Updates (and more culture!)

We’re about halfway through our time here now – we’ve been here about a month and we have one more left.  Things are starting to pick up here, as school has started in St. Scho and we’re starting to get a lot of projects and full schedules.  Being busy is a welcome relief though, as almost the entire first week of school was cancelled due to heavy rains caused by Typhoon Falcon moving through the Philippine Area of Responsibility.  Although rains are not uncommon here and the flooding they feared wasn’t all that severe, the entire school district in Manila for grade school through college had classes suspended as a precaution.  During tropical storm weather the floods can sometimes get halfway up the sides of buildings in low-lying areas, and getting stranded somewhere when the roads become impassible is a serious concern, especially as many students commute for upwards of an hour or two in city traffic.  I’m told that there are three more typhoons expected in this area within the month though!! Hopefully they won’t be too serious, else we’re looking at more days stuck inside afraid to go anywhere for fear of not being able to get back.  (In other news, I now own my first pair of rainboots, size 38!)

In our internship, we’re getting exposure to a wide range of activities and projects.  With only a month left, fitting in all the projects they propose seems ambitious, but I hope we get to do most of what is scheduled.  Here’s a sampling of what I’ll be up to:

  • facilitate a campaign to promote the sale of donated perfumes from a factory that closed with proceeds going to the Outreach committees of St. Scho
  • gather data and research trends among habitual offenders in order to help the Student Affairs Office profile for potential problem groups and anticipate troublemaking
  • write and organize (and then facilitate) an afternoon leadership training for first and second year student leaders
  • assist the grade school students in their student governance campaigns (yes, even elementary school kids run for election to class representative here). Kelsey will be helping them to come up with “jingles,” and I’ll be helping them develop their campaign platforms…lol
  • assist in the weekly taping of “Nunsense Makes Sense” – a talkshow Sister Mary John Mananzan hosts, filmed in a studio in the MassComm wing of St. Scho
  • help out in the understaffed office of College Outreach, and assist in the planning and execution of community service programs for student groups, getting cultural exposure and service experience ourselves in the process in various urban and rural areas in and around Manila
  • Guest lecturing!! Mrs. Becky Marquez, the Dean of Student Affairs and also a professor in the departments of MassComm and Women’s Studies, has asked me to take over one of her Women’s Studies classes on a day when she has to attend a meeting. She’s asked me to prepare something on the distinction between sex and gender, which is something I’m knowledgeable of and confident in my ability to teach.  Mae Rafanan, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and a professor in the Psychology/Counseling department has also asked Kelsey and I to talk to her classes about the process of choosing a career path in our home country, as here in the Philippines parents essentially choose the “course” their children will pursue in college


I also keep a running list of my observations about the culture.  Some of these things I may have already mentioned, as they are very very basic, but I couldn’t remember if I had already posted about them or if I had forgotten to list some of the most salient and pervasive elements of the cultural landscape in those first days.  Here are some more observations:

  • People will look at you strangely if, in a fast food restaurant where you’re served on a plastic tray, you try to carry the tray to its stand and throw your own garbage away (I learned this the hard way). Here, you just leave it at your table and the staff will take care of it.
  • Farming and agriculture are an integral part of the Philippine economy, but you won’t see any tractors or machinery here. Instead, you’ll see hand-held hoes, plows pulled by the carabao (related to an ox) and followed by a farmer, or people stooped over to manually plant and harvest the crop in a rice paddy.  Agriculture in modern-day Philippines doesn’t look all that different from carved reliefs of farming in Mesopotamia, 3000 BCE.
  • Many beggars are blind or handicapped because they will actually sell their own organs for money – anything they can spare that won’t kill them if removed – even their eyes.
  • Eating here is a spoon and fork affair. You hold the spoon in your dominant hand and use the fork as an assist to push food into it.  The side of the fork or spoon are used to cut if anything needs cutting – it’s rare to be given a knife, and if you do get a knife with your food, it’s a sure sign that you’re getting a taste of fine dining in a classy restaurant.
  • “Beso-Beso” is a common way to greet, say goodbye to, or congratulate friends and acquaintances – a kiss on both cheeks.
  • Drug trafficking is subject to the death penalty here, and it’s death by firing squad, no less (and this isn’t exclusive to “hard” drugs – being in possession of too much marijuana will qualify).
  • The Philippines does not allow divorce – no exceptions, not even in the case of spousal rape/abuse.
  • Despite the strong Catholic faith and corresponding legislation in the country, Manila has a strong LGBT community. I’ve also seen several young men going about their day in “drag” (although I understand this gender expression is perceived as more of a third gender than as cross-dressing).  Unlike in the US where drag is usually limited to certain spheres of activity or certain company and locales, I’ve seen these bakla, as they are known, waiting in line at the pharmacy, selling handicrafts at their family’s sari-sari store, and generally going about their daily lives as normal without being self-conscious.
  • “ArmyNavy” is a fast food chain that (amusingly) provides an appropriated American cuisine, like we do with other cultures at Panda Express or Chipotle. They sell burgers, burritos, and other similar fare, and decorate as if they were a military bunker, with “fast facts” about American military life displayed in posters on the walls and things like “Libertea” and “Freedom Fries” on the menu.
  • 10985029_10205812812992867_5969406991364349127_nInstead of calling respected individuals Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So’s-Last-Name, the prefix is paired with one’s first name – Mrs. Becky, or Ms. Mae, for example. For men, it’s even more interesting.  “Mister” is considered extremely formal and is not in common use.  Instead, the prefix “Sir” is used with one’s first name – “Sir James” or “Sir Francis,” for example.  This really confused me at first, as I thought that all the male faculty I was being introduced to had been knighted!
  • When Filipinos can’t think of the word for something in English, they’ll say their nose is bleeding. Or if they’re running out of knowledge of English, they’ll say “My nose is bleeding already!”  This is also the case for words they find hard to pronounce.  When I was asked where my hometown was and I replied “Milwaukee,” the reaction I got was “Oh! Nosebleed!”
  • In movie theatres, each theatre has a male and female restroom in the hallway leading around the corner to the seats. There’s no competition with people who have just been let out of another movie or having to walk all the way down the hallway looking for a restroom.  You don’t even have to leave your theatre!
  • Drive-thru’s aren’t a thing here – I’ve only seen one in a more residential area. Instead, fast food chains like KFC, Burger King, and McDonald’s, as well as local fast food chains like Jollibee and ChowKing, have delivery motorbikes.  This makes sense – with how congested traffic is and how few people drive (comparatively speaking), delivery from a small vehicle that can weave in and out of traffic jams is a more viable option.11223492_10205902229468223_5985690041376156096_n
  • “Slippers” here do not mean fluffy shoes you wear inside the house – this is their term for flip-flops or sandals. Also confused me initially, when we were told that slippers weren’t allowed to be worn on campus or with the school uniform, my first thought was “Well….yeah, duh.”
  • Cars here in Manila only last approximately three years. The humidity and the hazardous traffic, plus the constant braking and starting and stopping really wears down the vehicle.  Also, I have yet to see an automatic car or taxi.  Everything here is manual.
  • Instead of referring to student year groupings as “classes” (as in “the Class of 2017” or “the Sophomore Class”), here they’re referred to as “batches.” As in a batch of cookies – the freshman batch.  What a flavor.
  • You can get ice cream in flavors of avocado, cheese, or ube (a type of sweet purple yam) here. Also, grated parmesan cheese is a perfectly acceptable ice cream topping.


    I opted for the mango flavor

  • Banana Ketchup. It’s a thing.
  • There’s a dish that involves drowning live shrimp in Sprite/7-Up.
  • To be polite, “po” is added to everything. So “Thank you po/Salamat po”, “Good morning po/Magandang Umaga po”, etc.
  • Everyone is “kuya” (coo-yah) or “ate” (ah-tay) – big brother or big sister. That security guard is “kuya”, your taxi driver is “kuya”, the convenience store employee is “ate.”  Friendliness and family are important here, so it follows that every stranger on the street is addressed as a family member.
  • Tagalog for “yes” is “oo” (pronounced oh-oh) – so my first reaction whenever someone agrees, confirms, or gives assent is to think something bad has just happened, thinking they’re saying “Uh-oh.”
  • “Refrigerator” is abbreviated differently here. While we call it a “fridge,” here it is a “ref.”  So what is a referee called?
  • Hot water isn’t installed even in most residential home showers. Instead, families have a water heater installed in the shower with a separate box and showerhead, or simply use a plug-in heater that is submerged in a bucket and then used in the “pail and dipper” method of washing.  But really, cold water is usually welcome and refreshing, so it’s not an issue and many just forego the effort.
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    The pail and dipper method


    The hot water heater for the pail and dipper method – submerge for 15 minutes and then bathe!

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Our Weekend with the Marquez Family


(Left side, front to back): Kelsey, me, Mrs. Becky Marquez; (Center): Mr. Bullit Marquez; (Right side, front to back): Jelyn, Gabriel, Leo

This past weekend Kelsey and I were graciously taken in for a two-day homestay by Mrs. Becky Marquez, the Dean of Student Affairs, and her family.  We were picked up Saturday morning and took a day trip to Tagaytay, a city a few hours (with traffic) south of Manila.  We went with Mrs. Becky and her three adult children – Leo (26), Jelyn (24), and Gabriel (21).  Tagaytay is known as “the city on the edge” – the edge of a volcanic crater, that is.  It’s most notable attraction is its stunning view of Lake Taal, a freshwater lake in the midst of which is another volcano.  It’s a volcano within a freshwater lake – within a volcano which is itself in another lake.  The city of Taal can also be seen, where we will be going to do a Southern Cultural Exposure in a week or so.11707602_10205901845258618_8531481886496256001_n 10985024_10205901850218742_2031338958107783897_n

After taking in the sights (which were a bit foggy, but it wasn’t raining, so all-in-all a win), we were treated to lunch at Bag of Beans, a beautiful little courtyard restaurant tucked away down some steps and under a big tree.  When we parked on the side of the road, I was confused as to where the restaurant was.  But after turning a corner and descending some stairs, I was in wonder at how charming the place was.  Kelsey and I both had fresh fish native to Lake Taal.

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At the Wholeness Farm

After lunch, we visited a Women’s and Ecology Wholeness Farm connected with St. Scholastica’s, and then stopped at an open-air fruit market where Mrs. Becky bargained to find papaya, dragonfruit, pineapple, passionfruit, and avocado at dirt-cheap prices (selling fruit is a backyard income for many families who are blessed to have a fruit-bearing tree on their property).  Later that evening, we got to sample them along with some langka (jackfruit) from the Marquez’s very own tree.  The passionfruit was made into juice and it was so incredibly sarap (delicious)!



The Marquez’s langka (jackfruit) tree


Sampling the homegrown langka, dragonfruit bought from the market, and a delicious custard pastry called sylvannas bought from a bakery in Tagaytay

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The Marquez family, as is typical of middle-class Filipino families, lives in a gated community with guards stationed at the entrance and gates around all the houses and their small courtyards.  They also have two “helpers” who clean, do laundry, cook the food, serve the family at the table, and do many other tasks – they sleep in a small room off the kitchen, which is not used by the family.  This is the norm for all average middle-class Filipinos.  Upper-middle class and wealthy families will have a full staff with separate roles for the maids, cooks, and a driver, but one or two is common even among those with a modern income.  They become like part of the family.  Labor and service is extremely cheap here, but employing househelp is also necessary for the economy, as it provides an income and a roof for lower-class women who in many cases have an elementary education or lower.

(On the subject of driving, knowing how to drive is a class distinction, because it means you have a car to drive – although many of the very wealthy have drivers for the cars and don’t know how to drive either.  Regardless, driving in the city is very stressful, so many forgo it.  Although her husband and children know how to drive, Mrs. Becky never learned and just has her family take her places).

At the house we also met “Bullit” Marquez, Mrs. Becky’s husband, and award-winning photographer, and their two dogs: Boone and Peeve.  Leo, Jelyn, and Gabriel all live at home with their parents still – here in the Philippines, it’s expected that employed adult children will stay with their parents.  In fact, even once the child gets married, moving out is a delicate and sensitive matter and needs to be done so as not to offend or wound the family’s reputation or pride.  Married couples will often move in or near to the wife’s family and attend the wife’s family’s parish, as the wife’s family takes precedence.  It was my impression from this weekend that (even though Mrs. Becky’s parents have both passed) her parents took the primary importance in the family’s life (and still do – they live in Mrs. Becky’s family home with many of her parent’s belongings and photos still displayed, and they light a candle at their tomb at church every Sunday).


The Marquez home


With Jesus and Mary on the gate


Lovely little courtyards on their property


The family shrine

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The statue at UP representing intellectual freedom

Sunday we visited the University of the Philippines (or “UP”), where Gabriel goes to school, and after lunch we went to Greenhills, a labyrinthine market in the back of a mall where Mrs. Becky haggled for us and scored us some extremely cheap handicrafts and other things.  I scored three freshwater pearl jewelry sets from the southern island of Mindanao for P850 – the equivalent of less than $20.  I am happy to report that I am now officially done with all of my souvenir and gift shopping for friends and family back home.

Sunday evening we accompanied the family to mass at the St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori Parish.  It was an absolutely beautiful building (and had holy water in conch shells at the entrance).  Although I’m not Catholic and did not actively participate in the prayers, songs, or communion, it was very interesting to observe the service.  Afterwards, we went with the family to light candles for deceased family and friends.


The parish (Photo courtesy of Flickr.com)


The interior of the parish after evening mass

It was really a lovely weekend full of good food and good company.  The Marquez family was so hospitable and we were very comfortable.  It was also nice to see a different side of Manila and experience how a middle-class family lives, as our dorm near St. Scholastica’s is in a much more heavily-trafficked, less residential, and poorer part of the city.


Making rounds to light candles



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The College Atmosphere


JanSport was one of the sponsors for Freshman Orientation


Working the Registration/Check-In desk – I was the Barcode Scanner Operator (harder than it sounds, it was very touchy)


Making friends at the Registration Desk

Classes have just started for the college students at St. Scholastica’s, and I have been assisting the Student Council and the Council of Student Leaders in helping with “Frosh Orientation.”  I was very fortunate to have had a “Turning Titan” week at Illinois Wesleyan, which is run very well.  At IWU, the new students move in a week ahead of time and get that time to learn their way around campus, settle into their new home, make friends through icebreaker activities facilitated by student leaders assigned to class-sized groups and a carnival night, interspersed with informational sessions and “safe practices” skits related to drinking and sexual health.  The college orientation at St. Scho is three information-packed days of sitting in a hall (air-conditioned, thank goodness!) and listening to hours and hours of speakers and presentations on various college offices and what they do, introduction of faculty, the imparting of Benedictine values and various rules and regulations.  One of the days was also devoted to showcasing the various student organizations through “AVPs” – audio/visual presentations put together by the student orgs.  There were a few intermission acts, like performances by the College Choir and Danz Edge, St. Scho’s dance group, as well as raffle gift giveaways by the orientation sponsors secured by the Student Council, but it was a long three days of sitting and listening that made me fondly recall the fun I had as a college freshman about to start the school year.

Here are some of the things I learned and observed while sitting at the Registration/Check-In desk at the back of the hall during Orientation.

To articulate some of the values I’ve discussed, here is a sampling of the past school themes, reflective of St. Scho’s mission-vision:

  • SSS (2007-2009)

Serve Others, Save the Earth, Seek Peace and Pursue It

  • CCC (2010-2012)

Christ, Country, Creation

  • RRR (2013-2015)

Renewing Our Culture, Revitalizing Our Community, Restoring the Integrity of Mother Earth

As you can see, St. Scho values God, the Nation, and the Environment, and this is expressed through their themes.

In addition, they hold the values indicative of their Benedictine heritage.  (St. Scholastica is the twin sister of St. Benedict, thus the natural choice for a Benedictine women’s college founded by nuns in the Order of St. Benedict). The ten hallmarks of a Benedictine education that graduates of St. Scholastica’s are supposed to exemplify are:

  • Christ Centeredness
  • Ora et Labora (“Prayer and Work”, the St. Scho motto)
  • Obedience
  • Humility
  • Community
  • Service
  • Hospitality
  • Silence and Good Speech
  • Stewardship
  • Discipline


In keeping with Benedictine values, they believe strictness is the best way to “amend faults and safeguard love,” as the Rule of St. Benedict (written as a rule book for sixth-century monks living in the monastery) says.  As such, students at St. Scholastica’s are expected to adhere to many rules.

The college uniform, a plain white blouse and navy blue A-line skirt with the St. Scholastica’s seal sewn onto the collar and plain black heels, is full of rules: skirts worn to a length of anything but 2 inches below the knee, colored undergarments, and shoes other than 2 inch heels or with any embellishments are considered minor offenses and subject the wearer to a confiscation of their ID by security or faculty.  Other minor offenses include: colored nail polish, dyed hair, wearing earrings, having tattoos, and wearing jewelry and accessories not mindful of the Benedictine value of simplicity.  The male students (all 2% of them in the music department) are also not allowed to wear their hair long or grow facial hair.

On Saturday, civilian day, dress code is still implemented: pants only (no shorts or capri shorts), and anything sleeveless, sandal-type shoes, and dresses above the knee are not allowed to be worn on campus.  Major offenses, besides normal University policies regarding plagiarism and violence, include being seen drinking or smoking in the school uniform, or posting/texting anything scandalous if you’re connected to the school.  Image is very important.

To get one’s ID back after it has been confiscated, one needs to meet with the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs to discuss the consequences – usually 4 hours of community service to be done on campus.  Missing a required institutional event also requires making up for it with hours of community service.

Hearing all this, I really wish that I had been prepared ahead of time.  I didn’t bring beach clothes or anything that would be revealing or inappropriate for an office environment back home, but I did brink things that I thought would be good business causal clothes for the tropics.  Even though I knew I’d be working in a Catholic school, I didn’t think the rules about modesty would be so strictly regulated.  Many of my dresses are sleeveless and shorter than 2 inches below the knee, and Kelsey and I both have colored hair.  Oops.  They’re showing us some leniency because we’re not students and don’t have to adhere to the same rules, but I’ve still gotten some dirty looks from a few nuns who see us walking around campus if I’m wearing a sleeveless blouse or a skirt that falls above the knee.

The atmosphere of St. Scholastica’s and the peculiar nature of our internship role has been the biggest learning curve I’ve faced.  For one, I’m not Catholic.  There is a lot of prayer that happens before meetings, classes, meals, and in closing of ceremonies, as well as throughout the day during announcements.  I always stand when everyone else does, but I do not cross myself or repeat the prayers and phrases (although I know all the call and response prayers now, such as “St. Scholastica and St. Benedict…” “…pray for us.” “That in all things…” “…God may be glorified.” and so on).  As such, I’ve gotten some strange looks, and have been put into situations where someone has asked me to lead the prayer and I’ve had to explain that I’m not Catholic.  Even when touring places like Intramuros, the historic Spanish walled city, home to many old churches, I’ve had to wait off to the side when the faculty we were with stopped to pray first.  Catholicism is everywhere, and the assumption of Catholic faith and familiarity with rituals is felt.

In addition, the college atmosphere is in itself different.  I don’t know to what extent this is the religion, the culture, or natural maturity of age (remember, college starts 2 years earlier here because high school only goes up to 10th grade), but the college atmosphere feels very restricted.  Sometimes I feel like I’m in high school.  The norm here is still to ask parents’ permission for everything: from choice of major, classes, and even in signing permission slips (which the school requires).  Most of the students live with their parents, even if it means a two hour commute every day, and I’ve been told that even married adults are expected to still ask permission of their parents for things. I’ve been asked several times how I got my parents to permit me to stay here for two months, if my parents allow me to have a boyfriend and color my hair, and etc.  It is a far cry from the American college atmosphere where starting college symbolizes becoming an independent young adult – indeed, a transition that many parents celebrate in getting their child to move out.

I think this different focus on independence and the value put on obedience has been my biggest stumbling block and culture shock, because I sometimes feel like I don’t know how to relate to the students here – even the seniors who are my age – because we have different values in this respect.  They strive for obedience, and it is a term that I balk at.  To me, “obedience” sounds ominous; it means restricted freedom and being controlled.  I value my independence and agency too much.  One of the reasons I chose Illinois Wesleyan, to be perfectly honest, was to put some distance between myself and my home and family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I also find it interesting that femininity is stressed over comfort.  For example, the students are required to wear 2 inch heels every day, even though many of them have hours of commuting.  Today was the first day of class, and the Student Council was passing out band-aids to students who were getting used to wearing their heels and cutting up their feet in the process of breaking in new shoes and walking up and down stairs to their classes.  Even the female security guards who work here and spend all of their 12 hour shifts on their feet are required to wear dainty heeled boots as part of their uniform.

And although today was the first day of class, classes were suspended by the afternoon because of heavy rain. I understand that street flooding is a concern to commuters, but as a native Mid-westerner who has heartily wished for class suspension after getting a foot or more of snow or bitingly cold winds in the negative degrees, I was shocked to find out that classes are often cancelled in light of rain (and on the first day!)

It did cool things down though!



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Scholastican Leadership Training in Baguio

I recently returned from a three-day Student Leadership retreat to the St. Scholastica’s Convent in Baguio City, which is a 6 hour drive north from Manila. Baguio is located high in the Cordillera Mountains, and as such, it’s about 20 degrees cooler there than it is in Manila.    Baguio is known as “the summer capital of the Philippines” because it’s cooler than much of the rest of the country and is a popular getaway from the worst of the heat during the summer months.  For Kelsey and I, it was wonderful to get away from the city heat (although it’s past summer, which is April and May here, it’s still very hot and humid).  We were advised along with the Filipino students who were also going on this trip to bring pants and jackets, because we’re past the summer now, but Kelsey and I felt that it was the perfect temperature.  We also got to experience the beautiful gardens and pine trees around the Convent, which was quite a change of scenery.

While we stayed there, Kelsey and I got to meet the student leaders of various student organizations that we will be working with in the coming weeks.  It was also an opportunity for the facilitators and guest speakers to impart leadership skills and wisdom on the student leaders, and for the groups to coordinate together and organize the events they were planning on implementing this school year.

Sitting in on the sessions, Kelsey and I got to learn a little more about the Scholastican Benedictine values and the servant-leadership they expect their students to live out.  The focus this year is on stewardship.

I’m so impressed by the student leaders of St. Scholastica’s.  They are so organized and efficient.  I think the role of student org leader is awarded with much more gravitas and student groups are taken much more seriously here than they are at IWU.  There’s responsibility to uphold the legacy and reputation of the group, because they’re a brand that past alums from St. Scho will still recognize.  If they want to change the logo, for example, they need to trace back all the past presidents and members and petition them for the change.

At Illinois Wesleyan, all you need is 3 interested students and a faculty advisor, and you have a group.  With so many RSOs and the ease of which new ones can be made, there isn’t as much of a commitment to uphold them and many dissolve or fade out when leaders graduate or get too busy.  Here, it’s a very big deal.  During the SLT in Baguio, part of the purpose was to get all the student leaders to meet each other and coordinate.  They brought three-year development plans their presidents had made last year and plotted out all the events they wanted to do for the entire school year so that any conflicts of event dates between groups could be managed.  That would be an unthinkable system at IWU, because we have so many groups and often events get planned and scheduled last-minute – planning several months in advance happens, but is certainly not the norm.  There’s much I can learn from these Scholastican leaders!

In addition to the academic part of our visit to Baguio, we got one afternoon free to explore some of the area.  As a group, we visited the BenCab museum, where the collection of local artist Ben Cabrera is located (who has a home and a studio next door).  It contains both traditional tribal Ifugao artefacts as well as contemporary art, and it’s stunningly located amidst the mountains, with an organic farm in the backyard.

While out and about, we also visited scenic Mines View Park (where I got my pictures taken in the traditional wear of the local Ifugao tribe), the hectic and crowded City Market (where I got some amazing bargains on handicrafts to take home and several students bought the strawberries Baguio is famous for), and had dinner in the charming Ketchup Food Community, home to several open-air restaurants.  We even shared our dinner with some very persistent stray cats who were stopping at nothing to get at our food – several of us were surprised to suddenly find a cat in our lap or begging at our chair.


Beautiful Baguio


The City in the Mountains


Entering the convent, one is reminded of pax – peace






Waking up to an early morning chill I will never experience in Manila!


The view from the Convent


In the gardens


The St. Scho Student Leaders gathered at the Pax sign (Photo courtesy of Khamylle Castillo)

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SLT group! (Photo courtesy of Raj Biasca)


Some of the students we befriended  (Photo courtesy of Raj Biasca)



Walking through the convent gardens (Photo courtesy of Jala Magbuhos)


Kelsey and I with Deans Marquez and Rafanan from the Student Affairs Office, as well as Prof. Rita Cucio


The view from BenCab Museum


The gardens at BenCab


Kelsey and I in Ifugao dress at Mines View Park


Dinner in Ketchup Community at twilight


Uninvited dinner guests


And they didn’t even chip in for the bill like the rest of us… tsk tsk.

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More Observations!

I’ve talked previously about the awful traffic here, and there’s no denying it’s bad – the other day I almost got run over on the sidewalk by a chain of motorcycles who had driven up on the sidewalk to try to get around a traffic jam, for example.  But in a way, Filipino drivers are better drivers than Americans.  Accidents due to carelessness and inattentive driving are common in the States, and although I’m sure accidents happen here, I haven’t seen any yet (and I have seen some very risky maneuvers here). American drivers would not fare well here.  Filipino drivers, on the other hand, have to be very aware of what’s going around them, so they’ve developed a quick response time and always drive defensively.

Shaving legs also doesn’t seem to be as big of a social imperative here.  I’ve seen some very pretty women in trendy dresses and heels, hair and makeup done, who have very hairy legs.  That would be such a taboo in America, but here it doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal.

Pharmacies also operate differently (luckily for me).  I found this out the hard way: I forgot to bring some prescription medication with me for something, and I was worried about how I’d contact my doctor to get authorization to fill my prescription out of the country.  Turns out that for most medications you can just write down the name of the drug and dosage and the pharmacist will fill it for you. No doctor authorization required. A hypochondriac’s paradise!

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What I Learned from Buying Pants

I think the thing that’s given me the biggest up close and personal uncomfortable culture shock so far has been shopping for pants.  I didn’t bring any pants with me, because this is the Philippines. But pants are more appropriate for work environments here than some of the other things I brought, so I set out to buy some.

First of all, it was a challenge to find my size, first of all because I’m built bigger than what is fashionable for young Filipino women, and secondly because I wasn’t sure how my pant size translated into the Filipino size listings.  Normally when I browse for clothes, I like to take my time evaluating style and price, and it would take me even longer this time as I’d have to figure out my size by trial and error and eyeing the pants to see if it looked like it might fit me.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to deliberate, because the many employees that I’ve mentioned in a previous post swarmed me.  They asked me to sit down, tell them my size, and describe what I wanted so they could go find it for me.  Of course I had to explain that I wasn’t sure what size I was, but I told them I was looking for pants in light colors to match the other clothes I brought with me.

What ensued was a lot of awkwardness – at least that’s how I perceived it on my end.  The salespeople were just passing me pants to try on, and once I found a size that fit, they just started handing me any pants that size and insisting that I try them on, even if it wasn’t what I was looking for.  It felt very uncomfortable to look at the prices of the things they were handing me and knowing that it was more than I’d want to spend, but I’d feel obligated to try things on anyway since they were going to so much trouble, even if I knew I wouldn’t buy them.

Eventually, it became clear that the section I was in didn’t have any pants that matched what I was looking for in my size, and this was very difficult to grapple with.  As I’ve mentioned before, store employees are employed by the brand, not the store.  So I had to go to a different brand section without buying anything from the employees I had previously been dealing with.  I felt so guilty, like I was betraying them after they had tried to be so helpful.

In some ways, you get better service in this set-up, because employees are motivated to keep you in their section and make you buy from their brand, and there’s always an employee close at hand.  In other ways though, I vastly prefer the way stores back home operate, because an employee (once you find one to help you) can help you find clothing items you’re looking for anywhere they have them in the store.  Here, if you ask an employee to find something for you and they don’t have it in their brand, they’ll try to offer you something totally different instead, and it’s uncomfortable trying to walk away from the over-attentive employees in one section to go look in another.  By the end of this experience, I was clutching a pair of pants and trying to get back to the escalator to buy them while hiding from all the employees I’d dealt with previously so they wouldn’t see me leaving and buying something from a different brand.

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Food and Public Transportation

Food here includes a lot of tropical fruits, vegetables, and seafood, although pork and chicken are also quite popular.  And every dish is eaten with rice, even breakfast food.  The way dishes are prepared varies hugely on the region the person making it comes from, as it’s done a little differently everywhere. There are also street vendors everywhere, although it’s generally not advisable to try any street food unless a local tells you it’s safe.


A street vendor prepares a variety of meats on skewers, including chicken intestine, liver, and congealed chicken blood, cubed and fried.

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve tried so far:

  • Adobo, the “national dish” of the Philippines. Made with pork or chicken (or both) and cooked in vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic. No two adobo dishes are the same, as everywhere has its own take on it.



  • Crispy pata – pork knuckles!


    Crispy pata and Sinigang

  • Bicol Express. My favorite so far, it’s a stew made from green chilies, coconut milk, fish or shrimp paste, garlic, and sometimes includes meat.


    Bicol Express

  • Kare-Kare, a meat, tripe, and oxtail stew cooked in a peanut sauce and served with bagoong – salted fish paste. Did not like this one very much.


    Kare-Kare over rice

  • Sinigang. A sour soup made with meat or seafood, vegetables, and unripe fruits.
  • Tocino, a sugar-cured pork, most often eaten for breakfast.
  • Deep fried squid balls. Not really my thing either.
  • Halo-Halo, a popular dessert served in a tall glass with shaved ice, various boiled beans, candies, and fruits, then milk is poured over it and you mix it up. The one I tried also came with flan and taro ice cream, and it was incredibly refreshing!

    Served unmixed…


    And mixed 🙂

  • Maja blanca, a sweet made of coconut milk and cornstarch. I believe the one I tried was made with taro as well, and had sweet corn kernels in it.  The flavor was like cornbread, but it was purple and had the consistency of pudding, so this was really an experience.
  • Taho, made from fresh soy tofu, sago pearls, and brown sugar/vanilla/caramel. It’s usually eaten served hot and for breakfast.  I’m not very big on tofu, personally, and the hot slimy consistency of it put me off a little.  It wouldn’t have been bad if I could get over the consistency.



  • Calamansi! This is a small, round, cousin of the lime, but more sweet than sour. It makes very good juice and brings out the flavor in a lot of other dishes and fruits.


    Calamansi Juice

  • This translates to mango, but the Philippine mango is a completely different experience than anything I’ve eaten elsewhere. The yellow Philippine mango (different from the Indian mango, which I’ll discuss below) fizzles in your mouth.  They say Philippine mangoes, especially from the Visayas, are the best in the world, and I’d have to agree.
  • Mango-ong. This is another mango dish, but made from Indian mangoes that are still green and unripe. Then you dip it in bagoong, a salted fish paste, or chili rock salt.  A common street food.


    Trying mango-ong from a street vendor

  • I have not yet tried balut, but that will be a hurdle indeed. It’s several day old fermented duck embryo – you crack open the egg and there’s the little fowl fetus with recognizable features. They say that agreeing to try balut is a quick way for foreigners to win the regard of Filipinos, as this is largely considered a delicacy, although most of the Filipinos I’ve gotten close to don’t care for it.  But they’re delightedly looking forward to getting me to try it anyway…


Public transport is also very interesting.  Aside from taxis and the LRT, which is basically like the EL, subway or Metro except cheaper (a ticket can cost P15-P40, so under a dollar) and infinitesimally more crowded (sometimes lines to buy a ticket can be off the platform and onto the stairs), there are the jeepneys, pedicabs, and motorcabs.

The jeepneys are reminders of American military occupation, as they’re converted from military jeeps.  These, however, are flamboyantly painted affairs that are sometimes forced to accommodate 20+ people, even if it means having someone hanging off the sides or on the back.  There are no timetables or set stops, so it requires a learning curve to flag them down and know where they’re going, although each one has a painted sign on the side with major street names that it will go to.  Fares are very low though, and are on an honesty policy.  Getting on will cost you P7.50 for 4km (just a few cents), with .50 more for every kilometer you stay on past that.  When you’re stuck at the back, you just pass your fare up to the driver via other passengers, and yell “Para!” when you need to get off.


An example of a jeepney

For both the crowded LRT and the jeepney, you really need to hold your purse or bag close to your body in front of you, as pickpockets and “snatchers” are fairly common (as in any other big city).  Some even carry small knives so as to slit the back of a purse and grab something out of it if you carry it too far off to the side or on your back.  We were also advised not to bring out our phones, cameras, or wallets on public transportation or in the street, so you should have a small coin purse for the small denominations of pesos or money prepared when you ride in a jeepney or are in line for the LRT.

Pedicabs are a bit more expensive, and consist of a cart attached to the side of a bicycle.  Depending on the size of the cart, it can seat 2-4 people, and is powered exclusively by foot power.  These are also the only things that will run during a flash flood, but they will obviously be more expensive in that case.  Motorcabs are the mechanized version of this, with a motorbike instead of a regular bicycle.


A pedicab


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The Culture of St. Scholastica’s

Kelsey and I are doing our internships in the Student Affairs Office (SAO) of St. Scholastica’s College (SSC), or “St. Scho.”  It’s a prestigious Catholic school for girls, and includes an elementary, high school, and college.  It was founded in 1906 by German Benedictine nuns, and nuns still teach and reside on campus (in full habit, which is something not often seen any more in the states.)  St. Scho has been a pioneer in the feminist and women’s movement in the Philippines, and is the only school in the Philippines (and quote possibly in all of Asia) that requires an introductory course in Women’s Studies to graduate.  Aside from gender advocacy, St. Scho is known for its social activist and outreach work, as well as its focus on environmental concerns.  In a big city of concrete jungle, the compound of St. Scholastica’s is a haven of greenery, something consciously cultivated, and with a student population cap set so as not to over-traffic the lawns and space occupied by foliage.  St. Scho also owns a few farm compounds in outlying regions of Luzon as peaceful green spaces outside of Metro Manila.  Many of their trainings and convocations are held on these farms (and I’m going to some of them).  They also give trainings in Women’s Studies and Women’s Issues for community women not involved in academia.  The Nursia Institute of Women’s Studies, where Kelsey and I are staying, was set up by St. Scholastica’s for this purpose, with rooms for women in the community to stay during extended trainings. The IWS also has a publishing arm and a radio show, as well as a TV show called “Nunsense Makes Sense” hosted by Sr. Mary John of St. Scholastica’s.

The emphasis on social activism comes out of the belief that one can’t just settle down into a career – one must be part of what’s going on in the world.  So St. Scho has been the staging ground for quite a few controversial issues.  During the Marcos presidency (or Ferdinand and Imelda fame), the Philippines was under martial law and human rights violations were the norm.  St. Scholastica’s screened banned films undermining presidential propaganda and talked revolutionary things, risking arrest in doing so.  St. Scholastica was actually where Cory Aquino, an alumnus of St. Scho herself, announced that she would be running against Marcos in the coming election.  She won and became the Philippines’ first woman president.  This social awareness and activism is carried on today with participation in the “One Billion Rising” and the “Free Our Girls” campaigns, the meaning of which is discussed with even the grade school girls so they understand the significance of campus action and recognition of these issues.


The uniforms at St. Scholastica: in the middle, grade and high school, to the right is college uniform, and the left one is the formal dress uniform.

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Getting Acclimated to Manila

I’ve been here for a couple days now, and I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of things, or at least know what to expect in certain places. I’ll share here some of what I’ve learned so far, a “Filipino Culture 101” kind of thing:

The Philippines is an archipelagic nation, and there’s a running joke that how many islands it’s composed of depends on whether it’s low or high tide.  But the number is about 7,001 – 400 of which are named, and fewer that are inhabited.  The three main island groupings are, from north to south, Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.  Manila, the capitol, is in the northernmost of these, in Luzon.  The Philippines is no stranger to disaster – it’s geographic location makes it prone to typhoons, earthquakes, flash floods, and volcanic eruptions, and these are compounded by social problems like extreme poverty, unemployment, environmental exploitation, and terrorist activity relating to mining rights in the south.  They’ve also had a history – past and present – of colonization and occupation by foreign powers.  But despite all of this, the Filipino people are some of the friendliest and happiest I’ve ever met, characterized by a love of singing, food, piety, and generosity.

The Philippines was “discovered” in the 1500s and colonized by Spain (who named this new land after their king, Philip).  They were ruled by Spain for over 800 years, and this legacy can still be seen in the Hispanic names of the majority of the population and the deep Catholic faith the people here have.  Although there are some Protestant and Muslim minorities, the religious demographics are overwhelmingly Catholic.

The Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898, largely due to the influence of Jose Rizal, a man of many professions and talents who inspired the people to revolution through his writing and ideas.  Rizal is heralded today  as the “national hero” of the Philippines, garnering respect and admiration much like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln do in the States.  Unfortunately, this independence did not last long, as the Philippines soon became an annex to the United States when Spain “ceded” it to America after the Battle of Manila Bay.  In 1942, the Japanese had a military presence here and bombed much of Manila and elsewhere, although the US attempted to challenge the Japanese hold on what they considered their territory.

Today, the Philippines is considered its own Republic, but it exists in a neocolonial state, as its economy is a source of cheap labor and raw materials for foreign nations and remains a captive market for foreign goods.  The Philippines exports people, not products, as many Filipinos find that working abroad pays better.  This means that useful services are leaving the country instead of benefitting their own native people. There are 11.2 million here who are un/underemployed, and this year marks the worst jobs crisis in the history of the Filipino economy.  There are 23.7 million “official poor,” but the poverty line is established at P52, which is a little over ONE US dollar.  If you can afford to buy one bottle of family-sized Coke per day, you’re not considered poor here.  80,000 children a year die of preventable diseases (it’s very common to see very young children sleeping and begging in the streets), and 60% of Filipinos die having never seen a doctor in their life.  For those that do visit hospitals, the conditions are extremely unsavory – one single person bed is often forced to accommodate three patients who share it.  Education is also problematic: 66% have an elementary education, 43% finish high school, and only 14% of Filipinos earn a college degree.  Although the Philippines is an extremely rich country in terms of natural resources, it is not the Filipino people who decide what happens to them: their economy is controlled by foreign investments and influences who control the economy.  For example, although the Philippines has extensive nickel and coppers reserves, they have no steel industry, and 98% of their mineral production is exported.

On a brighter note, the Philippines has one of the highest biodiversities in the world.  Of 105 amphibious species in the world, 85 are found in the Philippines.  Of 179 land mammals, 111 are found here.  This is home to two-thirds of the world’s reptiles, and 69.8% of all known insect species. The Philippines has the highest coral count in the world, and is home to the world’s largest eagle (Philippine Eagle), the largest terrestrial venomous snake (King Cobra), the largest snake (Reticulated Python), the largest species of turtle (Leatherback), the largest shark (Whale Shark), and the largest species of stingray!

Here are some other things I’ve noticed so far:

  • Random strangers on the street will acknowledge us because we’re white and obviously foreign. We’ll get waved at, and “Hello ma’am” is commonly heard, which confused me at first because with the accent I thought they were calling me “mom”!
  • Lots of stray animals – dogs and cats just relaxing on the sidewalk in the way of pedestrian traffic, not caring at all.
  • Malls and some retail stores have (armed!) guards stationed at entrances and exits to check your bags.
  • SO MANY EMPLOYEES. I mentioned unemployment rates, but you wouldn’t know it by looking in the stores! Even very small restaurants have a large staff, but this is most pronounced in malls and retails stores, because employees in department stores are employed by the brand, not the store. So each brand being sold in-store sends 2-3 salespeople to that section. In an appliance store, in a department store, this holds ture. This is not secure work, however, as these salespeople work on 5 month contracts after which they are let go. No benefits, no security.  Still, this was quite the culture shock coming from somewhere where you have to wander the store in search of an employee to answer your question or direct you – here they practically leap at you offering their help or advertising their brand.
  • TRAFFIC IS HAZARDOUS. Manila traffic is legendary. Entire mornings and afternoons can be last trying to get from point A to point B, and a safe bet is to always double your estimated travel time. Two hour journeys to provinces outside of Manila can easily become four. And Manila is not at all pedestrian friendly – very few walk signals, a guard who enforces stoplights (sometimes they’re treated as just a suggestion!) if you’re lucky.  Oftentimes if you want to cross the street, you just have to confidently assert yourself and insert yourself into traffic with an air that says you expect traffic to stop for you.  Most of the times it will – most.  But you really have to watch out for pedicabs, motorbikes, and other small vehicles that will try to make 3rd, 4th, and 5th lanes in the road, squeezing in where they can.  You also have to watch for cars and jeepneys turning into your path unexpectedly, having cut across several lanes of traffic or disregarding their red light at an intersection to do so.
  • “Comfort Rooms,” the polite term for toilets here. These can be a challenge.  It’s advised that you bring a roll of TP with you when you go out, because there’s no guarantee that a public restroom will have a supply.  A lot of toilets here are the squatting kind, and have very short doors that even I at 5’ 2” stand head and shoulders above.
  • At least where we’re staying, we have a bucket and a dipper, and no hot water. Although the showerhead works, it’s wasteful. To conserve water, it’s expected we fill up our pail and use the dipper to pour over ourselves and rinse off.
  • Families living on the street. (Kids, babies, and pets too). Many live inside pedicabs, which are very very small.  I’ve seen hammocks strung up inside vendor carts, and my favorite, strung up between a street sign and a tree on the street corner dangling precariously close to traffic (especially given the way people drive here).
  • Street children begging. I was shocked to look out the window of my taxi stopped at an intersection to see a child pressing his face to the window, looking at me and gesturing for coins.  Oftentimes they’ll come right up to you on the street and tug at your clothing or dance around you as you’re walking.  It’s best to just avert your eyes and keep going.
  • When multiple people order in a restaurant, the food is brought out when ready, and dishes do not come out all at once. It can be a good 15 minutes from the time your friend gets their meal that you’ll get to eat.  Most Filipinos eat family style though, so the first dish that arrives gets sampled by all until their food comes later and is likewise shared.
  • Unlimited rice. Filipinos eat rice with everything, so it’s not uncommon to see someone coming around with a bucket of rice and an ice cream scoop, doling out extra scoops. Even in fast food places.
  • Cheap cost of services. I went to a restaurant the other day that turned out to be much fancier than I’d expected, requiring you to order a set menu with an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. No problem though, the whole meal (of which my entrée was gourmet duck leg in an orange glaze and au gratin potatoes) amounted to the equivalent of $13.
  • Service charge included. The cheap cost of food is including tax and tip which is all listed in one bundled price on the menu.
  • In the States, public laundromats are self-serve, and you bring your own detergent and pay to operate the machines. Here, you bring your clothes in, pay a fixed amount per kilo, and pick them up laundered and folded two days later.
  • American iconography. Pedicabs can be amusing in the symbols and phrases they choose to borrow and display to appear Western and hip.  I’ve seen bastardized depictions of Spongebob, Bugs Bunny, Hello Kitty, Superwoman, the McDonalds logo, and other things like a chess piece, a unicorn, a dinosaur, and my personal favorite, the BMW logo inscribed under the words “Bon Jovi.”  Images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are also common illustrations.
  • Curfew in women’s dormitories. Ours is 10pm (with lights-out at 10:30pm), and I hear this is common practice.  We also have to sign in and out whenever we come and go, and if we want to go out past dark, it’s at the guard’s discretion.  Whether he lets us out or not depends on if he’s heard the okay from the housemother, so any “nightlife” plans and intentions in the city must be discussed beforehand.
  • At St. Scho the school week is Monday through Saturday, with Monday and Saturday as half-days. The school year here typically starts in June, with April and May being the summer months, as these are typically the hottest months when Filipinos can vacation in the mountains, which are cooler.  Also, in the Philippines, high school does not included 11th and 12th grade – these are considered years one and two of college.  However, he Philippine educational system is in a period of transition in an attempt to sync up with the West – adding the two additional years to high school and moving the school year start to August.  Many people are not happy with this though, as the “summer vacation” will now be scheduled during the rainy months of June-August and the hiccups  from “getting rid” of two years of college to add them to high school will cause faculty layoffs.  The schools are getting no money from the government to assist with the bumps that will come from this transition.
  • “Sari-Sari” stores are everywhere. These are small little shacks, wagons, or lean-to’s where one can find all sorts of items for a very cheap price, sold in the smallest unit possible.  You can buy one stick of gum, or one cigarette, etc.  There’s no standardization to what these stores sell, as these are privately set up with whatever the vendor gets his hands on and decides to sell on the street.
  • “Filipino time.” A promise to be picked up at 8am might mean 8:30am or later, but mostly everyone is okay with this because there’s an understanding that there could be more important things that that person is doing.  It’s a very “I’ll get to it when I get to it and I’m not going to stress about it” attitude.
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The Layover and Arrival in Manila

***I wrote this on a word document last Saturday and I’ve been waiting to upload it, but internet connection for me has been difficult to come by***

I left Chicago with a group of 9 other girls at 8:30pm Chicago time, and arrived in Dubai at “7:10pm” the next day after a 13 hour flight. I had heard Emirates was a very nice airline, and it was – we were even offered fresh steamed towels to wash with before the in-flight meal was served.  I gather that this is a custom in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), as our dinner during our layover also observed this custom and we were served towels before any food was brought out.


Emirates even provided a night-sky atmosphere on the plane!

Even though we emerged from the airport after night had fallen and the sky was dark, we were hit by a wall of heat that was incredibly shocking. It was a heat that would have been striking at high noon, so I can’t imagine what daytime would feel like.  After taking a shuttle to our hotel and freshening up a bit, the ten of us got hotel assistance in hailing two taxis to take us to the Dubai Mall, where one of the girls in our group had made reservations for dinner.  Apparently a family friend of hers owns the restaurant in the mall, so we were receiving a complimentary dinner. I did not expect the experience we had: a private curtained-off room in the back of the restaurant, with absolutely breathtaking views of the city and of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Unbeknownst to us, we also got a private viewing of a water and lights show from below, all while being served incredibly expensive gourmet food.  Our menu was served chef’s choice, and we were delivered several courses of dishes, more than we could finish.  While we didn’t see the bill, we speculated amongst us that the food we were served probably amounted to between $1.5-2k for the 10 of us.


The Burj Khalifa


The Dubai skyline as seen from our private room in the restaurant


Just some of the food that was served to us…delicious!

One interesting thing I learned is that Dubai does not serve alcohol (except in hotels that have bars in restaurants for tourists) because the UAE is such an observant Muslim country.  While I didn’t have to cover, I observed many women wearing the hijab or the full black abaya which covers everything but the eyes, as well as many men in the floor-length white thobe and head covering. Also, it seemed that the scent of sandalwood incense was everywhere – in the mall, in the taxi – which was quite lovely.

We arrived in Manila Sunday, early evening, and were met by Tito Mon, IWU’s Dr. Amoloza’s brother, who took us to the Hotel Benilde where we would stay until we could move into our respective internship sites.  Although we were all quite tired, we were able to admire the breathtaking skyline which could be seen from our window, as well as from the open-air skydeck on the roof of our hotel.




Watching the sun set over Manila…13 hours before it would set at home.

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