Five reasons the Philippines keeps me smiling one year on

Some more conventional than others

David O'Hagan
5 min readApr 2, 2018
Manila city and bay at sunset

The five items below regularly put a smile on my face.

Full disclosure: I’m not permanently grinning here in Manila. I’ve been here for just over a year now and have had some struggles (primarily with my former bank and my former condo), but of the eight countries I’ve lived in, the Philippines would rank right near the top for me. No place is perfect, and this country’s imperfections also draw me to it and cause me to genuinely want to play a part in its positive change.


I’m from Canada. In case you haven’t been, it’s cold for a good part of the year. (Picture yourself in bed on a January Winter morning, really not wanting to get out of bed since you know it’s -25 degrees Celsius outside, and bone-chilling gusty wind will greet you as you step outside. And to add to this joy, the sun doesn’t rise until nearly 8am, and will already have set by 5pm.)

Most locals in South-east Asian countries whinge about the heat, but I’m now certain their hot extreme is considerably better than the opposite cold extreme. So yes, although it’s sweaty and very hot in Manila at times, the oven-like heat I’m greeted with as I walk outside continues to put a smile on my face. (Plus, I’m not a fan of socks, and the novelty of wearing flip-flops year round has not yet worn off — and may never will.)

Poblacion Bambike tour

Street chaos

I respect the law-abiding nature of the citizens of Canada, America, the UK, and other Western countries, but I can’t help but admit there is some novelty in the chaos on the roads in Manila. I do certainly respect laws and regulations, particularly when it comes to protecting lives, but breaking free from a little ‘stuffiness’ once in a while with a bit of counter-flowing is admittedly fun, to my law abiding roots.

(I am blessed not to have to do a daily commute to work (at times amounting to 1-2 hours each way) that many locals here endure, and I acknowledge that that fact keeps my view of Manila traffic more positive. There is definitely a strong need for massive improvements in everything to do with traffic in Manila.)


I live in the barangay of Poblacion (but not in Rockwell) and wouldn’t live anywhere else in Manila. BGC (Bonifacio Global City) and Rockwell are both very nice, but too sterile (and too much like Canada or Singapore) for my taste. I want grit and character — both which make me smile. I love walking around at any time of day or night in Poblacion (never feeling unsafe) amongst local socializing, eating, singing, or playing basketball. This part of the city is raw and alive. Along with this delightful grittiness though comes poverty, begging, and some very poor living conditions. This breaks my heart much of the time, however it also inspires me to help make positive change.

Binondo kids during Chinese New Year

Laughter and spirit

Despite the various struggles here, Filipinos are definitely joyful people. I love to see friends joking and laughing with big smiles. Life is definitely too short to focus on the negative and the things you don’t have. More than one study has shown citizens of developed countries that possess vastly more wealth, are often caught up in unwinnable race to amass more wealth and prestige — and as a result are not particularly content or joyful. So despite the regularly visible poverty here, I’m still inspired by the spirit and joy of locals in Manila and the Philippines.

The enthusiasm of the next generation

When I graduated from university in Canada many years ago, my vision (although it would still be years before I was even introduced to the idea of creating a vision for my life) was to get a high-paying job so I could buy a great car, a cool condo, and a ski boat. The furthest thing from my mind then was thinking about how I could serve others with my career and my time, and help those with less than me.

In a number of workshops and bootcamps we’ve run here in the last year with recent uni graduates and current students, there has been an underlying and honorable desire to contribute to the betterment of their nation. That, fires me up.

The irony isn’t lost on me that most locals would not agree with me on my first three items (and a good number of Westerners here don’t either). Many locals yearn for cooler weather, better traffic, and just wouldn’t see the grittiness as charming in the way I do. And there is definitely an element of the grass is greener scenario here for me, and for them. But as I get older (and mature even slightly), the more I believe that we must just live in the present, appreciating what we have (without focusing on what we don’t have), and creating opportunities out of our current circumstances. Too many people make their lives too complicated. I’m not diminishing the challenges for many of the millions of people that reside here, but as I roll into my second year in Manila, I will continue to appreciate the richness and joy of the Filipinos, as well as continue to seek creative ways to partner to make a positive impact in this country — to generate even more joy, smiles, as well as prosperity.



David O'Hagan

On a mission to find: innovators, status quo crushers, culture builders, hungry creatives, and warm sandy beaches