June 28, 1990

After spending the previous night in a hotel after our long flight across the Pacific Ocean, my Brother, Sister, Mom, and I prepared ourselves for the relatively short three-hour flight from Taipei, Taiwan to Manila, Philippines later that morning.  Before long, we were watching the blue ocean and puffy white tropical clouds stream by under our wings.  Starting our descent into Manila, banking left over Manila bay, the ocean water changed from a vibrant blue to an emerald brown as the shoreline appeared.  The land was swathed with vivid green palm trees and dotting the outskirts of the city were small collections of homes built out of corrugated metal roofing with intermixed colors – shiny sliver, rusted red, and painted black matte.  As the plane lowered to the ground you could start to see office buildings, neighborhood developments, and every piece of spare space filled in by shanty towns.  Nearing the runway, the plane finally touched its wheels down onto our new home.  The plane loudly rattled down the rough runway, like a car quickly driving over a pitted road.  The plane slowed, turned off onto the taxiway, and made its way to the nearby terminal.  We disembarked through a flight bridge into a bright and airy terminal lined with plants, posters of tropical island beaches, and images of blue city skylines.  As we walked up to the immigration line, we were forewarned by Mom not to joke around if asked any questions.  We showed our passports, handed over an immigration form, answered a few simple questions, and proceeded onward to pick up our luggage.  The baggage carousel was in an open aired section of the airport, which meant there was no protection from the sweltering heat and humidity of the midday tropical sun.  For once, sitting still and waiting patiently sounded like a reasonable option for an active young boy.  After waiting an extended period for our luggage to appear, we collected our things and made our way to customs – a room that Mom remembers due to its ample greenery and mellow soft music in the background.  It didn’t take long for the customs agent to review our papers, stamp our passports, and send us on our way.  Nearing the exit of the terminal, we could see a tall metal grate fence with a large crowd behind it – people waiting for family members, drivers holding signs with passenger names, taxi drivers, and porters keeping a watchful eye out for overwhelmed tourists offering their services to help you carry your baggage to your vehicle.  The crowd jockeyed for position at the front of the line while shouting out names in a cacophony that reverberated against the concrete walls.  To the left of the crowded fence stood several uniformed police officers armed with shotguns and assault rifles nonchalantly reminding people “stay behind the line, please.  Sir, maam, behind the line.”

Walking out of the airport, we found our Dad and greeted him smiles and hugs.  We were introduced to Dr. Shellrude, the Dean of the Alliance Biblical Seminary where my parents would be teaching and studying, a fellow CMA missionary, and the person who had helped find our family a furnished home for us to move into upon arrival.  Dad and Dr. Shellrude helped us carry our bags to the parking lot and loaded them into the trunks of two waiting cars.  Dad introduced us to our new car – a small canary yellow four door sedan which would soon earn the name “the yellow bomb.”  Opening the backdoor, a surge of stagnant hot air rushed from the car with a heavy mildew smell.  My siblings and I stared blankly at each other for a moment with the realization that this small, yellow, smelly car was our new mode of transport.  The seats were covered in a grey fabric that had some small tears in the seams, revealing the dry and brittle yellow seat foam underneath.  As my brother and sister packed tightly into the backseat on either side of me, we all begged for Dad to turn up the air conditioner.  He shortly quipped “It’s on full blast already.”  I could tell from the tone of Dad’s voice that he knew very well about the problem with the air conditioner, as well as his inability to change the circumstances.  To help insulate the family from the shock of arriving in a new country, Dad wanted to give us as good of an impression as possible; and decided to drive us to Makati for a familiar lunch at McDonalds.  Makati was one of the nicest areas in Manila, a business and shopping district with tall buildings, clean streets, and was away from any shanty towns.  As we drove away from the airport and into the city of Manila, the car slowly cooled to a bearable level.  With my panic attack from the stagnant and stifling heat subsiding, my attention turned to the surroundings passing outside of the car windows.

We were driving down Roxas Boulevard, one of the nicest streets in Manila – home to the US Embassy, the Manila Yacht Club, and numerous Filipino Government offices.  It was several lanes wide on both sides and drove along the shore to Manila Bay on the left and tall office buildings on the right.  I saw the unusual jeepnies that we had all read about in the travel guides, the tall palm trees lining the boulevard, and it all looked fairly normal.  The air looked slightly hazy, much like the air we were used to in Los Angeles, but nowhere near as bad as we had feared (at least for the moment).  We turned right off the main road and towards Makati.  The road narrowed and traffic soon came to a standstill.  The tall buildings were replaced by two story ones housing a variety of stores with street vendors lining the sidewalks.  Passing over a short bridge spanning a creek, we got our first close up view of shanty towns – a collection of shacks or makeshift dwellings constructed out of discarded wood and corrugated metal roofing materials that housed large numbers of the 1990 07 Sample of slums around waterwayspoor and their families.  These communities normally lacked access to water, plumbing, or trash services, and frequently the polluted rivers or creeks that the shantytowns were built next to provide a solution to all three needs.  As we slowly made our way down the street, the atmosphere changed once again into the tall buildings, clean streets and the glass faced storefronts of Makati.  Dad found a parking spot close to the McDonalds so that he could keep an eye on the cars (with our luggage) while we ate.  Looking at the menu, there were familiar items – hamburgers, quarter pounders and even the ubiquitous Big Mac.  But there were unfamiliar ones as well – spaghetti with a vibrant red sauce, something called a McRib sandwich, and fried chicken.  We ordered our usual meals, talked about our experiences during our time apart, asked Dad about our new house, and delighted in the cool air-conditioned atmosphere.  After lunch, I clambered into the back of our car turned oven, this time having a more realistic expectation of the heat and air conditioning capacity.  As we drove away from the nicer sections of downtown Manila, we drove over the Marikina River and looked out at the brown and green river lined with trash and shanty towns on both shorelines.  Traffic was thick as we moved our way slowly from the center of Manila all the way out to the eastern outskirts.  As empty lots filled with grass started to appear along the sides of the road, Dad put on his turn signal, made a left into a community named Brookside and said “here we are.”

Turning off of the busy main road, we drove through a patchwork of homes, streets and empty fields.  Unlike many of the uniform subdivisions found in the United States, this neighborhood had been built one house at a time leading to different designs, a patchwork of streets, and empty plots with tall green grass growing in them.  After a half mile, we turned left and pulled up to our house.  Much like the other homes, it had a cinder block wall surrounding the entire perimeter.  Lining the top of the wall were shards of green, brown and clear glass soda bottles implanted in concrete – a cheaper alternative to barbed wire.  Access to the house was gained by unlocking and opening the large grey painted iron gate that squealed against its hinges as it opened.  Walking inside the gate, there was a small strip of grass in the front yard and a covered, but open-aired single car garage with a pebble concrete flooring and walls.  Walking up three steps and through the side door, there was a modest kitchen to the left, a dining room to the right, and a living space across the room.  The floors were a multi colored parquet flooring, the living room furniture was made out of rattan with large blue cushions, and several large windows provided ample light or sometimes let in a light breeze.  Next to the living room, there was a quarter staircase that led up to two bedrooms and the master suite, and my Brother and Sister quickly claimed the two top rooms with their bright windows for themselves.  Also next to the living room was a full flight of stairs that led down to a semi-basement with two rooms.  One of the rooms was going to be used as a spare office and the other, by process of elimination, became my room.  Half of the room was underground, there were two small horizontal windows that allowed in light, and the whole space felt slightly damp, slightly dark, and smelled of mildew.  I tried to negotiate with my parents for one of the brightly lit upstairs rooms, but my parents were concerned about my brother’s asthma and the discussion was a nonstarter for my sister.  Despite Mom’s serious reservations about the mold growing intermittently on the walls and my reservations about the dark and semi-depressing space, I at least finally had a room to myself.  For the first time in my ten years of life, I had a bed, desk, closet, shelving and space all of my own.  Unpacking what little I had from our suitcases, I hung up my several shirts, folded the rest of my clothes into two small drawers, and placed my books, magazines and China Air puzzle on my desk and was done.  It doesn’t take long to organize if you don’t have anything to organize.

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 9.35.25 PMAcross the street from our house was an open-air style Catholic church and parking lot.  Most of the time it was quiet, but on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, a small crowd would come by the church for services.  While at first I expected the small parking lot to be a major problem, the majority of the people that attended the church lived locally and walked.  For most people, owning your own car was a luxury, and small community churches were a regular feature of almost every neighborhood.  Several houses down the street from ours was a shopfront built into the front of a normal home that sold a limited selection of basic items in small packages – soda, candy, cigarettes and basic goods or hygiene products.  These types of family run convenience stores were called sari-sari stores and seemed to be spaced out every couple of blocks or so.  If you needed a larger selection, at the front entrance to the Brookside neighborhood was a small market that had two long aisles of groceries as well as a small pharmacy.  But if you were looking for a full-service grocery store including meats, produce, and bulk staples, you would need to leave the neighborhood and drive 3 ½ miles north on a paved road cutting through unused fields and shanty towns to the Q Plaza shopping area.  Q Plaza was about the same size of a normal American 1980’s grocery store with a relatively large selection of groceries and the usual services.  But for me, the best feature was a counter sitting just outside of the checkout lanes where rows of small CRT televisions and Nintendo gaming sets sat.  Unlike the square grey Nintendo units I was used to playing in America, these were white, flat, and had a cartridge plugged into the top of the unit instead of being covered by a door.  For only a few pesos, I could sit down and play video games while Mom went shopping at her leisure and got what we needed on our weekly grocery run.

During the first few weeks after our arrival, there were several important tasks to complete.  To attend Faith Academy, for instance, a physical examination by a doctor was required before the start of each school year.  With Faith Academy being less than a two-mile drive away from our Brookside neighborhood, there were a large number of other missionary families and dormitories that had settled there.  My parents asked some of the other parents where we should go to get our physicals done and were directed to a small clinic down the street from the subdivision.  I was already nervous about the prospect of yet another physical, and even more so given the uncertainty of exactly one would entail in a new country.  Driving a few miles away, we turned off into a small parking lot with several buildings made of unpainted cinder blocks.  Out front of one of the offices was a sign with the name of the clinic and a painted red cross.  We walked in, explained the reason for our visit and handed over the requisite school forms.  While we were new to this process, this clinic was more than familiar with the procedure and set to work.  My brother went first, then my sister and I went in last.  Everything seemed normal – at least until the blood draw.  Instead of poking a needle into your arm and drawing blood into a syringe, I watched as they rubbed alcohol on my brother’s ring finger, removed a shiny metal lancet from its paper sleeve and quickly jabbed it into his fingertip.  As a large bead of blood pooled on his skin as the doctor pulled out a small glass tube and touched it to the bead.  I watched in amazement as the blood started to flow up the inside of the tube to the top.  The process repeated with my sister, and soon enough, it was my turn.  Remembering the story of my Grandma using a razor blade to remove a splinter from my finger, I could recalled looking into her eyes as she said “Sit still now, you hear.”  A second later my body flinched as the poke occurred and I watched as my blood was sucked up into a glass tube and a band-aid was applied.  Walking out of the clinic with a sense of relief, I asked with excitement “When can we go see Faith Academy?”  “Soon.  In a couple more days,” Mom replied.

Other tasks that needed to be completed included getting our extended stay visas approved and getting Mom and Dad’s permanent driver’s licenses.  In the days before our trip to the immigration office, Mom and Dad had warned us that the process would be long, tiring, and involve a lot of sitting.  We were coached on the correct answers to questions that we might be asked, instructed on how to behave, and told to use our best manners.  On the day of the first meeting, we got dressed in our best clothes, piled into the cramped backseat of our car and headed out for a drive into the heart of Manila.  We fought and waded our way through the heavy traffic and after only an hour, arrived at the main office of the Bureau of Immigration.  We were met there by a representative from the local CMA missions office who was familiar with the procedures, requirements and carried our documented paperwork.  As we arrived in the lobby, I settled in for a long haul wait by opening my activity book.  After what seemed to be only 30 minutes, we were called over, taken to a room with a well-dressed man sitting behind a desk, and asked numerous questions.  I watched as the man rifled through a stack of papers, asked questions of us and periodically stamped pages with a large stamp.   A short time later, we were posing for photos and were released to go home.  After being prepared to wait all day, we were all elated that we were approved and finished all before lunchtime.  As we were leaving the building, there was a street vendor slicing the tops off of green coconuts using a traditional bolo knife.  My sister asked if we could get one and try fresh coconut water or buko juice, and surprisingly, Dad obliged.  We walked over and watched as the vendor picked up a green coconut, made six accurate slices with his knife, poked a hole into the top of the cut coconut and inserted a straw.  We passed it around, each taking a little sip, with varying degrees of enthusiasm about the taste.  As usual, I was the pickiest one, and didn’t quite like the delicate earthy flavor.   We then hoped in the car and headed across town to the Land Transportation Office for a meeting with a judge to get drivers licenses for Mom and Dad.  Soon after, that task was completed as well, and we were now able to stay and drive in the country for longer than the 59 day tourist period.

Having just arrived in a new country, my parents were cautious about letting us kids explore our new neighborhood and surroundings alone.  So while my parents were busy trying to adjust to their new lives of working and figuring out life in a new country, we kids had little to do.  A few boring days passed since our last major outing from the nest, but finally the day had come that we would get to see Faith Academy.  I had looked through the brochure a hundred times and watched the video a dozen times, and I was excited to finally be able to experience being there for myself.  As we drove out of our neighborhood and along the country road that wound up the hills to Faith Academy, I was giddy with excitement.  We had left early in the morning and rolled down the windows to allow the still moderately cool air to beat against our faces.  The sun had just started shining on the grasses at the sides of the road and the sweet aroma of herbaceous verdancy was lifting into the air.  Driving up the final steep hill to the entrance to the school, we arrived at a gate with a guard booth.  A uniformed guard approached the car, Dad told him that we were here for a tour, and he nodded and let us in.  The bottom drive was shaded by trees and led up a steep hill to the school buildings.  Surrounding the entire campus was a chain link fence with barbed wire on top and one of us kids joked that the school must really want to keep people out.  Mom bantered with the reply “or to keep the students in.”  Arriving at the top of the hill, we drove around a large rectangular courtyard and pulled into one of the few parking spots available.  At the center of campus was a large greenspace with grass, palm trees, and leafy bushes Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 9.34.10 PMgrowing throughout.  On three sides of the courtyard were two story whitewashed buildings made out of cinderblocks.  The buildings to the south housed the high school and elementary wings, the buildings to the north were for the middle school, and facing north was a large multipurpose gymnasium and theatre building.  Walking inside the high school office, we spoke with the receptionist and a short time later, were met by a gentleman ready to give us a tour.  We were taken through the halls of the high school, looked into the library, wandered over to the large gymnasium, and saw the food stand and tennis courts.  Walking down a flight of steps, we saw the large sports field below and the expansive view of the city of Manila.  The city was built on a large plain, and the school was built atop one of the first mountains of the countryside, giving it a commanding view; well, depending on the smog.  Some days the smog was so thick, you couldn’t see Brookside two miles away.  On most days you could see the outline of the skyscrapers in Ortigas Center five miles away, but on a really clear day, once or twice a year, you could see all the way across Manila bay to the Bataan Mountains over 40 miles away.  Continuing the tour, we walked down more hallways, up more stairs and arrived at the elementary wing where I would be attending fifth grade.  The classrooms looked pretty standard with several rows of desks and a large black chalkboard at the front of the room.  Completing the tour, we were asked if we had any questions.  I remember feeling disappointed about the first visit to the school – not because of the school itself, but because it was devoid of the students and staff that could bring a place to life.  For that though, I would have to wait a few more weeks until the start of school.

1990 09 FaithAcademyEntrance

Returning to our new home, there was a lot more work to get done than we had expected.  Simple tasks like washing the dishes, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, and even preparing drinking water added around 20 hours a week of work, so like many other locals and expats, we hired a “helper.”  It was common for many families to have a live in helper that would work during the day and live in small detached maid quarters on site, but Mom favored our family’s privacy as well as her own home cooked meals, so she set to work trying to find a part time helper.  There were numerous helpers that had experience working for expats in the area and would come available as their employers left for furlough or moved on elsewhere.  Mom was warned by fellow missionaries that she needed to find a helper that we could trust with our possessions and would put in an honest day’s work, and that not all of the helpers available met those qualities.  There were even horror stories that some maids had been used as moles by gangs to kidnap foreigners or steal all of their belongings.  Mom started praying for wisdom as she started her interviews.  The first few candidates were young, single, and wanted to live in, so Mom politely moved on.  There was another woman who started the interview by listing off all of the things that she would not do around the house in a rather pushy manner, not letting Mom describe what her needs were so she was not chosen.  Then there was a middle-aged woman arrived wearing well-worn and nearly threadbare clothes.  Mom was about to send her away with reservations about her being tempted to steal when she was clearly reminded by the Spirit, “Man looks on the outside but God looks at the heart.”  After talking with this quiet but motivated woman, my Mom told her to come back to begin a two-week trial.

With all of our paperwork requirements finally in order and a basic knowledge of our surroundings, it was time to start settling into our new lives in the Philippines.  We had already been missionaries, but life in the Philippines was very different than in South Korea.  It had a tropical climate instead of temperate.  It had large Western influences from periods of Spanish and American colonization.  It had a completely different set of cultural values, social norms, and religious beliefs.  In the end, it shared very few things with the cultures we had already lived in, which could only mean one thing: adjusting the culture shock ahead.


If you enjoyed our story and think your friends would like it, we would love for you to share it using one of the buttons below.  A full list of chapters from this series can be found at a child in a foreign land.  If you want to stay up to date with all of my writings, travels and personal stories, you can follow me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram at divergentjoel.

© Divergent Life Media, LLC

One thought on “Arriving in the Philippines

  1. Good work, Joel! Thanks for sharing your insights through such a descriptive writing style! Looking forward to seeing you! Love, Mom



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