CULTURE SHOCK
April 21-May 4, 2012
Negros Oriental
When I return from my vacation, physical and emotional malaise overwhelm me. My stomach isn’t right: bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, a feeling of being full all the time. Eating becomes a severe trial. Everything I ingest leaves an awful aftertaste. If I have a bowl of soup, I never want to have soup again. If I have cereal, the thought of ever having cereal again makes me ill.

I have zero energy. I sleep 10-12 hours a night and nap during the day. I have little appetite. I lose more weight. My travel companion, B.J., texts me that he’s having similar reactions. Did we both pick up an amoeba while overseas? If so, why didn’t we experience any symptoms there?

But worse than my physical condition is my mental state. My emotions are all over the place. Everything I see in the Philippines suddenly disgusts me. It’s as if the entire place has deteriorated overnight. Every cultural anomaly that I’d long ago gotten used to now saddens me, shocks me, infuriates me. What’s happening? I plummet into a massive depression from which I can’t escape.

And then I realize what’s going on. During my vacation, we continually compared the cultures, behaviors, and people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to those of the Philippines. It was impossible not to. The contrast was striking. I expected there would be a few cultural differences but nothing radical. They were radical.

What I found was that each of those countries, although as poor or more so than the Philippines, is far more advanced in almost every category. As a result, when I returned to my site, every cultural difference that I’d gotten used to suddenly offended me greatly. I’d been here so long that I no longer saw the forest for the trees.

“The rest of the world has passed you by!” I wanted to shout to everyone I saw.

“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “What am I accomplishing? Who am I fooling?” Nothing’s going to change.

I’d lost my perspective about the community I’d once wrapped my arms around. It was as if I had to readjust all over again like I did when I first arrived here. What’s the point of sticking around for my last six months just to endure more barking dogs, sewer stench, tasteless food, sweltering humidity, burning trash, urinating men, toothless drunks, and fighting cocks when my presence is clearly going to make no difference to anyone’s long-term well-being? I wanted out. I seriously considered Early Termination.

For the next few weeks, I mutate into a grouchy, intolerant, arrogant foreigner. Deep down, I know what’s happening to me. Here are all of these nice people, arguably the friendliest in all the world, doing all they can to help me and welcome me and invite me and care for me – and I’m judging them harshly and counting the days until I’m gone. Guilt signs a partnership agreement with my depression and they officially merge.

I make a few feeble attempts to get back into the community. A local dentist re-cements my errant tooth. I return to school and pass out my pasalubong souvenirs to the teachers. I receive a much-needed box of See’s chocolates from my son. They melted into a brown mass of goo during the long trip over, but they still taste divine.

A few days later I receive two gigantic care packages, one from Dave Kinnoin, who earlier sent me a couple of packages of books and magazines for the school and goodies for me. The other box is from my nephew Larry, whose niece gathered about 30-40 young adult novels for my students.

My coteachers invite me to a beach picnic, but I end up sitting by myself most of the day because no one will speak English and I long ago lost my ability to learn Visayan.

I join my tennis barkada for a tournament at neighboring Siquijor island over the weekend. We get on a boat at 6 a.m. and cross the channel. The host team from the town of Maria meets us at the pier and vans us to the court. At 8 a.m. the first matches — and the drinking — begin. My team drinks while they play, they bet while they play, and drink and bet when they’re not playing.

I’m introduced to the opposing team as well as local dignitaries. The hospitality and food are first-rate. But I’m still suffering from stomach problems and eat and drink minimally. As I did at the beach picnic, I end up spending most of the day and night sitting by myself because my inability to speak the local language separates me from everyone. My depression returns with a vengeance.  Although I win all three of my matches, my mood is dark. I want to be anywhere else. 

After the tournament, half the team wants to party in town. I join them, hoping that will improve my spirits. We drive across the island to an outdoor concert that’s in high gear. The plaza is packed, and everyone appears to be wasted. So many people are passed out on the ground, they resemble corpses. Zombies stagger up to me and pull my clothes, mumbling incoherently. Police haul the unconscious away on their shoulders. The stench of vomit wafts through the cigarette smoke like a knife. This doesn’t bode well.

Our driver, instead of waiting for us as promised, disappears for several hours, and we discover that he went to the other side of the island to pick up his sister. He doesn’t return until 4:30 in the morning. In the meantime, my tennis partners never stop drinking and are no longer able to communicate. I try to fall asleep on a bench but can’t because the zombies keep pestering me. I want to crumble this entire weekend into a ball and toss it into a wastebasket.

Finally our driver shows up, and we drive back to our resort. Naturally, we don’t have a hotel room. We have one dorm room for the whole team. Twenty mattresses are spread across the floor. The snoring is the decibel level of a herd of buffalo, but at least it drowns out the roosters and barking dogs. Naturally, it has one shower that barely trickles water out of its rusty spout and no soap. I fall exhausted and sticky and sweaty onto the last mattress. Three hours later, I’m awakened and told we’re leaving.

No, not the island. We”re going to the local team captain’s house. We arrive and sit around in the backyard while food is prepared. Everyone immediately orders beers. I look at them aghast. I can’t help myself. “What? It’s 9 in the morning! You’re drinking again?”

They drink nonstop through the morning and into the afternoon. I excuse myself and sack out on a sofa inside. They wake me at 1 and we head for the pier. But the boat won’t leave until 4. So what does everyone do? Order more beer! I’ve died and this is Hell. 

When I get home that evening, I take a LONG shower and sleep for 12 hours. All of my stomach problems return in spades. My depression and guilt and self-loathing amp up several notches. I seriously consider asking my regional manager what the procedure is for Early Termination. 

But I don’t. Maybe things will get better. It has to. I’ll get through this. But when? I’m so physically and mentally feeble right now, I don’t know if I can endure any more pain and discomfort and confusion. We were told early on that the Peace Corps would test us. That we would discover what we’re truly made of. It’s motto: “How far will you go?” is meant to be read literally and figuratively. This is my moment.

A FAMILY REUNION
May 5-6, 2012
Poniabunan, Mabinay
As if it was preordained, the wonderful mountain family that lives north of me in Mabinay whom I visited several months ago texts me and invites me to visit them for the weekend. I jump at the chance. This may be just what I need.

I bring some gifts from my trip, hop on a bus, and am overjoyed to see everyone waiting for me on the side of the dusty road two hours later. The little kids jump and down at the sight of me and lead me through the tall grass fields across a lemon-lime meadow toward their rickety shack.

The rest of the nine-member family are waiting for me. Daisy, the second-oldest daughter, leads me to the backyard excitedly. There rests the foundation for a new house their father is building. Their oldest daughter, who lives in the States, just sent them 5,000 pesos to help construct a new house. Hardly enough, but it’s a start.

I give Daisy and Kim handwoven purses from Cambodia, a Swiss Army Knife to their father, and a set of dominoes for the family. The kids, who own no toys, scramble to play with the pieces and never stop until I leave the next day.

I immediately feel at home again. Other than my last host family, which I’ve grown the closest to since coming here, this simple mountain family is the dearest people I’ve met. Joining them today is a young boy, one of their cousins who lives an hour away, who heard I was staying for the weekend and asked to stay here too so he could “see the foreigner.” Apparently, I’m the first one he’s ever met. He never takes his eyes off me the entire weekend.

I snuck 100 pesos into each of the girl’s purses, so they offer to use the money to buy chicken and make chicken adobo for dinner. Word immediately gets out that “the foreigner is back” and soon visitors coincidentally drop by. We take pictures, sing videoke, and play dominoes until it’s time for bed. They remember how sore I was sleeping on the hard wooden floor the first time I stayed here, so they’ve prepared a mound of blankets and pillows for me this time. I sleep like a baby.

The next day I hear there’s a swimming pool at a nearby resort and offer to treat everyone to a day at the pool. I’m stunned when everyone tells me they’ve never swam in a swimming pool before. The pool has a giant water slide, and we’re the only ones there. It’s as if the kids have died and gone to heaven. I teach them Marco Polo, and we wear out the slide. It’s one of my best days of my service. The joy on their faces that day will remain with me forever.

During my stay, I subtly inquire about the woman I met on my first trip, the one who made such an impression on me. I hint that I’d like to pay her a visit while I’m here. The older sister tells me that she’s away this weekend, is still seeing her foreign boyfriend, doesn’t work, lives at home, and used to be a lesbian. Hmmm, a bit over the top. 

She and her family have hoped from the beginning that I would hook up with their other daughter, who just graduated from high school. I made it clear from the beginning that that would not happen but they continue to hold out hope. During the weekend, that daughter and I have a long talk outside and I urge her to date boys her age. She says she’s afraid of them, doesn’t like them, and doesn’t trust them. “You’re my soulmate,” she pleads.

I explain to her that when she finally meets a nice young man, all of her feelings about me will be forgotten. I make plans for the family to come visit me during our annual festival in mid-June. The next day, everyone walks me to the road until I catch a bus back home. I’m content during my trip back. My spirits have been renewed. A few days later, they get another boost.

A MAGICAL CLASSROOM
May 8-23, 2012
Bacong
I’m awakened early by a banging on my gate. I go outside and see my neighbor two houses down. He’d asked me weeks ago if I would be willing to teach English during the summer at his father’s orphanage. His father is the pastor there.

“He’s here now,” he says, pointing to a silver truck parked beside the road. “He would like to meet you.”

I come outside and introduce myself to Pastor Chui, a rotund, cheerful Buddha-faced man with a hearty belly laugh. He offers to show me the place if I’m free. I say okay. The Little Friends Children’s Home is in Bacong, about 9 kilometers away. It houses about 25 kids from elementary to college age. It has male and female dorms, a kitchen, gardens, animals, a water well, a basketball court, a church, a covered court, all in a lovely tropical setting.

When we arrive, a few kids peek their heads out of doorways, and two of the youngest ones run out boldly and stare and smile at me, then never leave my side. I’m immediately smitten.  The kids here, I’m told, are not real orphans who were given away at birth. Many still have a mother or father or grandparent in the picture who for various reasons cannot support them.

I meet the social worker who works there and she assembles all the kids in the covered court. They’re a lovely bunch. I introduce myself and have them do the same. They all speak English well, and many say they love to read. (I now know who I will donate my grandniece’s books to.)

They ask if I could teach the kids English during the summer. I tell them I’d be delighted. That weekend I devise my lesson plans. I’ll visit them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for two hours each day. The first hour will be an English lesson (parts of speech, vocabulary, etc.) and the second hour will be English games (Jeopardy, Madlibs, etc.).

The next few weeks fly by. My spirits return. I help out during enrollment at my school, giving oral reading tests to incoming students in the mornings, and in the afternoons I head out to Bacong. The first day I arrive, everyone is waiting for me in the covered court. A blackboard has been set up. Chalk is ready. Students are in their seats with notebooks and pens. I’m impressed.

This is the first time I’ve taught a lesson by myself since I’ve been in country. Volunteers aren’t allowed to teach alone; we must coteach. That’s not just Peace Corps policy; it’s also the Department of Education’s. I’ve taken over classes before at school when coteachers were absent, but I don’t teach a lesson during those times; usually I just play games with the students. This will be the first time I’ll actually do a lesson by myself. Since this is outside my Peace Corps job, I can do so.

The students are very responsive, full of fun and smiles and laughter. Afterward, they cling to me and ask questions and don’t let me leave. Then they walk me all the way down the road to the highway until I catch my bus. Each day when I arrive and text the social worker that “I’m walking up the hill,” a pack of kids darts out of the trees and sprints all the way down the road to greet me, yanking my backpack from my shoulders and fighting to see who gets to carry it for me. How can one not fall in love with such kids?

My depression lifts. My stomach returns to normal. My energy is renewed. After weeks of physical healing, rest, self-reflection, reassessing why I came here, and the warmth of so many good people, I come to realize that no matter how much I may fault Filipinos for the way they do or don’t do things, proposing “improvement” or expecting them to do things “our way” is unrealistic and inappropriate. I’d forgotten that our task is to learn as much – or more — from Filipinos as we’re teaching them.

Accepting host country behavior doesn’t mean liking or approving or adopting it. It means accepting the inevitability and logic of it. It means trusting that the behavior is appropriate for their culture no matter how strange the behavior would be in ours. By and large, cultures don’t behave in ways that defy logic. Whatever we may think of the reasons behind particular behaviors, chances are they make sense to them. Only by seeing that Filipinos are just like us in certain respects can we accept that they might also be different.

I realize that while there are aspects of Filipino culture that I will always find troubling, some locals will likewise be offended by certain parts of our culture. In all my time in the Philippines, however, not one Filipino has commented negatively to me about my aversion to organized religion, about the way our society pushes kids out of the house when they turn 18, puts parents into nursing homes, gets involved in wars around the world, etc. Whenever such delicate topics have been broached, Filipinos as one have bent over backward to change the topic, turn it into a positive, or say nothing.

What eventually changes my outlook are the smiles I get every day from friends, children, and strangers. The strength and sensitivity and sweetness and empathy that Pinoys instinctively express during my recovery so uplift my spirits and renew my love and bond with the Filipino culture that I realize that I’m thankful to be here and vow to complete my service.

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