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‘Should I stay or should I go?’: 7 cultural observations about living abroad

Rainielle Kyle Guison
‘Should I stay or should I go?’: 7 cultural observations about living abroad
These Filipinos who got a ‘free trial’ to live abroad share their experiences

Growing up, I was exposed to the idea of living abroad. From watching various drama series in which rich characters grew up abroad, to having classmates who had parents working overseas, the idea of living outside the Philippines always seemed to me as a way to get a “better” life.

This was the same for Marsha Matheson, a 27-year-old Filipina who has been living with her American husband in Louisiana, USA for almost three years now. In an interview with Rappler, she shared that her mom told her that as a child, she used to say that she wanted to go or live abroad. On the other hand, Argie Mayrong, 24 and a Filipino currently taking a master’s degree in Pisa, Italy, said that living abroad never appealed to him as a kid. “I guess there was always this idea that going abroad would be expensive,” he explained.

Naturally, people would have varying opinions about wanting to settle down abroad. Some may have it as a life-long dream, but some do not even think about it. But what if you get a “free trial” to live abroad – say, participate in a student exchange program like Marsha (Canada, 2015), Argie (USA, 2017), and I (Italy, 2020)? With these experiences, we understood how life abroad is different from life in the Philippines.

If you’re thinking of migrating, you have probably researched the pros and cons to it. But if you’re still undecided, these seven cultural observations about living abroad might help you.

1. Different countries have different concepts of time

We, Filipinos, are known for a trait that we shouldn’t really be proud of – tardiness as a manifestation of the so-called “Filipino time.” There may be punctual and responsible Filipinos, but more often than not, everybody arrives later than the time they agreed upon. Even I am guilty of this, and maybe I was just lucky that Italians weren’t so different from us.

When I was an exchange student in Italy, my friends and I met up a lot – for dinners, drinks, parties, and trips – and we were usually never complete on time. There was this one time that I was late and I apologized to my Italian friend, and guess what he said? “It’s okay! We’re in Italy so we follow Italian time.” Apparently when Italians set a meeting time, they mean “more or less” or “around” that time. 

WAITING FOR THE LATECOMERS. Meeting up gets trickier when you’re part of a larger group. Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison

Argie also shared that work-life balance is highly prioritized in Italy “to the point that working overtime is not encouraged” so that everyone could enjoy their breaks and weekends.

However, not all countries appreciate this cultural practice. According to Marsha, living in the US taught her that everyone’s time is important. “All of the transactions – shopping, processing a driver’s license, going to the doctor – are seen from the perspective of convenience and not wasting someone’s time.” She especially appreciated this, saying that she would rather spend her time at home with her husband or learning how to bake than getting stuck in traffic.

2. There are things we don’t understand about languages

When language is brought up in topics involving different countries, expect miscommunication. The language barrier is one of the main problems Filipinos face when they move to a non-English speaking country.

In Italy, there aren’t a lot of English signs especially in areas that are not that touristic. It’s possible to get lost when traveling, and even shopping could be a stressful task. “It can really limit the things that you can do especially when it comes to socializing with other people or even running some errands for your documents,” Argie told Rappler.

Luckily for Filipinos, Italian is a language close to Spanish, which is something a lot of us are already familiar with. Argie said that as soon as you get to know the basics, you’ll get used to it and living in Italy would be a breeze for you. More than that, Italians also appreciate when you try to speak their language. I understand that it could be intimidating, but trust me, they won’t frown upon your imperfect Italian. It’s also good to remember that speaking with the locals is the best way to get better in any language you’re learning!

If you’d like to be on the safer side, you might think that you should just migrate to the US, where everyone just speaks English. However, I hate to break it to you, but that’s a stereotype you might have picked up from mainstream media. When Marsha moved to South Louisiana, she had no prior knowledge of their culture and language, which surprised her when she learnt that people there also spoke Cajun French apart from English.

“When I worked at the grocery store, I often heard words like “couyon” (couillon in French, a foolish person), or “sha” (cher in French, an endearment like darling). A lot of older folks converse in Cajun French and oftentimes, I just smile and say they could teach me a word or phrase some time,” Marsha said.

These instances only show that one shouldn’t assume a country’s spoken languages, and that sometimes, you might even have to learn those languages.

3. We all share the love for food

There’s no debate about this: food is life, food is everything, and food brings people together. The most noticeable change about food in different countries is the type of cuisine, and one that is very boastful about their cuisine are the Italians.

PIZZA NAPOLETANA. In Italy, pizza is meant for solo consumption. Photo by Argie Karl Mayrong

Italians are very particular with their food and one even joked that they treat it more sacredly than religion, and I would say that this is probably true because their dishes are definitely one of the best I have ever tried. If you try to remake one of their dishes, just make sure not to “offend” them by changing the recipe too much. Argie said that Italians get protective of their food and recipes, and they would appreciate it if you follow their classic and traditional ways. As most Italians say, “Pizza is delicious and so is pineapple, but please, don’t eat them together!”

I also noticed that Italian dishes are pretty healthy and a lot of locals are on a vegetarian or vegan diet. So, if you’re planning on bringing pork chicharon for your future neighbors, you might want to rethink that. In some supermarkets, they also don’t have a lot of canned goods.

Meanwhile, Marsha got overwhelmed with the amount of choices she had in the US. “From frozen food to loaf bread, you will have a hard time choosing grocery items and products because there’s so much to choose from,” she said. She also added that some of her favorite dishes included gumbo and beignets. I guess it’s not always true that western cuisine is bland! And if this still doesn’t satisfy your Asian palate, save yourself the heartbreak and make sure you bring spices and seasonings with you before leaving the Philippines.

4. The hustle and bustle of life happens to everyone

Most of us Filipinos were raised to think that working vigorously will reward us with a better life. Unfortunately, this is not true for the majority of the working class.

When Argie studied in Michigan, he found out that a lot of his classmates had part-time jobs. “I was surprised that because of the expensive costs of studying in the US such as tuition fee, and accomodation, they tend to accept part-time jobs while studying,” he recalled, also mentioning that it might be why students constantly apply for loans. On a good note, this hustle culture has made universities considerate towards working students.

With Marsha’s experience as a cashier in the US, she said that she received the monetary value of her work and time even though she was earning minimum wage. This made her appreciate the US, as she was aware of the system we have in the Philippines regarding minimum wage workers.

“In terms of cost of living, I want people to look at the value or worth of your one day work in the Philippines/US and what you can buy in that amount of money. Another way to look at it is the number of hours/days it will take for someone to pay for a certain bill, then you compare [that country] with the Philippines,” she advised.

5. There should always be time for rest and relaxation

As Argie has mentioned, Italy values the balance between life and work. Even though everyone hustles regardless of the country they live in, there is always time for rest and relaxation.

If you want to measure the quality of life in a country, they say that you should look for public parks and open spaces. These things are tangible reflections that a community values the environmental and social well-being of their area and its inhabitants.

PICNICS AND PETS. The availability of public parks encourages people to go out, interact with their community, or walk and play with their pets. Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison

Another great thing about Italy which Argie and I agree on is the amount of parks and plazas where people could hang out with their friends. “They love sitting outside, having picnics, playing games, or even just reading a book or studying, which I think is not that common in the Philippines, as we get to hang out more in shopping malls, cafés, and restaurants,” Argie explained.

As for Marsha’s experience living in the US, she learned that Americans enjoyed all sorts of hobbies and interests. Her husband, for example, loves daylily flowers, and together with a friend, he joined a society which gathered every month to learn about the plant. Marsha also shared that people there had hobbies ranging from knitting to bird breeding, to regulated hunting and fishing.

CATCH OF THE DAY. It’s always a good idea to explore new hobbies and interests. Photo by Marsha Katrina Matheson

“It’s as if almost everybody has their own thing that they love to do other than work. They spend time, money, effort on it and cultivate relationships that are beneficial to that specific hobby or interest,” she told Rappler.

6. Communities around you can be diverse

Different countries like the US may be a melting pot of culture. This would allow you to know different kinds of people and their background, and it’s a very good experience to open up your perspective.

Unfortunately, there are instances when you might think that diversity is not a good thing, especially if you’re a person of color, and/or of a different race and culture. As an Asian who lived in Michigan for six months, Argie learned that racism is truly rampant in a lot of states in the US. He mentioned that despite the good chance of meeting a lot of people from various cultures, there were times when issues of racism could be observed. 

“One time, I heard some stories from students who were part of the Latin community who said that they get discriminated against, ranging from microaggressions in the workplace up to feeling unwelcome or unwanted, and accused of ‘stealing’ their jobs,” he shared.

But racism is not isolated in the US, as I also had first-hand experiences in Italy when I got sneered at for being an Asian at the height of the pandemic. Truly, racism is present where there are racists, so if you’d like to migrate abroad, try researching about the kinds of discrimination that proliferate in their country. It may be homophobia, xenophobia, and even religious discrimination.

7. Public displays of affection are not always scandalous

In contrast to hate and discrimination, there’s love and affection. The Philippines is known to be a conservative country, so you can just imagine my surprise when I spotted an Italian couple bid goodbye to each other with a passionate kiss. Sana all, am I right?

Western countries tend to be more liberated, so it’s just normal and common for most of them to publicly express their affection towards their partner. To give a lighter example, Italians are known for their way of greeting their friends: the kiss (or two) on the cheek. When I got used to this, I found it intimate and it was also interesting to me that it doesn’t matter who you’re greeting; it may be a girl or a boy, and no one would look at you maliciously.

SEE YOU SOON. Some cultures are very affectionate and showing this in public is not considered offensive. Photo by Rainielle Kyle Guison

On the other hand, Argie’s experience in the US meant that he would be introduced to the American student organization culture where he got to attend “the most amazing parties.” What interested him about this was that fraternities, and sororities did not only organize parties, they also organized events which promoted safe sex and responsible drinking.

With these scenarios, ask yourself, “Am I open and ready to face a liberated world?” Here’s another piece of advice:  if “liberated” is an intimidating word for you, try phrasing it as “accepting” or “free.” Sometimes, changing your views helps!

It all boils down to your readiness

The Philippines is a beautiful country with all our natural resources and world-class tourist spots, but unfortunately, some Filipinos don’t find it as the best country to live in. With high inflation rates and underpaid workers, it only gets harder to accept that our country’s economy is going downhill, and we can’t really blame Filipinos for wanting to live abroad.

To those who dream of a better life outside the country, know that this decision will bring a big change to your life. Make sure that you’ve planned it well. It doesn’t have to be a perfect, fool-proof plan, but you should at least be sure of what you want to do when you get there. There will always be cultural differences and it could make things better or worse.

Living abroad will feel more or less a rebirth, which will allow you to see the world in a new light. All of a sudden, everything will be new, some things will be better, and there will be so much to explore. So, if you hear that tiny voice inside telling you that you are meant for greater things outside the country, try listening to it.

As Argie advised, “If you get the opportunity to immerse yourself with people from all over the world, take a leap of faith and make the most out of it! Soon you’ll see that everything is worth it and that truly, there is unity in diversity.” – Rappler.com

Rainielle Kyle Guison is a Rappler intern. 

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