"missing the september salad at sweetgreen. not ok. how sad is it that i miss salad..? I’m gonna say pretty sad"
"did you know there’s a war on worms…. i do now"
"who do i have to hump around here to get some chia seeds on this island"

Midnight Tita and the Jamba Juice Thief

I knew the flight to Manila was going to be long, but I couldn’t really conceive what it would be like to travel for 28 hours until I actually did it. The flight was wildly disorienting leaving from Albany, NY to Detroit, to Nagoya, Japan to Manila. As I thought about it more, I was flying north to go south: over Alaska, descending to Japan. I was flying west to end up in the east. I was flying back in time to end up twelve hours ahead of where I started. I still can’t really wrap my head around how that worked.

Luckily I arrived in Manila, with both of my bags intact, and a WHO driver waiting for me on the other side of the customs line. The second we started driving to my apartment building the overwhelming differences between Manila and anyplace I had ever been became immediately apparent. The first thing I noticed was the density of the city. Cars move bumper to bumper maxing out at about 20 miles per hour. On one side of our white van there were mopeds, with cage- like structures attached to add seats for 6 passengers to hang off of, on the other were open sided bus-like vehicles billowing smoke. 18-wheeler trucks navigated the same narrow streets through which motorcyclists weaved. We learned in class that road traffic accidents in a leading cause of premature death in developing nations, and now I believe it. Every surface of the city was covered, every corner occupied by a kiosk, food stand or a person sleeping on in improvised mattress. It felt as though the city was filled with not an inch to spare.

I arrived at 10:30 on a Friday night, so people were out and about in the seemingly electric nightlife. The bars we passed by were dimly lit aside from whirling disco lights. The tables outside the Starbucks, KFC, and McDonald’s were packed. There was a 7-eleven on nearly every block. Again, a topic we learned about in the classroom (globalization leading to the dominance of western fast food chains) was playing out in my new reality. Now that I think about it, nearly every eating establishment I have seen has a fast food feel. After a few days here, I have quickly realized I am going to have to relinquish my neavau trendy health food diet or I will surely starve.

My trip in the Philippines is made more interesting by a soap opera family story line from my mother’s side. Her father was a Filipino physician, doing his residency in Schenectady, NY in the late 1950′s when he met my grandmother, Jane Goodwin, a second generation Irish immigrant. They quickly married, had my mother, and at the end of his residency, he left them for the Philippines, never to be heard from again. Now that I’m 20 I can only now realize how… scandalous that must have been. I can’t imagine Schenectady, NY being a bastion or racial acceptance in 1961, so the fact that my grandmother was left a single mother to raise her half-Filipina daughter alone made “Nanny” a modern single career woman, a revolutionary… Go Nanny.

Anyway, now you must be thinking how is this rambling about my mother and her absentee father relevant? Well upon returning to the Philippines, my grandfather started a new family which means my mom has half siblings half way around the world. I’m not sure how, but Mom managed to get ahold of them via email informing them of my visit. In an email, my mom’s half sister told me to refer to her as “Tita”. She sent pictures of her family. Strangely enough her family looks exactly like mine. There is Tita Ferry, her husband a 23 year old daughter and a 20 year old son. My sister is 23 and I am 20, seriously spooky. She sent me some hilariously useful advice for navigating Manila, including:

1) People will wish you a merry christmas, they really just want you to give them money.

2) Ermita is the red light district, so be aware of overly friendly women.

3) If someone asks you to take something into the country, do not do so, they plant drugs in there.

So the night I arrived, I made it to my apartment by about 11:30. Immediately I jumped in the shower. halfway through I hear a “ding dong” of what I realized was the doorbell. I jump out of the shower wrap myself in a towel, and look out the peep-hole. Outside my door is a small Filipino woman. I open the door slightly, enough to stick my head out and say “hello?” She says “Hello Michael!” I’m shocked she knows my name. “I am your tita, Tita Ferry.” I remember my eyes bugging out and jaw dropping uncontrollably at that moment. I immediately recognized her from the photos she had emailed me. I had heard that Filipinos were very kind, welcoming and family centered, but how this woman managed to track me down in the middle of the night was beyond me. I immediately welcomed my tita into the studio apartment, rushed to put on some clothes before she began asking me about my trip, my family, insisting on giving me money and inviting me on vacation with the rest of her (and I guess my) family. It feels really good to know I have family just 2 hours outside of the city, who welcomed me and cared for me without even knowing me. So yeah, that’s the story of how I met moms estranged half sister and got a new Aunt… excuse me Tita.

I landed Friday night, it is now Monday. Honestly the past few days have been pretty terrifying. On Saturday morning I set out to find a cup of coffee and some breakfast, obviously I get horribly lost. Immediately I noticed that everyone notices me. I am just so obviously not from here, most people stare, pedicab drivers ring their bells beckoning me to get in, cabs stop and honk their horns to do the same thing. The feeling was completely unlike anything I’ve ever felt, just so obviously not fitting in and getting so much attention from strangers by simply being in public, makes me uneasy at this point and will take some getting used to. Even though I was getting so much attention, not knowing anybody made my first day a rough one. Leann’s arrival was extremely delayed due to bad weather so I spent my first day on my own. It was crazy how quickly I felt alone and isolated. Wandering around the giant mall behind our building, I felt just like Scarlett Johansen in “Lost in Translation”.

The linguistic climate here is very strange. Every sign, label and menu are in English, but no one actually speaks English, at least not to each other. Communication is a challenge, the people in the cafes, stores and the lobby of my building speak very little English, and while I have studied Spanish and French, the indigenous origin of Tagalog make it very hard to follow. I googled how to say “My name is” in Tagalog and its “Ang pangalan ko po ay”. I will do my best to learn some Tagalog, but its so obviously going to be much more difficult than other languages I have studied.

Leann’s arrival helped with the loneliness, but not with the sanding out part. When the two of us walk together, we might as well wear a big neon sign that says “look at us, we’re foreign”. When the two of us walked down the street trying to find the WHO office, Leanne was drinking a smoothie she got at the mall behind our building. A homeless woman approached us begging, I acknowledged her and kind of walked by, but she stopped Leann. I walked a few paces before I noticed Leann wasn’t next to me. When I looked back, the woman was reaching for Leann’s drink, shouting at her as she ripped it from her hands. The woman left walking in the opposite direction, blissfully sipping her berry smoothie, Leann stood with her jaw dropped in disbelief. Maybe it wasn’t the best welcome for Leann, but we turned it into a valuable lesson learned. Everyone warned us to be cautious on the streets and not have anything out for the taking… I guess now we know that includes smoothies.

Second Day Culture Shock

The inevitable second day culture shock has hit. 

The adrenaline rush from arrival has worn of. The “everything is new and exciting” goggles have worn off quickly.

Apparently my 1/4 Filipino heritage is not fooling anyone. I stand out like a big sore thumb, and everyone stares at me when I go anywhere. 

The language climate is weird. ALL (i mean all) signs, labels, menus are in English, but everyone is speaking Tagalog. Communicating is hard.

I don’t know what to eat. All the food is different and scary. I went into the Starbucks thinking I could get a familiar sandwich. All they had was SPAM, egg, and cheese. No thank you.

To top it all of, I have not been able to get ahold of the other girl from the program. She was supposed to arrive this morning. I reached out to her in the ways that I could, with no response. I even tried knocking on the door to the apartment that she said she would be staying in. A woman answered and it was NOT her.

The feeling of remoteness is unexplainable