Thursday, December 18, 2014

"And That's The End of That Chapter..." (Reflecting on the Philippines)

I'm not sure what the appropriate length of time is before you should write about and reflect on an impacting cross-cultural experience. It's been 20 days since I arrived back in Australia, so if that's too soon then I guess you should take what I write with a grain of salt.

When I arrived in the Philippines on January 29th this year, I had every intention of staying for a long, long time. I boldly predicted my first stint to be "3 or 4 years." I sold almost everything I had, including household items and my car, resigned from my teaching job after a year rather than just take a year without pay and see what happened after that. I had had enough of going from place to place and job to job. I was confident that THIS was the job God had created me for and it would be a long term thing.

So now I find myself back in Australia a mere 10 months after I left, and I'm sure many people who followed my journey are scratching their heads wondering "What happened?" Fair question, and that's what this blog is about.

There are several reasons why my time in the Philippines was cut short. The main one is relationships (or lack of). I am a quiet white male and these three traits combined meant that it just didn't work. Pure and simple. In ten months I didn't connect with any Filipinos beyond "Hello" and some small talk. I'm not blaming anyone, that's just how it worked out. It's partly my personality, partly cultural ("we're shy" was used a lot). As a result the isolation and loneliness built up until the only decision that could be made was to come home.

Early on, I stood up in front of the group of Filipinas I worked with all year, made myself vulnerable and basically stopped just short of "begging" to be involved and invited into their lives. This didn't happen, and once again I don't blame anyone. It's obviously a cultural thing. However it hurt to see other volunteers come in for three weeks and be invited to the movies, the beach and even to their kids birthday parties, and when they left they were like best friends. By the end I was struggling to even get a "hello" out of many of the caregivers, which made it an uncomfortable and awkward place for me to be (please note: this is not meant to be personal criticism against anyone I worked with, but it was my own true experience. They are all lovely people but we just didn't connect).

I was also talked about behind my back. On one such occasion toward the end of my stay, a person told me that I drive the tricycle too fast and recklessly with the kids on board, and "it's not just my opinion, everybody thinks so," which I thought was a lovely parting gift. I was actually a cautious driver compared to the madness that was going on around me, and always got the kids to and from Ruel safely.

The bottom line is, I got stuck in the second stage of culture shock (variously known as the frustration/hostility stage) and couldn't get out. The first six months were amazing, I was living the dream. I found out later that that was the "honeymoon" stage of culture shock. Then, like clockwork, things started to go downhill, and things which I'd overlooked or not let worry me before became increasingly irritating. I was like the perfect text-book case study for culture shock, but I was on my own and ill-equipped to handle it. By the end I was overtaken by both frustration and hostility at everything I saw, and leaving was the best choice I could make.

I couldn't handle being so different, and being a freakshow out in the community. The staring, pointing and even mocking did not let up the whole ten months I was there. For the first five months, when I was walking I would smile, make eye contact and say hello but I would very rarely get anything in return. After a while this gets demoralising to a person's spirit. In the end I just put my sunglasses on and just walked. I became "that grumpy-bum white guy."

The other main reason I returned is Compassion. If you followed my journey throughout the year, you could probably tell I was not able to let go of Compassion sponsorship and advocacy. It still has my heart in a big way, and I am already a Compassion sponsor again. Some of the friends who sponsored my kids at the end of 2013 were unable to continue, so I've taken them back. I've heard from a few of the new sponsors that the kids keep mentioning me in their letters. I find it quite cute, but I can imagine it would be rather annoying continually hearing about "the other guy" if you're trying to form your own connection with them. I look forward to resuming my job as a "Global Poverty Fighter" which is what all sponsors are.

I don't for a moment regret leaving everything behind and coming to the Philippines, despite the short stint it ended up being. I know God has used me and grown me in amazing ways. I have learned lots about myself, and I have matured in certain ways. The weather was fantastic, the cost of living was incredible and the workload was anything but demanding, teaching a class of four kids for half-days. There was a lot to like. I particularly enjoyed the promotion role, introducing thousands of new people to the work that God is doing through Ruel via the blog, Facebook page and YouTube channel, which I set up myself. Ultimately I knew that what would keep me here long-term was not what I was doing, but the relationships I built, and that didn't happen.

As a "task-oriented doer" I put a lot of importance in and often define myself by things I achieve and accomplish (disclaimer: except when it comes to my salvation. I know I'm saved by grace alone, and my works and deeds are in response to being saved, not in order to be saved). So, just for the heck of it, here's a list of just some of the things I've been able to do this year

- Provided United Evangelical Church with 3 new guitars
- Provided UEC with a paved basketball court
- Bought a tricycle and taken the kids to soccer, church, mall
- Given two boys the experience of a soccer tournament on a different island, and coached the team
- Become the host, or "the guy who knows stuff" when Pauline is away and we have visitors
- Been in charge of the petty cash and banking
- Written a 200 page, God-glorifying adventure-of-a-book
- Facebook page "likes" increased from 780 to 1340 through my advocacy
- Blog: 84 posts, 6015 views
- YouTube channel: 69 videos
- Provided the kids with a father-figure to teach, play with and love them

I believe that in one way, my decision to go to Ruel was actually an "attempt to escape." In 2013 I traveled to 11 developing countries with Compassion, and each time I came back I struggled to adjust to our culture of prosperity, abundance and wealth. I struggled to balance the things I had seen "over there" with the way we live life "over here." Internally I grew angry at Christians who I perceived to be living lives no different to the world - self, comfort and materialism, and silently demanded that they do more. I had to get out!

The invitation to live and work in the Philippines, at Ruel, was like a lifeline for me. It was my ticket out of this culture of greed, wealth, pride, disgusting over-indulgence and ingratitude. Deep down maybe I also thought that living in a simpler, less affluent society would somehow turn me into a better version of myself. Funnily enough, that didn't happen. I struggled with the same sins and bad habits and I was no more social or outgoing.

And so I conclude by saying I am 100% comfortable and content with my decision to come back to Australia, returning to the very culture I once despised and tried to escape from. I still fully intend to live a God-honoring life of sacrificial generosity as I have been with my Compassion sponsorship. As noble as it is to leave everything behind and serve orphans, I know I can have just as much impact from a position of prosperity, using my God-given material wealth in the right way.

I am sorry I have not been able to provide a wonderful, glowing, Disney-esque account of my time in the Philippines, and I apologize if you were in my life in 2014 and are upset by something I've written, but I can only write the truth about what I experienced and how I feel. I will always support the amazing work that Ruel Foundation does and I was privileged to have a front-row seat in 2014, but at this point there's no hint of "my heart is aching to return." I'm quite happy to assign this experience to a moment in time and now move on.

Looking ahead to 2015, this is what's in store for me:
- Family. I've already reconnected with my five nieces and nephews aged 2 to 6, and I LOVE being Uncle David.
- The recently-published Compassion book, including a book launch and a TV appearance in February
- Teaching. Currently unemployed, but I've signed up with an agency and there's always plenty of work where I live.
- Basketball coaching, which is a real passion of mine
- Sport - I'm looking forward to possibly returning to stats roles with high profile sports clubs Werribee Devils (basketball) and Werribee Tigers (Australian Football)
- DC Fun and Games is a new business I've just started up, which is basically playing games with kids (my kind of job!).
- Church. I've just started going to Destiny Centre in Werribee and was attracted by the sense of community they offer, which is something I need. I think that a season of positive learning and growth is ahead of me.

Looking forward to the next chapter, and thanks for coming on the journey with me in 2014.

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