Toronto vs. Manila: clarity from culture shock and comparisons of cityscapes
I have been back in Canada for two weeks now and have had time to reflect on my experience at CMA and in the Philippines more generally. Upon returning to Canada, I headed straight for the countryside, ready for some backcountry camping to detox from Manila and process my thoughts. Today is only my 4th day in a city (Toronto) since returning to Canada, and culture shock is setting in. Toronto is at once both familiar and strange by comparison to Manila, and drawing comparisons between the two cities has helped me situate myself and better articulate what I learned over the last six months.
Access to Consumption: Toronto
One stark contrast that has been brought to light is between the ease with which most folks in Toronto can consume and the sharp divide between rich and poor folks’ access to consumption in Manila. While walking around Toronto, I realized that one element of the culture shock I was experiencing had to do with how image-oriented most Torontonians seem to be and with how quick they are to snap up the latest fashion items. I noticed that fashion had changed since I was last in the city, and that people all seemed attuned to this shift and had purchased clothes accordingly.
In support of this consumption, there is a sprawling, seemingly endless expanse of stores along most downtown streets selling the latest components of the season’s ‘must-have’ ensembles. Between clothing purchases people also have access to a series of appropriately-spaced cafés in which to sit in their well-assembled outfits and sip on over-priced lattes while talking politics.
I don’t write this to poke fun at Torontonians, but just because in the last days I have become acutely aware of how consumerist a society we live in and of how accessible consumption is for most of us. We are privileged, in a way, to be able to be so image-focused.
Access to Consumption: Manila
In Manila, by contrast, most people do not have the luxury of being so concerned with constructing an image to put out into the world. Rather, most people have to focus on subsisting. The streets are peppered with food stands and trike drivers – folks just trying to get by and to feed themselves and their families. Where the latest café stands in Toronto, selling coffees for Php150 per cup, a buko juice (coconut water) cart stands in Quezon City dishing out delicious buko juice for Php5 per cup. Where yet another high-end clothing shop has been built along the newly trendy Ossington strip in Toronto, a young man on the foot-bridge over the highway crossing EDSA in Manila is selling Pph15 T-shirts with which to buy supper.
Consumption packaged to accommodate poverty
To be sure, there are rich neighbourhoods in Manila – Makati is peppered with the same array of high-end shops that I see in Toronto (and the same array of white faces to match). But, consumption looks different in Manila. Poor people are poorer than in Toronto and most people are poor. This means that in most of greater Manila people do not have the luxury of being so image-oriented - a couple of T-shirts and some jeans is the typical wardrobe.
Even items that we take for granted (like shampoo) are packaged and consumed differently to accommodate poverty. Sachets of everything (what we would think of as small single-use samples) are sold and bought as the norm, since Php1 is easier to come by for a sachet of shampoo than the necessary Php100 or more for a full bottle. My roommate once told me that when she could afford to buy a large bottle of Pantene Pro V she knew she had made it.
Malls in Manila as Public Space
Coming to the realization that consumerism is substantially different in Manila than in Toronto surprised me, as there are SO MANY malls throughout the city and ‘malling’ is such a common past-time. I hadn’t thought much about consumerism being different in Manila than in Toronto because malls are so prevalent; but lately I have been considering the possibility that malls in Manila are substitutes for public space. Whereas people in Canada have access to parks and more (air-conditioned) buildings generally, malls in the Philippines act as a comfortable meeting place for friends and family. With smaller homes for larger families, and more crowded cities with less accessible public space (sidewalks are non-existent in many places, parks are few in number, and many neighbourhoods are thought to be unsafe), malls have become a place where people can comfortably meet and socialize. Moreover, the city supports and invests in building malls (even constructing churches inside many malls) as a way to bring in foreign capital and stimulate the economy. Making significant purchases in most mall stores, though, is still only accessible to upper class folks.
Markets as a more affordable option
For poorer folks, there are markets (in a similar vein to the sachets of shampoo) where huge savings can be made and deals can be struck. Greenhills or Farmers, for example, are popular markets with floors upon floors of cheap, knock-off things for sale. Fake designer bags, shoes, clothes, glasses, etc. can be purchased for well under Php100 (about $2.40). These are the shopping centres for most people in Manila. Larger, designer and box stores that are accessible to most Canadians (like H&M) are a luxury for most people in Manila.
So what does this mean?
It seems that the consumerist lifestyle that is prevalent in Canada, and North America generally, is sought after, supported, and idealized in Manila. Many people still love to shop and, when the can afford it, graduate from knock-off to designer clothes and from sachets to full bottles of shampoo. But, as of yet, most people don’t have the access that we do in Canada to ceaseless consumption. Starbucks, lattes, and seasonal shopping are most definitely still for the upper classes. In my experience, this leaves more energy to put elsewhere. Community, for example, is still strong. People put effort into preparing good food, singing videok (like Karaoke), and into others generally. This is not to idealize communities in the Philippines, but just to say that it seems people have a little bit more energy to share with others, since less is going towards themselves and the production of their own image.
Inaccessible Consumption and Poverty
Of course recognizing this brings to light a lot of other issues related to what it means that most people in the Philippines do not have access to such high levels of consumption as we do in Canada. One implication is that poverty is more endemic. There is a stark divide between the rich and the poor in the Philippines and it is very difficult to cross the line. Vast slums are positioned next to wealthy neighbourhoods, and guarded gates (which might as well be vast canyons) divide the two. But it seems that this is a topic for another day. For now I will sign off, asking that you pause to reflect on how much access to wealth and power we have and consider how best to use that access moving forward.
Mikaela Robertson is working for six months as a Program Assistant with Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), in Quezon City, Philippines.