Time at Philippine Spa meant something more

Six classmates and I decided to go to a spa near our hotel to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I have never been to a spa before. I purchased a full body massage, a manicure and a pedicure. The spa visit’s purpose was to be pampered.


As I was waiting for the masseuse to begin, I immediately became aware of the personal stories I have heard during this global immersion trip. The stories that have been shared with me centered on personal experiences of oppression, violence, and one’s struggle to get out of poverty. With this awareness, I then became cognizant of my nationality in relation to the masseuse and manicurist. 


I, an American, came to this spa for pampering with a wallet full of money that I was freely spending. The people who were doing the pampering were middle aged women who were working 10 to 12 hour days in order to help their families survive. The services that were offered at the spa provided livelihood to those who worked there. I felt guilty for requesting pampering services when these women may not have be able to afford such services for themselves.


Once the full body massage ended, the masseuse handed me a piece of paper so that I could write a tip for her. The first amount I wrote down for her tip was 150 pesos. The tip of 150 pesos is equivalent to ~$3.75 US. Looking at the amount I wrote down, I felt like I was cheating her out of a fair tip. A gut feeling told me a tip of 150 pesos was too low, especially in comparison to the amount of work and energy she put into the massage. I then wrote down 500 pesos, ~$10 US, for her tip. From the expression on the masseuse’s face, I think she was in shock. She asked me twice if I was sure of the amount I was tipping her. With a large smile, I said yes. The masseuse then stated, “now I can buy my baby some milk”.


Next, I walked to the foot massage area for a manicure and a pedicure. The manicurist was a Filipino woman who looked to be in her early or mid 30’s. As the woman was prepping my hands and feet for the services, I noticed that her hands were worn. Her hands appeared thin and delicate, yet tough from continual hard work over the years.


Eventually, the manicurist and I began talking. She shared with me that she has three children, the oldest 17 years old, and a husband who fought in the middle east. I then asked her how long she would have to work. The woman shared with me that her shift began at 4pm and would not end until 2am. Her salary was dependent upon commission. She said she received 60 pesos from the total service fee of 120 pesos. 


The manicurist who provided me with a manicure and a pedicure, that lasted over an hour, would only receive 60 pesos, ~$1.50 US. I did not hide my shocked expression. After I stated how ridiculous I thought her salary was, we exchanged a few smiles and a laugh. Looking back on our interaction, I think the manicurist was happy to have been acknowledged as a human being, instead of as a machine that filed and cleaned nails.


Once the manicurist was finished with the pedicure, I prepared to write down a tip for her of 500 pesos, as I did for the masseuse. The manicurist, like the masseuse, double checked with me regarding the amount I was tipping her. A tip of 500 pesos, which was about double the price of the service, is rare. The manicurist then stated to me, “bless your heart”. For the second time last night, I smiled because I was practicing my ability to help another person.


This interaction that I had with the masseuse and the manicurist brought to light the amount of desperation and struggle that I have observed these past twelve days. I am not one to spend money freely or without a reasonable explanation in the US. However, in the moment I wrote 500 pesos for the womens’ tips, I knew they would spend the money purchasing essential items for their families such as rent, food, clothing and educational expenses.


As I remember the interactions I had with those who worked at the spa, I cannot wonder why I felt compelled to tip the women as much as I did. For instance, did I tip the women 500 pesos each because I knew I would receive a validating and approving reaction from the women? Probably so. Did I tip the women as I did in order to make myself feel good? Maybe. Was I truly assisting the women and their families or just pushing my own agenda to feel like I was doing something right? I do not know for sure.


As I handed the tip money to the women, I felt I was representing the US and Philippine political relationship that has existed for over 100 years:

I (an American citizen) represented the United States. I (the US) was providing money (national funding) to the masseuse/manicurist (Filipino women/ the Philippines). As an American, I was projecting my needs (for pampering and relaxation) onto the Filipino women (the Philippines), who were working to meet their survival needs and goals for their family. At the expense of the women’s (Philippines’) time, energy, and work, I (the US) was benefited. As in the US-Philippine political relationship, the exchange was highly weighed to benefit me, an American.


There is a slogan here in the Philippines: “It is more fun in the Philippines”. Yet, one must wonder: who is experiencing the fun? Probably not the Filipino people.


ABC News Speical: Alleged Underage Prostitution in the Philippines


This ABC News special about human trafficking and prostitution in the Philippines was shown in February 2013. Regardless of the time that goes by since the premiere showing of this special, the issue of human trafficking, prostitution, and the sex industry remains to be a global issue.

My classmates and I visited Subic Bay for two days and interacted with some girls/women who work(ed) at the bars and clubs. The experience brought to life the women and girls’ desperation for survival. Most, if not all, of the girls and women who became involved in trafficking, prostitution, and the sex industry do not willingly chose this lifestyle. The overall systemic organization of the country is what places these women and girls into these situations. The organization of the country includes the lack of implemented laws like the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012, the immense amount of poverty, increasing presence of violence against women and children, the lack of employment, and a lack of government-supported social services. The awareness of these issues on a global level needs to be greatly enhanced in order to prevent trafficking in the future.

My observations of Poverty in the Philippines

The definition of poverty in the Philippines differs from the way it is defined in America. The Philippine government defines poverty as a family of five living on 40 pesos (equivalent to $1 US) a day. However, many individuals make about 32 pesos on average. Approximately 52%, 10.3 billion people, are considered within this category. These statistics are ridiculous, yet true.

Along with the differences in how poverty is defined, the way poverty exists within the two countries also contrasts. The poverty in America, for the most part, remains out of sight. We, Americans, are fully aware that poverty exists. However, we are able to easily turn a blind eye, especially the individuals that reside in the middle to high socioeconomic class.

In the Philippines, poverty is a way of life. Anyone from anywhere would be able to identify the alleys and lots where the poor live. These areas are referred to as ‘slums’. The individuals who live in these areas of poverty are the strength of this country. Ironically, these ‘slums’ are located throughout the Philippines exist next door to five-star hotels, such as the one my classmates and I are staying. The contradictory extremes of the slums and other parts of the country perpetuate the largest socioeconomic gap I have ever witnessed. The disparity between the poverty in America and the Philippines is the basis for my intern conflict.

While debriefing with my classmates, I have realized that I have not been able to, as of yet, completely wrap my head around such observations of poverty. As a social worker, I conceptually understand how poverty comes to exist and I am aware of the various relationships between the systems that perpetuate poverty. Yet, on an emotional and humanistic level, I don’t understand how this country’s poverty came to exist. Seeing the children on the streets make me want to hand them the clothes on y back and the money in my pockets. Meeting the women and girls who must compromise their safety and bodies in order to financially support their families makes me feel an overwhelming amount of anger towards the Philippine government and the men who are exploiting them. These men are not only Filipinos. They are also Americans, Europeans, Australians, and many more.

The contradictory images of wealth/poverty, social power/oppression, and private/public sectors are, without a doubt, extremely visible and shocking.