On the Cognitive Dissonance of Compassion

I was born in a travel trailer.

Well, I was born in a hospital. But I spent many of my early months–both pre- and post- natal–in a little travel trailer on the top of a mountain in the Flat Tops wilderness area near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. My parents were there because my father was a logger, and that’s where the trees were. My mom bathed me, and later my brother, in plastic dish tubs on the slab of tree-trunk that served as our front stoop. My best baby pictures feature a rosy-cheeked baby almost lost in a sea of wildflowers.

This isn’t a Peace Corps story.

This is: Yesterday, I discovered that the two children who had mysteriously appeared in my back yard with the beginning of the summer are in fact the daughters of the young couple who live there.

Against the back wall of the compound, there’s a little two-room, concrete shed. Our landlords use one of the rooms for storage. The other houses our neighbors. It took a while to figure out what “neighbors” meant. At first, I thought it was just the one girl, barely 4’6″, a student at the neighboring university. A few months later, a boy appeared, to much speculation. Surely our landlady wouldn’t approve of a live-in boyfriend?

No, they were married. A little weird to an American eye, but okay, sure, they’re both students, they probably really need a cheap place to live near the school. But how is it, after 14 months of living so close that I can hear their indoor conversations and midnight trips to the outhouse, I’m only just discovering these two little girls, ages perhaps six and four?

Somewhere, I failed at something.

It’s not like I somehow missed two little kids for a year, incidentally. The girls probably live with a family member–a grandma or an aunt–during the school year. But still, how do you not know your neighbors have children?

Here’s the thing. You know when you sign up for the Peace Corps that it’s going to make you confront the fundamental inequities inherent in the “developed/developing” dichotomy.

(Incidentally, how I hate the term “developing”. It implies some sort of upward climb towards the inevitable glory of freedom and prosperity, like all of these poor foreign people will soon be just as happy and free and healthy as We Americans. “Developing” makes it so easy to dismiss the morass of environmental, social, and infrastructural factors in the way of that climb. It smacks of “differently-abled” to me–terms that sugar-coat the struggles of a minority are, I think, almost universally used to salve the conscience of the majority. I don’t have a better term to suggest. It just bugs me, is all.)

Anyway, you know the feeling I’m talking about. That squirmy thing in your stomach when you think about Those Less Fortunate. The one mothers of a certain generation called on when they invoked the starving children in China. The one no one really wants to think about.

And of course we don’t want to think about it! You rely on that car. That internet connection keeps you in touch with friends and family. Your smartphone is a lifesaver.

Confronting the reality that your fortune well exceeds another’s induces this weirdly possessive guilt. You feel terrible, and you know it’s not fair, and you’d love to fix it. But you’re also gripped by the uncomfortable knowledge that you don’t want to lose the things you have. You justify.

I can’t tell you how many times, for example, I’ve heard some variation on the following: “I know air-conditioning is [expensive/bad for the environment/etc.], but in [Florida/Arizona/Texas/etc.] you really need it.”

My friends, I’ve been in the Philippines for twenty months, living, like most of the population, without air-conditioning. I’m coming to you with a hard truth: You don’t “really need” it. It makes your life immensely more comfortable and, if you’re old or young or ill, much safer. There are lots of good reasons to run an air-conditioner. But perhaps you should take a moment to examine your definition of “need”.

So, back to my neighbors. I’ve always told myself that I’ve avoided engaging with them out of respect for their privacy. The personal space allotted to them consists of: a) half of a concrete shed, furnished with a bunk bed, two stools, and a rickety table; b) a roofed area outdoors with a counter and a small wood stove–their kitchen; c) a single faucet belonging to an apartment that isn’t even theirs, from which they can haul water to; d) a concrete outhouse with no electricity and no running water.

In their position, with so much of my life happening outdoors in someone’s back yard, I would want as much privacy as possible. So I didn’t pry.

But what if that’s just an excuse? Doesn’t my life–this big apartment with its refrigerator, flushing toilet, indoor kitchen, and mere two occupants (two! in all this space!)–seem rather extravagant by comparison? I love and crave those things (personal space, indoor plumbing, unspoiled food). Isn’t it rather uncomfortable that literally in my backyard these people have none of those things?

The kids pushed it over the edge for me. Suddenly, this isn’t a young couple–this is a young family. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but it’s there. So on my way home from a trip running errands, I picked up a handful of Filipino popsicles, called “ice candy”.

It wasn’t until after I delivered the ice candy to the little girls and their mother–how many years younger than me? I don’t even know–that I started thinking about my own mother. She spent a lot of my childhood raising two children in trailers. I mean, we always had a house, but there were lots of times when if we wanted to be together as a family, we had to go where the trees were.

For me, memories of those months are mostly of the sawdust-and-mildew smell of a logger’s trailer, and sleeping at the foot of my mom’s little bunk, and reading the same chapter book over and over. I couldn’t tell you what my mom was feeling. Was she bored? Lonely? Worried about our health? I got bronchial pneumonia during one of those winters, and in a small space with a propane stove carbon monoxide poisoning was a constant danger. But mostly, I just don’t know. I wasn’t old enough or observant enough to know what that experience meant to her.

I see my mother in young Filipina with her two children in her too-small house. I mean, they don’t have much in common. My mom married at 30 and had me fourteen months later. Without resorting to speculation, observation suggests that my neighbor was still a teenager when her older daughter was born. But aren’t they still the same? Young families, trying to make their way in the circumstances they find themselves in. Just quietly pressing on.

Here’s what I’ve learned in Peace Corps: We need a hook. As long as our compassion is colored primarily by guilt and discomfort, how are we supposed to get anywhere? We have to find that link, something that surpasses the internal conflict of wanting-to-care with wanting-to-have. That bridge from Other to Us.

Guilt is a worthless emotion. Worse than worthless, actually: it arrests movement. It encourages deflection, excuses, ignorance. My exhortation, as a Peace Corps volunteer: Forget the guilt. Find your hook.

What comes after that? Well, that’s another thing I’ve learned in the Peace Corps: Just take the first step. You’ll figure it out as you go.

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Adobong Kangkong ni Emma

I don’t often cook Filipino food. There are various reasons. One is that it’s, you know, pretty easy to get Filipino food if you’re living in the Philippines. Another is that the most iconic dishes don’t convert very well into a vegetarian meal. We’re not vegetarians, but we don’t cook meat at home. It’s expensive and frequently suspect.

Filipino food, unlike other cuisines in the region, isn’t highly spiced. It depends for flavor largely upon vinegar and fat, especially pork fat. It’s true, there’s nothing preventing you from making a big pan of pancit (Filipino noodles) without any meat, but I know from experience that most Filipinos would dismiss the result as “walang lasa” (without flavor) or “hindi masarap” (not delicious). And the thing is, they wouldn’t really be wrong.

So, I’ve been trying for months to nail down a good vegetarian version of adobo. Adobo is a meat or vegetable braised in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar and seasoned with garlic, black pepper and bay leaf. Chicken or pork adobo is delicious, and there are quite a few vegetable adobos that are common here. And there’s certainly nothing stopping you from using tofu in place of meat. Except …

But every time I’ve tried to make meatless adobo, it’s just been lacking. The vinegar is so sour, and the soy sauce is so salty, but there’s no richness in the vegetable to balance those flavors. You’re left with something edible, but … well, hindi masarap.

In searching for adobo recipes online, I found a lot of people put coconut milk in theirs. I dismissed this at first. Adobo doesn’t have coconut milk! Where were they even getting this? For someone who rarely cooks Filipino food and has only lived in two relatively close regions of a diverse country, I pass rather a lot of judgment on FilAm (Filipino-American) food blogs that don’t reflect my experience. (Ground meat in tortang talong? What?!)

But … well, I had a little leftover coconut milk from Sunday’s dinner, and I knew I wanted to make adobong kangkong (water spinach) with quail eggs. And maybe what my vegetarian adobos were missing was saturated fat!

What I’ve learned in my meager three-or-so years of cooking vegetarian food is you have to replace that animal fat flavor with something. You can’t just throw some veggies at a pot and have it taste good. My usual strategy is to brown everything very well. Brown the onions. Brown the garlic. Let the oil absorb all those flavors. Hell, when I cook beans, I actually fry up the soaked, uncooked beans in garlic and onion until they start getting a little brown too. (Then I often fry them again after cooking! Have I mentioned I’ve lost twenty pounds in the Philippines? I have absolutely no fear of fat anymore.)

But I was browning like crazy in my adobos, and it still wasn’t enough to compete with the acidity of the vinegar and the saltiness of the soy sauce. Caramelized onions can fix most ills, not this one.

All this to say: adobong kangkong with quail eggs and coconut milk was easily the most delicious Filipino food I’ve ever made. The coconut milk, soy sauce, and vinegar reduced into a rich, thick gravy that I could have eaten with a spoon. That, with the meaty, substantial kangkong stems, and the little creamy burst of yolk when you bite into a boiled quail egg … I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, I cooked the whole thing in the dark during a power outage, so no pictures, except this one of the leftovers. (We ate all the quail eggs the previous night. I don’t think they’d reheat well.)

Adobong Kangkong with red rice

Adobong Kangkong ni Emma
(Emma’s Water Spinach Adobo)

You will need:
One big bunch of kangkong, cut into 2-3″ lengths
4-5 cloves garlic, partially crushed and sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced
1 long red chile, Thai-style, with most of the seeds removed, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
~1 cup coconut milk (less if using canned)
Black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil (we tend to use palm oil)
20 quail eggs, hard-boiled and peeled (or 6 chicken eggs)

Yields 3 servings as a main dish, probably twice that many as a side.

In a wok, saute the shallots on a medium-low heat, allowing them to brown slowly. Before they get crispy, remove them from the pan. Add garlic and chile, saute until garlic is browned. (You COULD add the garlic to the shallots, but I’m not good enough at telling when the shallots are nearly done, and if they saute too long, they get bitter. Your call.)

Return shallots to wok. Add vinegar, soy sauce, coconut milk, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Simmer for a few minutes to let the flavors come together. Chicken adobo can simmer for hours–since the veggies cook much faster, the sauce needs a little time on its own to become delicious.

Add the kangkong to the wok. It will seem like too much. It isn’t. Let the heat wilt the greens, turning them gently with your spoon so that everything gets exposed to the sauce.

When the kangkong is soft and swimming in the sauce, turn off the heat and add the eggs. Mix gently so that the eggs sit in the sauce, and leave the dish for a while so the eggs can soak.

Serve with rice.

A Peace Corps Day

Today was a pretty typical Sunday for me. It’s not what someone would think of if they thought “typical day in the Peace Corps”, so I thought I’d share with you.

6 am: Woke up to the damn loud sparrows outside my window. Put in ear-plugs because it’s a weekend and I can sleep in if I want to, damn it.

6:30 am: Got up anyway because I realized it was my brother’s birthday and I needed to call him.
Made coffee in french press, with dark brown sugar and powdered milk.
Skype didn’t work. E-mailed brother instead. Drank more coffee.
We got a new internet service yesterday! It’s so fast! In the morning, I can watch Youtube videos without waiting for them to buffer! So I did that for a while.
Started soaking black eyed peas for dinner.

8 am: Heated water in the electric kettle, took a bucket bath. (It’s hot enough now that I don’t usually bother, but I also don’t usually shower in the morning before the sun is hot.)
Walked to the market! A man on a bicycle shouted, “Hello American!”
Bought luffah squash (for eating, not washing), sweet potatoes (Filipino style, with white flesh and red skin), bananas, and freshly grated coconut (on which more later).
Also bought one tortang talong, which is a crazy delicious kind of roasted eggplant omelet. That was breakfast.

9 am: I needed coconut milk for dinner, and I had plans for my morning, so I started on that. You pour boiling water over the shredded coconut and let it sit, then wring it out in a cloth.
Watched even more Youtube while that was going on.
Soaked and squeezed two presses from the coconut. (Second press is weak and used during cooking, first press is rich and used for finishing.)

10 am: Dungeons & Dragons on the internet!
Bet you weren’t expecting that one! But seriously, it’s the highlight of my week. So that went on (with a break to make a shallot omelet for lunch, and a million technical difficulties, mostly related to power outages) until…

2 pm: Finished D&D. Peeled and chopped a big hunk of squash (it’s something like butternut) and start roasting it in the toaster oven for dinner.
Also chopped sweet potato and put it in water for later.
Set out a tub of laundry to soak.
Started cooking black eyed peas with shallot and garlic.

3 pm: Washed laundry. This involves squatting beside the tub with a plastic wash board. It was a small load, though. Didn’t take long.
Peeled and chopped the luffah squash. (And man, that stuff has a peel like you wouldn’t believe. Rough

4 pm: Read about a hundred Wikipedia articles while the black eyed peas were cooking. Wikipedia didn’t work on our old internet service. I have a lot of lost time to make up for.

5 pm: Finished dinner. Black eyed peas with roasted squash, coconut milk, and preserved kalamansi (Filipino lime, which I preserved North African style, like Moroccan salted lemons). On the side, mashed sweet potato with coconut milk.

6:30 pm: Sat down to eat with the Roommate. Talked about cooking and how it’s different here than in the States, and about her dog, and whether she should take him back with her, and about our students and their brazenness, and so forth.

And beyond that, it’s all surfing and chatting on the internet until bedtime around ten.

The next day, I bought Raid.

I’ve been quite lucky on the pest front since I moved to the Philippines. Sure, there was a three month period where I was rinsing tiny ants off of my toothbrush every morning, but I’ve never had to deal with rats chewing on my clothes or cockroaches crawling up the drain during my showers like some of my friends here.

Last week, though, we had an Incident.

It was nearly 10 pm, so getting on towards bedtime for those of us living in the tropics who are expected to get up with the sun. I was casually surfing the web, as is my MO, when I was roused by hysterical shrieks from Roommate. I went to investigate.

Friends, an enormous cockroach had found its way into her bedroom. I mean it was freaking huge.

Now, I like to think of myself as pretty tough. I’m from Colorado, pioneer spirit and all that. Just earlier that night I’d made a joke about saving Roommate–who is sort of a sensitive, feminine type–from bugs. How I ate my words!

It wouldn’t come down to a reasonable height for crushing, that was the problem. It sat up there, seven feet in the air. You guys, cockroaches in the Philippines fly. And they also bite. So neither of us wanted to risk the terrible angle for crushing and suddenly find ourselves with a face full of pure biting buzzing EVIL.

The worst thing was, while it sat, it groomed itself. It would take one of its long, long antennae and run it slowly through its mouth, and then the other. No insect should be capable of such articulated movement.

I did not shriek, but that is about the most I can say about the way I acquitted myself.

Anyway, we stalked it for over an hour, and finally it landed on the floor and Roommate crushed it with a large casserole pan. Well, she half-crushed it. She crushed its back half into a mealy pulp. Its front half remained intact.

To save my sense of self-worth and salvage my pride at not really helping, I swooped in with a broom to clean up. I scraped the back half of the cockroach outside and washed the pan, and then I swept up the front half into a box I had lying around.

It was past our bedtimes at that point. We went to bed, and Roommate slept much sounder for having disposed of the cockroach.

In the morning I woke up with some unrelated–uh, we’ll call it intestinal difficulties and leave it at that–and hauled my ass miserably into the kitchen.

The counter was covered in ants. COVERED.

You know what I forgot to throw away? What I left on the counter overnight?

Did you further know that ants are attracted to protein as well as sugar? And that cockroaches are pretty much composed of protein?

This is me, standing in the middle of the kitchen, pre-coffee, one hand holding a box filled with ants swarming the front half of a cockroach, the other grasping my stomach, wondering what the hell to do with any of this.

PEACE CORPS.

Gotta get me some movie star shades

Hello, Blog! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve been immersed in the business of living in the Philippines. It’s pretty weird, living here. In some ways, my life is very much the same as it is in the US. I have Internet in my home now, so I’ve resumed Life As Normal, by which I mean I spend most of my free time talking to the People Inside My Computer. I don’t know what made me think I’d magically stop doing that after joining the Peace Corps, but I was wrong!

On the other hand, when I do leave the house, I’m freaking movie star, you guys.

Grocery shopping is like being in the US, only cooler, because when I go into the market, the vendors who sell me my vegetables say things like, “Yes, Sexy? What is it?” Why yes I AM sexy, thanks for noticing!

Once I walked past a house, minding my own business, and heard a, “WOW!” from the darkened interior. In seconds, half a dozen children appear peering through the bars.

You guys. I merited a WOW. It was most definitely in all caps, just like that.

But the best part is the little neighborhood I pass through on my walk to work. Let’s call it Sesame St. The Sesame St. crowd is my FAVORITE. Most houses in the Philippines have high walls and gates, to keep people from stealing the things inside, but the residents of Sesame St. are on the poorer side. Maybe they don’t have anything worth stealing.

Whatever the case, their huts are open right out into a dirt compound, and the street. And that means that instead of being shut up behind gates, the kids play out in the street.

The kids think I’m great.

At first, they mostly wanted to know my name. Since they have various levels of ability in various languages (at least three, I’m guessing, Ilokano, Tagalog, and English), the conversations tended to go like this.

Kid: “Anong pangalan mo?”

Me, grinning: “Ako si Emma.”

Kid, remembering the one phrase he knows in English: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Uh . . . still Emma.”

Oddly enough, my name stays the same no matter what language I’m speaking. WEIRD.

Some of the Sesame St. kids - charmers, right?

We had this exchange twice a day, when I walked to school and when I walked home. Eventually I just started answering, “Alam mo!” You know!

The kids must have spread the word, because now sometimes when I’m walking down Sesame St., people call, “Ate Emma!” (‘Ate’ is like ‘big sister’. You use it for females older than you.)

And that’s the downside of this unexpected stardom. See, I’ve managed to learn the names of two of Sesame St. kids. I still don’t know the names of any of the adults, or the rest of the kids. It feels a little unfair. After all, there’s only one of me, and I did tell them my name four times a day in multiple languages for several weeks.

But I didn’t ask to be a star. All I wanted was to be a neighbor, and neighbors should learn each other’s names.

Maybe I’ll start with the folks at the canteen who are always so curious about what I’m up to. Like the time I was walking home with a gallon of white vinegar in one hand. A GALLON, guys. SO much vinegar, they stopped measuring it in liters.

And if you thought they were curious about that, imagine what they thought about me walking down Sesame St. with my male best friend. But that’s a story for another post.

The Philippines is travel-sized

If you read a guidebook on the Philippines, it will tell you about jeepneys, and trikes, and how nice the people are. But I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t tell you about sachets.

Sachets (they pronounce it like sashay, not like hatchet) are ubiquitous here, and many people buy them in lieu of full bottles of whatever they’re trying to buy. Basically, in the Philippines, everything is travel-sized for your convenience.

Usually you get them from a sari-sari store like this one:

Sari-sari means “variety”. These are little shops usually run out of someone’s house. They sell pretty much everything, from laundry detergent to Coke to cooking oil.

But you can also find sachets in grocery stores and convenience stores. I took all of the following photos in a Mini-stop, which is basically like a gas station without the gas. (Mini-stop is our go-to place for ice cream. We’re all going to miss it so much when we leave the city for our more rural permanent sites.)

Here are some of the things you can buy in sachets. Click to make the images bigger, if you like.


Shampoo and conditioner


Deodorant


Toothpaste (twin pack for DOUBLE freshness!)


Skin whitening cream


Insect repellent


Shoe cream

And finally, proving there’s nothing you can’t buy in a sachet:

Lube.

This is Peace Corps.

On Friday, our training groups had the opportunity to visit two sites of an alternative education project for the children of the Aetas, a local indigenous tribe. It was an incredible experience.

To get to the second site, we had to cross a suspension bridge hanging high over a river, and walk along a narrow footpath along a cliff, essentially through the jungle. The children were seated in the packed sand of the school yard under the trees, surrounded by palms and vegetable gardens.

We taught them Red Light, Green Light, Simon Says (Sabi ni Simon, in Tagalog), and Duck, Duck, Goose. We brought the kids hamburgers from Jollibee for lunch, and overheard one of the older women from the village examining the buns skeptically, muttering, “Hindi kanin ito,” “This isn’t rice!” This isn’t rice–it isn’t food. I know some Americans who would agree.

Some of us walked back down the footpath, even further through the jungle, to the village. We sat on a bamboo bench and conversed in our halting Tagalog. We saw the nipa huts where the Aetas live. The children poked us curiously, then ran away. We were thoroughly charmed. We thought, “I could live here.” We thought, “This is the Peace Corps.”

Our sites are nothing like this little village. We have power (most of the time) and running water (usually). We will wear uniforms to school, and teach English to classes of sixty adolescent Filipinos, most of them with cell phones in their backpacks and a better working knowledge of American pop music than I could ever hope to have. We will watch bootleg movies on our laptops while lying under our mosquito nets–if we bother with the nets at all.

And you know what? That is also Peace Corps. If your primary reason for joining the Peace Corps is that you wanted to live in a bamboo hut across a river, you joined the Peace Corps for the wrong reason. Where ever Peace Corps goes, it’s because there’s a need. Maybe the need is for clean water and sustainable farming. Maybe the need is for youth trained to use computers. Development is development.

One of the core expectations of Peace Corps volunteers talks about serving “under conditions of hardship if necessary”. I sometimes wonder if it should say, “under the necessary conditions”. The presence or absence of a flushing toilet is not the mark of a post’s importance. We ask: is there a need? Can I help fill it? Then we live however the people in our community live.

I say all this, because sometimes we can feel a little disappointed at the Peace Corps experience we’re having. Is it really Peace Corps if I had McDonald’s for dinner yesterday evening? If I’m posting this from a coffee shop three minutes from my home? Some people call Peace Corps Philippines “Posh Corps”. In some ways, it’s an appropriate nickname.

But I think if we walked away from our visit with the Aetas just thinking that way, we’d fail to be successful volunteers, when the work we will be doing in our various communities is important. Because, yes, sometimes Peace Corps looks like this:

Jane puts her Tagalog to the test

But sometimes it looks like this:

Me with the teachers of Calaogan Dackel National High School

And sometimes it looks like this:

At a field day we held at the local high school

Peace!