Its a Philippine Thing

*It’s A Philippine Thing*

It’s that time of year again. I was in Bohol last week with my friend Vhie from Cebu who loves to shop. She’s taken it to a new art form. We were in a mall when I heard the ominous sounds. *“Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way.”* I thought I’d momentarily gone mad, but then realized the first of the, for me, horrendous -Ber months had arrived.

My first introduction to this uniquely-Filipino phenomenon was September two years ago when I was at the old Robinsons in downtown Cebu. I was casually browsing gifts when I heard *“You better watch out, You better watch out, Because Santa Clause is coming to town”* blasting loudly all over the store. Confused, I asked the sales lady what the heck was going on. “Sir, it’s the first of the -Bers,’’ she cheerfully responded, then explained the four months of Christmas buildup to Dec. 25th. I suggested she must go crazy having to endlessly listen to that nonsense. A forced smile surfaced on her face then she icily told me it was “tradition.” Realizing I’d offended her, I still cringed at the image of everyone working there, being subjected to the torture of inane, commercial, songs all day long for almost four months every year.

I’ve asked other Filipinos on the rationale for this but have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. It seems the title of this column will remain appropriate regardless of how many years I live here.

That day two years ago was also when I discovered how similar to Ireland the Philippine culture is. Apart for religion and the importance of family and fun, everybody here is exceedingly curious about everybody else’s business. I love it!

Back at Robinson’s in Cebu, after animated, lengthy deliberation, three sales ladies decided which gifts I would get for the girl. But first they needed to know more about her, and our relationship. “Soooo Sir,” the leader of the interrogation party casually asked while suddenly rising up from her 4’ 11” height to an impressive 5’ 4’’ in her gravity-defying high heels. “Is she your……wife?” No. “Ah, so your girlfriend?” I paused for reflection but my thoughts were interrupted by one of her colleagues. “Hmm. Where did you meet her, Sir?’’ Suddenly, I was back in Ireland! The third of the triumpharite chimed in hand on hip, head tilted to one side, her forehead creased in a troubled frown. “How long have you been seeing her?” My response of “four days” was met a swiveling of heads and eye contact among the three ladies who then collectively nodded while some unspoken communication passed between them. Lengthy sighs were followed by an unusually loud “hmmmmm” similar to sounds from an opera suggesting that explained everything, or perhaps nothing.

I was granted release when one of the ladies brought me over to a very gay gift wrapper. “So one gift for your wife, and one for your girlfriend, Sir,” he laughed and the inevitable questioning began again.

Meanwhile more obnoxious, Christmas songs bombarded my consciousness.


You know how appreciative I am about living in the Philippines, but there are aspects about life here that will forever be perplexing to a foreigner like me.

In such a polite society, why is there such indifference to even basic customer service? I’m convinced that if a business opened today that was highly- professional, ever-attentive to its customers, while providing superb products and services, it would be viewed with acute suspicion, and be out of business within a month.

I could record countless examples on a daily basis where I experience non-service. The following are simply examples:

Last week, I walked into an electronics store here to buy a new phone. Oblivious to everything else, seven sales employees laughed and giggled while playing on their phones. I was the only potential customer in the store and yet, they ignored me. After waiting patiently for five minutes, I walked out.

Then I found myself in Metrobank where I have a savings account with a healthy balance. After waiting in line a half hour, I asked to open a checking account. “What for?” I was asked by the young bank clerk. I briefly considered giving him a high five for his apparent joke before realizing he was serious. “To write checks,” I lamely responded. After another lengthy wait, I was finally given a list of required documentation and told, even after I’d brought it back, that my request to open a checking account would have to be presented to senior management. Really, just to open a checking account? I asked to speak to someone in management. Predictably, nobody was available. They were either on the inevitable break, or at another branch. How can businesses function here in the almost-complete absence of management being present at almost every company small and large? It defies fundamental business logic.

Next day, I had an even more bizarre experience in another branch of MetroBank. After making a deposit, I inquired regarding the balance in my account, only to be told they could not tell me because my account was in another branch. What?! How was it possible for a major bank not to have its clients’ account information available nationwide? Then I asked what would happen if I wanted to make a withdrawal of, for example, P300,000? How would they know at that branch if I had the money in my account? I was met with a blank stare.

That is scary. Would anyone at this major bank clarify why that ridiculous situation exists? But they won’t, because these institutions don’t give a damn because neither does the general public.

I was considering buying a condominium for investment. The developer is a major Philippine construction company. But even after paying cash for the property, they would retain the title for a year after the unit had been built. What?! When I questioned this arrangement and said that it seemed they were simply retaining my unit as an asset on their balance sheet for reasons unknown to me, the response given was: “It’s a Philippine thing, Sir.” Indeed.


On a more positive note, let’s talk about the important work being done throughout the island by the Department of Trade & Industry.

Back in July, I was invited by DTI to attend the opening session of a business development course for small businesses. Last Friday, I was privileged to be a panelist at the presentation of business improvement plans by the graduating class.

These courses are a wonderful example of public resources being put to excellent use for the overall benefit of society. The graduates are small business entrepreneurs who have undertaken a comprehensive three-month course which helps them review their overall business direction, recognize problems, and create solutions, while also carefully planning for future expansion.

The process is designed to help them rise up to the next level, and increase revenue and profits. The result is more employment, more disposable income for employees, and more revenue being created for government projects. It’s all excellent medicine for this economically-inequitable society.

I’ll briefly mention some of the companies making the presentations. Each one is remarkable:

Reynaldo Roca Jr. created his pharmaceutical company several years ago and has now built it into a powerful force in Dumaguete.

Anna Priscila Pareja and Irene Hernaez of Rockland Farm Ltd. run an agri-based business focusing on coconut and cacao development.
Ruel Perez and the Baslay Farmer’s Association Dauin are involved with extensive coffee farming.

Rebecca Stanbridge of Lumago Designs works with impoverished women training them to make beautiful handcrafted accessories from recycled materials often scavenged from dump yards. The income these ladies receive is critical for moving their family and community away from the evils of poverty.

Leaders of these companies are important catalysts for positive change in our society, while also respecting and protecting our environment. They have the potential to improve society by creating a new middle class through success in their business. Their collective value to society is incalculable.

But they could not do this without the invaluable guidance of personnel at DTI like Provincial Director Javier “Jong” Fortunato Jr., and his dedicated team who play an important role in making this project feasible throughout the Province.

Critical also to its success are successful businessmen who generously provide their time at no cost. One such person is Nonoy Espeleta, a successful business management consultant based in Cebu. Despite the heavy demands on his time, Nonoy said he believes in a mission of service to society, and his obligation to help others rise up economically so that all of Philippine society can benefit. Nonoy is the real deal, a shining example of a man who fulfills his strong sense of Christian duty.

Selfless individuals such as Jong, and Nonoy are an inspiration. Seeing them work with entrepreneurs gives me hope for the future of Philippine society. When they go to bed each night, the individuals referenced in this column can rest comfortably in the knowledge that, despite their challenges, their collective journey is righteous, pure, and bountiful.


*This article first appeared in the Dumaguete Metropost

The author’s latest book “More Almost True Irish Stories” may be purchased from the Amazon

michael’s life in dumaguete

Shortly after arriving into Dumaguete, Michael intuitively knew it was the right place for him. Everything seemed to be right. It was and is. In addition to enjoying the way of life, he also met a special Pinay, and is living contentedly with her near the city.

He now operates Veritas Consulting Group, a company dedicated to helping other expats and Returning Filipinos with their transition to life in Dumaguete City and surrounding areas

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