Moreover, Japhet advises a growing number of Filipino companies about doing business in Africa. His job is easy because “China and Japan have paved the way” and there are many similarities between Africans and Filipinos.
“We all speak English (mostly), are committed to our faith and are very family-oriented. We share an attitude to life: we stay optimistic and overcome whatever challenges when trying to integrate into Philippine life. When he moved to Manila in 2011 to manage a call centre, South African Chris Bezuidenhout immediately felt at home. The people are polite “almost to the point of pain” and take pride even in dead-end jobs and miserable living conditions.
“These guys in the slums are always sweeping the areas in front of their shacks. When you look around the streets, there is not a soda can, not a cigarette butt anywhere,” Bezuidenhout says, complimenting Filipino cleanliness. On his first New Year’s Eve in Manilla, Bezuidenhout took a taxi into one of the slums whereupon the residents complimented the basketball jersey he was wearing and invited him to spend the night drinking wine from an empty yoghurt cup.
“That was probably the best New Year’s Eve I have ever had,” he says wistfully. “There aren’t a lot of cities around the world where a foreigner can go into a deprived area and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and end up partying with the locals.”
A 26-year-old Egyptian national, Yasmine Mahmoud, has had a more ambivalent experience. While she finds the Philippines “generally easy-going and inter-faith”, her Muslim beliefs have posed problems. Manila restaurant menus are dominated by pork and even meat-free dishes are typically cooked in pork fat. Fortunately, Yasmine has found a handful of eateries that will prepare her food in vegetable
However, what she calls “ignorance about Islam” has had a more significant impact. A human resources expert by training, she was once denied a job simply because of her religion. “The bosses told me that they had enough Muslims from Mindanao [a southern region of the Philippines riven with Islamist and separatist tensions] and they didn’t want any more.”
She isn’t bitter about the episode because “the problem is more to do with ignorance than discrimination … When I tell people I am an Arab, they either think I am from one of the Arabian Gulf countries. I tell them I am an Egyptian, I have nothing to do with the Gulf, I only share the language with them – or they think I am a terrorist because of what they have seen on CNN.”
Mercifully, not everyone she meets is so unsympathetic. People over the age of 30 are more likely to ask her respectful questions about her background.
Japhet has been on the receiving end of such curiosity, with people wanting to touch their hair and asking them why, as Africans, they speak English. By contrast, Bezuidenhout once met a taxi driver who knew a great deal about his native land. “He just started reeling off historical facts about the Boer War and the apartheid era. I thought to myself, ‘how the hell does a taxi driver know all this?’”
How do Filipino attitudes to work compare with home? When Sharon relocated from Nairobi to teach English in Manila, she found the atmosphere effervescent. “Here people like to have fun in the office – they joke and laugh – whereas back home everyone is so serious. I don’t know where we got that from – is it a British thing?”
Filipinos, she believes, are more collectively-minded too. “They all go to work together and then they all go out together afterwards. When it’s someone’s birthday or someone is leaving, everyone celebrates that in the office. It’s kind of sweet, but after a while I just wanted to go my separate way.”