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.

1 comment:

Loren said...

That was awesome.