Based on constant cost of living in the Philippines debates, I devised this poll. Let’s have some fun – comments encouraged!
I have to acknowledge Spike Milligan’s take on the old cliché that, “money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.” Why is it that we go to the Philippines and many of us discover happy, friendly, contented people? Something seems wrong with that picture. It’s a shock because as first worlders we’re trained to believe that the only thing that creates true and lasting happiness is cash and plenty of it.
OK, there’s love too; lots of people believe that true happiness comes from love. But sometimes love requires a bit of money also, especially if you’re planning a big Jewish wedding.
And some people will tell you that good health is the key to lifelong happiness. But try finding a decent doctor when you have $1.95 in your bank account.
So, now I have proven that happiness requires money, preferably in dollars not pesos. Why then do Filipinos, most of whom are poor with limited prospects of every being anything but poor, seem so happy? Is it possible that in fact poverty creates happiness?
Why then do Filipinos, most of whom are poor with limited prospects of every being anything but poor, seem so happy? Is it possible that in fact poverty creates happiness?
I first wondered about this question many years ago when I was on my honeymoon (with wife #2). We went to the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago. The island of Trinidad is bustling and industrious; but Tobago is tropical, poor and laid back. In Tobago, you would not see a car under twenty years old. Few people seemed to have jobs; the few jobs were in tourism and labor was dirt cheap. And yet I observed that the people smiled – and not just while they were waiting for tips. Children laughed and played and I couldn’t help but wonder why; after all, they didn’t live in the U.S., which I had been taught was the universal source of all happiness.
Four years ago I went to Kenya for safari and vacation. Once again I observed that very poor people smiled and seemed pretty damn happy. I actually met many people who lived in mud huts and invited me into their poor homes to share a meal. What the hell did they have to smile about, I wondered? My flooring is oak hardwood; their’s is hard dirt. It made no sense and yet I loved the discovery.
It emphasized what I intuitively knew – that human happiness existed outside of our Western notion of the crap we buy to create it.
And then I came to the Philippines and met many seemingly happy people. OK, mostly I met many happy, cute Filipinas, but you get the idea.
Last month we returned to Alcoy, Cebu for our wedding party. The entire neighborhood gathered to celebrate, play games, sing and dance for hours. They seemed happy and witnessing it truly made me happy. Why such happiness over the wedding of a daughter and a foreigner? Perhaps it was the delicious lechon that kicked off the party. Whatever the reason I loved it and my inlaws were happy that their daughter had married a foreigner who loved the Philippines culture. I don’t know whether I know the culture well enough to love it, but I love the people, or more accurately I love their happiness.
So, what’s the reason for it? I have no easy answers. I have had a lifetime of access to all that a sophisticated culture provides: a consistently full belly, nice home, good job and opportunities, a certain amount of toys, travel. And yet, like many Americans I’ve often struggled with unhappiness, sometimes breaking down into depression and despair.
When I met Janet and we began our journey together our daily online chats would emphasize the differences:
Sometimes I was worried; she was generally confident.
“What if…?” I would ask; “you mean when,” she would answer.
“I’m afraid of the future,” I would say; “life is short, live it now,” she would reply.
And always she would tell me, “be happy.”
Janet is still a newcomer but she’s lived in the U.S. long enough to know that despite our positive cash flow, Americans are not a bunch of happy campers and even her wonderful, guapo husband can be a depressed mope at times. She doesn’t understand it but gets her happiness fix by singing aloud and calling home, where the latest news is met with laughs and screams of delight.
I hear lots of expats complain, often vehemently about Filipinos and the Philippines. The air is polluted, the traffic sucks, the government is corrupt, the people are unethical, customer service is terrible, street food sucks, and worst of all – the Internet is slow. Yet most of them keep coming back and back. Why? Because Filipinos seem happier; happier than they are. And they hope some of it will rub off. So do I.
Of course, going back to my original question, it’s ridiculous to say Filipinos are happy because they are poor, any more than to suggest that many Americans are miserable because they are rich. It’s a conundrum and I’m still searching for the answer.
Yep, it’s gotta be the lechon!
Through a series of happy coincidences, mostly driven by male post-menopausal horniness, I ended up on Yahoo Messenger, video chatting with a series of young, attractive women on a popular dating site, strictly specializing in Asian women. No, not Asian-American women, or tiny Caucasians pretending to be Asian women; rather Asian as in from Asia, the real thing, the full pot sticker deal, and most seemed to come from the only hotbed of hotties available to the average middle-aged American schlub – The Philippines.
Now video chatting with impossibly young and incredibly beautiful Asian women is nothing short of sensational and revelatory. Suddenly I found myself in my element; an environment in which my writing skills, the ability to speak English better than my third world chatmates, and my blazing typing speed, allowing me to chat with three girls at a time, could finally shine.
As advertised, Asian women are incredibly feminine and a bit deferential to men. Many of the women I had been video chatting with managed to call me “handsome” or “guapo” within the course of the first chat. It’s not a word I am used to hearing and hearing it a dozen times within the first week was pretty damn enthralling. I frankly am too old and delusional to care if “handsome” is spoken truthfully, in jest, or in reference to a horse-drawn cab. I haven’t been called handsome this often since accidentally cruising “The Castro” after college. OK, “cruising’s” probably not the best descriptive verb to use.
I haven’t been called handsome this often since accidentally cruising “The Castro” after college. OK, “cruising’s” probably not the best descriptive verb to use.
When I signed up for the website I had no idea what to expect. Within an hour of signing up I was slammed with emails and “smiles”. Many were sent by impossibly young and breathtakingly beautiful women. By the end of the first day, I had received about one hundred emails from women all over The Philippines.
Video chats ensued and of the nearly one thousand women who contacted me that first month (yes, you read that right), I video chatted addictively with well over fifty, often until 2:00 in the morning. I was a very busy boy.
Despite the stereotypical notion of passive Asian women, I found the women to be assertive in their wants and happy to talk about what they would do to me if I were to choose them. I didn’t discourage their ardor. Woman after woman complimented me, fawned all over me, proposed marriage, love and all the sex and rice I could handle?
And despite the girls’ demure profiles that proclaimed their desire for a respectful man and general dislike of sex talk, with dire warnings toward men who might propose nude cam sessions, the women invariably wanted to bring up the subject. Their fears seemed to last a chat session or two and then melted like ice-cream on a hot Cebu day. Once they trusted me a bit, they seemed happy to tell me what they liked in bed and what they wanted to do to me, and were equally happy to know what I wished to do to them and how often.
Clearly many of the women were not only highly libidinous but their conservative culture meant many seemed a bit frustrated. A young woman who lived at home and said she’d only had one boyfriend in her life, was quite hot to talk about the sex she wished to have with her future husband (and she hoped that would be me). This comes as no surprise, I suppose; like the Catholic School girl who turns all “girls gone wild” after leaving that cloistered environment, these girls were raring to go. But what was most surprising was their apparent desire to come out of the proverbial closet – with me.
On the other hand, the Philippines is a religiously conservative culture and I chatted with several girls who said they were virgins and would not have sex before marriage. But even these girls were happy to talk about what they hoped to have once they were married. I had one other girl apologize to me because she was no longer a virgin, and I patiently had to explain that this was not a bad thing.
I asked many women the same question. “Don’t you think I’m a little old for someone like you?” They all answered with the same “age is just a number” cliché and often found the question itself to be curious. I will say, regarding the age thing that many of the girls wanted to see my face on webcam as much as I wanted to see theirs, and I assumed they wanted to make sure I didn’t look like the Crypt Keeper. One girl even giggled and bluntly asked if I was “still sexually active.” I responded, “Do you mean can I still do it?” and that was what she actually wanted to know. Such questions usually lead to conversations of what I wanted and how frequently I could want it. The girls playfully teased that since they were young, they probably had more energy than I did.
Not only did scores of women express interest in me, but many did so employing a white hot jealousy heretofore unknown in my life. Girls, subtly or not so subtly, asked me how many chatmates I had and there was one instance where a girl I had chatted with a lot (and liked) got furious with me and broke off contact, because she knew I was chatting with others. Another girl went completely postal for an innocent comment I made, cut off contact and later begged for forgiveness. After I said, “OK, I forgive you,” she went right back to “planning the wedding.”
Her name was Eunice (ok, not really) and unlike the other Filipina women I was chatting up, who were often of the shy, respectful and god-fearing variety, she smiled and laughed often and libidinously, though she covered her face in mock embarrassment when laughing. Over two evenings, we’d spent hours chatting and it was delightful. She came off as demure, yet lusty. By the second night it was clear that should I ever show up in The Philippines, we’d be lovers, and that in all likelihood no gratuity would be required.
By the third chat she asked if I’d like to see some extra pictures of her. “Sure, if you want,” I said, naive moron that I am. A moment later in the discrete environs of my email inbox I was reveling in a series of naked pictures, revealing a lovely, smiling, laughing and openly sexual woman. She looked beautiful and I told her so.
“Do you have any pictures you can send me?” she asked.
“Not like these,” I said. “I mean I have a few nude pics, but those were taken during a weight lifting program I did. You know just to record a before and after. Not that there was much difference.”
“I want,” she said.
I was embarrassed. “Really, why?”
“Well, I’ve lost twenty pounds since then. So really they are not the greatest…”
“Send them,” she demanded.
“Nice muscles,” she remarked.
“Thanks,” I giggled.
“I wanna see cock,” she proclaimed.
Now, no one’s demanded to see my goodies since the Clinton administration, and then not through electronic means.
“Well, I might have a picture…” I mumbled, starting to madly rifle though my Mac’s picture files. “I have it here somewhere.”
“Do it on the cam,” she stated.
“What! I can’t…”
“I wanna see it! Now!” She laughed at my embarrassment.
“If I show you mine over the cam, you have to show me yours,” I justified.
“My cock?” she giggled. “Don’t have.”
“OK. I’ll show you mine if you show me – something.”
“I can’t. I’m in the Internet cafe.”
I thought about her demands for a moment. When, I wondered, had a hot, young women, demanded to see my – well anything? Never – not even when I was young and the girls were drunk – or married to me.
So…what the hell. I stood up, shuffled nervously, positioned myself in front of the cam so that my entire body was visible – and in one swift motion pulled down my pants. On my computer monitor, I watched her laugh and scream. I took my organ in my hand and “wiggled the bean,” as they used to described it in the Old West. She screamed and laughed more.
A bit later in the chat, brimming with newfound sexual confidence, I demanded, “Show me your boobs.” She quickly flashed me in the un-private confines of the Internet Cafe and then, tit for tat so to speak, I drop my pants again, did a little dance, wiggled my bean and she laughed hysterically.
I’ve often said that there is no greater pleasure in my life than making a beautiful woman laugh. It was a highly pleasurable moment.
While in college, I studied film making, editing and screenwriting, though I never got anywhere professionally with it. Apparently I had it all backwards. Behind the camera wasn’t my calling. In front of the camera – naked in front of the camera, was.
Now while I know several Fil-Am couples who met in the “real world,” either in the Philippines or in the guy’s home country, these are rare outliers and most “normal” couples today meet using the clean and modern method known as online dating. Of course the term is a bit of a misnomer since, while you may be communicating, you are not dating at least in old fashioned terms. On second thought maybe you are truly dating; except the parlor’s now a chat room, the chaperone is the admin of the dating site, the date itself is via cam, the initial dates are traditional and sexless – although I disproved that in my upcoming post, Cam Boy (stayed tuned).
I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my online experiences with several guys and most of them are still speaking to me, so here in no order of importance are Dave’s Online Dating Tips . Perhaps if we ask nicely or beg loudly, Janet will someday share her online dating tips for Filipinas.
I should as always emphasize that these were my methods and my experience only, so guys try not to whine that the girls online are all scammers and girls, let’s not pretend that you weren’t online checking out foreigners.
Tip 1 – Sign up and break out your credit card: That’s right, prove from the get go that you are an affluent kano. While there are several well-known free dating sites catering to Asian women, pay your money and go to one of the real, i.e. pay dating sites. I’m all for living on the cheap, but if you aren’t willing to pay the monthly fee, you’re never going to pay to go to the Philippines to meet her – so quit while you’re ahead.
Tip 2 – Don’t make your profile the same as you would for Match.com or eharmony: Filipinas are not interested in your political leanings (they wouldn’t know a leftist from a right winger and think Tea Party is, well – a tea party). Nor are they interested that despite the fact you’re a cop, you’re really a closet feminist. Your Proust collection will elicit blank stares and your fondness for old Bogey and Bacall films might not impress a Filipina as much as you hoped.
Your Proust collection will elicit blank stares and your fondness for old Bogey and Bacall films might not impress a Filipina as much as you hoped.
What did I do? I posted several pics that displayed a neat and clean, if aged, man. A couple showed me traveling, giving the girls the impression that I might actually one day show up in the Philippines. I emphasized my maturity. In the West this is considered boring and counter-productive; I’d be much better off coming across as a 61-year old bad boy. In fact on my Match.com pic I wore a leather jacket, though I can’t ride a motorcycle to save my life. But in the Philippines women are actually hoping you will be an adult. If you’re not used to this – try faking it.
Tip 3 – Age: Like all dating sites, the Fil-Am sites have you not only specify your age but allow you to select your age preferences in women and also allow you to see what range of ages she selected as her preference. Don’t be surprised when you see that many of the girls chose 18-80. It just indicates they’re very very broad minded. OTOH, if you’re 81, you’re on your own.
Important note: Unlike on Western dating sites it’s a great strategy to post your actual age! I know, I know – it sounds nuts – but Filipinas want to know your actual age and will not be put off that you’re old enough to have actually seen Hendrix in concert, other than they won’t know who Hendrix is, which will make you sound mature and wise as you teach her.
As to your stated preferences – it really doesn’t matter, in that you can select 25-35 or 20-50, but you will still be contacted by 18 and 19 year olds. That wasn’t my interest when I was online but I certainly had several fun chats before reluctantly (very reluctantly) turning the girls down. BTW, if you do have an interest in the 18-years olds, you will need some foolproof method to verify her age, probably involving DNA or bone marrow scans, since most won’t actually be 18 yet and Philippines prisons are not the enlightened penal institutions we have here in the U.S. If you’re as old as me, just imagine your favorite scene from Midnight Express and you’ll get the picture.
Tip 4 – Clean out your email inbox: I received 100 emails and smiles the first day I signed up and about 1,000 during the first month. The sheer numbers will overwhelm you and you will need a good system to determine your requirements and eliminate the also rans. My system was a simple yet effective one; I eliminated every girl with an i or an o in her first name. Ok, seriously, my requirements were pretty simple: college educated, non-smoker, single, childless. I also required her to be black haired and cute; those were easy to find.
Regarding “single.” This is a key word in the Philippines. A girl will write on her profile or tell you that she is “completely single.” This at first confused me; what’s partially single, I wondered? Well the problem is that since there is no legal divorce in the Philippines, a girl can be “single” but in fact still married. She also can be single, but have 3 Filipino boyfriends. Worse still, she can actually be “completely single” but fail to mention that she is not “completely a girl.”
Tip 5 – Chat with many girls and video cam: You must see each other on cam. For me this was a requirement and frankly a great pleasure. Filipinas know this and so either she will have a cam, she will have access to a cam at school or work, she will cam in an Internet Cafe, or her boyfriend will have a cam. I would recommend eliminating girls in the latter category.
Initially, chat with many girls. This will get you used to the culture and cultural barriers, the language, what Filipinas are looking for, and teach you what qualities you like in a Filipina woman. Also it’s a hell of a lot of fun and is guaranteed to take over your life for a while. Don’t settle on the first cute girl who calls you guapo. They’re all cute and they will all call you guapo. Be selective and go for what you truly want. You don’t have to compromise just for a pretty face or hot body, since most will have a pretty face and a hot body; that’s just standard operating equipment in the Philippines.
Now eventually she will try to get you to eliminate your other chatmates (aka, the competition). Resist this urge until you are really sure she is the one you want to focus on.
Tip 6 – Make a list: I made a list of my favorite 20 girls of the over 50 I was chatting with. Basic stuff: name, city, what college she went to, what job, etc. I learned this the hard way, making mistakes, usually late at night when I was tired. A nurse named Cathy may be offended that you’ve confused her with Cathy who’s a “cashier” at a club in Angeles City.
Note: If the words “bar fine” come up in a chat – run! This does not mean she is a liquor enforcement officer.
Speaking of late at night, when a cute girl would buzz me at 2:00 AM – I answered her immediately and so should you. What the hell else did I have to do?
Tip 7 – Spotting Bad Girls: Rule number one should be simple. If a girl you are chatting with asks you for money – dump her. Of course, your wife might be an exception to this rule.
The bad girls can be very clever. One may wait several or even many chats before asking for money. She will tell you she needs money for school, her lolo is sick, or there is some family emergency. I was asked on a couple occasions for money to buy a new web cam, and promised a cam show to reward my generosity. It makes no sense why the guys don’t immediately dump the girl when such a request comes in, but in some cases the guy is already hooked. But again, I emphasize – be brutal. The moment the request comes in, you get out.
Remember, girls will be doing the same thing you are doing; that is chatting with many men. So don’t be fooled when she says you’re the only one. But, don’t necessarily hold this against her. Like you, she’s hedging her bets. On the other hand, if she’s chatting with many other men and you’ve already married her, you might have a problem.
Writers Note: As with all my pieces, this one is meant to be personal and humorous. I have no interest in news or documentary style writing. I make no universal proclamations; that is other than the fact I like Filipinas! DW
I’ve already written that many Filipinas are very interested in having a baby with a Westerner. There’s just something about white skin, blue eyes and a long nose that drives them wild.
Janet agrees with this sentiment, though still has a hard time understanding why genetically I can’t give her a blue-eyed baby. “Not every race produces blue eyes. After all, there aren’t any blue-eyed Filipinos either,” I said.
“Sure there are. Ones with a foreigner father.”
“But not this foreigner father,” I said.
She eventually understood well enough to giggle and said, “So if I ever have a blue-eyed baby, I would be in trouble?”
“Big time,” I agreed.
But it was her other core genetic belief that really threw me. Driving in the car we were having a discussion on just this subject when I mentioned, “Of course, even if we have a child, it’s just as likely that he or she will have dark skin and a small, cute, flat nose like yours.”
“No, I don’t think so. She will be white with a long nose. I’m positive.”
I tried to be mature and reasonable; that’s what you do at 61. “But you wouldn’t be disappointed if a child turned out looking more Filipino than Caucasian?”
“That’s not possible. The white always overcomes the brown.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, everyone knows that. When a Filipina has a child with a foreigner the child looks like the foreigner.”
“Right now Darwin is rolling over in his grave.”
“When a Filipina has a child with a foreigner the child looks like the foreigner.”
I tried reasoning with her, “But look at my kids.”
Now, I have two teenagers whose mother’s heritage is from the Carribbean; a mix of several races but certainly leaning mostly toward African-American.
Janet agreed that while my kids had some of their mother’s qualities, they were mostly me. No matter how much I argued logically, quoted law of averages, genetic theory, and all that crap, Janet is convinced of her position. Not only does she believe, as I already knew, that white skin and a long nose are better qualities to have, she believes that genetically they are superior qualities. In other words white trumps brown.
I approached a mutual Filipina friend. A medical professional, I figured she would certainly be able to set Janet straight. She listened to my dilemma and thoughtfully answered, “Dave, everyone knows that when a foreigner and a Pinay have a baby, the baby looks like the foreigner. That’s why we want you.”
“What about genetics?” I asked.
“Everyone knows the white genes are stronger than the weaker brown ones.”
“I musta missed that chapter when I studied Darwin.”
OK, I got your attention with the title – good!
I am on several Philippines expat forums and one thing that seems common is the disdain by some expats for the intelligence and poor education of Filipinos. Americans, Brits and Aussies alike tell story after story of the stupid people they encounter on the streets, in stores, and among their wives’ family members. Interestingly, they rarely mention their wives’ intelligence – that would make them stupid. Guys even quote worldwide IQ statistics. I am often appalled and it pisses me off.
I could easily think that in a developing nation like the Philippines, everyone is not gonna be a rocket scientist with a fistful of college degrees. Yet my experience is that most people I meet are reasonably intelligent and educated.
I could easily think that in a developing nation like the Philippines, everyone is not gonna be a rocket scientist with a fistful of college degrees. Yet my experience is that most people I meet are reasonably intelligent and educated.
I recently got the chance to test Philippines education up close and personal. Janet and I were in Alcoy for our wedding party. After the entire neighborhood had their bellies filled with lechon and general eats, it was time for fun and games. The games were the type of outdoor activities you’d be unlikely to ever see any more in the U.S., where playing is by definition an electronic indoor activity.
In my household, once electronics took hold, going outside ended. I have a large backyard and the biggest oak tree in our neighborhood but when I would suggest to my kids that they go play outside, their horrified comment was “there are bugs back there.” I fenced the yard and added a patio and grill. “Let’s eat out back tonight,” I’d suggest.
“You barbecue dad, and bring the food inside. There are bugs back there,” would be the reply.
So, just the fact that Filipino kids actually play outside is a plus in my book and shows very good sense. The games at the party consisted of a piñata-like game with little kids bashing for candy, a challenging game climbing an oiled bamboo pole, etc. A girls dance group performed. At each activity candies and prizes were generously given out. There must have been 40-50 kids, from toddler to middle school age.
The entire neighborhood took part in the activities. The men set up a sound system for music and a mic for the MC, Janet’s sister Jonna, to run the activities. Finally the mic was handed to me. “What should I do?” I asked Janet.
“Do the game Show Me This,” she advised. A simple game, I asked for the kids to show me a common object or piece of clothing and the first to produce it got a piece of candy. I spent what seemed like an eternity going through every clothing item I could think of, as well as items you might find in a pocket or on a child’s person. The kids were loving it – not just the candy – but the fact that the foreigner was running the game. I ran out of ideas and yelled to Janet, “What should I do now?”
“Test them,” she ordered.
OK, I thought. This should be interesting. I started out slowly with simple addition and subtraction. Remember, I was quizzing them in a non-native language. I quickly went to more complex addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I couldn’t fool them. I tried square roots. Nothing phased them.
So, if math doesn’t do it, I’ll move on, I thought. Geography, world leaders, a bit of history. Nothing stumped these kids. Question after question and I couldn’t beat them. It was frustrating. These were children from a poor neighborhood and I am an educated first worlder; surely I should be able to fool them.
On one of my forums a debate raged that Filipinos did not even know how many centavos make up a peso. The answer, just like pennies to dollar is 100, except you have to realize that as useless as we consider a penny, a centavo is equivalent to 1/44th of a penny – so they ain’t used often in the real world. Yet some expats considered it a sign of stupidity that some Filipinos didn’t know the answer. So, I smugly asked the kids, “How many centavos in a peso?” thinking I had them fooled. “One hundred,” they screamed back.
Exhausted, I ended the session with a question I knew they would all answer, “Who’s the greatest boxer in the world?” “Manny Pacquiao!,” they screamed and we threw handfuls of candy at them.
The other day Janet was on the phone with her family. Seems that her youngest sister got a small fish bone caught in her throat. It was Sunday and with no clinic opened in Alcoy, Janet insisted that her mother take her sister to the doctor first thing Monday. Her young sister was resistant. Was it because she was afraid of the doctor? Nope. It was because as a fourth grader she had never missed a day of school and had no intention of doing so now.
It may not be a scientific survey, but in my experience Filipino people value education and knowledge quite highly!
Janet and I were preparing for our first meeting. We’d known each other online for nearly a year but hadn’t met. I’d proposed that she meet me in Cebu City the previous December when I was preparing my first trip to the Philippines but she turned me down cold. I was honest and told her I intended to meet several of my chatmates during the trip.
Her response was right to the point. “I don’t want someone who just wants to ‘collect and select.’” Frankly, up until that conversation the notion of “collecting and selecting” sounded like a pretty good thing but I understood and respected her point of view. Unlike some Filipinas, she was not willing to give up her values just to meet a foreigner, no matter how guapo.
In another posting I’ll get into the details, sordid as they are, about how that all turned around. The main point is that by the summer of 2012 we’d decided to meet. By then I knew enough about the culture of the Philippines to be unsurprised when Janet proposed that we spend part of our time together traveling to the small town of Alcoy, Cebu and meet her family.
I’d been in Cebu City before. A metro area of about 3 million I liked it, despite the pollution and mad traffic. But Alcoy had nothing in common with Cebu City, other than the provincial address. From Cebu City, Janet and I took a non-aircon bus for the three hour drive south to Alcoy. It seemed to take most of that time just to get out of the metro area, but once we did it was a different world. The highway hugged the coastline and many of the towns that we passed had wonderful views of the ocean. But none were as beautiful as Alcoy. The further we traveled south, the more I saw what I viewed as “real” Filipinos, with the attendant chickens, roosters, cows, and goats on the side of the road. Vendors constantly climbed on the bus, carrying Costco-sized bundles, hawking their food treats. Janet munched on a bag of chicharon; pork rinds. It was a different world from Manila and Cebu City.
Prior to arriving, Janet and I suggested to her parents that we take the family to a local restaurant for a meet and greet. Janet’s mom would have none of that, insisting we meet at the family home. This terrified Janet. “My home is very poor,” she repeated dozens of times over the weeks. “Are you sure you want to go there?”
“Of course I want to go there and of course I want to meet your family,” I told her, loving the fact that she was being both protective of me and her family. But as a traveler who loves the road less traveled I built in my mind an image of poor, provincial Philippines and couldn’t wait to experience it.
Her fear about my meeting her parents was equally intense. “They are very old,” she’d say often.
“But you told me they’re younger than me,” I reminder her.
“Yes, but they look much older. They are just poor Filipinos. You’re a very guapo foreigner,” she threw in, already knowing how to divert my attention.
Once in Alcoy, getting to her ancestral home takes a little doing. We found a motorized trike willing to take us there easily enough; he probably sized up the rich kano and figured a big payday. We exited the highway and bumped downward along a dirt road, passing gaping children, not used to foreigners in their neighborhood, cows, pigs, and the ubiquitous roosters. Even at my small size, I banged my head on the tiny trike’s crossbeam several times as we hopped along. All the while I wondered to myself, “just how bad will the house be and what will the family be like and how should I react.” I reminded myself that I’d spent time in a mud hut in Kenya and shanties in Tobago, so I could take anything.
The trike stopped with a jolt. On the side of the house we were facing was a large banner, “Welcome Dave Weisbord,” with photos of me and my family. Many of Janet’s family members were outside waiting for us. In a blur I was introduced to everyone. All I could think of was how touched I was by the welcoming banner. Lunch was already set up with the pig next to the table and chairs. The banner was magically whisked inside and hung over the soon to be devoured pig.
Wave after wave of people came in for the food; the adults including the guest of honor first, followed by kids, neighbors, neighbor kids. Janet is one of ten children and I was amazed at how efficiently people came in and out and were fed. I am sure 60 people came to eat and gawk at the foreigner.
I am sure 60 people came to eat and gawk at the foreigner.
As for the house that I had built up in my mind as part of a shanty town; it was modest but clean and comfortable. It wasn’t really that different from an American home; a couch and chairs in the living room, as well as a small TV and videoke system. The dining room was well set up. There were several electric fans which actually made the home cool, despite the mid-day heat. The porch was the main hangout for the kids and young adults and each time I was invited to sit there a flurry of pictures were snapped, everyone wanting to be photographed next to the kano.
Of course there was no indoor plumbing and I was told by Janet to avoid using the outhouse. Thanks goodness that at my advanced age bladder retention is still – well retained.
And what about Janet’s elderly parents that I’d been led to imagine were on death’s door? Both looked healthy and vital. I took Janet aside.
“I don’t know what you were talking about. Your home is perfectly nice.”
“But it’s poor.”
“And your parents. You made it sound like they were on their last legs. They look their age; younger than me.”
“But you’re more guapo.”
“Anyway, I like it here.”
After everyone had been fed, her dad brought out the Red Horse and we had a glass or two together. I asked to talk to her parents. With Janet and her younger sister translating I explained to them where we would be going on our trip and what we would be doing. I assured them over and over I would take very good care of their daughter. While they did not speak much English it was also clear that they understood it well enough. I asked if they had any questions. By now I wasn’t just talking to the parents. The entire family had gathered, neighbors were leaning in through windows. At least 40 people were listening intently. It was like one of those old Paine Webber commercials; when I talked – Filipinos listened.
Her dad calmly asked about how I would handle the differences, the difference between my being rich and Janet being poor. He had clearly thought out what was his greatest concern. I started out by gently correcting him. “Well, the truth is I am not rich.” But I immediately realized the foolishness of such a statement. Any way you look at it, by their standards, I am rich. All I could do was assure her dad that like all couples we would talk and resolve any differences.
Her parents seemed satisfied so I looked around and asked if anyone else had any questions. They all giggled and the Visayan flew. Finally, her brother asked in English the $64,000 question, “So, are you getting married?” Everyone laughed and cheered.
I asked him, already knowing the answer, “Are you a gambling man?” He nodded. “Well, there are no guarantees yet but in my country we would say that it was a good bet.”
More cheering and laughter. I had passed the first test!
Filipinas nearly universally love dried fish. Their foreign husbands universally hate it. The smell of cooking dried fish is worse than that rodent that died under the hood of my car decades ago, and since in those days I never popped the hood until the oil light came on, I didn’t discover it until the stench was so great I nearly passed out driving.
The smell of cooking dried fish is worse than that rodent that died under the hood of my car decades ago…
I asked Janet why dried fish smells the way it does. “They dry it in the hot sun.” And probably don’t bring it in from the hot sun until it’s turned to leather, I thought. OK, so now I understand why it stinks though not why Filipinos dry it that way.
Even more interesting to me is Filipinas husbands’ hatred of the dried stuff. Every culture has stinky and disgusting foods. Certainly the origins of haggis are far more nauseating than dried fish. Kimchee brings me near to barfing. Among many stinky cheeses, the king is Limburger, a cheese which only Curly of the Three Stooges could love. From my own culture, there’s gefilte fish, which I love though it’s basically made from the cheapest, nastiest fish that can be obtained.
Let’s not even talk about liver, a stomach churner when cooking if ever there was one. Yet my mother made chopped chicken liver on holidays and I could consume any given quantity spread on crackers, as if it were candy.
In fact, dried fish is not even the worst smelling food in the Philippines. First there’s durian, the only food illegal to transport in some Southeast Asian countries due to it’s odor; a fresh fruit, not fermented or dried, durian’s stench is such that it can hit me in a large market hundreds of feet away and knock me flat. I’ve tried it and all I can say is that it does taste better than it smells, but so probably did that dead rodent in my engine compartment.
Then there’s balut, considered a delicacy in the Philippines. A duck embryo, it’s boiled alive and eaten in the shell. Yum. I don’t know how it smells since I’ve never gotten close enough to find out – and I’m keeping it that way.
So really, dried fish has a long way to go in the disgusting department. Yet the guys always are repulsed. I know many who won’t let their wives cook it even if they aren’t around. Two of my friends decided they would be men about it; meaning problem solvers. Like me, they’re engineers (of sorts) so I’d expect nothing less. They bought their wives electric frying pans, so the wives could cook their dried fish outside. They figured if the women want the dried fish badly enough, cooking out on the porch in zero degree winter weather is a small price to pay. I questioned the knight-like qualities of one of the princely husbands, who said, “I told her when we married that there would be no dried fish cooked in the house. Hey, I bought the electric frying pan, didn’t I?” Good point; perhaps I’m being too hard on my friends.
Janet understands our Westerner view of dried fish and tries to accommodate me. She opens the windows and doors and turns on the kitchen fan when she cooks her fave dried fish, to no avail. My teenage kids complain. “Go play in the backyard if it bothers you,” I tell them, knowing that as modern teenagers they haven’t played in the backyard since the Bush administration.
As a fish lover, I’ve tasted dried fish and it’s not as terrible as it smells. So really, I don’t mind too much when Janet wants to cook it. I’m only appalled when Filipinas eat it for breakfast. How, I wonder, can you possibly start the day with such a stink. On the other hand, Filipinas consume pork for breakfast, hot dogs, and spam, so dried fish isn’t too far of a reach.
I had figured my friends as unusually tough on their wives until we returned to Alcoy this spring. I rented a small apartment from a German man. He’d built two apartments behind his very nice home. And at 500 pesos/night ($12) the price was certainly right. But upon entering the apartment’s kitchen, the sign said it all…”Sorry, we cannot allow cooking Dried fish!”
Apparently, I’m a bit of a pansy when it comes to the dried fish issue.
Last year after proposing to my now wife, Janet, I accompanied her to meet her parents in Alcoy, Cebu. Her family is sweet, provincial, huge, poor as to be expected, and welcomed me every time I have been there like I have rarely been welcomed in my life.
I sat down and explained that I wanted to marry their daughter. This was no surprise to them, as Janet had been keeping them up to date with our plans and our efforts to obtain a Visa, but I wanted to do the formality thing. Their only question was why did we have to marry in the U.S. I tried to explain the K-1 Visa process with Janet translating. Since I barely get the convoluted U.S. procedure myself, I’m not sure they understood but in the end gave their approval. Part of that approval was contingent on our returning the next year for “the party.” The wedding ceremony could be done elsewhere, but “the party” was a family necessity.
As we prepared for our spring return to Alcoy I asked Janet what she wanted for the wedding party. I proposed that we could have a nice event at the small resort, the Bodos Bamboo Bar, better known locally as the BBB. Janet passed the proposition to her mother. “No way” I was told. Mom insisted that they host the party. The main reason was that the party had to be for the entire neighborhood and most of the people from their barangay would feel uncomfortable with the luxury that was the BBB and would not attend.
I asked Janet to make a list of the foods she wanted and approximate costs and discuss it with her mom. Lechon was at the top of the list.
In the Philippines, pork is ubiquitous and lechon is king. Lechon is an entire roasted pig, similar to what I had seen at a Hawaiian luau. The crispiness of the skin is what Filipinos seem to love most. I’ve enjoyed it too but as a Jew, don’t have the feeling about the food that Janet and her fellow Filipinos have, and certainly would rest better if I didn’t have to see the pig snout snorting and eyes glaring at me as I gobbled its crispy skin.
In the Philippines, pork is ubiquitous and lechon is king.
In the Philippines, ceremonies are measured not by how many people will attend but by how many pigs you have. A “three pig” event means you are a big shot politico or a rich Kano. Since I am neither we budgeted for a two pig wedding party.
The first pig would be for the lechon as tradition requires and the second pig would be for what Janet described as “chop chop” which I gathered was anything else that required pork.
“So, they just go to the market before we arrive and get the cooked pigs?” I asked naively.
“Oh no. You can buy lechon but very expensive in the market by the kilo. Better to just buy the whole pig and feed him.”
“Feed him? The actual pig? Where?”
“They will bring them home and feed them for a few weeks. Pigs require lots of grain.”
“Of course, “ I agreed. “Because after all they’re – well – pigs. But really it’s an imposition. Your mom shouldn’t have to have pigs in her home.”
Janet laughed. “They won’t be in the home silly! They will be tied up in an open area.”
“Of course,” I again agreed. “That’d be the way to go. So, when the time comes, does your dad, you know,” I said hesitating and squirming, “slaughter the pig and cook the lechon.”
“Of course not. The guy is hired. It’s part of the deal when you buy the pig. He comes the morning of the party and…” She slowly performed the slitting the throat motion and I made a mental note not to ever piss her off too badly.
Her parents spent a couple weeks searching and couldn’t find two decent pigs. This seemed to me to be weird in the Philippines; like not being able to get beef in Texas, craft beer in Portland, or an Elvis impersonator in Vegas. But it was explained that it was fiesta time and summer in the Philippines and so pigs were at a premium. Nonetheless, two were eventually procured and brought to the family compound. We breathed a sigh of relief.
As a Jew, my notion of what’s involved in raising pigs is – well – limited. I figured it was just a matter of throwing feed and getting out of their way. Not quite. Janet explained that there were regular baths that had to be given, daily brushing, and of course clearing away the inevitable massive quantities of poop produced by the young lechons-to-be. Her mom and dad did most of the work, assisted under duress by a couple of the teenage kids. I knew by the time of the party that the effort of the family would be extensive and while Janet’s presence might be worth it, I doubted that mine would be.
But then disaster struck. About ten days before we were scheduled to leave for the Philippines, Janet started receiving reports that one of the pigs was ill – vomiting.
“I think they may have overfed him,” she speculated.
“Pigs are pretty used to gorging themselves. I think the pig should have been able to handle it.”
Despite my encouraging words Janet and the family were panicked. Her dad stayed home one day instead of attending the annual fiesta, where he was scheduled to have his prized rooster involved in the traditional cock fighting. At least the rooster benefited from the pig’s illness.
I found out later that Janet’s mom had told Janet, “Don’t tell Dave,” assuming that I would blame the family for their care of the pig.
“I would never blame them!” I told Janet.
Actually, Janet was the one who was into the blame game, still assuming that they overfed the pig.
“I am sure the pig will be fine. Just a touch of the swine flu maybe,” I said, suppressing a giggle, while my Filipina wife stared glacially.
There was no consoling Janet who called home multiple times that day to get an update on the pig’s condition and prognosis.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” I asked soothingly. “There’s still another pig.”
“We need two for the party!” she insisted. In America, brides fill small claims courts swearing that the catererer or the baker or the dressmaker ruined a wedding. I guess it’s the same the world over; in the Philippines the pig broker can ruin the wedding.
The next day I received the tragic news that we’d been dreading; the pig died. Janet’s father actually took the pig to the lechon guy to have an autopsy performed. They take their pigs pretty seriously in The Philippines. They discovered an enlarged heart causing heart failure. “I’d have a heart attack too if I knew I was gonna be cut up in a week,” I offered.
Janet and her mother cried over Skype. I tried to be supportive and reminded myself repeatedly to be somber and not crack up.
“Sweetie, it’s OK,” I assured her.
“The party will be ruined! We will have to get another pig. I told my mother to find a small pig and not to overfeed the one that is alive.”
“How will they buy the replacement pig?” I asked, always the pragmatist.
“My mother said that the family will manage.”
“No way,” I proclaimed. “I’m not having your poor parents go broke buying another pig.”
“Why not – the first one was their fault,” she proclaimed.
“It was not their fault!” I said, exasperated. “Animals die. People die. Someday I will die.”
“I won’t overfeed you,” she assured me.
So 4,000 pesos was sent and another, smaller pig was obtained. The disaster was averted. Ten days later we arrived in Alcoy to prepare for the celebration. Janet went to the family home the day before to help with the preparations and perform the ceremonial singing videoke till 3:00 AM ritual.
She returned the next morning and proclaimed, “The pig is small.”
“You told them to get a small pig,” I reminded her.
“No, the one for the lechon – it’s too small.”
“But you told them not to feed it much.”
“It’s too small.”
Fortunately, the wedding party went off without a hitch; the food and games were a big hit. The next day I posted pics on Facebook as I routinely do.
Janet received a note from one of her best friends back in the US. “Hope you had a great party. I’m sure it was fine – but the lechon looked a little bit small.”