It’s been nearly 18 months since we retired and relegated ourselves to a quiet life in Samar Province in the Philippines. Since arriving here, generally speaking, life has been pretty laid back and relaxing. And also wonderfully restful in the sense that when you don’t feel like doing something (anything), you just don’t do it. Nobody here seems to really care whether anything gets done here in a timely fashion, as long as it gets done sooner or later. Well, excluding the “Westernized” wife that is.
First I will acknowledge that I have given much thought to writing this piece, with much regard to offending some of my readers (mainly western and female), and exposing some of the difficulties we had in making cultural adjustments. Second, it was my wife that suggested that I write about this. She suggested to me that I always write for the benefit of the foreigner – about all the cultural changes and differences we experience in everyday life. She also pointed out that I never address the ideas and subsequent results of a returning citizen (Balikbayan) to a culture they may have not even basically participated in for a very long time. The culture she grew up with, and the only life she ever knew, was left behind for the promise of a better life. Advance the clock almost 28 years and the prominence of that culture she grew up with has become inconsequential. Know that there are many changes that are likely to occur with an Asian woman’s mindset when she is thrown into an entirely different and outside culture from her own…especially a western one. In this article, I will not delve into all the reasons why Caucasian men seek Asian women as there are a multitude of reasons, mostly related to and as a cultural by-product of traditional Asian family values, and is much more than anything genetic. Well…okay, they are kinda cute too! (WARNING: for time-saving stereotypes, use can your search engine!).
A few weeks ago while having our morning coffee, my wife Teri and I (mostly she) found ourselves deep into a discussion about the things she misses about living in the USA. And as far as complaints go, her biggest complaint comes not so much from missing all the western conveniences, but rather in her being out of touch with her own culture living here in the Philippines. She admits to being easily annoyed and frustrated by the frails of Filipino attitudes and Filipino society in general, much like those same frustrations many westerner’s come to know after living in the Philippines. It has been many years of living abroad that has affected nearly every aspect of her own nature…from her personality to developing her own explicit set of expectations of living life.
To put things in proper perspective, especially for those foreigners that are married to, or planning on marrying their special Filipina lady, one must take a subjective look at their plans beginning with the reasons behind the decision to marry a Pinay. The answer is simple really…men come to admire the innocence and simplicity, the sweet personalities, the submissive ways of Asian women, and their cuteness. Bottle up all these qualities and you have a very salable product. But like a good drink, when you begin to add other ingredients or water it down, it will never again taste the same as the original. I know it’s a stretch of a bad analogy, but for the purpose of explaining change, it does work.
Just the other day I asked Teri to join me for a swim at the resort pool next to our village and she immediately replied “No, I have things to do!” I said “But it’s Sunday, what do you have to do that is so important?” There was no answer forthcoming. She had nothing to do of any importance that she couldn’t just take some time out to relax. It was becoming more and more obvious to me…she was suffering from boredom. Fleeting moments of boredom are universal. I have read and know that boredom can be associated with increased drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, depression and anxiety. She doesn’t do drugs and never drinks more than a full beer, but lately she will eat noticeably more than she normally does though. To me, I think it is a mild case of depression. How do I know? I asked her and she told me she was depressed. Okay, I believe her! After all, she seems to have some valid reasons for feeling this way.
The migration for a Filipina into a western culture begins with shock and awe. A big culture shock to be more precise. The sudden removal of one’s ethnic language, favorite foods, combined with a total unfamiliarity of a new way of life can be extremely confusing and frustrating. Downright scary for some! First, the lack of convenient public transportation leaves them feeling completely helpless. Western assertiveness is a foreign concept altogether and can be considered a crude and rude behavior. Cold weather is simply a bitch! And among all other things, being apart from family and loved ones can very easily lead to depression, and most times it does. It happened with my wife during the first year we lived in Chicago. It is not easily recognizable sometimes and in our case, my wife told me years later that she had a difficult time early on. Although I suspected it, she never wanted to admit it to me at the time. Over the years, we have personally come to know many others who suffered the same fate. All the sudden change can quickly culminate into a pattern of severe loneliness which can lead to depression.
After a bit of calculating, Teri has come to the realization that she has worked and lived more than half of her life inside the USA and she learned to adjust. She now blames me of course (jokingly) for introducing her to the American Dream. The fact that she has evolved so much now makes her feel rather un-grounded here in her home country. Americans, unlike Filipinos, tend to value their individuality, to think themselves the equal of any other man or woman, and to believe they are masters of their own destiny. They are direct in their communications, they ask questions when they need information, and they say “no” when they mean no. Americans value their space and privacy and rarely visit, even good friends, without calling ahead first. She has become one of these!
Back in the fall of 1986, when I first arrived with Teri home to Texas for the holidays, she was amazed with all the spaciousness that America offered (things are really bigger in Texas!). She could not believe the largeness of the lots and the homes. She was impressed with our sizable family and the large Thanksgiving dinner that my mother was preparing for. She was warmly welcomed into our family with open arms. My mother and my sister (visiting from California) were the first big influence on Teri. Mother introduced her to independence and being a decision maker…coming and going when you want, shopping, being in control of the kitchen and the house…taking charge and all that, which was all good. My sister (two years my junior) on the other hand had an immediate corruption effect, albeit unintentionally. A strong A type (with an emphasis on adamant) personality, I knew right away that these two might get along in ways that I never intended. For example, the second day after arriving in Texas, I sat down for lunch and no sooner than I got settled at the table, I realized I did not have a fork. I kindly asked Teri to grab a fork for me and my sister immediately piped up and in that “Women’s Lib” tone of voice said “Teri, let him get his own fork!” I knew right then I had to put my new and very impressionable wife into ‘protective custody’. I did NOT want her to morph into my sister or even get a dose of a “California liberal attitude.” I married her for who she was and would not condone her corruption in any way (unless it was I doing the corrupting). This all leads back to what I touched upon earlier…the reasons for the attraction and marrying a Filipina. For many the westerner, that gentle sweetness trait is just more desirable.
Fast forward one decade and I came to realize I was going to lose a battle I never intended to fight. Keeping her culturally pure and submissive was no longer an option. All I could do was to help her understand how important her culture was, and to always do the right thing, in all her endeavors. It was my goal to help her to become an Filipina-American, but without all the aggressiveness and materialization that begets a typical western woman. Take a glass of pure cold mineral water. Now add salt. Will you be able to drink it? With salt added, it definitely becomes undesirable and the more salt you add, the more unlikely you will be to quench your thirst. I know, another far-out analogy, but it too also fits. The bottom line is that change is not always good. One great advantage I had in helping to preserve her qualities was living in the conservative south…North Mississippi.
The first year Teri arrived in the USA, she took a job at a local cleaners as a seamstress. After finishing school in the Philippines, she attended dress-making and tailoring school there and graduated, only to never work in that industry. Now in the USA, she had the opportunity to put her skills to work. If one thing is common among many young Filipinas that are thrown helplessly into a western society, it is that they usually don’t land feet down and upright. The fact is there is so much confusion initially, they tend to exhibit very little self-confidence early. This is completely understandable – being in a foreign land and not knowing how anything works. Depending on one’s personality though, their self-assurance will eventually emerge and lead them forward. In Teri’s case, she started off a little reserved and within 3 years, was driving her own car. After working for about 7 years, we moved to Tupelo, MS in 1994. Once settled there, she went out on her own and opened “TERI’S” Full Service and Custom Clothing Alterations. After nearly 28 years in the business of seamstress work and clothing alterations, she became a master at clothing re-design and formal wear and wedding dress customizing. She had acquired a much sought-after skill with a niche in servicing the high-end consumer. Nobody in North Mississippi could compete with her talent and was evidenced by the fact that customers would come from a five-state area seeking Teri’s talents for their alteration needs. Her self-confidence was now off the scale and she felt invincible. She became “Americanized!”
Never did I ever imagine the evolution process she would go through over time. I could never see how a young and simple-minded Filipina girl from a simple province life could evolve into self-spoiling, independent entrepeneur through exposure to the American way of life, Lifetime Television, and Wal-Mart. She became her “own” woman, with her own income, and her own goals. And she mastered them all. She’s not the same Filipina I met 30 years ago, but that’s okay, I love her just the same and I like that she has become assertive, determined, and independent.
So before settling here, we sold our home of 20 years, sold off some other assets, her business and her name – complete with gratis and goodwill. And we sold both of our cars. She left all her activities and friends behind, only to start anew. She has (in her mind at least) literally been reduced to a foreigner’s wife living in the Philippines. However, she is no longer a local, nor is she made to feel like she is. Many people here assume she is an outsider and will ask her where she is from (this is her home province). Her expectations in everything she does and or experiences here are just like mine…and that just like a foreigner. All in all, there have been some good changes. She is definitely more cosmopolitan and secure in her own mind. Then again, the sweet little innocent province girl no longer exists.
In summary one should know this. Remove the girl from her home province, mix in a few ingredients of time, life and change, and you will have a different product altogether. How she turns out will be anyone’s guess, but know this…change will happen! It was a privilege for me to introduce Teri to my culture, to live and work the American dream. In her case though, I think she overdosed! Remember, when to canning any preserves, you cook it up, put it in a jar, slap a lid on it, and store it in seclusion….until such time you get hungry. You can store it for years and the taste will never change.
With us living here, and her being “Americanized,” one thing I can enjoy is the role reversal of the good cop, bad cop thing. Now I get to be the good cop and she plays the bad cop. Not a bad gig these days for me. Going forward though, she will have to learn to cope with the differences and her new-found insecurities, and I will have to cope with her…the spoiled foreigner’s wife!