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!