So this is what I’ve been doing for the last three weeks, traveling around the Philippines and looking at things like those tremendous rice terraces. Doesn’t that look like a backdrop, or like we’ve been green-screened in? I’ve been startled at how often I get thoughts like that, so disappointingly referential: This feels just like an adventure ride in an amusement park, I said to myself as we paused in the mountain jungle for the heavy machinery lifting dirt and rocks out of our way. Like when I was little and saw a sailor and asked myself why he was wearing a teddy bear suit.
But there’s no complaining, because the disconnection of this vacation has been the best kind. No smart phones! And although I wonder whether anyone has ever had a perfect tropical beach day without at least a millisecond of a Corona (or in this case, San Miguel) advertisement flickering through your head, really, there’s no point thinking about the intrusion of commercial postmodernism when you have a bar crawl to get to. Also: those two fingers I’m holding up are not because I’m Asian and in front of a camera, but because it’s the second stop on the crawl.
I have, however, had the more real and less shakeable feeling the whole time here that I am experiencing an inverse Peace Corps. The similarities between the poor parts of the Philippines and (frankly, all of) Kyrgyzstan are peculiar but pervasive: the people look the same, are wearing the same flip-flops and texting on the same cell phones, setting up shop in the same rusted storefronts, selling street snacks and spitting. The beauty of the country, the shitty minibus rides to get to the remote areas: very reminiscent, although the people wear color and the jeepneys in the Philippines are like New Orleans parade floats sometimes–a long way from the black tracksuits and neutral cars of Kyrgyzstan. Take this tricycle for example, which my boyfriend gamely curled up into a fetal position to ride in (everything is sized for scrappy, tiny Filipino people and he, like my statuesque girl friend in KGZ, can’t buy shoes here): it could be of either country.
But there are differences, big ones. For one, the level of privilege we are mired in is a trip in itself. We wake up every day and have breakfast made for us, our clothes washed and ironed, our sneakers scrubbed; we get taken everywhere by hired drivers in the backseat of cars. Thanks to the boundless generosity and hospitality of my mom’s high school friends, we’ve been swept off to polo clubs and rooftop bars on a daily basis, and today we’re going yachting on Manila Bay.
Second, I am in a lot of ways more out of touch here than I was in Kyrgyzstan, despite this being my “motherland”–the country where my parents were born. Just like in Kyrgyzstan, I’m being frequently mistaken for a local. Unlike in Kyrgyzstan, I can’t speak the local language, and don’t even try to, although twenty years of overhearing my parents speak on the phone in Tagalog means that I probably could get some sentences out if I wanted. And although the situations are different–pretty much everyone in the Philippines speaks English anyway, and the country is very, very Westernized–it’s still strange.
Also, where I spent 40% of every given day in Kyrgyzstan trying to wrap my head around the impossibly complicated process by which the people in my town might better their lives, here I’m living (and so quickly, thinking) like someone who’s never left the upper class. We passed through provincial towns and I, like every oblivious tourist, felt like I was doing my part by buying a thing or two, thus “putting money in the local economy.”
But if PC taught me anything, it was that you can adjust to anything, and faster than you thought–and this state, like most things, is temporary and circumstantial and best if just consumed in the present tense. So I’m off to enjoy the last two days here: have read The Tiger’s Wife, The Paris Wife, How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley, The Blue Sweater, Between Parentheses, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Fun Home, and James and the Giant Peach, and will review on the plane!