What do you do? You walk into a room. 130 shining Filipino faces hush, turn to greet you. Someone with a microphone (the emcee, you assume) rushes your side, beams, wags your hand up, down, up, down. Then::::::Surprise, surprise!:::::::: he introduces you as the speaker for the afternoon. The microphone is in your hands. You had no idea. The microphone is in your hands. What do you do?

Micturation, clearly, is one option. Self-defenestration another. Sounds like a bad dream, doesn’t it? Like the one about showing up to high school sans clothing. Except this is no dream. This, more or less, is what happened to me one bright and rainy afternoon in Samar.

Only the the Philippines? Quite possibly.

The brief backstory: on a dark and rainy Friday night in Tacloban, a Peace Corps volunteer gets a text message. It’s from a Department of Education (DepEd) supervisor. The entire message reads:

“Kumusta ka? Pwede ka ba ma-invite tomorow afternoon here in catbalogan Samar? We’re having a seminar.”

Even if you don’t know Waranglish, you can probably guess: “How are you? Can I invite you to tomorrow afternoon here in Catbalogan, Samar? We’re having a seminar”

You’d be wrong, though. A more accurate translation: “How are you? Can I ask you to do a presentation for our three-day DepEd seminar on the theme of ‘Communicative Language Teaching’? The topic is up to you, but you should be prepared to present for 2-3 hours tomorrow afternoon. Lunch will be provided. Let me know if you need any materials.”

Having lived in the Philippines for four months, my language skills were not yet up to this translation task. And thus I showed up to a seminar the following bright and rainy day with–to riff a phrase from The Godfather–just my pencil in my hands.

Earlier that morning, I hopped on a van, headed for a city 2 hours away that I’d never visited, with no address, just a building: the Department of Education. The ride was smooth. I arrived, ate a big lunch at a roadside canteen for the equivalent of 80 cents, and then successfully asked directions (in the local language) to the Department of Education. All of that, smooth as fro-yo.

Then I show up. 130 shining faces turn, emcee rushes to greet, etc, etc. I am asked to sit. A lunch appears in front of me, and even though I’m full after my double serving of rice, I eat. In the Philippines, you eat. You eat. So then I’m chatting with the seminar staff. Smooth. Then I ask about the afternoon’s programme.

“Well, there is your presentation, of course!” goes the rough translation.

“Aw,” I say. Oh.

Fastforward. A fast fast fast fifteen minutes of furious presentation planning. Play. I stand in front of 130 teachers. My pencil is in my hands.

In retrospect, the hour-long presentation I gave (on the topic of the writing process) went surprisingly well. By the end of the hour the audience was asking questions–and not just questions about my marital status, but questions about how to teach paragraph organization, reading comprehension, and how I compared American and Filipino students.

I was given a genuine round of applause, and then this crowd of 130 teachers burst into song, something about “Thank you, thank you, for sharing your time…We hope you shall return very soon…” Then there was a gift presented, and even a hot-pink commemorative t-shirt.

Which means one thing: even if I wasn’t prepared, they were. I left that seminar thanking my lucky stars for Pinoy understanding and forgiveness. I left with a lunch I hadn’t been able to finish. I left with a hot-pink t-shirt. And, you’re wondering, what was the gift? A very good question indeed. For reasons obvious to anyone–the symbolism is crystal clear, I think–I was given a delightful, carved-and-polished wood horse-figurine:::::::ashtray!