“Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” – Charles Addams
After the first few weeks of being in the Philippines, the realization set in that we weren’t in California anymore. It seemed that with every new task, there was a learning curve of how life would be different in this new land. Even the simplest things like buying a soda came with unexpected changes. When it was time to buy a soda from one of the sari-sari stories down the street, I selected my soda, asked how much it cost and forked over a few pesos. The lady behind the counter then popped open the soda cap on a glass bottle, poured the contents into a plastic bag, stuck a straw in the bag and handed it over to me. Holding the bag tightly, I thanked the lady and walked back to the house confused as to what had just happened. As it turns out, the Philippines had not yet switched over to using plastic bottles or metal cans, and almost all soda was sold in glass bottles. There was a bottle deposit added to your purchase so that you would return your glass bottle, which would then be picked up by the bottling company, washed, refilled with soda, and shipped out again. To save the hassle of paying for and returning bottles, many Sari-Sari stores would simply pour the contents of the glass bottle into a clear plastic bag, and not charge you the cost of the bottle deposit. As long as you held the top of the bag tight enough, the whole thing worked quite well.
While we had been used to street vendors from our time in South Korea, I can’t recall seeing even one during our time in Los Angeles. But in the Philippines, along the busy streets were all sorts of vendors selling squid balls with mystery dipping sauces in small clear plastic barrels, meats grilled over a charcoal fire, quail eggs, chicken eggs, or partially formed boiled chicken fetuses called balut. Mom remembered “the incredible entrepreneurial spirit of these vendors as they fearlessly trafficked popcorn, peanuts, quail eggs and storks (menthol candies) in three or four lanes of traffic that had come to a standstill. They always seemed able to move out of the way before cars got going again.” Another favorite Filipino foods was lechon – a whole pig that was spit roasted and covered in a sweet brown glaze. When fully cooked, the meat inside was tender, but the skin was crispy, typically shattering into pieces when hit with a knife. Every couple of miles, you could see a whole pig turning over a rotisserie fire in a glass case next to the side of the road, and you could purchase and individual portion from the vendor. Because so many Filipinos walked from place to place or spent hours on busses, street food was often their mainstay meal. It was less expensive and portable, saving time and money. But not all street vendors were on the busy main roads. Early in the mornings, vendors on bike would slowly ride down the street loudly shouting out “paaannnn-ddee-sal.” Pandesal is a simple small bread roll that had a soft but firm crust and an airy doughy center. Walking outside, you would usually purchase them from the vendor by the dozen, walk back inside, and with a spread of jam and butter, have a simple family breakfast. In the afternoon, other bike vendors would ride through shouting out selling quail eggs, balut, or other snack foods.
Down at the grocery store, one of the favorite American staples was different: ice cream. The Philippines did not have many dairy cows, so normal ice cream was expensive. But a cheaper alternative was available – made from water buffalo milk. The carabao was a large domesticated water buffalo commonly used for farming, but its milk was also used as a substitute for dairy products. You could get carabao milk ice cream in usual flavors like vanilla or chocolate, but you could also get more exotic varieties like corn, cheese, halo halo or ube – a type of purple sweet potato. But as an even cheaper alternative, most of frozen products we purchased were made out of the more readily available fruits in the form of sorbet.
The first few weeks after being in Manila, Mom went to use a freshly purchased bag of flour and found several light brown bugs wiggling around at the top of the bag. These bugs called weevils are a common problem in ground flours throughout the tropics. The adults lay their microscopic eggs in the flour, which the babies will eat after hatching, and grow into adults about 3/16” long. They are nearly impossible to avoid, but Mom would try her best. Before buying a bag of flour, she would pull open the glue and unfold the crease at the top of the bag so she could peer inside. If there were any signs of weevils, she would leave it on the shelf and try another bag. Weevils are such a common problem that missionaries regularly told a joke about them. “A missionary opens a bag of flour and sees that there are bugs in it. The first term missionary would throw the whole bag away. The second term missionary would sift out the bugs, throw them away, and use the flour. The third term missionary would use the flour with the bugs. The fourth term missionary would sift out the bugs, eat the bugs, and throw away the flour.” And since this was our second missionary term, we simply sifted the weevils out, threw them away, and simply used the flour.
There were a whole series of solutions that we had to employ to prevent different critters from betting to or being our food. For rice bugs, Mom used a trick she had learned in South Korea – putting rice in a shallow bowl and placing it out in the full sun. As the rice heated, the bugs would crawl out of the rice, and after a thorough rinsing, cook the rice as usual. Tiny, but smarter tropical ants could be prevented by moving kitchen items that would attract ants to a side table, whose four legs were set into containers partially filled with oil. The oil wouldn’t hurt the wood, but would prevent the ants access. Sets of traps were constantly maintained for the rats that lived in the empty fields throughout the neighborhood. Most families would liberally use pesticides to prevent roaches, but Mom didn’t want the pesticides and our food to mix, so we used screens on our kitchen cabinets that would keep the large roaches out. Often being nocturnal creatures, we wouldn’t see them anyway, but would regularly see the evidence of their presence in the morning or find their egg sacs throughout the house. Despite our best efforts, eventually the realization that bugs were an ever constant reality set in, and you could either choose to accept it or it would drive you to madness.
Besides getting used to the differences in food in the Philippines, we soon came to discover how we took the simple comforts of home for granted in America: electricity, clean water and household appliances. At our new house in Brookside, one of the most basic features was missing: a telephone. Because homes were built one at a time instead of as a subdivision, telephone lines were only run to a house on an as needed basis. When the telephone company arrived, they would have to see where the nearest line was and custom design a plan for wiring for each home. The net effect was that there were thousands of people on a waiting list to have a telephone line installed. We were told that it might be a three to ten year wait before we would get a phone, so it was understood that we would have to make do without one. Long before cellphones were an option, my parents were both given pagers, but we kids were not. If someone did urgently need to get ahold of us, they could call some other missionary friends in the neighborhood who would travel a couple of blocks with a note of who called. We could then travel to a local payphone to make a needed call back. The resulting lack of communication between our parents and us kids meant that we would simply keep to a schedule. If Mom and Dad were late arriving home from work, it was time to start rummaging through the cupboards to see what we would start to make for dinner. If my brother was over at a friends house and didn’t return, it was safe to assume he was having dinner there.
While not having a telephone was definitely an inconvenience, not having power was another level altogether. When it came to power and water, there was not enough supply to meet demand, and as a result, they would simply limit the supply. Power would be supplied to different parts of the city in a rotating cycle – eight hours on and eight hours off. Unfortunately, ABS where my parents worked and studied would be without power during the day, and then they would return home to find that the house was without power at night! We quickly got used to the idea of doing our homework using candlelight, not having a TV to watch, and that the refrigerator was never at the right temperature. A news from Time Magazine dated April 24, 1990 read: “Widespread daily electric power outages, called brownouts rather than blackouts here, have turned Manila’s normally chaotic life to a sweltering nightmare of candlelit offices, crippled factories, terrifying traffic, spoiled food, and frayed tempers. Virtually every household and business is affected. The power crisis led to outages Monday for more than 300 government and major office buildings in the Makati financial district plus tens of thousands of homes and businesses in other areas. It has sharply undercut President Corazon Aquino’s attempts to rescue an economy still reeling from December’s failed coup.”
The supply of water was also limited. People in the city of Manila would have access to water for only several hours per day, and people would fill large barrels or even personal water tanks with water when the services were available for use when it was not. Out in Brookside however, our house was not even connected to the city water system. Our house, like many others in the area had a private water well that could fill a small water tank for our house – when we had electricity to run the pump that is. With the inconsistent supply of water, most houses would have a five gallon bucket of water and a scoop sitting next to each toilet, so that you could manually flush the toilet if there was no water in the tank. But even if you had a supply of water didn’t mean you had drinkable water. One of the most important tasks at the house was preparing water for drinking. Tap water was used for taking showers, doing the laundry, and flushing toilets, but drinking water had to be sanitized to avoid fun diseases like botulism, cholera, typhoid fever and more. So every day, a large pot of water would be put on the stove, brought to a full boil for 20 minutes, allowed to cool, and be poured into two plastic pitchers and put in the fridge. Without a dishwasher, or a hot water heater, doing the dishes started with boiling water as well. Again, a large pot was put on the stove and brought to a boil for twenty minutes. The water would then be poured equally into the two halves of the twin sink. Soap was added to the left side and all of the dishes would be sponge-washed using hot soapy water in order of cleanest to dirtiest – with any greasy pans being left for last. Normally, a second person would be helping on the right side of the sink, taking the cleaned soapy dishes, rinsing them in the sterile water and hand-drying each piece with a towel. On days when our helper was gone and every evening after dinner, the job of washing dishes would normally fall to us kids, with me usually helping out on the right side of the sink as I could never seem to get the least to dirty order right, leading to greasy “clean” dishes the next morning. Between boiling water for drinking and washing dishes, a huge pot of water was almost always on the stove, adding to the fierce humidity in the small kitchen.
It was easy to complain about having to help with the laundry as a child in America, but doing laundry in the Philippines gave me a healthy dose of perspective. We had bought a small agitating washing machine after arriving in Manila and installed it against one of the back walls outside the house. Unfortunately, there was usually not enough water pressure to fill the machine automatically, so it needed to be hand filled, the load run, and then be refilled by hand again before the rinse cycle. Additionally, the washing machine would only take care of light soiling, so before each item was loaded, it was visually inspected by our helper. If a stain or muddy patch was found, she would take a bar of hard laundry soap, wet it, and rub it on the affected area, and work the stain out by hand before placing the item into machine. After rinsing and spinning, all of the clothes would be set out on clotheslines under the hot tropical sun to dry. That meant that laundry couldn’t be done on rainy days, and rushing to pull the clothes down if a downpour rolled through on an otherwise sunny day. Understandably, the washing process was not easy on the clothes, leading to clothes wearing down faster than usual.
Besides trying to learn and adjust to the ins and outs of life at home, we were also trying to figure out the cultural aspects of the Philippines. During our years in South Korea, the culture had been the epitome of patriarchy. The men held a higher status, spoke first, ate first, and were leaders in the home, business and government. The Philippines on the other hand was a significant shift towards a matriarchal society. In most cases, the men were often doing the labor while the women were responsible for running the business and handling the money. Like many other countries in the third world, men had acquired the stereotype of being embezzlers, involved in corruption for personal gain, whereas women were viewed as more principled, as well as being more focused on the care of their families and communities. Most small business were run by women, women were normally responsible for the family finances and thus had more power in the home, and women were a common feature in local and state governments. Mom was a little shocked when we first arrived and went shopping as a family. When it was time to pay the bill, the workers would bring the bill or their questions to Mom rather than Dad. In our family, while Dad kept track of the family budget, he would often give the cash to Mom for the family purchases.
One of the most memorable differences for me was the number of armed guards or police there were. There were guards at banks, in the malls, at the entrances to upscale neighborhoods, and on our school campus. It was common for them to be armed with pistols, shotguns, or automatic weapons. In the first few weeks we read stories in the paper about well armed robbers targeting banks or armored cars, and firefights between both sides would spray bullets indiscriminately, often leading to more dead civilians than criminals. Dad had a general rule never to stop at a bank if there was an armored car present and we had a family talk about dropping to the ground and playing dead if ever caught in the midst of a firefight. But we also quickly learned that the police couldn’t always be trusted. The National Police was listed in the 1990s as the most corrupt national institution. A Filipino political scientist told Smithsonian magazine, “Americans taught us the idea of honesty and integrity in civil service but local culture conflicts with democratic institutions.” The culture favored allegiance to family above service to strangers. Thus, nepotism and bribery were endemic in the culture. There was a joke that if you had your house had been robbed you did not need to call the police; they were already there. This lead to another family discussion about what to do if we felt we were being followed. Kidnapping foreigners and holding them for ransom was a quick way to get rich in an impoverished country, and sometimes the kidnappers were in cahoots with the local police. We made a rule that if we felt we were being followed, we were supposed to go into a busy, well lit restaurant and wait out our time until we were supposed to meet up as a family again. In the event of being kidnapped, our missions organization had a no ransom policy – one of the understood risks of being a missionary. More feared than being kidnapped was the prospect of being “rescued” by the police or military, as their goal of killing the kidnappers to make a statement seemed much more important than the actual rescuing the kidnapped.
When it came to language, the thousands of different Filipino tribes throughout the islands had come up with over a hundred dialects of the native Tagalog. During the American colonization period, the Americans had made an effort to improve the education throughout the islands and included English as part of the curriculum, resulting in English becoming the “formal” language spoken between the different islands. Around the same time, communication through print, radio and television also helped to develop a more universal version of Tagalog throughout the islands. In the urban areas, both languages would be taught in school and most people started to use them interchangeably. On the news, during a television show, or during conversation, a sentence might start in English, then switch to Tagalog, and end in English again. The language spoken at what time depended on what language more accurately or easily communicated the idea at the time. This blend between the two languages became known as speaking Taglish. While I had expected that almost everyone would speak be in English before arriving, I quickly learned that wasn’t the case. Some of the people I met in our Brookside neighborhood knew almost no English, whereas the government officials we spoke to only used English officially. The first time we went to church, sitting in a large white building filled with rows of tightly packed wood pews, we sang traditional hymns in English and then sat down to listen to a sermon in Taglish. The frequent switching between languages reminded me of attending a service in South Korea, because after the sermon was finished, I had no clue as to what the message was. In order to better communicate with their students, my parents took language lessons in Tagalog after arriving, but they found that whenever they tried to use Tagalog in class, the Cebuano and Ilocano students wanted them to speak in their dialects, too; so they almost always spoke in universal English. Similar to my experience in South Korea, with my classes taught in English and all of my friends speaking English, I never learned Tagalog. It was ironic because this was the third opportunity I had passed up to learn a different language – Korean, Spanish and now Filipino. It wasn’t so much as my lack of interest to learn, but the two major components to learning the language were often missing – daily instruction and immersion. Part of me wishes I could go back and make a purposeful effort to learn the language, while another part of me reckons that without at least intermittent use, the languages would have faded from memory anyway.
One of the statements I had read in a guidebook before arriving was curious to me: if someone raises both eyebrows while talking to you, they are not flirting, they are simply saying “yes” or “hello.” Sure enough, after arriving I was surprised by the number of people raising their eyebrows, and while it felt awkward at first, it soon became second nature for me as well. Down at the store when someone asked a yes or no question, raised eyebrows meant yes, a slight shaking head meant no, and no words were needed. Mom recalled a story from seminary when “a visitor from the US thought that the secretary was flirting with him when she answered his question with raised eyebrows,” and she had to explain to him that she was simply answering his question. There were plenty of other non-verbal cues to learn as well. There was the traditional sign of respect to elders called mano po, where the back of the hand would be touched to a persons forehead as a sign of respect that caught my Mom off guard. There was pointing with your lips when someone asked you which direction something was. When asking someone to come closer to you, you would face your palm down and wave your fingers, as pointing your palm up was a sign of calling them like a dog. When you were finished eating at a restaurant, you would catch the waiters eye and make a rectangle shape with your hands to signal “bring me the bill,” and a quick raising of the waiters eyebrows confirm the bill was soon coming. Women were supposed to delicately cover the mouth with their hand when laughing, and people would smile all the time, even when criticizing you to lower the tension. Mom recalled that “the hardest thing to get used to was the habit of smiling or gently laughing if I committed a faux pas. In a typhoon one time I slipped in ankle deep water and got wet. The people around me gently laughed. A student told me later that they were not being rude but trying to minimize my embarrassment by not taking it seriously.”
Over the past four years in the United States we had gotten used to the idea of being normal and unremarkable people, but with our return to the Philippines, we were noticeable once again. People on the street would simile, cheer, and wave to us for no reason, sometimes calling out “hey Joe” in reference to GI Joe from WWII. When we entered a store, the workers would call out, “Hello, Ma’am, hello sir,” and we would frequently get special attention from the vendors eager to sell their wares. While to my memory most of the attention was friendly, it was not always to our benefit. From time to time, the US Embassy would issue a warning that Filipino communists, upset about the presence of the American military bases of Clark and Subic in the country, had threatened to kill American citizens. Letters would go home to parents from our school letting them know that the guards at the gate would be checking ID’s and stopping all busses for a security check before entering. We learned to keep an open eye out for anything unusual, tried to avoid unnecessary side roads that could lead us into unfamiliar areas, and tried not to draw attention to ourselves.
While it is easy as an American to describe all of the circumstances we found difficult adjusting to life in the Philippines, it is important to have a little perspective of the trials the Philippines had faced up to this point – and things will begin to make much more sense. The Philippine Islands are made up of a collection of 7,641 islands closely scattered at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. One of the first facts that I can remember about the country was a guidebook stating that seen from above, the islands form the shape of a donkey’s head, an image that I can’t help but see in my mind today. To the west of the islands is the Philippine trench, which plunges 34,580 feet into the Earth’s crust – the third deepest place on Earth. This 820-mile-long trench is where the Pacific plate slowly grinds under the Philippine plate and melts back into the earth’s crust. This subduction zone is what causes the large amount of tectonic activity in the Philippines including 18 active volcanos and hundreds of earthquakes each year. Additionally, the islands lay at the very western edge of the Pacific Ocean in the direct path of typhoons that develop in the South Pacific Ocean. Every year, an average of 20 typhoons move through the islands causing flooding, landslides, wind damage, and devastating storm surges to low lying islands. A seemingly endless cycle of natural disasters roll through the islands – earning it the title of the third most disaster-prone country on earth. It seems that as soon as the damage from one natural disaster is repaired, another comes along that erases the work.
In addition to the difficulties caused by natural disasters, the Philippines had a turbulent political history. The Spanish first claimed the islands as their territory in 1565 and installed a government, trade, and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1898, following the Spanish-American war, America decided to claim the Philippines as their own territory. Wanting freedom of their own, the Filipinos started a revolt and the Philippine-American war began. By 1902 up to 250,000 Filipinos had died and America declared victory over the islands. In the aftermath, America installed a new government, declared English as the primary language, disestablished the Roman Catholic Church, and redistributed the 422,350 acres of land it held, and brought in 500 teachers to firmly establish education in the Philippines. In order to protect its new territory, America constructed several forts at the entrance to Manila and Subic bays and created a sizable army. On December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese started their invasion of the Philippine islands. Over the process of five months, the 150,000 troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur were overpowered in what is often considered the worst military defeat in United States history – 25,000 killed, 25,000 injured, and 100,000 prisoners of war. The Bataan Death March, concentration camps, and “hell ships” carrying forced labors soon followed at the hands of the Japanese. Three and a half years later, General MacArthur returned with an invasion force of 1.25 million American men to free the Philippine islands. Over the next year, the Americans slowly pushed their way from the middle of the Philippine islands northward to finally re-capture the city of Manila. On August 15, 1945, after seeing the destruction of the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo ordered the Japanese in the Philippines to surrender, and a short two weeks after that World War Two was over.
In the aftermath of the war, the city of Manila had been destroyed. An estimated one million Filipinos had been killed during the war and occupation. Smaller battles against isolated groups of Japanese went on for years, in disbelief that the Japanese would ever lose or surrender. Ten months after the end of the war, America gave the Philippines their independence and close to 800 million dollars in aid. The move was largely seen as an effort for America to avoid the costly and time consuming process of helping the country rebuild, while maintaining its business and political interests in the country. After the war, the Philippines struggled to rebuild and grow its economy and the income inequality between the wealthy and the rest of society continued to grow. In 1965, the self proclaimed war hero Ferdinand Marcos was elected president under the promise of stimulating the Philippine economy with infrastructure projects. In 1972, after large protests in favor of Communism and rumors about a possible coup d’état or assassination, Marcos declared martial law. He regained control of the country by force, expanded his constitutional powers to bring about political and economic change, gained the support of many world leaders including the United States for his fight against communism, and for the next ten years, became the dictator of the Philippines. As the years passed, an increasing number of grievances were brought to light. He was never a war hero. He used force to appropriate private and public businesses or institutions and gave them to trusted friends. He institutionalized graft, corruption, racketeering, and embezzlement and quadrupled the size of the armed forces to suppress any dissent including in the press. The tables of support started to turn in 1983, when opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated on an airport runway after returning from three years in exile. Influential Filipino business and political leaders discouraged American investment and trade with corrupt companies and soon the country was suffering under the heavy weight of national debit. When open elections were finally held in 1986, there were major reports of voting fraud, and while Marcos was shown leading in the election, the public had turned against him. He appealed to the United States to evacuate him from the country and when protestors stormed the presidential palace hours later, they found Marcos missing. Corazon Aquino, the wife of the assented opposition leader, had become the president. In the following years, Aquino worked to re-establish the balance of power in the constitution, restore civil liberties, and restore the greatly weakened economy. In 1989, supporters of Marcos in the military staged a coup and were nearly successful, had it not been for American intervention from two aircraft carriers responding to the event.
When our family arrived in the Philippines in 1990, the country still had an uncertain future. There were power struggles between democrats, communists, Marcos supporters, and the Islamists. The problem of inequality under Marcos had risen to epidemic proportions. The economy was burdened with billions of dollars of debt and recovery was made difficult by blackouts that lasted 7 to 12 hours per day. And as an American, it is easy to see why people could either love us or hate us for our past actions as a nation – sometimes both at the same time. But looking at the Filipinos, you wouldn’t have suspected the hardships they had been through. They seem to have an unusually cheery disposition and endless perseverance given the circumstances they are faced with. They were a fiercely proud nation, and would celebrate any and every achievement by a fellow Filipino. It was a healthy dose of perspective for us that while we had been poor Americans, we were now wealthy in the Philippines. We had a home, a car, schooling and food – which were more than most had. Whenever we were faced with difficulties because of traffic, typhoons, brownouts and breakdowns, these were the same difficulties that the Filipino people faced everyday, without the option or privilege of escape. So while there were difficulties, it was important to understand that these difficulties did not make us special; it made us normal.
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