Sunday, May 30, 2010

Naintindihan mo ba?

(Do you understand me?)

Even if you travel to a foreign country that speaks your native language, you can still get yourself in trouble by not understanding the locals. For example, an American woman who hears a British person say that something is "pear-shaped" may take it the wrong way; in the UK, "pear-shaped" is slang for a situation that's gone wrong. Although many Filipinos speak English as well as Tagalog, one of the benefits of learning their native language is getting a small preview of Filipino culture.

Although Filipinos in Manila speak English, they are not Westerners. Despite having spent "400 years in the convent and 50 in Hollywood," Filipino culture--and their communication--is unique. Although Americans living in Manila have the luxury of being able to speak English with the locals, we need to have a general understanding of the cultural communication differences. The two that follow were especially interesting to me:

Although both American and Filipino parents teach their children that it's rude to point, in the US the level of rudeness depends on the context. In the Philippines, pointing at something is, if not always rude, usually weird. Filipinos point with their lips. The term "boondocks" originated in the early 20th century with disoriented American soldiers stationed in the Philippines who, hearing the locals use the word "bundock" (Tagalog for mountain) began using the term "boondocks" to refer to the middle of nowhere. My Tagalog teacher suggested that when the American soldiers asked the Filipinos for directions, the response would have been to point with their lips towards a mountain, hence the Americans' general confusion.

I suppose I need to train myself to point with my lips, and in the meantime, if it looks like I'm making a kissy face at you, don't take it the wrong way.

In addition to differences in nonverbal communication, it is important to remember that when you translate a word literally the subtlety of usage may be lost. In the US, we sometimes refer to our elected representatives as "my/your Congressperson." Although we are using a possessive pronoun, we do not  think that the government official actually belongs to us. American political culture is both individualistic and collective--we are individualistic in our opinions, but collective in that we feel a sense of responsibility about our government's actions.

However, in our class we have learned that when some Filipinos hear Americans use a possessive to refer to a government official, they think it sounds strange. Remind me to refer to Governor Crist as ang (the) Gobernador.

Although I know that we are only getting a micro preview of certain aspects of Filipino culture, I still find it interesting. After all, one of the reasons we chose to enter the Foreign Service was to have the opportunity to learn and explore. If those of you who have lived or living in Manila have anything to add to the above, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tagalog highlights: week one

Highlights of our first week of Tagalog:

1)  Getting up at 6:00 am every day and therefore feeling jet lagged.
2)  Learning more Tagalog in five days than half a semester of high school and/or college Spanish.
3) Coming back from lunch and saying "oui, oui" instead of "oo" (yes, pronounced oh-oh).
4) Discovering that studying a language can be fun!
5) Learning all the different ways I could offend someone by slightly mispronouncing a Tagalog word.
6 a) Learning about Filipino culture through their language.
   b) Deciding that our asos will never be visiting the provinces.
7 a) Playing 20+ questions in Filipino.
   b) Discovering how many politicians and celebrities I know nothing about.
8) Teaching Julie to maupo ka and tayo na in < 5 minutes. (sit and let's go commands)
9) Speak like Yoda I learn. 
10) Learning that we won't be considered a family until we have anak, and that Filipinos don't think asos count as anak. 

Anak namin for now

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sigurado namin doon pa?

That's Tagalog for, "Are we there yet?" Tomorrow we start our eight weeks of language training, which means that the final countdown to our departure date is getting closer. Two months doesn't seem like much time--especially since we have so much to do--and yet it seems like ages until we get to see our home for the next two years. 

We are enjoying our time here in DC, but this is an awkward period in our transition. It can be difficult to stay engaged in the present when you know your time is limited. We know where we are going and when we get there, but we have to WAIT to find out everything else. Yet perhaps this is time to practice the essential Foreign Service philosophy: enjoy the journey.

Of course, enjoying the journey does not mean that you don't have a destination. Staying in the present does not mean you can't have goals, a concept that Western students of Buddhism often find difficult. Having concrete goals that are separate from a physical location is an alien concept, and yet I know that, at this time in my life, I don't want to be cemented to a specific place.

My time of rest in DC has certainly offered me clarity and understanding. I know what I don't want.  Until further notice, my mission statement is:


Followed closely by attending a yoga teacher training course in Southeast Asia.  

So I do have goals that aren't attached to a physical locale: 1) learn to be patient 2) avoid getting stressed and 3) enjoy the ride.

In two months I may still be asking if we're there yet, but hopefully I will ask it in Tagalog without the help of Google translator. In the meantime, I should take time to appreciate what I will miss while in the Philippines, such as temperatures lower than 80 degrees.

Always ready to go

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mobile Home

The importance of bringing familiar household items with you to help make you feel "at home" in your embassy housing is well known in the Foreign Service community. Although difficult to consider when you're packing out and want to get rid of everything, the difference between living in a hotel and a home may be what you do to make the space your own. However, when you move every couple of years, truly feeling at home in each new place may require cognitive as well as physical adjustments.

Sometimes our home is simply the place where we reside. While on vacation, I find myself saying that I'm ready to "go home" when I'm ready to go back to the hotel room. Sometimes we feel that we are at home when we find a place that fits well with our interests and values, even if we don't live there. Some people identify so strongly with their hometowns that they never feel at home anywhere else, and some will always consider the place where they grew up home, even if they establish another home elsewhere. In all of these definitions, home is a place where we can go to rest and regroup before heading out into the world again. However, those who feel most at home in a mobile lifestyle may prove that home doesn't necessarily have to be a place.

Feeling at home is connected to one's emotional state, attitude, and social network and thus, may not necessarily depend on a physical location. When you live in the same place for a long time you attach feelings of belonging to that specific place, but it may be possible to attach those same feelings to a community--even a worldwide community. If our homes are places of refuge, familiarity, and belonging, then perhaps home can be a group of people who share a common experience or lifestyle.When I think about why I consider Florida home I realize that if the people I care about didn't live there, the physical place would likely cease to be home.

Some new Foreign Service families come from a long history of frequent moves, but those of us who are used to being at home in a specific place will need to broaden our understanding of what makes a place home. For myself, one of my homes will be in Florida, but I hope I will continue to feel that I belong in the Foreign Service community.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Foreign Service Limbo II: Cultivating Yin

There are different understandings of yin, especially in western culture, but most Americans associate it with the yin-yang symbol from Chinese philosophy.

In my yoga practice, I associate yin with a deeper, slower practice, as opposed to the more active practice of vinyasa, sometimes known as flow or power yoga. This afternoon in a yin yoga class, I realized that the balance of yin and yang in yoga may serve as a useful guide when navigating the Foreign Service limbo.

As I wrote last week, when something is difficult we are tempted to rush through it, and sometimes hurt ourselves in the process. In yin yoga, you hold the poses longer than you would in a flow class, and although it seems like baddha konasana (butterfly) would not be particularly difficult for an experienced yogi, holding the asana for a full five minutes can be challenging.

As I persisted in my five minute baddha konasana, it reminded me of my experience as a foreign service spouse. At first, getting into a great stretch feels wonderful and liberating, but if you hold it long enough it may start to feel uncomfortable and perhaps even restrictive. However, if you patiently work through the period of discomfort, you find calm and balance waiting for you on the other side.

When you are preparing to move and/or adjusting to a new place, you may feel displaced and uncomfortable once the novelty wears off, and it's tempting to want to ease the discomfort by trying to change your situation. However, in the Foreign Service you may not have the ability to do so and thus, it may be better to hold steady. Once again I refer to the wonderful chart from Diplolife.

If you act when it starts to get uncomfortable, you risk that you will never experience the enjoyment of appreciating what your current circumstances have to offer. The exception being when the circumstances are clearly a bad fit, or rather, if you can't bend back, stay away from back bends.

Yoga and the foreign service both teach the importance of staying present--of being fully aware of what's going on in the moment, and not getting caught up by the past or tangled in expectations for the future. We are scheduled to leave for post in July, and although I am finding this period of waiting somewhat awkward, I intend to continue appreciating what it has to offer. Hopefully next year, when we are once again bidding on posts, I will have learned things that will help me balance the yin and yang of life in the foreign service.