Sunday, January 2, 2011

12 Things a Philippine Balikbayan Should Remember…

This blog may only apply to Filipinos but even if you are not one, I would love for you to read it and get acquainted with the Philippine culture.  You may find it very entertaining and enlightening.  Special thanks to my Dad Norman, brothers Lee & Carl for taking the time to give us a personal taste of Philippine culture today.

On my recent holiday visit to the Philippines, I had the pleasure of meeting Francis Yulo, a lieutenant colonel of the Phil Marine Corps trained in Defense Strategy as a graduate of the Masters in National Security Administration (MNSA) at the National Defense of the Philippines. More important, his group Kabayanihan Foundation, inspired by the book 12 Little Things A Filipino Can Do To Help the Country, seeks to create a cultural revolution that will hopefully spur Philippine Nationalism and Economy in the right direction. Hence, the title for this blog, from the perspective of a Philippine Balikbayan

1.     Refrain from Thinking $$$...
In many cases especially in the restaurant and hotel industry, there is a Philippine service charge added onto the cost of your bill.  Always remember to ask.  When tipping, 15%-20% is more than generous.  My husband had a haircut for 180 pesos ($3.50) and it was probably the most intricate detailed trim he had ever received.  Aside from utilizing 4 different kinds of styling scissors, the stylist used a straight razor to clean up the sideburns and edges.  In addition to light brushing his face to remove stray hairs, he powdered his neck and put a warm towel on his face.  At the end he received a neck and shoulder massage, and for that he tipped 300 pesos (180%).  Needless to say my father and my brothers gave him grief about it.  His point was that it was only a $6 tip but in the big scheme of things, it was too much.  He would have been just as happy with a 50 peso tip ($1.20). Jeff actually complains that on our travels, he sometimes feels that they give him a white man’s price… and what he did tends to encourage that ‘preferred pricing’.

2.     Appreciate the Respect & Courtesy from Everyone.
You will not find a happier and more polite group of people than the Filipinos.  As such, a generous smile and a very respectful demeanor are natural to their brand of service.  First time my husband arrived into a Philippine airport, he was nervous about being treated differently.  Instead, not only was he treated with so much courtesy, he truly felt that he was never made to feel different.  He loves staying in hotels and being catered to by everyone.   After all the ratio of employees to guests seems like 3 to 1.  Anywhere you go, people address you with a ‘sir’ or a ‘maam’ and they are so patient no matter how upset you are.  We’ve been to establishments where food was mediocre and service was slow, but couldn’t even really get upset because the staff was so kind and genuine.

3.     Filipinos are all about Family and Food.
FAMILY is at the top of the hierarchy of needs for every Filipino.  In my economics class in college, we were taught that if you take care of your Filipino employee so he can take care of his family, you will have an employee for life.  When returning to the Philippines, expect to visit your relatives and spend quality time with them.  Forewarn your non-Philippine spouse that they should be ready to hug and kiss everyone and indulge them with their questions.  Another core of the Philippine Lifestyle is FOOD.  Like most Asian cultures, there is a very extensive culinary tradition.  In addition to that, Filipinos love of all types of food from every part of the world.  As such, there is no need to worry if your palate is very selective especially when going to Manila or any big city in the Philippines.  You will be amazed at the very cosmopolitan array of restaurants including the most exotic cuisines of the world. In fact at every mall, at least 30% of the space is leased out to food establishments that are filled with people any time of the day.  You will find so many American chains as well.  And don’t forget, they eat 3 full meals a day, aside from merienda.  So take your TUMS.

4.     Filipinos take Pride in their Tradition of Hospitality.

Although Filipinos appreciate an offer to bring food to a party they are hosting, it is not necessary to bring ANYTHING at all.  In fact, it took me a while to get into the habit of taking something to every party I was invited to in the US.  When invited to stay at a Philippine home, a small token of appreciation is sufficient.  No need to offer to pay for your share of the food or the wine.  You can treat them to a meal.  But respect the pride they take in being your host.

5.     Stop Serving Yourself and Making your Bed!
Most Philippine homes have a staff of maids, driver and even a gardener.  Even a low middle income family will have some type of help.  Since most of us who live abroad are self-sufficient, we tend to forget that we need to relax and allow the staff to do their job which includes lifting the heavy luggage, or getting you a glass of water. That goes for driving as well.  Except for stoplights, there are no traffic controls on Philippine roads.  As my brother Carl likes to say, “lanes are only there for perspective” not to stay within them.  So if you think you’ll want to brave Philippine traffic where a 3 lane road has five lanes of cars, and cars come as close as a few inches to yours, good luck!  That’s why there’s a driver. And if you don't believe me, my husband will be happy to send you a video.

6.     Pasalubong is a Way of Life.
The bane of almost every Philippine balikbayan’s existence is pasalubong.  Yet it is a part of the culture that will never go away.  The tradition of gifting no matter how small when you visit with close friends or family does not go away in spite of how long you’ve lived away from the Philippines.  So always be ready to reciprocate with little gifts lest someone you least expect gives you one.  

7.     You can Buy Almost Everything in Manila.
Dogs are welcome in some malls
St. Luke's at the Fort
From Duty Free & high end shops to 168 in Divisoria, there is no lack of apparel, accessories, toiletries, gadgets and anything else you can imagine.  They even have the IPAD knockoff called the IPED.  Better yet, you can buy antibiotics over the counter and without a prescription at a fifth of the price.  And when it comes to buying medical/cosmetic services such as Botox, Braces, or Lasik, the price you pay is less than your co-pay with insurance.   Medical training in the Philippines is very good and facilities such as the new St. Luke’s at the Fort, are state of the art in terms of wellness facilities.
Public Bathroom Facilities at St. Luke's
Guest Room in the hotel wing of St Luke's

Waiting room w/food for family of patients
8.     Filipino Children Kiss & RESPECT their Elders.
With my parents
As children, we were taught to kiss all our elders.  So even as adults, you will see Filipino men kissing their dads and their uncles as a form of greeting.  My nieces and nephews kiss us when they see us even when we just wake up and are seated at the breakfast table.  At first my husband was taken aback.  But now, he is constantly amazed and touched by how natural it is to be part of their normal way of greeting people.  He loves it and finds it so endearing.  It is a precious tradition that will hopefully be kept alive by every Filipino parent.

9.     Filipinos Do Not Sue
Feeding an 18 mo old Siberian
Disclaimers and lawsuits are not typical in the Philippines.  The nature of assimilation is very inbred into the Philippine culture, that they always manage to work everything out.  You will not be asked to sign your life away before any of those risky adventure filled activities.  At the price they're asking, you should just take your chances.  We did...

10.  Airport Fees, Island Fee, Banca Fee…

When traveling within the Philippines, you need to know about airport fees and other miscellaneous charges.  Whenever you board a domestic flight, you are charged 150-200 pesos per person CASH.  The departure fee when leaving the Philippines is 750 pesos per person.  When booking boat trips, all-inclusive does NOT necessarily include fees for the island you are visiting, or the ‘banca’ you are riding to get to your boat.  So always be ready with cash.

11.  Relearn your History and Culture.
Unfortunately, most history classes were taught as if the history of the Philippines only started with Magellan’s landing.  More than that, our workbooks were created by the Americans and therefore taught from their perspective.  Take a Celdran tour, or a day trip to Corregidor.  Schedule at least one visit to a museum or even the American Cemetery by the Fort.  Better yet, read the latest book by Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, “Heroes & Villains”.  You’ll be treated to a view of our history & culture totally without bias from past colonizers.    

12.  Massage is Everywhere and as Cheap as $5 – so Take Advantage!
Massage Facility typical at every airport terminal
Chi Spa at Shangrila
A foot ritual at check in
Sure you can go to the resort spas such as the Chi Spa at the Shangrila Mactan or better yet the The Farm at San Benito, and you’ll receive a world class experience and pay accordingly.  But even at airports, you will find massage stations with services rendered by physical therapists in training.   In the Philippines, it is a five year course and most therapists are hired out of school.  On the other hand, those without formal schooling usually learn their trade from being taught by the traditional Philippine ‘hilot’ practitioners.  So either way, you get a great rubdown and if they do perform ‘hilot’ on you, then your meridiens are balanced as well.
Filipino children even know how to massage and they do it well!


  1. Rianna - This post is a beautiful insight into the Filipino culture. I especially loved learning the meaning of the words Balikbayan and Pasalubong and seeing how massage and wellness is such a tremendous part of the culture. The US could take many lessons.

    Lasik for the cost of a co-pay? I won't even tell you how much I'm paying for a similar surgery here in the Syracuse area later this week.

    It sounds like you had an amazing time with your family and a wonderful holiday. Happy New Year.

    Michele McIntyre

  2. This is awesome, Rianna! I feel like I could spend days reading your post and feeling like I was right there with you! I am so glad you had a great trip with your family! I especially love seeing the culture through your husbands eyes. Wonderful writing my friend!

  3. Your blog is beautiful! Have an amazing start to the New Year!

  4. Oh, the joys of a $5 massage! This is one thing I miss most about home, wellness doesn't always have to come with a steep price tag.

    And yes, the pasalubong tradition. My husband is yet to be "baptized" by the concept as we will yet to go home together hopefully next year, but I've been prepping him up this early so he won't get so shock by all the needed shopping. :-)

  5. Great post, I enjoyed reading it..thank you, Rianna.

  6. I am an American but my wife and daughter are Filipino. I have traveled to the Philippines a number of times the last time was in March of 2011. My wife is planning on travel back again this year in June. Balikbayan boxes is something I have a lot of experiences with. Just in last 2 months we have sent 6 boxes and will be sending 2 more before the end of this month. My wife is an balikbayan agent manilaforwarders. I always enjoy learning about Filipino culture.

  7. are you planning to retire in Philippines?

    1. We definitely plan to spend part of our retirement in the Philippines!