Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Turn of the Year

I’ve been in the Philippines now for four months.  I’ve taught children and adults, I’ve played with babies, witnessed baptisms, marriages, and funerals.  And I’ve written back home, pages and pages worth of adventures.  My parents collect everything I write up into a journal of my adventures, with as many pictures as they can harvest from my own blog accounts and facebook, and from those of people who interact with me and tag me.

A few months ago, my father sent me a reflective e-mail based somewhat on the poem I wrote.  He said that people back in my home church were asking what I did as a YASCer, and what other YASC participants were doing.  He always starts off by giving the basic summary: YASC is a form of mission work, like an Episcopal Church based Peace Corps.  Then he’d go in to some details of what some of us are doing, our work in teaching, health care, peace work, farming, or social development.  Often at that point there are questions about why the church should send us.  It would be a lot more cost-efficient for  the Episcopal church to just establish grants with the local churches around the world and hire someone from the area to do the job we’re doing.

And if the work were all there was to it, we could just do that.  If all I am here for is to teach CE classes at the high school, then paying a small sum to give the current CE trainers a bit more background in the subject would be a lot more cost-efficient.  If the Lay institute really needed a course on science and religion, it could have asked one of the science teachers at the college to pair up with a local priest.  Logistically speaking, I’m not exactly necessary.

But then the question arises, how would that build a connection between the Episcopal Church in the US and the Philippine Episcopal Church?  A small sum of money given once a year?  That creates no real tie or investment between communities.  But a person?  A person who stays long enough to get to know people?  Who joins her fellow teachers in witnessing the high school principal’s wedding, who can laugh at pranks in the teacher’s lounge and get dragged over at the employee Christmas party to sing the last few words of a song she’s not heard in years? 

YASC isn’t about the jobs we do, so much as it is about the reasons we do those jobs.  As it is about the connections we make in the course of those jobs.  I’m here to teach, but more I’m here to talk about my knitting and teach a few interested seventh-graders the start.  To play and blow bubbles for little kids, who decide that my hair is golden and like Rapunzel’s.  I’m here to see a bunch of different churches, and to begin to understand the  community at my local church. 
And when I’m back home, I won’t take back only the practical experience of teaching courses and writing exams.  I’ll take back the memory of cooking and eating together with some of my fellow teachers.  I’ll take back the memory of a bunch of women I had just barely met dropping all of their plans to take me to a hot spring together.  I’ll take back learning to dance Igorot style.  I’ll take back singing folk songs and old country songs for hours with new acquaintances.  I’ll take back the memory of a December and January that will be green and lush and blooming.    

And I’ll take back that the Tagalog word for armpit is killi-killi, because one of my seventh graders taught me that in a list of supposedly helpful words. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Red, the color of love

Most of the time this blog shows my perspective on being here.  That makes sense, as it is my blog and I'm the one writing it.  But I thought it would be fun to give a different viewpoint, and as the school newspaper came out this week with an article about me in it, I thought I'd share.  This was written by a student at Easter School, and although the teacher running the newspaper let me read it first to approve it, the only changes I made were to correct the spelling of certain programs.  It's certainly not Johan's fault that Americorps is spelled differently than it sounds.  

Red, the Color of Love
By Johan Golucan

                On the ___th day of ____, 2013, a new teacher was introduced during the flag ceremony. Fair complexion, red hair, thick eye glasses, and an American accent; having observed all these made me realize that standing in front of us was a foreigner.  

When I first found out that she was going to be teaching in Easter, I thought I would have to make some major adjustments like getting used to her American accent and her foreign teaching style. But I guess it’s just water under the bridge now because I discovered that despite her differences with us, she’s a great teacher!

                 Her name is Margaret Ann Clinch, a 27 year-old native of Ohio, a state located in the Midwest of the U.S. She has an Interdisciplinary Bachelor’s degree of Science from the University of Evansville. Though her chosen course is not related to teaching, her passion in educating young minds earned her a year of tutoring in the Americorps Program. 

                Smart and quiet. These are two words that her co-teachers use to describe her. But underneath that silence lies a fountain of knowledge. According to the other teachers, when they start a topic with her, especially if it is an intelligent one, she can go on with the discussion without running out of ideas. She is a proof that in silence, there is wisdom.

                It is no secret that Margaret is a volunteer teacher. And because of this, the students have a high amount of respect for her.

                When it comes to her relationship with the other teachers, she says they are very welcoming to her and that she enjoys working with them.

                “I find the students here in Easter to be the same as all the other students anywhere in the world. There are times when I yell at the top of my lung but mostly I enjoy the students,” Margaret says with a big smile on her face. 

During her time, she had to go through a lot of debt to get through college. Having experienced this, she wishes to tell the students a piece of wisdom. And that is, “Enjoy this time now because you’re never going to have as much of an opportunity to learn as you do at this point of your lives. Everything after high school you have to work for.” 

Having been so curious how Margaret got here in Easter College, I took the interview as an opportunity to ask this question that had been nagging me for quite a while. According to her, she volunteered at the Young Adults Service Program. It was basically a program where they send you somewhere in the world and have you do something. In her case, she was sent to the Philippines   to teach. Originally she was to be sent in the southern part of the Philippines but the program decided against it because of the recent warfare and disasters.

                “Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those we travel along the road with. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” This was actually a prayer that was taught to Margaret by the head of her program. It is a beautiful piece of literature that reflects her kind-heartedness.     

Her love in teaching is a ray of sunshine to us, her students. She says she loves the point where somebody captures that spark of interest that she is so passionate about. Personally for me, she makes learning seem so magical, so much different from how I used to see it.

                The only question that is left for us now is, will she continue teaching? The honest truth is that even she herself doesn’t know. She hasn’t decided whether or not she will be going back for a master’s degree in education or if she will try to work for her local diocese. So part of her being here is because she wants to decide whether she would pursue education or ministry. Well, whichever she chooses, I think that it’s safe to say that all of is here in Easter are ready to support her all the way.

 Good luck, Ma’am Margaret.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Small Churches

One of the things the diocese mentioned that they wanted to do with me when I first arrived was to take me to many of the local churches, so I could see how the church was working in a variety of communities. 

For the first month or two, that didn’t happen as much.  I went mostly to Holy Innocents, the church on the school campus, and occasionally my fellow teachers or the school president would take me to visit their home parish.  I’m not sure if it was just that the diocese was giving me a chance to settle, or if they just hadn’t figured out where to take me.

Three weeks ago that started to change.  Bishop Pacheo collected me early on Sunday morning and took me to visit a small church community in central Bugias.  It’s still being established, and currently they hold services once a month at a local school building that lends them a classroom.  I was invited along to watch an entire family get confirmed in one fell swoop.  Later, there was a lunch, and following the lunch the ladies of the church took me out to the local hot spring/swimming pool to enjoy the early afternoon together. 

And this past Sunday, Padie Egmalis, the chaplain at Brent, invited me along to his mission station out at Asin, about a half hour away from Baguio.  At Asin, we held the services at a resort spa owned by the family which makes up half the church.  I ended up sitting next to a 92-year-old woman who used to teach at Easter College herself, sometimes holding the books for her to get to the right page.  She sat with me after the service was over and talked a bit about her past, and how she and her classmates had always paid more attention to their American teachers.

What is it like, at these smaller churches?  For one, the service tends to be somewhat more relaxed.  In Bugias, the entire service was done in Illocano, and I followed along about as well as I did when I used to go to Shabbat services and everything was in Hebrew.  That is: I tried to follow along with the sounds and sing whenever I knew the tune, and at the end I think I figured out a few words of it.  In Asin, the priest simply pointed at people to do the readings, and I ended up getting assigned the second reading.

As a very fair-skinned red-headed, it’s sort of impossible for me to disappear into the crowd anywhere in Baguio, and even in the larger churches, I’m not anonymous.  But as with any large church, there’s a lot of people who don’t need to know each other well, and don’t always interact.  I’m an unusual member of the congregation, but I am just one of the congregation at the end, and most of the church parishioners are busy connecting with their closer friends to be too interested in me.  At the small churches, I’m the center of attention in a lot of ways, just because I’m so unusual. 

At Bugias, the language differences were highlighted.  I’ve been here a few months, and I now know bits and pieces of Illocano and Tagalog, but not a great deal of either.  Certainly not enough to string together a conversation.  The people in Bugias don’t have as much of a reason to know English as the groups I interact with most in Baguio, and so most of our conversations in Bugias were somewhat halting as we tried to understand one another.  Smiling, nodding, and finding simple topics of conversation were the order of the day.  In Asin, because it is so close to Baguio, the language differences were minimal. 

And both places fed me very well!  One of the strangest things I found when I came to the Philippines is how few larger churches have coffee hour, and if it is held, how few members of the congregation go to it.  Instead the congregation tends to break up and head to local restaurants for a long lunch with family and some friends.   But in Bugias and Asin, there was a luncheon held after the service, full of local foods.  I had some excellent clams and catfish yesterday, fresh from the local river.  And the people in Bugias wanted to get me drunk, serving a sugar beet based wine with lunch, and constantly asking me if I wanted more of it.  

No pictures, sadly.  I've been bad about making sure that I get my camera before I head out, and even worse about making sure that it has batteries that are charged when I do remember my camera.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013


It’s been a trend in the recent blogposts of other YASCers, and for good reason.  A November Thanksgiving is one of our American holidays, and one that has come to be synonymous with being together with family and friends.  For those of us now far scattered from those family members, and still in the beginning stages of our friendships with people in our new countries, it’s an especially poignant time.  This was the first Thanksgiving I’ve spent away from family members, the first time I’ve been far enough away that I couldn’t simply go home for the day. 

And indeed, here in the Philippines, Thanksgiving Thursday was a normal day, even if I wasn’t teaching because of the Scout Official For a Day activities.  We teachers showed up for work, the students showed up for class, and aside from one or two curious fellow teachers, who weren’t sure if Thanksgiving was sometime that week or the following, not much was made of it in my host school.

Instead, I was invited over to the Brent School, a much more internationally-based school, although it was also run by the diocese.  The chaplain there knew I would be alone for Thanksgiving and wanted me to have somewhere to celebrate.  And there, at least, I was surrounded by people who knew what Thanksgiving was, to some extent.  Several of the teachers at Brent, including the headmaster and his wife, were Americans, and this was their chance for a Thanksgiving as well. 

And yet, even as I enjoyed the chance for turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, I had to tell the chaplain that no, this wasn’t exactly my family’s style of Thanksgiving.  It wasn’t just that we were lacking some of my family’s traditional dishes.  Whatever else, Thanksgiving isn’t just about the food, or even, sacrilege as it might be to say this, the food is the least important part. 

I’m used to Thanksgiving meaning that the family is working together to make it.  I’m used to polishing silver for part of the afternoon, pulling all the kid’s toys out of the dining room and into the basement, used to helping set up the big table, with one of us kids ducking under to help put the support in place for the extension leaves.  I’m used to Dad making stuffing and wrestling with the bird in the morning, to Mom grinding the scrap meats for the gravy with our old fashioned meat grinder, to Elizabeth and John bringing over the best ever pumpkin pie and green bean casserole.  I’m used to the fact that at every formal dinner I will be sitting next to my disabled sister because I’ve got the best reflexes for keeping her out of my food. 

I’m used to the sense of family and belonging, and although everyone at Brent was wonderful, that wasn’t my family or my home community. 

Earlier that week I hosted a dinner party for a few of my new friends at Easter College.  I’d set it up before I remembered the dates, but went ahead with it anyway.  Over the course of an hour or so after school was out, Ma’am Rouilla and I bought supplies and made supper, and we were joined by Sir Jordan and Ma’am Karla.  Wine was poured, food was shared, jokes were told. 

It wasn’t a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.  None of the key components were there: there was no turkey, no stuffing, no casseroles or pie.  We had potatoes, yes, but as gnocchi, not baked or mashed.  It wasn’t held on the last Thursday of November, and it was anything but fancy as we drank from mismatched cups in the middle of the hospitality department’s laundry room. 

But it was at this meal: too early, too casual, with none of the correct foods, that I felt like I was part of a true Thanksgiving dinner.  I’m thankful for good friends made, for conversation and acceptance, for a way to participate in a group.  And I’m also grateful for the Brent community for making sure that I was not alone on Thanksgiving day.  

Ma'am Rouilla, Sir Jordan, and myself, along with part of our dinner. 
Ma'am Rouilla again, along with Ma'am Karla

A table at Brent, set for Thanksgiving Dinner.  Note, they're already starting to decorate for Christmas.
The food table, before all the food was brought out.  The trays on the right of the photo held rice and mashed potatoes, the tray right next to the table decoration held mixed veggies, the blank space was for the turkey and stuffing, and the last tray held pumpkin/squash soup.  We also had rolls and salad.