“Excuse me, Sir Mark? But are you still single?” Gladys whispered behind a shyly raised hand.
Immediately a chorus of giggles burst from the forty-plus college students sitting in tightly packed rows of desks. Or– more accurately — rows of plastic garden chairs. Forty-plus sets of eyes staring up at me. Forty-plus hands covering coy smiles.
A breeze blew through the open-air classroom at Eastern Visayas State University, Tanauan Campus. The yellowing butcher paper which bore excerpts from the classroom’s single textbook fluttered against the chalkboard but the breeze did nothing to stop the beads of sweat dribbling down my ribs. Ma’am Teresita Del Pilar, a matronly teacher in her mid-fifties, sat behind her desk, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth, fresh as a daisy.
My sweat wasn’t due to Gladys’ question. Ordinarily I might’ve been taken aback but I’d already got the ‘are you still single?’ question from host mothers and host fathers and brothers and cousins and the local boys I played basketball with and the mayors and chairpersons and superintendents and everyone else I’d met during the previous week. They’d also asked how old I was (”Thirty!”), where I was living (”Barangay Baras, Palo!”), where I was from (”Los Angeles!”), did I know Kobe Bryant (”Not exactly”), and whether I was afraid to come to the Philippines after the whole hostage drama thing (”Bring it on!”). So no, the Peace Corps training manual wasn’t exaggerating when it said, Filipinos establish rapport by asking personal questions which foreigners may perceive as being nosy or too personal. For a Filipino it is a way of saying “we would like to know you more.”
After waiting for the classroom titters to die down, and for the requisite dramatic silence, I gave Gladys my answer.
“Ulitawo pa.” I am still single.
The classroom erupted in laughter. Students echoed “Ulitawo pa! Ulitawo pa!” between giggles. I couldn’t tell whether this was due to my murderously bad pronunciation or simply my use of the local language, Waray-Waray. In the Philippines, the official languages of instruction are English and Tagalog. After Grade 3, regional languages — of which there are over 70, and which a majority of Filipinos speak as their primary language at home — are prohibited. I knew I was breaking the rule but it seemed the right time to deploy one of the few Waray-Waray phrases I knew.
I glanced over at Ma’am Del Pilar. That cool smile was still on her face, but –and I might’ve imagined this– it was joined by a quick, almost imperceptible wink.
This was my first day of class. This was my hands-on introduction to Filipino higher education. This was my training for Peace Corps service during the next 2 years.
That first day didn’t feature much teaching, per se. I attended two classes, each 1.5 hours in length, though the start and end times seemed to be rather flexible. I spent most the time trying to sit in a corner unobtrusively. Ma’am Del Pilar spent most the time inviting me to stand at the front of the class and tell students about myself, about students in the United States, about American-style interactive teaching.
About myself, I made the mistake of mentioning that I had learned one Tagalog song. Ma’am Del Pilar insisted that I sing it. And I did. Very regrettably.
Of American students, Ma’am Del Pilar asked me to explain how they have laptop computers and automobiles and leave home when they are 18 instead of staying with their parents and grandparents.
“Some do,” I stammered. “Some students have laptops. And cars. And some leave home when they are 18. But many don’t. Many college students I taught had to work full-time to pay for school…” I trailed off, realizing that I had no idea how to begin comparing economic hardship in the US to that of the Philippines.
Of American-style interactive teaching, I explained how teachers discuss rather than lecture, or how a teacher might arrange desks in a circle to encourage participation, or how–
“So class,” Ma’am Del Pilar chimed in, “When Sir Mark teaches, you will sit in a circle.”
I surveyed the cramped rows of garden chairs that filled the classroom, my sweatbeads turning into rivulets.
There were more questions, about what a volunteer was, about how much a volunteer got paid, about the purpose of the Peace Corps.
“The Peace Corps actually has very specific goals,” I began. “They fall into three main categories.” I stopped. My disinclination to lecture had kicked in immediately and unconsciously. “Based on what I’ve said, maybe you all can guess the goals of the Peace Corps.” I looked hopefully at forty-plus blank faces.
At the back of class, Glen raised his hand. He had already volunteered to pronounce my last name (difficult for Filipinos) and would later read a stanza from Jose Rizal’s “My Last Farewell.”
“To enhance knowledge?” he offered.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, silently wondering whether I’d ever heard my American college students use the word ‘enhance’ in a sentence. I chalked Glen’s suggestion on the board under Goal 1, which I shorthanded as “Develop skills”. We then discussed Goals 2 & 3, “Share Culture” and “Learn Culture” and Ma’am Del Pilar explained what culture, cultura, meant.
By the end of class the sweat had retreated — thanks to dehydration, I’m sure — but it surged as soon as I stepped out of the classroom and was mobbed by a bevy of smiling faculty members who wanted to know where I was from, where I was living, how long I’d be staying, whether I was afraid to come to the Philippines after the hostage drama, and yes, if I was still single.