“YOU HAVE MANY FANS.”
Sibulan
December 1-10, 2010
With the 40th anniversary of the founding of Sibulan National High School rapidly approaching, the principal shortens the class hours so each day will end at 2:30 instead of 5:00. From 2:30 to 5:00, students are to practice their Founders Day events:

Best singer
Best folk dance group
Best cheerdance group (10-30 students)
Best mass demonstration group (100+ students)
Miss Sibulan beauty pageant

I watch the practices with a mixture of fascination and head-scratching. Few students seem to take the competition seriously. While their coaches shout in futility through bullhorns, the kids just laugh and goof off. A teacher next to me shakes her head. “They’re not together. They’re not trying. They’re not ready.”

My task for December is to observe teachers before I start co-teaching. The plan is for me to sit in a wide cross-section of classrooms across all subjects and grade levels to witness their teaching styles, activities, and classroom management techniques. Some are very good, some good, some not so good. I learn more than I’d expected to, tallying some valuable dos and don’ts.

One day a handful of teachers sit down next to me at lunch and wonder if they can ask a few personal questions. Naively, I say sure.

“Do you want to marry again, Sir John?” one asks.

“Are you proposing?” They laugh politely and then ask again.

I think about it for a moment and say, “Basin.” (Maybe.)

“To a Filipina?”

Whoa. “Can’t answer that.”

“What kind of women do you like?”

When what I describe sounds like qualities that many Filipinas possess, they huddle around closer. “We’re asking, Sir John, because your head will turn at many young women here. But do NOT, do NOT be tempted! Court a woman closer to your age.”

Thank you, I tell them.

“What is your religion?”

After being asked this many times already, I’ve formulated a stock answer. “I follow no organized religion.”

They sit and stare. Open-mouthed. Perhaps my stock reply needs some more work.

“But you do believe in God.”

“Sometimes.”

If silence has layers, this one is more silent than the previous one. “When do you believe in Him?”

“When I look at nature. When I study the intricacy of the human ear. When I realize that every creature on earth has a purpose. When I know in my gut that all this couldn’t have come about by accident.”

“When don’t you believe in Him?”

“Whenever I open the Bible; enter a church, mosque, or synagogue; or read about the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or the Taliban.”

All air has left the room. They thank me and quietly return to their desks. I feel bad. Will what I said affect our friendship? Our working relationship? Their opinion of me? Why do I always have to be so honest? Whenever someone asks me a question, especially an important one, my feeling is they want and deserve a direct answer.

The following day brings a modicum of cheer. A senior student, who’d asked me weeks before to edit the speech she would give in a division-wide speech contest, bursts into the principal’s office holding her first price trophy above her head. She’ll now compete in the Regionals.

I’m getting to know the students more and more, both at the main campus where the juniors and seniors are assigned and at the second campus across the street comprised of mostly freshmen and sophomores. One teacher, after seeing a bunch of kids swarming around me after I’d poked my head in their classroom, tells me, “You have many fans.”

One of them was unexpected. I return home one afternoon to find a fourth-year student waiting outside my host family’s house for me. He’s homeless, he says. His mother left him when he was in kindergarten; his father and mother-in-law abuse him. He sleeps “anywhere” and bathes in the polluted stream nearby. He wants to prove to his family he can make it on his own. He asks if I can help.

I tell him my host family already has two live-in student helpers, plus me. He says nothing, just stares at the ground. Seems like a good kid, quiet and soft-spoken, but something smells wrong. He won’t look me in the eye. His story seems contrived because he’s always clean and his clothes are always neat. How could that be if he sleeps on the street and bathes in the river? And where are his clothes and things? “Around.”

My host mother arrives and talks to him as I excuse myself. Later, she says she has the same misgivings. When she asked if he was in a gang, he told her no, but she thinks yes.

The next day I ask the guidance counselor if she knows him. Does she. His story matches hers except for the gang affiliation. He’s a member of the Bloods and was warned by the school on several occasions for wearing his red bandana and spiked bracelets. She says he told her he’s no longer active with them, although once you’re in, you’re in for life.

She says she tried to help him numerous times by giving him odd jobs around campus and setting him up as a helper with various families. But he never stays long. His mother-in-law said he stays out late every night and never helps out. The counselor feels for him but has given up trying to help. His life is up to him now.

Two days later, the boy gets a helper position in the house behind ours and thanks me. He’ll graduate in three months. I hope this time he’ll see it through.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL — FILIPINO STYLE
Sibulan
December 11-17, 2010
It’s the day before Founders Day, and all classes are suspended to allow the students to fine-tune their events. I grimace as I watch them still flailing around unprepared, laughing, and clumsily bumping into each other. The trainers and choreographers are beside themselves, voices hoarse from shouting. The same teacher shakes her head at their attitude. I tell her it will be a miracle if they pull themselves together by tomorrow.

The first events are held at the Quadrangle, the town’s outdoor assembly hall for all major events. I take a seat on stage with the other staff behind the singing contestants, adorned in gowns or suits and ties, who sit and twitch and jiggle their legs nervously. The judges’ tables face us from the floor below. Around us, the arena slowly fills with students and townspeople.

Outside, the town’s streets are alive with color as huge props are carried through the streets and into the arena, and waves of cheerdancers and folk dancers in costumes, headdresses, and painted faces pour into the enclosure. They look impressive, but they’re still giggling and joking around. No game faces.

The singers knock me out, especially the first one, a tiny four-foot-tall girl who belts out the toughest song of anyone — and nails it. One judge loves her, beaming and singing along with her the whole way, and uncontrollably applauds when she reaches the crucial last soaring note.

She inexplicably finishes out of the money. When the winner’s announced, the girl bolts from the stage in tears. I try to find her and tell her that I thought she’d won, but she’s disappeared. Probably best. My consolation wouldn’t have meant much.

The folk dance teams, who had been the only serious ones during practice, delight the crowd with their polished, traditional performances. The cheerdance troupes, who do routines to rap songs, blow me away also. Gone are the bumbling, fumbling goofballs of moments ago. They’re all business and knock out their complicated routines like pros. What happened?

The winners came through in the clutch.

After lunch, I help prepare one of the Miss Sibulan beauty contestant’s floats for tomorrow’s parade, decorating a truck with pink drapes, palm fronds, and flowers. At the last minute, I’m asked by my supervisor to write an intro for the contestant for tomorrow’s pageant.

In the evening, I attend the annual Teachers and Alumni Night, also in the Quadrangle. A projector displays school photos from years past to the present. A couple of me are even included from my first day at school. I’m now part of the school lore.

After speeches and dinner, the games begin. I compete in two: the newspaper dance and the candle dance. In the first, couples dance around tornout pages from newspapers. When the music stops, they jump onto the paper and freeze. Those who lose their balance are out. After each music stoppage, the papers are folded in half to make it tougher. I choose a teacher who sits across from me in the Faculty Room. We last only two rounds when I lose my balance trying to lift her on one foot.

But I’m the heavy favorite in the candle dance. In this event, couples dance while holding a lighted candle. They must blow the others’ out while protecting their own. With my height advantage, all I have to do is hold ours over my head. Well, guess who’s eliminated first? I’m so intent on waving it away from the others that my movements blow it out.

After the games, a DJ plays disco. When nobody ventures out on the floor, the emcee calls out. “Sir John, where are you? Sir John, will you please come out on the dance floor.”

Got down, got funky.

I don’t think I left it the next two hours. At one point, a tall, statuesque woman joins the circle dance I’m in and attaches herself to me the rest of the evening. She dances great and looks better. But doesn’t say much except that she’s the niece of one of the teachers, whose name I stupidly forget. 

During a break, I turn around and she’s gone. She left, someone says. I never got her name. I spend the rest of the evening tracking down every teacher before I find the one she’s related to. “Sorry,” she tells me. “She’s married.”

Everybody loves a parade.

The next morning the town park is bedecked with floats, bands, and more than a thousand costumed students as the town prepares for the parade. It’s scorching when we get underway. We walk at least two miles — up near the mountains, through several barangays, and then back in a roundabout way to the town center. Along the way, onlookers, construction crews, and schoolyards full of kids wave. At one point, I hear a “Sir John!” chorus from the sidewalk. The youngsters I play badminton with every afternoon.

Then it’s back to the Quadrangle for the mass demonstration competition. These dance routines are basically the same as cheerdancing except the students are in groups of 100 or more. The senior squad’s coach, who’d bellowed at them day after day, trembles from head to foot as his team takes the floor. Not only do they get everything right, but their signature closing routine, in which successive rows of students link arms and wave up and down like snakes, propels the crowd from their seats. They take first prize.

I look at the teacher I’ve been talking to through all the practices. “I now believe in miracles.”

The finale is the crowning of Miss Sibulan. From what I’ve observed, no country in the world does more beauty pageants, or does them better, then the Philippines. Any excuse at all warrants a pageant: a store opening, a good harvest, a Tuesday. What I see this night makes what I remember of my Miss Pasadena High School contest 45 years ago ludicrous by comparison. Pasadena is rich; Sibulan is poor. PHS boasted 4,000 students (1,500 in the senior class alone); SNHS barely tops 1,000. Pasadena’s pageant was held in the musty gym with one disco ball and a faulty sound system and lasted 20 minutes; Sibulan’s is a Hollywood production with professional videos projected on two enormous screens, appearances by the mayor and vice mayor, Academy Award-like set decoration, professionally choreographed talent numbers, and spectacular gowns.

But what’s really cool is when they ask me to come up on stage and drape a sash over Miss Congeniality.

Miss Sibulan 2010

THE LONGEST CHRISTMAS
Sibulan
December 17-25, 2010
In the Philippines, the first Christmas decorations appear in stores in September. I will repeat that. September. On our last day of school before Christmas break, the campus is adorned in balloons, garlands, Christmas stars, lighted trees (plastic; there are no pine trees here, sniff), and tables of food and presents. Each classroom will have its own party with food, games, and gifts.

The younger kids are dressed casually; the third- and fourth-year students are formal. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, nearly every classroom invited me to their room to take part in their activities, so I spend the morning making the rounds.

I start with the second campus because that’s where my favorites, the younger students, are. I step into each doorway to shrieks of joy, rock music, and games that I never got to play in high school: tomato dance (pairs dance while holding a tomato between their heads), musical hugs (when music stops, girls hug the nearest boy), and musical straws (girls with straws in their mouths try to insert them into soda pop bottles held between boys’ legs).

"Come in, Sir John!"

In one class, I film a video of students doing the UCLA Eight-Clap fight song from my alma mater, which I’ll send to UCLA for its 50th Peace Corps anniversary festivities. UCLA has sent more than 2,000 Peace Corps volunteers around the world since 1961.

In the afternoon, I arrive at the senior students’ party upstairs, who are dressed like it’s prom night. A long table is decorated with tablecloth and dinnerware and a cornucopia of dishes. I’m placed at one end, the teacher at the other. They begin with a prayer, songs, and speeches, one of which I’m asked to give impromptu. After the sit-down lunch, a formal gift exchange ensues. I’m given a wallet.

Me and my favorite seniors.

When I walk out afterward, a student at the party next door, cries, “Sir John! Come here quickly!”

She drags me inside where my supervisor’s dancing with her students to hardcore rap. “Where’ve you been?” she asks. “Join us!”

This teacher gig ain't that bad.

Two days later, on December 23, I come downstairs to dinner at my host family’s house. After all the partying, we’re sick, coughing, and sneezing. When one of the family’s live-in student helpers sneezes, I jump at the unusual sound she makes. When she does it again, I wonder if my hearing’s off. The third time I can’t control it and laugh out loud. The rest of the table does, too, but for a different reason.

“What’s the matter?” the girl asks me with a wink in her eye.

“Nothing. It’s just that your, uh, sneeze sounded like…a chicken clucking.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Then where did it come from?”

“From a chicken probably.”

“Well, it sure sounds close.”

“They are,” she giggles.

“They?”

“They’re under the table.”

“You’re saying two chickens are in the kitchen, under this table, where I’m sitting, right now.” I shrug my shoulders. “Yeah, right,” and resume eating.

“Look for yourself.”

I do — and nearly jump out of my seat. Inches from my feet sit two plump chickens. As if cued, one flaps its wings and squawks, floating feathers above the rice bowl.

My host mother explains that she’ll kill them tomorrow for the Christmas Eve feast.

“You?” I exclaim. I can’t imagine this gentle, angelic woman doing such a thing.

“Oh yes, I can kill!” she insists.

I take my time coming downstairs the next day. I want to avoid the slaughter and resulting mess, blood, entrails, feathers, and the sight of headless chickens hopping around the yard (which my host family scoffs at as an American superstition).

I’m relieved to see that all evidence of the mayhem is gone and the fowls are simmering in a pot. Whew. Everyone’s working feverishly on a myriad of tasks — decorating the living room, making coconut rice, arranging chairs, setting out the food. When I offer to help, I’m rebuffed with the usual response: “We will be the ones,” a phrase that I and my fellow volunteers have grown to loathe in the few short months we’ve been here. I go back to my room to read.

Tonight is Midnight Mass, the largest one of the year. The entire 40-plus choir will appear, I’m told, and what’s more they’ll sing Christmas carols in English, Visaya, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. We bring chairs in case the church is full, which it is. The enormous cathedral is overflowing onto the street. Because my host father is in the choir, we get to squeeze into the church just behind the singers. The music is exquisite.

Back home, presents are opened (Filipinos do so right after midnight), but everyone’s so wiped out, the affair is ho-hum. The next day, the house is full of visitors, friends, relatives, and beggars. All are welcomed and given food, candies, and/or bags of rice.

FIRST CRISIS
Sibulan
December 26-31, 2010
I come downstairs to breakfast, sit down at the kitchen table, stare at what is before me, and experience what a jittery horse feels like as it approaches the highest gate during a horse-jumping competition.

Nope. Uh-uh. No way. A bed of rice topped with three anchovies. A bowl of  soup containing one knot of gristled bone. The same as every meal yesterday. 

I’m suffering my first major adjustment. I don’t want to be with my host family anymore after February 15. (I must live here until that date; thereafter either party can elect to extend the contract or end it.)

It isn’t just the food. Everything irritates me now: the barking dogs, the TV on max volume even though no one’s paying attention (once I muted it to see what would happen, and everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at the TV, then me. I unmuted it, and they all resumed what they were doing, which was ignoring the TV). The urine stench and squealing from the piggery next door provides a jarring aroma in the afternoons. Sleep is a nightly ordeal of snarling dogs, yowling cats, puffed up roosters, evil mosquitoes, and my never-ending hunger pangs. Even playing badminton with the neighborhood kids is getting tiresome. I spend most of the time watching them hit birdies into coconut trees that take days to get them down from or, once, over a 30-foot high wall onto the roof of the town’s only gas station, a wall I’d specifically moved the gang next to because I figured they couldn’t possibly lose a birdie there, where a piece of its yellow netting now proudly mocks me over the lip of the roof whenever I walk to school, causing me to seriously consider altering my route in the future to avoid the humiliation.

I think I’m losing my mind.

In the Peace Corps handbook for volunteers A Few Minor Adjustments, one passage defines where I am: “You may get impatient with people and lose your sense of humor — and perspective. You may fly off the handle at the drop of a hat, resent almost anything you’re asked to do, especially things you know are good for you. Here are these nice people, doing all they can to help you, this great series of learning opportunities designed expressly for your special needs, this lovely host family going out of their way to take care of you. And you’re counting the days until it’s finally over. What’s wrong with you? The fact is, there will be several times when you will feel physically and emotionally drained, quite incapable of absorbing any more input.”

I spend the next day tooling around Sibulan for FOR RENT signs, then go downtown to Dumaguete to price beds, hotplates, couches, and fans. I piece together a monthly budget of what everything will cost, and I find I’ve got enough to do it.

The next day my host father informs me that he, too, will not honor his three-month Peace Corps housing contract after February 15. “While you have had trouble adjusting to our culture, we have had trouble adjusting to yours.”

Things move swiftly. That evening, my plate is placed on the living room table away from the family, who eat in the kitchen. All communication between us ceases. The next day my counterpart informs me that the family has changed its mind; it wants me out now

I head to the pier to watch the boats come and go. After some soul-searching, I forgive myself for whatever cultural lapses I may have committed. I tell myself that living for two years here without making a single cultural faux pas is impossible. I vow to learn from my mistakes and move on.

On New Year’s Eve, I’m ravaged with flu symptoms — aches, pains, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, which also happen to be dengue symptoms. Oh no. Sometime in the night, I hear faraway booms (cherry bombs), pops (pistol shots), thump-thump-thumps (disco at the Quadrangle), and “10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1! (2011!). Whoopee.

The next day my host father finally explains his decision: When I cut fat and gristle away from their food, bones away from their fish, yolks away from their eggs, or preferred water instead of their Coke (all for health reasons), I insulted his wife. Whenever I left my sweltering upstairs room to go to the beach, I insulted his house. And on and on it went. 

The next morning, my principal and counterpart move me out immediately to an inn across the street from the school. It’s where I currently reside.

Outside the window today, rain is coming down in sheets of carbon paper. I wanted so badly to leave a legacy here. What will mine be now? They say suffering is good for the soul. If so, how am I better? The Peace Corps says you’ll learn more about yourself than you ever knew. If so, what have I learned?

I look at my dehydrated, withered body. How much more weight did I lose from this illness/stress episode? My feet look like carcass bones. I won’t have to worry about swollen feet anymore.

And tomorrow is the first day of class. “Hi kids, I’m Sir John Stick-Figure-Sunken-Eye-Sockets! I’ll be your role model from America for the next two years. Enjoy!”

Happy New Year.

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