from the smog. This is the result of the government being unwilling and unable to pass—much less enforce—vehicle emissions standards. image of Pasig River, Manila, Philippines Even if the government could, the people largely could not afford the engine overhauls needed to meet even the lowest emissions standards in America.

– The main river in Manila—the Pasig—is nasty in every sense of the word. There’s trash of every kind (and the occasional body, I’m told) lining the banks. When one goes to the otherwise-somewhat-romantic waterfront of Manila Bay, it’s nice…except for the plastic bags and bottles and assorted flotsam and jetsam that would be pilloried as a national shame here in the States. Along most of the roads—more trash.

– When dealing with bureaucracy and particularly governmental bureaucracy, it’s normal to need to grease the skids, so to speak, with money in order to make things happen. I remember my family paying off a local judge in order to keep my brother-in-law out of jail on drug charges. My sister-in-law has a document that allows her to break almost any traffic law without fear of arrest or prosecution by the police. When I sent my household goods there nearly 10 years ago, we were going to have to pay thousands in customs fees…until another brother-in-law paid a clerk several hundred dollars as an “unofficial processing fee.”  Whenever I pass through customs at the airport, I put a $20 bill in my passport, and my luggage is thus not searched.

– Traffic there is worse than anywhere in North America with the possible exception of Mexico City. What we see here as newsworthy major traffic jams are normal traffic there. Add to that the fact that when your car stops for whatever reason, you’ll soon (especially if you’re white) be accosted by the people who walk among stalled traffic selling anything they can scrounge up to sell. What hurts me is seeing little girls who should be in school, but instead are running unsupervised and unprotected among the cars, selling little flowers or even dishrags for a few pisos. It’s very difficult for me to not buy what they are selling just to help her out. I know that by doing so, I’m only perpetuating the problem, enabling the parents to keep her out there…but I still can’t be cold enough to always say “no.”

– Don’t drink the water!  Instead, we have to buy all our drinking and cooking water from a local distributor. Fortunately, they deliver. The city’s tap water is acceptable for bathing—but the water pressure is poor (and sometimes nonexistent. What most well-to-do people do is to purchase a small stainless-steel water tank and a pump to go with it in order to have reliable water pressure. Electricity is also a problem—brownouts happen quite often, particularly during the monsoon. I really do wonder if the birth rate goes up in the nine months after the time of the monsoon.

– Personally, the part I hate the worst are the bathrooms, or “comfort rooms” as they are called. In some places, the toilets are often not flushed (much less cleaned) for days at a time.  “BYOTP”—bring your own toilet paper—applies…otherwise, there probably won’t be any available. And toilet seat liners are completely unknown there—for that matter, there’s usually no toilet seat, but only the toilet rim! So what do the people do? They normally squat without letting their bums touch the toilet seat. While this keeps their bottoms from touching the toilet seat, it also allows the bodily waste to—ahem—spray, spatter, and splash where it will. BUT if one knows where to go and where not to go, one can normally avoid such nightmarish experiences.

– Divorce is largely illegal in the Philippines. Those who must leave their spouses may not remarry…so what they do instead is eventually wind up with common-law partners. Abortion is, of course, strictly verboten in this strongly Catholic country.

- And then there’s the risk of natural disasters. We live on an active fault line, there’s an active volcano (named “Taal”) 50 miles south of us, and of course there are the dozen or so typhoons that wind their way through every year during the monsoon from May through September.  During the typhoons people stay indoors—not because of the lightning or rain, but because of the “flying razors,” the sheets of tin roofing that are torn away from squatter shacks.  Every year there are people who are struck; some go to the hospital, some die.  One bad typhoon struck a few years back—”Ondoy”—and did worse damage to Manila than Katrina did to New Orleans. We had four feet of water in our house (and car)—but this wasn’t due to the rain itself, but instead to the dam operators at Marakina Dam who had to open the floodgates to avoid failure of the dam. We didn’t know that we were buying our house downstream from a dam! So it sounds silly, but I’ll be buying some lifejackets and placing them in a secure box up on our roof terrace…because if a flood happened before, it WILL happen again, and if the dam gives way…

So why, oh why would I—a strong “nanny-state” liberal—even consider moving my family to the Philippines? I can sum it up in one word: family.

During the times I’ve spent in Manila, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of having a large family. In my youth I would listen to the stories my grandmother would tell of growing up with her 12 siblings, and our family reunions were always happy occasions. With my wife’s family in Manila, nearly all of her siblings are still there living in the same compound where they’ve been for close to 50 years, and so we have such “family reunions” every week, sometimes every day…and as a result, I’ve been able to grow closer to them than to most of my own birth family. I’ve learned how much of a pain family can be, but even in the midst of hard family squabbles, when the chips were down they stood together as families do. But such family conflicts are minimal compared to not only to the good times they spend together (it’s incredible how often they celebrate birthdays!), but also to the safety and comfort they feel (but do not always appreciate) by having lots of close and (mostly) trustworthy family just a few meters away.

We’re going because I want my youngest son to experience living with a large family, with being able to hang out with a dozen cousins at once, to enjoy having that family reunion almost every day! He knows the problems there—after all, he spent four months there last year going to high school. But if you ask him, he’s eager to go back. As poor as the schools are there, he prefers going to school in Manila, despite the fact that at the school where he’s going, students are not allowed to date until they’re 18! Why does he like the school so much? He said it was because they took their schoolwork much more seriously there…and because he’s well-liked at the school; being the only white kid in an otherwise all-brown school tends to make one more noticeable. I knew somewhat how he felt, having attended a school once in Mississippi where out of 480 students, perhaps 20 of us were white.

He learned something else there, too: that as dirty and unsanitary as Manila certainly is, the Filipinos themselves are much cleaner than Americans. It’s not only taking one’s shoes off when going into the house. It’s also taking showers twice, three times a day, and rinsing one’s butt with water every time with a small bucket called a “tabo” whenever one uses the toilet.

There’s a personal reason for going there, too. I’ve seen several nursing homes here stateside, and I told my sons long ago that if they decided to put me in a nursing home, to instead just take me out to the woods and leave me there. I cannot and will not allow myself to be sentenced to die in one of those places no matter how nice they are. Why? My wife’s grandmother passed away in the family compound about eight years ago. She had spent her final years mostly blind, somewhat hard of hearing, and hardly able to move, largely restricted to a bed in an unventilated room…and there she would spend her days in the heat with perhaps a fan for cooling in the hot and humid Manila weather, hardly able to swat away the mosquitoes and other insects. Sounds miserable, right? But every single day, she could hear her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren…whereas those in American nursing homes—even the high-end nursing homes—count themselves lucky if they see a family member or two once a month!

The Filipinos I’ve known here have a saying: America’s a great place to make money, but the Philippines is a far better place to grow old. They’re right, and I thank God that I might have an opportunity to grow old in a place where I’ll be taken care of, if not by my sons who might go anywhere in this world, then by my nieces and nephews and their children and grandchildren, by family that has accepted me despite the different color of my skin. And I agree wholeheartedly that while America is a great place to make money if that’s what one wants in life, it’s far better to grow old someplace where one is cared for by trustworthy family members, even if that may be in a third-world country.

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    We used to have that kind of traditional, pro-family culture in the USA, too, until liberals like yourself did everything in their power to destroy it.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Yes, we indeed had that kind of traditional, pro-family culture…until we had this thing called ‘progress’. You know, where people began having enough money to buy homes somewhere else? If you’ll look around the world, RJ, you’ll find that third-world countries are almost ALWAYS quite conservative…and ALL first-world democracies are – by your definition – quite LIBERAL.

    So why is that, RJ? Could it be that liberal values come only with the advent of economic opportunity?

    In other words, RJ, you’re speaking from a position of ignorance. The problems I listed with the Philippines are just scratching the surface – there’s quite a few societal problems that I didn’t list, that would not be conducive to the article as a whole. Very few people have the opportunity I have, and the family there is certainly better off than most.

    Tell you what, RJ – go live in a third-world country of your choice. See the benefits of life there, but do not be so blind that you will miss the dangers and disadvantages as well.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/realist Realist

    Yes, Glenn, why would you want to move to a third world country when our elected corporation-representing government is doing everything in their power to create one out of this nation? So much easier to kick back and let them deliver it right to your door!

  • Audrey

    I can certainly relate to your article. I’m not from the Philippines, but close by in South East Asia. The problem of corruption, dirty toilets, pollution, etc are all too common. I guess everywhere you live, you will have to take the good along with the bad.

  • http://missus-emm.blogspot.com/ Emm

    Note to self: finish eating lunch before reading another of Glen Contrarian’s posts. The smoggy snot and comfort room descriptions had me gagging over my rice cakes.

    Gagging aside, great post. As a serial expat who has lived more than two thirds of my life in the third world, I can absolutely, 100% relate. I’m living in London now but want to move somewhere warmer like Brisbane or Texas. Of course, I’d move back ‘home’ to South Africa in a wink if the crime situation was brough under control and I secretly want to move to Kosovo or Sarajevo.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Great article. I was curious about your point about personal hygiene. We sometimes get advised here in the West that we take TOO MANY showers, that it’s not good for our hair and skin to wash every day. Maybe Filipinos feel the need to compensate for dirty surroundings?

  • Ian

    Jon, if you spent some time in the Philippines, you would also feel the need to shower as often as possible. It has nothing to do with dirty surroundings, but a climate that is extremely hot an humid. Step out the door and you are instantly drenched in sweat.

    I can understand Glenn’s desire to finish off his days in this country. Having family there myself. I know what he means.

    It’s amazing how comments to Blogcritics have become so personal and mean spirited recently. Perhaps a return to commenting on content rather than the author would encourage more people to join in.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Jon and Ian –

    It’s not just the showers and the humidity. It’s strange, really – they’re quite determined about their personal cleanliness and the insides of their houses which you’ll find are normally quite clean as well…

    …but their surroundings, perhaps it’s because of the poverty that affects so many of them. I remember seeing older pictures and there was nothing like the trash I see now.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    I remember seeing older pictures and there was nothing like the trash I see now.

    Most likely because there was nothing like the ready availability of disposable consumer goods there is now.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    But grinding poverty has a lot to do with it too. It’s the same anywhere that there’s so much poverty. I saw the same in Kenya, in Mexico (even though I only got as far as Tijuana)…heck, even in the MS Delta, but not quite as bad since the poverty isn’t quite as bad.

  • STM

    Good story Glenn,

    Tallies exactly with my experience of the Philippines. I can understand why you’d want to move. There are some pretty nice parts of Manila, too.

    Also, note to Emm: If you’ve been living in London, Brisbane’s not the go. It still feels like a small town even though it’s not … I think because it’s so spread out. I like it, but I want to settle down and houses are cheaper than in Sydney and most of my family is in Queensland. Right now, it’s a giant construction zone in many parts of Brisbane – that is, work that was going on pre-flood, and work post-flood.

    I suggest Sydney instead … it’s only marginally colder in winter, mainly in the mornings and at night for a few months) but in summer it’s just as hot and balmy and summer lasts about the same (long) time.

  • Gayle

    everything you said is right, smelly and dirty everywhere, deprived and impoverished..and yet the happiest times of life was when I was living in Manila. I am married w/ 3 kids, successful in my own right living here in LA but my goal is to someday go back home and raise my children there. both my husband and I are scared but we’re hoping that one day, we’ll just take the plunge! I hope you don’t mind, how much $$$ do you think we’ll need to raise a family of 5 and live really comfortably?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    That depends on what kind of standard of living you want to maintain. I can tell you that if you want to live what Americans think is a normal life, I just spent the past two months finding out that $3K won’t be enough just for my wife and myself (if we try to live as we do in the States). BUT if you learn to live as the people here do – cutting corners whenever possible, buying food at the food stalls on the street rather than in the supermarket, keeping your electricity use to a minimum (it’s at least 2X as expensive here than in the States), learning to use the local forms of transportation (jeepneys and tricycles (and walking!)) rather than using a car, and being careful to not go to the malls, you could do it for the same $3K I mentioned above…but add on however much you’ll be paying for rent/lease. If you’re really strict about your budgeting, you can do it for less than that.

    I know this is four months after your question, but I hope this helps.