I was 21 when U.S. Peace Corps told me to pack my bags because I was now a full-fledged volunteer. After weeks of training, I was moving to a small Philippine town for the next two years.
But… but… but… I wasn’t ready!
I spoke only a dozen words of Filipino, the national language. I could stammer entire sentences in Cebuano, the local dialect—but no one could understand me through my Massachusetts accent. I didn’t even know how to boil a pot of rice, the staple food.
I expected to starve.
Three days after arriving, though, I discovered a secret that Peace Corps had neglected to tell me. Half the town, including the welcoming family I boarded with, spoke English better than I would ever speak Cebuano. But by then, it was too late to change tactics and retreat to the only language I knew well.
No one would let me.
Little kids on the street supplied me with the right word when my mind went blank. If pointing at the merchandise didn’t get my message across, local vendors reminded me to use the tattered dictionary I carried everywhere. Co-workers corrected my pronunciation. Even the few people who spoke English with me switched languages when someone else joined us. Slowly, the community taught me enough Cebuano to hold a conversation.
That’s how my two years went. The town helped me at every turn. When I rented a house on my own, one neighbor showed me how to cook regional recipes; the other invited me to use her water supply instead of walking to the public pump. Months later, I learned they had plotted together to keep me safe by spreading fake rumors. Trust me, I neither knew self-defense nor owned a gun.
Pakikisama is the Filipino word for what I experienced. I’ve seen it defined as “fellowship,” but it means more than that. Hospitality doesn’t quite describe it either. The Peace Corps instructors explained it as a community expectation that others will help you, and you will help them in return. So what did I do to pay them back?
Probably not enough. I was constantly out-pakikisama’ed. My job as a fish culture technician introduced me to good people who valued my work. I paid friends and neighbors to repair my house, but they were there for emergencies, too, like the HUGE, is-that-poisonous (?) snake that slithered out of a gap in the floorboards. I received gifts of bananas and other fruit long after I helped some villagers who lost their rice harvest when an intense rainy season started early.
I’ve been back in the USA for years, but I still smile at memories of that little Asian town’s hospitality—until this year. This year, those memories break my heart.
This year, I realized I couldn’t guarantee their safety if any friends from that time were to visit me. This year, the United States, my home country, has revealed how cruel and even murderous it is toward anyone who isn’t white.
The contrast between the recent American violence against people of Asian descent versus the warmth that Philippine village showed me, the sole white-skinned person in town, is stark. The USA is not only the clear loser, it’s hopelessly outclassed. I am angry. I am heartsick. But most of all?
My friends, I am deeply, deeply ashamed.