So many of you have wondered whether you should give up your nice cushy job abroad and come back to the Philippines to start your own business. Having done both — going corporate and being self-employed — I feel I’m in the right place to contribute my 0.02 on the matter.
To start, I’d like to share with you how I decided to come back to the Philippines.
At that time, I’ve just finished my MBA in HKUST and work was not hard to find.
For one, I’ve already accumulated four relevant years of experience working in one of the best investment banks in the world. I’ve headed an Asian team and had helped organized some of the largest conferences in Asia. Headhunters still called me up.
Two, I was still young, ambitious and hungry. I was unafraid of working long hours and was newly single. Companies just love employees who were willing to live, breathe and die for the company. My old company would’ve taken me back if I asked.
But then, I asked myself, “Where do I want to be in the next 20, 30, 50 years?”
This question, though deceptively simple, was important. Location is important.
Location is important because where you are impacts who you will meet, what you will do and which networks you will build. For example, it’s difficult to build a business remotely. If you want to have your own business, don’t leave it to someone else to manage. If you have someone, it’s hard to be in a long-distance relationship. You can only do so much. And if you want to build your business contact, it’s hard to keep in touch if limited only on email and mobile phones.
That is why, you have to ask yourself, WHERE DO YOU WANT TO BE IN in the next 20, 30, 50 years.
Moving back is not as easy as deciding one day to come back, pack your bags, then try your hand at “making it” back home. “I can always go back,” you console yourself as you hold onto your airline stub on the way back to Manila.
Coming back is a big deal for the following three reasons:
- It means quitting your job and telling your boss that you will help him find a replacement. This means that there won’t be a ready waiting job for you if in case you decide to “quit” Manila.
- It means packing your things into a balikbayan box, and moving out of the country you’re staying. That means if you decide to come back, you’d have to ensure you get the proper working visa documents and find a new place again, all of which takes time.
- Lastly, it means telling all your friends from both countries that you’re going home. There’s that unsaid expectation that something better is waiting for you back home. Otherwise, why come back? For me, it’s a pride thing. After all that effort and hoopla, I don’t want to go back abroad with my tail hanging between my legs admitting defeat. That I couldn’t make Manila work.
Maybe there’s more reasons relevant for you. I just listed a few above to show that the decision to come back isn’t something you should take lightly. Moving home takes effort. You will be culture shocked, and you’ll realize that so many things you thought were so, are actually radically different.
Personally, I realized that despite having lived in Manila for 21 years, after having left for another 9, I didn’t really understand Manila at all.
When I came back, I was culture shocked.
My first thought after leaving the Ninoy Aquino Airport was, “I don’t remember the Philippines being this hot, gray and dusty!” Whereas Taiwan was full of greenery and Hong Kong was shiny, Manila felt very gray and dull. It was also hot and humid, a lethal combination for someone who is already used to the four seasons.
The second thought that came to mind was, “Wow, people here are kinda chubby!”
Yes, it’s superficial but true. Because cars and parking are too darn expensive, people from Hong Kong and Taiwan walked and used the public transportation most of the time. This daily physical exercise enables citizens to keep slim. Admittedly, people there are also much vain where friends greeting you with “You’ve gained weight” and “You’ve lost weight!” are the norm.
Not so in Manila. People who can afford it take the car almost all the time. Cars have aircon and you don’t need to transfer from bus to jeep to tricycle just to get where you want to be. People here also enjoy an unhealthy diet of a lot of fried foods, oily pork and a plethora of sweets. Even our spaghetti is sweet!
Working back home is also a surprise.
Yes, labor is cheap. Minimum wage is Php 12,100/month (USD 275/month), a meager amount compared to a 21-year old HKUST graduate which would earn almost 8-10x that amount. You may think that this comes off as a very good deal! Woah, labor… at a fraction of the cost of Hong Kong’s!
But wait… before you pack your bags and move back to start your own business, remember:
1) Most Filipino employees do not value work as much as their Asian counterparts.
Filipinos are not as hardworking as those I’ve met in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is in general, but whereas employees in Hong Kong find 7:30 am time-ins common especially if you work in a bank, people here cannot even manage to get to work on time by 9:00 am or 10:00 am!
“Why are you late?” I’d ask my employee.
“Ma’m kasi po traffic,” my employee would ask.
“Then why don’t you leave the house earlier?!” I would ask.
“Ma’m, I cannot wake up po.”
Two, absents for the most ridiculous reasons are quite common. If one their family gets sick, they have to take leave to take them to the doctor. Now, Filipinos have BIG families. This means, after counting their brother, their sister-in-law, the mother, their kids, their cousin, and their nephews and nieces, you even wonder if these people really want to keep their jobs!
“Do you really have to be the one to take them to the hospital/bus stop/interview?!” an employer would ask.
Then the Filipino would casually shrug as if to say, “What to do? It’s not as if I have a choice?”
What’s worse, work time isn’t necessarily work time. For example, Filipinos have no qualms taking long smoke breaks, merienda (snack) time, and just Facebooking. If work ends at 6:00 pm, Filipinos would already start preparing for home by 5:30 pm.
And woe is the dude that calls in at 12:05 pm to inquire about a product.
“Sorry, lunch break na po,” the staff would answer. “Please call back at 1:00 pm when everyone’s returned.”
This wouldn’t happen that often in Hong Kong. If the client calls up, you have to accommodate him/her. If not, at least have the decency to ask what his/her issues are, get his/her contact number and promise to call them back at a given time.
2) Filipino employee average productivity is lower compared to their other Asian counterparts.
Whereas salary is cheap relative to its Taiwan and Hong Kong counterparts, the Filipinos seem to not be worth this minimum wage. Sure, Filipinos can show up and be there to ask questions and ring up your purchases, but honestly, productivity per employee is quite low.
A friend of mine once asked one of his employees, a University of the Philippines (UP) graduate, the task of shipping 200 wipers to client addresses all around Metro Manila. All the information is there, and all she had to do was to organize the items, stick the addresses into the package and send it via the local courier.
Two weeks later, she still wasn’t done!!! We were flabbergasted. UP is considered the best school in the Philippines, and yet, my employee couldn’t even finish what a normal student from Hong Kong or Taiwn could finish within less than a day. What’s worse, she got some of the addresses wrong, and clients were starting to complain.
Woah, it is ridiculous. Filipino employees can show up for work, stay there for 8 hours, and have little to show for it. They can hold several meetings, answer a gazillion emails, and yet produce an output of zero. They’re an expert of busy-ness but employers don’t want you to be busy. They want results.
3) And lastly, the system is not as efficient as their other Asian counterparts. Corruption is rampant and ubiquitous.
Taiwanese and Hongkies all love to complain about their government. They love to hold rallies to complain that things could get better. Haha, they should live in the Philippines! Then people would be more content with what they have.
Here in Manila, prepare yourself with a lot of waiting time. Wherever you go, bring your iPad or mobile phone to twiddle away time. If the traffic doesn’t bore you, the long lines will. And lines are everywhere.
Just to pay for my mobile phone bill or withdraw some money, I have to wait 30-45 minutes just for my turn. For some reason, lines are such the norm that efforts aren’t really made to cut the lines shorter. People seem to accept that you have to wait if you want to get things done.
Getting impatient doesn’t help. It won’t speed things up, and you’ll just be branded as the asshole people would intentionally serve even slower. Complaining about it doesn’t help either. It’s not as if the managers could do anything about it. “It’s just the way it is,” my friend tried to console it. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Which makes you imagine just how anyone could make money considering the amount of waiting time that accumulates. Then again, that’s how some companies get ahead.
“If you don’t want to wait, pay,” my friend recommended. “Get your connections to help you.”
Ahhhhhh, and there lies the conundrum: the Philippines can be inefficient. But if you want to go ahead, money speaks. And if you want to do it the clean, long tiring way, then don’t pay and be prepared to wait. 🙁
In amidst of all the above complaints, why do I even care to stay in Manila? Do I even regret coming back home? Most importantly, would I make the same decision if I had to do it again?
The answer is still a YES. For the following reasons:
In my case, I was able to stay with my dad for at least a year before he passed away from liver cancer in February 2013. I don’t think I would’ve been able to live contently with myself if I didn’t spend as much time as I could with my dad. I owed him everything, and it’s the least I could do for him. This reason alone justified my entire “sacrifice” of moving back home.
“What is money if you don’t have family?” I thought. You may have the entire world in your hands but if your personal life is in shatters, what is money still for? Life would be empty no?
Also, when my dad died, I was still able to help my mother grieve and heal. My mom and dad had been stuck to the hip for the last 40 years of their marriage. Where my dad went, my mom went also. Spending time with her and ensuring she was okay made my coming home worthwhile. Sure, my brother was there to help but it wasn’t the same. I’d like to think that a woman’s touch made a difference in consoling my mom and helping her once again stand in her own two feet.
2) My personal life blossomed after coming back.
I didn’t come back to find love. That wasn’t one of the primary reasons why I moved back. I still firmly believed that I could have found love even if I stayed in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
But I did meet my now husband after I came back. 🙂
We met online, dated for a year, got engaged and married in 6 months, relatively fast compared to some of my friends who are still single and happy to mingle abroad. Some people say I’m lucky that I came back. If not, I wouldn’t have met my husband.
While this is all true, I do also have a couple of friends who were single when they came back, and are still single years after they returned. Not for the lack of trying — a friend of mine went on blind dates 10x a year — but rather, they just couldn’t find the one for them.
So coming back and finding a husband does NOT hold true. And I warn anyone who wants to move back because they hope to find a husband to reconsider: It’s still a gamble. You may find the One or you may not. I found my husband, but so many of my friends who stayed overseas for years and came home, still remained single up until now.
What I can vouch however is the type of guys you can meet when back home. They’re a lot more conservative than normal guys you’ll meet abroad.
Personally, guys I met abroad would ask me out, date me and then try to sleep with me right within the third date. If I haven’t even made out with them by the third date, there won’t really be a fourth. “Too much effort,” they’ll think.
Here in Manila, guys don’t really expect you to sleep with them. At least not immediately especially if they see you as a good girl. And if you were a virgin, oh well, it’s not totally uncommon back home.
Guys also take dating a lot more seriously than those abroad. On our second date, my now-husband has already deemed me as “marriageable” and had no qualms introducing me to his sister and brother-in-law. Now imagine a guy taking you to see his family as early as the second date overseas. It’s a lot rarer than you think!
And of course, marriage is always in the cards with the right person. Where my friends can date someone for 10 years, live in and still not be married to them, societal pressures make these occasions more rare in the Philippines.
Yes these things happen but if the girl is from a good family, woe is to the man who beds her and then dumps her. If you get a girl pregnant, you automatically have to marry her. And if you date her for a few years, parents would start to grumble when you’ll want to make it official. A lot of pressure to get married here!
3) And lastly, honestly speaking, life is what you make of it. I truly believe that after taking the plunge, success comes to those who seek and are willing to work hard for it, irrelevant to where you live.
Sure, staying in Hong Kong enabled me to earn hundreds of thousands of pesos on a monthly basis. I could honestly buy a Chanel bag every month and still pay for all my living expenses. That was how much I earned back in Hong Kong.
But to tell you the truth, having lived in a high-pressure work environment, I always thought to myself that money would always keep on flowing in so long as I worked, and one should enjoy life to alleviate the stress I was experiencing at work.
Hence, I took very nice vacations to Egypt, India, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and all around Asia. All of which were paid from cash and savings. I also splurged and bought my first Miu Miu, Prada, Louie Vuitton and Chanel, luxury bags I don’t even use that often now but seemed so relevant before. And lastly, I spent money like it was water. I would withdraw HKD 1,000 per day and could spend it as if it was nothing. Dinners in Soho was at least HKD 250, desserts was another HKD 100 and I don’t mind spending another HKD 100 for taxi.
In short, I spent as much as I earned. And I don’t regret any of it. In hindsight, because I was earning so darn much, I also spent a lot thinking I was worth it. I earned every damn penny and what was wrong for splurging?
Years later, I realized just how foolish I was.
Now newlywed and not as rich as before, I discovered that it was silly to buy frivolous things that brought me temporary pleasure. With a house and a new husband, money could’ve been better spent on furnishings, our business, and our future. 🙂
I think I learned after going home was that life was really more of a balance. You cannot earn a lot of money and that’s what life is all about. After spending all that cash, if your life was really unsubstantial and only consists of just work and play, then you’ll be once again discontent and empty.
How many more parties can you go too before you realize it’s all the same thing? You dance, you drink, you go home and then do it again?
How many more bags do you buy before you realize that other people don’t give a shit? They get old too… and my Miu Miu bag which I bought for HKD12,000 now has a broken lock. To think that these investment pieces would really last me forever… humbug!
And how many more artificial relationships would you go through before you realize that life isn’t about superficial happiness?
It’s about the boring hum of a contented life, of being with family who appreciate you being there for them, a husband who is content to hold your hand at night, and employees who appreciate your taking a chance at them and encouraging them to be the best person they can be?
Yes, life in Manila is boring.
I worry about money a lot lot more, and I get frustrated on an hourly basis.
And yet I look at the big picture.
Where do I want to be in 20, 30, 40, 50 years time?
Do I want to live abroad where I will always be a foreigner?
Or do I want to be back home and try my luck here?
Sure, there are no guarantees. And if I was more risk averse, staying overseas was a much safer and logical choice.
But then again, beauty is chaos, and it’s only when you stick your neck out can you actually experience something significantly greater.
I’m sticking my neck out. That is why I am here.
Do you want to experience the same hardship for a chance of something more fulfilling? Knowing fully well that you can also find yourself jaded and disappointed? Once again, do what you think you’ll regret less in a few year’s time.
I miss Hong Kong, but if I really think hard about it, I don’t regret coming back home.
It’s a lot more difficult and exhausting, but heck, I’m still here… trying my best to make my decision to come back worthwhile. Though I’m not there yet, I think I’m doing okay. 🙂
So the question is there — do you want to come back? Or do you want to stay with what is comfortable?
That my friend, is something only you can answer.