I’m the only Western employee at an eco-resort in Palawan.
For those of you who, like me before I arrived, haven’t heard of the island, it’s in the Philippines, and—I just read on Wikipedia—was rated “Most Beautiful Island in the World” in 2016.
A small city in the north is a hub for tourists seeking underwater excursions and picturesque “island hopping.” Forty-five minutes from there, in the middle of nowhere, is my new off-the-grid home.
I’ve traveled quite a bit in life, but I’ve never felt so foreign.
Even though I’m “one of them,” the other 40-plus staff members (yes, there are over 40 employees here for eight rooms) treat me like a princess—or at least like a guest, which to me, seems royal.
They know where I am when I’m here, where I go when I leave, when and what I eat, when I take walks, and how many drinks I have. They know to have a coconut ready for me each morning, to withhold the eggplant from all of my dishes, and that I like chili with everything.
And they won’t stop calling me ma’am.
Initially, this seemed quite strange, and I tried to get them to stop. I’d say, “I’m working here. I’m just like you.” Still, they’d open the car door for me, and ask if air conditioning is okay—ma’am. For a while, I answered all of my ma’ams with reciprocal ma’ams and sirs.
I tried to explain that I had more in common with them than I did with the guests.
The guests here are pampered and they all seem accustomed to it. They are used to someone arranging their travel, greeting them at the door, and carrying their bags. They hire people to take care of them. I just found out that a young couple staying here called hotel staff to remove a spider from their bamboo bungalow—and that this happens all of the time.
Me, I’ve never experienced life like this. However, because of my skin color and nationality, I seem to have everyone here fooled.
In fact, the guests think that I’m like them too. They invite me to join them for breakfast, and talk about diving, kite surfing, and other resorts and vacation plans. They think I can relate to them, but I cannot. At times, I pretend. To stay here, these guests often pay per night the equivalent of my monthly salary. To me, this makes them alien—the world that these guests exist in is not anywhere close to mine.
The ma’am issue aside, the other employees here are nice to work with and sweet. They’re curious about me and want to know who I am and why I’m in their country. We smile, ask each other questions about family and interests, they teach me Tagalog, and sometimes we share a laugh.
Despite all that, I still feel like they consider me alien.
The longer I’m here, the more I understand why. To them, I am. Who am I to say we’re equal? I’m the only employee who chooses when I work, who doesn’t log my hours, who eats restaurant meals in the formal dining room, and who walks along the beach with a glass of wine before dinner.
I’m the only one who is here for fun. This job is not my livelihood. In fact, it cost nearly half of my entire month of salary to get to the Philippines, and will likely cost the other half to leave this country.
Unlike my “co-workers,” I can use my entire month’s wages to hop on an airplane and find something to do in some other part of the world—wherever I choose. There might be a week, or a month, or three months in between paid jobs, and I know I’ll be okay. I also know that if for some reason, someday, I’m not okay, I’m from a place full of people who have the resources and connections to help me, and that several of these people care about me enough to do so.
Similar to how I am different from the guests, this is what makes my co-workers and I different from each other.
In fact, at times, I’ve found myself feeling resentful of guests for paying more per night in a developing country than most families earn in a month.
This leads me to understand how people in developing countries often direct resentment toward me as a Westerner. We do all look the same. We do all have the opportunity to earn euros or dollars and use them to buy flights to places where life is comparably cheap. I get why people think I’m rich. A lot of us are, and even if we’re not, we still—by comparison—indeed are.
The resort I’m living at has lovely expat owners. They’ve created dozens of jobs in a small community, actively support and initiate environmental conservation efforts, are extremely generous to their employees, make an effort to interact with their guests in meaningful ways, and provide really unique opportunities for travelers like me.
Still, the more I witness in this world, the more I question the way that we, from privileged countries, allow it to function.
If my years of questioning this inequality that I see (and am a part of) had led to a straightforward solution, I would certainly let you know. However, the only advise I have for those who choose less privileged destinations for luxury (or luxurious-by-comparison) vacations is to enjoy the true connections that you make with others, and to be mindful of the fact that people consider us to be representatives of our own wealthy countries. The exploration of cross-cultural communication is a unique and valuable experience that can oftentimes be life-changing—to everyone involved.
As I write, a restaurant employee is serving an eight-year-old girl a mocktail at a bar as the child chats up the grown-ups and plays on her iPad. This woman server, who is in her 20s, has four children herself. I wonder what she thinks about this interaction.
Author: Rachel Markowitz
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Kenni Linden