Below is an article that I submitted for EWB's Long-Term Volunteer newsletter... it's in the same vein as the previous entry, but hopefully you'll enjoy it nonetheless...
Upon my second arrival to the Philippines – I first came here as a CIDA-intern on a large bilateral project in 2004 - I was once again struck by how seemingly similar the Philippines was to the West: fried chicken and spaghetti on the menu, Pantene shampoo and Kraft singles slices on supermarket shelves, English spoken by just about everyone, and a very high awareness for all things ‘American’. Indeed, if you traveled to the Philippines in that way that many Westerners do, you could easily miss the fact that the Philippines is an incredibly Asian country, with a very unique history and fascinating culture.
But how could this happen? There are a number of reasons, I suppose: first, there is a definite veneer of Westernization that coats the Philippines like icing on a cake. If you’re used to only being served the highly coveted icing, as many Westerners are, you might not even recognize that there’s a delicious cake made of strange and unheard of ingredients lying directly underneath.
Another reason that Westerners may miss the uniqueness of the Philippines is that they’re often just not required to look. Because most Westerners are able to live in absolute luxury with a fairly modest Western salary, they can afford to live in the most developed, Westernized parts of the country. Further, the Philippines is different from many developing countries in the fact that everything from home, and I mean everything, is available: bratwurst Sausages from Germany, wildflower honey from Austria, organic whole wheat pasta from the US, wine from France, sour cream from New Zealand, olive oil from Italy – it’s all here, provided that you have the money to pay for it. Because many of these imported items are still in the price range for most foreigners (costing about the same or maybe even less than at home), many never bother to shop in the wet market or eat local foods. After all, why would you ever take Filipino transit through the dirt and mud, cramming your big Canadian butt into a seat the size of a postage stamp, when you could take a taxi for the same price as transit fare in Canada?
What does all of this mean, you’re asking? Well, it means that if you’re not required to look, you might actually think that Filipino culture is comprised of only fast-food chains and shopping malls. In this way, foreigners may be lulled into the understanding that ‘it’s not that different here’. Because many foreigners are often afforded the luxury of living like they’re still at home (in neighborhoods with paved streets and sidewalks, in apartments with toilets that have seats, insect free nooks and crannies, constant power sources, and refrigerators for storing all of your fruit and veg, as well as support staff that speak impeccable English, etc), they potentially are misled into the belief that home isn’t so different from the Philippines after all.
This assumption can be highly problematic because under this veneer of Western consumerism, the Philippines is undeniably different in its values, traditions, and sensibility. As my for myself, even though this placement hasn’t given me the ‘privilege’ of living in luxury (I prefer to view the slightness of my EWB stipend as a good thing in itself, as it has allowed me to gain so much more about this country than I did during my first trip in 2004), I have nonetheless found myself in situations when I thought that I was on the same page as my Filipino partner, when clearly I was not. Indeed, there have been numerous instances in which the cross-cultural filter between myself and those with whom I was working with created massive miscommunications.
For example, in my work to sustain ably phase-out EWB’s Canadian volunteer sending activities in the SCALA Project, we have trained Filipinos to become ‘SCALA Volunteers’ – individuals to essentially replace the need for Canadian EWB volunteers to set-up the ICT centers. SCALA Volunteers have been sourced from existing SCALA Centers, and are accomplished SCALA computer trainers and/or center managers who are then trained in how to set-up SCALA Centers in other communities. During the first training that I was involved in, I contracted former SCALA Volunteers to act as resource persons for the training, and requested that they prepare a number of sessions to facilitate for the group. Since they had experienced the challenges of ‘living away from friends and family’, I thought the group would benefit if they shared their insight and experience.
However, when we all arrived and discussed the forthcoming sessions, it became quickly apparent that they were not prepared to facilitate. Indeed, when I brought up the subject, they looked at me with blank, almost scared expressions, like it was the first time they had heard about the request. In my own mind, I’d thought that I’d been explicit in my requests to facilitate, but it became fairly apparent that what I thought was sufficient to prepare them, was quite obviously insufficient to prepare them.
In Canada, we often work from the principle, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. As I have discovered during my time in the Philippines, however, this strategy just doesn’t work when working in a cross-cultural context. The reason it doesn’t work is this: all people operate from different, often unspoken, principles. Add to this cross-cultural differences and you have a context in which people’s underlying motivations and values are markedly different from one another. So long as you provide only what makes sense to you from your Western perspective, you’re likely never to really understand the needs of your partner, let alone have your needs understood by them.
Your main task as development worker, therefore, is to figure out what your partner’s needs are and what motivates them: what makes sense to them, what makes them comfortable / uncomfortable, what is repugnant to them, etc. In sum, you are not to ‘do unto others not as they would have them do unto you’, but instead ‘as they would like to be done unto’!!! But how do you achieve this in a meaningful way? As I have demonstrated in my own cross-cultural mishap above, it’s a LOT harder said than done. Not only does it require patience (which, let’s be honest, is often in short supply when you’re working against deadlines and challenging project objectives), but it also requires lots of time, as well as room in which to make mistakes and learn from them. Only by continually making mistakes, forgiving yourself for making them, making them again (we’re often not as smart as we claim to be!!!), and eventually learning from them, will the process of true understanding begin.