When most Americans travel to escape their day-to-day life, they bury themselves in exclusive resorts, world-class dining and exotic locations. My first international trip, on the other hand, took place in an impoverished area of the densest city on Earth. For four months, I lived with an urban poor family whose income was $20 per day. I experienced metropolitan Manila as few Americans ever will: from the fringes of society, where I learned valuable lessons about materialism, gratitude, resilience and where to find fulfillment.
Officially, I was a tourist, at least according to my visa, but my time in the Philippines was not a vacation. I arrived there to complete a requirement for my undergraduate degree: to live, study and volunteer for a semester in an urban poor international location. I chose Manila because of the tropical weather and my vague familiarity with the culture, which came via a Filipino mentor and friends.
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My Foreign Study Program Landed Me in a Dubious Living Situation
The school I was enrolled with had no official presence in the country, save for a site facilitator. This person was a local who arranged housing and an internship. The site facilitator organized a legally dubious living arrangement, where I sublet a room for $150 per month (about 7,000 Philippine pesos) from a family of five.
The home I lived in had been converted into two rental spaces. My host family occupied one section, containing a tiny living room, two bedrooms, one bathroom and a kitchen that could fit one person at a time. The family could only afford one bedroom, so the other remained empty. The property owner left for his familial province before finding another tenant, which made the room available to me. I technically had no legal right to rent the room from my host family but was given no other choice.
The room was sparsely furnished: a single twin bed and one small, unfinished wood desk. The floor was smooth concrete with a burgundy coating. I slept on a pancake mattress beneath a window without glass or a screen, giving easy access for mosquitos to feast on my blood. The ceiling was split at the center and transformed into an inverted geyser during daily rain showers. I did not have hot water, clean drinking water from the faucets, access to a refrigerator or Wi-Fi. I struggled with the inaccessibility to amenities I had taken for granted.
Stripped of the usual comforts, I questioned what made my life enjoyable. This dilemma framed my time in the Philippines, spurring a painful revaluation.
Seeing Poverty Up Close Shook My World
My experience with locals was a big factor in my transformation. Thanks to all of the charity television commercials I’d seen portraying the poorest people in the world as also the unhappiest, I expected to see defeated faces. It was a shock to see a jubilant populace. Those I befriended lived in conditions unfathomable for most Americans. Many were squatters who lived in makeshift homes on land they did not own and lived in constant fear of eviction. Their homes were built with corrugated metal and thin plywood. Few could access clean drinking water. Yet the crushing weight of poverty failed to exterminate their dreams or joy. I mostly remember bad puns, jokes about how I couldn’t handle the humidity and impromptu dancing and singing. I learned that economic models only predict people’s material disposition but fail to capture the radiance of the human spirit.
Although I was floored by their determined positivity, poverty still inflicts a toll. I recall brimming with tears over dinner one night as my host mother—a strong woman in her late 40s—talked about her eldest child’s goal of becoming a doctor. She admitted that such lofty ambitions were expensive, and they could not afford the schooling. It broke my heart to watch a parent soberly explain how unlikely it is her child will achieve their dreams.
To have poverty’s devastating effects explained over a dimly lit dinner table by a mother struggling to make ends meet made it tangible. I felt the finality in her words and was confronted with the monster lingering at the end of optimism: defeat. The reality that snuffs out dreams and robs ambition. Despite feeling the weight of her fears, I understood that I could never completely grasp her struggle.
I carried the privilege of being a temporary visitor. After just four months, I would return home to Southern California —a wealthy enclave in one of the richest countries on Earth. Compared to the people I built relationships with in Manila, I was the one percent.
Returning home, I struggled to integrate my experiences. The enormity of inequality stunned me. It felt unfair that my Manila friends would likely never have the access to wealth, amenities or infrastructure the way I do. Countering those thoughts was the understanding that my friends were making the most of life. That dissonance uncovered a critical truth: Life may present immovable obstacles, but fulfillment can be had anywhere.
I Brought the Lessons I Learned in the Philippines Home With Me
As a younger millennial living in fraught times, I often think about what brings my life fullness. I learned long ago that wealth is only a part of the answer. While wealth alleviates stressors that make life unenjoyable, I’m convinced that fullness of life cannot be achieved solely through economic means—there is fulfillment attainable only through intangible things that are harder to count.
Squatting in the Philippines for four months with an urban poor family proved that to me. I felt it walking through flooded streets with my friends after a trip to the mall, in conversations after dinner with my host mother, in the compassion extended when I sought help from strangers. Manila is many things. For me, it was an awakening.