Growing Up Overseas Was Fun! Fun! Fun!

“The Boss” may sing about being “Born in the U.S.A.” but I’m going to sing about being born near Manila Bay and living in Makati. I was so lucky to grow up in the Philippines; because if I’d grown up in the U.S., my life would have been…oh-so-boring.

Instead, I lived a life that is unimaginable to anyone who didn’t experience it. Which is why I usually get together regularly in Vegas with my high school friends from the Classes of ‘70-‘79 for reunions. (At least 10 reunions since 1996, some of them “all classes“ events in San Francisco.)

These folks from my Manila “barkada” are the ones I really feel most at home with. Most other alums feel the same way. We share a bond that not even my wife understands, although by attending all these reunions and visiting Manila with me in 1995 she’s now considered an “honorary” alum…lol! (Most alums do not bring their spouses to our reunions.)

Why do we have this bond? Because of the unique life we lived.

In the U.S., if you’re under 18, there’s not a whole lot of….options. In Manila, it was the Golden Rule: if you had the gold, you made the rules. And if you were an American living there, you had the gold. Options were like a buffet…. unlimited.

The “temporary” Americans, who were there for just a few years and then transferred out, were often more circumspect. Those of us whose families had been there for generations (whether from the Spanish era, as my family, or the American era, as many of my friends), followed the dictum: when in Rome, do as the Romans.

My typical weekday, from when I was 16 and had my own car, went like this: school (private college prep) from 7:30 – 12:30. After that, I drove to a nearby private club and had lunch, which was charged to my parents’ account. I’d often hang out at the club awhile with friends – lounging by the pool, bowling or maybe shooting pool (both on a “loser’s parents’ pay” basis).

Since I was on the track and basketball teams, I’d have to go back to school 2-3 days a week after lunch for team practice. After practice, I’d sometimes give a ride home to friends who didn’t have a car. (Let me tell ya, driving a few cheerleaders home is rough work but someone’s gotta do it…lol!)

Often, before heading home about 6 PM, I’d stop by our gated subdivision’s park to see what was happening. Often there was a pick-up basketball game going on and I either watched while chatting with the ladies or got into the game if someone was tired.

Once home, I’d have about an hour to spend with my dog Big Black (read that bittersweet story in the Anarchist Archive) before dinner, which was usually between 7 and 8 PM. (I couldn’t believe how early Americans had dinner when I arrived here!) After a dinner prepared by our servants, I’d do some homework and usually be in bed between 9 or 10 PM.

I didn’t need an alarm clock in the mornings; a servant knocked on the door at the right time and if I didn’t answer, she came in and shook me awake. Breakfast was waiting after I got dressed.

I wore everything once, after which the servants hand washed it until we got a washing machine, which made them nervous. (A friend’s servant tried hand washing the clothes in the machine!) Before I had my own car, our driver took me to school.

Weekends were the fun part. The club was often a first stop, if I didn’t have a school basketball game or track meet. Otherwise, it was the stop after the game or meet, if it was a “home” game. (“Away” games were usually at U.S. military bases and often an all-day affair.) Often, I spent the whole day at the club, relaxing for the evening activities.

Saturday evenings were party time and I rarely came home before 1-2 AM. First, I usually took in a movie. After that, it was dinner and drinks at one of the favorite haunts. Although none of us looked anywhere near the “legal” drinking age, remember the Golden Rule. When we asked for a beer, no one asked for ID; they asked what kind of beer we wanted. Even then, I didn’t care much for beer, so I usually had just one, especially since I was often a “driver.”

Sometimes, we skipped the restaurant and paying (directly) for dinner and drinks because…

A popular post-movie choice was the Seahorse Casino. Again, our age didn’t matter. Casinos were illegal then anyway and visiting one was very 007ish….

We approached a nondescript building with no signage located on the main drag that ran along Manila Bay. A “spotter” sitting on the sidewalk eyed us to determine “friend or foe” and since we weren’t wearing a military or police uniform he’d asked why we were there. When we said we wanted to gamble, he’d get up and escort us to a heavy door that had a peephole and a light above it.

His knock on the door brought the light on and the peephole opened. Once the doorkeepers saw we were not police, we’d hear a few locks opening. We walked into a narrow corridor about 50-60 feet long with another door and light / peephole at the end. We knocked on the door and went through the same routine as the first door.

This second door opened to a staircase that led to a second floor casino, with blackjack, roulette and craps tables. Free roast beef (and other) sandwiches and liquor. No food at the gaming tables, so we ordered and ate the sandwiches and enjoyed drinks in a “café” area before going to the gaming tables.

One night, we heard over the PA: “ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry but we must close early for the evening. There is going to be a police raid soon.” The next day, I’d read in the newspaper that police raided a “suspected casino” but found nothing. The Golden Rule…the police were paid off to inform the casino of any “show’ raids to “prove” the police were not tolerating illegal casinos. Everyone knew what was happening…but the show must go on!

I think this is where my love of casinos was born. I wasn’t a big gambler… if I lost more than 50 pesos (about $12 then), I quit. But watching a friend put 20 pesos on the craps table and take it to 40, 80, 160, 320 and then 640 pesos ($160) brought quite an adrenaline rush. We all urged him to quit but he wanted to go to 1,280 pesos ($320) and then quit. You know what happened… he lost it all but what a ride! He didn’t need the money; his family lived in Forbes Park, the most exclusive of the gated subdivisions and they belonged to the top private club – the Polo Club.

Every 4-6 weeks, I’d use a Saturday to go “shopping.” My family had U.S. military base privileges since my father’s U.S. engineering firm had a military contract. Another “military privileges” friend and I would go the U.S. embassy, located on Manila Bay, and take a 30-minute free shuttle launch across the Bay to Sangley Naval Station. We’d hit a snack bar for lunch and then spend a few hours shopping at the tax-free PX (Post Exchange) for Levis, records, etc.

Some of this shopping was for our friends who didn’t have military privileges. Acquaintances could expect a small “handling charge.” I was never expected to return any “change” from the dollars my mom gave me for these shopping trips. Some of that change went to the casino, after I exchanged it for local currency at a premium rate “on the street” (which thrived because of the Philippine government’s controls on buying dollars).

Other examples of the Golden Rule:

Before I had a car, I’d negotiate a “meter off” taxi fare for going to the U.S. embassy, which was a good 30 minute – 45 minutes drive. No taxi refused a hefty 30-40% discount from the “meter” fare and they returned to pick us up at the embassy at the agreed upon time. (Is it any wonder I have a hard time buying anything unless it’s a deal? I grew up wheeling and dealing!)

I had a genuine DMV-issued driver license showing my age as 21. I went down to the DMV and, as prearranged, was given the test and answers and told to make one mistake. I was then issued a genuine license for paying a modest “courtesy fee” to the proper official.

Not even sure why I needed that license. Certainly not to drink. As for driving, a 20 peso bill ($5) handed to the police took care of any problems on the spot. (But even then, I was a careful driver.)

Once, my license was taken in an adjacent province (county) by probably the only honest cop in the country. I attempted to pay the fine to him, but he refused it, took my license and issued a ticket. A discussion of my predicament with the chief of our subdivision’s private armed security force resolved the situation. His cousin was in the Philippine Constabulary (National Police) in that province and had “friends.” He told me not to worry and to come back in a week.

When I returned, he gave me the license back – no court, no fine, no record. The next day, I gave him a bottle of Johnny Walker (given to me by mom for him) as a “thank you.” (American liquor and cigarettes were dirt cheap at the PX since the Feds pay no taxes on them. As status symbols, they were preferred by the locals over cash . We liked the local liquor, San Miguel beer and Anejo rum…go figure).

When the Makati police tried to extort a bribe from me when one was not due, I hit the jackpot. My mom spoke to a friend who spoke to a friend, etc. and soon I had a “courtesy card” from the Makati Mayor. It was his business card, with this “request” stamped on the back and with his signature: “Please extend all possible courtesies to the bearer of this card.”

With that card, no policeman would try to ask for money from me, whether it was deserved or not. Unless I was in an accident (and I had none), I’d leave any Makati police encounter with a polite “so sorry to stop you sir; please go on your way.”

Another example of the Golden Rule:

Coming back from Hong Kong with my grandmother, we got stuck at the end of the Customs line. In those days, all the bags were in an area behind the Customs officials. You pointed your bags out, were asked to declare, and then the bags were closely inspected for undeclared items and contraband. I expected we’d be there for at least an hour and a half.

I noticed my mom at a second floor observation window and raised my hands, palms up. She left, and I thought she had gone to sit down and wait it out. About 15 minutes later she returned with someone in a military uniform and pointed us out. He left and about 5 minutes later I hear over the Customs area PA… “will Mrs. Thomas and her grandson please come to the front.”

I looked down as we walked because I’m sure the entire line glared at us as we made our way to the front. We pointed out our bags and were asked to declare. Nothing to declare, my grandmother said. Each bag was opened, the inspector made one pro forma peek in the middle of each bag and then said we were done. (The military uniform official had already “cleared” us.) My mom explained that she called a friend who called a friend who knew a ranking Customs official and asked him for the “courtesy.” That’s the way it worked. (I’m sure he got at least a bottle of Johnny Walker and the inspector maybe got a carton of American cigarettes!)

I think you get the picture. In the Philippines, if you were in the small minority of people who had wealth and/or power (which often came together), then you were the law in any situation with someone who was not in that group.

But those days are over. Casinos are legal. The military bases and their cheap goods are gone. There was no mall when I lived there; now, Southeast Asia’s largest mall, complete with Olympic size ice skating rink, is located on Manila Bay. Makati is in gridlock – 30 minutes to go maybe 3 miles from the old movie theater to my old house when I visited in 1995. Air pollution is bad. I grew up in the “good old days”…

And that’s why I say I was so lucky to grow up overseas. It was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life… and I get to I relive that life at regular reunions, where we drink the San Miguel beer, eat the food, leaf through our yearbooks, and stay awake long into the early morning telling “remember when…” stories that are often more outrageous each year they’re retold.

In keeping with this being a “light” post, I’m offering, for those of you who are cooks, my personal recipe for a favorite Filipino meal: chicken or pork adobo. Then, there are some links to photos of Makati and some YouTube videos.

Chicken or Pork Adobo:
Cubed boneless pork or chicken; (whole chicken drums and thighs are “traditional“)
Brown the meat in a wok or deep skillet;
Add onion chunks and mushrooms as desired;
Add adobo sauce: 1/3 cup soy sauce & 2/3 cup vinegar with garlic powder
Simmer until done, but don’t let too much of that sauce disappear.
Serve over rice; dampen the rice with the adobo sauce.

1. Adobo sauce must be sufficient to cover the ingredients at least half-way.
2. Adjust soy sauce and vinegar proportions to your taste.
3. Don’t use that weak grocery soy sauce; use strong, naturally fermented soy sauce (available in Tallahassee at Mike’s Seafood. I suggest genuine UFC brand from the Philippines.

Take a tour of my old high school!

Can you see your high school faculty doing a video like this this?

Makati skyline photos

If you’ve visited me here before, you may have noticed that the image at the top of the page has changed. I decided it was not “scenic” enough. This post seemed an appropriate time to put up an image I recall fondly: Lake Taal and Taal Volcano, just south of Manila.

Note: I’m in Panama City Beach for the weekend but was able to publish this by putting it on wordpress before leaving and scheduling the publication date & time. But I won’t be able to check for comments until Monday. I’ll be sipping a cold one at the new PCB Pier Mall on Sunday! (If you’ve commented before, your comment will publish without review.)

(Coming next Sunday: The title of next week’s post is inspired by GEICO‘s “caveman” ads: “Caving – So Easy Even a Democrat Can Do It.” See you next week!)


9 responses to “Growing Up Overseas Was Fun! Fun! Fun!

  1. Wow, I bet you miss that lifestyle now. Thanks for sharing it with us, it sounds like heaven. That picture is stunning.

  2. While it was great as a kid, I’m not sure if it’d be the same as an adult. I have friends there I grew up with who are living a deja vu: they live in the gated subdivision, belong to the Polo Club and kids go to the school we went to. Very weird…

    As for the photo, I have a photo of me as a child there and it was a popular “nature” destination But it didn’t have the tables then…

  3. Great story Anarchist. You were an elitist in your youth. LOL

  4. eehard..I’m STILL an elitist…LOL! Nothing wrong with that….the elitist’s burden is a heavy one, yes but I carry it without complaint..all the way to Vegas every year! LOL!

  5. Esteeb,
    Magaling ng blog po! Very few people except for our barkada understand the concept of being anthropomorphic (a person of one culture who is raised in another culture). Your post of 31st August describes our lives to a “T” yet only focuses on the positive aspects. Perhaps one of your future postings may enlighten readers on the grittier, less-sunny side of the life of an ex-pat. Anyway, excellent reading, keep up the good work!!
    Dzepri Haanter

  6. Your youth was quite different than mine. Thanks for pointing me to this post. My teenage years were quite the opposite of yours. I wrote a series about a particular period and it was rather depressing. You seem to have lived a life that many would dream of. Yours was a fun trip down memory lane.

  7. Yes Terri, even after 39 years here, I sometimes still feel like a “stranger in paradise.” But it is also true that you can’t go home again; except, in my case, through reunions with my Manila alums.

  8. the header wd look even better if you used Chris P’s other theme that’s on WP, Pressrow, I think bec it tends to bring out the breadth of panoramic pix like these, but I cd be wrong…
    enjoyed reading – wandering about the cityscape thru – your ‘light’ post. thanks 🙂

  9. Hi Rolling,

    I checked out Pressrow but couldn’t couldn’t tell from the preview if there was a difference. I did notice that the style has no “page navigation” (or at least there was no tag for that). other than that, I’m not sure what the differences between the two styles are.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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