A Wake Up Call on the Other Side of the World

During the month of April, I had a wonderful opportunity to volunteer at an established Vacation Church School (VCS) at one of the local churches. The first week of VCS catered to the members of the church and the Sunday school children. Since the church heads multiple outreach programs, we traveled to a few of the outreach locations for the second week. I really enjoyed helping and teaching the children over the two weeks, but this blog post is not about the wonderful time I had at VCS. Something happened during my first week in VCS that has been weighing heavily on my heart. It’s something I take very seriously and personally, and I need to address it openly with hopes of it benefiting someone else.

Most children know certain “nursery” rhymes. Whether they learn them from classmates or siblings, children eventually learn popular rhymes like Humpty Dumpty or Itsy Bitsy Spider. It’s not uncommon to hear children singing them with their friends. Towards the end of the first week, one child was trying to choose between a few things (I’m unsure what those “things” were at this point) and she began to recite a counting rhyme:

“Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo

Catch a n****r by the toe

If he hollers, let him go

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo”

 

Yeah, cue my shock during that second line. Honestly, it took me a few moments to recover, in which time, I’m sure the little girl realized that something was wrong, maybe it was the look on my face, but she unapologetically stated “My dad taught it to me.”

After talking with the other teachers who had worked with the girl a little longer, I gathered that her father is an American who came to the Philippines to get remarried and start a family. He has also been known to express what would commonly be seen as prejudice and/or racist views. Not many of the other teachers were surprised that she learned such things from her father, but I felt like I was the only person with a lingering concern. In my mind, however, I’m screaming, “ We are in a Church and SHE IS FIVE (5) YEARS OLD!!!” Although, the girl had no idea what the word meant, I had a major problem with the fact she is being taught to carelessly throw around racial slurs.

A quote from The African American Registry:

“The word, nigger, carries with it much of the hatred and disgust directed toward Black Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, made fun of, and ridiculed all Blacks. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal reason for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it strengthened the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody.”

So, I took the opportunity to explain a few things to her. I simply told her “that word” is a very, very, very mean word. People say that word to make other people feel bad about the way they look and their darker skin. And I know that your father uses that word, but it’s not a nice word. The rhymes are meant to be fun for everyone. I asked her “How about you try to use a different word, like ‘tiger’ or an animal you like?” In the end, she decided to use “kitten” because she loves kittens. Although I can’t imagine how someone else would’ve reacted to the incident, I prayed that I handled the situation well and it was a blessing that God chose me to deal with the situation.

I am happy that we found a different word for her to use, I really am. However, the reality is that she is at home, where nothing has changed. She will continue to hear derogatory words that are hurtful and demeaning, yet everyone around her will disregard it or even encourage it because “that’s just the way things are.”

So, now, I am at a point where I am asking myself “What have I learned? What does God want me to take away from this experience?” Obviously, I can’t really answer those questions on behalf of God, but I have had a chance to think about what happened and I can draw my own conclusions.

For years, I lived in a bubble. I created this bubble around myself so I wouldn’t be bothered by what was happening around me. I remember moving from the suburbs of Chicago to Waxhaw, for the first time in my life, I was told that I “talk white”. By the way, I still haven’t figured out exactly what that means. I talk like many other African-Americans that I am around. I knew that I should be offended, but instead I remained falsely oblivious, pretending I didn’t care what was said. That bubble stayed with me through college. My bubble protected me from the hurtful words people threw at me, so I took nothing personally. My bubble helped me remain blissfully unaware of the violence and corruption that is constantly showcased on the news and online. My bubble aided in my false belief that I could be uninvolved with the unpleasant things in society.

When I arrived in the Philippines, I should have realized my bubble didn’t come with me. My parents have extensively traveled internationally and have shared with our family that racism and bigotry does not stop at America’s borders, but I remained optimistic. Sure enough, I’ve had some tough experiences here involving my hair, my weight, and my skin color. I still wrote them off as me being in a new environment and being unfamiliar with my surroundings, but it’s more than that, especially now. Being 8000 miles away from my home country lit a fire to be more invested in the well-being of my country and all the people in it. America sets the standards for diversity and civil rights for other countries to follow; what messages are we sending the rest of the world today?

I recently turned 23 (happy birthday to me)- I am long overdue to be involved in what’s going on in my country and creating solutions to unify all of God’s children. I am an adult who is about to enter a society that I perceive to desperately cling to old beliefs; a society that is extremely divided and is constantly fighting or fiercely disagreeing as some call it. The situation with the little girl has taught me that I cannot run away and hide from the problems of my own country, because those problems have obviously found me on the other side of the world. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. I pray that the same little girl will remember that words can hurt people and choose her own path toward respecting others.

I’ll be home in a matter of days, maybe even by the time you read this blog post. As I begin my medical school journey, carve out the rest of my life, and impact the lives of others, this young woman commits to “stay woke” and will strive to bring healing to my country in more ways than one.

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Simple Living for a Complex Person

I…am not a simple person. Simple living affects everyone differently and is defined by everyone differently. I’m the type of person who hopes for the best, but prepares for the worst. I have a lot of stuff. Even my stuff has stuff. When I travel, make sure I have options and emergency everything. I live in a constant state of “just in case” this happens, “just in case” I need that. I say all of this, to say – simple living has been a challenge for me.

My experience as a YAV in the Philippines has made simple living physically, emotionally, and culturally challenging. Physically, I have to deal with transporting all my stuff. Perhaps I’ve been a bit spoiled by my dad and brothers, but I’m not used to having to carry my stuff. To make it easier on myself and everyone around me, I have to pack simply. I have to travel light. I have to avoid taking over the entire apartment with my stuff. And it’s difficult, it’s really hard to not have stuff when I’m so used to it. I don’t have random movies to watch, or snacks to eat, or games to play. I don’t have dozens of combinations of clothes to wear. It’s not feasible and it’s not reasonable.

Emotionally, I struggle with not having the comforts of home. There’s a sense of security when you’re at home, around friends and family, going to the places you are familiar with. Personally, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that, as much as I like the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve been, they aren’t “home.” But home isn’t something I will have in the near future as I head to medical school. Simple living and forging new relationships aren’t going anywhere. This YAV year has been great preparation.

The cultural challenges are difficult, too. My example is not a “simple living” challenge, but related to living simply and immersing yourself in a culture different from your own. Just because the Filipino people know English, does not mean you’ll be able to blend in, culturally. Now, I didn’t come to the Philippines thinking that, but I really do thank God that I didn’t have that expectation. Between adjusting to “appropriate” conversations and topics, to understanding general body language and customs, I’ve been in a constant whirlwind of confusion and discomfort. Just when I think I’m starting to understand something about the culture, some new thing pops up and then I’m confused about something else. And there’s always a bit of discomfort when there are topics that aren’t talked about or may be considered rude at home that are discussed openly and freely, here. These topics mostly consist of extremely personal detail; including politics, religion, love lives, and bodily functions.

It’s hard for me to say that simple living is necessary in order to get in tune with your surrounding or understand the world, because I honestly find nothing wrong with enjoying material things or the comforts of home (obviously, not to the extent of “worshipping” them). But, I will say it’s necessary for other reasons. Simple living is necessary in order to understand yourself. It requires you to be creative and resourceful. You challenge yourself and learn about what you can and can’t work with. I think simple living is necessary because it’s one of the best ways to examine what’s important in your life and what’s excess.

Growing Faith

After 7 months and various experiences in the Philippines, I can say I’ve really become more confident in my faith and how I see God in my daily life. I am surrounded by people who can see God in stunning sunsets, beautiful ocean waters and other things like that, but that’s not the primary way for me. Since being in the Philippines, I have had an opportunity to examine how I see God and gain more clarity of how God speaks to me. I’ve come to realize that God speaks to me through my interactions with other people.

There’s one experience from the beginning of my time here that I didn’t really see much value in until I later started examining how my faith experience is different from those who I interact with daily. I am here with two others from the USA, and we travelled together for a month in September. When we were in one of the mountainous regions, we had the opportunity to visit a village and sit down with some of the elders and talk. At some point during our conversation, they asked each of us how we knew we were coming to the Philippines. Naturally, the three of us thought, “well, we found out about the program applied, interviewed with the Philippines site, and chose to come here.” We thought that response answered their question, but then, they clarified that they were asking about some divine sign that God sent us, telling us to come to the Philippines. They pretty much implied that you had to have a divine sign or something in order to do something as big as going to the Philippines.

Honestly, I had no answer for them, at all. I love to travel and felt that my time in the Philippines was just another (extended) stop in my life’s journey. I didn’t have some profound dream or enlightening experience that told me I had to go to the Philippines. So far, that’s not how my relationship with God is, though I am open to any way God speaks. But, for the village we were visiting, that is exactly how God speaks to them; through dreams and signs, etc. Now that I think back on it, I believe that was God’s way of showing me that God doesn’t appear to everyone in the same capacity. I can’t base my own faith experience on others’ relationship with God. That revelation has strengthened my own faith and made me more confident of my own relationship with God.

I hope to continue this strengthening of my faith as I move forward into the rest of my time in the Philippines as well as when I return to the U.S. I’m going to rely heavily on that strength as I go through the ups and downs of medical school and life in general. I have a long road ahead of me, and I am so glad I took this YAV opportunity, because it has given me the chance to experience God’s grace and plans for my life.

Hair

I love my hair. I really, really, really do! At home, there are so many people with similar hair, but my hair is unique to me. I’d like to believe that I am not vain, but no one else has my coloring. No one else has my curl pattern. People tend to comment that I look like my mom in my normal hair-style and I do love those comments. I love my hair. But, my hair has brought up some unique experiences since I’ve been in the Philippines. By the way, did I mention that I love my hair?

To an outsider, the Philippines seems to be a pretty homogenous place compared to the United States, which means almost everyone has the same facial structure, general physique, and – you guessed it – hair type! So, when I come along, and visit places or meet people that don’t see many foreigners (especially African-Americans) I, honestly, tend to be slightly violated. Let me explain…

In America, we know that there are different types of hair textures. Not everyone realizes that, here in the Philippines. The mildest question I’ve gotten is “Is it a wig?” I can answer that, easily – No, it is not a wig. I guess that’s a fair question. I wonder if I said, “None of anyone’s business,” but really questions are ok and I am not that rude. Moving beyond the “asking questions” is where the problem lies.

In America, we (should) know that you need to ask before touching someone’s hair. It can be very rude to just walk up to someone and play with his or her hair. In some of the places I’ve been, that isn’t a well-known concept. In Bohol, during my third week in the Philippines, my fellow YAVs and I toured a local elementary school. The children spent the entire time trying to be sneaky and touch my hair, as if I wouldn’t notice it (they ran away when I actually offered to let them touch it…). But, they were children, they didn’t know better, so I didn’t think too much of it. But what really offended me, was that one Sunday, the pastor (and our host) started playing with my hair…in the middle of her sermon! The children, I can understand, but a grown woman, who is in the middle of a sermon, and did not ask permission, just decided she wanted play with my hair- really? I simply wasn’t fine with that, but I let it go, to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially since we were in a very rural area where they don’t see many foreigners. My dad told me about his similar experiences in China- well not his hair since he normally wears it bald, but how people grope, take pictures, and stare. However, now I truly understand.

And finally, in America, and hopefully everywhere else, we know that it is extremely rude to pull someone’s hair, even if you are a child. It hurts! If you’ve had your hair pulled, you know that it hurts. Apparently, that didn’t matter to these children. I was sitting with a friend eating dinner and a few of the street children walk past our table and I feel a tug at my hair. I turn around and there are at least 6 children behind me. One of them asked if it was a wig, so I give my usual answer, “No!” My real problem begins when they continue to pull my hair, not tug – pull. When I finally was able to get them to stop and leave, I thought it was over. Except, every time they walked past me that night, they pulled my hair and not my fellow YAV’s hair. That was probably one of the most infuriating things I’ve had to deal with since arriving in the Philippines.

Like I’ve said, I love, love, love my hair. Unfortunately, it has brought me many experiences that I could’ve done without. However, I’ve had the experiences, I’ve had multiple opportunities to practice patience, learn empathy, and extend forgiveness, and I’m (hopefully) a better person because of those experiences. But, I’m also TOTALLY fine with forgoing any future hair-violating experiences, regardless of one’s age.

Pictures!

first-philippines-pictureOur very first picture in the Philippines! We were so young!

front-packsFront packs are very practical in the city of Manila, lol! We’re so stylish! Honestly, pickpocketing is a reality. Read about my time in Manila, here!

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Next, are pictures from Bohol. You can read about my time there in this blog post.

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We also went to the mountains, which I also talk about in this post.

We always need time to recuperate, so here are some picture of our time at a retreat!

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Dumaguete! Here are some pictures of fun things I’ve done around Dumaguete.

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Being in the Philippines is tough, but I have some great people here with me to make it easier!

jumping

Please make sure you check out my most recent blog post, “Motivation

Motivation

I recently had an opportunity to visit a medical missions clinic at one of the sports complexes in Dumaguete. I served as a volunteer to observe and help in any way I could. I was placed with some great ladies that were assigned in an area taking blood pressure and blood sugar. Unfortunately, we did not have much foot traffic and not many people stopped by unless the doctor specifically sent them over; consequently, we had a lot of time to talk.

At this medical missions clinic, there were over 150 doctors, nurses, staff, etc. who were there to serve the community. The group was from the US, but a lot of them originally came from different areas in the Philippines. They worked from early in the morning to about 5pm every day for a week- treating patients, distributing medicine, and even performing some surgeries at a hospital nearby.

I’m pretty sure that over the course of the week, they provided care to 1,000+ people from Dumaguete and surrounding areas. I witnessed people coming for regular check-ups, asthma treatments, dental exams, and eye evaluations. At first, I thought, “Wow! It’s amazing to see people taking advantage of the medical missions clinic! I’m glad it’s available to them!” However, the more I though about it, the more my opinion changed and I realized that it’s really a sad situation. Thousands of people don’t have access to the most basic care. Their health care system is broken and they can’t rely on their own government to fix it. The majority of people can’t afford to get regular medical check-ups, pay for medicines, or even purchase reading glasses to function properly on a daily basis. Yes, it’s absolutely wonderful that there are people willing to utilize their talents, invest their own money, and commit their time with organizations to provide health care to communities in another country; but, it’s also really sad that it has to be that way.

As I reflected on the condition of the people of the Philippines, I thought a little bit more and it registered that there are many people like that in the United States. There are people of all ages that don’t have access to basic health care; or if they have access, it’s still unaffordable.

Now, I don’t “do” politics. I’m not going to go on a rant about the U.S. health care system. But, I do want to communicate that this is one of the significant reasons why I want to be a doctor. It’s not for the money or the title. It’s not because I want to make myself feel better by “saving” other people or “curing” their illness. No, it’s because I want to make a difference in someone else’s life. I want to serve the people who are swept aside, forgotten, or ignored. I want to serve people who don’t have access to or cannot afford health care regardless of the reason. I want to do something that will make a difference, even if I’m the person forgotten when it’s all said and done. I will make a difference in the world, but I have to start at home – in these United States of America.

Growing Pains

After 5 months in the Philippines, I’ve finally gotten into a pattern; a regular everyday routine that gives me a sense of normalcy. I can speak a little of the local dialect, I can successfully navigate the city using the limited modes of transportation, and I recently started living on my own, without a host family. Obviously, it hasn’t always been this way. So, I figured I would share a couple stories that reflect my adjustment to living in the Philippines.

I’ll start with learning the language. Naturally, you want to learn the local language when you move to a new country and plan on staying for a while. So, that’s what I did! My site coordinator found Flanny (the other YAV staying in the same city as me) and me a language instructor. We were so excited to start learning the language and we attempted to use the few words we knew whenever we went out in public. I’m sure our accent made it sound weird and we messed up a few times, but we tried really hard to speak a few simple words everyday.

After a month or so, I realized that whenever we used a specific word, “Salamat” – which means “Thank You” – some of the friends we made would giggle and mimic us. I tried to ask what was wrong, but never really got a straight answer. I eventually asked my language instructor what we were saying wrong. It was at that point that I realized intonation and inflection make a world of difference. In the local dialect, even a slight emphasis change in a certain word can change the entire meaning of the word. Luckily, in the case of “Salamat,” the meaning never changed, however, I realized we were saying it in a lack luster type of way. I mean, imagine that you say “Thank you” to someone, but you’re completely monotone, with no emotion behind it. That is the equivalent to how we were saying “Thank you.” We’ve learned our lesson now, but I never realized how important inflection is until that point.

Now, on to transportation. It takes a little getting used to here in the Philippines. Different cities have different types of transportation. Here in Dumaguete, most people ride motorbikes, although I see compact cars frequently too. As for public transportation, you use pedicabs for shorter distances and the bus system for longer distances. Pedicabs are like motorbikes with a sidecar, plus they have a fixed price, either 8 or 10 pesos, depending on your destination.

Well, being foreigners, some, not all, pedicab drivers think we’re easy targets to make a few extra pesos. I made a habit out of asking friends how much it costs to get to a certain place, just so I know how much to give the driver. I’ve had to sit in the pedicab and wait for my change a few times because the driver thought I didn’t know how much it really costs. Being on a tight budget, I can’t afford to pay extra for a short ride in the pedicab. After a while, I got used to giving exact change, since I know where I’m going now and how much it costs to get there. Sometimes, I think back to when I first got here and realize that I’ve overpaid quite a few times, just because I wasn’t used to getting around and how much everything costs.

So far, being here has been a great experience. These stories I have are just the growing pains of adjusting to a new country, culture, and people. I’m not an expert by any means, but I think I’ve gotten used to my everyday life, here in the Philippines.

A Day in the Life Of…

For those of you who have an instagram (or know someone with an instagram) please follow @yavprogram

From December 27 – 29, 2016, the Philippines YAVs (that’s me and two others) will be posting pictures and stuff to give you a glimpse into our work and home lives as well as some of the other things we’ve been up to.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

Dumaguete!

I’ve been in Dumaguete for the past three months. Dumaguete is a relatively small city located on one of the central islands of the Philippines. My time here, so far, has been different than I imagined. When I first arrived, I got wrapped up in the whirlwind of my new environment. My entire first month was all about figuring out transportation, work placement, and the Filipino culture. I think the first month could be compared to any situation where you uproot your life to move to a new area. I had to figure out what bus to take to get to work only to realize that if I want the luxury of air conditioning, I’ll be paying luxury prices. I had to come to terms with the fact that, Filipino people are, on average, much smaller than me, so finding work clothes is not the easiest thing to do.

When I arrived in Dumaguete, I didn’t think the language barrier would be as big as it really is. One of the official languages of the Philippines is English, which, on paper is good for me. However, every area of the Philippines has it’s own language, including Dumaguete, and English isn’t commonly spoken unless you are on a college campus. Luckily, I am taking language classes, however, I’ve never been the best at learning a new language, so it’s been slow going.

I’ve been in the Philippines for 4 months at this point and I’ve adjusted to many things. I can now get to work on the right bus; I can go to different areas of the city without having to google map every turn; I can even speak a little of the local language. However, my biggest hurdle is the culture differences between the Philippines and the US. It seems like the closer I get towards holidays, the more I realize that nothing is what I’m used to. Although, that’s just a part of being abroad and immersing yourself into another culture, it’s still slightly disconcerting.

And to that point, I have to give a shout out to the other two YAVs who are here with me in the Philippines. Being so far away from home, away from family, friends, and all things comfortable is extremely hard. Especially when so many major things are happening while you’re away and you can’t help but feel like you’re missing some important things. Flanny, Katheryn, and I have really created a “home away from home” together. We may be physically separated by a few miles (or in Katheryn’s case, by a few islands), but we keep each other sane when things get to be too much; and during this Christmas season, when I’m missing my family and friends, knowing I won’t see them for quite a few more months, that’s exactly what I need.

I have so many mixed emotions about my time here so far, but I’m still incredibly grateful for this opportunity.

It’s been a while! part 2

So, the third and fourth week in the Philippines had to be the hardest for me. Not only were they difficult for me as a general traveler, but they were hard from a social justice point of view and health wise.

The third week, my fellow YAVs and I went to an island about two hours away (by boat), called Bohol. There, we stayed in a very rural area with a local pastor and her family. That was a rough week for me because I realized a) that I’m privileged and b) I’m not so great at physically adapting to my environment. The entire week, we lived in this farming area, where everything was far, where we got to see our food before we ate it, and where the only foreigners were on the television.

We had some amazing opportunities in Bohol, like plowing a field with a Philippines water buffalo, planting corn, working in rice fields, etc. However, those opportunities have led me (along with my fellow YAVs) to the conclusion that nature is not my friend. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen into so much mud in my entire life. Also, I realize, fire ants hate me. I’m allergic to something in the rice fields and possible one of the local fruits. There are a lot more reasons, but those are just the major ones. Regardless of nature’s dislike of women named Akilah Hyrams, I still enjoyed my time in Bohol.

My fourth week was a different story. We went to a mountainous region on an island in the northern part of the Philippines called the Cordillera. There, we visited a lot of indigenous communities who were facing a lot of injustices. Many of the communities were farming communities that heavily relied on their produce. It was really heart breaking because, as I learned, farming is a very unpredictable business and the farmers don’t get to control the price for their own produce. They have to go through a middleman to sell them in the market. When I was there, farmers were given 2 Pesos for one kilo of carrots by the middleman. It costs 7 Pesos to grow one kilo of carrots. So the farmer just lost 5 Pesos per kilo. Oh, and since most communities don’t have trucks to transport their produce, it’s costs 2 Pesos per kilo to send them to the market on a truck. Well, there went the 2 Pesos they actually “earned” from the carrots they sold. Being in those communities, watching and participating in some of the work they did just to make a living was so hard to do, knowing they were getting next to nothing for it. Later that week, we saw some more indigenous communities fighting to keep their land as international mining companies came to exploit the land. And the companies that were already there were destroying the quality of land and the lives of the local communities; from contaminated water to crumbling houses due to underground tunnels.

 

So, not only did I see the effects of injustice and a corrupt system, there was also the factor of nature hating me, so naturally, I was sick pretty much the entire week. But, I really do appreciate the opportunities afforded to me over the month of traveling. There are some things you really can’t fathom until they are right in your face. And even then, I was always aware of the fact that I was leaving the area, bringing myself back to a relatively comfortable place while those communities continue to fight for their rights and their land and will continue to do so long after I leave the country next year.