Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Rich White Guy

As one would expect with a third world country, there are plenty of poverty to go around and the Philippines is no exception. The people I talk to tell me that it wasn’t always that way as little as a decade ago and that corrupt politicians are to blame but I suspect that isn’t the whole truth. The full truth would also include a large measure of population overcrowding and just not enough country to go around. My in-laws are extremely poor by American standards and even by Filipino ones they aren’t close to rich but they are also a long way from the bottom of the social ladder in the Philippines. I would say their neighborhood and lifestyle is a solid middle class in the Philippines and thus the target of those more needy who needed money.

Since my arrival into the airport terminal where a band with a container for donations in front was playing, “White Christmas” while the temperatures outside were around seventy degrees among the palm trees, there has been a constant bombardment of carolers roving the neighborhoods for money. About once an hour all evening late into the night, groups would stop out front singing some heavily accented American Christmas song until someone came out and gave them a few pesos. If that person came out ten seconds after they started their carol, the song would immediately end and they would move onto the next person. If the homeowner was a little slow in finding some pesos, the carolers sometimes forgot the rest of the lyrics of the song and would move on to the opening lyrics of another carol or simply repeat the words they just sung.

As these roving bands of carolers singing for money passed by our house, I began to notice something odd. A group of five boys that came in the evening looked very similar to some boys that were in a group of ten that came by an hour earlier. About an hour after that, three boys that looked like some out of both groups came by again and a half hour after that, two boys swung by the house whom I was now very familiar with. It was a pretty nice little scam.

For the most part, I stayed out of site of these roving carolers because to most Filipinos, a white guy is automatically rich and therefore a premium target. Though my hosts offered me pesos to give to the carolers, I politely declined knowing that once I set foot out the door, they would be inundated with even more carolers looking for money and I didn’t want to subject them to that.

Whenever I which out in public during my stay in the Philippines, a constant stream of people would come up to me wishing a Merry Christmas or Happy New Years with their hands out. Others simply came up and asked for money. Still others would send their children out to collect the money and if they really wanted to rake it in they would send the child out carrying a younger sibling to really hit the sympathy chords. I am a charitable person but for the most part, I ignored all these requests for pesos because I didn’t want every white guy after me to be assumed to be as “rich” as I was had I given them money.

It is just not the poor that want to elicit money from a white guy that shows up in their presence but pretty much all the vendors as well. I could walk into any store crowded with Filipinos and immediately the store clerks would drop what they are were doing and rush up to wait on me and all prices automatically doubled or tripled compared to what my in-laws could buy it for. But the Philippines is a country where almost everything is negotiable and so I learned to negotiate prices down with my sparse knowledge of Tagalog. Most often, I could get things down to 50% of the starting price and on occasion I could reduce it by as much as 75%. However, despite my negotiations, I was always paying more than what my mother-in-law could buy it for as she proved on several occasions. This didn’t bother me so much because I knew what I was paying for the item was a small fraction of the cost back home in the U.S. and I would rather give the extra as a form of charity than give it to those who merely beg and most of all, we both walked away happy.

Unfortunately, several times during my stay I would come across other westerners who bought things without negotiating often time twice or three times as much as I paid. The problem with their actions is that it sets the stage for the belief that all white people are rich. I spent many hours talking at length with various members of my wife’s family converting American prices of various goods over to pesos to illustrate just how expensive it is to live in my country. I also tried to explain that yes we do make a lot more money compared to the average Filipino who makes $100 per month but our bills are also significantly higher. So when we save money for a vacation, it goes a long ways here in the Philippines and sometimes gives them the false impression that we are rich. Unfortunately, I know by their requests for me to give them digital cameras or asking my wife for money, that this discussion largely goes in one ear and out the other. To them and most Filipinos, I will always probably be the rich white guy.

No comments: