Gray Matter


Living in the Philippines as a Foreigner

living in the Philippines as a foreignerLiving in the Philippines as a foreigner is an experience you can’t completely understand until you’re actually doing it. Reading about it simply isn’t enough. All I can do at this point is to offer you some of what I’ve already experienced and some related information.

Living in the Philippines

Once you experience life in the Philippines, you’ll probably appreciate your former life much more than you did when you lived elsewhere. You’re not living in your own country, and you have to expect things to be different from what you’re accustomed to. They don’t have to accommodate your customs, you have to accommodate theirs.

I moved to Olongapo in 2006, left in 2013 to take care of family matters in the United States and returned in December 2014. My wife, Josie, and I left in June 2018 to visit our children and their families living in the United States. Although we were supposed to return in 2019, things happened, and we’re still in the United States. We will eventually return to the Philippines because that’s our home. We own our house and lot there.

I already had experience being in the Philippines before Josie and I decided to live there permanently. That was way back in the eighties. I expected it to be worse in 2006, and I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. I don’t expect it to be much different when I finally return again.


Owning and driving any kind of vehicle is optional. There are plenty of alternatives including jeepneys and tricycles, taxis and Grab (the Asian version of Uber or Lyft, based in Singapore). That’s just local transportation. Buses, trains and planes can get you to other parts of the country. Having your own vehicle just makes some things more convenient, like grocery shopping. You can even rent one for a day or more, if the need arises.

I own a car. It’s a small hatchback, but it does the job I need it to do. It’s actually the second car I owned in the Philippines, but that’s a story in itself. They were both new when I bought them. I obviously can’t use it while I’m outside the country, but at least I don’t have to worry about it when I return. A sister-in-law’s husband takes care of keeping it registered and maintained while we’re away. The mileage on it is still very low after five years.


Two shopping malls were opened in 2012, one in Olongapo and one at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. Another mall opened near the center of Olongapo last year and of course, I haven’t seen it yet. There are several grocery stores in Olongapo and at the freeport zone. Goods are tax-free and duty-free at the freeport zone, so we shop there as often as possible.

Other than groceries, we didn’t have many choices before 2012. I didn’t accompany Josie when shopping in the city because the vendors raised their prices when they dealt with foreigners. That problem still exists for mom-and-pop shops. In Olongapo, we prefer the SM City Olongapo malls. At the freeport zone, it’s the Royal Subic and Pure Gold stores, and the Harbor Point Mall.

There’s a new Home Depot-like store in the Barretto barangay of Olongapo City called “Wilcon Depot” that I intend to visit when I return. It just opened this year. The YouTube videos that have been posted about it are tedious. The people producing them tend to focus on the furniture more than anything else.

Modern Technology and Entertainment

You can find most of the same modern technology you’re used to in the Philippines. That includes cell phones, laptop computers and broadband internet. Prices vary but laptop computers tend to be more expensive there than in the United States. That’s why I always bring one or two new ones with me every time I return, which I get when they’re on sale. If I get more than one, I’ll only keep one for myself.

There are movie theaters at every mall in the city and at the freeport zone, although I’ve only watched movies at the Harbor Point Mall at the freeport zone. The prices are nearly the same as they are in the United States now, so most Filipinos can’t afford them. Many Filipinos rely on pirated videos or wait until the movies show up on one of the television stations. Most of them can’t afford streaming video services.

Poor People

Yes, there are a lot of poor people in the Philippines, including Josie’s siblings and their families. I once read somewhere that more than 60 percent of the people live below the poverty line. That may be true, but some of them don’t need much of an income. I really can’t get more specific than that.

Most of the poor people (and some not poor people) think all foreigners are rich. Why else would we live there? They don’t understand that some of us can’t afford to live in our own countries anymore. My in-laws are just as bad as the others, and I’ve lived around them for years. They sometimes think I’m a walking ATM with cash in all my pockets. Sometimes, for various reasons, I can barely get by without giving anything to anyone.

I find that I have to ignore most of the poor people, especially the beggars. Although I have a monthly income and I may be considered well-off, I can’t help everyone. I have to focus on my family and my immediate relatives so that the collective we aren’t poor.

Cultural Differences

There are many cultural similarities and many culture differences. In my opinion alone, there are more similarities than differences. Most of them you won’t understand until you learn the local language, whichever one happens to be used the most. In Olongapo, it’s the Tagalog language.

Some things you can see happening may shock you if you’re not prepared for them. Like much older men with very young women. While that romantic situation isn’t limited to foreigners, it’s more noticeable with foreigners who aren’t the same colors as their partners.

While most Filipinos are Christians (Catholic or Protestant), some follow other religions, and you have to be mindful of that fact. It’s easy to insult people when you make assumptions. If you spend most of your time in a city, you’ll find that a lot of people only follow their religions when it’s convenient for them. Just like everywhere else in the Western world.

As a foreigner, you should never get involved with politics. You have no voting rights, even if you have permanent residency. It’s okay to discuss politics with family, but that’s as far as it should go. I’ve always made it a policy to let people ask me what I think and not the other way around. I don’t like talking about it, even in my home country, so it doesn’t happen often except when an election is near.

My Experiences

I consider myself more fortunate than most Americans who’ve retired to the Philippines. Most Americans can’t afford the move until they’re much older than I was at the time. I was only 45 when I moved to the Philippines. If it hadn’t been for the housing bubble in existence when I sold my house in Phoenix, Arizona, I would’ve had to wait as well. I used the profit to build our house and buy our first car there.

It costs Josie and me more to live in the Philippines than for most Filipinos. We have air conditioning, a refrigerator, a washing machine and a dryer. We have most of the amenities Americans are used to having. Most Filipinos have none of these things. I spend more on electricity and internet service (when I’m there) than they do. I spend more on groceries because I won’t shop at the public market or buy anything from street vendors.

Okay, I probably haven’t answered most of your questions with what I’ve shared today. As always, feel free to contact me or post a comment if you need information. We’re probably not in the same time zones, so please give me ample time to respond.

Photo Attribution: Andreas from Pixabay

Author: RT Cunningham
Date: December 20, 2020 (UTC)
Categories: Culture

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