Living in a foreign country is an opportunity to learn about a different culture, a different way of seeing and responding to the world. It provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in new customs and traditions, and to see what really matters and is important to people around the world. It is also an opportunity to examine, from a distance, your own customs and traditions and, most important, your own cultural assumptions.
I was born and raised and lived in the United States all my life, until I was almost 60 years old. Then, I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to the Philippines, to Quirino Province in northern Luzon, to the municipality of Cabarroguis, to the barangay (barrio) of Zamora. There, I learned some things from Filipinos about happiness.
Eyes of curiosity, Luzon, Philippines. Photo by Daniel Peckham via Flickr CCL
Before I start telling you about my discoveries, I need to offer this disclaimer. What follows is full of generalizations. For the sake of brevity and for effect, I have purposely taken out all the “sometimes,” “occasionallys,” and “almosts.” You can add them and I won’t mind – almost.
I believe that truth is circular, actually spherical, like the world. You can turn truth around, and even upside down, and still find some truths in it. When I moved to the other side of the world, the truths that I was raised with, that I had always held dear, that I thought were the only possible truths, were turned around, especially what I learned in the last three years about happiness and success.
In the U.S., success is happiness. If you have money, a good job, a solid place to live, a car, a computer, a television, or a big-screen television, the latest electronic equipment, and a full-funded retirement account, you are successful. You can be happy, proud of yourself, of what you’ve accomplished, and of the things you own.
In the Philippines, it’s another way around. Happiness is success. If you have good health, a good family, parents, spouse, children, relatives, trusted friends, supportive neighbors, pleasant companions at work, a community of people who like you and whom you like, you are successful. Happiness is who you are and with whom you are. Happiness isn’t something that you will get only in the future; and happiness isn’t dependent upon what you do for a living or what you own.
Happiness isn’t something you get after you get everything else; happiness is something you have before your get everything else.
In the U.S., the first question you ask someone is “What do you do?” In the Philippines, the first question you ask someone is “Who are you related to?” You first establish your relationships. I’ve rarely heard a person asked what he or she does for a living or owns. When asked to describe a person, I’ve heard “hospitable, generous, kind, friendly, honest, loyal, sympathetic, compassionate, a good parent, or a good child, comes from a good family, and,” possibly the highest compliment, “raised a good family.”
Surrounded by family in Luzon. Photo courtesy B.J. Stolbov
I come from Quirino Province in the hills of northern Luzon. It is a rural province. There is only one road in and the same road out. You can't get lost. There are no fast food places, no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no Krispy Kremes, no restaurants really, just storefront family-run eateries. In Cabarroguis, where I live, there is one coffee shop, attached to the gas station. There is no stoplight in the entire province, and to the best of my knowledge, only three stop signs. The joke is that they don’t pull the sidewalks in after dark, because there are no sidewalks.
“So,” you may ask, “what do you do there?” Life there is centered around the family and the community.
In the community, there always seems to be school event, a church function, a municipal or provincial fiesta or festival, at which people in the community gather together, and prepare for, set up, and attend.
In the family, there always seems to be a mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, there are lots of cousins, friend or acquaintance, who has a birthday, an anniversary, a blow-out when someone graduates, a going away party, or a welcome home party, a celebration of some sort, and the family gathers, and cooks and eats and drinks and talks and sings and laughs for hours and hours.
Family gathering. Photo courtesy B.J. Stolbov.
Another reason that I think that the people here are so successfully happy is that when they are happy, they are not in a hurry for their happiness to end. When they are happy, I rarely hear, “I’m busy, I’ve got to run, I’ve got to go.” They are not always rushing to find their next happiness. When they are having fun, they will just hang out with each other and enjoy their company. If a party runs late, or if they have had too much to eat or drink, or they are too old or too young to leave by themselves, just find a pillow or a blanket, and stay over.
I am invited to some community event or a family party almost every day, definitely every week. This is what we do for happiness.
So, from the other side of the world, I would like to offer you another truth: Happiness is success. Happiness is not something that you have to work for or earn. It is not out there in your future somewhere. It is not far away.
Happiness is all around you. Happiness is loving someone and being loved by any one. Happiness is present and available right here, right now; and happiness is, maybe, probably, right beside you.
B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, and technical writer/editor. He lives and works in, travels and explores the islands of the Philippines. B.J. teaches writing and English, and is available for writing and teaching positions. Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov(at)gmail.com