Sunday, February 28, 2010
This woman is preparing ibos, a ubiquitous and cheap glutinous rice snack. (It’s not my favorite, but ibos can be pretty tasty dipped in sugar and with a cup of coffee on the side.) Watching her, I was struck by how simply this food is made and sold: there are no factories involved, no distributors, almost no middlemen at all. She and her husband likely grow and harvest the rice themselves, paying for fertilizer and milling and not much else. When it’s dried and milled, they probably sell it at their own sari-sari or market stall, or use it for other products like ibos.
That’s not to say it’s an easy life being a rice farmer. Rice is cheap – an average kilo (2.2 pounds) costs around P30 or P35, or about sixty to seventy cents USD. Lucrative it isn’t. In fact, I recently scanned a municipal report in my town which stated that many farmers of palay (unmilled rice) have quit the practice because they can’t make enough money. It’s something of a dilemma: the country relies on cheap rice as its staple food (even with many local producers, the Philippines still has to import a vast amount to keep its populace riced up), but if it’s too cheap, the farmers can’t afford to grow it… and that means more reliance on imports.
The Philippines is already in the lamentable position of having to rely on the outside world for too many of its resources. The main problem is with exportation – but not the exportation of goods. What the Philippines is forced to export is rather more valuable and infinitely more exploitable: its own people.
It seems simple enough: Overseas Filipino Workers, OFWs, take the opportunity to travel to more prosperous nations for worthwhile jobs. They send money home. After a while, they make a triumphant return to their homeland and their families’ lives are forever enriched by their selfless time abroad.
But of course it doesn’t work like that. It’s a system that holds so many pitfalls and potential cultural and societal damage that every happy-go-lucky OFW recruitment poster I see now makes me feel a little bit sick. No matter how many smiling Filipinos and plucky jet planes an advertisement incorporates, all I see is the breakdown of a people and a nation.
It’s not just the fact of the matter: breadwinners all over the world leave their families temporarily for the purpose of making money. What’s awful is that here, OFW posts are presented as the solution to the problem of poverty, as if that particular problem is endemic to the Philippines and there’s simply nothing to do but go elsewhere for money.
If foreign work is a solution, it’s one that puts the scales in dubious balance: it’s one that fosters a perpetual state of dependence, strengthens the myth of national inferiority, and – luckily for the politicians – eliminates the need for any actual improvements within the Philippines.
More than that, it’s a societal nightmare. It forces Filipinos and Filipinas who grow up in a family-centered culture to live away from their loved ones. It screws up marriages and introduces STIs back into the country – diseases which are typically underreported, creating a false sense of safety for everyone. OFWs are at risk of any and all forms of exploitation and frequently have nobody to support them. Even the revenue itself works against the culture: many Filipinos have no experience or training with budgeting, so money sent back from OFWs is just kind of… spent.
The temptation is to look at this as a “necessary evil.” But OFWism isn’t viewed as a transitory measure, a way for Filipinos to stay in the black while their country develops its infrastructure to the point that it can actually support its own citizens; rather, it’s an answer in itself. But it’s a political answer, not a real one. In real terms, it’s a crutch. But the crutch can’t be thrown away until the injury is healed, and the healing here goes slow; sometimes things can get a bit gangrenous. And guess who foots the bill for surgery?
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Every year, Villa in Iloilo City hosts a weeklong sailboat regatta. I wasn’t able to attend last year and this time I only caught the wrap-up on the penultimate day. It was a nice time: Villa Beach isn’t the loveliest stretch of sand, but it’s a stretch of sand nonetheless – and the distance across the strait to much prettier Guimaras Island almost seems swimmable.
The main reason I went was to finally take some photos with a 55-250mm telephoto lens I borrowed from a friend. Until now almost all of my photos were taken with the 15-55mm kit lens for my Digital Rebel XT. The summer before Peace Corps I did borrow my dad’s old Minolta and zoom lens, but – whether because of my own inexperience or something wrong with the camera – very few of my shots came out properly.
After shooting so long exclusively with a wide lens, the dynamics of telephoto took some getting used to. I found myself constantly fumbling to find the focus ring without looking, and the plane compression caused by the zoom made getting a sharp subject difficult (although I love the effect the compression can give).
If I had only been able to get this kid’s face in focus, the above photo would probably be one of my favorites ever.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
“Bokeh” is a photography term that people like to bandy about, mostly because it’s foreign (from a Japanese word), semi-obscure and makes photography seem more exclusive. It simply refers to the out-of-focus parts of a photo. Most often, though, people apply it specifically to unfocused points of light, frequently in the background of low-light photographs. Photographers argue about which cameras produce the most attractive bokeh, the merits of round light-points versus polygonal ones, and so on.
All it truly means, though, is that blurry bits of light can be really pretty.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
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.
Friday, February 12, 2010
I just wrote an entry about my photography class, but I hope my zeal in writing another will be excused. My first class is almost over, and I think my expectations have been reversed. From the beginning I’ve been operating under the assumption of a technical/artistic dichotomy, and I’ve split my classes along these lines. My guess at the start was that the kids would pick up the technical and struggle with the artistic: they would learn how to operate a manual camera, but wouldn’t have time in only a month and a half to really learn how to develop a style. Learning to press buttons and twist a lens is, I think, a lot easier than figuring out how to make something look beautiful – or to preserve existing beauty.
Now that time with my first batch is nearly up, I see that I was probably wrong. They’re learning the technical aspects of photography, but there will be much I can’t fit in; they won’t learn how to set a white balance or lock an exposure, and they won’t have enough time to really get good at balancing manual exposures. The first two were never within my planned scope for the class, but balancing an exposure is really the basis of learning manual photography. Hopefully with the next group I can plan a little tighter.
On the artistic front, I expected every single class to fight my students’ preconceived notions of photography, filtered through their own cultural lens. Every week in the Manila Bulletin newspaper there is a photography insert. There are some good photos, but most of the photography exhibited is either the studio-sterile work of photographers who can afford thousand-dollar lenses or HDR-esque “photos” (I use the word loosely) bruised and battered to a pulp by Photoshop. In my experience, these two categories along with the ubiquitous posing-posing snapshots make up the large majority of Philippine photography. And I’ve seen student photography exhibits – they are almost uniformly awful. So when I read one Bulletin writer’s opinion that artistic photography is a “national hobby,” I had to snicker.
And it’s true, as I’ve said, that my students love taking self-portraits and casual photos of their friends. (Personally, I see it as something akin to sacrilege to use a nice camera for posing-posing photos. That’s what point-and-shoots are for. A recent development in the camera world is the camera with a live-view screen on the front, so people can more easily compose self-portraits. When I saw that, I thought I could hear, far-off and faint, something like a death knell.) I’ve reconciled myself with the reality that every batch of photos I get from them will have, in some proportion, the same tiresome pictures from the same tiresome perspectives.
And there is another enemy in this battle aside from posing-posing. A huge facet of photography is finding new ways to see the world, and that is not something actively encouraged in Philippine culture. Fitting in with the group is often the most important thing, and independent thinking can be an aberration.
An example: only a few months into my service, a coworker asked me to help draft the judging criteria for a competition my center was holding for our kids. In anticipation of our upcoming sports tournament, they were asked to submit a logo and slogan that we could use for tshirts. I made up what I considered a pretty basic set of criteria – integration with that year’s theme (flowers), artistry, creativity, and something else I can’t remember. When I presented it to my coworker, I could tell she wasn’t satisfied, but she didn’t say anything. We discussed other aspects of the tournament for a little while… then she turned to me with my judging criteria in her hand and said, “Do we need this? I don’t think it’s necessary.” She was pointing at a criterion: creativity.
Coming from a place that values and celebrates creativity, that inculcates it in children from an early age and encourages its development as a boon to individuality, success and happiness, I was stunned. Adding that to the criteria was an unthinking act for me, as automatic as blinking, and my knee-jerk mental reaction – again showing my own cultural biases – was How can it not be necessary?
Relative cultural merits aside, a reluctance to look for new viewpoints is inherently a problem when it comes to photography, and I had no idea if my kids would be able to step outside those boundaries proscribed to them by their society.
So recently when I assigned a documentary project, and two of my kids chose flowers as their subjects, one chose trees and the fourth chose graffiti (only because I had shown them a graffiti project I had done myself in college), I mentally sighed. No original thinking here.
Then I saw their pictures. They got it.
(Again, I haven’t edited any of these photos.) Sure, you could point out that the soft focus which makes some of these photos pretty is unintentional. You could pick out lots of technical details that would improve them. It doesn’t matter.
Because what’s important is that these aren’t things you’ll see from the sidewalk or the window. You’d have to get down, crouch in the weeds, scrape some knees to see the world askew.
What’s important is that some of the photos don’t show a thing so much as a moment. That’s a big shift, to capture an instant rather than a scene – to notice the people walking behind a grove, or the retiring sun setting rosy petals alight.
What’s important is that the photographers are seeing patterns and backgrounds and idiosyncrasies. The pink flower above would be nothing without its isolation, without the sea of green surrounding it, while the yellow flowers are special for being arrayed, as they are, in their little community.
As technical as photography can be, usually the best photos don’t seem technical at all. If an observer looks at a photo and her first reaction is “Hey, that’s a nice composition,” then the photographer has failed. The gut reaction should be emotional, you should feel the photo – joy, sadness, empathy, confusion, edginess, anger, horror. You don’t just see a photo: you taste it, smell it – you touch its softnesses and its rough edges; the whispery silk of a captured flower petal is as tactile as the real thing against your skin, and a jagged rusted slice of steel, though printed and framed, should make you recoil. A yellow paper mango can taste as sweet, or sweeter, than one in your hand.
Most people are familiar with the National Geographic cover photo of the Afghan girl with the green eyes. That picture isn’t famous because it’s technically perfect, but because it captured the girl’s glare in such a way that you feel you understand her. You know nothing about her, but you understand. The solitary protester in Tiananmen Square, facing down anti-demonstration tanks – his face is unseen, but you know him. The starving Sudanese girl curled over with a vulture behind, waiting for the death rattle; nobody from a privileged world should be able to comprehend the situation, but the photo makes you, on some level, comprehend. The photographer of that moment, Kevin Carter, understood – so well that he later killed himself.
A good photograph forces you to participate, just as a masterful film jangles your emotions without your consent, or the perfect song over the car radio forces you to pull over to the shoulder and close your eyes – whatever you can do to shut out everything else, because the moment has found you and you’re helpless to resist.
It’s not escapism. You’re not abdicating from the real world; you’re in it, intimately, tasting and touching, grasping a reality that’s as true as anything outside.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Many people are impressed by Peace Corps Volunteers. Countless times I’ve received some iteration of a stock expression of admiration or wonderment - “That’s incredible,” “You must be an amazing person,” “I wish more people were like you.”
My favorite is “I could never do that.” Yeah, well, maybe that’s true – but I could never be an accountant, and I don’t consider that a particularly extraordinary occupation.
Peace Corps is not noble, and working as a Volunteer is not a noble act. The organization’s stated goals – helping capacitate host country nationals and cross-cultural sharing – are all good. Cultural understanding, in particular, is something that I think is a responsibility for any person with the means to reach it. Care about humanity. It needs your help.
But to connect this job with such an abstract and arguably nonexistent quality as “nobility” is to wear your blinders in public. PCVs are not objectively better than anyone else, and the jobs we do aren’t better or worse than accountancy, fishmongering or taxi-driving.
Firstly, Peace Corps is fraught with political innuendo. It strives to project itself as nonpolitical, but that’s absolutely impossible – after all, this is an organization that partners directly with foreign nations to provide in-country services. It’s inherently political. The more important question is, does Peace Corps intentionally insinuate itself into countries – in a roundabout way, since Peace Corps will not enter a country without an express request – for American political gain, or is it really about service for the sake of service? Maybe I can answer that one in a year.
The most important question is, how do PCVs themselves relate to their host countries and locals? PCVs are the ones who are living out in the community, living with and encountering country nationals every day. And that in itself is lamentably political, because as much as we might try to scrub off outside affiliations and concentrate on our work, we can’t stop being American. So the best we can do is try to be objective about it: when Filipinos ask me questions about the USA, I try to answer honestly. I extrapolate on our subcultures of entitlement, cultural arrogance and willful ignorance, but I also enumerate the freedoms we have which are still absent in many places in the world. I’ve had borderline passionate conversations with my coworkers about American environmental issues, the curbing of supposedly inherent rights, and blind loyalty to a party, an ideal, a brand. And slowly objectivity becomes blatant opinion…
That said, I believe most volunteers are much more interested in doing their jobs and learning about Filipinos than they are in spreading any kind of political agenda. In my experience so far, Peace Corps is low, thank god, on messiahs. Any “saving the world” shtick is a joke within the volunteer circle. Not for everyone; the evangelization of the American gospel hasn’t been eradicated entirely. But for most PCVs, I think, we’re just here doing a job.
And that’s exactly my internal reaction when someone puts Peace Corps on a pedestal. I told a friend recently that I have a stock phrase that goes through my mind whenever I receive unwarranted praise. That phrase is: “It’s just what I’m doing.”
It doesn’t matter if some people wouldn’t be able to follow through with Peace Corps. My ability to deal with some insects, constant heat (accompanied by equally constant whining on my part), food I usually don’t like… that doesn’t mean anything. Teachers in the US put up with things I could never square myself with. In fact, I would be a poor fit for an embarrassingly large portion of American jobs for one reason or another. I would hate being in a position of authority, because I dislike being in charge of others almost as much as I despise being subject to them. The service industry is right out (I’m too irritable), the financial sector would be a disaster (I don’t understand the mysterious ways of money). So why puff up Peace Corps just because it has its own unique challenges?
It’s just what I’m doing. It would be wonderful if I could believe that pure altruism is possible, but I can’t help siding with sociologists who say it isn’t. Whatever sacrifices I’ve had to make in the past year and a half, I feel like – putting aside for the moment any positive impact I may have made on my community – I’ve gotten more than I’ve put in. I’ve learned an awful lot and had many, many experiences I would never have had if I hadn’t decided to apply. It has given me ample opportunities to write about and photograph, which are skills I hope to exploit in my future. Any negative effects my Peace Corps service may have had on my own life, anything I missed out on or lost because of that decision to join its ranks – I can say unhesitatingly that it was worth it and I have no regrets.
But the reason the experience has been so rewarding for me is that I value the things Peace Corps has made accessible: cultural knowledge, new experiences, travel opportunities. All these are very important to me, but I’m not quite so narrow-minded as to assume they’re as important for everyone else. Plenty of people would not get as much out of Peace Corps as I have. I’m doing this job because I want to, not because I have this undeniable urge to sacrifice all the joys of home in the pursuit of making the world a better place. If I didn’t find it rewarding in some way, I wouldn’t be doing it; and so to everyone who doesn’t bother with Peace Corps, which is rather a large majority of the American population, I say: Peace Corps is not inherently better than anything else. For me, it fits well enough. But it’s just what I’m doing.
In addition to my mental reaction to praise, I have a pretty standard verbal one: “Well, I hope I’m helping.” That’s true, and if I left right now, I think I will have had an impact more positive than negative on my community. The problem is, I think sometimes people interpret that phrase as modesty. Embarrassment, perhaps, but modesty it absolutely isn’t.
This is not cynicism on my part. In fact, I think it would be much easier to be cynical if you turned the situation all baliskad (upside-down or backwards): if I did consider my job to be valiant and sacrificial, a selfless act of charity, wouldn’t it be all too easy to view people with more “normal” jobs as nothing but silly, self-possessed scurrying ants? To me, that viewpoint is infinitely more cynical than seeing the discrepancy as nothing more than a personal consideration.
Despite its increasingly modern and even cosmopolitan reality, Peace Corps still seems to have something of that aura of the exotic, the mysterious, even the bohemian about it. On occasion I feel that, and I relish the feeling. And maybe it happens more in other, less developed countries to which Peace Corps sends volunteers – the actualization of that black-and-white mental photograph of a foreign face stoking a gimpy fire outside a thatch hut, so obviously out of place that you can’t help imagining the sheer overwhelming difficulty that face must have in breaking into laughter in the midst of such a grim, unfamiliar environment.
Among the greater community of PCVs, Peace Corps Philippines (and PC Thailand) has a nickname. It’s “Posh Corps.” It’s not true, but sometimes it is.
So throw away your admiration. Don’t tell me I impress you. If you think Peace Corps might be right for you, it may well be, and I'll encourage you unreservedly not to pass up the opportunity; if you’re simply interested, I’ll talk about my experience until your ears bleed. But if you gush, if you tell me I’m noble to be making such terrible sacrifices for the sake of the unenlightened masses (the same masses who have, I am absolutely certain, given me more than I’ve given them), I’ll tell you simply that I hope I’m helping, and before I quickly change the subject, my already well-worn adage will flash through my head:
It’s just what I’m doing.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
In the dining area for the youth boys at my center, there is a wall clock. The clock reads 7.42.47. The clock always reads either 7.42.47 or 7.42.48, because the seconds hand is locked in perpetual trembling indecision between the two moments. On the clock in the common area, the hands lay claim to the time 3.55.14. My cell phone asserts militaristically in big, bold numbers that the time is in fact 15.29, while the little digital clock in the corner of my computer screen, the one that synchronizes itself with some far-off atomic station every time I connect to the internet, smugly – like the brainy student in class, the one whose silence after the return of a test grade is itself a show of arrogance – blinks over to 3.42.
Of these, the only clock intentionally set to a wrong time is the one I set myself. Although “Filipino time” is a stereotype, it’s often a true one, and I’ve been ragged on as the punctual American on several occasions. To preempt this, I set the time on my phone several minutes behind the actual time. But it’s hard to be intentionally late, and I still often have to remind myself that “We’ll leave by 10am” really means “Show up before lunch,” and that time estimates for travel will often trip into the absurd: once, inquiring after a town on the far side of Iloilo City from my site, I was told that a roundtrip would take half an hour. In reality, that is less time than it takes to get to the city itself. The actual drive took over two hours. Once I took a visual survey of timepieces on a jeepney, and forty minutes separated the earliest and latest claims.
In some areas I’m making progress. Appointments “in the afternoon” or at “lunchtime” no longer bother me for their lack of numerals. “Tomorrow” has long ceased to signify anything other than “not today,” and I don’t even use the word “yesterday” much, unless I want to explain just which yesterday I’m talking about.
Sometimes the lack of punctuality can still be frustrating. I originally scheduled my photography classes for two hours in the hope that I would get sixty minutes of instruction out of it, but it still irritates me when my students trickle in whenever they feel like it. And I’m flat-out sick of trying to get them to put up the cameras when we’re finished with our Friday night sessions, explaining that while they might not run by a clock, the night jeepneys do (albeit loosely) and I need to get out of my center soon after 9pm if I want to catch one home. And sometimes I’ll still absent-mindedly arrive on time for an event and face the desolate venue with that horrible sinking feeling in my gut; and if I can find a place to hide for a few minutes, a nook somewhere into which I can duck until someone else arrives, you bet I’ll take it.
Actually, Filipinos are not as un-time-conscious as generalities might have one believe. Often the stereotype results in a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: Filipinos don’t show up on time because they know nobody will be there – since everyone else is thinking the same thing. I remember during our training in Bacolod when I was getting ready to attend a party at another volunteer’s host family’s place. A few of the neighborhood kids were hanging out with me, and I pointed out that it was time to go. They protested. They knew exactly what time it was (I showed them), but they just wouldn’t get going. Okay, I thought, I’ll humor them. Eventually I thought it must be getting late even by Filipino standards and I finally dragged them along to the party, where we were the only guests for the next twenty minutes.
This kind of thing is most typical. But once in a while a mysterious confluence of events will result in everyone being exactly on time, and then my intentional lateness gets me mocked for acting Filipino. I can’t really win.
Often Filipinos just do things slowly. I’ve seen that this week because I’m serving as an understudy bantay – the watcher, sort of an unofficial supervisor – for our youth boys while their real supervisors are in Davao for training. This basically means I sleep at the center so there will be someone there if the boys have a problem, since they live in a different facility from the rest of the kids. This doesn’t really involve much extra work on my part, but it does force me to wake up at five-thirty in the morning to eat breakfast with them. They have to get up this early because their classes begin at seven-thirty, which gives them only two hours to eat and get dressed. And many of them are still late, even though the two schools they attend are three- and five-minute walks from the center. It’s fascinating to watch them plink away at this time: they wander in and out of their rooms, bursting into spontaneous snatches of ill-remembered English songs while inching along with that shuffling, oblivious walk that always makes me want to knock sidewalk pedestrians out of the way. But I lose the thread just as the mystery seems prepared to make itself transparent. Draining unused time is just an ingrained talent here, a vital skill.
It’s a skill I’ve been trying to cultivate myself. It’s a good thing to know – or to accept – to be able to let tedious hours pass unstressfully, and it’s something I hope doesn’t leave me completely when I leave the Philippines for more punctual locales. In the States I would feel like an empty hour calls for a task, or at least a distraction, otherwise it’s wasted time that can never be picked up, smoothed and reused – a very linear interpretation. But since I’ve come here I think I’ve come to regard time perhaps more holistically, not as something to be used up but rather something that can be just as valuable empty as full. I’m not saying Filipinos are enlightened; those masses of Filipino men you pass along the highway who are sitting on ledges staring off at nothing aren’t busy transcending our sordid reality, they just don’t have jobs. But the disregard for strict timelines does tend to make you realize how easy it is in the West to become a slave to agendas. To me it does seem that segmenting off the day in neat boxes can kind of, well, kill it.
At the same time, I still often have a hard time with the sheer looseness here. One of the reasons is that, to earn points and keep Filipinos happy, I often attend events I don’t really want to go to. And those events can drag way past the point of tedium. It gets tiresome to be waiting hours for an event to start, especially when the activities are often on weekends and I give up my own precious free time to attend them.
Another reason is that, not matter how much I try, I will always be more time-concerned than Filipinos, which makes work more stressful. I think of living here as kind of a game, and my success is largely based on how well I conform to the rules of culture. (I can imagine Filipinos visiting the United States thinking the same way.) Every gaffe is like losing a pawn in chess or landing on Monopoly’s Luxury Tax. The one time in the past eighteen months that I’ve flatly and openly refused to play the game, to accept the fragile imagination-and-puffed-air walls we’d built around our play-life, was because I was trying to finish a job – a job that shouldn’t have been mine in the first place – and my coworkers were eating snacks and wouldn’t get up from the table simply to unlock an office door for me. That’s a frequent narrative, food taking precedence over everything else, but the difference in this case is that I was trying to get the work finished so I wouldn’t miss the last jeepney ride home. I was already extremely stressed by a impressively long string of miscalculations that transformed an event at which I was supposed to be a minor contributor into a mire of screwed-up tasks which were unilaterally handed to me to fix. So when I couldn’t get anyone to open the door, I bluntly refused to join my coworkers for snacks (a very rude act), and stormed off to procure some actual help – and later, to pay for my sins, a mortgage on Park Place.