I have been home in the U.S. for two weeks. The transition has been overall smooth but certainly not easy. My last month in the Philippines was filled with hectic despedida celebrations, nostalgic, and occasionally teary, farewells, and travels with my sister Abby through the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. More on this can be found at the bottom of this post, but first, I’d like to share a reflection on elements of my year that may not have made it onto social media or this blog.
YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) alum Quantisha Mason wrote a newsletter article recently in which she stated that it’s important we accept failure in our experiences. Failure is a natural part of life, yet it often seems in the age of digital media that we only post and talk about our successes. Quantisha says that a lot of what we try in life may lead to failure, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I did my best to compile a list of stories from this past year that show times I didn’t succeed as volunteer or person. I hope to be truthful in expressing that my year, although it had amazing parts, was far from flawless. Some of these stories may be odd, saddening, funny, or vague, since I couldn’t go into detail in all of them for various reasons. If you have a strong response to any of these, or would like to share similar experiences you’ve had, please reach out through comment or email. Thank you for following me today and throughout the past year. This may sound impossible, but I could count on one hand the few times I felt alone during this past year, and I credit that to the support I felt from home as well as from coordinators and community in site. You all are the absolute best.
YAV-Fessions: Times my experience was NOT Picture Perfect!
- If you’re reading this, I’m not sure if you’ve had the opportunity to learn a new language in a place where you can use that learning right away. The opportunity to learn Cebuano for me made for some of my most favorite moments and some of my most embarrassing. One time, a coworker taught me a word in Cebuano that meant “unintelligent,” but for some reason I thought she said that it meant “cute,” so I used it to describe a woman’s baby at a store. I was greeted with an offended expression, and, unaware of my error at the time, just smiled and walked away. Awful, right? Another time, I tried to express in Cebuano in a Facebook group that I wanted to eat a steamed coconut rice snack, and instead I said that I wanted to eat toes. Oops.
- A last story with me and language was when I tried to memorize a blessing for a meal in Cebuano before moving into my host family’s house. I practiced it for weeks, and when I finally presented it to my host family they were totally silent. I think they were trying not to burst out laughing. Then, for next week and a half, my eight-year old host brother offered to give the blessing at every dinner for a chance to imitate my bizarre accent. I was embarrassed at the time but it later became a running joke in the family.
- During monsoon season, it would rain for days straight, and once I heard the crying of an animal outside for a whole day. I went outside to investigate and found two newborn kittens that were drenched and abandoned by their mother. I tried to rescue them and take care of them for three days, but neither of them survived. Needless to say, it was an emotional time. 😦
- When I moved into a house of my own after five months, my new place was set on a concrete foundation with bamboo walls and roofing. One morning, I put some water on to boil and hopped in the shower. I heard a sound when I came out and peeked out at where the heating pot was sitting. There was smoke everywhere and the pot handle was melting onto the table- turns out I had forgotten to put water in it! There’s nothing like a terrifying moment of your own forgetfulness to wake you up in the morning. That is a mistake I will never make again!
- I came to adore my workplace at the NGO Little Children of the Philippines, but at the same time, the workplace could be exhausting for me, especially at the start. Shouting and talkative Filipino culture combined with the nonstop, constantly-doing environment of any large NGO made for a tiring place to be around for long periods of time. At the beginning, I could barely last half of day without feeling sleepy or overwhelmed. I was amazed to notice how comfortable I became spending full days at work by the end of the year without feeling tired. Getting to know the people and language combined with LOTS of water, sleep and healthy food I made on my own helped with this. The organizational structure was by no means something I succeeded in mastering at first, either- but more on that in a post some other time.
- For my largest work project, an arts fundraiser in February, I put in about four months of work, during which I spent three weeks writing and getting people to drive me around to deliver invitations to over fifty identified business owners in the small city. I even called business owners to follow up, but I didn’t hear back from a single one of them. After the fundraiser, which none of the formal invitees attended, was somehow a success, I was informed that if I had merely asked the out-of-country NGO director for the money needed, it would have been easily provided. Still, I see this project as worthwhile in terms of community involvement, and I hope it continues for the youth to be empowered and connected with local artist groups.
- Catcalling (from “Hey, you’s” to thankfully rare sexual comments) as well as stares were often a part of my days throughout the year. In the culture I was raised, children are normally scolded for staring at people who look different from them. I found in the Philippines, however, the opposite to be the case; people from five-year-old kids to old men would stare uninterrupted at me for several minutes at a time, and this was considered perfectly normal! It took me a while to adjust to this and it still got to me on days where I was feeling anxious; most of the year it made me squirm and want to leave whatever place I was. The catcalling was the mildest I have experienced out of any country I’ve visited in Africa or Asia, but still present as it would be in any U.S. city. I wrote down questions in my journal such as, why do men find catcalling flattering? Why can’t I just bike to work in peace as a young woman? One time I wrote, where did patriarchy even come from? Clearly, these are big questions that I may never find the answer to, but it was definitely a part of my year.
- Intentional community with volunteers and site coordinators in an international site can be really hard. I thought before my year that it was mostly YAVs in the U.S. who might struggle with community, since they live under the same roof. However, it turns out that difficulties in navigating togetherness and differences can happen anywhere. This led to both painful challenges and learning/personal growth in my year. I’m so grateful for the people that were there for me during these times.
- I posted last month about joining a dragon boat team, which was one of my favorite things I did in the Philippines. What I didn’t post was that throughout the months I trained, there were so many times I wanted to quit. Taking time off of training for work activities and trips meant that my form would be totally off when I returned, and I felt like I was the only one being corrected again and again in front of the team at every practice. Fortunately, the team cohort was strong, supportive, and continued to welcome me back to practice. That, combined with my love for the new sport, led me to continue despite moments of frustration.
- There was a definite moment during my year when I realized that Filipinos, just like any other people on Earth, also gossip, argue and can be mean to each other! I have a pretty positive outlook on individuals and groups, and believe it or not, it took a moment halfway through my year to realize that groups of Filipinos can act in this way just like anyone else.
- Something present in many of my photos is the natural beauty of the Philippines, from coral reefs to mountain ranges, rocky hot springs to sandy beaches. The reality of the country I experienced is that close to all of its islands are barely keeping their head above the water with pollution, overcrowding, and garbage. My pictures may not capture this, but most streets, shores and properties are filled with litter and plastic waste. Beaches in the city I lived in weren’t safe to swim in due to dirty diapers, industrial wastewater runoff, and even human feces in the water, and the city is thousands of pesos or more in debt due to an overgrown landfill which has taken over homes and nearby streets. The landfill also emits toxic gas that is damaging the lungs of hundreds of people living within its range. Having witnessed these sights (and smells), I know I feel more aware of my own material waste, yet these are images I still struggle with.
- It may not come as a surprise that reconciling with privilege is never an easy part of a volunteer role. Were the things I gave up over the year enough? Was I setting myself up for eliteness and comfort in committing to seminary at Princeton after my year of service? These questions may not represent failure, but they show that my YAV year wasn’t easy or perfect, and I don’t think life should be that way. These are questions that I hope will continue to make me uncomfortable so that I can continue to be motivated to carry out the work I want to do in the world.
Now that you‘ve read the truth behind the photos of my year, visit the following links to see an album of photos I posted over the year.
Note on Travels: My 21-year old sister Abby visited me the week I finished my work in the Philippines, and we spent a few days on the beach on the island where I served and a few days visiting friends and family in Dumaguete for final goodbyes. After a last lunch with my host family and videoke with friends (if you haven’t heard of this, its a staple activity in Asia and a lot more fun than it sounds), we took an overnight boat to Cebu and flew to Borneo, Malaysia the next day. After one night in a hostel we were picked up for a short boat ride through a national park to a jungle homestay owned by a French couple who had the most adorable two-year old child. We kayaked, read in hammocks, and trekked the surrounding rainforest there for three days before spending one day in a nearby city called Kuching, where we rented bicycles and ate delicious foods native to the Sarawak region. Our final stop was Hanoi, Vietnam, where we stayed in a slightly smelly hostel that was in the Old Quarter. We loved this part of town and loved the downtown Vietnamese Women’s Museum even more, where we learned that Vietnamese women were an incredible fighting force in the Vietnamese stance against the Americans during the Vietnam War. Our trip ended with an overnight cruise on Halong Bay; a touristy and somewhat pricey endeavour that was more than worth it thanks to the limestone cliffs and all-you-can-eat buffet, thanks be to God. Over the past two weeks at home I have been able to catch up with friends and relax with family before I start the Master of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary just after Labor Day. I hope to post here at least once more to update you on how seminary is going.
Thank you again for your support, prayers and love; sending peace to the start of your fall!