I have been writing on Live in the Philippines for two and a half years now, living here nearly three years. Before moving here, I lived in the Middle East, and traveled extensively in the developing world. In that time, I’ve seen several patterns in the questions that people ask. There is nothing wrong with asking questions. In fact, I’m a big believer in that old cliche, “There is no such thing as a stupid question”.
An international move is a big undertaking, no doubt about it. Moving to the Philippines is probably one of the most significant events in most people’s lives, ranking right up there with marriage and death. The decisions one needs to make are not easily answered and are complicated by the fact that for each question, you will receive fifty different answers from other expats, websites, books, and family. Everyone has their own standards of living, and what standard is acceptable to them.
However, after living here for a while, writing on this site for a while, answering questions sent to me, and traveling all over Asia, I have come up with the following list of mistakes that I see people making. I am not so rude as to tell someone that they are wrong, nor am I some “all knowing” being floating above the Astral Plane. However, I notice the patterns and people’s concerns, I have made many mistakes myself, and I can make the following generalizations. I know everyone is different. I know many of you may have breezed through these issues, or they were of no concern. But these issues come up again, over and over. So, in no particular order:
1. Thinking that you will find a job here. You need to survive in the Philippines, but, more than likely, it will not be by working for someone else. Yes, some expats manage it, myself included. But the vast majority of people who move here will not find employment standards much to their liking. This is stressed by myself and the other writers on this site over and over, yet I still receive many job inquiries.
2. Thinking that you can buy land or work around the land laws: The obsession expats have with buying land is truly perplexing to me. Given the legal climate and prohibitions on foreign ownership, I simply cannot fathom why people would even consider doing so without, at the very least, living here for a year or two first. Yet there are dozens of sites on the net giving “ways” to own land, will land, form corporations to control land, and so on. There are almost always vehement, passionate disagreements about it, most of which I either ignore or say, “You can’t say that you weren’t warned”. This is perhaps the biggest and most financially damaging mistake that expats can make.
3. Jumping in and falling in love too soon. Can you REALLY know someone by chatting on the Internet? Yes, I know there are many successful Internet relationships. Yes, I know love is blind. I also know many, many horror stories here from guys that come, fall in love, and get burned. EVERYONE in love says, “Yeah, but that won’t happen to me!” Right. Go on thinking that. Again, there are dozens of web sites filled with stories of people getting scammed. Most of the guys who got burned thought the same thing. It can, and does, happen frequently.
4. Thinking about the same old business ideas. How many people have invested in sari sari stores? In jeepneys? Thinking they know the market better than the Filipinos themselves? Thousands. How many have earned a living? Very, very few. How many people even bother to learn the rules of business here?
5. Thinking things will be “different”, but “no big deal”. Not so fast. While here on vacation, the cultural differences are very subtle. Things tend to take on more importance when you live them every day.
6. Underestimating the cost of living. There are so many books on the net about living like a king on only $500 per month that it is easy to get the perception that the Philippines is cheap. That belief is easily compounded on vacation or visits where things like hotels are cheaper than in the States. Stories of cheap rent abound. However, many things are more expensive here, and attempting to live a western lifestyle can get expensive very quickly. Overall, the cost of living is generally cheaper, but the Philippines is not the cheap bargain that some make it out to be.
7. Realistic expectations. This is perhaps the toughest to nail down. For instance, there was a question in the forum about international schools near “paradise” beaches. Needless to say, there aren’t many. Now, is this a deal killer? Perhaps. Should the person asking the question look into it? Certainly. However, the fact of the matter is that most of the international schools are in Manila, not near beaches. The question itself indicates a fundamental lack of the realization that the Philippines is a developing nation, with 40% of the population living below the Asian poverty line of $2 per day. Yes, schools are here, but the demand and ability of most people to pay the tuition is not here. The Philippines is not Switzerland, Holland, Singapore, Hong Kong or a developed nation with large, wealthy expat or diplomatic community with small children.
8. Over-thinking the visa. Yes, visas are important and necessary. However, the visa process in the Philippines has perhaps more options and flexibility than most other countries. Again, it is so easy to live here on a tourist visa and convert, there really is no reason why anyone (from most countries) should stress over it.
9. Worrying about exchange rates. You can’t control them. If you are not able to absorb currency fluctuations, then you cannot afford to live here. Exchange rates are also cyclical. They can just as easily become beneficial.
10. Not learning about the culture. Everyone here has encountered the “Ugly American”. Everyone here has encountered cultural ignorance. Read and learn as much about the culture and language as possible. Get out and about. Don’t believe that you are a wealthy target everywhere you walk. Leave the walled, guarded compound once in a while.
John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.