Lessons from the Philippines: by Katie

I’ve been in the Philippines for a little over a week now and I’m learning a lot.  Probably most importantly, I’ve learned that I look like Megan Trainor!  Because, you know, my brown hair makes me a carbon copy of her.  I take this as a compliment!  I’ve also learned that I look like Snow White.  I’m pretty sure that’s mostly because I’m so stinkin’ pale – the girls at the shelter often make fun of my “white chocolate” skin compared to their “dark chocolate” skin.  I’ve also learned that I’m MADE to eat with my hands.  Rachel told me that, when in doubt it’s always acceptable to eat with your hands.  This has saved me from SO much embarrassment in the last week, as I struggle with eating with a spoon and fork.

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But more than that, I’ve gained a new and fresh perspective on myself and my culture.  Being taken out of my comfort zone – my home culture, where I am the majority, and I generally know the cultural norms, rules, and the language – and put in a different culture where everything is new has given me a great deal of perspective and allowed me to see myself in a new light.  Perhaps most poignantly is related to skin color.  In the United States, I am part of the White majority.  Rarely do I go some place where I am in the minority (except perhaps sometimes as a woman).  I have certain privileges that others do not, as a majority person.  I have a greater amount of status and power.  And, majority individuals typically expect others to conform to THEIR way of living, since they are, indeed, the majority, and can force or expect others to conform to them.  I’ve never experienced wanting to be part of a different racial or ethnic group in order to gain more power, since I am part of the racial/ethnic group that holds the power.

Here in the Philippines, I’ve told often that I am “gwapa” – beautiful.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been told I’m beautiful more here than anywhere else.  But, here’s the key – despite my stunning, Megan Trainor-like looks, I’m considered beautiful at least partially because of my skin color.  Whitening soaps, lotions, and cosmetic products are everywhere.  I’ve heard a few girls say that they wish they could be lighter-skinned, or be white.  I’ve had conversations about whether or not they would be viewed as beautiful in the United States, because they are dark-complexioned.  These are beautiful young women, inside and out, who are saying they wish they could be like me.  This both humbling and angering at the same time.  Humbling because I don’t view myself as being above them due to my skin color, though I need to remember the differential amounts of power that exist because of it.  And angering because I would never want these girls, who have gone through so much already, to buy into the idea that they are less beautiful because they are not white.  What a new perspective.

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I’ve also been reminded of how important hierarchy is in the Philippines.  As someone who is doing training, and who is White, I am viewed and treated with respect – to be honest, far more external signs of respect than I’ve ever received in the United States.  When we walk up the long hill to the house in the morning, young children often come up and touch our hands to their foreheads as a sign of respect.  I am called Ate by the girls, which is a sign of respect, as well as familiarity (we don’t really have a similar concept in the United States, from what I understand – it’s not the same as Mr./Mrs., as it’s more familiar).  Respect is also shown with favors – being brought water or food, for example, and to not take it is a sign of rudeness.  It’s rather humbling to be shown that much respect overtly, partially because it’s not something I’m used to, and partially because I’m not as used to the hierarchy.

I’ve also been reminded of what I take for granted.  Back home, when I take a shower, I let the water run while I wash my hair and my body.  When washing dishes, I am typically mindful of not running the water full blast, but I don’t think about how long I am letting it run for.  I always have access to clean drinking water, and don’t have to worry about suffering an ill fate if I drink water from the tap (see previous blog post), nor do I have to worry about running out of clean drinking water because the amount we had delivered is gone.  When brushing my teeth, I don’t think twice about drinking from the tap water to clean my mouth.  In retrospect, it is a rather wasteful way to live.  While in the Philippines, I have been given a fresh perspective on how much I have, and how much I have that I take for granted.  Water is a precious commodity here, and is not wasted.  Whether washing dishes, flushing the toilet, showering, or brushing your teeth, water is respected as a resource.

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Something else I took for granted is sharing.  Many families in the states teach their kids to share, but let’s be honest – it’s not hard to share when you have plenty.  I read an article online recently that said that the average family household has 238 toys.  Any difficulty with sharing is out of greed and a desire to possess something that someone else does – covetousness – rather than a lack of things to share.  The girls that are here (and adults, for we like to color, too), have been sharing one coloring book.  Three girls were sitting at a table all coloring from one book – two on one page, and one on the other.  And, what’s more, they were getting along and having FUN.  I know some families where it’s World War III for three children to even be in the same room playing together, let alone playing with the same thing.  And it’s not just toys that are shared.

Food is shared, too.  Everyone makes sure everyone else has plenty.  At meals, everyone always makes sure everyone else has had enough to eat and is full.  I am never without food.  Not only that, but Rachel’s mom sent me with a small rather large box of goodies to bring with me to the Philippines, including a Tupperware of homemade cookies.  Rachel’s mom is a great baker (I know, I sampled a cookie before I packed it!).  And, being in the Philippines, her mom’s home-made cookies are hard to come by.  But Rachel graciously shared the cookies with the staff at the house, with her host family, and with me.  She could easily have kept them for herself and hidden them away, but instead, she chose to share with others.

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Finally, I’ve been reminded of the fact that the hope we have in Christ is universal, and goes beyond cultures or languages.  These girls are an inspirational reminder of what a life redeemed through Christ can look like.  These girls have experienced traumas that most people can (thankfully) never imagine or ever have to experience.  Yet they are resilient.  They are able to bounce back from hardships and repeated reminders of their traumas.  This is not always done gracefully – the process of healing is dark at times.  But they persevere, and their experiences push them to love Christ more.  They will very openly and freely share their love for Christ and what He has done for them.  They continue to hope, even in the darkest moments, in a way that is inspirational to me.

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