Friday, March 30, 2007

It's Been - One Year Since You've Looked at Me

A picture taken from my bedroom window. I think someone down the block just didn't tie him up very well

At the time I'm writing this it's 11:30am in the Philippines. That's exactly 12 hours difference from the bed in which i slept just over a year ago. It's been 1 year and 9 days since I left that bed.

For as far back as I can recall, at the end of every year I have been struck with the odd notion that the year had passed so swiftly by; every year seems to have been more hurried than the last. But on this year anniversary the sensation is even stranger: while the memories from one year ago still seem vivid in my mind, as recent memories often are, they also now seem alien to me. I do feel like this year has passed quickly - I remember times when I felt today was an eternity away. I recall the thought "1 year. Can I really make it one year?" Shortly before Thanksgiving, I was even decided: No I could not make it a year. I was going home. I'd be home for Thanksgiving. The great block of time I had to pass through seemed so immense and enormous, like some massive foreboding mountain in my path. I never left, and a year has passed. Now I've made it this far, I can't recall how it could ever have seemed such a big deal.

It's strange to remember back one year. The memories are still fresh enough that I can recall them with ease. But my state of mind was so different. In some ways I have trouble identifying with that person. He knew nothing back then: he understood no language, none of the culture. He had no idea what to expect of this country, of his work, of the people here. His immediate future was almost entirely unknown. I remember some of ideas I had of what it would be like - of course I knew that I had no idea, but I couldn't help but imagine. Those fantasies seem so silly to me now, more like jokes. Peace Corps told me there was a 50-50 chance I wouldn't have electricity. I considered buying solar panels and all sorts of things, I questioned whether it would be wise to bring a laptop. Of course, now that I'm here, I've never met a volunteer who has no electricity at their site. I should have known better than to trust government intelligence.

Of all the strange and unique aspects of my service, the most unexpected was this sense of distance I have from my life in the US. I feel like I've undergone some change in identity; this wasn't an entirely unexpected feeling, but the nature and origin of that change is far different than I expected. I've been removed entirely from my old life, not just from my surroundings of a 1st world country, but also from my family, my friends, and in some ways my past. It's as close to starting an entirely new life as one could imagine - except that this life will come to an end 15 months from now.

Without my friends and family, in very different company, I realize how much of my identity is social. I'm a very different person in the company of most Filipinos. I've always been a person that people, when the first meet me, have a difficult time understanding. In a new culture, with the language barrier, that's magnified 10x, and I end up behaving differently. My sense of humor is far more mild, my whole personality more sedate. I do have other close American friends here, the other volunteers, but they didn't know me before. Most of my life my close friends have mostly suffered from a social oddity of some sort, nerds, goths, straight-edge, Doomcrows (arguably it's own category), my friends have always been a strange bunch. I'm friends with almost all of the volunteers in my area, good friends with many of them. But they're mostly not people I'd expect to make friends with. And most importantly: they didn't know me before we journeyed half a world a way from my homeland. I had to make my identity anew with them.
My host grandmother, she's quite a character. She's old enough to remember hiding from the Japanese soldiers as a girl - if you were caught you were killed. In the 2 months I lived with her, I never did figure out what that is that she's doing in this picture, but she seems to do it all day long every day. I think she's shelling mongo beans, but I really don't know.

I guess the point I'm making through all this rambling, is that I never knew how much of me wasn't carried around in my head. In this new, radically different environment, with new friends, I feel so disconnected from my past and from my old life that sometimes my memories feel more like dreams. In their life, every person has their own distinct dramas and traumas, their own successes and failures that remain in their mind as something powerful and important. Each person has their own fears than loom over them. I've gained so much distance from those things, that when i recall them, I feel silly that these things ever evoked such passion and fear from me.

I've emphasized the social aspect, but the environment has just as much significance. I walk into the houses of some people in this country and think to myself "my god, these people are filthy rich". By and large, the house of my parents would put it to great shame. In other words, my innate understanding of wealth has been radically changed. I try to imagine going back to my parents house, and how strange that thought seems. On one hand it will be hard not to be awe-struck by the luxury. Screened windows, hot running water, a bath, A/C, 2 floors - I haven't seen a house like that in over a year. If a house has any one of those things, the family strikes me as rich. To have all of them and to live in that place seems - my imagination can't really grasp it.

At the same time, how could I really return to the house I've grown up in with a sense of awe? It's home. The feeling of home is practically the polar opposite of awe. That's a feeling of warmth, security, predictability. You can't "make yourself at home" in a place that seems in-credible.

It will be interesting for me to return home this May. Actually I'm so excited by the prospect i feel like the next month and a half ought to be kind and just sort of skip by me. Of course I'm excited for Rachel's wedding - to see a good friend make such a major life change is hard to conceive of. One of the reasons I felt a need to come back for this was because... well it will be weird when I return home no matter what. But to return with something so radically different as Rachel married, and a mother, well that seems like more change than I can miss.

Of course, I'd be lying if I didn't say that seeing my other friends and family didn't play heavily into my decision. That old Allan i feel so disconnected from - I miss him. I miss my life, my friends and my family. So many volunteers I've talked to feel like after Peace Corps, their old friends will probably have moved on, and that they'll need to find new ones. Perhaps I too will find new ones, as I seem to every year. But I've always been blessed with such close-knit friendships that I honestly I haven't spent one second worrying that my friends won't be there for me in the future.

Ok, in the case of the Doomcrows, I DO worry. Mostly because I know they WILL be there, possibly with spite and pointy objects. But at least they'll be there.

I guess I should wrap up this long-winded retrospective. On a side note, it truly sucks to be sick when you live alone. Especially when you have no fridge or potable water. Currently I've got a devil of a cold but I've still got to make it to the town for food and water. Then I'll have to make my sick-self some food. Bleh. Take care everyone, I hope to see you all soon,
Two Caribao bathing in the stream. I thought there was only one when I raised my camera to take the picture. The other one eagerly popped his head up for the photo op.

1 comment:

Scott and Erin Farver said...

Excellent Sir Rathbone III. You are a very good writer. Have fun at home in May if I don't see you and we shall meet again at MST in June.