Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Honey’s got what you need

Honey, Rona and Jo-Ann are the proprietors of a store adjacent to my town’s plaza. I stop in periodically for pasa-load and a cold can of Coke, but mostly it’s to have some quality time with local Filipinos. I don’t get a lot of that.


Don’t get me wrong: I’m out in my community frequently. I go marketing most Sunday mornings – principally for the community exposure; the most I usually buy is a pinya and some freshly-fried pastries that remind me somewhat of beignets – and I can often be seen relaxing in the plaza under the mushroom-shaped pagoda that provides the only shade. (Some idiot saw fit to equip the primary public space in the entire town with thin, useless trees that block about as much sun as a pencil.)

Even so, often my only daily municipal exposure will be the trike ride to and from my center. This sounds bad – community interaction is important for a volunteer, both to build useful relationships and to legitimize one’s foreign presence. But for a couple crucial reasons, I don’t always fit in as much local interaction as I feel would be ideal.

The first is that – and this is no exaggeration – my center is my community. Keeping up with upwards of two hundred relationships, inclusive of my kids, coworkers and regular visitors, is difficult enough, particularly for me.

And as an introvert, I find it incredibly tiring. I mentioned that a while back I was the bantay for our youth boys, meaning I ate and slept at the center for a week. Workwise, it should have been no-stress, since there was very little extra work for me to do; mostly I kept my typical work schedule, and in the other hours I just made sure the boys were waking up on time, going to school, et cetera. As we got closer to Friday night, when I could finally go home, I thought I was doing pretty well; previously it had been kind of my personal rule not to sleep at my center, because I knew that could quash the psychological distance I try to keep between work (or school) and the rest of my life. But this time I was getting it done, feeling good, ready to grab some sleep and then head up for a weekend in Manila on Saturday.

With a few hours to go until quitting time on Friday, I crashed. Some of it was fatigue – I’m not used to getting up at 5am every morning, even here – but mostly it was the stress of being “on” nonstop for a week, of never letting fall the facade… and with the end in sight, it was as if all the little chinks I’d gotten over the course of the week, the ones I’m normally able to repair every day in my cherished solitude, finally broke down the wall. Both my body and brain felt heavy, confused, sluggish. When this happens I also get a little more temperamental and a little more paranoid, which definitely is not helpful when I’m in the middle of an act.

My societal limits have improved thanks to Peace Corps, but they still exist and they always will. What that means is that when I’m not at work, busy building relationships with my kids and trying to navigate the convoluted web of communications among my coworkers – including all the unstated rivalries, injured feelings and power-grabs that make organizing any project like tiptoeing through a minefield – I like to have a lot of time to myself to recover, to slough off the exhalations of the community that seem to stick to my skin like the smoke belched from ancient jeepneys.

I don’t know the names of my neighbors. I know my landlady’s name because it’s listed in my phone and I have to text her every month to arrange for my rent payment; but her mother is the one who actually meets me to collect the money, and her name I still don’t know. Some of the children in the neighborhood know my name – and they all recognize me by now, of course – but I suspect they picked it up from someone else. I’m polite and friendly, I offer the local kids access to my guava tree – but I haven’t taken any great strides to get to know anybody in my subdivision. It’s where I live, and socializing is often work. So I keep that duality: I live and I don’t socialize.

It’s a little easier when I’m in the banwa, the town center: by the time I leave my neighborhood, the mask is on and I’m adjusting my personality to cope with the curiosity of Filipinos. I think every volunteer who can’t pass as a Filipino has moments when the stares simply seem downright hostile. The force and number of them can often hit like an insult.

In reality – at least in my experience – Filipinos are actually very rarely hostile towards foreigners, although god knows they have every right and reason to be. Many Filipinos have an unfortunate admiration for white skin, colored eyes, and corporeal altitudes above five and a half feet. Even back at our Pre-Staging in Los Angeles, a returned volunteer warned us that despite how things might seem, we would not magically become more attractive when we step off the plane in Manila. And it’s certainly easy to get uglier here, what with the burning sun, the various and frequent skin ailments and regrettable personal grooming decisions, like using a shaving razor with an edge like a blunt carrot.

None of that matters: no matter how hideous we get, the gazes and hushed catcalls continue. And sometimes it can seem a bit all-encompassing.

Which can make it difficult to intentionally socialize, although making friends can really be the best way to dispel the awe. I like checking in with Honey and Rona and Jo-Ann because they are at least over me to the point that I can talk and joke with them without feeling uncomfortable. They don’t even sell the cheapest Coke – I could save a few pesos by going down the street – but the personal connection-building is worth it.

We don’t have the deepest conversations. Standard procedure is that Honey will ask me if I have a girlfriend yet (and offer one or both of the other girls as options), Rona will test me again to see if I remember her name (which is good, because I would probably forget hers without the quizzes), and Jo-Ann will say something simple in Ilonggo and be delighted when I respond in dialect, even if it’s exactly the same exchange we had last time. After a few minutes I palm my Coke and leave, briefly buoyed by my social success.


And I have a few other connections. Grace and the other workers at my favorite bakeshop are always good for a quick conversation – and I’m trying to wheedle a company tshirt out of them before I leave – and I have my go-to pineapple and rice vendors. Thanks to my stint as a teacher at my center’s preschool, which primarily enrolls children from the outside community, a lot of kids and their parents recognize me strolling around the town center. But deep relationships I have none.

Which, really, is okay with me: it’s not something I need or ever expected to have in my local community. I still feel stabs of guilt sometimes when I lock my gate and sequester myself in my house, insert my earphones and listen to hours of The Kinks and Thao with the Get Down Stay Down. But it’s a necessary step for preserving my sanity, a cathartic release that lets me nullify the effects of spending too much time with too many people, and muster up the will to do it all again tomorrow.


Ben said...

Your relationships are deep in that there is space for filling between yourself and your constituents.

marcos said...

Yeah, even me, I can't explain my personal fascination with caucasians. It's a deep rooted colonial Mentality that we adopted after centuries of foreign rule.

I've enjoyed reading your post. I've not personally had a lengthy conversation with a foreigner ever ... and I was surprised at being able to relate with your introversion. I consider myself as an introvert as well and have to "switch on my social mode," whenever interacting with work related social situations. Most of my friends are socially well adjusted, as with most Filipinos I know, so I don't usually share my social frustrations with them.

Your job rocks! btw. I'll force myself to make daily battles with my introvert ways if I can travel around the world and do what you do.

Ryan Murphy said...

Filipinos' view of foreigners is one of the things I find most interesting about living in this culture. I think there's a lack of understanding on both sides... I tell my kids that if they were walking down the street in the US, nobody would give them a second glance because Asians aren't unusual in America. That challenges their view of "place" being intrinsically tied to "culture" and "ethnicity."

But then I often can't understand their viewpoints either since I grew up in a more multi-ethnic setting. It really shows how our upbringing, whether in a unicultural or multicultural context, can obstruct our understanding of others.