Home vs. Away, Foreigners vs. Locals

Not to get overly philosophical here but human history can be summarized into the universal divisions of us vs. them: country vs. country, religion vs. religion, race vs. race. Or in the case of the Philippines, “foreigners” vs. “locals.”

Now I know that some foreigners don’t like being called “foreigners” and I get it, I suppose. But it makes me wonder how Filipinos feel about just generically being lumped together as the “locals.” If any Filipinos/Filipinas want to weigh in on that question I’d be happy to hear from you. My guess is that you’re too polite to call the “foreigners” who refer to “locals” with the word you’d really like to use and it ain’t foreigner. Janet, OTOH, would have a choice name and it ain’t exactly “Joe Kano.”

I got to thinking about this, something I do far too much at present, particularly since I hope to retire soon and lay around on a beach drinking San Miguels, chasing Janet and certainly not spending much time thinking. But for now I’m allowed to think and here’s what occurred to me. Often the “foreigners” who don’t like being called foreigners, but like calling Filipinos the “locals” have another pair of words that get in the way of their happiness: “here” and “home.”

I was talking to my friend Robert the other day and we were pontificating on the differences between guys who are able to expat (or even travel) successfully and those who can’t. The former are the ones who adjust, instead of expecting the Philippines and Filipinos to adjust to them. And again it occurred to me that the key might just well be how we define “home.”

In a couple of months I will have lived in my “home” city for 40 years. It’s hard for me to believe. I came here less than a year after college on a complete lark. Bought an old Beetle, loaded up all the junk I owned in life (which filled about half of the VW) and off I went. When I arrived here I told my friends and anyone who might listen that I was only here temporarily and would be returning “home” in a year or so. “Home” was Philadelphia, where I grew up, although it could have just as easily been New York City, where I went to school and dreamed of success.

Every time things went badly I would again tell my friends and anyone else (who no longer wanted to listen) “I’m going home.” But of course I didn’t.

After a year or so I stopped saying, “I’m going home.” I still wasn’t 100% committed to my new city and would say, “If things don’t work out here, then I might go home.” That’s how it was for the next couple years. “Home” was still on the other side of the country, though it beckoned less and less.

After a few years I stopped referring to (or threatening to) go home. Where I lived was now “home.” It took a few more years but eventually those other places became “where I grew up” or the “back East.” Pretty soon, I stopped dreaming of even visiting those places; truth is I dreaded it and when I infrequently went there, I couldn’t wait to “come home.”

Of course, it took still many more years before I stopped calling myself an “East Coaster” or a “Philadelphian” and defined myself as a “local” of my current city, despite the remaining hint of an East Coast accent. Forty years has allowed me to create whatever identity I decide upon.

I suspect this is how it is for many expats in the Philippines and elsewhere. They’ve lived abroad for a few years but still think of “home” as where they came from. Their people aren’t the “locals”; they’re people from the same country they left. Maybe they even spend most of their time hanging out with those people. I know in the first years after I moved West, I spent a lot of time hanging out with other East Coasters, who I thought had a more reasonable view of the world than the fruity West Coasters did.

The difference is that while I eventually made the adjustment and came to call my new home “home” and that old home “the shithole I came from,” some expats don’t seem to make that transition. Perhaps it’s the massive differences between cultures, or that most expats are older and less flexible. In many cases the guy came to the Philippines for his wife or girlfriend and never considered it to be “home” and doesn’t want to.

But there are exceptions. I read blog pieces from a guy who’s a retired Philippines Snow Bird, spending half his year in the US and half in the Philippines. When he is spending his half year in the US he misses his “home” in the Philippines. I never hear him say he’s missing the US; that’s the place he came from and the place where much of his family lives. But his “home” is 8000 miles away.

It took years, decades really for me to make the transition. So can I really get pissed at the expats who called their Filipino neighbors the “locals,” think of home as the country they came from and get annoyed when they are referred to as “foreigners?” Actually, I can still get pissed but that’s a “me” problem, I guess. Seems to me that once you’ve made that transition – that’s “home.” The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can start to enjoy the pleasures of your new home instead of bitching about its shortcomings.

But what about Janet? I know she hasn’t yet made the transition. “Home” for her isn’t the town where we live. Home is in the Philippines, specifically Alcoy. Hell, she doesn’t even think of any island other than Cebu as home. For Janet, Mindanao is as alien and frightening as living in the U.S. We spent a few days in Dumaguete on our trip in April and despite the fact that it is closer to Alcoy than Cebu City, because it is not in Cebu it felt too far and unhomelike to Janet.

I want Janet to be able to accept our current city as “home” without giving up Cebu as “home,” as well. Perhaps I am unreasonable, wanting her to maintain a Walenda-like tightrope balance that most expats don’t maintain. I except that I have high expectations; probably why I went all the way to the Philippines to find my lovely wife in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Home vs. Away, Foreigners vs. Locals”

  1. I’m not sure who you’re talking about here, Dave, perhaps some of the grumbling expats in some of the forums to which both you and I belong. In my experience, though, there are many people who are able to embrace more than one “home” at a time. That is certainly true of my wife who, after nearly seven years here, has become a US citizen and definitely feels like this is home. Yet she also remains a citizen of the Philippines which, I am quite certain, she has never stopped relating to as home. I hope and expect that eventually that will be my default position as well after we have finally realized our dream of settling there.

    1. That’s good to know, Dave. I am sure that anyone who really wants to can make that mental and emotional transition but I do acknowledge it’s not always easy. I just observed at some point that people who define themselves as “home” were different from those who don’t, just as those who define their neighbors as “us” instead of “them” also seem happier.

  2. Hasn’t it always been said “Wherever I lay my hat, is my home?” Well, maybe from a gypsies perspective. Funny, my wife after nearly 28 years living in the U.S., has the audacity to call Mississippi home (18 years there) and I believe it has everything to do with a gained level of comfort and familiarity of surroundings. Plant a tree anywhere and over time it’s roots spread to the point where you cannot pull it out of the ground no matter how hard you try. With that analogy, it leads one to believe that expats are like old trees. Some hollow, and others full of knots…but stuck in their ways.

Leave a Reply