Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Seven Months in the Philippines - Culture Shock Hits With a Bang!

Hi folks,

Seven months down. This means I am halfway through my planned first stint in the Philippines. The plan at this stage is to stay until the end of March, go back to Australia for three months to do some teaching and promote my
book and possibly come back again. However, you know what they say about the 'best laid plans'...

As I am writing this I am right in the middle of the "frustration" stage of culture shock, so I guess everything I write should be taken with a grain of salt. As an aside I also have absolutely NO voice right now (strangely no other symptoms), but fortunately that doesn't impact my ability to write.

August has been a tough month. Discouragement hit in a big way. I've felt more like an alien or a stranger in this foreign land than any time in the previous six months. The language thing was getting to me, the staring thing was getting to me, the lack of connecting with anyone was getting to me.

I put this 'lack of connection' thing down to three factors: I am male, I am white and I am quiet. It's not any one of those in isolation, because a few of the female volunteers came in for a while and when they left they were like BFF's with some of the caregivers. So it's the combination of all three. I generally don't have much to contribute beyond "hello" with most people, it's just my personality. So the combination of being in a female-dominated environment and Filipino culture has been a lot for me to process, and I guess I've responded by withdrawing.

I've also been missing things. Not necessarily the stress, busyness and materialism of the Australian lifestyle, but definitely my family and in particular my three nephews and two nieces all aged 5 and under. This was the hardest part of taking on my new life, since I was blessed to be a very involved and hands-on Uncle.

Also significantly, I've missed my involvement with Compassion as a sponsor and advocate. I poured seven years of my life into Compassion, sponsoring, visiting and advocating for kids, and it's been hard to let go. I started volunteering at a Project near where I live, but Compassion got wind of it and have vetoed it because it is "against their policy" to have non-natives working at Projects, seemingly regardless of the positive stuff they're doing (I was providing balls, games, helping serve the lunches and giving guitar lessons). So that's not happening anymore.

Lately I have fallen into the trap of comparing myself with others. I am blessed to know a few other Aussies who are in different countries serving God in amazing ways, and I have found myself comparing and thinking I somehow "don't measure up." I have a friend in Nepal who does an amazing job forming relationships in the community and he's putting together great fundraising campaigns to help them. Another friend in Thailand has been there less time than me, and it seems every week she's got someone from home spending their own time and money to go and visit her. I've had no visitors and I don't feel that I can just strike up a conversation with strangers in the street. Even my "hello's" get met with stares and blank looks. And I look at them, and I compare, and I feel crap.

As a result of this culture shock thing, I’ve been overeating and over-drinking on things that aren’t all that good for me (but so darn cheap).

Having said all that, I’m in a slightly better place now, and I’ve been able to make a list of the things I LOVE about being here:
- The weather is magnificent
- Driving the tricycle is SO MUCH FUN! I love any excuse to get out and have a ride.
- The cost of living
- My living arrangements – fully furnished apartment, all meals, cable TV and internet for about $75 a week
- Watching footy on the Australia Network (my favourite time of the week)
- Doing the Ruel blog and Facebook page
- Having the privilege of loving the kids here and knowing that I am one of the few constant things in their lives. Every day after lunch I go upstairs and I’m surrounded by little outstretched arms, and they often cry if they don’t get to be held first. I joke to the caregivers that I need to turn into an octopus, to be able to hold them all.

I have found a gym and a pool, and have started going regularly. I've also downloaded some "learn Tagalog" videos off YouTube and have started practising.

I recently came across a blog post entitled "20 Things No One Told You About Moving Overseas". It was an incredibly God-sent piece of writing, by a lady working in another part of the Philippines with her family. Unsurprisingly, I could identify with just about the whole thing, but the part that stuck out to me was "You will not become a different person. You will not be super person. You will grow and change, but don't expect to climb off the plane and be instantly a new improved you. If you weren’t serving or involved at home, chances are, you won’t serve overseas. If you weren’t an evangelist at home, you will not magically transform once you clear customs. And it’s OK. Find your niche, and do YOUR best. However, this is not an excuse for inactivity. Since time is more infinite, and tomorrow is always a possibility, it’s easy to settle for a lower standard. Don’t. Push yourself everyday, stretch yourself everyday."

I am continually trying to reconcile the limitations of my personality with living and interacting here effectively. What Marlene wrote is true: I haven't magically become a new, improved me. I haven't suddenly become a social person who loves being around people and loves conversation. I am a doer. I LOVE what I have managed to do and achieve here so far, and I know I have made a difference. But ultimately it's not those things which are going to keep me here long term, it's the relationships. And that knowledge is why I'm afraid if I don't get it right, I might not last here very long.

So I guess the bottom line is that I need to keep trusting God to sustain and strengthen me, one day at a time. I can't look too far ahead, because at the moment my opinion changes daily about how long I'll be here, or even IF I want to be here. I know it's just a temporary valley, and I'm relying on God to carry me through.

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