“NOW THAT WASN’T SO BAD, WAS IT?”
Dumaguete
November 1-12, 2010
I’m a week away from from my crucial end-of-training language test in Visaya, and my language trainer is getting increasingly flustered and frustrated at my lack of progress, or to be more accurate, my regression. It seems that all my recent gains have been lost.

I don’t want to let her down. She’s worked so hard and spent so much time with me, but I just can’t memorize the blasted vocabulary. The words have little or no Greek, Latin, or Spanish roots that normally give a hint to their meaning. Making matters worse, many words are practically identical: Is it huwat (wait), hulat (wait), or hubak (asthma)? Is it buyog (bee), bukog (bone), or buhok (hair)?

The test will consist of a 30-minute one-on-one interview with a language trainer. If I do well, I’m told, the session will extend the entire half hour. If not, it could be over in five minutes. I’m just hoping to last two.

But before that is All Souls Day, a huge holiday in the Philippines. Families all across the country head to cemeteries at night to honor their loved ones. My host family and I take a pedicab to the main Dumaguete cemetery where their family members are buried, and the roads are clogged for miles. When we can’t wait motionless in the heat any longer, we hop off and walk the rest of the way. Inside the cemetery, an enormous lawn party is taking place. Hundreds of candles twinkle across the vast expanse, and families sit on blankets around their ancestors’ graves feasting on food. Some have brought tents and barbecues, two things I thought I would never see in a cemetery. Vendors roam the grounds selling fireworks, toys, and snacks. Children dart among the shadows dressed in Halloween costumes.

The next morning, the day of our language test, a crackling thunderstorm roars through downtown. A portend of what’s to come? I’m slated to be interviewed third among our training cluster of six. D goes first, shuffling upstairs like a doomed inmate, pale as a seniorita banana. He emerges 20 minutes later flushed and beaming. But he’s not told if he passed. We won’t find out until just before our swearing-in ceremony. The best trainee in our class, the one with the photographic memory, emerges looking smug and confident. Maybe this won’t be such a bad day.

My turn. I walk upstairs and knock on the designated room number. Our instructor, a training officer from Peace Corps HQ in Manila, opens the door and is all business. No smile, no small-talk. Clicks on her tape recorder and gets right to it. Fortunately, most of her questions are ones I’d prepared for (“Describe your training site,” ” How do you like your host family?” “What’s your favorite Filipino food?”). After 20 minutes, she flips off her recorder and smiles for the first time. “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

I bounce down the steps flashing a thumb’s up to everyone, and they cheer. Hey, if John passed, the rest of us have a chance! 

When the final three come down after their tests, all optimistic, we loosen up and recall our interviews — especially the role play exercise that the instructor gave us. Uh-oh. I hadn’t been given one. Droplets of sweat roll down my forehead.

That evening we attend a birthday party for the matriarch of an historic Peace Corps host family that has hosted a phenomenal 16 Peace Corps volunteers over the course of two decades. During dinner, each of us trades stories of our oddest experiences with the Visaya language. One girl remembers the time she mistakenly asked a market vendor for a saking (penis) instead of a saging (banana) and was confused when the entire market erupted in shrieks that went on for minutes. When they finally explained her error, she blushed as red as the discounted rambutans on their shelves, imagining what they must have been cackling: “Does she want a long, fat, or short one?” “Don’t give her any with spots.” “Do you think she prefers it peeled?”

Another recalls coming home to her host family every night and calling out the name of their dog, which she loves to play with. Unfortunately, she always mispronounced its name, calling out the Visaya word for “Hungry!” instead. It took her weeks to figure out why her family always ran around in a panic the moment she came home and whipped up something for her.

The music starts, and with it the videoke, which is like karaoke except you’re scored for your performance. When “Billie Jean” comes on, several trainees rush out to the patio where I’m sipping a Tanduay Rum, drag me inside, and demand I break it down, which I gladly do. Unbeknownst to me, one of them films me. Hours later, I’m on YouTube (Check it out by searching: “Old man dancing to MJ!!!! Must see!!!”).

The day before we’re to depart for Bacolod for our Counterparts Conference and swearing-in ceremony, I spend the afternoon with my host son Denzel, of whom I’ve grown quite fond. We stroll far into the green meadows and coconut tree forests near our house. That night I play with him extensively, dancing to Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” video and playing S.W.A.T with his broken toy guns. I present the family with farewell gifts: a  personal letter to each and an action figure for him.

Hangin' out with Denzel.

After dinner, he whispers in his sweet, soft voice that every time he plays with his toy guns, dances to Michael, plays soccer in the kitchen or badminton in the backyard, or sees a magic trick, he’ll think of me and cry. I tell him I love him, which I realize I do. He makes me promise to wake him up at 3 a.m. before I leave. He asks if I’ll return for his birthday next year.

Denzel and Mom Arding.

At the conference in Bacolod, I reunite with my counterpart who will be my co-teacher for the next two years, and each day we’re partnered in a series of activities designed to help us get to know each other and work together. The nights are party time, and we trainees pack the discos and bars. On the last day, the Peace Corps Program & Training Officer from HQ shows a black-and-white clip of John F. Kennedy seeing off the very  first group of Peace Corps volunteers in 1961. Then he addresses us with a stirring speech about how we’re all about to continue that inaugural group’s legacy and leave our own accomplishments across these beautiful islands. I nearly choke up. I take him aside afterward and tell him how much his words meant to me — and he nearly loses it.

Then I really tear up when I get my language score. Although I thought I’d done well in the test, inside I knew I was fooling myself. The result was worse than I’d imagined: Novice-Mid, barely above the minimum. Passing grade is Intermediate-Mid.

 Then another surprise: four trainees out of our cluster of six also failed. Rumor soon spreads that one entire sector (all 24 trainees) flunked. Those who fail must retake the test every three months until they pass. But there’s no penalty for failure. For all intents and purposes, we can keep flunking the test until we finish our service. For those who want a language tutor, the Peace Corps will pay for one. I immediately sign up a Peace Corps language instructor who lives in Sibulan, my permanent site.

I’M A VOLUNTEER, I SWEAR
Bacolod
November 12, 2010
Swearing-in day. The hotel lobby is a zoo as nearly 200 trainees, counterparts, host families, trainers, and HQ staff mingle in anticipation of the ceremony we’ve prayed for three months would arrive. The women look luxurious in their elegant dresses, the men dashing in their dress shirts, suits and ties, or Filipino barongs. I brought a long-sleeve embroidered silk shirt that I bought in Hong Kong 30 years ago but never wore, and it still fits. Outside, a fleet of vans is lined up fender-to-fender to transport us to the provincial capitol building, and we pile into them.

At the Capitol, our van passes through the guard gate and zooms along a vast manicured lawn dominated by a towering flagpole from which whips the Philippines flag. We pull up before an imposing multi-columned edifice festooned with red, white, and blue bunting and wide steps that remind me of the U.S. Capitol Building. Two bands, including a Brazilian drum ensemble, welcome us.

We’re whisked into a chandeliered lobby and upstairs to the ballroom. Peace Corps HQ staff stationed stragically along the way greet us proudly. The ballroom is a riot of flashbulbs. It may be the last time many of us will see each other for the next two years, so we make the most of it.

After a half hour, a hush falls over the room, and everyone stands as a line of VIPs stride down the center aisle. In front is the provincial governor, a tiny man in a white barong, followed by the U.S. Ambasssador, a stout black man in a crisp blue shirt. Behind him is a short, gum-chewing anvil in dark Oakley shades and a wire in his ear. Cool.

After a half dozen speeches, we and our counterparts are introduced one-by-one. The actual swearing-in is anticlimactic: Nothing about the Peace Corps. Instead, it’s the standard spiel that all incoming members of the government are required to recite: “I solemnly swear to defend and protect the government of the United States against all enemies….”

The capper is a slide show displaying the best photos from all training sites in the Visayas region during the previous three months. The images are nothing short of stunning — helping children do their homework in the dim light of an orphanage, talking with fisherfolk next to their weather-beaten boats, posing after an English lesson with impossibly happy students, huddling over a community project diagram with local leaders, giving a workshop to wide-eyed kids amidst a copse of coconut trees. They look just like the Peace Corps brochure photos that inspired me to join up a long time ago. Now I’m among them, appearing twice in the presentation: dancing Shakira’s “Waka-Waka” dance in front of our school and helping paint a world map mural for our community project.

Afterward is another orgy of picture-taking — in the lobby, on the Capitol steps, and with the Ambassador while his bodyguard unsuccessfully tries to slap away every errant hand that deigns to touch the dignitary. Back at our hotel, it’s time to cel-e-brate, and everyone hits the clubs with a vengeance.

Me and Esther, my co-teacher.

Our training cluster after swearing in.

MY NEW HOME
Sibulan
November 13-30, 2010
When I step off the bus in front of the Sibulan gas station, my host family is waiting to greet me. It’s a short walk to their residence, just two houses. Sapp, their dog, pees a wide spray of joy when he spots me. The normally sleepy town is alive this night because it’s the 13th of the month. Every month on this day, many Filipinos make a pilgrimage to our small seaside town’s church to glimpse the statue of its patron saint, St. Anthony de Padua. Vendors line the park, so we stroll the square in the cool of the evening and pick through the bargains.

The next day finds the town deserted, but not because the pilgrims have departed. Manny Pacquiao’s fighting. The country’s greatest athlete dominates the airwaves whenever he boxes. The replay of his fight is shown on national TV moments after the live fight, and probably 90% of the country are glued to their TVs or their neighbor’s. Unfortunately, the fight takes nearly all day to finish because of the countless commercials between every round of the two prefights and main event. During the breaks, my host son and I play badminton outside with a gaggle of street kids.

On the first day of school, I observe two of my counterpart’s English classes. Afterwards, as I’m settling into my new desk in the Faculty Room, my co-teacher rushes in and says we’ve both been summoned to the town square immediately. We’re to judge the annual English Quiz Show. The vice-mayor opens the event with a speech, recognizes me, and tells the crowd who I am and what I’ll be doing at the high school, including the new speech lab he proposed to us a month ago. This is significant. Since he announced it to the community, it’s now official. The principal will be pleased to hear that. I think.

The second day is an emotional roller coaster. In one senior class I observe, the students are asked to speak about a significant moment in their lives. Each story is heart-wrenching, and several students break down: one girl who lost her abusive brother in a motorcycle accident admits that she now misses his cruelty; another, despondent over losing her boyfriend, wonders if she can go on; a boy, struggling bravely but unsuccessfully to control his tears, demands to know where his father is and why he left him; a student who lives with another family as a cook/maid to support herself and her own family doesn’t know what to do after her host family tells her she’s just a slave and worth nothing to society.

When I’m asked to speak, I hesitate. How do I follow that? I offer the last girl a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you inferior without your consent.” I ask her if she feels inferior.

“Sometimes,” she answers so softly I can barely make out her words.

I tell her I hope and pray that she will one day believe in herself and not the words of the ignorant. 

Unless you’re here, it’s hard for the average American to comprehend the hardship of most Filipinos. How nearly everyone has stories of heartbreak, loss, tragedy, and poverty. And yet they always smile through it all looking as if they’re the happiest people in the world. The class ends. The students beg me to return the following day and tell my own story. I promise I will. 

When I step into the classroom the next afternoon, they all shriek — not expecting I would really do it — and rush forward, jamming together in tight banana bunches, faces rapt. I tell them about my greatest loss — my marriage, divorce, and painful aftermath — and the hardship that my wife and son suffered growing up in one of the world’s most dangerous places, the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, and their transformation from that pitiful beginning to an American dream.

When I show them pictures of my son Alex, they swarm the table, nearly knocking it over. When I finally walk out of room 20 minutes later, drained and wet with perspiration, I feel I’ve just made 50 very, very close friends.

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