So, to celebrate the variety diversity, randomness, and abject craziness of life abroad, here are ten more things I now consider normal:
Soft rock was, at best, an unfortunate stain on the U.S. music scene in the 1970s and early 80s. If we listen to soft rock songs by Air Supply (Lost in Love), Christopher Cross (Ride Like the Wind), or REO Speedwagon (I Can't Fight This Feeling), they either serve as nostalgia or make us cringe with their milquetoast creepiness. That era is as dead as disco (or dead-er!), never to be heard from again…or is it?
In the Philippines, the soft rock scene is still booming, and I hear all of these 'oldies-but-softies every single day. But the soft rock playlist isn't just reserved for elevators and malls (that's the Bruno Mars playlist). Instead, you’ll find them in the background in everyday life, and guys, especially love them!
With a Red Horse beer in hand and a karaoke mic in the other, they’ll howl out Extreme ( More than Words), Phil Collins (In the Air Tonight), or Bryan Adams (Everything I Do).
In fact, the thugiest thugs will belt out a ballad along with the radio, and taxi drivers, in particular, are enamored with soft rock. So, bring on the Styx, Hall and Oates, Toto, Chicago, Kansas, Boston (boy, there were a lot of bands named after places!), and the immortal (unfortunately) Kenny Loggins! They’re all alive and well in the Philippines.
You’ll find dozens of complete strangers singing along to “I’ll be Your Hero” from the Karate Kid II soundtrack, and when “Faithfully” by Journey hits the airwaves, it’s cause for a national celebration!
About 70% of the world’s population lives within a 1,000-mile radius of Southeast Asia, and the Philippines also has some of the most densely packed metropolitan areas in the world. We're all stacked on top of each other, and the space I have to live, breath, walk, and operate in would be unimaginable claustrophobic to most westerners (including me!).
Unlike in the U.S. or the west, your personal space is not a given right. People press up against you standing in line, cut right in front of you while walking, and buses are packed so tight that you literally sometimes can't find space to put your two feet on the floor (assuming you didn't get a seat, which is filled by about three people).
For instance, you may get bullied by a little grandmother who pushes you right out of the way as you’re standing in line at the grocery store, go into the men’s bathroom only to find (thoroughly unimpressed) female custodians working amidst all of the half-pants'd men, and a creepy strange dude may walk up and start massaging you at any given moment! That's not even to mention the traffic, which is so bonkers that you have to see it to believe it.
“Get in where ya fit in!” should be the slogan here!
I could write a whole book on the relationship with food in SE Asia. It seems that everyone is always eating 24-7, and no one is counting calories or talking about “non-fat,” “gluten-free, or “organic.” Yet, they’re still head-scratchingly lean while I'm the chubby guy giving out health advice. Go figure!
Check out the normal size of Wendy's French Fries here and you can see the portion control is a big part of that equation.
In Southeast Asia, Rice is the daily staple. In fact, rice is life” is the popular saying, and they eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even sweet/sticky rice for dessert!.
They don’t really make sandwiches like in the U.S., and cheese isn’t on everything. Nor do they have many salads in the western sense.
By the way, it’s called a “ref” in the Philippines because they’re not interested in spelling out or saying the full “refrigerator,” as they do with many words.
Condiments are all mysterious, only available upon request, and doled out in liquid-gold portions.
Oh, and one more thing – don’t ask for a “napkin” in a restaurant because that refers to a sanitary napkin. You need a “tissue” instead.
In the U.S., we think we have a vibrant party scene, but it doesn’t even hold a candle to the level of boozing that goes on in other nations, especially poor and tropical countries.
Young people, especially, drink every single night, but that extends to people in their 20s and 30s, and even middle-aged people are day drinking and sitting around guzzling cheap spirits and singing karaoke. And they don't stop at 2 am, but routinely go until 5 or 6 am!
At this age, I'm a big lightweight, getting pleasantly buzzed after three beers and ready to call it a night. So, just about everyone – man, woman, and child, can drink me under the table in SE Asia. I've seen plenty of 90-lbs. females who could drink 20 shots of tequila in a night when I'm soused after just one! I still have no idea how they do it.
Coffee is also a huge cultural phenomenon abroad, with about 10x more coffee shops than I see in the U.S. They act as de facto gathering spots, community centers, mobile offices, entertainment venues, and a clean, safe, air-conditioned refuge from the wild world outside.
Coffee is such a big deal that there are even whole nightclubs based around coffee to plenty of cafes with pristine outdoor gardens and koi ponds, to plenty of street vendors selling joltingly-strong and sugared ice coffees from their carts.
You’ll find international franchises like Starbucks, Canada’s Tim Hortons, and Australia’s Bo’s Coffee, but also local S.E. Asian brands like Amazon [coffee], Tom n' Toms, Gloria Jeans, and a million little local cafes.
There’s also a huge milk tea and bubble tea trend going on from Korea that people go absolutely nuts for, lining up for hours just to buy one. I don’t get it!
Being a foreigner has its advantages, but it also makes you a target when it comes to anything that has to do with money or finances. That’s because locals will attempt to charge you more since you are a foreigner.
Sometimes, this is blatant, like a sign on the wall in Cambodia that says haircuts are a certain price for Khmer (Cambodian) people (written in their language), but way more expensive for foreigners (written in English). Or, a boat ride, the entrance admission to a beach or national park, etc. may be significantly-lower for their countrymen than for foreigners.
I get that, and it makes a whole lot of sense (even if there’s no way that would fly in the U.S.!)
For instance, they have these cool used clothing stores called “Ukays” here, with piles of t-shirts, shorts, jeans, etc. from all over the world. I might pull a pair of shorts from a bin that says “100 Pesos” right on a sign, but the store clerk will tell me that they cost 350 Pesos for me, and not even budge when I try to negotiate.
The Manila airport is notorious for scamming the pants of unsuspecting tourists, as taxi drivers routinely try to charge $50 USD for a fare that should cost $6 if a Filipino or local was sitting in their back seat!
Of course, this ain’t my first rodeo, and I have plenty of battle-tested strategies how I can counter this form of foreigner financial f*ckery!
I often complain about the prices in SE Asia (because I'm a big complainer at heart), but one thing I can’t “whinge" (a U.K. term) about is the cost of airline tickets. In fact, they range from affordable to ludicrously cheap. For instance, to fly from Manila to Bangkok, Thailand costs only about $86 with the cheapest fare, or about $150 for a standard ticket. You can find tickets from SE Asia to New York or California for as low as $600 or so – ROUND TRIP!
In the Philippines, flying around the nation’s 7,500 islands will run a prudent traveler about $160 for the most expensive and longest fare, to $60 or $70 for most common routes. In fact, I used to live in and near Cebu, a transportation hub, and I routinely found tickets all over the central region of the Philippines for $30 or $40.
I once found a flight from Dumaguete to Cebu for only $11. With airport taxes and fees, it was still only around $20.
For that price, how can you NOT fly as much as possible? (I flew 64 times total that year!)
People in Asia are uncomfortably forthright when it comes to sharing their opinion of your shortcomings. There’s really no subtlety, nor is there any consolation for feelings or the possibility that someone may take offense.
“You too fat,”
“You look old man,”
“You have no hair,”
“What is wrong with you?”
These are all things you may hear on a daily basis from friends, coworkers, loved ones, and complete strangers (especially strangers) every day. Of course, they offer full disclosure on the negatives, but become mute when it comes to compliments.
And if you get mad and retaliate by pointing out that they're a midget or only have one eye, they'll just look at you strangely, adding your anger issues to the growing list of your un-flattering traits.
I've learned that this is actually a form of endearment, believe it or not. Families and close friends are often the most critical of each other, and it shows that they care enough to verbally beat you into submission and shatter your self-esteem.
What else are families for?!
Pedestrians have no rights in the Third World, and it's up to you to cross the street safely at your own peril. That's also exponentially more difficult because there are far less usable sidewalks, crosswalks, stop signs (they actually don't exist here in the Philippines- just because everyone would ignore them), and stoplights.
Even so, those are suggestions – not something drivers follow to the letter of the law.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the cars won’t stop – they’ll just run right over you without slowing down. In fact, I’ve heard of bus drivers backing over a pedestrian to finish the job once they’ve hit them since the payout for killing someone is far less than the cost of paying their medical bills for life!
It’s also a wealth/privilege thing, since if you're rich enough to drive a car, then you can basically do whatever you want to lower class people, including hitting them with the car, speeding off, and not thinking twice.
It’s no wonder why traffic fatalities and accidents (often on motorbikes) are the leading cause of death for foreigners in SE Asia and many other countries.
You never know what you're going to run into living abroad in developing countries. The shenanigans I see and experience are often bat shit crazy, or, just as often, remarkable and beautiful. I can't tell you how many times I've thought, "I wish I had a video camera attached to my head right now so that all of my friends and people I know could see this."
Anyways, the whole idea of electricity and proper wiring is a hazy concept here. Even with appliances manufactured here and with the proper plug and grounding, I never know what might happen when I l plug them in.
Usually, nothing happens and it works just fine. But, sometimes, it sparks and then works. A few times, I plugged it in and the plug exploded, leaving smoke marks all over the outlet and the wall and nearly melted my plug.
I approach each outlet with caution now, plugging the metal prongs into the socket like I'm hand-feeding prime rib to a hungry tiger. But, there's no way to half-ass it – you just have to stick it in, get ready for the fireworks, and hope for the best.
I'm not complaining; I've come to sort of enjoy the adventure of the mundane.
In fact, I think that life would become a little boring if you didn't think there was at least a good chance you might get electrocuted and explode every day.