Thursday, September 4th
The plane arrived on time and in accord with Filipino tradition we waited the customary hour on the tarmac to insure a polite level of lateness. Manila reminded me of Mumbai. A semi-tropical city with decaying infrastructure and a thick smog drizzled over a busy population. It was fun to see the Philippine’s signature Jeepnies and Trikes for the first time. They reminded me of the microbuses of Kathmandu, but with young Filipino men hanging from the back bumpers.
Manila has a series of laws that categorize vehicle sizes into ten sections and then bars two different sections of vehicles from the road on Monday through Friday. Being Thursday morning my host was cautious that his car was prohibited, I asked him what he would do if pulled over and he said, “I can smile”. I guess a smile means more then it seems.
Manila much like Mumbai is a steamy city with enormous income disparity. Much like the Indian cities, there are aluminum-roofed slums lingering in the shadows of high-rise buildings. A bit humbled and ashamed of my ambivalence, I was glad to be headed into the interior of Luzon.
Manila, just like Canada, was given its name by a colonialist’s hubris error. It is rumored in the collective history that a conquistador asked a local what this place was while he gestured to the river and the lands along the banks. The local saw only a path of Nila flowers along the banks and responded, “ Those are Nilas”. The conquistador erroneously renamed the area Manila and then doomed it to an eternity of bad traffic.
My host, his driver, and I stopped at Jollibee for spaghetti and hot cocoa. “Jollibee is the Filipino McDonalds”, they also serve fried chicken and spaghetti with hotdogs. Hotdogs… Hotdogs… Hotdogs, particularly sweet hotdogs, are popular with Filipinos. My host acknowledged that Filipinos like sweet foods. This is the first time I find myself living in a cuisine of sweet meats. Eating my sweet spaghetti, with sugary hotdog chunks, and a hot cocoa was just the sweetest meal…ever. My host went on the chuckle over the grim fact that Filipinos have a high risk of diabetes. Although Westerners associate hot cocoa with winter, both chocolate and sugar are tropical plants. Isn’t it weirder that Westerners drink them together in the dark heart of winter, than Filipinos enjoy them together at a rest stop?
After napping in the car and again on my host’s couch, I awoke delighted to be in the Philippines. My host took me to meet my personal guard. I am not in danger living in the Philippines. My host is a lawyer and because of the sensitive nature of his work he and his family have a basic level of security. My guard is a pop-bellied sixty-nine-year-old man who looks like an unassuming uncle. He doesn’t carry any weapons or seem to really be a tough guy. I think he is assigned to me, because I live semi-alone in the school roughly one mile from the family home. I’m still working out the etiquette of having a guard. He insisted on pushing the shopping cart when we went to the grocery. I just want to make clear, particularly to my family who may be concerned, that the custom of having guards is motivated by status as much as by necessity. My guard is provided to me as a part of my welcome, just as a wonderful meal or an air-conditioner are prepared for a visitor. The guard, whose name is Mr. Junior, and I sleep in the same room and he watches Filipino dramas before passing out at night. I’m lucky to have him, because I will learn Tagalog from him and he speaks pretty good English.
My host, Mr. Junior, and I traveled to the school. I was taken from classroom to classroom to meet the adorable, round, well-behaved children. The kids seem so delightful. They call me “Sir” and they have such welcoming smiles. After having lunch, a local chicken specialty, I followed the kids to their tinickling practice.
Above is the video of the kids playing the tinickling dance. In the rhythm of the game my mind went in step with the moment. The joy in that game brought out the joy in my stupid heart and I blushed with happiness that I had come to such a wonderful place.
The staff members are all graduates of the same university and year. They have only been there for three months, although the school is in its sixth year. All ten staff members lived in the same dormitory room in university. Among the ten or eleven staff members there is only one full-time male teacher, Tr. Prince, and now myself. The staff was friendly and welcoming to me. After the children went home, they brought me into one of the classrooms and had a round table interview, giggle, get-to-know-each other.
Filipinos have a bouncy humor that they juggle around the room. They reflect simple comments back and forth to each other slightly altering or bending the topic. I think it is charming and hilarious. I already love working with the staff.
If their lovely sense of humor wasn’t enough, the staff prepared a welcome banner for me. When I first pulled up to the school, I burst out laughing with surprise and embarrassment. This is the most famous I’ll ever be. I am touched and overly flattered by the banner. I feel welcome in my new home.
Mrs. Luna, my hosts’ wife and the principal of the school, took Mr. Junior and I to the grocery store to buy water, soap, and pineapple juice. Mrs. Luna also took us to eat half-hatched eggs. This is a Southeast Asian delicacy to eat the embryo of a chicken or duck. The salted embryo does resemble the chicken it was not destine to become. I enjoy it remorselessly.
We returned to the office for a few organizational errands and then I had dinner in my room. There is an on staff cook at the school who cooks for me before leaving for the evening. The food was salty and delicious. I unpacked my bags while the groundskeeper, Jomar 17, and Mr. Junior watched basketball.
Wherever you find several feet of pavement, you will also find a Filipino playing basketball without a ball, a hoop, or both. Those kinds of technical matters cannot interrupt a Filipino from playing basketball.
::A nation on Hoop-dreams::
Friday, September 5th
The next day, Day Two, I awoke to the grumbling sounds of Mr. Junior waking up. We were up by 6:30 AM to prepare for the long day ahead. I ate the typical Filipino breakfast of eggs, rice, and some sort of red pork with onions. I checked the Internet briefly. The less contact I have with the Internet, the more involved I am in exciting world around me. The reason I have the clarity to write in this journal again is the fact that the Wifi doesn’t reach my room.
First thing in the morning before the full day’s heat set in Mrs. Luna, Mr. Junior, and I went to the market in the morning. Mrs. Luna is a strong woman, not only does she manage a school and raise three kids, she also drives a non-power steering van down dirt roads. She was a mid-wife for sixteen years and helped birth much of the town’s now teenagers.
The market was typical of Asia with shanty stalls set up in the wet market area and a more constructed dry market area. The market was a bit rough. It wasn’t much different from the markets of Nepal and Vietnam. Except for the higher quality of the products on offer the market was the same simple wooden plank-stations with fruits piled high and meats tanning in the open air. The market reminded me that outside of the school grounds there is a fascinating rural community.
Flashback: A Nepali friend told me that his people “look like Filipinos” and to be honest for the hill-tribe variety of Nepalese there are some physical similarities. In the market, I had a few flashbacks to Nepali markets. These flashbacks rewind, when our car churns down the unpaved roads with deep puddles and bumps. I strain to imagine what the dust roads of Kathmandu became in the monsoon. My mind can ache when I think about Kathmandu’s challenges.
At the market we got four hearts of banana, six apples / oranges, and three mangos. I placed the fruits on my glass living room table and when down to join the pre-school students. Before I tell you about my day, I’d like to rave about my room. I live in a smaller converted classroom with a private bath, air conditioner, a double bed, a glass dining table, a sofa / Mr. Junior’s bed, an oriental carpet, a dresser, a sink, a water heater, potted plants, and a refrigerator. There are even a few decorations that tactfully mask the empty spaces. Unlike the Vietnamese, who dress their homes in accordance to Chinese Fung Shui, the Filipinos use the color wheel and the furniture of western homes. Unlike walking through a continental Asian home with its exotic feel, Filipino houses seem quite familiar.
The first class of the day was pre-school. I had a great time watching the teachers and students. I tried to teach the kids a few things, but the kids are pretty used to their teachers’ smoother style of teaching and speaking. Across the grades the students are not exactly bi-lingual yet. Their English levels range from “doesn’t speak too much” to “fluent”. One kid may be able to express almost anything, and the next may not be able to construct a sentence near that caliber.
The pre-school hours ended with the little ones doing the Chicken Dance. A few people told me that Filipino culture is similar to Mexican culture in that Spanish traditions were blended into an indigenous heritage. Watching the kids do the Chicken Dance to the Mexicana music gave a bit of credence to that similarity.
One of the kindergarteners became my first favorite. At every school I work in I have an instant favorite, as time goes by I expand the grasp of my favoritism. My first favorite is ChiChi. ChiChi is a shy girl and she reminded me that once upon a time I was a shy guy. I used to intentionally sit alone in pre-school. I had a world in my head that I was still quite content with. Plus all the other kids were weird for liking school when I just wanted to go home. I had separation from Mom issues for the first few weeks of pre-school. I can still remember the first time I sat with another student. It was a big thing for me. I liked ChiChi because watching her studious shyness instantly reminded me of those long forgotten memories. I learned that ChiChi almost died of a rare blood disease. Knowing that she had early trauma that shaped her development, seeing what a sweet pea she is in the classroom, and how she reminds me of my younger self, it is easy to see why she is my first favorite.
After lunch, I waited with the staff and the students for a leisurely hour on the school grounds before I was invited to introduce myself at a parents’ assembly. I memorized five lines of my Tagalog self-introduction and answered a few questions. The parents all seem to have functional levels of English. After the meeting, the students went home and I spent an hour or so with my beloved staff.
I had a wonderful time making jokes and sharing with the staff. Today, day two, I convinced the staff to stop calling me “Sir” and to call me “Teacher”. They turned it on me and gave me the nickname “Cher”. My new Filipino nickname suits me well. It meets my request while reminding me of the immortal diva. My staff taught me more Tagalog and Ilocano (one of the regional dialects of Nueva Ecija). I’m going to learn a Tagalog song this weekend to impress them and the children. Personally, I believe that the students should witness their language teacher as a learner. Emulating a proactive learner is just about as good as listening to a great teacher.
After the relaxing time with the teachers we all got into an open bus and went to the birthday party of one of the students. The ten staff, myself & Mr. Junior, and Mrs. Luna went to the house party to eat sweet spaghetti and goat soup. The food reminded me of courteous Filipino house parties I attended in America. Aluminum trays of food centered on the table while the attendants self-separated by interest and age. It was fun to ride in the bus with the staff, because they make jokes and toss a lizard around.
Speaking of lizards: There is a married pair of lizards that watch me sleep at night. They replace the peeping tom who used to watch me bathe in Vietnam. Since these creepers eat up the mosquitoes, I tolerate their voyeurism.
After the party, I did my Insanity workout on the roof of the school. I was exercising like a yuppie, with various yoga postures accented by my Nike gear, while Mr. Junior smoked a cigarette and watched. The polar irony of the moment…
After our novel experience, Mr. Junior and I sat at our table and he taught me more Tagalog. Mr. Junior is a well-meaning man. He is old, mellow, and has fine English. He is missing a number of teeth, but his English is clear and enthusiastic. He has worked for the family for roughly twenty years. After this post, I will refer to him as my guide because I respect his contribution to my understanding of the Philippines. I think at his age he is happy to have someone to impart his knowledge to. Plus I am really eager for his knowledge. He taught me Tagalog for about one hour and then he went off to watch TV while I wrote this entry. He sleeps on the couch next to my bed as I write.
Saturday, September 6th
The next morning, Saturday – day three, Mr. Junior, Mrs. Luna and I went to visit the family farm. The farm is a relaxing escape from the sun-bleached bustle of the town. In the daylight, I saw a number of tractors carrying loads of people and the ubiquitous Jeepnies and trikes scuttling across roads. Mr. Junior and Mrs. Luna’s mother guided me through the fields were Luna had grown up. They were growing papayas, mangos, mustard, chilli, and raising chickens. They even had a firewood stove that burnt spare bark for fuel. The farm had a few huts constructed in the fields for basking away the mid-day heat. The fields acted like lungs and gave the area a breath of fresh air.
They say that things are funny because they might be true. Walking through the farmlands with Mr. Junior, I picked out the truth behind his funny story about a Filipino American girl’s visit to the farm.With a blushed red smile squinting in the harsh sunlight he cheerfully told her funny story. “ That girl? She came here. She knows the papayas, but not the papaya tree. She knows the guava fruit, but she can’t find the guava tree.” He chuckled on and on. While his chuckling settled, I thought about what couldn’t fit in the suitcases of Philippine Diaspora. These words came along,
“The fruits of the Philippines are everywhere, but the roots are here.”
Mrs. Luna and I sat in the shade of a banana tree and shared about our childhoods and families. We ate a full sized meal of foods pulled from the fields. I felt a bit guilty eating one of the chickens while their grieving brothers clucked around our feet. My host told me that, “ Americans don’t want to see the head of animals they eat because they can’t stand the truth, but we Filipinos know the truth… the head is the best part”.
After the meal, we returned to the school to bask in the air conditioning for a bit before heading out for a day trip to a two hundred year old Spanish cathedral. The school staff accompanied us on the outing. I really can’t express how much I enjoy their company and their sense of humor. We played charades on the ride out and had a ball. We stopped on the roadside for sweet corn. The pastoral lands of Nueva Ecija are green with distant rolling mountains. After charades our attention drifted out the window to the pleasant scenery. The cathedral was grandiose and watching the Filipinos attend mass and sing was an important part of understanding their culture. After the mass ended we lit candles and prayed.
On the drive home we stopped at a large mall. There we ate rice and grilled chicken. I’m discovering that Philippines has a big barbeque culture that is similar to America in that the meat is the main event and complex seasonings are not as important as in mainland Asia.
At the mall I did something I have been waiting one and a half years to do. I bought shoes that fit me. I went shoe shopping in Japan, India, Nepal, Turkey, and Vietnam. Not just passively browsing, but dedicated missions to buy shoes. Due to the smaller foot sizes in Asia, the ridiculous fact that larger shoes are only available in brand name stores, and that authentic brand names can be 300% more expensive in developing Asia getting shoes were both the left and right felt comfortable was almost impossible. Impossible ended when I walked into the Payless, an American brand not available in continental Asia, and bought a simple pair of black shoes. They are not perfect, but they are a start.
:: I finally found a place were I could fit in ::
I spent my cathedral prayer grateful for the last three days and hoping to become good friends with my hosts and staff.
Sunday, September 7th
Sunday began at 12:01 AM with Mr. Junior and I sitting in our room eating apples and talking. I talked with Mr. Junior for about two hours learning what it was like for him to work as a guard for some notable politicians. He also told me the people’s history of the fall of the former dictator Marcos. Mr. Junior, born in 1945, lived through the first era of Philippine independence and hearing about the struggle to survive in that time was fascinating. He had a lot of information to share with me and in my eager to learn position me made a great duo. We even continued to talk with the lights off. His English has improved a lot since we first spoke together.
The next morning was Sunday. I spent the waking hours writing Thank You cards to my host and staff and doing a bit of prep work for Monday’s awards ceremony. Then in the evening we went to my host’s home. There I finally had time to talk with my host one on one. The motives for opening the school were driven by a desire to remedy one the Philippine’s biggest hurtles to cogent education. I will write about them at another time. My host, Mr. Junior, and I sat on his front porch and had a rather meaningful conversation. I went back with Junior for a bit more Monday preparations and to write this. Then I went to bed… 3..2..1……………………
Monday September 8th
Today was a busy day. We had an assembly early in the morning. I gave an “inspirational” message and sang a Tagalog song for the parents and students. Then I helped the teachers present the awards for Academic Excellence. The event was very nice. Mrs. Luna gave me a full introduction on stage and presented me to the parents. I had never had an introduction on stage before; it was nice. After the lunch break I observed the teacher’s classes and then I attended the teachers meeting in the evening. I wrote each of the teachers thank you notes for being so welcoming to me in the first few days of my visit. Today I set up an schedule for remedial English lessons and P.E. classes. I will also teach conversational English to each of the classes once a week. It looks likes I’m gonna have some fun ways to engage the students. In the early evening I played Cau Da with my host’s fourth grade son Edison and the groundkeepers Jomar. Cau Da is the Vietnamese version of hacky sack.
Then a nighttime thunderstorm came…