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Culture Shock in the Philippines

A Filipino flag waving in the air.
Culture shock is inevitable when visiting a new country, but it can be overcome.

Have you ever traveled to another country only to have your excitement turned into culture shock?

Most people travel to the Philippines with the idea of entering an island paradise with warm breezes, heavenly beaches, and relaxing tropical vibes.

And for the most part, they’re certain to get that experience. But like with any other country, the true depth of the experience goes far beyond what we see on travel blogs, magazines, social media, and even word of mouth.

There are certain things about Philippine culture that’ll probably be a bit of a shock to visitors. No one is immune to culture shock, except perhaps the most well-traveled individuals. The symptoms of culture shock can include depression, irritability, feeling isolated, and even physiological symptoms like bad sleep and eating habits.

So if you plan on staying in the Philippines for a lengthy period of time, then it will be best for you to be acquainted with the possible points of culture shock. To make your stay as wonderful as possible, let’s begin the acclimation process even before you set foot in the airport.

Linguistic Culture Shock in the Philippines

The first of a few culture shock examples in the Philippines is the language. Most Filipinos speak passable to fluent English, so visitors from the Anglosphere have that going for them. This is even true when you venture outside major cities.

However, there are over 120 languages in the Philippines and many of them do not generally make use of gendered pronouns. He/him and she/her do not have local equivalents. As such, many of them may use incorrect pronouns when speaking English.

There might also be some code-switching, with many Filipinos flipping between English and their local language in the same sentence.

Oh, and unlike most Asian countries, English in the Philippines is more influenced by American English as opposed to British English.

Speaking of linguistic nuance in the Philippines, Filipinos may also use specific brand names as catch-all terms for items, similar to how items like Tupperware and Google have become generic terms.

A bowl of pork adobo.
Filipinos eat multiple meals a day and a lot of the food will be slightly sweet or salty.

Second Breakfast and Second Lunch

You’re probably used to three meals a day. Maybe a snack in between lunch and dinner. If you’re from Britain, it’s probably afternoon tea with cakes or biscuits (cookies). If you’re American, your afternoon snack might be a bag of chips or a sandwich.

In the Philippines, the afternoon snack, merienda, is another cultural holdover from Spain and there can be two of them. One in the afternoon and one in the morning. It’s not so much a snack as it is a light meal.

The fare served will be similar to what’s served during meals and may in fact be leftovers. Filipinos will generally eat smaller portions during their snack breaks. So eating up to five meals a day is common in the Philippines.

Everything’s Sweet or Salty

Speaking of Filipino food, something that’ll definitely be culture shock to a lot of visitors is the taste. Filipinos have a major sweet tooth and even savory foods will have a sweet undertaste to it. Banana ketchup, which is much sweeter than tomato-based ketchup, is also incredibly popular in the country.

That’s not to say that Filipinos do not like savory food. A typical breakfast in the Philippines can include slightly sweet tocino (think of it as bacon, but slightly thicker) paired with garlic-fried rice.

You may discover that many main courses are strongly flavored and a bit on the sour or salty side. That’s because Filipinos always eat their meat and vegetables with white rice, which balances out the flavor. So if you eat your adobo by itself, you might find yourself reaching out for a spoonful of rice.

Make Sure to Have Seconds

Speaking of food, there’s a bit of nuance to how much you’re supposed to eat. If you’re at someone’s home and you don’t eat seconds, or thirds, then that’s an insult because the host/hostess (don’t use the term hostess in the Philippines as it’s associated with sex work) will take it as a sign that their food isn’t good enough for you.

But don’t finish every morsel on your plate, either, because then they’ll take it as a sign that they didn’t feed you enough. Basically, have more than one helping, but leave a few crumbs or some grains of rice on your plate.

While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s good to be aware. After all, Filipinos are quite gentle, and any misunderstanding can be resolved with communication.

A person holding multiple rolls of toilet paper.
Bring your own sanitary items in the Philippines as they won’t be provided in public bathrooms.

Restroom Woes

Something that’s going to give a lot of visitors serious culture shock is the public bathroom. Outside of hotels and upscale restaurants, it’s almost impossible to find toilet paper in a public bathroom.

Some won’t even have toilet seats and really bad ones won’t even be connected to a tank, just the seat itself and a bucket and a pail that you have to fill up to flush manually. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

Many of them will have bidets, though and there’ll be vending machines that dispense a variety of napkins and tissues for a few coins. So either make sure to have a roll of coins or toilet paper with you, or get used to using water to clean up instead of paper.

It might even become a habit that you pick up before going back home and you might get so used to it that you may even experience a bit of reverse culture shock when you have to go back to using just paper.

Oh, and bring hand sanitizer with you as well. Not all the faucets in the Philippines come with soap so sanitizing your hands after you clean your bottom falls entirely on you.

Everyone’s Late All the Time

A cultural nuance that may be a shock, and often times frustrating, is Filipino time. This is the habit that many Filipinos have of always being late. Schedule an event for 8 and the earliest someone arrives is a quarter to 9. Filipinos are perpetually late to everything.

That doesn’t just extend to everyday people, either. If an event is scheduled to begin at 9, everything’s still being set up at 9:15 and won’t be ready to go until 9:45. The exception to this might be hotels and other tourism-related industries because they cater to people who don’t come from cultures where being late is laughed off.

While Filipino time can definitely stretch your patience, do note that this applies mostly in matters of leisure. Filipinos will generally respect an agreed-upon time if it’s made clear that time is of the essence.

People Will Stare at You

Another thing that a lot of foreigners may have to contend with in the Philippines that they don’t at home is staring. At home, you might blend in, you’re just another face in the crowd.

Not in the Philippines.

Despite the various ethnic groups, not to mention the descendants of diaspora populations, the country is largely homogenous. There isn’t a lot of racial diversity, so someone who’s clearly from a foreign country, particularly a Western one, will probably get stared at. Bigger cities might not be as bad about it, but you’ll probably be a novelty in a smaller village.

If you want to know how to overcome culture shock, the best way is acclimation. Basically, just get used to it until the foreign culture becomes your new normal. Culture shock might be jarring at first, but people can usually adapt to just about anything.

Acclimation, however, begins with the right mindset. Understand that people think differently from you, and that there is beauty in the different ways people do things.

And when you go back home, you might even take the beautiful and helpful parts of Filipino culture with you.

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