Wednesday, August 18, 2010

269 is the new 267

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Cavite, near Manila, to help with the Initial Orientation for Peace Corps Philippines Batch 269. Although I chose to apply to be a resource volunteer for their arrival, I’m actually a bit apprehensive about the whole thing for a few reasons.
I’m leery about “preparing” trainees for their service because it’s entirely probable, and I think unavoidable, that doing so will create unfulfilled expectations. On Facebook and blogs I’ve already seen current volunteers give the new batch advice that is entirely context-specific and does not apply to every volunteer’s situation. The first thing I’d like to tell Batch 269 is: Anything and everything we, the current volunteers, tell you might be entirely irrelevant to your experience in the Philippines. It’s very easy to oversimplify this country and assume that Filipinos are one homogenous lump, but the longer I stay here the more I see how untrue and how unfair and prejudiced a viewpoint this is. Although I know much more than I did two years ago, sometimes I feel as if I “know” less – because so many of my initial impressions and the things people told me have been exploded.

In applying for IO, I also fought against my disinclination to participate in Peace Corps events. For some I’ve had no choice – we have mandatory conferences and other events – and some voluntary events I’ve attended mainly as a break from the daily grind (or daily lack-of-grind, as is sometimes the case), but this will be the first event I’ve actually applied for. I realize that technically I work for Peace Corps, but as much as possible I try to transfer “ownership” of that service to my host country agency. I don’t think it’s good for most volunteers to have a very close relationship with Peace Corps as an organization, because that not only strengthens the possibility of politicizing their connection to their community partners, it also turns their attention away from their actual service. I recognize that this doesn’t apply to everyone, and some volunteers play important roles in developing Peace Corps as an organization that more fully pursues legitimate goals. But in my case, most of the people I work with didn’t sign on to partner with Peace Corps, and it’s unfair to them if I’m often away for PC events.

On a more nostalgic note, I expect IO to be at least slightly surreal. I’ve been out of the Philippines only once since I arrived as part of Batch 267 in August 2008. I’ve mostly avoided getting to know volunteers from Batch 268 – none of them have sites near mine, and I figure the most those relationships would likely amount to is mutual grousing. We have enough of that in our batch as it is. This’ll be the first time in over two years that I will be around a large group of unfamiliar Americans, and I may well react by cowering in my room for the duration of the conference.

Most likely not. But I do think IO will reveal some unpleasant truths about my own mindset when I entered the country. Sometimes it’s honestly hard to remember what I was thinking when our plane from Los Angeles touched down in Manila; I made a conscious effort beforehand to avoid expectations – I did almost zero research on the Philippines, assuming that I would really know nothing until I got here, and maybe not even then – but I could never make my mind a complete blank about something as important (well, important to me) as two years of my life. Stupid newbie mistakes I have no problem with. Better to make them than not, really. But I’m not looking forward to any realizations about the assumptions I may have had when I was in 269’s place – or the ones that have endured even into the present.

My lack of contact with non-Filipinos has also given me a curiosity to hear, well, “foreign” opinions and ideas, and I’m sure the new batch has some interesting ones. When I look at the past two years, I’ve really been in consistent contact with very few people outside of my immediate community; aside from my family, I haven’t kept up any kind of frequent correspondence with anyone in the States. And even within the bubble of Peace Corps I see most other volunteers only on a very sporadic basis. Which has been fine – I certainly didn’t come to the Philippines to hang out with fellow countrymen – but it means that I’ve lacked exposure to outside viewpoints. And once you’ve spent more than twenty months talking with the same few people, conversations tend to repeat.

I’m trying to recall my own first few days in-country, and a lot of the details are fuzzy. I remember sitting through a lot of sessions that I would realize later were entirely unnecessary. I recall feeling lost in the Mall of Asia. (This hasn’t changed. I still get lost there.) I remember when the staff of our IO venue made us an American-style meal for our last dinner before we left for our training sites; a tinikling dance performance; a very few conversations; teaching Mao one night to some of my fellow trainees. And my travel bag disintegrating in the Manila airport before my flight to Iloilo, and tying it together with belts. And the first jeepney ride to the place where we met our host families, and my first walk around our wonderful little training community, and meeting my little sister Pau-Pau.


I guess there are lots of little memories buried here and there, but I’ll wait until I’m closer to the end of my service to dredge them up. It’s not over yet.

1 comment:

Schellhase said...

Nice use of "grousing." I hope you have fun. I'm a little jealous after reading your post, not really of doing IO, but getting that fresh lens on myself as I arrived two years ago; I look forward reading your thoughts afterwards.