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One of the great complaints among expats and tourists alike in the Philippines is about the quality of service. Almost to a man they say it sucks. Now I don’t live in the Philippines, but have visited a bunch of times and never considered it quite as bad as advertised, though I will admit that might be because the clerk providing me with that “poor” service was a cute Pinay, making up for the service by throwing out “guapo Amerikano” every few minutes.
Now let me start out my rant with a basic concept: that anyone who thinks you can go to a third world country and get 1st world service is an idiot 🙂 Let me expound on this a bit first and use my lovely wife, Janet, as an example; I’ll get to her a bit later. What I really believe is that almost everything is cultural – even what we think of as good or bad service. The other thing I’ve got to question is the quality of service we think we get in the 1st world.
Remember that funny scene in Back to the Future, where Marty McFly travels back to the 50s (by way of a Delorian). He arrives in his small town and is shocked to look over at the local gas station (service stations back then) and watch three attendants descend on a car pulling in for gas. I am old enough to remember a time when attendants filled your tank (that’s done in only a couple of states today), checked your oil and water, put air in your tires, etc. Today if you want air or water for your car, there is a machine that costs $.75 – and you gotta run it. How’s that for service? I guess is must be OK, since most of us accepted the change and rationalized it by claiming that we saved a couple cents a gallon on gas.
I am also old enough (apparently this blog post is actually about my old age) to remember a time when doctors made house calls. As a kid I’d get the flu, my mom would call the doctor and he would come over (usually late at night), examine me and declared with great authority, “he’s got the flu.” I know, I know – you youngsters think I am making this up.
Today, if you’re sick at night, you wait till the next day (assuming the doc has office hours the next day – otherwise he might be able to see you between the front and back nine) or go to the emergency room, where a doctor barely out of puberty will poke you (after you’ve waited 3 hours). In the end you get a bill from the emergency room comparable to your monthly mortgage payment. Is this good service or just what we’ve gotten used to? If a pediatrician makes twice what POTUS makes, shouldn’t we expect him/her to miss a few hours of sleep or reschedule his damn tee time?
By the way, as a point of comparison, many doctors in the Philippines do make house calls, probably because in the Philippines doctors are not rich and they are worried that if they don’t show up that night by the next morning you might actually get better on your own.
There are a few things that have improved service-wise in the 1st world since my childhood. For example, you can go to your local box store and return just about any purchase. Most people consider this to be great service. “I don’t like the color – I’m taking it back.” And sure enough you can with no questions asked.
When I was a kid and you bought something at your local KMart (no Walmart back then) unless when you brought the item home it was broken – you were out of luck. And if it was broken, you didn’t get a refund; they gave you a replacement. And you filled out a form the length of a 1040 to get the replacement.
So it’s better now right? I suppose, but guess what? That customer service desk at Walmart with the friendly clerk who will take anything back with no questions asked – it ain’t free – ultimately we all pay for it!
Another common complaint in the Philippines is about credit cards. Some stores take them, some don’t. Machines don’t work sometimes. If you go to the third world expecting to get your Discover rewards points, you might be disappointed.
Let’s use my old age as a baseline again, shall we. I know it’s hard to believe but not that many years ago people in the West actually went to stores and made purchases with cash or check. We were primitive back then, weren’t we? Then about 30 years ago some smart tech nerd made an amazing discovery and thus we were given the ATM. The machine was amazing. You could use what looked like a credit card and actually get cash anytime, day or night – so that you could go to that department store and pay cash for your purchases.
Eventually the cash card became a debit card and we all stopped carrying cash altogether. And checks? Come on! Janet and I have a checking account but no checks. What’s the point?
But guys go to the Philippines and discover that not all stores take debit/credit cards and not all store clerks are thrilled when you present yours. I know it’s hard to believe, but most people in a developing nation don’t carry American Express. They carry pesos, albeit too few of them.
A guy posted in a forum recently about an experience standing in line at the local supermarket behind an ancient and nasty kano. They were in the “cash only” line, but the old fart insisted loudly that he be allowed to use his credit card. The shy clerk finally agreed but the card wouldn’t go through and she suggested that maybe the coot’s card was not good. The guy yelled and screamed that he had enough money in his account to buy and sell the whole damn country. The poster was embarrassed for the poor clerk and embarrassed to be associated with such a foreigner.
OK, I hear you asking – how does this relate to Janet, who is what this blog should be about (if I were smart and wanted a nice ending to the night) – so let me try to pull that together. For five years before we were married, Janet put herself through college by working in a small Pension House on the island of Leyte, far from her home in Cebu. She got up in the morning and helped clean the rooms. In the afternoon she went to school. She returned in the evening and worked at the front desk until 10:00 PM. She checked guests in and out, handled the cash register and often just about ran the place in the absence of the owner and manager. If the relief person was late or could not show for work, she worked that shift also. She worked six and sometimes seven days a week, as is the custom in the Philippines. She provided excellent service and the staff and customers loved her, as did the owner. How much money did she earn? Zero! Yes you read that right; for five years she worked and worked and was paid nothing. Her compensation was that the owner gave her room and board and paid her tuition at the small college she attended. This is common in the Philippines. It used to be common in the West and there is a term that was once used to describe this form of work – indentured servitude!
Of course Janet was bright and pretty. Every day she and I would be chatting online from the front desk computer when she would say, “it’s time for the players.” I knew what she was referring to and they weren’t the kind of “players” we in the West think of. They were a group of older, rich Filipinos, who gathered daily to play Mah Jong at the pension house. Janet’s job was to serve them. My guess is that the “players” tipped her well and that made up the pocket money she used.
Yet despite the tough circumstances, she did not complain, finished her degree and managed to give excellent service to a variety of guests – particularly the “players,” no doubt.
About six months after we married Janet took a service job around the corner from where we live. By American standards it is not high paying. The job attracts young and inexperienced workers and the turnover is fast and furious. Just like at the pension house, they love Janet. She works hards, cares for the customers, helps her fellow employees, covers for them when they are sick. She has been asked many times why an attractive girl with a college degree would work in such a job, and work hard at that. She has no answer that they can understand.
In short, she provides the type of service that Filipinos are famous for the world over – and the word poor doesn’t enter into it!
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!