This is my final post of my YAV year. A testament to my procrastination as much as to my time here, this post was originally supposed to be my first from the Philippines. At the time, I had trouble fully processing all that was happening, and, throughout the year, began several drafts but none quite felt right. Now, as I slowly begin packing for the long trip home, I can’t help but reflect on all the moments, stories, and people that have composed my time here and how they all relate to each other. I’m still putting all the pieces together, but I figured I’d once again restart with this blog and relate how my first few weeks here shaped my experience.
I’ll never forget when we (the other two volunteers and I) landed in Tokyo en route to the Philippines. The journey to that point was already leaving us exhausted; we were running on just a few hours of sleep and had been in transit for over 4 hours. Our trip had already had its share of snafus; we ran into immigration troubles when checking into at the Newark Airport and our flight out of Detroit had been delayed four hours (technical problems, I’m assuming to do with the left phalange).Before we had even left the country, we saw the post of fellow volunteers arriving at their sites and sharing their first meals together while we sat unsure of a lot things on the floor of the Detroit Airport.
As the plane prepared to make the descent into Japan, the pilot came on over the loudspeaker to inform us that, thankfully, the typhoon had passed and we’d be able to land safely at Tokyo Narita. Most everyone else on the plane was still asleep and thus gave no reaction to the captain’s words, but the three of us just looked frantically at each other. The cavalier manner in which the captain talked about what sounded to us like a very frightening thing left us with a lot of questions: Was this normal? What would’ve happened if the typhoon hadn’t passed? Should we have known about the typhoon earlier? Did the pilots know about the typhoon when we took off? Was this some sort of joke?
Regardless of our concerns and worrying, the plane landed safely in a slight drizzle on a new continent. During our weeklong orientation in New York, we had several people telling us that a given moment was the official beginning of our YAV year, whether it was when we arrived at orientation or when we attended a commissioning service at a neighboring church. For me, though, it began right then, in that moment of confusion and fear in the clouds above Tokyo. That moment became a physical expression of everything I was feeling about coming to the Philippines; I still had no idea about what to expect from my year or from the country I was moving to. I wasn’t having any regrets nor would I say I was afraid of what was to come, but confusion itself is still a powerful feeling. The typhoon, whether a real threat or not, was simply the first of many things that would surprise, challenge, or intimidate me.
Our in-country orientation began once we landed, though it felt nothing like being oriented. From the second we stepped out of the airport, an assortment of new obstacles, some trivial, many not, presented themselves, including everything from humidity (I’m probably the first person who’s excited about returning to the comparatively cool, dry climate of Tennessee) to traffic to jetlag (we were so proud of ourselves when we finally were able to stay up past 7) to chickens sounding their alarm at the break of dawn.
The big challenges quickly revealed themselves, too. The second week of orientation proved particularly challenging. We spent a week living with a pastor in Bohol, an island in the central part of the country. The island hosts some of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, including the peculiar looking Chocolate Hillsand the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier.We spent most of our week off the beaten path of the tourists, however, in communities not frequented by foreigners. We were introduced to various to do much of what would define our experience in the country, including everything from bucket baths to limited access to air conditioning.
We were of course greeted with the classic Filipino hospitality, but countless small interactions taught me so much about the power of my race and nationality. For instance, when I met expectant mothers, they expressed hope that their child would have skin and hair as light and eyes as blue as mine. They essentially want to give birth to little White babies, because media throughout the world carries the message that White is pretty and dark is not. Buying any skin care product has further reinforced this fact, as finding soap, lotion, or even deodorant without whitening agents here proves quite the challenge. Where ever we went on the island, there was no escaping the stares from all around us. In retrospect, nothing we experienced there proved atypical from the rest of the year, but it still felt like baptism by fire to life in the Philippines.
The power of Whiteness has been on full display during my time here; from the older, foreign gentlemen who retire here with a Filipina wife half their age to the strong sense of entitlement of foreign visitors (I count myself in that one), to the ways developed countries seem to always treat the Philippines as if it’s still a colony. I was by no means oblivious to the realities of power and privilege before coming here, but to see it manifested in this new setting and how my actions contribute to it, has been a continually disorienting process. A big tenet of the YAV program is to learn to live in the discomfort. Discerning what that means has been at the core of everything that has challenged me most here. I still don’t have an answer to this, at least not one I can flesh out in writing, but I reckon that’s part of the experience.
My time in the Philippines has exposed to me so much of what is most problematic in our world, far more so than I could ever describe in any blog post. Much of my social media would indicate that the past year has been one big vacation, and in many ways that’s been true. But the year has also had its challenges and moments where I felt like I just could not go on. Posting about the lows in tandem with the highs proved more of a challenge than I figured I could do justice on social media. Regardless of my ability to communicate it digitally, though, my experiences here have issued a call to me that I hope to carry with me as I transition to what’s next in life. I hope to continue to live with intentionality, always asking how my actions affect those on the edges of society and what I might do to empower all those around me. To celebrate and affirm the beautiful diversity of all the Earth, not just who looks like me. To have little patience for those who perpetuate narratives that disenfranchise or denigrate others, whether based on race, gender identity, religion, or any other label to which one may ascribe to. To see the face of God in all I meet, and to treat them accordingly, even when that may feel uncomfortable.
Earlier, I referred to that week in Bohol as baptism by fire into life in the Philippines. Looking back, that sentiment still feels very true for the ways it exposed me to so much of the Philippines, with no filter, for better or worse. One memory, specifically, stands out as a baptism experience. About halfway through the week, a huge torrential downpour came over the church we were staying in. Our host family instantly jumped into action, opening the cistern to collect the water off the roof and grabbing soap, detergent, and any dirty clothes before running out for an impromptu shower and laundry session. Washers and driers are quite scarce in the Philippines and bucket baths are the norm in more rural parts of the country, so rain provides a good opportunity to efficiently do both. Naturally, we joined in, washing our clothes and bathing in the mighty stream of water falling from the heavens. Hands down one of the best showers I’ve ever taken. I could feel my expectations for the year and preconceived notions of what I was capable of wash away and the welcome of this new community come over me. The shower served as a powerful reminder of my baptism, of being made new through the love and care of God, as shown to me now and throughout the year by all the beautiful souls that have made the Philippines feel like home for me. It has been the joy and excitement of moments like that, where I stepped out of my comfort zone to experience someone else’s normal, that have given me the most energy throughout the year and that inspire me to continue this crazy journey, even as I return to the US.
As for what happens next: once my YAV year officially ends at the end of this month, I’m going to travel around Southeast Asia with fellow volunteer, Katheryn. If you have any tips, recommendations, or thoughts about Vietnam, Cambodia, or Malaysia, feel free to send them my way! I return to the US mid-August, a couple days before I’ll begin seminary at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The next month or so has much transitioning and craziness in store, and I’m equal parts excited for what’s to come and saddened about what’s ending. I hope to continue with this blog beyond my departure from the Philippines, but you’re welcome to take bets on well that goes. Through it all, I’m excited to see how this experience stays with me, and I more than welcome any questions, thoughts, or comments you want to share about my time here.
This is Flanny, signing off from the Philippines.