I’ve been back from the Philippines for about four weeks now. Physically, I’ve adjusted…for the most part. I can eat normal, American-sized meals. All my bug bites have healed and only left minimal scars. I don’t hide under ten layers of blankets when I go to sleep anymore. I still have bouts of “abnormal” sleep patterns…but then again, I haven’t had a “normal” sleep pattern since I was 14.
Mentally, well…that part can be called into question. While I can put on my seat belt in moving vehicles, allow pedestrians their right not to fear for their lives when I’m driving, and I don’t expect to wake up to the calls of the taho vender…there is still something not completely right being transported back in America. Swallowed up and returned back into the “Belly of the Beast”, if you will.
“How was the Philippines?”
That’s pretty much the hardest question to answer at the moment.
Now, I don’t want people to be deterred from asking myself or others who just returned from exposure in the Philippines about our trip. It’s just that whenever I’m asked that question, I really have no idea to answer it besides a smart-ass quip about the weather. There are times when I feel this overwhelming wave of emotions, where the most analytical parts of my brain are turned off and five weeks worth of memories play in fast-forward in my head.
You really have no idea how being born and bred in the First World has really fucked with your head until you’ve had just a taste of life in the Third World.
So…how was it?
Prior to the trip, I was worried about how effective BSB would be for me. This wouldn’t be my first exposure trip and there were a million things going on in my head before I left. The days leading up to my flight…I kinda wished that I was staying in the U.S.
From the time that I stepped off that plane to when I passed through immigration to when I pick up my boxes to the taxi ride into Quezon City, four years of lost memories instantly flooded into my head. Four years of lost smells tingled my nose. Four years of lost (and very loud) sounds ringed through my ears. At that moment, even though I’ve only spent close to two months out of my 26 years of earthly existence in the Philippines, I knew one thing: I was HOME.
That feeling is rooted in growing up in a Filipino household. Sure, the outside world (San Diego, CA) is VERY MUCH the suburban, idealized version of what America is supposed to be. But inside my house, from the smell of Filipino food to the sounds of Tagalog ricocheting from the walls to seeing TFC and Filipino movies being played from the TV, it was the Philippines. This is essentially what many Filipinos in America go through, when the life inside your house and the outside world collide. That’s why we have all these identity issues. We’re not where our HOME is.
But even though I was home, it wasn’t easy to fully accept. Being four years removed from my last trip, most of the youth and student organizers I knew had different tasks or organizations to attend to. I still don’t know Tagalog as well I should. Oh, and I’m really really shy. When I was left by myself after my first full day, I wondered: “how the hell am I going to do this for a month?”
Slowly but surely things started to come together and were relearned. Bonds were built and experiences enhanced by collective learning. Next thing I knew, five weeks had passed and I was desperately calling my airline, trying to extend my stay by even a day (true story). The hours before my flight turned into minutes turned into seconds as I entered my last taxi ride of the trip. I couldn’t help but enjoy the fact that folks were having an all-night meeting on my very last night. I was sent off with the reminder that people believe so much in the work they’re doing that they will sacrifice a night’s sleep to finish a meeting. That’s dedication to a movement.
“Oh…so that’s how it was”
The process of processing the trip takes a long time. That’s one thing I’ve learned from my past experience. If we created the program well enough, the exposurists will carry on the lessons and memories from the trip long after they exit LFS. And you will have at least one day where you cry uncontrollably.
I did. It was in the airplane bathroom on the ride back to the states. Not anything about the bathroom induced this, but everything I experienced finally hit me and I realized how much I was going to miss the feeling I had when I was in the Philippines (*cue Boston- More Than A Feeling).
It just happened to hit me when I was 30,000 feet in the air next to a metallic toilet that could suck me right out of the airplane.
I could write volumes about this exposure trip (I almost did). Even if I were to do that, it still wouldn’t do it justice. You just have to go and experience for yourself. It’s also important to not get too caught up in the reflecting and processing. While you need to do that, there’s a lot of work that needs to get done when you get back (first on the list: planning your report back). Put what you learned into practice.
I know all this can be intimidating. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to be placed in an uncomfortable situation. But think about it like this: we only have to live it for a few weeks. We get go back to the U.S. and live our relatively comfortable lives. Our folks back in the Philippines live the situation everyday. It’s challenging to confront the fact that the luxuries we have here is built off the backs of hundreds of millions of people all over the world. But trying to change society is challenging work. Eventually you have to confront that contradiction. That’s the only way you become a stronger organizer.
And right now, the challenging part is trying to find a way to get back there sooner than later.