It’s always fun to share a tour featuring an adventurous family who can see the world from a different perspective. Say hello to Amber Folkman! Early in their marriage, Amber and her husband moved to the Philippines for his work, but eventually decided they wanted to stay and raise a family there. Amber’s home feels like an amazing tropical get-away — bright light, big windows, and lush tropical plants outside every window. And her design choices are just as inspiring. You’ll love the mix of thrifted pieces, locally crafted baskets and furniture, and bright colors. Enjoy this peak into Amber’s fun, bright and colorful world. Welcome, Amber!
Welcome to our Piña Home. We’re an American family living life in the Philippines. Our home is filled to the brim with noise. We are all loud, except my husband, he’s more on the quiet side. With three small children, aged 8, 6 and 4, the pendulum of noise swings from wild rumpus laughter to shrieks of anger in a moment’s time. As a family we love bike rides, playing board games, swimming and road trips.
My husband and I met on Oahu during our university years and have spent most of our married life in Manila. We had a few years in Seattle and then relocated to the Philippines. We were first relocated to Manila for my husband’s job but chose to to stay and call it home. Jake works in the BPO industry, while I hopped around as a teacher at the international school, had babies, and started a website to help Manila dwellers love where they live.
Our three boys have grown up in the Philippines. My oldest lived in the US for a year and a half but besides that, life in Manila is all they know. It’s incredible for me to see how similar childhood is globally but also recognize the unique gifts special to a childhood in the Philippines.
My oldest son speaks more Filipino than I do and his accent is incredible. Aaker has adapted to a third-culture-kid childhood extremely well and will switch his accent depending on who he is talking to. If he is talking to me he will use his American accent and if he is talking to our Ate Chanda (nanny) he will use his Filipino accent. It’s quite remarkable to watch him do this so naturally, I am quite envious. Our middle son, Oz, is as Pinoy as they come. He loves fish and rice and prefers to eat with his hands. Our youngest, Wells, has just revealed how truly mischievous and hilarious he can be. He’s definitely the glue between everyone and loves giving hugs and kisses between calling everyone stupid. Yeah, we’re working on it.
Another key figure in our home is our incredible yaya (nanny), Chanda Poppins. It is common to have a nanny for your children in the Philippines and we hit the gold mine with Chanda Poppins. Her real name is not Chanda Poppins but she is very magical like Mary Poppins so we gave her the nickname. She has helped raise our babies and helped me be a better mom. I am forever grateful for her.
Manila is a sprawling city divided up by enclaves and neighborhoods, locally they are referred to as ‘barangay’. We have lived in a number of different housing types and neighborhoods around Manila. We started out in a flat in the up and coming part of the city called The Fort. After we had kids we moved to a high rise in the business district of Makati. The last few years we’ve settled a bit further out, in a standalone home in a gated subdivision with a pool and a small patch of grass we lovingly call a yard.
The stark differences between the financial situation in Manila is mind boggling. Housing in a nice gated village in Manila, not even the nicest one, will likely cost you a few thousand US dollars while down the road you might find a squatters area with homes made of plywood and corrugated materials. This isn’t every where but it certainly exists.
Despite the financial divide everyone congregates at the malls. I cannot express enough how much malls are an integral part of Filipino culture in Manila and we live near some great ones. We spend most Friday nights at the mall eating out for dinner as a family, or catching a movie for a date. You can bowl, ice skate, grocery shop, micro blade your eyebrows and then eat authentic Japanese food at the mall if you want. Malls in Manila carry a jovial spirit that I have never felt in America. Malls in America feel depressing, especially strip malls, but malling (yes, that’s a verb) in Manila can be a happy experience.
Besides malling, our neighborhood in Pasig has so much excitement within a few miles radius. I love to walk our neighborhood by foot to see what pops out. Because Manila is such a densely populated city you are bound to find something magical in any area of the city. Just up the road from our house is a workshop for Beatriz Bags, they were on Oprah’s Favorite Things Christmas list 2017. I happened to be walking our neighborhood and saw the sign for the workshop. My curiosity was piqued so I popped in and lo and behold there was the local source room. This kind of experience is not unique, Manila really is a diverse and wonderful city with so many hidden gems. I could spend a lifetime here and not even scratch the surface. However, I do make it a point to know of all the good panaderias (bakeries) in my neighborhood because that is a factor in my quality of life. Ha!
Manila is a massive concrete jungle and traffic is atrocious, however, we live just a short drive from the mountainous jungle and gorgeous beaches. I’ll happily take an endless summer in the city with access to mountains and beaches, over fall and winter any day.
Our family has grown up in here, so Manila really is home. With each new stage of life we moved until we found a place that we could settle into and call our own. Because we are here on an expat (expatriate or overseas) assignment, we did not buy a home. Not going to lie, sometimes I feel like we’re behind on the American dream because we don’t own a home. And then I remember that we are living our dream — it’s just in another country with another way of life.
When we were viewing different houses to rent I immediately knew our current home was the one. The large open windows throughout the house drenched most spaces in natural light. Our Piña Home is built in such a way that light floods in but keeps heat out, it’s fabulous. Natural light and open space is a major tenant for my happiness. I decided not to put curtains on any windows downstairs because what a shame it would be to lose the connection with our natural surroundings. Plus, it wasn’t necessary as no one walks around naked down there and our neighbors can’t see in anyway!
One of the incredible gifts of living abroad is being immersed in a new culture and a new way of life. I am particularly fond of Philippine handicrafts and textiles so the access to inspirational finds is everywhere! We may not have Target but we most likely have the basket maker who supplies Target. I am not joking, so many of the baskets found at Target, West Elm and Pottery Barn are exported from a city just two hours north of us called Pampanga. The excitement of an open air market or the thrill of watching an artisan craft with rattan never ceases to amaze me.
Another bonus of living in the Philippines is having an upholsterer come to your home. I recently had our second-hand couch reupholstered for around 160 USD and that includes the fabric and trips to my home for measuring and choosing materials. Since I have a platform online I was able to blog about my experience with the small company and now they have access to a whole new market and are booked months out.
Among my favorite spots in the house is my room — specifically my 4 poster bed. My friend found a roadside workshop that upcycled wood shipping crates into furniture. I had my bed and my kids bunk beds made there. They also delivered and assembled them in my house, which is yet another major perk of living here.
I should also mention that while I love tropical weather, we also have our trade-offs. For example: bugs. Dengue (a sickness transmitted by mosquito) is something people in the Philippines and Manila worry about constantly. I don’t worry about the mosquitos too much myself but I know others do. Seeing a cockroach — called ipis locally — is common place, as well as geckos/lizards. And we constantly have millipedes roam through our downstairs. I think of the bugs and lizards as a tropical tax that I am happily willing to pay.
I think I have always enjoyed creating but never stuck to one pursuit long enough to really master it. When I stopped working outside the house, and did motherhood full time, we coincidentally settled into our home. My home became my canvas and it kept me occupied while spending the day with small children. It allowed me to express myself and my creativity while embracing my role as mom.
When we moved in, I used my Silhouette to make vinyl stickers and wall decals. The numbers on the stairs are in Filipino to help us learn to count. The wall paper in the kids art section and at my desk were also made using my Silhouette cutting machine.
When people ask me about my design style I want to sound cool and say something like, ‘Boho Glam’ or ‘Eclectic’ but in reality my answer is, cheap and locally inspired. Buying second hand and gently used is the way to go in my book. With all the online Facebook groups and market places there are always absolutely affordable ways to find great pieces to fill your home.
Living abroad gives me a sense of wonder — particularly in the area of home decor and handicrafts. I am particularly fond of baskets, and Manila is the motherland of baskets. I like using woven chicken cages as toy baskets, market baskets to hold blankets — pretty much anything with a basket shape I will love. Baskets here are well crafted and so affordable; the most expensive basket I own from the Philippines was less than $20 USD, and average price is $5-8 USD.
My heart is also tethered to the textiles of the Philippines. Traveling to different weaving communities to see how the textiles are created gives me great pleasure and attachment. I love using local items to connect with our new home country, and I love to fill my home with them.
As we’ve lived here, we’ve certainly adopted a few Filippino ways of doing things. For example, I don’t flush my toilet paper down the toilet anymore. Here, it is customary to throw your toilet in a trash bin located near the toilet because septic tanks are used here and pipes get clogged very easily. To any non-Filipino readers this might sound foreign, but when I realized it was now habit for me, it was a turning point in my Manila life, and the point I realized I had fully embraced living here. When we visit the US during the summers I have to remind myself to flush my tissue down the toilet.
Speaking of toilets, most nice bathrooms have a hand hose or hand bidet attached to the side and we have all become fans of this practice. My kids can’t poop without a hand hose, they are seriously the best. We will most definitely have a hand hose on every toilet in our house whereever we move.
Filipino families are extremely close and spending Sunday dinners, birthday celebrations, and most holidays together is commonplace. The family unit is fundamental to Filipino culture. Living in Asia has taught me to revere senior citizens in a way I never would have unless I lived here. My perspective on aging parents has absolutely shifted. It is common that multiple families live in one home together, to take care and live with aging parents. After seeing this cultural family practice, it makes me think I may never be comfortable seeing my mom in a homecare facility.
Another cultural difference: Rice is life in the Philippines so we eat more rice than we ever would in America. I am still trying to lose my rice belly.
Living so far from our home country requires long travel — 36 hours — and a years’ worth of visits crammed into a matter of weeks. Because we only travel home once a year ,there is a massive buildup for our visits. Who are we staying with? How long are we staying? And we feel a lot of pressure while traveling to make sure our kids “act normal,” even if their schedules are completely opposite and any routine is thrown out the window.
I used to stress so much that my family wouldn’t really get to know who my children are as people and vice versa, but how fortunate we are to live in an era when communication and technology can keep those relationships nurtured.
Living abroad doesn’t feel like a sacrifice for our family but a gift. I love learning and want to instill a global mindset in my children and myself, and living abroad is the best way we can do that. It fills my heart that our children will grow up with two different cultures instead of one. They see families live in different ways and hopefully have the learn that varied life experiences are all valuable. My hope is that a global outlook will allow them to see beyond one country, one set of politics, and challenge them to do good. Not just for themselves or their own country, but for the world.
Third culture kids can struggle with personal identity but I believe the value of a lived experience overseas outweighs that. My children were born and have lived their whole lives in the Philippines but they will never be seen as Filipino, they will always be seen as ‘foreigners’. I haven’t quite come to grips with all the cultural nuance involved in the situation but it is something I think deeply about often. And I know my kids feel they are part Filipino, even if they don’t have the passport to prove it.
I feel most like myself when I am abroad. Every day I learn something new. It might be a word, food or cultural lesson, but I know that every day I will learn. Living in another country and culture different than my own feels expansive and encourages continuous growth.
I sometimes get the feeling that family or friends view me as unAmerican or perhaps that I don’t love America enough, but the truth is, I love both countries — a lot! I love America because it is my home country and I enjoyed my childhood and life I had in America, but I also really love the Philippines and have spent most of my adult life here. For the most part, it’s the only place we’ve been a family and so to me, it’s our family’s home country. What else could it be?
I am a great outside mom. I thoroughly enjoy being outside with my kids exploring museums, parks, mountains, malls, pretty much anything out of my house. Our home is definitely a nest that we all enjoy but I am burnt out on pretend play. No more light saber battles please. Being outside is really when I feel on top of my game and most connected to my kids. Manila and the greater metropolitan area has so much to explore; the options are endless.
Oh man, I really loved breast feeding and squeezing chubby little thighs while we rocked in our rattan rocking chair. I miss my babies already. I certainly don’t want any more of my own, but traveling back in time to hang out with my kids for one day when they were little would make me so very happy. Could you imagine getting to hang out with one of your children again when they were 18 months? How fun would that be! I wish someone had told me how many butts I would wipe. There was a stage in my motherhood when I was wiping F O U R butts. You read that right, my butt and then 3 other small children’s butts. Parenthood = so many bodily fluids.
I wish someone had told me how helpful therapy is. Communities can be very quick to refer parenting books or philosophy but heaven forbid we recommend trained professionals who make it their career to help you. Why don’t we talk about therapy more openly, especially when it comes to parenting and kids? We spent an entire year taking our two oldest boys to therapy multiple times a week. It was the most tiring year of my life to date but it is the best parenting decision we have ever made.
I hope my children remember dance parties, swimming and laughter from this home. I pray that I have ingrained in them the ability to say sorry and try again. Parenthood has taught me to be forever grateful for each new sunrise and sunset. I don’t think there is anything I want them to forget. We yell and we make mistakes big time but that is all part of learning. I hope they see us as humans trying to do our best.
Thank you, Amber!
Reading this post made me want to buy a plane ticket and spend a week or two wandering the streets of Manilla. I want to eat all the food and try all the panaderias. And I loved seeing the locally made touches in her home. Those woven dining chairs are amazing! And all of the baskets everywhere add so much texture and interest and charm. How lucky to get to source so many of those things from the artisans that craft them.
I appreciated when Amber said that she couldn’t think of anything she wanted her kids to forget and that losing your temper and arguing and making mistakes is all part of being a parent and being a human. “I hope they see us as humans trying to do our best,” is such a lovely sentiment that applies to parenting, for sure, but also feels really relevant to the world we live in now. So many humans making the best choices they know how to and trying to do their best. It’s a simple statement, but a really powerful one.
Do you think you could ever live outside of your home country? What would you miss most of all? What would seem exciting to you about living abroad? Where would you want to go?
Photos Credits to Amber, Sheila Catilo and Jeff and Lisa Photography. You can follow Amber on Instagram here or check out her blog. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.
Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at [email protected]