A while back, I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend Amanda Martin when she returned from volunteering overseas with the Peace Corps. She spent 27 months in the Philippines. After letting our conversation gather dust for far too long, I have finally put it together to share with you all, along with some of the pictures Amanda took while there.
1. What was your initial reason for joining the Peace Corps? Did that motivation change over time?
Peace Corps Philippines Children, Youth and Families Pre-Service Training has a big session and a long running theme called finding your why. This is the reason(s) that you joined Peace Corps and have done other such opportunities. Some people’s “why” were resound, such as changing the world one person at a time or learning more about international development. For me I applied because I knew two things I wanted to do after college: travel and help people. My motivation definately changed during the course of 2 years, because you have to think that after a little while things settle down. Then you are just living in a new community, buying food, doing chores, going to work. The travel part had been exhausted because part of my job was to stay put and integrate into my assigned community. And my batch (people I arrived in country with) were the first to start working with the Department of Social Welfare and Development in a more closely knit way so there was a lot of trial and error. This translated to a lot of down time which led to me questioning my remaining time there. So now I was in the same place for most of the time and I wasn’t really helping anyone when work was inconsistent. So then your motivation has to shift and you start thinking about self-care and what other little projects you can do to make your time here memorable, if not meaningful as well. After all, in the end it’s still 27 months of your life.
2. What was your first reaction upon arriving in the Philippines?
They call it the honeymoon stage of culture shock during those first few days/weeks in a new country/culture. Everything is new and exciting and I was personally curious about it all. But also very nervous. You don’t speak the language. All the vehicles are totally new and different. You have a stack of colorful new currency. It’s like being a toddler all over again and having to learn the basics.
3. How did you manage the language barrier? Do the Peace Corps teach you the basics of the language before you got there?
So before service starts in any country Peace Corps has a time period called Pre-Service Training. From country to country the length and requirements are different so I can only speak about my own experience. Our Pre-Service Training, or PST, was 3 months long and it consisted of me living with a Host Family of Filipinos (people of the Philippines), attending morning language classes until lunchtime and then technical training classes until dinner time. Monday through Friday for 3 months. Weekends were reserved for family trips and studying. It’s really, really, really intense. You are adjusting to this totally new culture thousands of miles from home and now you are learning and using a new language daily as well as learning skills and practices for your following 2 years of work and having to closely collaborate with people you just met and who can have a range of personalities. Its intense. Its bootcamp. And I promised myself if I made it through that, I can make it through the rest of service.
Back to language, so in the Philippines Tagalog or Filipino is the national language so as a batch we had to reach a language proficiency level of Intermediate-Mid. I did some studying before leaving for service, but it was only a handful of words over the course of months whereas in country I learned more words in 1 day and was then pressured to use them at every opportunity. Then once we receive our site announcements (usually a week or so before PST is over) most people were required to start learning a second language, our regional dialects. Mine was Waray-Waray, and I had 1 week of formal Peace Corps classes in it before they sent me to site. Waray-Waray is not a very popular dialect so there is very little learning material on it, but they did send me one book they found and PC encouraged all PCVs to find a local community member to tutor us, at PCs expense. My community host sister was my tutor for a while but that faded away. Eventually you reach a point where through repetition you know all the words to make it through daily life.
4. What were some of the unique methods of communication that you had to get used to?
Mostly little things, gestures really, that would communite your needs to someone. Raising your eyebrows means yes. Pursing your lips and gesturing is giving directions to something. One thing Peace Corps warned us about is for females mostly, you wanted to avoid tapping your fingers on surfaces. If you were doing that and made eye contact with a male, he could take it as a form of flirting. What that gesturing means is that you want to try some horizontal dancing, so I learned to keep my hands in my lap!
5. What was the average meal like?
So there was the food I ate when I lived with my host family and the food I ate when I moved out. The food I ate when I lived with my host family, which was the first 11 months of my service (PC requires us to live with a host family for the first 3 months at site, but then we can move out) was pretty routine. My host family would eat things like fried chicken, whole fried fish (head included), eggs, bright red hot dogs, spaghetti or adobo (a local dish). And always, always, always a large heaping pile of rice. Sometimes fruits like bananas but anything more than that was a bit expensive, about $1 for every apple, which is a lot. I am a bit of a picky eater and I don’t really like seafood so my family seemed confused about what to feed me. They would serve food on the table and pay close attention to what I ate, and the next meal more of that food would be made. My diet consisted of eggs for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was either a ground beef dish I taught them, eggs, hot dogs, or fried spam slices. With rice. Always. Snacks were really common, things like candies, nuts, breads/pastries, desserts or in the summer there is a treat called halo-halo. Hard to describe but its basically ice, cream, and whatever people find yummy from things like corn, beans, jell-o, rice and pudding. But for poorer families than my host family, the meals are almost always fried fish and rice.
6. Were there any exceptionally odd foods that you tried? Anything that you found delicious, or disgusting?
Again, I’m a picky eater, and I really don’t tend to eat a lot of meats. But I second-hand experienced some pretty interesting foods such as Balut which is: “a developing bird embryo (usually a duck or chicken) that is boiled and eaten from the shell”. This was a really common drinking-time snack where traveling sales people walk around with crates of these eggs and sell them down the streets. It is rumored to increase a males sex drive so the macho-macho type men would often enjoy it. That’s probably the most out there I experienced, but towards the end I would be surprised when I noticed people eating eyes and feet and really all parts of the animal. In fact its really common for street side BBQ places to have sticks of meat: hot dogs, intestines, feet and livers. Some other foods that I actually did try are:
Wow! Thank you again for sharing some tidbits of your experiences with the Peace Corps, Amanda! It looks like such a unique and different way to truly immerse yourself into another culture!