The sun rises now around 5:00 a.m. and my apartment is a sauna by 9. The cool breeze that provided my ventilation the first few months of the year is gone and summer has settled in. Summer. The kids are out of school, the beaches are somewhat busy, and the pace of life is even slower than normal. This won’t last forever. By June the humidity will flare up and scenes of flooded Manila will flash on the television screen. Fantasies of July and August approaching keep my mind wandering. It also motivates me to think about what I need to accomplish before service officially ends.
I’ve finally started progress on the long-delayed marine sanctuary strengthening project I implemented with my counterpart last year. The outputs are a little different than what I’d imagined when we conceptualized the idea about a year ago, but I’m a pro now at acceptance, so I’ve adapted well to the changes. We’re currently gearing up for sanctuary days in two barangays, planning activities and speeches and educational games, and acquiring certain materials needed for effective sanctuary management. By the end of May I need to fill the calendar up with our strategic planning workshop and biophysical assessment training with my fisherfolk, so the grant can be closed out and completed, and the community can hopefully continue with the training that my office and I have provided for them. I’m also thinking clearly now about BRO camp activities, something I’ve procrastinated on doing for a solid month.
These are all cool and worthy things, and are a large part of the real reason I came here. But I must be honest. I spend a lot of time thinking about my own personal life and how I will eventually be transitioning from a life with very little structure to a life surrounded by structure. How will I transition from a dysfunctional society and an isolated existence to one that is more familiar to me and more in line with my aptitude? Where in the workforce do I see myself? In what direction do I want to continue with my career? How easy (or hard) will it be to leave behind the Philippines?
Balancing the two is difficult. For example, I should be going to work dead-set on making some sort of measurable progress on our project goals, rather than allow the overall work ethic and attitude, or lack thereof, lock me into submission until I just don’t really care if I get that work plan completed or not. I used to complain heavily about the lack of accountability here and how it perpetuates the notion that nothing needs to be done, in this quarter or ever. And now I am comforted by it.
Or instead of enjoying the ample free time we PCVs have with my host family or my community and local friends, I spend loads of time at home researching jobs, building my resume, Google deep diving, and trying to find some insight into how community development work in a foreign country can actually have an attainable end result.
Do I feel guilty about this dual existence? Yes. And no. My mind is constantly flopping like a fish on deck between trudging forward with my work here and possibly expanding it into areas I’ve left untouched or satisfying my own desires of isolating myself and dreaming of self-fulfillment.
A million thoughts cross my mind each day, but this one has set the tone and prevailed more than others:
"I may be on the fat government teat right now, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here wasting away not even thinking about my future when I can do something to actively alter the course of reality, which, at the moment, involves me being unemployed at my parent’s house!" (Sorry Mom and Dad)
There are periods of transition in our lives and they offer a massive opportunity to take your destiny into your own hands. They provide the rare chance of real change yet also the stress of an ending without a foreseeable beginning. But this kind of ending shouldn’t be stressful, it should be enjoyable, bittersweet. And really, unexpected beginnings are the best kind anyway.
The perception of Filipino life in this blog has largely gone in one direction: from the Philippines and Filipinos to me, then from me to here or out of my mouth to all of you. So I think it’s high time that I let you know some invaluable cultural insights and observations about Americans that I am trying to teach to Filipinos.
- A state is kind of like a province. A Local Government Unit (LGU) is kind of like City Hall. Except here, a job at the LGU is one of the most coveted positions in my town and all towns. It is one of the only insitutions, locally, where you can have full-time, salary-with-benefits employment. If you don’t own land or buildings, the only way you can expect to make any sort of reliable income is to move to a city or work abroad. Can you imagine City Hall of Anytown, USA, being a desirable place to work? Most people here are shocked that I’ve never, not once, known the name of the Mayor of my hometown. If I saw him/her at CVS, I wouldn’t think anything of it.
- Not all Americans are white and look the same. I don’t think I can ever really get this point across, without having an American person of color or other ethnicity visit my site and have them shove their American passport in my community’s faces. Even there, it’s a stretch. Yes, Barack Obama as our President has helped to dissolve this notion a bit, but I get a lot of “He’s not really American” comments, like something out of a Fox News broadcast. Filipino family that is born in America is now American, and does not look like me. They look Filipino. Which actually is of Malay origin. See what I did there?
- America has poor people too. My counterpart has one of those aforementioned coveted LGU positions, makes the equivalent of about $3000 a year, and owns two motorcycles, a (small) house, provides (rather) comfortably for his wife and two kids, and sends one to a local private school. How is it possible to make 7 times that in the States for a family of four, and still really struggle to put food on the table and make rent payments for an apartment that is almost worse off, structurally, than my counterpart’s house? It just is.
- Lawns. A vestige of the physical geography of northern Europe where lawns naturally exist, lawns are seriously ingrained in American culture. We ditch and drain our landscapes for pre-planned communities in Florida, recreating an illusion of how it’s supposed to be and justify it by saying it’s “Deed Restricted”. We build entire cities with millions of people in the middle of a desert, complete with lawns. Do natural landscapes exist in the States? Suburban America is a weird place.
- There are places and homes in the United States where people who are over the age of 60 go to live when they can no longer perform simple, daily, household functions. They go there, alone, with other people, who are also alone, seemingly abandoned by their family. It is assumed here that a geriatric family member lives with their children. A nursing home or retirement community is hard to explain. They see it as a cruel and unusual punishment, where we see it as freedom and relief. Of course, this isn’t everyone, but I think it’s safe to say that most adults will do everything possible before ceding to live with their elderly family members. What’s even more difficult to explain is how you can do this and still love those same family members.
- Most Americans are not that happy. Moving to the United States does not create happiness. We feel it is something you choose, and you get there by making changes in your life and making choices that eventually, hopefully, get you there. I don’t want to sit here and tell you that all Americans complain and they don’t have real problems that prevent them from obtaining their goals and dreams that they feel will grant them happiness. Because people do. But maybe ignorance is bliss (it’s not). Maybe happiness is just a state of being that just is (maybe, sometimes). Americans are constantly searching for a level of meaning and happiness in life that is probably just an illusion. People here don’t search for it, they believe it’s already here, and just genuinely don’t want for anything. Is that happiness?