A Charmed Life
This interview took place in Manila shortly before Andria’s departure for Spain. It’s a very straight-forward expression of what was on her mind, and she hopes people don’t find it too negative. Many thanks to Andria for the lovely pictures.
I’m Irish, but I haven’t lived in Ireland since I was twenty-one. Brian, my husband, is British. We met in Dubai fourteen years ago, then left for England, where we got married and lived for two years. We hated the English weather. It rains 90% of the year. We hated the tax. In the Middle East you’ve got no tax, and in England you’re taxed to the hilt. So we said, “England’s not for us.” We didn’t want to live in Ireland for the same reasons.
When Brian’s company was starting an online site in Gibraltar, he was asked to go there once a month and then to be based there. Gibraltar’s just off Spain, and it’s all rock and concrete. I thought, “No I couldn’t live in Gibraltar, but I could live just across the border in Spain.” At that time my mum was retired in southern Spain. A new motorway had just been finished linking her area to Gibraltar, so it was now only twenty-five minutes away. For the first few years we rented a house. After I got pregnant with Lucas we bought our house. By the time we left, we’d been there eight and a half years.
Spain’s beautiful, but I didn’t like it for the first two years. I didn’t know anybody there except my mum. On the coast where we were living there were lots of wealthy retirement people playing golf, and no jobs for young families. We moved up the mountain to a place called Gaucin, a small village but with a lot of expats. After I got pregnant we moved back to civilization. Most of the people I know there are foreigners. Before the recession of the last couple of years, there was a very big work boom in construction. People emigrated to Spain from the dreary European countries to start fresh. Now when I go back to Spain I’ll be going home to a big group of friends of all different nationalities.
We came here expecting living in Manila to be cheap. We thought wherever we lived would be similar to the lifestyle we left. We moved to Makati [the financial center of the Philippines, a big city in Metro Manila], we discovered that living there in a place with nice furniture and elevators that looked and smelled clean was going to cost us way more than where we came from. Our rent in the five-star condos at Shangri-la Grand was 140,000 pesos a month [about $3,182 at the time] for a tiny, two-bedroom apartment without even a balcony. I don’t like living in cities. This much concrete is just depressing. I feel half dead. I need to be surrounded by nature. It was also very difficult traveling with a young child, battling with taxi drivers, getting into unsafe taxis, struggling with the communication problem and not being understood.
I don’t have a big social life, so I spend a lot of time at home. I need to feel I can walk into my home and feel happy. Home has always been a priority for us. After a year and nine months of my being miserable in Makati, Brian and I agreed that I should go back to Spain. Someone suggested, “The Philippines is very beautiful, why don’t you go to one of the islands?”
“I’m not living out in the middle of nowhere on an island that’s not civilized.”
“Boracay is very civilized.”
I’d been there for a holiday, but I didn’t know that it had an international school and it definitely would be an outdoor lifestyle. Go to the beach, do lots of swimming and other fun-filled activities. I went down and I checked it out. We moved to Boracay, with my husband commuting at the weekend. It was probably my best time here—so laid back. Boracay to me was paradise. But after seven or eight months Brian was exhausted with flying down every Saturday morning and going back on Monday mornings, especially if flights were delayed and he had to go to another airport. So he said, “Please come back to Manila.”
“I can’t go back to Makati.” I couldn’t do it to Lucas, taking him out of a place where he goes to the beach for an hour after school and putting him back in a place where he’s stuck indoors without friends to pop around and see. And the same for me.
Then we learned that the skyway was open between Makati and Muntinlupa. Brian said, “Look, if you’ll come back to Manila we can check out living it a house with a garden in Alabang.”
“Okay, yeah, sure.”
I fell in love with Alabang. Why? Trees, man, it’s got beautiful boulevards of trees. The Ayala-Alabang community is a bird sanctuary. I love to walk the dog and to take Lucas out on his bike. It would seem like a very charmed life, all right. Rent in Alabang is a slightly more than the condo in Makati, but for 150,000 pesos a month [$3,700] we’re getting a lot large, four-bedroom house with a pool.
Actually, when I was living in Boracay and Brian was commuting down, at one stage we were lonely for each other, and he said, “Look, I’m not happy. We have a nice lifestyle, but it doesn’t suit either of us. What’s the point of earning a nice salary if you’re miserable?” He went to his company and he said, “I’m sorry. I’ve done two years here. We’re living separately.”
“What will it take for you to stay?” That was when he was offered the house, the school, the car, the driver.
Then down in Alabang I listened to all of these expat families and found out it’s the standard package for them. They said, “What? You’ve been living in the country and paying for most of it yourself?”
I really enjoyed Alabang. I could have stayed for another year or so. But Brian’s company knew we wanted to go back to Spain in about twelve months’ time, and they asked him how he’d feel about going back earlier and opening an office. So it was perfect.
I do feel very grateful. I don’t take our nice lifestyle for granted. When Brian and I have tried something new it was never ever been about the money. For us it will always be about how our quality of life is together and how happy we are. We’ve been happy broke together. He’s worked his way up, and now good things are happening. I’m aware that this might not last forever. Everything passes. So that’s kind of where we are now.
As I said, the level of friendliness here has made me feel very much at home and very comfortable in my own skin. The guys are very friendly. Filipino men love women. It doesn’t matter where they come from. But the guys are definitely friendlier than the women. I found Filipinas difficult to become friends with. For example, when we were living in the Shang in Makati, I’d be at the pool with Lucas, and I wouldn’t see the mothers. The ya-yas [nannies] and the helpers would be there with the kids. I learned that Wednesday morning was for mothers and the kids. So I tried to make friends with these women and their babies, and it was no go—no invitations to come for coffee, no nothing, just very basic politeness. I thought, “What the hell is this? Do I smell? Is there something wrong with me?”
Generally I’ve found women’s groups here to be very cliquey. I don’t understand the mentality. I don’t understand this obsession to lighten their skin. Do they not want to be friends because they’re slightly jealous of white women? Although I certainly can’t say this was true with every Filipino woman I’ve come across. Maybe it’s just Western women they’re just more reserved or guarded around. They’re certainly not like that around Western men.
I come from a place where I have lots and lots of girlfriends, and the lack of connection with women has led me to be very homesick. I complained to someone who said, “If you go up and talk to a Filipino couple she’ll be wondering if you’re going to steal her husband.”
“What? That’s absurd. I wouldn’t be worried about my husband’s talking to a Filipina, even though most of them are so gorgeous.”
[I suggested that this reserve and jealousy on the part of women in both Korea and the Philippines might be due to women’s lack of power.]
Right. I can understand, absolutely. I’ve come from an environment where a woman can say exactly the same things as a guy would say and no one will blink an eye. They can talk about the same subjects. A woman’s point of view will be taken at the table just as quickly as a man’s point of view. [This was not the case in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s, particularly if you were seen as “the wife” or “the girlfriend”].
I’ve found the Philippines to be an extremely chauvinistic environment, which didn’t really bother me because I’m from rural Ireland and I went out with mommy’s Irish boys. But my parents were divorced when I was young, so I grew up in a house with four very strong, bolshy, outspoken women. You had to fight for everything, and that was okay in the company my family kept. When I came here I found out that being loud-mouthy was not accepted. If you’re too opinionated, even with the guys, people wonder if you’re being sarcastic. Sarcasm is not understood here.
During the first year I had to learn to adjust to my environment, which went against my nature. It took a lot of self-doubt. I was getting reactions I never had before. For example, we’d be out having coffee and something would pop into my head and I’d say it. Like I might say, “I would take the piss out of somebody” [tease or make fun of someone]. I could see people were thinking, “What is she talking about? What did she mean by that?” Whereas in Ireland, England or Spain everyone would be roaring laughing. So I realized I’d have to be careful. It was really hard, going out for coffee and then afterwards feeling sick with myself because I’d unintentionally offended somebody.
In a way I wouldn’t change that now because I’d never had to moderate myself before and there were times when I wished I had. It’s a maturity thing. I don’t want to make someone feel uncomfortable, whereas I used to not give a shit if they were or not. So I’ve changed a lot, and I have more changing to do. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to adjust.
This is my first experience with Asian culture, and I’ve found it’s just so different. What do I mean by that? Wherever I’ve been, when people don’t understand what you say they’ll tell you. “Can you say that again slower?” Here I can be talking to someone, like in a shop or a restaurant, and I’ll get lots of head-nodding but a completely wrong order. Last week I was in Max’s. I said, “Do you have decaf coffee?”
And I got brought a Lipton’s tea.
That kind of thing happens to me all the time. I don’t know. Is it my accent or what? I’ve spoken to other people who’ve said the same thing—asking for something and getting lots of head nodding and yes, yes, yes while the person is just standing there and you know there’s no comprehension. I’ll go into a shop and I ask for something, and it’s like “No, ma’am.” Then I’ll walk two aisles down and there it is. [Filipinos express the same kinds of frustrations.]
I think also my expectations were too high. I’d heard most educated people speak pretty good English. But it’s a totally different English. It reminds me of Gibraltar, where people speak a few words of Spanish and a few words of English and switch back and forth. I’m more frustrated by the language barrier than I expected to be. Obviously I’m not as patient as I thought I was. I ask myself why I can’t be more patient about these little things. But I’m used to working and living at a higher speed. That’s probably, now that I’ve said it, been one of the biggest frustrations for me, just how slow life is here on a day-to-day basis.
People don’t arrive on time—if at all. I now have a part-time helper who comes in twice a week. I get a text a couple of hours before she’s due saying she’s not well or offering some other excuse. Does she not need the money? It’s mind-boggling. Unlike me, Brian is very level-headed, and yet several times he’s had this experience talking to employees: “I wouldn’t be shouting. I’d just say, ‘I’m not happy with what you’ve done. This is not what I asked for. Would you mind going back again and doing it this way?’” Then the man would cry. Girls also. If they came back to work, it would be a week later, or they would just not come back again ever.
We learned that you must be very careful not to insult anybody and or make them lose face. Pride is such a huge thing here, which is why people won’t say, “I don’t understand.” I have an Israeli friend here who took a French course where there were only two foreigners in the class. She said not one Filipina ever asked a question. At the end of three or four weeks, there was a test and most of the class failed it, so the teacher went back over everything. My friend was so frustrated.
But there have been lots of wonderful things here. I got to live on a tropical island. I’d always wanted to learn to dive. I took a course at the end of the first year when we went to Bohol, and then I took the advanced course in Boracay, so I have the international diving certificate. In Boracay both Brian and I learned to kite surf. We’d been trying to do it in Spain for years, just on weekends, depending on the weather. We’d only get so far and then the season would come to an end. In Boracay my son was in school during the day, so I was free. I mean, who gets to do that?
It’s extraordinary to have helpers and drivers. I’ve loved that, but I’ve also come out the other side. I wouldn’t mind having a driver because in Spain I do a lot of driving on a daily basis, but I don’t ever want to be in a situation where I need a full-time, live-in helper. I like my privacy. I don’t like to have somebody else’s drama in my house. But I’ve delighted that I had the experience. Living here has been very good for my marriage because I haven’t needed to work, so our weekends haven’t been stressful, running around trying to get a lot of household stuff done. Our time together has been quality time. Living here has been great for Lucas as well. He was born in Spain. He was speaking Spanish when he started to talk. When we moved here we asked our live-in helper to speak Tagalog with him, and within six months he was speaking tons of it. For the first two years he wanted to go back to Spain. When we went for the summer he asked when we were going back to Manila. He missed his school and his room. He’s been very happy here. So it’s been good.
In the last few months I’ve tried to simplify my life. I feel less stress, but at the same time I’m ready to go home to Spain. I’m about to have my second child. I want to be around my family more. My sisters are starting families, and I want Lucas to be part of his extended family. I am ready for sure.
A reader writes:
As a woman who has tried to make it personally and professionally in Asia (Japan) for most of my adult life, I find that Andria’s experiences and sentiments resonate with me. The feeling of never truly belonging and the loneliness that comes with that seems to be an inescapable part of expat life in some countries. It’s hard to realize that that Western “openness” and friendliness will not magically open doors. The alternative of “going local” is simply not viable. A sense of community is quite temporal and transient. You may have it for a while, but everything is always in a state of constant flux in the expat world.