One of the hardest things about my Peace Corps service has been the inability to express myself consistently in the way that I wish to be understood. Between the three or four different languages spoken in my province and the wide chasm of cultural difference, there are days when I feel like the Philippines’ 7,642nd island—isolated by the shores of my foreignness.
With 38 days left (!!) as a Peace Corps volunteer, now is the time for quantifying the last twenty seven months. I am up to my ears in paperwork, monitoring, and evaluation; it feels incredibly validating to reflect on how I’ve contributed to some amazing projects working alongside local counterparts and other volunteers. The metrics of my service astound me–I am not fishing for compliments here, but it’s pretty wild to know that I’ve helped train well over 1,000 young people in essential life skills!
Reckoning with the raw data of my service is dizzying, but the thrill is not enough to convert me to being a numbers person. What has mattered most to me throughout the past two years is the poetry. And the love–or lab, as it is colloquially known–I have received.
Every day, I am humbled by the unrelenting kindness of the families, co-workers, and country who have accepted me as one of their own. It is no easy task to take on the responsibility of caring for an adult baby (aka me)—someone who cannot complete the simplest of tasks (knowing which jeep to take, dancing the native dance, cooking a chicken with its feathers still on, etc.) and whose command of the language is limited to one syllable responses.
The people of the Philippines have given me food, shelter, rides, clothing, and compassion without asking for anything in return. We have fallen asleep on each other’s shoulders while riding crowded public transportation and have scored ‘100’ by singing corny ’80s love ballads together on videoke. There is always someone rushing over to tell me when my backpack is unzipped or to invite me to share snacks or a selfie. Most importantly, we have laughed. Oh, how we have laughed.
There are many types of love: romantic love, familial love, the love we have for our pets where their cuteness makes us clench our teeth. But the love I’ve experienced here is somehow different. The love I’ve felt over the past two years has never been contingent upon my worth or beauty or the degree to which I’ve ‘earned’ it. If anything, it is a love that has seen my absolute WORST parts and yet still calls out to me with one of my favorite Filipino phrases: “never mind”. This isn’t the American usage of “never mind”, a favorite utterance of surly teenagers trying to avoid talking to their parents. In the Philippines, “never mind” means just that—never mind how ridiculous, unknowing, sweaty, and incompetent you are. Never mind that, because anyways—we lab yu. We love you.
As I’ve asked myself often over the past two years, WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS LIFE?!
Thanks as always for checking in and now, enough poetry! Look at this laundry list of all the cool things that have happened in the past few months:
Conducted an ~~amazing~~ creative writing summer camp for twelve high school students with my ride-or-die site mate, Chelsea. We had no budget and no plan, except for our shared love of young adult novels and a burning desire to teach students about the mystery genre so we could re-create a crime scene.
Contracted measles…again. Most people never contract measles, but I am lucky enough to have had it twice—this time with the added bonus of half of my body going numb for a week following my rash and fever. After an MRI and a week recovering in Manila, the mystery paralysis was never solved, but I’m back to 100%
Hung out with friends who are like family. The daughter of the lady I rent my apartment from comes down to visit me nearly every day. I’ve shared with her my childhood love of Sailor Moon and My Neighbor Totoro and we spend a lot of time coloring and singing songs. Together, we visited the homestead of my landlady where her elderly mother still lives alone out among the rice fields.
Conducted two S.M.A.R.T. Girls Activities
As part of my grant project, I conducted two multi-day seminars for 46 female highschool and college students aimed at helping them become S.M.A.R.T. Girls who stay in school (Self Aware and Confident, Moneywise Mature Leaders, Able to Make Good Choices, Responsible Students, and Totally Dedicated to a Better Future). We had so much fun making crafts, learning about important topics like bullying and budgeting, and just hanging out and sharing our experiences as strong and powerful women!
Attended C.O.S. Conference
C.O.S, or Close of Service, Conference is the last big event that brings all of the Batch 274 Peace Corps volunteers together. Starting from a group of 88, I think our ranks were nearly cut in half due to early terminations/administrative separations (aka people getting kicked out) from our cohort. Despite our shrunken size, it was a great opportunity to catch up, eat some delicious food, and start the conversation about heading home soon. While I may not be super close to every single volunteer in my batch, it was a heartwarming sensation to feel a shared sense of purpose and experience with a big group of people. I look forward to a reunion stateside!
Girls’ Trip to Puerto Galera
After COS conference, my two site mates and I went to a beach town famous with Filipino tourists. Aside from the treacherous wooden motor boat ride to and from the beach, it was an amazing few days spent with two of the most important members of my support system over the past two years. We got matching henna tattoos (and matching sunburns), snorkeled over giant clams, and ate pizza that was almost as good as pizza from home.
My friend and counterpart was accepted to teach Filipino and our native dialect during the pre-service training of Batch 276 after my sitemate and I recommended her for the job! She is already in the thick of her work and I am so proud that she took this opportunity to develop her skills.
Conducted seven site visits to assess sites for future volunteers! These site visits involved A LOT of travelling and negotiating unfamiliar landscapes alone; I am proud of myself for managing to get myself around by using the local language (and by looking pathetic/attaching myself to families). All of the awesome counterparts I met made the long and tiring trip worthwhile. These new volunteers have some amazing sites and counterparts to look forward to…
Sundays are my favorite day at site. I’m currently sitting at mykitchen table, parked in front of the fan and snacking on a bag of instant noodles. Since waking up at 8:00am, I’ve hand-washed a basin of dirty laundry, swept my concrete floors, and listened to about four podcasts. Later this afternoon, my sitemate and I will walk ten minutes into town to search for the magnets, string, and paperclips we need for an upcoming activity. The weather has gotten ungodly hot lately, so any form of physical movement feels like a big accomplishment for the day. For now, I’ll continue switching between podcasts and music for ambient noise as I finish up a few PowerPoints and session plans to get a head start on next week.
After ten days away from the Philippines while on vacation, I found myself pining for the peace and quiet of my cozy basement apartment in Lagawe. Don’t get me wrong—I also missed my work and the various families and community members who have adopted me too. But following the sweet reunions with the people I have missed and the handing out of pasalubong (gifts from abroad), my solitary Sunday seemed like it couldn’t come soon enough.
When I first started service, finding time to be alone was oriented towards escape. It’s tiring to adapt oneself to a foreign culture and at the end of a long day, sometimes nothing feels better than turning on an American sitcom and tuning out the world. However, with only a handful of months left in my service, I no longer find myself wanting to tune out. Instead, I’m tuning in—reflecting on what it means to live on the other side of the planet for two years, trying to write down the smell of someone chewing betelnut and snippets of conversation for posterity, and—most importantly—directing my energy towards finishing up my last few projects.
The process of wrapping up Peace Corps service looks different for every volunteer. For me, it involves carving out one day a week for quiet reflection. It seems counterintuitive when the goal of Peace Corps service is to engage with the community, but I’ve written about this before: you can only give when you take care of yourself first. Also, as a weird hybrid introvert/ inherently chatty and sociable person, if I didn’t set these kinds of boundaries, I would run myself dry. When I told a friend recently about my goal of initiating less conversations with strangers (seriously, sometimes it feels like I have a sign over my head that says ‘TALK TO ME!!” even when I’m not really interested in the conversation), she doubted my ability to do so and said: “Your ‘not talking to anyone’ looks like talking to ten people.” Hence, solitary Sundays—a necessary excuse to shut up, light some candles, and wallow in my feelings.
With its emphasis on close family ties and companionship, the Philippines can be a hard place for those of us who like to be alone. However, there IS a precedent in this highly Catholic country for Sundays to be a day of Sabbath and introspection; I am often asked by community members if I will be attending mass at our local Roman Catholic Church. To the chagrin of my Irish ancestors, the answer is always “No”, but in my heart, it feels deeply satisfying to have created my own Sunday ritual. Like many American customs that have been imported to Philippines, my day of relaxation resembles neither the local culture of group bonding nor perfectly imitates the U.S. tradition of ~treat yourself~ (glass of champagne, pedicure, fur coat, et cetera). But it works, in its own way. At the very least, it is quiet and cool here in my subterranean temple.
Thanks as always for tuning into my ramblings and wishing you all a day of peace and solitude!
I didn’t know how to respond when we received these questions in the anonymous comment box at a Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camp I was assisting with at another volunteer’s site. The other Peace Corps volunteers and I agreed that it would be best to consult with a staff member from the Department of Social Welfare in addressing these queries. In a covered gymnasium in the sweltering afternoon heat, a local social worker came and delivered a speech in Filipino which, using my rudimentary language skills, I can sum up as something along the lines of “A terrible thing happened to you, but life goes on, you get over it, tomorrow will be a better day.”
Her answer resonated with the crowd—teenage girls prone to posting inspirational quotes on Facebook several times a day. I was moved by their nodding heads and sympathetic faces, wishing for a moment that anything in life was as simple as a single maxim. But, in my heart, it felt like something was missing. Surely, life marches forward regardless of any traumas we incur, but what about the feeling? How do you rebuild yourself after your power and dignity is stripped away? How do you survive knowing that the person who violated you on the deepest level is still out there—that they may be related to you or attend the same college? One in ten women ages 15-49 in the Philippines has experienced sexual violence. One in twenty five Filipina women ages 15-49 experienced forced sexual intercourse during their first sexual encounter. These are statistics that I don’t want to get over.
For one of the first times in my service, I felt like I couldn’t help the youth asking these questions. As a volunteer who is regularly tasked with conducting activities on unfamiliar topics, I often joke that I can master any subject matter as long as I have 24 hours to prepare. However, fake expertise feels cheap when face-to-face with the tragic emotional consequences of sexual assault. I wish I had another lifetime to listen to every woman’s story, validate her experiences, and remind her that what happened to her was not her fault. Despite its depressing tone, I even wish I had the courage to politely interrupt the chipper social worker and share what I believe to be the truest answer to the questions posed by the youth: you survive sexual assault, but the pain, the shame, and the fear—it never goes away.
The bright side—if there is a one, and I am always looking for one—is the strength and perseverance I have noticed in Filipina women of all ages. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to collaborate on an International Women’s Day event with my site mate, Chelsea. We taught 100 sixth grade girls at her school about famous Filipina women from history. The students were so engaged and excited to learn about female warriors, doctors, chefs, and businesswomen that it was hard to imagine that many of these strong, independent girls might fall victim to sexual predation in the future.
My personal favorite she-hero we talked about that day was Remedios Gomez-Paraiso aka Kumander Liwayway, a lady commander who led her squadron into many successful battles against the Japanese occupiers during World War II. Gomez-Paraiso was famous for wearing bright red lipstick when she led troops into combat. When asked why she would wear makeup on the battlefield, Kumander Liwayway said “I am fighting for the right to be myself.”
One of my greatest hopes for this world is that all women can have the opportunity to be themselves—without fear, without violence, and without any need to forget even one moment of their beautiful, important lives.
As always, missing you all. Hard to believe that there are only four and a half months left of this adventure!
The other day, my site mate, Chelsea, and I were walking home and stopped by her former host family’s house to pick up her dog, Sasha. Although I’m not sure they understand Chelsea’s devotion to her adopted (and loveably neurotic) pet, the Dinamling family has agreed to let Chelsea chain Sasha up in their front yard when she is at work. Before coming to Peace Corps, I dreamed of a vibrant interchange of ideas, traditions, and practices between people from different nations. In reality, the cultural exchange I see on a daily basis more often looks like one American dog on a leash while all the other dogs run free.
Upon opening the front gate, we were greeted by a terrible sight—blood, smears of green shit, and three slick, dead mammals. Sasha—who we figured was due to give birth in a few weeks’ time—had unexpectedly aborted her puppies.
Alarmed by our screaming, Chelsea’s host family came to see what was causing the commotion. Dogs here in the province are for protection, certainly not for coddling or showering with affection. Freddy and Jovy, Chelsea’s host parents, looked puzzled as they took in the sight of Sasha’s shocking miscarriage and the presence of two highly perturbed American girls in their front yard.
However, in the midst of the chaos, their efforts to try to understand pet-related trauma touched me. Within minutes, Freddy was busy at work digging three small graves in the side garden. Jovy got down on her hands and knees—IN WHITE PANTS—and started sweeping up the mess with a bucket of water and a wicker broom.
The whole scene was too much for me and I scurried home to ponder the metaphor turning over in my mind.
I am pathologically fearful about wearing white clothing. It’s too stressful for me to imagine all of the accidents that I could get into with colored liquids and imaginary wet paint. Rather than spend the whole day standing up in fear of soiling myself, I stick to all black everything. I like to think of my fashion choices as more Johnny Cash than dour schoolmarm, but regardless of the overall effect, there is an underlying psychology when it comes to my attire. I’ve mellowed a bit from my ‘Type A’ ways as I’ve gotten older, but I still struggle to cope with uncertainty and change. If it were up to me, every day I would look perfect, I would have it all together, and I would feel pure.
Seeing Ate Jovy clean up the detritus of Sasha’s short-lived pregnancy IN WHITE PANTS reminded me of how futile and limiting it is to cling to such a narrow perception of perfection. Is ‘perfect’ the untouched and unblemished? Or is it a willingness to jump into action on behalf of another person without first thinking about yourself? My bleached and pristine “perfect” felt inadequate when I saw Ate Jovy crouching low to the earth—washing away our mourning and working to set the world right, if only just for this once.
I’m not going to start wearing white pants any time soon, especially while I continue to be responsible for handwashing my own clothing. However, this experience challenged me to shake the need to equate flawlessness with success. I’ve been busy lately–not an orderly, unblemished busy but a sweaty, disorganized, not-enough-sleep level of hectic activity. Although I’m tired, I wouldn’t trade my messy life for anything. I am reminded that these last few months of service are not the time to sit on the sidelines, but rather offer an opportunity to embrace being a work in progress, to engage more with the process than the outcome, and above all–to dig in.
Enjoy these pictures from the past few months and know that I am thinking of you all, always!
This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Year’s Blog Challenge, week three: Cultural Differences. I have to say that this week’s topic—exploring differences between the values and beliefs of the Philippines and the United States—had me stumped. When talking about culture, it is easy to risk painting with strokes that are too broad. I’ve lived in the Philippines for over a year, but my ability to “get” the culture is filtered through my own outlook on the world, the nature of my experience working as an American volunteer in a provincial setting, and the indigenous community in which I live. All of that, and the fact that I am not Filipino.
(*As with any great thinker, Enriquez’s cultural theory has faced its fair share of critics in its time—most notably those who wonder if Filipino-Americans ‘count’ as cultural Filipinos, given that they were born in the United States, do not share the Philippine cultural experience, and hardly speak any of the Philippines’ languages. A great explanation of these counter-arguments can be found here.)
I can’t say that I have observed all of these characteristics in every Filipino I have met, but—as with all stereotypes—there tends to be a grain of truth in what’s put forward. Do you observe any of these characteristics in people from the United States? In such times of confusion and crisis in my home country, I hope we can adopt the values of kapwa (a shared sense of humanity) and bahala na (determination in the face of uncertainty) from the Philippines.
SIKOLOHIYANG PILIPINO: A Sampling of Filipino Cultural Values
(Note: The following is not an exhaustive list of Filipino cultural values and is largely lifted from the sources identified below, with some edits and additions from yours truly. Don’t want any plagiarism scandals here—check out the original articles if you can…they are great!!)
KAPWA (SHARED IDENTITY)
According to Enriquez, the core of Filipino personhood is kapwa—the notion of a “shared self”. Kapwa implies that each person is connected to all persons outside him or herself, even total strangers. Kapwa obliges people to treat one another as fellow human beings equal in value despite differences such as race, socioeconomic status, and class. Kapwa is valued not solely for its role in maintaining smooth interpersonal relations, but as the embodiment of the Christian precept to ‘love your fellow man just like your own body’.
Kapwa can be observed in the inclusiveness of Filipinos; it is culturally important that every person feels ‘a part of the group’. Outsiders will be catered to and encouraged to join in and be one with others. In order to truly join the group, politeness and building trust is imperative. Regardless of status or a sense of direct duty, entire communities will rally around an individual facing troubles because it is believed that this person’s well-being is the shared responsibility of the community. Strong family and group ties are one of the hallmarks of Filipino culture.
However, many believe that Filipinos’ sense of kapwa is being deteriorated by the infiltration of Western media in the Philippines. Popular movies, TV shows, and music from the United States emphasize cut-throat competition and push forward light-skinned celebrities as more desirable and worthy than their darker-skinned counterparts. Growing economic disparity in the Philippines also contributes to a decreased sense of “shared self” between the ultra-wealthy and the poor.
PAKIKIRAMDAM (SENSITIVITY OR SHARED INNER PERCEPTION)
Pakikiramdam is described as a “shared inner perception” that compliments the “shared identity” of kapwa. This heightened awareness and empathic sensitivity to the feelings of others serves as a survival tool in a society where much social interaction is carried on without words. Filipinos are experts at navigating ambiguities such as knowing when to join a group or how to blend in with other people. Pakikiramdan encourages Filipinos to ask themselves, “If I were in the other person’s situation, how would I feel?’’ As a result of ‘‘feeling for another,” Filipinos exercise great care and deliberation in their social relationships and are skilled in reading body language and non-verbal cues.
BAHALA NA (TACIT TRUST)
The Filipino phrase “Bahala Na” (imperfectly translated as “Come What May”) has long been misinterpreted by foreigners as demonstrating the fatalism of a happy-go-lucky people willing to throw their hands up whenever catastrophe is on the way. However, the term Bahala has sacred undertones. The ancient Filipino inscription divides the term into “ba’’ for woman and “la” for man. “Ha” means breath or wind—in a larger sense, spirit or God.
A more accurate understanding of Bahala na is “determination in the face of uncertainty.” Undoubtedly, the traits of resourcefulness, courage, creativity, perseverance, and hard work can be observed in Filipinos who dare to live along the earth’s “fire-belt” where erupting volcanoes, tidal waves, and tropical storms—an ever-restless environment—continually threaten survival.
HIYA (SENSE OF PROPRIETY)
Loosely translated as ‘shyness’ or ‘shame’ by most Western psychologists, hiya is actually ‘sense of propriety’. In its different forms, hiya can refer to embarrassment at one’s self, feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment by others, and shyness. Hiya can be linked to the Spanish concept of “amor propio” — self-esteem that prevents one from losing or swallowing their pride.
In order to maintain a sense of propriety, Filipinos often ‘save face’ by watching out for other people’s egos or avoiding public confrontation. Although attempts to ‘save face’ can be perceived by Westerners as deceptive and pandering, sensitivity to maintaining the social balance allows Filipinos to keep their pride and egos intact.
UTANG NA LOOB (NORM OF RECIPROCITY)
Filipinos are expected by their neighbors to return favors—whether the return favor was directly asked for or not. However, according to Enriquez, looking at utang na loob more closely in the context of Filipino culture shows that the phrase is more closely related to gratitude and solidarity than it is to a burden or a debt. According to scholars Rogelia Pe-Pua and Elizabeth Protacio-Marcelino (2000):
“In the Filipino pattern of interpersonal relations, there is always an opportunity to return a favor. It is not absolutely obligatory in the immediate future, for the opportunity to show utang na loob might come only in the next generation, maybe not in your lifetime. Your children will see to it that it is recognized and respected. It is a beautiful element of Filipino interpersonal relationships that binds a person to his or her home community or home country. In fact, this is expressed in a popular Filipino saying, ‘‘Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan. (Those who do not look back to where they came from will not reach their destination).” Utang na loob is a calling heard by many Filipinos who go to other lands but who still retain strong ties with their homeland.”
PAKIKISAMA AND PAKIKIPAGKAPWA (SMOOTH INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS)
Pakikisama was identified by American psychologists as the emphasis that Filipinos place on maintaining smooth interpersonal relations by going along with the group and maintaining conformity. In his theory of Sikolohiyang Pilipino, Enriquez argues that pakikisama is not merely concerned with maintaining smooth interpersonal relationships, but is an essential component of pakikipagkapwa–treating other persons as kapwa, or fellow human beings.
Pe-Pua, R. and Protacio-Marcelino, E. 2000. Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology): A legacy of virgilio g. enriquez. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 3 (49-71). Accessed from http://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-839X.00054/pdf
At some point, each person’s life is divided by a before and an after. Often times, we don’t have the privilege of placing our finger right on the pulse of these momentous transitions. We wake up one morning and fate has intervened with a winning lottery ticket, an unexpected accident, or the death of a family member or friend. Suddenly and without warning, the plot line shifts in an entirely new direction. This is the after.
Unlike these moments where destiny blindly asserts itself, joining the Peace Corps was a conscious choice I made to take an active role in writing my own story. My Peace Corps journey definitely began in one place—with an application feverishly submitted at 3am during the height of my post-graduate school-induced anxiety. However, over the past year and a half, the story has grown into a tome with 1,000s of chapters. My Peace Corps ‘book’—only a metaphor at this point, but perhaps a future possibility—details victorious highs, painful lows, and many small wonders that might have escaped my attention if I was not in the midst of an experience that forces me to take a closer look at myself and my surroundings.
As a reader of my blog, you are hearing things from my perspective—a narrow lens defined by factors such as my age, race, gender, and a chance decision that resulted in my being placed to live and work in Northern Luzon. Even within my own perspective, the narrative takes different forms: there is the story I project to Peace Corps staff, the story I share over social media and on this blog, and the more mundane tale of my every-day life as an awkward, tall American woman trying to survive in the unfamiliar environs of a Filipino mountain town.
This blog post serves as a reminder that there are countless other stories that you could (and should!) be reading about the Philippines and about Peace Corps—tales from volunteers serving in other countries today or forty years ago, tourists who visited the Philippines for a few days and have great vacation tips to share, and host country nationals who have lived in this country for their whole lives and are experts in its history and culture. All of these stories are interesting and important and yet, not one story captures the full picture.
In her famous TED Talk, author and feminist Chimamanda Adichie warns of “the dangers of a single story.” According to Adichie, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
As an American who has lived in this country for less than two years, I don’t feel in a position to dissect the ‘single story’ of the Philippines. After all, this is a country of more than 7,107 islands where over 170 different dialects are spoken.
However, given that this post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Year’s Blog Challenge, Week Two: The Danger of a Single Story, I thought I would take this opportunity to dispel some of the stereotypes that persist about the other community that I belong to here: the community of Peace Corps volunteers.
I don’t know what my “After” will look like following my service here in the Philippines, but I am confident that I will always be proud to be part of the Peace Corps. Part of the beauty of this experience has been learning from other volunteers. While Peace Corps volunteers around the world share a sense of mission and purpose, each volunteer’s experience is unique and significant in its own small way.
Therefore, to honor my friends and fellow volunteers who have served in 140 countries since 1961, I present to you this list of the top ten commonly held misconceptions about Peace Corps volunteers with the hopes of broadening your horizons about what it means to serve as an emissary for world peace and friendship on behalf of the United States.
Some of these misconceptions might hold a grain of truth (i.e.: I am a young liberal with no running water!) but there is never just a single story! If you are reading this and you have served in Peace Corps–in the Philippines or anywhere around the world–I’d love to hear your story too!
Top Ten Misconceptions about Peace Corps Volunteers
All Peace Corps volunteers are young, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, recent college graduates
After accepting a highly sought after invitation to serve, prospective volunteers must complete rigorous medical clearance and three months of in-country language and cultural training before being extended the official title of “Peace Corps volunteer”. In terms of age, the average age for Peace Corps volunteers is 28. Almost all volunteers possess college degrees and many (in my batch, a vast majority) possess graduate and additional advanced degrees. The oldest currently serving volunteer, Alice Carter, is 87 years old and serving in Morocco. For more information about serving in the Peace Corps as an older volunteer, check out this informative blog.
Peace Corps volunteers live in mud huts with no running water or electricity
No two Peace Corps living situations are alike. Volunteers in the Philippines swelter while those serving in Eastern Europe and Mongolia freeze. Some do live in bona-fide huts while others live in apartments with constant Wi-Fi and air-conditioning units. Within the Peace Corps community, these nicer living arrangements are often referred to as “Posh Corps”. This designation doesn’t sit well with me though; it strikes me as imperialist and condescending to assume that people living in developing countries must dwell within our narrowly defined ideas about conditions of hardship in the West. Peace Corps volunteers live and work in the communities where they are assigned. These communities are chosen based on need and their desire to host a volunteer—whether they are communities where people live in huts or in high-rise apartment buildings.
I am writing this blog post from my air-conditioned second floor office. True, we are currently experiencing an all-day brown out, but a generator is keeping the power running. My apartment is located in the basement of a beautiful, multi-story cement house built with remittances sent from the United States. While I don’t have consistent running water, it comes every few days and I have big, blue barrels that I fill up to use in the meantime. I have access to Wi-Fi any time I am willing to pay the price to load my pocket Wi-Fi device; it’s painfully slow, but it gets the job done!
Widely held assumptions that volunteers work for the CIA are only one of the many stereotypes about America that PCVs must combat in their communities. My intuition tells me that this persistent myth is more closely related to the need for building trust between volunteers and their communities rather than an actual belief that volunteers have ulterior motives as spies.
I want to go on the record loud and clear here: Peace Corps volunteers do not work for the CIA. In fact, recognizing the potential dangers posed to volunteers, the CIA strictly prohibits utilizing volunteers for intelligence purposes. After Peace Corps service, volunteers can never work in military intelligence in their country of service and cannot work for intelligence agencies for at least five years after their close of service. Any person who has ever worked for the CIA before applying to Peace Corps in ineligible for service.
Peace Corps imposes its volunteers on countries wary of American interference
Peace Corps only sends volunteers to countries who ask for assistance. The assistance provided is specific to the requests of the country and its communities. For example, here in the Philippines, Peace Corps volunteers work in the areas of social work (Children, Youth and Families), Education, and Coastal Resource Management. Every Peace Corps country has its own unique programs based on the needs specified by the country’s government. For more information about Peace Corps’ current programs, check out the Peace Corps website.
Peace Corps service is a two-year, non-stop adventure/paid vacation
It’s true, I go on vacation. And not infrequently. Peace Corps volunteers are awarded 48 vacation days to use throughout their twenty seven months of service and, like most of my friends working 9-to-5 jobs in the United States, I am constantly scheming as to how I can best use my time off to relax, recharge and explore the world. In contrast to most of my friends at home, I’m lucky to be living in a country where beautiful beaches, volcanos, and mountain ranges are the norm!
However, I think it’s important to put vacation time while in the Peace Corps in perspective. The majority of my experience is spent at site. I love this place—truly my home away from home! When I am here, I devote almost all of my time (when I am not reading or binging on TV shows before going to bed) to working with my office, getting to know the culture, and building relationships. Being a Peace Corps volunteer is a 24/7 commitment—even when you are on vacation. The rules around when and where I take my time off are strict, with any notion of “non-stop adventure” hindered by policies that allow me to leave site for, at best, ten days at a time. These same policies prevent me from riding a motorcycle—an essential element to even the most basic of adventures.
Vacation means more than just time off from work to Peace Corps volunteers. Leaving site offers a chance to see friends who live on the other side of the country—often times the only other Americans you will interact with throughout your service. Vacation is an opportunity to be anonymous in a place where no one knows you by name or as “Madame Peace Corps”. Most especially, vacation is a time to indulge in any number of countless delectable delights you can only dream of at site, where the diet consists largely of fish and rice. Everyone needs a little hope to cling to in this life. For Peace Corps volunteers, this hope comes in the form of a few days away from site and cheese. Let us have our glimmer of normalcy without reproach!
Peace Corps volunteers are all liberal hippies
During my service, I’ve met a variety of Peace Corps volunteers—from buttoned up young professionals to what I like to call “Peace Corps Soul Searchers”, recognizable by their bare feet, flowing hair, and regular references to pseudo-spiritual writers such as Paulo Coehlo and Rumi. In my experience, many Peace Corps volunteers lean left, but not all. For the most part, we don’t really talk politics—especially not in our communities because this is bawal (forbidden). What I can say for Peace Corps volunteers, by and large, is that we are open minded, tolerant, and kind. Call these liberal values if you will, but I like to think of them as common decency.
Peace Corps volunteers lose weight during service
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, every volunteer’s experience is different. In the Philippines, some of my friends have lost TONS of weight due to the heat, dietary changes, and an increase in exercise. I would say that men tend to lose weight as women gain, but this is not true across the board.
Before service, I had images of myself waking up with the sun to take long, solitary runs on dusty roads. In my mind’s eye, I could already see the street dogs trotting beside me and the hordes of bewildered children cheering me on. A year and a half in, I ask myself: in what world would this ever happen? I try to move my body at least once a day, but my life in the Philippines is decidedly sedentary.
With a diet rich in sugars, carbs, and fats, I’ve definitely put on a little bit of weight and that’s okay. I’ve enjoyed every pound of it and, in the midst of trying to navigate a new culture and get some serious work done, staying super fit is the least of my concerns.
Peace Corps volunteers are saints who want to save the world
Peace Corps volunteers may start out with good intentions and pure hearts, but service can grizzle them. For every time a volunteer momentarily helps their community, there are just as many—if not more—moments where the volunteer spends the day puttering around the office. While I’ve come to recognize that this puttering builds a slow momentum, it sometimes feels very different than the image that I had of myself ‘making a difference’. If you want a funny look at real lives of Peace Corps volunteers, check out @rpcvmeme on Instagram. I think their memes get pretty close to the true experience!
If anything, more than saint-like, Peace Corps volunteers are dogged in their perseverance to uphold their commitment to serve for 27 months. I think the stubbornness of Peace Corps volunteers to complete their service is a true testament to host communities and host country nationals; even during challenging times, they are what make it worth it to be here!
Peace Corps volunteers are dropped off in country and picked up two years later—with little supervision in between
When I moved back in with my parents for a brief period before starting graduate school, I struggled to adapt to living back under their roof. After all, I had taken care of myself since going to college at age 18 and had traveled alone for months at a time in three different countries.
Being in the Peace Corps is much like moving home after college: it’s tough to get used to all of the rules and expectations. There are rules about Whereabouts (telling someone where you are going), rules about where you can go, and rules about when you can go there. Every six months, we have to submit a detailed, data-driven report on our activities for evaluation from our sector and regional managers. For most decisions, big and small, there is a long line of higher-ups who have to be called, texted, emailed, or otherwise looped in. For an experience where you are largely out on your own in your community, it can feel like pretty intense monitoring.
I’ve heard that it didn’t used to be like this in the old days. In fact, a staff member, who is also an RPCV, told me that she and her friends chartered a plane and travelled away from their sites for months at a time during her service in Africa during the late 1960s. That being said, I see the need for the rules—I’m happy to comply with any and every policy that will help keep me here in the Philippines. In addition, staff are friendly, responsible, and upfront with their expectations, which makes the unfamiliar loss of freedom easier to swallow. While somewhat intense at times, I trust that the rules implemented by Peace Corps are all rooted in knowing what’s best for volunteers’ safety and well-being based on over 50 years of experience.
Peace Corps is the toughest job you will ever love.
This catchphrase is the unofficial slogan of the Peace Corps. I understand the sentiment, but I think its brevity limits this experience to a ‘single story’. In some ways, it implies that enduring moments of hardship at the workplace are what make these two years of service worthwhile. At times, I hear volunteers talking about their troubles almost as if they are a badge of honor–as if the more struggles you face, the more legitimate your Peace Corps service.
While it’s true that I have faced some challenges during my time here, the difficult parts have not defined my experience. I have been shown such warmth, friendship, and hospitality in the Philippines that it would feel like an insult to call working here “my toughest job”. If anything, I am the one who has been tough to handle as a foreign transplant in this unfamiliar culture. Lacking awareness of propriety and norms, I am sure that I have made my coworkers wonder at times if hosting me in the office is not their “toughest job.” And yet, they have continued to show me love–unwarranted and unwavering love. Me, I don’t need a badge of honor for my hardship. Instead, I need a million ‘Thank You’ notes to let all of the people in my community know what a blessing their guidance and support has been.
The truth is: Peace Corps is unlike any other job that I have ever had, or probably will ever have again. It’s more than a job…it’s a lifestyle–where everyone knows your business, you never have enough money, and the work (and fun!) never ends. There are days when I love being here and times when I’m ready for the next adenture, but I can’t say the past year and a half has been the toughest.The most intense and the most growthful maybe–but not the toughest.
In December, I had my first visitor from the United States. My mom braved almost twenty four hours of travel to meet me in Cebu City, the Philippines’ first capital and the economic heart of the Central Visayas. With only one week’s vacation time between the two of us, a visit to my site up north in the mountains of Ifugao wasn’t going to be possible. The bus trip alone would carve two days off of our trip. Rather than run ourselves ragged, we decided it would be best to spend this time exploring a new place together. We chose Cebu as a fortuitous location for our long-awaited reunion—a perfect destination for both its rich cultural history and ease of access by airplane.
Wending through the gritty pre-dawn streets of Manila on the way to catch my flight to Cebu, I was feeling nervous about the meeting of our two worlds. Undoubtedly, my experience in Peace Corps has changed me. Would I be able to relate? Or would I be transformed, or damaged, or just plain haggard beyond recognition?
Upon greeting my mom in our luxurious hotel room (a parent’s budget allows for decadence unimaginable by penny-grubbing Peace Corps volunteers), I recognized that I had little to worry about. We had both changed, and this was normal. My mom had more “wisdom highlights” than I remembered and she revealed that she is planning to buy a new condo—too nervous to tell me over the phone that returning “home” in eight months might look a little different than expected. I’m sure she noticed some things have changed about me too—like how I ask for “service water” at restaurants or how I don’t bat an eye at waiting over an hour for an available taxi. We spent a wonderful week lounging in malls, getting foot massages, and taking in some of the beautiful sites that Cebu City and Bohol, another island in the Visayas, have to offer.I was surprised at the ease with which our two worlds converged and hope that she can manage to fit in another trip before my service is over!
In many ways, our “meeting of two worlds” in Cebu City was not without historical precedent. The city has long been a hotspot for cultural convergence. In fact, Cebu was the first region of the Philippines explored and colonized by the Spanish. However, it was not the Spanish alone who made their mark upon the native inhabitants of the Philippines living in Cebu. For centuries before the arrival of the first colonists, Chinese merchants traded their wares throughout the region and spread their cultural practices, as well as their goods and technologies. Much later, following the Spanish-American War and during World War II, Cebu would have to adapt to American and Japanese cultures while under foreign rule.
In honor of Blogging Abroad’s New Years Blog Challenge to write about global citizenship, I offer you this (very) brief history of one of the Philippines’ first entanglements in the increasingly complex web of connections and interdependencies that define our world. As stated earlier, the Philippines and its people have a long history of adapting to other cultures; I continue to encourage my family and friends in the States to learn more about the Philippines under American colonial rule—an often overlooked chapter of our own complicated and not-always-pretty history. However, centuries later, it appears as if the arrival of the Spanish in 1521 has borne the most dramatic impact on the Philippines’ culture, economy ,and societal values.
For now, enjoy this hasty historical timeline. I would like to thank the ever-trusty Wikipedia the background info. Time to start reading up on some of this history myself!
1521: Magellan Shows Up
The arrival of explorer Ferdinand Magellan in Cebu in 1521 marked the beginning of a centuries-long period of Spanish colonization in the Philippines. Although he was Portuguese by birth, Magellan sailed at the behest of King Charles I of Spain. Magellan’s mission was to find a new trade route to the Spice Islands by sailing west from Europe to Southeast Asia via the Americas and the Pacific Ocean. In March 1521, Magellan and his crew arrived in the Philippines and sailed onwards to Cebu City, which at the time was a kingdom ruled by Rajah Humabon.
“I Pledge Allegiance to the Spanish (And Jesus Christ)”
Through persuasive methods, Magellan and his expedition’s priests convinced the natives to pledge allegiance to King Charles I of Spain. This pledge to obey the mandates of King Charles I required conversion to Christianity. Around 700 islanders were baptized by Magellan’s priests. Rajah Humabon, his queen, and his family members were among the first to be baptized. The native queen of Cebu was presented with an icon of the Santo Niño, an image of the baby Jesus, as a symbol of peace and friendship between the Spaniards and the Cebuanos. On April 14th, 1521, Magellan erected a large wooden cross on the shores of Cebu to celebrate his conquering of the area.
Lapu Lapu vs. Magellan: The Fight for Mactan Island
Emboldened by the success of his initial religious conversions, Magellan sought to continue to use religion to bolster his trade forays into the Philippines. Rajah Humabon—now baptized as Don Carlos in honor of the Spanish king—advised Magellan of the longstanding rivalry between the rajahs of Cebu and Datu Lapu-Lapu, a native chieftan in nearby Mactan island. Magellan travelled to Mactan Island to try to force Lapu-Lapu into becoming a Christian, but the cheiftan was interested neither in converting nor ceding his power. On April 27, 1521, Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan when native soliders fiercly defended their home. Magellan’s body was never recovered. Today, Lapu-Lapu is honored as a Filipino hero for resisting colonizing forces.
Round #2: Forty Years Later (And for the Next 300+years)
Over forty years would pass before another Spanish explorer dared to establish a foothold in the Philippines. In 1564, Spanish explorers led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi sailed from Mexico to establish a colony in Cebu. In 1565, the newly occupied territory—the first European settlement in the Philippines–was christened “Villa del Santísimo Nombre de Jesús” (Town of the Most Holy Name of Jesus). Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines saw the introduction of Christianity, the code of law, and the oldest modern university in Asia. The Philippines was ruled under the Mexico-based Viceroyalty of New Spain until Mexican independence. After which, the colony was directly governed by Spain.
Cebu and the rest of the Philippines would remain under Spanish control until 1898, when the territory was ceded to the United States following the Spanish-American War. American rule in the Philippines was not uncontested. The Philippine Revolution had begun in August 1896 against Spain, and after the defeat of Spain in the Battle of Manila Bay began again in earnest, culminating in the Philippine Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the First Philippine Republic. Following the annexation of the Philippines by the Americans, the Philippine–American War ensued, with extensive damage and death, and ultimately resulting in the defeat of the Philippine Republic
I’m sure at this point that many of you are growing tired of listening to Christmas music on repeat. As my gift to you, I offer this selection of songs I hear on the regular at site–usually blaring from my neighbor’s radio at 6 in the morning (although sometimes by choice because early ’90s Filipino alt-rock is amazing!). This list is a mix of ’80s and country favorites, as well as a few classic and contemporary OPM (Original Pinoy Music) tunes.
I do not want to give ANY impression that this is cool music. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am decidedly uncool, or as I like to think of it–post cool. However, like the ever-present sound of roosters and tricycles, these noises have grown on me.
Take a listen and practice your favorites so you are ready for your next videoke session!
Reading sustains me. This is nothing new, but over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to read more than ever. After completing my 61st (!) book of the year, I thought it might be time to share what I’ve been reading and some recommendations for those of you out there who are looking for something good to read this holiday season! Favorites are in bold. Also, always open to recommendations—please send them my way!!
Despite attempts to live in the moment I find myself thinking often about jobs. Where will I work after finishing Peace Corps? Does showering with a bucket and co-existing with cockroaches translate to five years minimum experience? Will I make enough money to move back to Brooklyn?
My sitemate and I recently called a moratorium on searching for jobs until the New Year. It’s too tempting to start planning imaginary lives while forgetting to relish in the (once imaginary) life that is unfolding at present. To ground myself in this experience, I’ve been making an effort to take note of the minute aspects of my work day that make volunteering here so special—the handcrafted Christmas decorations that adorn our office, the ever-present soundtrack of country music and Filipino love songs, a highly bureaucratic system that runs solely on hand-delivered communications and harks back to a time before email turned us all into efficient automatons.
My co-workers bring life to my office. A typical day includes ample chicka-chicka (gossiping), a smattering of snacks, and in true Pinoy fashion–the occasional song and dance. My co-workers show up early and sacrifice their own personal time to attend our overnight and multi-day events, often traveling far distances by public transportation (at their own expense) to provide services to far-flung barrios. They are always gracious about cramming four or five people in the backseat of our beat-up truck as long as it means we all have a free ride home. Pressed up against each other and subject to the car’s sharp turns as we weave through mountain passes, we learn a lot about one another through our lively conversations and constant joking. I’ve been so blessed to be accepted by the people that I work with. While forming relationships with coworkers has been a struggle for many volunteers, the people that I work with have become a refuge for me.
However, while there is a familial feeling in our workplace, there also exists an underlying current of anxiety and uncertainty. All but one of the staff members in my office are job order workers. This means that all of the services provided by my office—including youth capacity building in 11 municipalities, implementation of the country’s 2014 Reproductive Health Law, population management, and the convening and the Province’s Youth Coordinating Council—are delivered by workers who may only work with us for up to three months, or until their contracts are terminated.
Throughout the Philippines, almost 600,000 individuals are employed by the government as job orders workers. Job order workers, or JOs, are deployed in national government agencies, state universities/colleges, and local government units. JOs work on a contract basis where their services are only required for a specific period of time. It is important to note that job orders are appointed and therefore, may or may not have an educational background related to the work they will be doing. The contract length of job orders is arbitrary (usually 3 to 6 months) and is in no way related to project deadlines and the needs of the office that the job order is assigned to.
After their contracts expire, job order workers may be renewed. However, this renewal, which often can be extended indefinitely at the discretion of the government’s HR office, does not offer the JO the same benefits that are available to permanent staff, including sick leave, vacation leave, maternity or fraternity leave, attendance in trainings and seminars, 13th month pay, and year-end bonuses. This story of a National Housing Authority job order worker whose contract was extended for 11 years without becoming a permanent position demonstrates the exclusion of contracted workers from the same rights that are extended to regular government employees.
If a job order worker is not signed to another short-term contract, there are usually only two options: seek a job order position at another office or become unemployed. Given the inherent inequality that exists for job order workers, one has to ask why people continue to accept these positions. The reality is that in many areas, there are no other employment options. Here in my province, local government units and government agencies are the largest employer; there simply are no other job opportunities for people who want to work locally, as there are no private employers operating in the area. For this reason, it is no wonder that an estimated 2.4 million Filipinos chose to work abroad in 2015, sending remittances home totaling 180.3 billion pesos (Philippines Statistics Authority, 2016). However, choosing to work abroad can be a dangerous prospect for persons desperately seeking an income, as they are vulnerable to human trafficking at the hands of unscrupulous employers.
Since 2014, the number of job order workers in the Philippines has almost doubled. This is a dismaying statistic because job order workers go without security of tenure and the benefits enjoyed by regular employees. In addition, offices like mine, which are dependent upon job order labor, are unable to successfully complete their mandates due to frequent staff turnover and inevitable loss of institutional knowledge as job order workers come and go. Job orders are not hired to complete ‘busy work’ such as paperwork and filing, but instead are relied upon to develop and implement the core programs and activities of government offices. Without a consistent workforce, it is very challenging to monitor and evaluate the success of our programs and activities overtime—an essential component of sustainable development.
While the job order system has been explained to me as a way to give as many people as possible the opportunity to have at least temporary employment, I cannot help but see major flaws in its implementation. In a country that already has a reputation for political corruption, it is shocking to me that the power for appointing and dismissing workers at will would be given to government officials. It is a common occurrence for workers to be contracted, or have their contracts terminated, as a result of family connections, bribery, and political affiliation. The consequences of such a system lead to constant job and economic insecurity for already poor and marginalized people.
Alas, as a volunteer, my role here is to observe, not to judge. This system existed long before I came here and will likely exist long after I leave. Part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is resisting the urge to say “That’s wrong!” because such a judgment could only be based on my own culturally informed understanding and biases. Instead, I’ll opt for a phrase popularized by my elementary school science teacher –“That’s interesting!”—, a catch-all expression that can convey emotions ranging from curiosity to disgust. I’ll listen to the worries of my coworkers and validate their experiences of feeling underappreciated, overworked, and disposable. Most of all, I’ll continue to enjoy the company of my co-workers—for however long they will be working here!