Sunday, March 22, 2009

Advice to PC Philippines Invitees, Batch 268

As we in batch 267 excitedly await the arrival of batch 268 in August, prospective volunteers in the States are beginning to receive their invitations to serve in the Philippines. Some other volunteers and I, composed a list of advice and pointers on what these invitees can expect to experience when they arrive in country. We hope they will both be of use to any invitees that happen upon our blogs and for our regular readers back home to get an insight into the "real" volunteer experience.

1. How much choice did you have in deciding where in the Philippines you were stationed?
Very little. During PST (pre-service training), you'll go through what's called an SPI -- Site Placement Interview, where you sit down with the Sector Manager (your boss for Education) and the Training Manager, and they'll ask you questions about what you want in a site -- how rural, how urban, special kinds of interests or skills, what kind/size of school you prefer. However, your site placement may or may not match the answers you give in the SPI. Some PCVs are placed in sites that they seem uniquely suited for -- some asked for cities only and ended up in really rural communities. The bottom line is, PC meets its own needs when placing volunteers. It tries to consider your preferences, but they already know what sites they have lined up so they just match you to one of those. Also, your possible site placements are limited by the language you study in PST. For example, my group learned Bisaya, so we knew we were going somewhere that spoke Bisaya, which limited us to 4 major islands. So you'll have a general idea of where you're going when you find out what language you'll be learning during PST.

2. How many Volunteers live in rural settings as opposed to urban settings?
I have no idea of any statistic, I can say that I know of a handful of education volunteers in urban areas, and some in other sectors. But on the other hand, I would be probably considered a "rural" volunteer, but the rural Philippines is not like rural Africa, for example. Even if you have a rural placement, you'll be in more like a small-town atmosphere. You'll be somewhere with electricity, running water, a cell phone, probably a TV (in your host fam's house), a market, stores to get most of your staples. If you're rural, you'll probably not have a bank or ATM in your town, and may or may not have internet cafes -- but these things are still accessible.

3. Outside of the classroom, how much time do you spend speaking English?
This varies wildly from volunteer to volunteer. English education is mandatory but proficiency varies a lot. I speak a lot of Bisaya in my daily life, others speak more English, it depends how much you want to speak really. You could theoretically get by speaking very little of your target language (i.e. Bisaya). If you're in an urban area, it's going to be harder for you to use your target language, especially if you look like a "typical American" or foreigner. Of the 3 sectors in the Philippines, the Education volunteers will have the hardest time becoming proficient in the target language because of the nature of their jobs. That being said, you will attain a minimum level of proficiency so you can function, how proficient you become beyond that is really up to you.

4. What's the most challenging thing about life in the Philippines?
The LEAST challenging things are the physical conditions. Even though it's different, it's surprisingly easy to adapt to, for example, not having hot water or flush toilets or taking bucket baths (all realities here). The hardest things are the cultural barriers and your job/assignment. The cultural barrier, there's no way to prepare yourself for it. You just have to deal, but it means feeling clueless about all your daily interactions for many months, or not understanding why people do things, possibly ever. Also, education is a challenging sector. You work in a 9 to 5 (ok, 7 to 5) job in an incredibly tangled bureaucracy rife with corruption, classes will get cancelled for anything and everything you can imagine, and you might be teaching a class of 60 12-year-olds. However, working with students can be really rewarding, and (at least my) school community is really close-knit and I feel like part of the family with my co-teachers and colleagues. The bottom line is, the challenges you face will not be the ones you expect. The fewer expectations you have, the easier it will be to adapt.

5. What's the most challenging thing about life in the Peace Corps?
See above. Once you arrive at site after PST, you don't have a "Peace Corps life" (unless you seek it out by joining committees etc), you just have an individual life at site. You're still within the structure of PC, but your experience is up to you.

6. What language did you learn in training?
Cebuano/Bisaya (2 names for same language).

7. What language do you speak on site?
Bisaya, although with different accent and slightly different vernacular than we learned in training (bc we're on a different island than our PST site), but it wasn't hard to adjust. However, there are some parts of our island that speak different languages, and there are 2 volunteers near me who are on an island mixed between Bisaya and Waray. Also, I've heard that a lot of the PCVs who learned Tagalog during PST are now assigned in Ilocano-speaking regions, and they're having to learn Ilocano at site (PC gives you resources to do this, money for a tutor etc).

8. How far are you from the nearest city? From the nearest Peace Corps Volunteer?
Define "city." I am 2 hrs away from our provincial capital, Maasin, and 2 hrs away from the provinicial capital of a neighboring province, Tacloban (which I've heard might be a training site for you guys). These are small cities by American standards but have a Jollibee (fast food), ATMs, maybe a shopping mall. We're also about 5 hrs (by ferry) from Cebu City, which is the 2nd biggest city in the Philippines and a big metropolis with all your modern conveniences. So if you need a city, there's probably one accessible. However, there are some PCVs on Luzon (the big northern island) who are 10 hrs away from the closest city, Manila. And even if you're close to a city, your site might still be really rural/isolated. There's a huge diversity of situations for PCVs in the Philippines. Some are assigned in Cebu City, and it's like living in America; some are in really rural settings.
My closest volunteer is 6 km away (10 min), but that's unusual. The next closest is 1-1.5 hr away. There are 2 volunteers on our island with the same site (live next door to each other). It's possible you could have a sitemate but not common. But I don't know anyone further than 5 hrs away from another PCV, and that's in northern Luzon, which is big and spread out.

9. What is your role in relation to your Filipino co-teachers?
Again, this varies from PCV to PCV, from site to site. I have good relationships with all of my co-teachers but sometimes they don't seem to understand why there's a PCV at their school, or what my role is (this is common). You will probably be socially close to your co-teachers, but your working relationship can be difficult to navigate, especially at the beginning. Depending on your site, your cts (co-teachers) may not know anything about co-planning, co-teaching, and the strategies you're there to promote/implement (i.e. Communicative Language Teaching), or they may be really enthusiastic about it. One PCV on Leyte teaches the class by herself and her ct observes. Other teachers minimize the role of the PCV. You also have a lot of responsibility and leeway in determining your own co-teaching relationship, and you have to take initiative in a lot of situations in order to get things done (which is harder than you think bc of cultural adjustment issues).

10. Do you find it difficult to stay away from the Ex-Patriate/Peace Corps community? (Do you have to make a special effort to be primarily around locals?)
It sounds to me like you're concerned about the "authenticity" of the PC experience you will have. Authenticity is a fallacy, and it's hard to explain unless you've gone through the PC experience. Before coming here, I had the idea of wanting to exclusively be in my community and integrate really deeply, but you don't have to struggle for that. The reality is you will be placed in a foreign country in a totally alien culture and you will be surrounded by HCNs (host country nationals), which is incredibly stressful. Especially at the beginning, being exclusively around HCNs will be a challenge. For example, you are eating totally new food at every meal, you're homesick, and when you spend time with your host family/co-teachers, you can't understand what's being said except that it's about you and they're laughing. When this happens, you want someone with a shared cultural background for support -- i.e. your fellow PCVs. You will develop Filipino friends and a social circle, because you are living in the Philippines and are probably the only American woman in your town. You are surrounded by Filipinos and you always will be. You would have to work to seek out an expat lifestyle, but your PCVs are a valuable support network and you'll probably find yourself wanting to spend time with them and that's not a bad thing. Some people are worried that the Philippines will not give them the "PC Experience" because they think it is more Westernized/developed. However, it only takes you 2 days in country to realize there is really nothing familiar about being here. Your PC experience will happen to you no matter where you are.

11. How did you feel about your assignment when you made the decision to take it? (Are you glad you did?)
This question is difficult because it's so personal to each volunteer. Whether or not other PCVs are happy here won't impact whether or not you'll be happy here. Also, whether or not this is your first choice in terms of placement, the reality is you're here to help the host country agency and that is your job. Your happiness here will not come from the placement or the culture, it will come from the fulfillment of your obligation and your attitude towards your work, and that's true no matter where you're placed. Finally, unfortunately you are at a disadvantage due to timing. PC has been cutting funding due to economic stress and from what I understand, second invitations are not forthcoming. Also, there are fewer volunteer positions available now due to budget cuts. Frankly, if you have an invitation in hand, I would take it. There's no guarantee that you'll get another.

Friday, March 20, 2009


While my host brothers were sweeping up the mga dahon, leaves, my brother Johny found the biggest spider I have ever seen in my life. I asked my host mom, who later arrived on the scene, if it was poisonous. She made a stern face, "yes, Sean." I looked back to Johny playing hith it, dangling it by it's legs. Country boys...
My other host brother, Arnell, was no better.
And for your viewing pleasure, a video of Johny molesting the spider. (No humans were injured in the making of this video)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Afternoon at the Cock Fights

--Warning: Viewer Discretion Is Advised--
I just returned from an afternoon at the cock pit, or bulangan, for a cock fight, bulang. Cock fights are a Sunday afternoon ritual here in the Philippines, cock fighting being the most popular sport in the country. I have read that the Spanish at first tried to the illegalize the pastime but they quickly found that to be about as easy as holding one's breath for an hour. Fortunes are made and lost, a lucky winner quickly losing not only that day's winnings, but also the clothes off his own back. I say his because this is a male-dominated pastime. I only saw two women in or around the pit and they were selling cigarettes. Having told some teachers I intended to go with Sir Erwin, they replied "watch some of the audience's feet, they will have no sandals since they sold them" and "they will sell their own family's clothes and assets for an afternoon at the pit." I didn't see any bare feet, this must have been a lucrative Sunday.
So I went with Sir Erwin as my chaperon to the local bulangan, which was made of wood, bamboo and corrugated metal for a roof.
We arrived at two o'clock, the official starting time, though such a leisurely activity started, well, leisurely. We stayed for nearly three hours, seeing about 24 pairs slash it out in the pit.
The cock on the left side of the pit is known as the biya or underdog, judged the least likely to win, the cock on the right is known as the inilog or projected winner. While the cock handlers pet their cocks, pat them, jostle them and provoke them otherwise (get your minds out of the gutter!), the crowd makes their bets. At this point, the cocks have a sheathed spur, looking like a miniature scythe, attached to their left leg typically. Before the fight, spurs still sheathed, the handlers lift them up to let the cocks take turns pecking at each other's necks, one handler holding the cock's head still while the other lets the other one peck. The cocks get furious and ready to rumble.
While the handlers enrage the cocks, the crowd furiously bets, yelling at the tops of their collective lungs. The sound and fury is maddening, further driving the cocks deeper into fits of passion. Yelling with all their might, those who bet use complicated combination of hand gestures and facial expressions to place their bets. Betting on the biya is more risky though it brings a larger return if it wins and vice verse for the inilog. I did not bet anything though Sir Erwin and I made verbal acknowledgments as to what cock we thought would be victorious. As far as I can tell there is no way of knowing. As it turned out, the biya roster was far more victorious than that of the inilog.
Watching the bets taking place is much like watching the stock market; in fact, standing above the crowd, seeing money literally fly in crumpled wads across and around the arena is like watching a real-live market in action. I'm certain that the nature of betting on cocks could be a comprehensive thesis on microeconomics if one chose to closely study it. Don't believe me that it's like the stock market?

Hell could break lose the world over but those inside the bulangan would be entirely oblivious. Once the bets are in the cocks are let loose on each other. The fights are lightening quick (God willing) and often, after an explosion of feathers and the occasional splashes of blood that stain the dirt floor, the fights are over, the victor getting his spur re sheathed. Every once in a while, the cocks are too lame or maimed to attack each other, ending in a stalemate. At this point, the referee picks them up by their back feathers and, while in mid air, the first one to stop pecking at the other (typically because of a loss of both consciousness and blood) loses. The losers are turned into that evenings sumsuman, or beer food including pritong manok or fried wings, chicheron, literally fried chicken skins (DELICIOUS!), and tin-a-i, or BBQ intestines. If the winning cock is too lame to fight again, which seems to be the case more often than not, the same tasty fate awaits him later for the beer, rum and recounts of that afternoon's exploits by the winning and losing handler's alike.

As always, watching the people at these kinds of events is far more rewarding than watching the actual main attraction. I must admit I did enjoy the spectacle, both in the pit and surrounding it. I realize that the average American would bristle at this kind of "cruelty towards animals." At first I did too. But I thought this was an important cultural experience, much like when Aaron and I went to the bull fights in Pamplona, Spain during the Running of the Bulls. All I could do is go with an open mind and I must say I wouldn't mind going again in the future. I know many of you must be thinking "this isn't the Sean I know." Well, Peace Corps told us that we would adapt to cultural practices in ways that would confuse our friends and families back home. This is one grim example I suppose.
To see more pictures from the fight, please visit my Picasa Web Album.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Blog, Guitar, Thailand, Library Project and Post-Colonial Identity

This blog isn't going to write itself. It's been a while, about two weeks I suppose. There is a lot I would like to share, some news, some things I've been up to, a project I am just finishing and then some reflections for good measure. This is going to be a marathon of a blog post.
First of all, I wanted to thank everyone for their kind words on my last blog. I got some really excellent feedback and many compliments and it was so flattering; the positive responses made following up the bike trip a bit intimidating.
Last week there was a poisonous snake in the office. Now the office smells like nokost, or squid. You can never tell what surprises lie waiting in the office every morning after the national anthem.
I have been collecting some statistics on my blog readers (no personal information, just location of access, etc) and wanted to share some of my statistics with all of you! I use Google's free service, Analytics. Basically, I installed a little invisible application inside my web page that collects the anonymous data and sends it back to a easy-to-use portal for me to look at. So, here's looking at you! Since I installed the app, I have had 300 hits, 168 unique visitors from twelve different countries, including readers in Saudi Arabia, Australia, Northern Mariana Islands, China, Singapore, Senegal and France. From the U.S., I have readers from 26 states! I get the most hits from California from 18 different cities from throughout the state.
I am beginning to realize I have a lot of readers whom I do not know. I would like to sincerely thank everyone of them for reading my blog. Aside from The Echo, this is the first time I have had a public voice and, to tell the truth, it's quite addictive.
I also have been playing a lot of guitar here. I bought a guitar during training and named it Temba, meaning hope in Zulu, the name given to me by my first homestay family in Johannesburg, South Africa. Here is a video of a song I have been working on, on and off, for a few months, since September.

So that's my guitar. It was 3000 pesos, about $60, and is the cheapest friend I have ever bought. I bring it to school every once in a while. Here is a video of me and my co-teacher, Sir Erwin, rocking out to Freddie Aguilar's "Anak." The song is in Tagalog so I have no idea what the words mean, but it's a good time. It was recorded by my fourth year web design class.

I also have some pretty thrilling news; I just bought tickets for Thailand! I will be going with about seven other friends in April after our In-Service Training for 10 days. We scored round-trip tickets from Manila to Bangkok for $140. Why not go? Anyway, look forward to that blog post come April.
Just to prove that I actually do work out here, here is a project I have been working on for the past 2 weeks or so. A couple days after Christmas and then that following Saturday, a handful of students volunteered their time to collect information from 368 titles from our library, almost all of the books in our possession. Here is the report for those who are interested. I designed to to submit to potential book donors so they can see what needs to address with their donations.

The following details the titles of books currently held by the San Juan National High School (SJNHS) library, San Juan, Southern Leyte. The statistics were gathered by student volunteers of the fourth year on two separate occasions: December 28th and January 10th. Under the supervision of Ma’am Alma MontaƱez, head of the English department, and Sean Stanhill, U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, a rotation of fourth year students sacrificed a holiday and Saturday to collect the following information from books in the library. The data is not all-inclusive and is meant to serve as a survey, though should be considered close to accurate as nearly all books were inspected (we collected data from 368 titles). The numbers also do not reflect the true quantity of books in our possession; each unit in the following measurements represents one title, not one physical book. For example, volumes included in an Encyclopedia set, 24 in total for example, are counted as one unit, not 24.

The following graphs, “Titles of Books by Year,” in which the quantity of titles are organized to show a trend in the recency of our titles, “Number of Titles in Three Genres,” in which the library catalogue is artificially divided into three genres, fiction, non-fiction and textbook, “Titles by Country of Publication,” in which texts are categorized by place of publication, and “Quantity of Titles Issued by Philippines Government,” in which the titles are categorized as either being issued by the Philippines government or not, should provide reasonable insights into what titles are available to students here at SJNHS.

Titles of Books by Year”

Upon inspection, titles from 1997 through 2005 represent the largest chunk of our library’s collection. There are a few legacy titles from the 1950’s on, yet we were surprised to find that our collection, on the whole, was quite modern, having been published within the last 20 years or so. Looking at publication dates gives us a great idea as to how updated the information available to students is and whether the information accessible to them keeps them competitive as far as contemporary ideas and theories are concerned.

Number of Titles in Three Genres”

In order to get a rough idea of what kinds of titles are available to our students, the student volunteers were told to categorize the titles into three general categories or genres: fiction, non-fiction and text. As hypothesized, textbooks made up the vast majority while fiction represented the minority. SJNHS, at the time of this report finding, is working with partners in the U.S. to sponsor a book-drive, which will ideally supplement the fiction available to students. With more fiction available, students will be able to browse for pleasure reading and teachers will be able to implement fiction reading in the classroom, providing each student with his/her own book. Creating a culture of reading is central to school programs outside of the classroom as well. November is English Month and to facilitate programs such as “sustaining the Love of Reading,” last year’s English Month theme, the school must have a ready supply of fiction. At 10%, fiction only represents 37 tiles (with non-fiction representing 89 titles and text 242).

Titles by Country of Publication”

USA – 65%

Philippines – 25%

Singapore – 3%

Unknown – 3%

United Kingdom – 2%

Canada – 1%

Hong Kong – 1%

Australia, India, Italy, Spain, Venezuela – less than 1%

The breakdown of country of publication indicates a large quantity of titles as imported, donated or otherwise somehow obtained from the United States. Only one quarter of the titles were published here in the Philippines with a smattering of titles from Singapore, the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong and elsewhere. While many of the titles published in the Philippines, much of those titles were published by Western publishers, such as Prentice-Hall, Inc. and McGraw-Hill and Companies, Inc., under the auspices of places like Metro Manila and Quezon City.

Quantity of Titles Issued By the Government of the Philippines”

In DepEd’s commitment to provide “education for all,” the government of the Philippines has provided students and teachers with government issued textbooks. Many of the standardized textbooks used by students are issued by the government under Secondary Education Development Improvement Project (SEDIP) loan agreements. This chart represents a generalization in that upon compiling this report, aspects of each title were considered, including author name, title, publisher and place of publication, and used to designate a title as being more than likely to have been issued by the Philippines Government. While 28% may seem low, the library serves as a book depository, housing extras that were not issued to students. This number only represents books in the library, not those that have already been issued to students. Another factor that must be considered is that, again, these data only represents titles and not quantity of books. If individual books were to be considered in this report, they would by far outnumber non-government issued titles by sheer quantity of duplicates.

Phew! So there is the report. See, I do actually do work here. I actually just finished guest-teaching an economics class on the credit crises. It was really cool and I think some of the kids are really getting it!
So now a few words on post-colonial identity. Post-colonial identity is by far the most interesting topic I encountered during my history studies. In essence, it addresses how peoples of previously colonized countries build their own narrative, often times diverging from that of the colonizer. The Philippines is a really special place for the very reason that it is still constructing its own narrative from Spanish and American colonial periods; the Philippines has influences from America and Spain for sure, but also China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Arabia and India. Their influences are exemplified in the language, for example, "hey older brother, put your umbrella on the table" is "Hey kuya, butang imong payon sa taas sa ang la mesa." This sentence contains borrowed words from English, Spanish, Chinese and Ancient Austronesian (Malay). Philosophers, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, say that language is the means by which we interpret our reality. In what ways does the potpourri of language here define the reality of Filipinos? Obviously they do not think about metalinguistics when they are telling their brother to put the umbrella on the table, this is just something I have been thinking about.
But aside from language, after almost 400 years of being a colony, Filipinos, just like any other budding nationality, musk ask themselves, who are we really? Many Filipinos I have spoken with refer to their "colonial mentality," that which values imported goods from America as inherently better than anything produced domestically. As an example, they will buy second hand American clothes before they ever buy anything new domestically. The great irony of course is that it all comes from China and Vietnam anyway.
It would be unfair for me to reflect on answering that question, who are Filipinos really, as it is not a question for a person of the imperialist nationality to ask, so I will reflect on America's "colonial mentality." Remember that the States were a colony of Britain?
Hypothetically, if I were to ask you, an American, if you would prefer Hershey's or Godiva, which would you pick? Or what if I asked you, would you like Hershey's or this chocolate, it comes from Europe, which would be your pleasure? Like my leather shoes? Their Italian, my clock? Swiss. I always set my watch to GMT, (Greenwich Mean Time). My point is, if it's European in origin or standard, Americans tend to think it's inherently better than anything we have ourselves. Many Americans are of European stock and consider the products of the "Old World" more sophisticated. Europe is the symbol of high culture, class, art, sophistication. This, I am certain, is what drives our own colonial mentality.
Americans also, generally speaking, have a very violent bent to them. This is where post-colonial identity comes into play. The U.S. has been involved in wars in seemingly every decade since the Civil War. But was is the means by which we were founded, right? The United States is the only former British colony, to my knowledge, that staged an all-out violent revolution against our oppressor and won by those means. Places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand were all forced into independence; they still have pictures of the queen on their money and their government supposedly reports directly to the British monarchy (they are not federal governments). Melissa, the Australian volunteer, told me that Australia had a chance back in the 70's to vote for a federal government and to cut ties with the U.K. and the voting measure failed! Why does the idea of monarchy bother so many Americans? We fought against it; we are unique in that way. India sought her own independence as well, but not by the same violent means as the U.S. Consider their national independence hero, Gandhi. Ours? Revolutionary war heroes.
Ever since our genesis, America has solved its problems through violence and it should come as no surprise that we are in the midst of two wars being fought concurrently. This is a living narrative based on our post-colonial identity.
We value that which we fought violently for against European powers but are still Europhiles when it comes to goods: the interplay between colonial mentality and post-colonial identity. It is a very complicated subject but it is important to realize that developing countries are not the only countries having to deal with self-determination and constructing their own narrative, the U.S. just had a head start. It also does not mean that The U.S. narrative is inherently better, it just suits the cultural needs of its people. Every nationality tells its own story, its own narrative. Listening intently and openly reveals the beauty, the uniqueness and the delicacy of culture, narrative and post-colonial identity.
Friends, that concludes this blog post. Thanks for getting through it and I really hope this last section made at least some sense. It's important to question our own heritage, just as it's important to delve into understanding of other peoples and places we visit. For as much as I am learning about Filipinos and the Philippines, I am learning equally as much about my own heritage, cultural narrative and nationality.
*Update*: I have been prompted by a professor I greatly respect and admire for his honesty concerning my writing to give due consideration and clarification to some of the content above. When I implied that the U.S. had the only violent revolution, I certainly am not forgetting the Sepoy Rebellion of India nor the bloody struggle for independence of most if not all Latin American countries, our neighbors to the south whom we inspired and aided in independence along the way (although that is absolutely contestable). My point was simply a generalization that, of all of the specifically British colonies, the U.S. was the only one to successfully obtain independence solely through militaristic means and declared warfare. That is simply my overarching point yet I am glad to be corrected if I am wrong.
Secondly, he pointed out the irony of a meta-colonial power, of sorts. Again, to my knowledge, we are the only former colony that has evolved into an imperial power in and of itself. The irony and historical implications of this truth are things I feel entirely inadequate to speculate upon.
Speaking of identity, I am currently reading the book In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines and there is a passage I have just read that I would love to share; the author, Stanely Karnow is comparing the war in the Philippines, having ended in 1902, to Vietnam 70 years later. This is why I stated above that Filipinos are now charged to ask the question, "who are we really?" Karnow writes, "The Filipinos lacked a recorded history and common identity. Their chain of islands had been a geographical accident rather than a society before the arrival of the Spanish, who had deliberatly perpetuated the disunity of the archipelago to maintain their rule" (pg. 185, publish date 1990).

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