Thursday, April 9, 2015

The “First World” American Way of Life from a New Immigrant’s View

sachet vs king size tide | The “First World” American Way of Life from a New Immigrant’s View

The battle of purchasing power: the sachet for the third world and the tub for the first world.
She writes

My weather is still in Celsius and my distance in kilometers instead of the US imperial system of Fahrenheit and miles.

When my husband and I go to shopping malls and I see the $20 price tag of clothes on sale, I still think it’s too pricy and still say “that’s only $7 in Divisoria and Circle C” as if the malls are just a jeepney ride away from wherever we are. It’s already spring and supposed to be more temperate but it’s still chilly by my standards.

I still interpret the world on a Philippine mindset and there’s no surprise there. I’ve uprooted myself for love as a mid-career woman who has spent more than three decades living in different parts of my country.

When I get frustrated with my difficulty to grasp the newness of my environment and the strange culture that I come across within my search for a spot under the California sun, I think that adjustment would have been easier if I were a fresh grad or if I came over here on a work visa.

Someone on a work visa would have been economically productive right away while someone greener would have been more open to the federal Job Center advice of shifting careers to what is currently in demand, which is anything health-related. Instead, I came here to be with the love of my life and I’m at that point in my professional life where I know exactly what I want to do so much so that I am only capable of obsessing about what is relevant to that career path.

One of the things that keeps me sane right now is writing and trying to understand how immigrants like me work things out here and even become job creators and lead better lives than what they had in their homelands.

I cope by researching, reading, and stalking immigrants I know and analyzing everything around me hoping to be rational instead of emotional about steering my way through life with Ray in the US.

Since I arrived here last December, I have made some comparisons between the ways of life in the Philippines and the US to manage my expectations. The disparities are mostly economic and mainly cultural in nature but here are some of the immediately observable differences.

1. Country size and population

The Philippines has a land area of some 300,000 sq. kms. (115,830 sq. mi.), with an estimated population of more than 100,000,000. It is about the size of the US state of New Mexico. Overall, there are more than 300,000,000 people living in the United States and it ranks third worldwide in terms of population density and land area.

My country is small in comparison but since it is composed of more than 7,000 islands, it is just as culturally diverse and multi-lingual as the US, which is so because it is a land of immigrants.

As an immigrant from a small country, my physical world has expanded more than fiftyfold.

2. Earning Capacity

If you are a Starbucks Supervisor in the US who earns $2,500 a month (or P112,000 in Philippine money if a dollar equals P45), you make more than the Philippine president who earns P95,000 every month.

Back home, the minimum daily wage for the non-agriculture sector in Metro Manila is P481, or $10.69 using the above peso-to-dollar conversion rate. Minimum wage in California is $9 per hour, or $72 (P3,240) a day. At minimum wage, the annual income in the Philippines would be P125,060 (excluding bonuses), which is still almost six times less than what a poor American makes.

minumim wage | The “First World” American Way of Life from a New Immigrant’s View
Minimum wage in California vs minimum wage in Metro Manila
Under the 2015 Poverty Guidelines for the Affidavit of Support when petitioning an immediate relative to the US, if you are a household of two people and are earning less than $15,930 (P716,850) annually, then you are considered poor in all states except in Alaska and Hawaii that have higher income requirements.

Any poor American would live comfortably in the Philippines. On the other hand, even if I were able to save up P1,000,000 from decades of working, this wouldn’t have meant much here and it would all be gone in a little over a year in the US to apartment rental alone. A one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles County usually costs around $1,500, or P67,500, a month.

This economic disparity between the two countries is the reason why the likes of Jeane Napoles who lived like one of the rich kids of Beverly Hills in the US allegedly on pork barrel money, are detested. When your luxurious life in a first world country is funded by the taxes from hundreds of thousands of middle class workers from a third world country, it is just downright abominable.

3. Everything is King Size

During the despedida (farewell) parties thrown by family and friends, the fearless forecast that well-wishers said was that “tataba ka doon (you will gain weight there),” and they were right. In four months of living here, I’ve already gained 10 lbs.

My husband calls the US the land of excess and he’s right. There is just too much of everything- from restaurant servings to tubs of cream cheese, mayonnaise, ice cream on sale and giant chocolate packs. Having been used to the practice of not wasting a single drop, this has meant increasing portions as to consume a product before its expiration date.

The best way to illustrate the earning capacity of people in both countries is the Philippine’s sachet economy and the US’s tub and king size economy.

While Ray stayed with me in Quezon City for almost two months, he only learned Filipino words from the catchy Surf powder commercial that advertises for the laundry soap sachet that sells for P5 each. This and the advertisement of other products in sachet- from shampoo to sandwich spreads to coffee- fill the gaps between shows on local TV channels. It’s not that big packs are not available but the prevalence of sachet advertising is a representation of the audiences’ purchasing power. To buy everything in sachet means to ration supply and budget expenses better.

Although Philippine goods and toiletries come in small packages, if you ran out of soap or shampoo, a sari-sari store will most likely be at the nearby corner of your neighborhood. For P100, you can buy a variety of goods from a sari-sari store because there you will find tingi-tingi or budget packs.

Meanwhile in the US, if your tub of supplies here ran out and you live in a residential area, you will need to drive to the nearest store, which is usually two or three miles away, to replenish it. And since everything here comes in giant containers, shopping at places like Costco means that $100 is more or less just seven items.

So far, I have only seen travel packs of toothpaste and shampoo from Walmart but otherwise, everything else is King size. One of the downsides of this is that when a skin product such as a facial moisturizer causes acne breakout, an entire tub can go to waste- lest you decide to be practical and use the moisturizer as body lotion.

The sachet economy is in sharp contrast to the humungous tubs that they sell here and symbolize the purchasing power of buyers in each market.

4. What is soshal (elite/high society) in the Philippines is normal here

Early last year, Ray told me to try to open an account with Citibank because it doesn’t charge for bank-to-bank money transfers and money withdrawals in any of their branches worldwide.

The scarcity of this bank even in Metro Manila was not so encouraging and the only reason that I attempted to open an account was that I met with my brother-in-law and his family at Eastwood where there was a branch. So I went inside the bank and told the receptionist that I wanted to open a personal account, but instead of welcoming me and inviting me to take a seat (like most banks do), she gave me a list of requirements which included an initial deposit of half a million pesos (around $12,000) and a landline number.

I was so shocked. I called up Ray immediately to ask if the terms were the same on his side of the world and he was just as shocked as I was because he needed only $100 to open a savings and checking account. The requirements were so alienating and obviously catered only to the top income earners in Manila that we did not open an account there.

Original luxury brands are also commonplace here. One could be wearing Chanel and clutching an LV bag and it won’t necessarily mean that he or she belongs to the social and political elite. It’s no big deal to own signature shoes and expensive cars because anybody can just work two or three jobs to afford it. One can also just or do what lots of consumers in America do when they want something badly, but don’t have enough money to purchase it right away: charge it to the credit card that still has some room on it.

Here, brands like Michael Kors, Coach and Guess do not hold as much value and are probably not as Instagram-worthy as the other brands mentioned above because they are literally everywhere. That branded stuffs are everywhere also means that these are between 25 and 70 percent cheaper here.

Back home, owning branded material possessions has become a status symbol, mostly of business owners, nouveau rich and politicians (who are sometimes one in the same), and an indication that one is cool and fab and belongs to the high echelon of society mainly because of their rarity.

While the brand-conscious mentality could be a worldwide phenomenon, I notice it more glaringly among us from the Philippines probably because it is more openly flaunted on social media. To some, owning expensive items has also become a source of self-worth and self-esteem, if not self-identity.

spending priorities | The “First World” American Way of Life from a New Immigrant’s View
Thirty children can fit into one but not the other. 

Whether here, back home or anywhere else in the world, I respect people who work hard to earn it and recognize that some occupations call for it, but this absolutely feels so out of place among public officials who parade their bags or shoes that cost more than a waiting shed or a classroom. (Even Article XI of the 1987 Philippine constitution states that public officers and employees must “lead modest lives.”)

5. Uber expensive professional services

I consulted with a doctor several weeks ago and he ordered two laboratory tests. I wasn’t so worried about not being able to afford it because I am under my husband’s insurance. When the clinic assistant asked me for a $60 co-pay I had already expected it to be around that amount. But lo and behold, a bill arrived a month later totaling more than $3,300 and reduced to $1,600 after insurance just for the doctor’s professional fee alone. Separate bills arrived for the laboratory tests, but they were reasonable compared to the doctor’s fee, which is more than enough for a round trip ticket to the Philippines. At that amount, I could instead go see my doctor at Healthway who charges between P200 to P500 for consultation and check-up.

Costs have a way of sneaking up on you here compared back home where you are made aware about how much you need to shell out for your appointment.

Other services are just as expensive, from consulting a lawyer, hiring an electrician, and taking your car to the mechanic to be fixed. I gave up my monthly facials a year before coming over here because I know that from the P300 rate at Let’s Face It, here it could cost 10 if not 15 times more plus 20 percent tip.

Aside from my family, friends and work, I miss the indulgent pampering back home. The cost of $100 for facial or massage here makes the frugal Ilocana in me squeamishly uncomfortable.

So this is the “first world” country. Sure, the system is more efficient here, but I have yet to comprehend the standard of living, which right now is way beyond my “third world” comprehension. #

My best friend made me aware a long time ago that “global north” and "global south” are the politically correct terms to use when referring to developed and developing countries, respectively. I stuck with “first world” and “third world” because of their familiarity.

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  1. I almost forgot how beautiful words are when you're putting them together.

    1. Thanks, Carin. And thank you for global south/north update. :)

  2. I enjoyed reading this, You are a great and intelligent writer. So true and very relatable! As a fellow Filipina immigrant here in the US, I agree with everything you wrote :-) Pero natawa talaga ako dun sa "sachet" at "king-size":-)

    1. Glad to reach out to a fellow immigrant, Mia. Thank you for dropping by. :)