12 May 2023
Does love conquer most trials in life? Some say yes, others say no. The Doubting Thomases claim that the union between two people is so fraught with differences in personality and temperament—amongst other things--that when the “love” hormone dies down, what is left is compatibility. But what happens when another major influence—culture-- is thrown into the pot? When a marriage fails, how much of it is due to differences in culture, how much to other factors?
I have often heard that all things being equal, it is best to marry your own kind. The problem is that things are never equal, and so there is no formulaic solution to the issue. Some inter-cultural marriages simply work, and others don’t.
My own marriage to a German is a case in point. Many of my girlfriends have also married foreigners—Dutch, Canadian, American, English, Singaporean, Chinese, Indian, Nigerian, Japanese, Spanish, Hungarian, Australian, and Swedish, to name a few. However, my friends and I have something in common: we are all Filipino women (Filipinas) married to foreign men. I have always wondered, what about Filipino men married to foreign women, especially Western women? They are not as common.
I was lucky to meet a Swiss woman who had worked on a cruise ship and had married its Filipino doctor. I was even luckier that she consented to be interviewed in depth, and for her story to be used as reference in this article.
Typical Swiss Village by the Alps
Elena is blond and blue-eyed, born in the French zone of Switzerland. She worked as a hairdresser before deciding that she wanted to see the world. She was only in her early-20s when she applied for, was accepted, and was tasked to tend the hair salon on the ship. Likewise, on the ship was a Filipino doctor who manned the clinic. Soon after meeting, the two became lovers. Pete would stay with her in her little town in Switzerland whilst the ship was dry-docked. They then decided to get married when Pete’s contract expired in 1991. She was by then 25 years old, and he was 10 years older.
At first, he stayed in Switzerland, looking for a job there. Not licensed to practice in the country, however, he had difficulty finding work that would suit his qualifications. The best he could get was as a doctor’s aide, and this was not satisfactory to the couple, even though Elena herself was easily re-integrated into her old hairdressing job. In due course, the couple decided to leave for Manila where Pete could easily work as an attending physician at hospitals and have his own private practice. Elena, believing she had a more portable occupation, reasoned out that she could find employment anywhere.
Initially, she was quite excited—here was a new place to explore. The couple visited all the tourist spots around the country, and Pete surprised her with a house for themselves in the town of Antipolo. As she settled to life there, however, and the spirit of adventure had worn off, she found the place too primitive.
Antipolo in the 1990s
“There were lots of mosquitos, so we had to sleep with a mosquito net, which made nights even hotter. The food was bad—when I first saw the floating head of a fish, (Sinigang na Bangus), I was repulsed! I don’t eat fish. So, I survived on pizza which could be had in a nearby Shakey’s Pizzeria. Even then, they only used processed cheddar instead of mozzarella.
“Filipinos are warm and hospitable, but their poverty is appalling! Still, I was happy enough to share the house with Pete. We soon had a daughter, and Pete’s rich aunt gifted us a hair salon where I could work.
“The worst part was that my mother-in-law, who initially had only frequently visited, decided to move in with us after our daughter was born. She was getting old, she said, and Pete was her only child. He and our daughter were her only family. But she had never been out of the Philippines, nor had she even travelled far from Bulacan! She was afraid of the unknown and could never understand me--my lack of subservience to my husband, and my need for privacy, for instance.
“Pete, on the other hand, was happy to have his family close to him. He enjoyed his mother’s cooking, and was generally satisfied with the way his mother and the yaya were raising our daughter. I quietly endured the resentments I felt. But when our second daughter was born, I decided to put my foot down. I didn’t want a yaya to raise our children. In Switzerland, mothers raised their kids. As a matter of fact, I didn’t want maids and yayas in my house at all! To prove my point that I could do housekeeping and raise my daughters at the same time, I gave up the salon and decided to be a stay-at-home mother. Frankly, I had also expected my husband to help with housework as most Swiss men would have done. I didn’t know that he would have felt emasculated, and of course, his mother and friends would have objected.
“This proved to be a watershed in our marriage. After that, Pete and I disagreed on small things and big things, until, in the end, I wanted to leave for Switzerland with my two daughters. Our battles ended in court when my husband put a restraining order on me so that I couldn’t take the children out of the country. Finally, we settled with him agreeing to give me a Php10,000/month allowance and a car of my own.
“It has now been 31 years since we got married. I still live in Antipolo with my husband although we seldom talk to each other. Our daughters are grown, but I must admit that, as he has so often complained, he still can’t retire. He must continue working so he can send them through university and medical school: the elder one is now on her internship at Makati Medical Centre, and the younger one is finishing dentistry. They are good girls, and I am quite proud of them”.
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I was curious to find out how she herself was doing and what her plans were now that she need not worry about her daughters--they could go wherever and whenever they wished. With no other family obligations, why didn’t she go back home?
“They say home is where your heart is: my heart remains in Switzerland. But it is too late to go back. I went away when I was 27—I have no friends or family left there. Through the years, I have become estranged from them. I have no savings, and at 57, I won’t be able to find a job anymore. I am not familiar with the new hairdressing technologies, and my Swiss canton is very conservative.
“Here, I feel I have some advantages: Filipinos give me special treatment because you people still have a colonial mentality, and if I have to be candid, you’re racists. I find I am treated so well because I am white, so being a white foreigner is a big asset in this country.
“I go with a group of friends from the Swiss and French communities. Until the pandemic, I also taught French in a school in Antipolo where I earned Php650/hour. Now, I give private lessons whenever I can find students. The extra income can be a good supplement to the small allowance my husband still gives me. And another important thing is that I can live much more cheaply here—why, just the other day, I got a good haircut for Php50.00.
“I think happiness in life is a lottery, and I suppose I just didn’t win it”.