Monday, March 30, 2009

Class of 2009

Today was Hilongos National Vocational School's 2009 commencement ceremony. About 270 students graduated today.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

That Cultural Exchange Thing

I mentioned briefly in my last post that I'm a participant in Coverdell World Wise Schools. Through this program, I'm matched with a classroom in the States and we can correspond as we wish, sharing pictures and stories. Hopefully, this results in students at home learning about a new culture along with their volunteers.

When I got a packet of letters from students in my World Wise Schools match, I was really impressed to see how much thought they had put into the questions they asked me and what they wanted to know about the Philippines and Philippine culture. Their questions were more intelligent and thoughtful than some of the questions I field from adults more than twice their age and experience.

I spent the afternoon answering the questions which recurred most often throughout the letters I received, and some questions I thought were really important. I couldn't answer them all, but I got to almost 20 of them and it occurred to me that some of the questions and answers deserved to be posted here. So, here are some questions from middle school students in New Jersey, and my humble answers to them. Warning: this is gonna be a long one, folks.

How can ordinary teenagers make a difference in the world?

Making a difference starts in your own community. The world is big and there are problems at your doorstep as well as half a world away. I wish I had done more volunteering closer to home, since I believe that volunteering in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter makes a greater direct, immediate impact on those in need at home than Peace Corps does abroad. There are many volunteer opportunities available if you just look: Habitat for Humanity, SPCA, 4H, various other community volunteer organizations designed for young people like the YES program, and, when you’re no longer teenagers, Americorps or Teach for America. You can also do adopt-a-highway programs, arrange a litter clean up, or try to start composting and organic farming or gardening. If there are causes you care about like fundraising for diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS or autism, there are opportunities for that as well. With time, energy and care, you can contribute to the wellbeing of your community in far greater ways than you can probably imagine.

Are you a better person for joining the Peace Corps?

Absolutely not! I am trying to become a more patient person, a more compassionate person, more understanding and more empathetic. Living in a different culture provides me opportunities to become better in those ways, but I have to work on it myself. However, I think the root of this question does not lie in what we are trying to develop within ourselves, but in buying into the essential nobility of joining the Peace Corps, which is a grave fallacy. We who join Peace Corps do have altruistic reasons for joining, but our reasons are not all selfless either. Of course there will be the people who say “I just want to help people!” Frankly, they're lying. As you can see from my answer about making a difference, you don’t have to go far to help people. Some volunteers want professional experience, some want to travel no matter where, some want high adventure, some want a totally different experience than most of their peers. My foremost reason for joining the Peace Corps was to be involved in something positive for the world, to put good karma into the ether in any way that I could help. I wanted to do HIV/AIDS education work, which I haven’t had a chance to do yet, and I wanted to provide individual attention to students who may struggle in English class. But I also wanted the teaching experience, I wanted to learn about a new culture, I wanted to experience completely new things, I wanted to travel, and I’m not ashamed of that. No Peace Corps Volunteer is any better a person than the volunteers and community organizers who devote their time to making the world a better place from home.

Did you want to be placed in the Philippines?

The Peace Corps has an extremely long, tedious and difficult application process which is too boring to explain. To put it simply: you don’t get to request where you will go. You may put in geographical preferences, like Eastern Europe or Latin America, and you can put where you don’t want to go, but because of your skills set, which determines what job sector you’re qualified for, and your medical needs, which determines which countries you can or cannot be sent to, you are never guaranteed anything as far as your geographical preference. They may even put you exactly where you didn’t want to go, but this shouldn’t be a deterrent. My father served in the Peace Corps during the Vietnam war, and he wanted to go to French-speaking Africa, and he didn’t want to go anywhere near the war. Well, they sent him to Thailand, right next to Vietnam, and he had the time of his life.

Personally, I wanted to go to Thailand because it’s part of my heritage and I speak Thai. Turns out, this is exactly why I was barred from ever going to Thailand with the Peace Corps. They want their volunteers to experience a totally new culture. Once I knew this, I put as my preference, like my father before me, Francophone West Africa. The Peace Corps was recruiting for French speakers, they were excited about my desire to serve in Africa, which is where the fewest people want to go, and I was nominated for a program in Francophone West Africa. However, during my long medical screening process, I found out that I’m unable to eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye), and I could not go to West Africa as a result. Peace Corps decided to send me to Southeast Asia, reminding me that it wouldn’t be Thailand, and in the end I was extremely happy to come to the Philippines.

What do you miss about America?

Of course I miss my friends and family. 27 months is a long time to be apart from them. I’m missing out on weddings, funerals, births, many crucial moments in the lives of my loved ones because I made the decision to be here. I knew that at the outset, of course, but faced with the reality of missing these moments, these people, it’s much harder to shrug off the time factor.

The other big thing I miss is food. Since I’m gluten intolerant, it’s not always easy for me to eat here, though of course not as difficult as it would be in other parts of the world. Filipinos have been very much influenced by 400 years of Spanish rule and 50 years of US occupation. That means that they use many Western ingredients that I can’t have, and because of the threat of contamination, it’s even harder for me. If something I am able to eat, like a fried fish, is touching a breaded piece of pork, or was fried in oil that previously fried something battered by flour, then I can’t eat it. I have been able to remain healthy here, but only through vigilance and discipline and culinary abstinence. So I miss the food I can get easily at home: gluten-free breads, cereals and desserts; peanut butter; Thai food; sushi; candy, chips and junk food.

Do you speak a foreign language? Do you speak Filipino?

Any foreign language? I grew up speaking both English and Thai in my house, and I spent about five years studying French in middle and high school.

There are hundreds of languages and dialects in the Philippines. English and Filipino, which is actually Tagalog, are listed as official languages. When my group of volunteers, Philippines batch 267, got here, we were split into three geographical and linguistic groups which would determine where our permanent sites would ultimately be. My group was sent to Dumaguete on Negros Oriental, part of the Visayas (Vi-SY-ahs). For three months, we spent intensive classtime learning Cebuano, or Visaya, or Bisaya. Cebuano has 20 million native speakers throughout the Visayan islands and greater Philippines, whereas Tagalog has 11 million.

Because the Philippines has such a high rate of moderate English proficiency, it is possible to get by without learning a Filipino language very well. Some volunteers never speak it at all. As a teacher, I am obligated to speak English all day at work, so learning is especially difficult for English Education volunteers because they aren’t as immersed in the language as volunteers in other sectors in the Philippines, coastal resource management (CRM) and children, youth and families (CYF).

What do you do in your spare time?

I read a lot of books. I have been here for almost eight months now, and I am currently reading my 23rd book since arriving in country. This is more than I’ve read for pleasure since I was in middle school myself. It’s very satisfying to have the time to read what you want, for whatever reason you want. I also use the internet a lot, and I try to spend time writing. Some weekends, I visit other volunteers relatively close to me.

Do the Philippines have seasons?

The Philippines have basically two seasons: ting-uwan (rainy season) and ting-init (hot season). It is both rainy and hot during both seasons, but the intensity of the rain during ting-uwan is shocking, as is the intensity of the heat during ting-init.

Over the course of the year, there are other mga ting (seasons), like ting-ani (harvest season), ting-prutas (fruit season), ting-bagyo (typhoon season), ting-mangga (mango season), and so on and so forth. Anyting goes. We have a joke among the Peace Corps volunteers: we’ll add the word ting before anything. It’s always ting-uncomfortable, we’ll say of the weather. It’s ting-ako na (season of me, now).

What kinds of sports and music are popular in the Philippines?

Basketball is a big, big past time here. If there isn’t a decent basketball court in every neighborhood, there’s at least a makeshift one. There are informal games all the time, and plenty of people from the neighborhood or community will come to watch. My host brother would turn the TV to a sports channel and watch basketball, past games and present, all day, and then watch shows about basketball players. Philippines national obsession. With the emergence of Manny Pacquiao, Filipino boxing legend and recent defeater of Oscar De La Hoya, boxing has gained popularity.

Filipinos love all kinds of music, without irony. Celine Dion, Queen, Mariah Carey, the Star Wars theme, Christmas music no matter the ting, the Carpenters, stadium evangelical gospel, anything. Videoke (karaoke with moving pictures of anything you can think of on the screen) is another national obsession, and you can hear it all the time. My students particularly enjoy current American hip-hop, and it can be heard at all times, and they frequently prepare dance numbers to it.

What is Filipino food like? Do you like it?

Filipinos eat white rice at every meal, even breakfast. For some volunteers, this is a big adjustment and sometimes one which they will never get used to or come to enjoy. Personally, because I am used to eating rice regularly and because I can’t eat common items like bread or flour, I really prefer to eat rice anyway, so it’s not a problem for me. Filipino main dishes are usually fried or boiled, they often contain a lot of fish and pork, and their main seasonings are salt and soy sauce. Because soy sauce contains gluten, sometimes my host families had trouble finding things to make for me. However, with a little imagination, they were able to remove the soy sauce or substitute it with something safe for me. I like many Filipino foods, but because of my dietary restrictions I am often limited in what I can have and how it can be flavored, resulting in the same kinds of bland dishes over and over. Now that I live on my own, I can make my own food, and generally I wouldn’t describe it as Filipino. I am, however, very much into eating and making Filipino desserts.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


This weekend, Connie arranged a birthday party for me at her house in Inopacan. She prepared an unbelievable epic of a meal, worthy of the Philippines, including a killer buko salad and a make-your-own halo halo buffet. Sean and Cassie came up from the depths of Southern Leyte, and Syd was there, whom I haven’t seen since we were both in Manila for different reasons in January. She brought Matt, a volunteer from batch 266 who also lives on Leyte. It was amazing to reconnect with everyone together. In classic Pinoy fashion, we ate our meal and snacks and desserts over a six hour period and went home clutching our bellies, satisfied.

Connie cooking up some bean sprouts

Me, Sean, Connie, Cassie, Connie's feast and a kind of inverted tapestry of the Last Supper

Me and some key halo halo ingredients before this gorgeous group of PCVs sang Happy Birthday to me. Who needs cake when you have halo halo?

Syd, Sean, Matt and Cassie building their ultimate halo halos

Syd digging mightily on her halo halo

On my actual birthday, it was like the universe had decided to take it easy on me. At school, which is finished for the summer at this point, I only collected tests, and the Ruby students were joking with me and making me laugh. I got an order of one of my favorite Pinoy snacks, puto cheese, which is like a cupcake except made of rice flour so I can actually eat it. It’s not always there, so when I saw the little stacked mountain of them at the bakeshop I inwardly rejoiced. I got three packages I’d been waiting for, and a series of letters from my World Wise Schools students in New Jersey, which were very pleasing to receive and read. I'm preparing a response to almost 20 common questions the students have about service and the Philippines. I’ve been introspective about service lately, and I’ve also been having to write about it in various forms, and having to do that makes me articulate my challenges and successes and helps me to navigate them. That evening after work, I ate as many puto cheeses as I wanted, had pad Thai for dinner, and waited to feel 23. I’m still waiting.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Insects, Amphibians, and Fowl, Oh My

Last night seemed particularly dedicated to animals of the unexciting variety. Since moving into my own place, I have noticed at night the appearance of a certain kind of insect whose continued existence beyond its prehistoric origins can only be credited to the fact that it appears to be made of armor. This insect, I have no idea what it is, possibly some ancestor of the modern beetle, is about a centimeter big and inspires no fear whatsoever. It can be startling when it flies around without warning, but it is not gross, slimy, or covered in millions of legs, nor do thousands swarm when there is food around. Prior to last night, there had only ever been one, I’m assuming the same single, mentally challenged, armor plated creature careening comically into walls, the computer screen, my person, and landing with a surprisingly clear and heavy thud on the floor. Last night, as I went to bed, I noticed about five had gathered to convene on my office wall. I paid no mind other than to be briefly concerned that this may turn into an infestation, and as I moved to turn off the office light, I heard, even though the din whose description is forthcoming, the dull smack of a little armored body losing purchase on the wall and falling, not to its death, only to the ground. For some, there is just no evolution.

Being in the Philippines has come with lessons, shifting priorities, surprising new skills. I now know there is no added authenticity in suffering or going without as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I also know how to open a tin can with only a knife and some gumption. Another thing I now know: roosters crow any damn time they please. As far as I can tell, this means regularly, as in every few seconds, throughout the daylight hours, and at least hourly in the moonlight ones. There may be nothing more infuriating to me than the spluttering, cackling, 60-year-old smokers’ hack crows of the cocks at all hours of the night, particularly when trying to fall asleep and stay asleep. The hours between 4 am and 6 am are particularly brutal, and usually I’m out of bed around 5 simply because the cocks have destroyed anything resembling sleep at that point. I don’t think those people in the States who haven’t grown up on a farm can truly appreciate how piercing, how penetrating the shriek of a rooster, nay, many, many roosters in one’s immediate vicinity, can be. There are many in a sort of courtyard just behind my apartment, which my bedroom window conveniently faces, and the result is that it often sounds as if these roosters are sitting like the devil on my shoulder, issuing forth with gusto their shrill, grating screeches into my weary, abused ears.

So, that’s the routine of my life – go to bed trying to ignore these devils, stay asleep through their crusades against night silence, wake with resigned displeasure to their calls when the sun’s not yet spilling over the horizon.

Last night, all that changed. Around 9 pm, when I usually start my slow move toward that lofty ambition of going to bed and sleeping, something new happened in that courtyard behind my apartment, where any sounds issued are amplified in my acoustic theatre of a bedroom. That something new was a veritable army of toads engaging in the first night of what I can only project is their mating season. The sound of them, not unpleasant, is constant and uniform enough not to cause irritation, but it is loud enough to ring in my ears, echo in my bedroom, and block out any campaigns the crowing cocks and barking dogs may have had against the sleep of the Hilongos citizenry. So, despite the reprieve from the cocks, despite the deafening white noise toad sex apparently offers, I couldn’t sleep. At 11 pm their ardor abruptly – very abruptly, as if their cessation was timed, rehearsed and flawlessly executed in perfect unison - cooled, causing the vicinity’s proud cocks to attempt to catch up on that whole two hours of crowing the dull roar of the mating toads had thwarted. From this point onwards the toads began stopping and starting in even intervals, each hard-won silence soon shattered by the penetrating, phlegmatic shrieks of half a dozen posturing cocks. I woke before five this morning to that pattern still in effect – the ebb and flow of the sweet sex sessions of libidinous toads, the piercing crows of all local roosters. By 5:30 am the toads, no doubt exhausted and sore, stopped their amphibian lovemaking, one assumes for the day, and the cocks had their stage back.

I wonder how long toad mating season lasts?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Yesterday morning, I was concerned enough about dehydration, pain and my vomiting to check into the hospital. Soon after I got a room, I learned I would get a roommate – a woman about to give birth. She and her husband, a man from Switzerland who speaks excellent Bisaya, unlike most other foreigners, myself included, gave me the impression that they’d been waiting for this for a long time. The husband kept repeating “Today I’m going to be a father.”

While I lay in bed working around the splint a nurse had taped onto my left hand and tangled in my IV tubes, alternately rereading The Cider House Rules and watching some of the worst movies ever made on HBO, the couple had their baby in another room. The dad came in to get something and said it was all finished, they did a C-section.

“Boy or girl?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said. “Oh, girl.”

“Good,” I said, “congratulations.”

The rest of the evening came with visitors and well-wishers and calls from German speakers. I had no overnight kasama, though Connie offered, and my counterpart offered her daughter Nor-vith, but I knew there was room for only one kasama: the new mother’s, and rightly so. And I was self-sufficient, able to get me and my fluids to the bathroom and back with one working hand. So, after my counterpart left, I was the new family’s observer, the silence from the other side of the room.

Nicole, 7.5 lbs, possessor of a future long, coveted white person nose like mine, spent the evening being rocked and cooed at and, it seemed to me, generally hassled. She is a calm baby, not given to crying, and I couldn’t help but wonder from my place against the far wall if this harassment was altogether what she would have wanted from her first few hours of life. When I looked at her, I couldn’t fathom how new she was, how small and open. How serene and unafraid. I imagined that at just a few hours old she knew everything; that we all did, once, and by living lost our knowledge, gained ignorance and anxiety. When voices rang in my ears, when noise scraped them raw, I winced for the newness of Nicole’s.

The world is loud. And so sharp and bright, beautiful and painful.