What Lolo Jim Taught Me About Moving to the Philippines

James Young Duncan II was my mother’s grandfather. He was born in Scotland back around 1890.  Of course we didn’t call him “Lolo,” that’s Tagalog for “Grandpa.” I don’t even know if my grandpa ever met anyone from the Philippines, or even had any interest in the Philippines, but he was an international traveler in his own small way, something a remarkable number of Americans can’t figure out how to do.

I know little of Lolo Jim’s actual background in Scotland, I believe he was from a working class or perhaps what was then service class background.  I’ve seen an old family picture of him on the seat of a two-wheel pony cart, with an older man, and from their dress I think thy might have been grooms or stablemen.

Things weren’t good in Scotland at all as my grandpa neared adulthood.  Money and jobs were tight, the nation (Great Britain, which Scotland only grudgingly [as in force and occupation] was apart of) was engaged in an horrific war in France, the world was poised on the brink of a flu epidemic that was to kill people in mammoth numbers, and jobs were certainly hard to find.  (Hmm, sounds a bit like today in some respects).

But Lolo Jim didn’t hunker down in little government-provided shelter somewhere and wait for King George to solve his problems.  He heard of this land called the USA where one could ‘live his dream’.  Without a lot of forethought he gathered up a substantial pot of money for those times, journeyed to Liverpool, England, and hopped on a ship bound for the ‘promised land.’  I don’t know where the money came from, but after paying his passage he still landed in the USA with $100 cash money, which was a pretty tidy sum in those days.  According to his immigration record, Lolo Jim went directly to a “boarding house” in Kearny, New Jersey where thousands upon thousands of other Scottish immigrants settled.  Many found work in several of the large Scottish companies which flourished there … American Nairn Linoleum Company, later the Congoleum Nairn Company, (if you have any sheet vinyl

or vinyl tiles in your home, chances are they made them) or Clark’s Thread, also still in business today, the major manufacturer of thread for 165 countries).


But mill life wasn’t for Jim.  I’m not clear on what he did for the short time he was in the US, but it’s very clear he suffered greatly from ‘Culture Shock,”  among other things, language difficulties,  even though both countries allegedly spoke English, if you ever tried to have a conversation with my Lolo Jim you might well have tried Tagalog instead of English. Chances of understanding each other were about the same for most people. (Tis a braw brict moonlit nicht the nicht).

Most of his money gone and all of his enthusiasm, my grandfather packed up what he had left and boarded a ship back to Scotland.  The ‘promised land’ having failed miserably to live up to its ‘promise’.  Unlike many seem to think, even today, making a trip from one country to another to ‘try the waters’ is not an all or nothing affair.  I can just imagine how many friends and family back in Scotland laughed at this young man, who had left with great hopes and then returned, obviously disenchanted with the country he thought would be a better place.

But Lolo Jim didn’t let the laughter and derision worry him much. Unlike a lot of people, he tried, rather than endlessly ‘think about trying,’ and for that he knew his life would forever be richer.  Even on its own that little vignette night be worth some thought and consideration, but of course the story didn’t end there.

As young men sometimes do, Lolo Jim met a woman who caught his eye, fell in love and married.  Pretty soon it came to pass that a baby was on it’s way.  Lolo Jim and my Lola Kate talked things over, weighed their options, and the options for their still to be born baby, and decided to try the USA one more time.

Bad economic times, war, epidemics, world in turmoil, uncertain economic times … wouldn’t it be a good time to wait and see?  I’m sure my grandfather received lots of advice along those lines, but he and his Kate made up their minds and once again left home and hearth to travel to Liverpool and thence Ellis Island.

They almost waited too long.  My grandmother was so far along in her pregnancy that the steamship company gave them a hard time about boarding her (according to family legend, anyway), but somehow they were convinced that she would wait until after the ship docked to deliver, and they set sail.

This time Lolo Jim had substantially less money to his name, but the couple still went to the same location, Kearny, New Jersey.  About a month after their arrival, a little girl named Elizabeth was born, my Mom.  She was always known by family and friends as Betty, in another little Scottish – Filipino parallel, her first name was actually Mary. Had she been born in the Philippines her birth certificate probably would have read Ma. Elizabeth, and that second and final trip of Lolo Jim’s is probably the reason I am as US citizen rather than a British Subject. The couple had plenty of ups and down over the years, they even ran a hot dog stand for a couple summers on the boardwalk in Asbury Park,  reminiscent of couples thinking of moving to the Philippines and supporting themselves with a little restaurant, but eventually all was well, they eked out a satisfactory middle class existence and by the time they passed away had the greatest of treasures one can hope for, a family of successful children, with children of their own, making their way in the world.

My mother relayed to me a story which makes this even more ‘moving to the Philippines’ related.  At his funeral, after more than 55 years in the USA, relatives from the ‘old country’ sent messages of condolence and hope.  Several people mentioned how they wish they had followed Lolo Jim’s lead and made the move back when they could have, and several clearly indicated they were glad they had stayed in the homeland and wished that Lolo Jim had too.  She brought this up during a conversation about pleasing relatives as an illustration of why that goal is impossible: you can’t please them all.

So, if you read this far, thanks for following along.  My only message or advice is not to convince you to move to the Philippines, it’s not for everyone, and the decision can only be yours and yours alone.  The message is, though, don’t let it be a decision of the magnitude some make of it. It is not a once in lifetime thing or an irrevocable decision, planes fly both ways. And remember, “More is lost by indecision than by wrong decision.”  Or so Dave (and Carmella Soprano) opines.

Post Author: Dave (86 Posts)

Older (born 1945) American living with his Filipina wife and extended family in Marilao, Bulacan, Philippines. Dave is an American expat, retired from the US Civil Service and the USAF and has been enjoying living in the Philippines since 2006. Dave hails from New Jersey, but has lived in many US States and full-time in several other countries before settling on the Philippines as "home". Dave enjoys his family as well as travelling and running his own sites: www.philfaqs.com and www.retiredpay.com

Live in the Philippines Consulting


  1. Danny says

    Hi Dave,

    Great story, I think that may be the first time I have heard of an immigrant going back to the UK. But I am sure there were others.
    The moral of this story is important though.

    Salamat kaayo,
    Danny :)

  2. says

    Hi Danny,

    yes I am sure alot of immigrants never went back, but I am also sure those ships that brought so many to the US did not all go back totally empty.

    Even in those distant past days when we didn't have modern communication, the Internet, fast, dirt cheap air travel and other "modern conveniences", moving to another country didn't have to be a 'once in a lifetme" decision. I really miss my Grandpa Jim, I was about 16 when he passed away, we always got along good, but at that age I never realized what I missed by not spending more time and listening to his stories.

  3. bryan G says

    I too am a Scot who has spent most of his lfe out of Scotland – the difference is that I have used Scotland as base for my travels and will probably retire there – I dont think I can talk my Filipina wife who loves Scotland as much as I do into setting up home again in the Philippines.The Scots and Filipinos are very alike in that we are travellers and assimilate well into our adopted countries while maintaining our identities.

  4. Jim cunningham says

    Hello Dave- Like Bryan, i'm also a Scot who has made the leap to live in the Philippines.I'm also a traditional Scotsman in so much as I'm a bit of a gypsie having worked and lived outside of Scotland since 1977.
    Although we live in the Philippines now we have retired we still retain a property in the UK (England) being a cannie Scot one never knows what the future may bring.
    You might be able to take the Scot out of Scotland but not Scotland out of the Scot,just like the Pinoy.
    There are two major exports from Scotland whiskey and manpower and both are quality products if you don't mind me saying so hahaha!
    Awe ra' best.
    Jim (Jimmy)in Talakag.

  5. roy says

    Very nice story Dave. I have a friend (Fil) who has a spoiled, rebellious sister that worked in Dubai. One day, she shocked the family by bringing home a husband who's scottish. I had the chance to talk w/ this guy in one of family events and I love his accent. Obviously, he spoke english for our benefit. Or did he? We thought he sounded (& looked) like Mel Gibson fr Braveheart. Did your lolo Jim eventually "americanized" his enlish?

  6. sugar says

    Dave – I read this! He he (browsing the archives. I always find gem of an articles). Your Lolo Jim was wise man. Great advise on the last paragraph. Right too. There’s this quaint, lovey very nice place called Balmoral (in Sydney.. not Scotland.. he he)). I though to myself, I want to live in that place. I gotta live there. That was 12 years ago (wee bit youngin then). Well, it wasn’t a decision of a magnitude. Would not live there. I think I was just so enamored, seeing it the first time. Just sharing po.

  7. Danny says

    Hello Dave,

    I know what you mean, even though it was different times, the old saying comes to mind "if theres a will, theres a way".

    I miss my grandfather too, my fathers father. Until he passed away in 1995, I thought he was immortal, one of those people who would live forever. I miss his stories as well, and he had plenty of them, and quite an extraordinary life. Married 65 years to my grandmother, lived through many months of combat in Europe during World War II at the age of 35, and raising 4 great children. If he were still with us today, last July 6th would have been his 100th birthday.

    Take care Dave,
    Danny :)

  8. says

    Well there are certainly worse places to call home than Bonnie Scotland, that is for sure. Best of luck in enjoying all the places your journey takes you, Bryan.

  9. says

    Hello Jim,
    Indeed having something behind in the 'old country' is not always a bad idea. I always marvel a bit myself at how many think that coming to the Philippines is such a 'bridge-burning' affair. Many agonize about selling their home in the US, especially during time of low real esate prices,when in fact they ought to hang on to it .. rented, leased out, etc. until they are 100% sure. During all the years I traveled for 'Uncle Sam' I always had home in the US as an anchor. Worked out quite well for me.

  10. says

    Thanks for that story, Roy. "Are ye surrre he spoke English, Laddie"?

    My grandfather always maintained his thick accent. After nearly 70 years in the US, tight outside New York City, BTW, he had a bit of Bronx, Jersey and Brooklyn thrown in, but the underlying Scottish burr was still so thick you could cut it with a knife.

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