Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Obligatory Christmas Post

Christmas in the Philippines: the biggest holiday and most festive time of the year. I suppose I have two opinions about it, the first being - what about Muslims and other non-Christians? Aren’t we alienating them and thus sowing the seeds of discontent? And then the other is, in the States, we pretend to have this big separation between Church and State, when in fact my elementary school holidays were spent making Christmas decorations in the classroom and having Christmas programs and so forth, members of other religions be hanged. So really, the Philippines is just being less hypocritical about celebrating the holidays of their most predominant religious group. Let’s face it: in a country of 90 million, almost 100% of the population is Catholic; why not be upfront about celebrating?

Being non-Christian but nonetheless celebrating Christmas in the tradition of my no-longer-practicing Catholic family are two opposing things to most Filipinos. It is, however, common in the United States. I feel like, for many families but certainly not all, marking the Christian holidays has become a sort of cellular habit, ingrained not in faith but in traditions that no longer hold gravity. For many, Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus, but being with family and loved ones and being able to give gifts that at other times of the year would be somehow inappropriate. I don’t believe this is bad or hypocritical in and of itself, but it’s just not a religious observance. The Christmas season also inspires a feeling of charity, forgiveness and good will that should actually be in place throughout the year, indeed, throughout one’s life regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, and to me, the fact that it largely isn’t and such sentiments are only “Christmas spirit” gives the atmosphere of the season an air of falsehood in the United States that I find distasteful.

I am not missing home today more than on any other day. My family has their Christmas, exchange of gifts, turkey, arguments, accusations, liquor, with little fanfare or feigned Christian feeling, which suits me. The fact is that the ones we celebrate with all live within 1-20 miles of each other, and we see each other quite regularly. Christmas is just like all other family gatherings, except it happens with a lot of wrapping paper and uncomfortable “nice” clothes. I won’t be there, and that’s okay the same way it’s okay that I haven’t been there for the last four and a half months, and won’t be there for the next twenty three. Sort of a distant missing, but nothing seasonally disproportionate.

I don’t really know how today and tomorrow will be going. I will just do as I’m told and see how my host family celebrates. I expect that it’s with a lot of food, like all things Filipino. What I do know, at the very least, is that the Filipino sense of Christmas is a sincere one, and that Filipinos are, no matter what else, always trying to be the best Christians that they can be, with a welcome on their lips and, best of all, without agenda.

A Note on Serving in the Peace Corps as a Volunteer of Color

The volunteer of color faces a unique set of challenges in the Peace Corps. He or she faces stereotypes and misconceptions both virulent and baffling; he or she must constantly defend his or her credibility as an American, or, indeed, the very fact that he or she is an American; he or she might not receive much in the way of support or understanding from his or her fellow PCVs who are white. I knew all of this at the outset of my application process; frankly, I knew this not about just the Peace Corps but about life in general. Those aforementioned challenges are not and were not new to me, but I knew they would take on a new context when I chose to serve, and I knew it would become part of my job to try to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions of people of color from the US at my post.

I believe my experience in the Philippines has been fairly light in terms of how my racial identity is perceived, especially in comparison to other minorities or people of color serving in other Peace Corps countries. As a mixed person whose ethnicity is ambiguous, I have been able to blend in insofar as people don’t stare at me much; if they do, they’re figuring out something about my face, something they can’t place. Many have mistaken me for mestiza – half Filipino, half white – which is pretty much as close as anyone has ever guessed for my ethnicity. Marketplace anonymity is, of course, shattered when I speak English, or, more accurately, when I can’t speak or understand Cebuano. I lead a life without being hassled overmuch, which I appreciate. When I am walking with Connie or Cassie or Sean, I can say I am decidedly more uncomfortable. People stare, people say things that we consider rude, people generally think they have a right to your person that they do not, and that’s just to the white people. When I am with them, I feel like I am being judged harshly for keeping their company, much like the Filipinas who take up with fat old white men are judged in Dumaguete. And then, in the context of being introduced or being involved in a social gathering, the white volunteers are much more celebrated, while I am given only a cursory nod or sometimes ignored altogether, despite the fact that I am here in the exact same capacity as they are. This has made my companions possibly more uncomfortable than me, for which I give them sensitivity credits. But ultimately, I don’t spend much time with them at all, and the things I face without white accompaniment are more prevalent and more sigh-inducing.

Those things: being asked where I’m from, despite saying “The United States” already. Being told I look Indian or that I must be Indian or from India. In one particular case, one woman telling me that I was actually not what I said I was, but Latina. Being told I am not a pure American especially rankles.

Here’s the secret though: I have been told all these things since I was a very, very small child. Ignorant people in the United States had made growing up brown in whiteland a very difficult thing for a long time. If I am inwardly irritated by such comments or penetrating questions about my ethnicity, it’s not because Filipinos are saying them to me. It’s because I’ve been fielding such comments for over twenty years, and, indeed, in the States I navigated much more negative comments, comments designed specifically to hurt me or stated by those oblivious to how such comments punched me in the chest. I have been called every racial slur you can think of (ambiguous ethnicity not conducive to finding the proper insult), I have been the subject of racial bullying, I have been the victim of racial discrimination. But these are obvious forms of racism. Much worse, I think, are people who don’t think what they do is racist, or how institutions and practices and much of all Western society are permeated with racism. It’s easy to say “don’t you dare call me the N-word.” It’s much more difficult to explain to someone why you don’t appreciate being called “the perfect Asian student” or that people of color have the right to be called what they choose, and not what white people ascribe to them.

I believe that in coming to the Philippines, I got off light. Though it is sometimes wearying, having to tell people that I am indeed American and not Indian, not even Indian American (or American Indian, in fact), is not a terrible burden to bear. And when faced with the bald statement that I’m not pure American, I try to keep my irritation on the inside and explain that anyone born in the United States is a pure American, that people can become naturalized citizens and are also pure Americans, and that white people more than anyone else in the United States were long ago (or sometimes not so long ago) immigrants themselves, from Europe. There are, in fact, groups Filipino Americans in Louisiana who came before the turn of the 19th century, thereby making them 10th or 11th generation Americans, which is more than many of the white Americans that currently populate the US can boast, since many of them came a hundred years later. I know that some people think my “Americanness” is legitimized by my having a white father, but that is tempered by having a Thai mother; she makes me “not American.” I do not like that my white side gives me credibility, and I do not like that my Thai side is dismissed as being unacceptably not American. I want to be taken and appreciated (or reviled, if that’s how it’s going to be) for my own merits. I suppose this is the ongoing project of any person of color having to navigate the labyrinth of white privilege and racism.

I don’t know how volunteers of color in other places, namely Eastern Europe and Central Asia, do it. I was very close to being sent there, and I like to think that I could have persevered through difficult times, but it seems like it would be so difficult as to be almost unbearable. Syd tells me some of her companions in Armenia left early because of how difficult it was to be volunteers of color there. Here, I am not called names. I am not in danger. I lead a comfortable life of some anonymity. Could be worse things for a brown girl in the Peace Corps.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

On the Occasion of Thanksgiving

It’s that time of year: at home I imagine the air is crisp and brisk, smelling of autumn. Perhaps the citizens of my oft-maligned town can see the products of their exhalations, perhaps the first hints of frost are creeping along the tenacious flora, stopping now the season’s progress. The fall season by now has turned inexorably toward winter; sweaters are not optional, once-bright leaves in varying colors are now only brittle, curling brown blueprints of what they were, and the cautious are contemplating the installation of snow tires, tucked into a corner in the garage during the optimism of spring. And somewhere, deep in the village of Hamburg, three generations of Sawerses are arguing over semantics and opinions, cursing each other and their helpings of dark meat, descending somehow all at once into gluttony, irritation and ennui.

I, however, am exempted from such doubtlessly quote-worthy revelry on account of my Peace Corps service in a country which has probably never known the bite of frost outside Baguio. But, far from my ornery clan, fractured as we are by geography, by stubbornness, by spite and by guile, I can find the grace in this blood-soaked holiday. With my gratitude I honor not the genocidal tendencies of righteous Europeans who came to North American shores to plunder the livelihoods of those who already lived there, but the spirit of all those things for which I am grateful this year.

I am grateful to have completed a degree in creative writing from Binghamton University. I am grateful to have had talented and intelligent professors for the duration there. I am grateful to have been given the strength and discipline to adhere to a diet which has improved my life and probably saved it. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to serve both my country and the Philippines in the United States Peace Corps. I am grateful to have as my counterpart a kind, compassionate, knowledgeable woman who works hard at a thankless job and treats her three hundred students’ educations with the utmost respect. I am grateful to have been placed on an island with some of the finest people I could ever ask to serve alongside. I am grateful to have bright students whose desire to learn moves me beyond words. I am grateful to my family and friends all over the world who have now and always supported me despite my myriad faults. I am grateful I have a host family who welcomed me into their home and took care with my dietary needs though they did not have to. I am grateful to have a sound mind, a ready pen, and a body whose faults did not prove insurmountable. I am grateful for halo-halo, tapioca, yellow mango, merienda, mountains in the distance, shade, electric fans, pieces of mail, enough pesos in my pocket, text messaging, passable internet, fine batchmates, comfortable shoes, good literature, a twenty minute ride to Inopacan, the prospect of travel. I am grateful for the wisdom and foresight to have made the choices I’ve made over the past few years which have brought me here. Mostly, I am grateful that I can survey my life as it has transpired and smile.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Black, Ulcerated Bowel of America

I come from Hamburg, New York, a town fifteen miles south of Buffalo. Buffalo, an All America city, was once the beating heart of American industry. It once sustained the northeast’s entire economy, it gave birth to Ford Automobiles and nurtured Mark Twain. Hamburg, on the other hand, settled unsurprisingly by dour Germans in the 19th century after driving out Erie Indians, has heretofore nurtured only the delusion that it invented the hamburger, a delusion still causing misplaced pride in the Hamburg citizenry today. As I grew older and more restless, too brown to continue bumping up against the borders of Western New York, I saw Buffalo fall into ruin, its once-great buildings one by one razed “for progress.” But progress never came, only dilapidation and suddenly empty lots. I left for an even worse city for college, chose an exponentially better one for study abroad, and when I graduated I aimed to leave Buffalo for years at a time by joining the Peace Corps. And on my first day in my official capacity as a TEFL education volunteer at Hilongos National Vocational School on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, I led my first year high school students in a pronunciation drill: “The lady passenger’s anger toward the proud stranger decreased her hunger for a hamburger.”

Holy Zeus it was like a nasal nightmare. A wing sauce and Chiavetta’s horrorshow. Every godforsaken vowel emphasized and elongated, every syllable a reminder that I come from possibly the most mockable and unfortunate city in the fifty United States.

When those unsuspecting students said “hamburger” as if they were from Hamburg, I felt a strange mixture of pride and shame. I’ve long defended the hard hit vowels of my pirate accent from the scorn of downstaters, Long Islanders, and other such aurally offensive vermin, but I found myself introspective on the subject of accents and “proper” pronunciation when given the rather staggering task of teaching students to speak like me.

The perpetual feeling of being an underdog is inherent in the Buffalonian; we are a race accustomed to losing Stanley Cups and Super Bowls, getting buried under seven feet of snow overnight and still having to go to work in the morning, watching our city sink ever further into dereliction, neglect and economic despair. So we foam at the mouth when questioned about the propriety of “pop” over “soda,” “wings” over the ever-reviled “buffalo wings,” just to salvage a little dignity in the face of our crippled way of life. At home I can feel oppressed by soft vowels not pronounced through the sinus cavity, get my hackles up over every errant “soda,” but here I introduce myself and hear only the grating “a” in my first name, the legacy of Western New York something I can’t eradicate from my speech.

So when, in the course of my first day in the classroom in Hilongos, two hundred and forty rapt Filipino students dutifully parroted back that same harsh “a” sound as prompted, I felt I should apologize for the displeasing sounds coming out of my face. That old inferiority complex was manifesting itself suddenly in actual feelings of inferiority rather than the usual Napolean-esque posturing of the threatened 716er. I began to doubt the “correctness” of my speech patterns. Despite certain personal elitist leanings, the way I speak is no more valid than any other regional accent in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean. Why should I take the soft Filipino vowels and transform them into bitter, acrid shadows of themselves just because I can say with fair confidence that I’m a native speaker of English?

“We want your accent,” my Filipino colleagues say. “We want the students to speak just like you.” So that is their wish. Not just that I help with the monumental task of fluency, but that by osmosis I pass along these vowels, this vernacular, this dogged sense of industrial and spiritual decay.

I imagine these clear-faced children down in a bar with an Irish name on the southside of Buffalo, tipping back Labatts with the old boys, who haven’t been to work since the steel plant closed a few decades back. They complain about the ball and chain and the Bills, but the Bills still manage to keep their loyalty. They eat whatever’s come out of the deep fryer in the back, they narrowly avoid a DWI on the way home, and when they wake up in the morning there’s frost on the ground and they don’t notice the very deep blue of Lake Erie and the sunbeams shining along that unending horizon.

All creatures on this earth are narrow things, defined by the places they’ve been, the sins they’ve committed, the others they’ve known, loved, crossed. I can get as far from home as it is possible to get, but Buffalo’s hard steel cityscape still looms grey as the backdrop of my life. It’s best, of course, in the summer and fall, when colors haven’t yet withered under the influence of lake-effect weather, but it’s never summer for very long and I don’t last there much longer myself. It’s home because somehow we landed there a century ago and made it familiar, it’s home because I was born there, and so was my father and his father, it’s home because when I speak, Buffalo still asserts itself like a patient but persistent suitor. Maybe it’s a dying city and the rest of Western New York should blow away with it, but there are too many of us whose tongues remember the sharp seams of words, living there on the border. In the end is it not the worst fate to be from Buffalo, and it’s not the worst fate to be taught to speak by one of Buffalo’s far-flung daughters.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

We can, we can make a difference

I woke up today a Peace Corps Volunteer.

We finally swore in after these long, difficult three months. And now we're parting ways for our respective permanent sites.

One thing that was amazing to experience this past week was watching President-Elect Obama get on stage at Grant Park. The mood here, at the conference, was overwhelming joy. We must have a unique experience; we are likely the only Peace Corps batch all together for the occasion. I cannot articulate the depth of my joy, so all I will say is "Yes, we did." And so we will continue to do.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Goodbye Dumaguete, I've got to go

One year ago today I was nominated for a June departure to Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa. I have come through so much to be where I am today: a week away from swearing as a Peace Corps volunteer with the 267th batch of volunteers in the Philippines. I feel like my personal strides have mirrored my Peace Corps progress somehow. I was diagnosed with this autoimmune disease just as I was sending in my medical kit in December, and as I struggled to navigate and control my emotions around such a difficult diagnosis, a lifelong ailment that I could only control through strict dietary discipline, I struggled too to prove I was medically fit to join Peace Corps, that my mind was strong enough to overcome the failures of my broken body and strive regardless of my physical shortcomings. I had to prove to myself and to the Peace Corps that I could take care of my own health without faltering, and I finally grew more comfortable and less angry with my fate as a gluten intolerant just as I achieved medical clearance. Medical clearance came at about the same time I was awarded the Portia Dunham award in fiction from my university. I had to mount a crusade against a Peace Corps placement which would have insured my failure just as I was coming into the final assignments of my senior year, and I was placed to my immune system’s satisfaction, here in the Philippines, about the same time that I graduated. I was coming out the victor in everything I had striven so hard for: Peace Corps, my health, my fiction, my degree. And while I’ve been training here, I have been able to overcome despair, bitterness and frustration from many sides, such that I barely remember the sensation of having to force myself through to the next moment without losing control of my motivation, my emotions, my body, my hopes. Some days I can’t fathom how long the next two years in Leyte will be, but today is a big day for me. It’s a year of having been in the application process and training and coming out triumphant at every turn. It’s a year of personal gain and growth and healing. It’s a year where I’ve felt intense motivation for the work I’ve chosen in fiction. I breathe: mind over matter.

In non-overarching metaphor news, I achieved a score of intermediate-mid on my Language Proficiency Interview. There are three sections, novice, intermediate, advanced, and within each there are three tiers, low, mid, high. Beyond that there is superior, which they really don’t award people, and then native speaker. A few people in Dumaguete achieved intermediate-high and two people achieved advanced-low. I’m very pleased with my score, with the scores of all of those in my cluster, and we’ve made our teacher proud, which I consider possibly the most important thing. Maybe I’ll never get much better than that because of the nature of my job and the Philippines, but this is tangible evidence of something I worked for during training. This is the fruit of the four hours per day I spent in class and the countless hours of homework and study I did outside of class.

So this is it for those of us who came to Dumaguete and weren’t assigned here. Early tomorrow morning we’ll leave for a conference in Bacolod, swear in as volunteers on the 7th, and head into this two year experience we’ve been waiting so impatiently for. Here now, a pictoral ode to my cluster, training and Dumaguete.

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Lechon. It's just not a party without one.

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The awesome Bantayan cluster. That's Sean, May, our teacher, Syd, me, Spiderman (or Denzel, Jessica's host nephew, who can't resist a picture), Dan and Sheryll. Bringing up the attractiveness statistics of Peace Corps volunteers everywhere.

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Lynn of the Casa Miani group, presenting something I only wish I could eat, yesterday at the handog.

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The cathedral. Built in 1754, the oldest and tallest Spanish church on Negros

old-timey firetruck

Happy Fred's on the Boulevard. I never went because it's always full of tambok og puting nga mga lalaki, but the name made me think of my grandpa. Hi Grandpa!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the Impressive Ingenuity of Less Interesting Philippine Fauna

Ants. Like a nosy neighbor, they will expose every weakness in your tidiness, every flaw in your careful Ziplocking, every distraction that yielded a moment’s inattention to crumbling foodstuffs. Into the life you thought you’d sealed so meticulously they soldier, a line of steadfast, tireless marchers searching out all the suspect morsels and convenient crannies that could be exploited for their own gains. Case #19,284,651,028: In my extensive toilet kit I included a small tube containing those tools which would someday help me repair my glasses. After two months here, I had reason to use the tiny screwdriver within, not for my glasses but for my death-rattling hard drive, and when I dug around to find the tube, what I found was a new ant colony. They had bitten through this hard plastic tube and lain eggs in the bottom. The hypothesis was that because ants are attracted to magnetic fields, perhaps they could not resist the sensual pull of a tiny screwdriver, but upon inspection I noted that they couldn’t care less about that piece of metal workmanship. In fact they seemed to avoid it like it was the smelly girl in a small class. They did nothing but attend to those eggs nesting in the bottom of my tube. Because I am mean-spirited and often cruel, I drove them out, killed their young and attempted to salvage what was left of my admittedly crude and now destroyed eyeglass repair kit. But they were not to be defeated. The determination, the ambition, the sheer pluck of the ant tribe is unrivaled. They came back, over hours and hours their numbers did not dwindle and their drive did not wane though I had lain waste to their home and their comrades. I admired them, I respected them, but I couldn’t live with them. I surrendered. I threw that tube and its contents, minus the tiny screwdriver, into the garbage, and presume they are living their ordered, pestilent lives in a quaint, homey sewage drain somewhere that’s else.

Rats are a less respectable lower lifeform. They come in the night like all your doubts and shames plaguing you, except instead of your strength and dignity, they ravage things you were keeping, things you can understand would tempt the appetite of a wee beastie, and things you can’t imagine could possibly appeal even to the starving. Upon my arrival here, I stashed many things in my closet, and had no cause to revisit them until last month when I visited my permanent site. Though I knew the rats were in there because they kept me up at night with their taunting scratches, I thought my things were safe. More fool I. When I opened that closet door, which I’d taped shut in a futile attempt to keep those little bastards out, I found that they’d ripped open my bags of Jolly Ranchers that I was keeping in case of children. Melted Jolly Rancher goo was all over everything, most of which I was able to salvage, but my crippled volunteer handbook I bade a regretful farewell. This, I thought, was the last of my travails with rats. They could make their home in my closet, but they had nothing more to consume, so once again I put their residence amongst my belongings out of my mind. Tonight I had reason again to dig around in my toilet kit, where I found they’d bitten through the mesh of one pocket, made off with several foil packets of Advil Cold & Sinus, and proceeded, I assume, to get extremely high off them. I found the discarded packets littering the floor, each pill removed apparently with both care and zeal. I can’t really imagine the effects of dozens of Advil Cold & Sinus pills, my favorite form of medication for ills from which I often suffer, I might add, on just a few rats. Back home, pharmacies now make you show your license and sign a release form just to buy Advil Cold & Sinus. Turns out any bit-rate drug addict who barely passed chemistry can make meth out of enough of it. Do rats like to party, I wonder, and are they jonesing for more? Or are they dead and waiting to stink up my bedroom? The final insult, among my empty, half-eaten stash of Ziploc bags and ragged, chewed toilet kit, was my Diva Cup. My silicone savior, my fearless feminine fanny fortress, had also fallen victim to the insatiable appetites of enemy rodentia. I feel only smug satisfaction that they have likely suffered a foamy, bleeding, drawn-out death by overdose.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Classics: books you want to have read without having to read them. I’ve spent enough time laboring over tiresome and painful materials written by such authors as Henry Fielding, Aphra Behn, Gustave Flaubert, Daniel Defoe and more to be wary of the term “classics.” I often thought in the past that while it would be nice and gratifying to my intellectual ego to catch many literary references plucked from the pages of the classics, my emotional well-being could be preserved greatly by not being subjected to the tedium of actually reading them.

But ask me how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre since I was ten. Ask Marlene how quickly I reread it when I found a tattered copy discarded in a hostel outside of Galway. Ask me how the last conversation between Jane and Mr. Rochester goes, ask me what Charlotte Bronte’s pen name was, ask me anything you want about that book and I will know the answer. It’s one of the greatest books of all time, a work of art unhindered by its age. What about The Picture of Dorian Gray? How could I refuse? And after so many rave reviews of Pride and Prejudice by a certain Jessie last year, cloistered and insular as we were in Hayes, I bought it, packed it, and two days ago finished it to my great satisfaction.

I’m still suspicious of the classics. I’ve been burned by Henry James, John Milton, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton. But what about the E. M. Forsters in there, the Mark Twains, the A.A Milnes, J.R.R Tolkiens and C.S. Lewises? Though contemporary fiction may be my preferred diet, I can't ignore the greats of the past.

For all of that, there’s Some of you have already been aware of its existence for some time, and others like me are just shaking its golden hand for the first time. It’s a database of thousands of books which are so old they are no longer copyrighted. brings these books into the computers and minds of people like me who are 1) too lazy to buy or borrow a book, 2) impatient and want it now or 3) really far from a good selection of books written in English. Last night I saved twenty-five books and I don’t expect they’ll be the last I mine from this resource. I’d run out of reading material and was in a state of quiet panic. I knew you could get some classics online for free, so decided to look for more. Hello,

Currently starting on The Call of the Wild. I’ve got the other most important London, three more Austen novels, six Dumas novels whose order of sequence is unnecessarily difficult to decipher, a couple of Dickens novels that I’ll attempt to work through though I’ve never been successful before, a Tolstoy and a Dostoevsky for posterity, Homer’s epics, another Bronte sister, Twain, Eliot, Hesse, Hawthorne and Burnett. Of course I prefer the flip of the page and the smell of a book long on a shelf, the crisp print on cool, bound sheets, the weight of escapism contained in my hands, but what I’ve got, this virtual paper, will suffice in the circumstances. In actual book form I have almost twenty mostly contemporary novels coming at me from the States to look forward to, and I’m running a list on the side of this blog of books I’ve read while here. Three down, ~50 to go. In reading we become better writers, and I must learn from the old masters as well as the new.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

12 Minutes of Gold

Thanks for saying it, Colin Powell: There is nothing wrong with being Muslim in America.

Among all the other strong and truthful assertions in this interview, Powell gives a powerful and moving rebuke to those who would have voters believe that a Muslim cannot be and will never be American. Barack Obama is a Christian, Powell says, but if he were a Muslim, so what? Powell asks: should a seven or eight year old American Muslim child not dream of being President of the United States? Muslims can die for our country, but not lead it? Republican politicians have been demonizing and otherizing those of the Islamic faith for too long. This has been the refrain of many sane Americans for as long as Obama has been campaigning, but no political figure before Powell has been willing to address it publicly. I have admired Powell since he had the courage and dignity to step down from his position as Secretary of State in light of the deceptions perpetrated during this vile war; he is a man of integrity deserving of our esteem. His endorsement of Barack Obama, for the reasons he has given in the interview above, is a boon for this campaign and this candidate, and I can only hope that those undecided voters who have heretofore supported and admired Colin Powell as I have will sincerely meditate on the wisdom of voting for Barack Obama instead of paying heed to the desperate attempts of a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, war-mongering madman to discredit and demonize his opponent.

This is solely my opinion and not that of the Peace Corps or the US government.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Thor's Righteous Fury

Last night around 1 am I woke to the most intense storm I have ever experienced. The rain was deafening and the lightning quick and close, each answering thunderbolt shaking the foundation of this concrete house. I lay awake imagining the force of each in combination would rend the house in two, and I didn't even get a warning text from John Borja.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Reflections on Teaching in Dumaguete

All of us in Dumaguete have really been feeling the burn of training over the past few (grueling) weeks. Turns out Peace Corps Philippines has one of the world’s longest pre-service training periods, and this is a fairly new development. Why they would want exhausted and increasingly disgruntled trainees is beyond me, but the pressure should ease fairly soon as training winds down and we prepare for the big move.

My students and I have just recently begun to have a freer relationship with each other. Despite the rocky start in technical training and during practicum, I’ve been able to have a positive experience lately and I can almost let myself believe that I may have reached some students in some way, even if it wasn’t in “learning English.” I don’t really think I could have made a true difference in language with them in so short a time, but I received some notes from students my last two days with them that were really appreciative of a few of my techniques. It was gratifying to know that I hadn’t employed the ideas I’d had in vain and that students could gain from those ideas. I hope that they can take with them the knowledge that a teacher can and will give you patient, individual attention and that questions will be met with care and thought.

One of the goals of Peace Corps is that through our work, we can dispel some stereotypes of Americans and people from our communities can understand Americans better. This is not, in my opinion the most important of Peace Corps’ goals, but it’s one I face as a person of color. Of course one of the stereotypes of Americans is that we are all white. While I’ve been teaching here in Dumaguete, no student has asked me my ethnicity or put me on the defensive about my nationality the way adults have. I don’t know how it will be in Hilongos, but that has been something I’ve really appreciated. Maybe another thing these students can take from my time with them is that not all Americans are white and we are still legitimate Americans. From talking with other Asian-American volunteers, I know that no matter how long I stay here, I will still face confusion and even rejection on a racial level, but I’m heartened by these students’ reaction to me and cautiously hopeful that my students in Hilongos will be similar. If not, I can spend the next two years proving my legitimacy. My American street cred.

I wish I’d had my camera on me on Thursday, but my batteries were dead. At the end of my second class, the students put on a despedida, a farewell show, for me, and it was really touching that they’d do all this work and put on a whole show for me, complete with guitars, drums, karaoke machine. Of course I’ve already mentioned how musical a people the Filipinos are, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised when they sang nine songs, two in Cebuano, and did two dances. The nature of dancing here has not been something I’ve written about yet because I didn’t quite know how. Basically, at any kind of celebration, any at all, there will be many dances, and they’re very dirty. The dancers could be the most conservative people you know in a conservative country, but a dance comes on and they’re gyrating and undulating and rubbing on each other and being generally very scandalous. This happens in school, church, wherever. I’m not kidding. So that was the first dance they danced for me. The second dance, called “Papaya,” is absolutely the opposite, a kind of dance remniscient of the white man shuffle as immortalized in the fine Will Smith feature Hitch. You just point with your fingers to the left, to the right, up, down and then shake them a little bit. I suspect rhythmless, non-Filipino influence for this particular travesty, and of course it was the only dance fit for me, a rhythmless non-Filipino, to be cajoled into performing. So they dragged me up there, and with two much more talented students flanking me, I did this finger pointing dance in front of forty-five other students and my co-teacher, not to mention my technical trainer, Rustum, who was there evaluating my performance as a teacher. Luckily he couldn’t have evaluated me on my dance technique because another student soon dragged him up there to join us. This would be funnier to those reading if you knew Rustum, whose most assumed pose is one where he hides half his face behind his hands and looks generally like a shy mouse. Many pictures were taken on many mobile phones and in twenty years, maybe they won’t know my name or what I taught them about metaphors, but they’ll remember how I managed to butcher even the Papaya dance.

Yesterday I was supposed to teach at Negros Oriental National High School for the last time, but there was some confusion as to whether or not class was actually happening, so I spent my two class periods just hanging around my students. I got one more mini despidida in each class and gave out the pasalubong (thinking of you gifts, generally food) I’d brought them. I have been surprised at how well they seem to have enjoyed my time with them, surprised and gratified, and I am optimistic about my future as a teacher in a way I couldn’t be when I first started this venture. Teaching is a performance, it’s the smile you put on and energy you put out even when you don’t think you have it in you, every single day, every single class period. And the reward you get is the respect and esteem of your colleagues and students, and if you’re very lucky, the knowledge that you helped someone in some small way in the process.

It has only been in the past two weeks that I’ve grown more comfortable and confident inhabiting the role of teacher. Only that recently have I been feeling less like I’m going to melt in front of the class from nerves and more like I’m prepared to give my lesson and elicit positive responses. The nature of practicum is that we are not stable forces in the classroom, so I have always felt that what we give the students, and indeed, the teachers we’re paired with, is not exactly a fair amount of time and energy. We are spread so thinly between our myriad tasks that the students don’t necessarily receive the focus they deserve, and for that I feel like I’ve let them down. I’m moving on to Hilongos just when I’ve finally begun to build a rapport with these students, just in time to feel like I’m leaving them dangling. I feel beholden to them, yet there’s nothing I can do to ease that, and there was never going to be. I was always going to leave Negros Oriental National High School in late October and Dumaguete in November.

Do I still have apprehension about teaching in general? Of course. Am I nervous about starting from scratch with 240 new students come November? Only when I’m breathing. Am I up for the challenge? Always.

a cappella

Less than a quarter of my first class, in a classroom that isn't ours. I love disorganization and miscommunication.

Peace: the most popular Filipino photo pose

Some of my students and me, my last day

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Insert Possibly Obscure Kate Bush Reference Here

On Sunday, Dan, Syd, Sean, Sheryll, Dave, Heather and I took a multicab from Dumaguete through Sibulan and into San Jose, where we proceeded to scale the mountain so we could eventually get to Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes is a national park preserving a pair of crater lakes virtually untouched by human hands. Getting to the park was most of the adventure, if you can call it that. It wasn’t a fun adventure, at any rate. Let me back up: it was fun and scenic to be going up a mountain and being able to see gorgeous untouched flora, the coasts, the mountains, the sea and Cebu in the distance. It was fun the first time our lawnmower engine-powered vehicle stuttered to a stop and we had to get out and push it, running, up the steepest parts of the mountain. It was even fun to repeat it a second time with Sheryll having hopped into the cab at a crucial moment to take quick snapshots of the rest of us scrambling in after her, the cab gaining necessary momentum. It was decidedly less fun when we had to do this seven or eight times and I eventually became a shaking, nauseated mess while other, more vigorous people soldiered on without complaint. After about an hour and a half of this arduous journey up the mountain, we finally got to the park, where I lay out composing myself and focusing on not exposing my breakfast to my batchmates. Marga from batch 266 also caught up with us after a mix up where we accidentally left her in Sibulan, and from there we hiked up the steepest part of the mountain, sans running and sans pushing a multicab, to get to the first of the Twin Lakes: Balinsasayao.

We took in a leisurely lunch that greatly improved my mood and physical capabilities. I thought we were going to hang around the lake a little, maybe swim despite the signs that instructed us not to, but as soon as lunch was over people packed up their things and started on another trek. People don’t like to tell me things in advance, so after some time I asked just what in the hell we were doing instead of enjoying this fine fine lake, and it turned out we were bypassing it entirely in order to spend our time at Lake Danao. Getting there unwounded and alive proved to be my greatest victory of the day; the entire hike was made on slippery and often precarious rocks. I would call my survival a triumph, but mostly it was just a relief. Marga took the wiser route: renting a kayak and coasting most of the way there.

Once we were there, it was amazing. The water was absolutely still and clear. We were the only people there. Barring Syd and Sean, we got into the lake and puttered around, basking in the perfect serenity of the location. Most tourist sites are so teeming with civilization, the bad kind, that one cannot possibly enjoy oneself properly, but here we were isolated, alone and content. I was reminded of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, summer 2005, when we’d gone so early in the morning out of necessity that we were the only ones there. I would have liked to have spent more time at Danao, but I guess my companions got restless, and we soon left the water for a short viewing of where we’d just been from an observatory tower, and then we headed back to Balinsasayao and home. We’d left at 8am, were back in Dumaguete at 3pm, and I managed to feel as if I’d both run myself into the ground and experienced nothing special. It was beautiful and untouched and lovely, but also physically demanding to the point of unpleasantness, which may just cancel each other out. I saw it, I did it, and that’s the end of some experiences, I suppose.

On the way up the mountain, San Jose model farm

Sheryll on some steps that we didn't know would later be hiking foundation. Ironically, the picture taken right before this one has her mid-stumble, a prophecy for the ages


Lake Balinsasayao

Sean and a manstance I presume he deemed sufficiently safe to assume on those rocks

Heather, Syd, Sheryll, Dan and Dave, having finally made it

Dan and the clear waters of Lake Danao

Danao from the observatory

An amazing photo where it looks like I've pissed myself

Monday, October 6, 2008

That Leyte Feeling

So at an ungodly hour on the 28th of September we trundled ourselves and a fraction of our hefty belongings into a bus and traveled to Bacolod to meet our fates. The Peace Corps staff were deprived of torturing us Dumaguete people by an office accident: we learned the locations of our permanent sites almost immediately upon registration because someone mistakenly placed a paper with our site names on it in our registration packets, so we didn't have to wait for the Peace Corps "find your site" game. So that’s my big news: my permanent site is Hilongos, Leyte, in the typhoon belt.

We stayed in Bacolod for the Supervisor’s Conference until Wednesday, October 1st doing extremely dry and exhausting things. I met my supervisor, Mrs. Proserpina V. Rubio, the head of the Communication Arts department at my school, Hilongos National Vocational School. Leyte being all the way in the Eastern Visayas, I feel like we took a camel, answered riddles and sacrificed seven virgins to get there, but we eventually made it there about lunchtime on Thursday.

Hilongos is an intimate coastal town of about 50,000 people, which makes it a large town or small city. I didn’t have time to find any beaches, but I’m assured that there are some. I don’t suppose that there is much going on there, but I’m sure that in what I suspect will be my precious little free time, I will find something to do. Ten out of twelve of us Dumaguete education volunteers were placed on Leyte (although Dan and Megan are technically on Billiran), so I won’t be far from many of those who have become my dear companions these past eight weeks.

My new host mom is known and respected throughout the town. All I have to say is “I’m staying with Vivian,” and people know who I’m talking about and where I will be. She is a very nice woman and is being especially solicitous to my diet needs. She has many siblings, and I met quite a few of them, in particular another teacher at HNVS. My first night there, Mama Vivian took me to a wake service, where I met her sisters and some other people in the town. The wake service was for a 90-year-old neighbor, and mourners were crowded inside and outside the house. The musical aspect of Filipino culture came out in particular relief during the wake; in under forty minutes, those in attendance sang no fewer than eleven songs. Filipinos in general are very accomplished singers and music-makers, and it is not unusual to hear them sing as they go about their business around the house or around town, and they’re very sincere about it. Cynics in America would call the same behavior schizophrenia and cross the street to avoid it, but here an entire busload of people will sing along to soft rock hits on the radio and no one is fazed.

I spent the majority of my time in Hilongos at the school, but managed not to speak to a single student. Hilongos National Vocation School is, as you might imagine, a place where students can learn a useful trade in case they don’t continue their educations in college. Some courses are dressmaking, electronic repair, automotives, IT and furniture and cabinet making. The student population is about 1700, and I will be teaching four first-year classes of varying proficiency in English per day. There are sixty students to a class, which will no doubt prove a challenge in learning names. In addition to my 20 hours per week of teaching, which is spread out between the hours of 7am and 5pm, I have to implement a community project or two during my service, so I’m not exactly seeing the famed Peace Corps down time.

In some bad news, we lost another trainee to family tragedy and Sally fell in the pool at the hotel and is now in Manila awaiting surgery – three pins will be inserted …somewhere and she will spend the rest of the time until swearing-in there in Manila doing rehab. The good news is that she will not be going home because of this, but our cluster will feel like she’s our phantom limb. Luckily her permanent site is her current practicum site here in Dumaguete, so she doesn’t necessarily have to do all the checking out and assessments we had to do for our own.

After so much travel and and so many travails, I am back in Dumaguete with not a single rest day in a couple weeks and only a two hour reprieve in language class. I feel like staging a mutiny because we got two of our Sundays taken from us, and between them an incredibly hectic, exhausting week, but what’s done is done and I have to get ready to start this train on its tracks. Three more weeks of training in Dumaguete, one week of another tedious conference in Bacolod, this time with all of 267 in attendance so at least that will be fun, and then we swear in and these two years will finally commence.

The oldest and tallest Spanish belltower on Leyte is in my town

And I just thought this was really funny

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Apo Analysis

Today, most of the trainees in Dumaguete went to Apo Island on a snorkeling trip.

It was not an ideal day; tendrils of a passing typhoon made the sky and the seas ominous, and our boat ride over was choppy and wet. I had wanted to bring my digital SLR camera, but as I was leaving the house, Keith told me the ride over would be too wet, and he was right. I had a strange experience on those cresting waves though, while my companions battled seasickness and epic splashes. My mind was completely still, unaffected by the crash and slam of our roughshod journey, and I thought: I have had an amazing life. I have made the most of my opportunities, succeeded, done well, thrived. When I reach my mid-twenties, I will have lived most of my twenties outside of the United States and liked it that way. I have written fiction and published it, I have won awards and accolades for it, I have a future in the craft of writing. I even have friends who send me certificates of excellence for being awesome. I was sent to the Philippines, and though some days I have to force myself to make it through the next five minutes, I don’t regret joining Peace Corps and I don’t regret that I was sent here. How could I possibly regret that, when I get to do things like see a volcano in the backdrop of my city every day, go to a waterfall on a whim, island-hop and eat mangoes? Yesterday, I seriously, without doubt, knew that I was going to be here for the next two years, and today my sense of my permanency here only grew stronger. Nothing big, no change or event, just the silent knowledge that I am ready.

Snorkeling was also an incredible experience. I saw beautiful things, and because I’m legally blind without my glasses on, I saw them from a fuzzy distance, bursts of color, light and movement. I imagine I saw the underwater world as a newborn sees the open air one: all things are new, unknowable wonders, impressions, immediate and emotional rather than concrete. For me, there were no hard lines between one coral, one fish, one color and the next. I felt a great sense of peace though I could not make out the beauty of what I was seeing with any precision. All I could hear was the sound of my breath through the snorkel: inhaling from undearneath water, traveling through the tube, filling my mouth, my throat, my lungs, exhaling - the sound of it sharp in my ears. It seemed life-giving in a way I’d only thought of in terms of my heart before. It was elemental to be there, mostly blind, floating above a previously-inconceivable environment, listening to the rhythm by which I lead my life, this life. My own existence suddenly seemed both profound and utterly simple.

My day at Apo ended up not particularly being about the snorkeling. After lunch and an epic battle with coral, I was exhausted and didn’t go on a second snorkeling trip further out, where I knew I would be able to see even less. I managed to sleep sitting up, lying down and even upright and clutching hands with Megan on the rather terrifying boat ride home during which I thought we were definitely going to capsize. I have a hard week ahead of me; I can only describe my feelings on teaching in an analogy in which I am a bad comedian and my students are an unlaughing audience. It’s almost 6pm and I have dinner ahead of me, a community project for which I am absolutely out of my depths to plan and a skit with Sheryll to plan rather independently, both for tomorrow. And, if I knew what was good for me, I’d do my work on Cebuano. I am getting through this week with the knowledge that maybe this time next week I’ll know the location of my permanent site.

Mga girls: Heather, Beth, Megan and Connie

Syd and me

Coasting into harbor

Apo rockface


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Trudging on

The days are long and pass slowly. In general I have nothing to update: I get up at 5.30, get to language class with my cluster at 8, go home for lunch around 11.30, then either have tech training, practicum or medical briefings in the afternoons, then I eat dinner about 7 and go to bed between the awesome hours of 9 and 10. Weekends are short and we still have long tech sessions on Saturday mornings. We are approaching week 5 of training, and the next event to look forward to is at the end of week 6, which is when we learn where we’ll be for our permanent sites. After that, we’re having a conference in Bacolad and then visiting our permanent sites, and after that, it’s a few more weeks of training.

I’ve been here a month now. I’ve been having trouble with being gluten-free, which I think we’ve ironed out, but when I initially went gluten-free I did not become truly well for several months, and now that I’m back to where I was before being diagnosed, I can’t tell if there has been progress or if I’m still ill. I don’t want to spend the next few months getting better from something I should have already defeated, especially when so many other diseases could befall me.

Two friends of mine are in the hospital. That’s where most of us spent the majority of Friday and Saturday, keeping them company. One girl, after a week of travails, has found out she has an amoeba and is doing much better with treatment. The other girl is keeping in good spirits now that she’s in the hospital, but the prognosis is murky. I haven’t been updated today and didn’t visit them because of my own poopy issues, so I don’t know if there has been progress. Last I heard, she would be released tomorrow on the approval of a specialist.

Before we got the call on Friday that both of them were in the hospital, we had a cookout in language class to practice Cebuano and then had our site placement interviews. The former was a lot of fun at the market and at Dan’s house, and the latter was at first nerve-wracking but then fairly heartening. Sometimes, with the ear infections and the amoebas and the gluten and the technical sessions and the language barrier and the people insisting you’re not an American, it’s difficult to remember the reasons you’ve chosen to follow this path. But then, you end up having to justify this choice to someone who is giving you this chance, and you suddenly remember how much you wanted this and everything that comes with it. Fiona, one of my flatmates from my now-golden Scotland days, reminded me that the tough days are the ones we learn from most, and they make the experience whole. I had a lot of tough days in Scotland, especially the entire first semester, but now all I do is plan for my triumphant return. Someday, some months from now, I will forget the struggles of these early weeks.

I have some trouble with the idea that I’m coming to another country to teach English like an imperial force, but I remember that the countries to which Peace Corps volunteers are invited have requested us and they control which programs are implemented. I also see the unique position of the Philippines as a country which has based its entire education system in an understanding of the English language; if students are not proficient in English, they will not be educated because all classes are taught in English. Teaching is going to be a difficult job with many expectations on me, most importantly my own. It is easy to favor the students who are already fluent, who are succeeding so well; it’s harder and more crucial to reach those who need it most. With co-teaching, there can be more individual attention apportioned to students, and though I find it draining work, I know it’s important work. Currently jealous of the apparent leisure of the Coastal Resource Management volunteers, wink wink.

We recently met some more volunteers from last year’s batch. I really like them and hope that I can succeed as well as they have.

Because I know you clamor for picspam, here are some from recent weeks. I know, I have none of the beach or other great scenery, but when I’m in that scenery I’m in it, not trying to capture it. Also, it takes ~50 years to upload just one.

Sean with some new Filipina friends (he wishes)

The art of making pansit

At Dan's with our feast

This one is called Sheryll in Junob with mountain

At a parade


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Day of Exposure

So, today was one of my more bizarre days here. We are obligated to take a malaria prophylactic every Monday, and on Tuesday nights and Wednesdays during the day I feel the side effects, which are insane dreams and minor diarrhea, the latter of which is not what this story is about. I dreamed that my clustermate Dan’s family all got stuck in a Mayan temple which was for some reason in Zoar Valley and helicopters had to rescue them. The disturbing part was that I seemed to get a very vivid, long parade of his family members, whom I’ve never met therefore were just made-up white people, coming out of this temple haggard, naked and clutching their severed limbs. So that’s how I started my day.

In the morning at 7.30 I walk from my house about ten minutes to my teacher May’s house, traversing my barangay Piapi to Syd and Sally’s barangay Bantayan and ending up in this sort of Bantayan/Piapi no-man’s-land. Today, I had my first real day at my practicum site, Negros Oriental National High School, so I had to go to May’s in my nice clothes, which include unforunate pants because I left all my skirts and dresses in a suckpack behind my bed in the burg. As I popped an Immodium to stave off my malaria poops, I noticed that two of the buttons on my exorbitantly expensive Banana Republic shirt had come undone and I was flashing all of Bantayan. I have no idea for how long I was treating the world to a peepshow, but I’ve decided to put it behind me and stop feeling embarassed about things that happened in the past. I need to exercise this resolution about other things that have happened, but I have a hard time.

As I further made my way towards May’s, gathering to myself my tattered dignity, I saw a man wearing a shirt but no pants and no underwear. I walked past with purpose and managed to embarrass neither of us, but it was still a curious occurance. Men, while willing to expose their rounded beer bellies as their version of a come-hither look, are not as prepared to bare the full story, so to speak. I’m sure there’s a tale to tell there.

The weirdness of the day ended there, but I still had some tough stuff to deal with. It was my first real day at the school, and we couldn’t find my co-teacher and Sean and Sheryll’s were absent, so Sean had to teach for the first time by himself without a plan or even warning, and so did Sheryll. For the first hour, I was with her scrambling to find something productive to do, but we just ended up fielding questions about ourselves and playing hangman, a game during which these second year students read our minds and made short work of us. After that period, my co-teacher was located, and it turns out she doesn’t have class before 2pm anyway, and we Peace Corps Trainees leave the school at 4, but her classes go on until 5, so there is no time for us to plan together, which was frustrating and troubling.

I am trying to do my best in something with which I have no experience, for people who are depending on me to help, and I feel bad that I cannot provide the resource they thought they were being given in hosting a Peace Corps Trainee. It is my hope that despite the rather arbitrary schedule (One day this week! Two the next! Sometimes three! Sometimes none for weeks at a time!) and instability, I can gain a lot from this experience and it will be in some way mutually beneficial. My main personal goal is to (attempt to) reach out to the students who are overlooked, marginalized, left behind or ignored. If I can help them in some small way, even if I never know about it, my Peace Corps experience can mean more than all the benefits I will get out of it.

Now, for your personal enjoyment, some pictures courtesy of Sheryll because I’m too lazy to take pictures myself.

This is my cluster, minus Syd who was being studious and Sheryll, who was taking the picture, obviously. Here we were visiting South Seas, a gorgeous resort that’s just hiding in some nook in Piapi, totally blowing your mind and taking you by surprise when you stumble upon it. The best thing? 1000 pesos a night, which ends up being little over $20. From the left are Dan, Sean, me and Sally.

And here’s a dog on a motorcycle. I have two of these exact same ones at home, except they don’t ride motorcycles. Unless they are leading secret lives.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dumaguete: Day 6

I arrived last Thursday in Dumaguete City. It has a really positive education atmosphere and laid-back pace; no one breaks 20 mph in Dumaguete. Our group of 69 trainees split into city groups – some went to Batangas and Bacolod – and each group is learning a different language. Within those groups we were split into “clusters” for language training depending on our sector (mine is education) and assignment (mine is Negros Oriental National High School). In my cluster are Sally from Texas/Colorado who is 80, Syd from Nebraska who just finished her tour in Peace Corps Armenia, Dan from Pennsylvania, Sean from Minnesota and Sheryll from LA. I think we are all in agreement that we got the best training site here in Dumaguete and wouldn’t change it.

Here is Syd and me in a petty cab, which is a motorcyle rigged up to be a trike for getting around town.

My host family are really amazing people. They are so caring and kind. Tita Andring is a midwife, Tito Jaime (as in hy-may) works at the power plant, their son Kieth is an engineer and his girlfriend Ellen is about to become a nurse as soon as she passes her board exam and NCLEX. Kieth’s sister is in America, and the family misses her. My host family situation is really ideal. I am so glad I was placed with them. Last night I got a little sick (and I’m fine now), but they were really taking care of me, and now Tita Andring has brought me my favorite sweet: a sweet sticky rice cylinder wrapped in banana leaves and sometimes containing chocolate.

On Sunday Keith and Ellen and Ellen’s cousins Eric and Neil took me to Valencia, to a place called the Forest Camp, because there was a brown out (no electricity), so it was really hot. At Forest Camp, it’s cooler because it’s by a mountain (dormant volcano, I think, actually) and there are cold, fresh mountain springs. The whole day was pretty amazing, and I hope my fellow trainees get a chance to go, though on that day I know most of them went to a beach. So here are some pictures of that.

This is all of us

This is Eric, me and Ellen.

Here in the Philippines, they have a thing called merienda, or just plain snack here in the Visayas, where the whole country is like “Dude I need a snack” between breakfast and lunch and then another between lunch and dinner. I have really gotten behind this idea. I am a fan, and actually, now I require my merienda. I have been doing an epic amount of eating here because I really like the food, it’s easy to be gluten-free and is exactly to my taste. I know some trainees have been having some trouble with the cuisine, but I am very lucky to have exactly what I want pretty much all the time. They have a variety of rice sweets, and I’ve been converted to the joys of the mango, which is vastly superior here than stateside. Also, despite the epic eating I’ve been engaging in, I appear to have lost weight. It’s like a dream: eat what I want, lose weight.

Today I observed a classroom at the high school at which I will be teacher training. I will be co-teachcing with a teacher of the 2nd year. Generally, the age range for that is 13-14, but can contain older students as well. It was really nice there today, and allayed my fears a little bit, but I’m sure I’ll be nervous again when I actually have to get up in front of a class.

Yesterday my host family got wireless internet, so I have been sitting and basking in my internet connection. I hope it doesn’t distract me too much, but it does mean I am better equipped to respond to messages now, so don’t hesitate. I am kept very busy by the Peace Corps, but I will get back to you if you email me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

So It Begins

Today, the monsoon finally came to prove its mettle. I have been in Antipolo, Manila since arriving in the Philippines on Saturday night. The weather has, until today, been typically tropical: hot, humid. I suppose despite the intense torrents it’s still pretty hot. I am not complaining about the heat, but I am feeling it, and I hope I can get acclimated soon so it stops bothering me.

There are sixty-nine people in our volunteer batch. We are staying in a hotel outside of metropolitan Manila. So far I’ve been mostly functional throughout the day, no naps, but I am still unable to sleep more than about five hours a night. I hope this jetlag does not last much longer. One perk of the not sleeping, however, is that in the early dawn, when the world is still grey, I go out on our balcony and take in our view of Manila.

We have mostly just been doing policy and housekeeping kind of stuff, very dry, so I had nothing to report until today. Last night after a trip to the Mall of Asia, which is the biggest damn mall I’ve ever seen, some fellow trainees and I took in the sunset over Manila Bay from across the mall.

And today, I found out where I will be trained and in what language. Tomorrow, I leave for Dumaguete City on the island of Negros, Oriental Province, among the Visayan Islands in the south. I will be attempting to speak Cebuano, the regional dialect of the Visayas. At this point, I’m really glad I was unable to get Rosetta Stone Tagalog to work, since it would have been a waste of forty hours of my precious, precious time.

Training will begin in earnest soon, about which I am both apprehensive and excited. I will have a host family and professional counterparts and all of the sudden will have to act like an adult in the world. It’s very intimidating, and I’m going into it like something natural but I don’t know if it actually is, if I’m going to wake up every morning and force myself to get out there beyond my fears. I think it would be the same with a “normal” job in the States though, really. Concerns here are really immediate: safety, health, cultural sensitivity, interpersonal relations. But these aren’t chief among my concerns; I’m plagued by thoughts of failure and remaining juvenile in a (mostly) adult setting.

On those immediate concerns though, I seem to be faring well. I don’t mind the bathroom facilities I might see soon, I really like the food, I’m going in being open to new experiences. However, all sorts of health/safety issues are befalling me; I hope this means I am getting them out of the way at the outset, and I am fated for a better time in general. At LAX I ran over my toenail twice and lost the top of it. I burned my tongue and developed a raging canker sore, the former of which just got better today and the latter of which is slightly better today but still alive and sensitive. I fell down the stairs yesterday morning and really twisted my ankle and now it keeps cracking, but the doctor said it’s okay. And, after some travails with poo, I thought I was on even ground, but today the anti-malarial prophylaxis I took on Monday kicked in and gave me some belly sadness. It raped everyone else yesterday and apparently just took its sweet time over here. Gluten, however, has yet to be an issue, knock on wood.

Dumaguete City has ample internet (and many other amenities; it’s the poshest training site in Peace Corps Philippines), so I hope to update with more news and pictures and all that good stuff. Although, right now I'm having trouble posting pictures, so we'll see how that goes.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Obligatory Introduction

It's been a long road frought with peril and bureaucracy, but I'm finally here. On May 29th, I received my invitation to join the 267th group of Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines, leaving on August 13th. I am both anxious and excited, and I know that this will impact my life in ways I can't yet anticipate. I am very much looking forward to meeting my fellow 267ers, my students, my co-workers, the people of the community in which I'm placed and anyone else who might cross my path. My life is gaining momentum.

Here is an overview of my journey to the Peace Corps:

My father is an RPCV who served two tours in Thailand in the early to mid 1970s. For my entire life, I have known what the Peace Corps does and how drastically it changed almost everything about him for the positive. During college and especially during my own application process, I came to realize how much his time in Thailand, which lasted much longer than his service, has meant to him. I began to consider joining during my junior year in college, which I spent in Scotland being ecstatic and frolicking over every available surface. 

My father always said, "I wanted to see the world, and I didn't want to pay for it." The benefits of the Peace Corps, which are certainly not limited to the professional and financial, were too wonderful for me to pass up. In the Peace Corps, I could see parts of the world I'd never imagined, become a better version of myself, experience a completely different life, develop valuable skills, meet incredible people and maybe even contribute to society if I'm very lucky. So, in mid-October 2007, I began the application process. 

On Halloween, I had an interview with my recruiter, who would become my strongest supporter and for whom I have a lot of appreciation and admiration. On November 1st, she nominated me for my first choice location, Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, leaving June 2008. I was very happy. I got my medical kit in during the third week of December, mere days before I would be diagnosed with gluten intolerance by a gastroenterologist. Though devastating, this diagnosis would explain debilitating symptoms which had disrupted my life since the summer I was fifteen. Unluckily for me, my medical kit did not read "gluten intolerance" but "IBS." On December 27th, I was told I could not join the Peace Corps with "IBS," but since I suddenly had a name for my actual medical issue, I was determined to go forward. I wrote an appealing letter, including my new medical evidence, and received a call from my screening nurse, who said she would reopen consideration of my case once the efficacy of my new diet was reevaluated in March.

At the end of March, I was officially diagnosed with gluten intolerance and my doctor sent my screening nurse the latest medical evaluations and a letter stating his confidence in my ability to serve in the Peace Corps. I got another call from my screening nurse saying I was cleared on gluten intolerance, but now she had to go over the rest of my medical kit, which had apparently not been cracked since December. I was relieved and happy, and during April, I sent in a few more labs and statements for final medical clearance. 

On May 2nd, I received the much-coveted medical clearance. I really cannot now articulate the level of my happiness, as I thought this was the end of my travails. There was a two page list of countries that could support my diet, and I was driving hard into the busy end of my senior year. About a week before graduation, I received another call, this time one that would raze my spirits and make me very, very nervous.

I realized that it was just slightly too late for my original nomination date, but that suited me just fine as I now wanted to go to the Wesleyan Writers Conference, which would have been later than my leaving date. The call I got, however, said that I could not go to Francophone Africa at all. For six months, I had anticipated time in that region and was rather unhappy about not being able to go. Then, my placement officer said she wanted to send me to the Central Asian Caucasus region. I knew nothing about these countries except that they were practically in Europe, and didn't that mean they ate exactly the food that I really, really cannot? I did some research and found out not only do they eat that food, but they sometimes revere it. Going to the Caucasus region would be tantamount to a death sentence. I would not have been able to eat much of anything, I would have had to be rude to my hosts by refusing meals, and, most likely, I would have had gluten reintroduced into my system and become ill again. I contacted my screening nurse, who assured me that any country on the gluten-free friendly list was safe, but nonetheless offered to check with country-specific medical to confirm. 

A week later, the Friday before graduation weekend, I received another call from my screening nurse saying that the Caucasus region was indeed not the best place for me. She took it off the gluten-free friendly list of countries, and now no one with my affliction will ever have to go there and be ill. I was relieved, though now I had no nomination and no idea as to where the Peace Corps might send me. 

A week and a half after that, I was still operating without news of a new nomination. I was hoping for Asia or non-Francophone Africa, but I was willing to go anywhere they wanted to send me and always had been. My father had not originally wanted to go to Thailand at all, but clearly he had a wonderful experience, and I was sure that wherever the Peace Corps decided to send me, I would be able to appreciate and enjoy that place as well. While visiting with my friend and her parents on Tuesday, May 27th, I received a call from placement asking me how I felt about Southeast Asia, teaching secondary school English, mid-August departure. Of course I was incredibly enthusiastic about both the location and the bountiful (and safe) rice that I was sure to encounter, and on Thursday, the 29th, I had that invitation to the Philippines in my hands. I probably didn't stop squealing for a solid five minutes. After looking over everything with loads of delight, I accepted my invitation the next morning. 

So, I've sent in my passport and visa paperwork. I'm now working (procrastinating) on my tailored resume and aspiration statement. I've set up this blog so I can keep people back home updated during my service. I am so excited for what I have chosen to do with this time in my life after undergrad, when the opportunities seem boundless and I have no obligation but the one where I keep myself happy and stimulated. I know I've made the right decision, and I'm so happy to have been placed in the Philippines. I could not imagine a better placement, and I can't wait for the latest adventure to start.