Monday, March 15, 2010

International Night at the Iloilo Theater


Last week we had visitors from the Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. About sixteen students aged around seventeen and representing several different countries (Nepal, Ethiopia, Czech Republic, Vietnam and mainland China, aside from Hong Kong itself) stayed at my center for a weeklong exposure.

They had to endure the tedious courtesy calls, the long sweaty car rides, the frequent communication breakdowns and gaps in planning that have characterized my last nineteen months. To some extent I had forgotten just how much these things have become part of my daily routine – I long ago stopped letting them make me anxious, save in exceptional circumstances, but this week I actually found my anxiety building on the behalf of our visitors because their presence triggered memories of my own first few months here and I could understand quite clearly what discomfort they had to get through.

I personally benefited greatly from the special food my center prepared for the visitors. I didn’t eat gulay or cold fried fishda for an entire week. Fresh mangoes were presented at so many meals that I almost forgot they’re normally a luxury.

As usual I was the documentarian for their activities, although whenever my photography students were free I handed the responsibility over to them. And they handled the charge with aplomb and some excess of enthusiasm – by the end of one week we had accumulated very nearly 3000 photos with our two center cameras. Most of them depict mundane meetings with municipal officials and the myriad acts of cultural performance committed over the course of their visit, but I managed to sneak in a few of my own shots during work hours.

This candle is in Jaro Cathedral, one of the most well-known churches in a province whose primary cultural attraction is, well, its churches. One day my center scheduled us to visit four churches scattered around the city and outside – in Jaro, Molo, Miag-ao and Tigbauan. We ended up skipping Molo and Tigbauan for the sake of time, and the Miag-ao church was locked and we hadn’t scheduled our visit so they wouldn’t open it for us. So we completed one-fourth of our objectives. This is normal in the Philippines.

We took the students to Nagarao Island, off the east coast of Guimaras. Total travel time, including of course meeting the mayor of the municipality, edged probably toward four hours. The island was pretty, though rocky; on our bangka ride back to the mainland we stopped by another island whose sandy beach was actually a lot nicer. But the time we had on the island was a welcome break.

Here I also ran into the second species of stereotypical Caucasian man. The first one, the Creepy Old White Guy, needs no explanation. The second kind is the White Guy Who Loves Showing Off How Much He Knows About the Philippines. He was from Canada and had been traveling around with his Filipina wife. He managed to mispronounce the names of an impressive number of locations, and as usual with this kind of creature, his zeal for expressing his expertise just emphasized his ignorance all the more.

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On the last day of their visit, the students had a community outreach activity in one of the outlying barangays. They helped cook food and worked with the children in the local daycare, then in small groups visited various homes in the community. I went along with one of the small groups and with my typical clumsiness managed to break one of the bamboo floor slats, which is perhaps a slightly bigger deal than it sounds since the house was suspended on tall stilts.

After the home visit, the community put on a welcome show for the visitors. No surprises there. The locals were as gracious and friendly as always.

The week went generally as I expected, with lots of pitfalls and a generous dose of cultural awkwardness, but also with a fantastic dynamic between the students and the kids at my center. My kids love getting visitors, even the kind that just duck in for a quick song-and-dance program (we get a good number of those), and having these students actually stay in their family houses for a week meant a lot to them. For their part, the students seemed to integrate with the children really quickly; and although I always worry about my kids’ idealization of foreigners (including myself), I think the positive effects of the students more than counterbalanced it.

It’s simple, really: every person who comes into my kids’ lives and shows them love and respect is helping fill a gap in their lives that should never have existed. Although their new kuyas and ates could only stay for a week, their friendship is something my kids won’t forget.

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