The Story of a US Peace Corps Volunteer
Ms. Julia Campbell
When I first came to the Philippines in March 2005, I was like a brand new baby. I had to learn how to do simple things – even something as simple as a trip to the CR. A tabo, what is that?
And of course, even though Filipinos are so good in English, I didn’t know the native language and had to learn from the beginning: Kumusta ka? Mabuti naman. And even a stroll down the street became a new experience. Suddenly, the anonymity I had on New York City was gone. Hundreds of eyes followed my every move. And I had a new name: Joe.
After the initial culture shock, I settled into my new life in the Philippines, especially here in Bicol. I was first assigned to a high school in Donsol, Sorsogon. I moved into a nipa hut near the beach. I fell in love with sili and learned to magpiga with the rest of them.
I’d left the hustle and bustle of New York City behind for a quieter place… or so I thought! That’s before I was introduced to the Filipino rooster. (Apparently, they can’t tell time.) Though I confess I don’t like the mga manok, I have found my new Filipino friends quite charming. Everyone seemed suddenly interested in me. Was I married? How old was I? Have I learned to eat rice? And will I marry a Filipino? No. Secreto. Yes! Three times a day! And, siguro.
I joined the US Peace Corps, the American government’s all-volunteer service corps, because I wanted to help people. I’m just one of 7,749 volunteers in 73 countries around the world. After several years as a journalist and a teacher in New York, I wanted more out of life, something a bit more meaningful. Having a good job – something I admit Americans take for granted – wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to give something back to the world that had treated me so well.
After a year-long application process, my decision had not changed and I was asked to serve in the Philippines. I didn’t know all that much about the Philippines before I got my assignment: Imelda Marcos and her shoes (sorry!), Manila and chicken adobo. (My neighbor back in Brooklyn is a Fil-Am and often fixed his Mom’s recipe.) I’ve come a long way since then.
Having survived typhoon Milenyo back in Sorsogon in late September, I started here at the Divine Word College of Legazpi in early November to teach English for one Semester. Teaching in high school is a challenge because the students are not yet mature. It’s been a wonderful challenge to move to the college level and to meet so many hardworking, smart and dedicated teachers and students.
Of course, on November 30, 2006, I was shocked and suddenly saddened by the experience of typhoon Reming. Though I had experienced hurricanes of lesser strength back in the States, this was my first real close up with a natural disaster. I lived through a disaster of a different kind on September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked my city and killed 3,000. So the experience of a traumatic event was not altogether new. The occurrence of typhoon Reming- my apartment on Marquez Street flooded to my waist – gave me a new insight into the Filipino people.
While Americans might take time to wallow in pity, my new Filipino neighbors did not. They got right to work the next morning cleaning and putting things back together again. I felt shame that I, too, did not have the physical or emotional strength to clean out the mud and debris right away. As one resident of Padang – where I volunteered in relief efforts for three weeks – told me, “Filipinos are fighters and will survive.” I believed him. Bicol will recover.
So even though I will be here for such a short time, it will be bittersweet when I return home to America next June. I will take home with me some fond memories and some Filipino ways. I may never eat with a fork and knife again, rice may just become my staple food and my lips will surely point in the direction of my home away from home – the Philippines.