Yesterday, I was followed home from work. Don’t be alarmed, it wasn’t in the way you might suspect. At five o’clock I slung my backpack over a shoulder, exited my office and headed south on the main street towards my home. I passed a school busy with afternoon pick-up, kids buying snacks from street vendors, and a traffic warden whistling jeeps, trikes, and bikes into a semi-organized order.
I hear the patter of little footsteps around me and they quicken suddenly, their effort apparent in the acceleration of the tap-tap-tap of their shoes. Four little girls clad in school uniforms, barely reaching the height of my thighs, breathlessly stare up at me, necks craned, eyes wide, toothy grins slack with awe. They whisper it to each other and point shyly at me, for I am the only Amerikana for miles around. I smiled down at them and gave a little wave. They stared dumbfounded, so I smiled again and kept walking. Moments later I hear the patter of little feet and the scenario repeats itself throughout my walk home. At one point the sidewalks narrowed and we ended up in a single line, two girls in front of me, two behind. I chuckled to myself at the image we must conjure on the other side of the street: the Amerikana being simultaneously lead and followed home by these adorable girls. When I get to my house, I stop just inside the entranceway. The girls run past and hide behind the sign of the bakery next door, peering out at me in turns… I give one last wave goodbye.
This may sound like a nuisance or perhaps just not your cup of tea, but I find it amusing and even somewhat touching. Part of being here, in a remote town in the Philippines as a foreigner, involves sticking out like a sore thumb. I look different, people stare and that’s okay; I’m lighter skinned, fairer haired (it’s frizzier, too), and tall for both genders here. My nose is pointier, my eyes more rounded, my bone structure defined with different degrees of edges and slants, and in my municipality of about 70,000 I’m an anomaly. Filipinos are incredibly kind, generous, and curious; being stared at occasionally is just part of that. As the only Western woman for miles around I have this bizarre celebrity-like status; kids want high-fives, politicians want handshakes, strangers want photos with you, and everyone seems to know your name. And it fascinates me.
What I like to pay attention to is how the greetings change based on the age of the admirers. The young kids, like the girls who escorted me home, are both bold and shy. They smile up at you, point, wave, follow you, they can’t quite hold back their excitement at seeing someone so different to what they know but they’re not really ready to engage with you fully. The teenagers are a little more daring: they’ll shout ‘hello’ or a phrase in English with a put-on American accent. They’re always surprised when I respond and they laugh and jab at each other, awarding the outspoken one for his bravery; I laugh with them. And then there are the adults, who sometimes stare just as openly but who are often a little more discrete, giving you side glances and kindly wishing you good day as you pass. If I catch them staring I smile and wave, if they greet me in English, I respond in Visayas, I try to interact with as many people as I can. Here you might think, why?
I will live in this town for two years. I want to break down the barriers between foreigner and Filipino, I want to be a part of this community, and I want to make friends. Aside from being given this amazing opportunity to work with coastal resources there is a whole other component that makes me grateful to be here: the communication of culture. As a Peace Corps Volunteer we are chosen not only to be stewards of peace and the USA, but representatives of our individual beliefs, religion, sexual orientation, family, ethnicity, race, and gender. I am an American, but I am also Romanian and Jewish. I am a woman who believes strongly in gender equality and that the length of your skirt is not a signal for advances from men. I deeply love being vegetarian and am slowly finding my way back towards that lifestyle here. I am a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a cousin, a friend to people and animals alike. I am here representing myself, my roots, my family, and my beliefs as an individual, because no two Americans are the same. Likewise, every Filipino is different, and for every nugget of experience, belief, or wisdom that I think I can offer the people I meet here, I find that they have ten more to offer me in return.
The sharing of culture and creation of friendships are just as important as my technical role here. At the end of my service, I imagine they are where I will learn, change, and grow most. And it makes me proud to be Peace Corps Volunteer-whose ultimate mission is ‘to promote world peace and friendship’-for in a time of worldwide political upheaval, unrest, and uncertainty, there is no place I would rather be and nothing else I would rather be doing.
As always, thanks for reading,
Love & peace,
Also, my FIC (Filipino Island Count) has gone up to eight! 7,099 to go… I’m not sure what my goal is for when I leave here, but I think getting into the 6,000’s might do the trick.