In just a few words, I had an amazing experience in the Philippines, both professionally and personally.
In my last month working with IPA, I had an incredible time working field work for development. I was given control over a research team with direction from my supervisor, and within certain parameters, I was given control to make decisions and run the team. My first task was retraining old field staff, and training new staff completely from scratch. Sitting at home and planning out my lectures with help from my supervisor, I couldn’t imagine how I would perform in front of a bunch of people, most of whom had been doing this job for two to three times as long as I had. But my supervisor guided me through the basics of what I needed to do, provided me with a template and a presentation, and most importantly, encouraged me.
I walked into my first day of training with butterflies in my stomach. At the end of the third day, I felt completely at ease giving presentations, but was still uncomfortable with directing the team. And by the end of my time in the Philippines, I couldn’t have felt more comfortable with managing the team, making decisions, and consulting with my supervisor about decisions I was unsure of making. Despite experiencing a couple of setbacks during the training, I learned a huge amount about how to manage others and balance multiple tasks.
Importantly, I also had an amazing experience engaging with a completely different culture. Nothing in my past experience prepared me for living in such a different country. The Philippines was the most challenging culture that I’ve ever been in. It’s such an interesting fusion of different cultures, and as a traveler, you’re surrounded by what is at once completely familiar, and at the same time utterly foreign. This feeling was summed up by an encounter I had with some US philanthropists working for a hearin-aid company:
After spending a couple of days in one of my first stops, I was doing some work at a Starbucks (the only one on the entire island) and overheard a conversation in English that a couple of Western-looking guys were having. I went up to them, introduced myself, and we started talking.
They told in me in so many words to tread carefully: the Philippines can be confusing because it appears so American: there are English advertisements everywhere, most Filipinos are able to fluently speak English, and almost all of the music you hear is last year’s hit single. But the Philippines is not an quasi-America in the South China Sea; it’s a wildly different country, with completely different values, and a sometimes deeply conservative culture.
I feel that one of the most important takeaways from my trip are the sum of the experiences I had speaking with other people. One of those times was towards the end of my summer, when I was in the field observing the team practice interviewing respondents. I introduced myself to one of our respondents, and one of my colleagues asked the woman if we could step inside her home to interview her. Our target demographic for interviewing is what is considered the “ultra-poor” demographic: people living far below the poverty line. I walked through her gate and was about to walk inside her house when she buried her head in her hands and said “I’m sorry.” I stopped in my tracks, concerned about her sudden change from two minutes earlier. I asked her what was wrong. She said “We are poor, I’m so so sorry, we are so poor,” embarrassment lining her face.
I wasn’t really sure what to say- there weren’t words that I could find that could express to her all of my different feelings at that time- most of all that she had nothing to feel sorry about, but that was mixed up in the confusion and shame of having a woman twice my age apologize to me for something that wasn’t her fault, and at that same time knowing that I could have been her son had I been born under her roof, and that the only reason that I was on the other side of her fence, was that I happened to be born in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
This was just one isolated instance of many, and a pretty poor instance of describing the generosity, kindness, and ease of living that I encountered while travelling in the Philippines. I could tell the story of 17-year old who guided me up a mountain, or the college-aged guy who sat talking with me in a coffee shop about why the Philippines, and he, were so poor, or the family that took me in for a night when they saw me at that same Starbucks. But the previous story was the one that really struck me, and will stay with me forever. This trip was an incredible learning experience, and I can’t wait for the next one.