Amanda Noble has a Ph.D. in sociology and has researched and published numerous academic articles, book chapters and reports. Frustrated by the constraints of scientific writing, she turned her attention to creative non-fiction writing, especially personal essays and memoir. This piece is derived from a chapter in her draft memoir about her life in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer during the tumultuous 1970s. Her work has appeared in Seven Hills Review. She lives in Davis, California, with her cat, Lucy. She can be reached at 530-756-2260 or by email at email@example.com.
The sisters, Dina and Tessie, arrived at my host family’s home at about eight p.m. My host family’s nieces, both women had short hair, were petite, and casually dressed for their evening visit in short-sleeved blouses and cotton skirts. Dina, far prettier than her sister, possessed a wide beautiful smile, mestizo features, and stylishly shaped hair. Tessie’s hair, on the other hand, was worn in a shapeless style that announced to the world that she didn’t care about beauty. She wore large, plastic-framed glasses on her face. It was an era of large eyeglasses; those glasses signified that vanity lurked beneath her unruly hair.
My host mother and father – Beatriz and Gus - had recruited Dina and Tessie to keep me company; they were my designated kasamas, companions. They led me from the house to join others on the promenade, something I’d only watched from my upstairs bedroom window. We held hands as we walked the circumference; hand-holding was common among women in the Philippines, common also among men walking together. Same-sex physical intimacy surprised me at first, left me wondering if the country was populated by large numbers of gay men and women. It was simply a custom, one popular in many cultures. I joined the Peace Corps from San Francisco where same-sex couple held hands, sometimes kissed, but that city was surely an American anomaly in the mid-1970s.
Both Dina and Tessie greeted most of the others strolling around the square. It was different, of course, to be a part of the action, not just an observer. Still, many people stared openly at me and gossiped about me, or about the three of us, behind hand-protected mouths, not bothering to tear their eyes from mine. I had previously believed that I was the only one who lived in a fishbowl here, but walking with Dina and Tessie convinced me that everyone was subject to chismis, gossip. The dusk gathered around us like a full skirt, and the dense smoke from the ever-present piles of burning trash seared our eyes, but nothing kept their eyes from seeking mine and my eyes theirs.
After circling the square a few times, we took seats on an empty concrete bench, and began the process of learning about each other. Both were teachers; Tessie taught history and Dina science at the local primary school. Both were single and close to my age; Tessie was 27 and her sister 28. I quickly gravitated more toward Tessie than Dina, I think because she seemed genuinely interested in sharing stories with me, but it may have been that Tessie, the more gregarious sister, dominated the conversation. After sitting in the square for nearly an hour, chatting and watching others stroll, Dina excused herself, “Amanda, I am tired and must prepare a lesson for tomorrow.” “Sigé”, I answered, okay. “Agyámanak, Dina,” I thanked her. They both spoke excellent English, but I struggled to inject some Ilocano, wanting to practice. In this period of history, under Ferdinand Marcos, English was the classroom language.
Tessie walked me home. “Niambág a rabiim,” she said, once we reached the gate. “Naimbág a rabiim,” I repeated, good night. “Diós ti kumúyog,” I added, may God go with you. I had practiced this phrase, waiting for an opportunity to use it. Tessie grinned. “See you tomorrow!” she crowed enthusiastically in English.
In the morning I accompanied Beatriz to the weekly open-air market; we carried baskets for our purchases. The size of the market was astonishing. An untilled field was now a bustling scene, stretching for two city blocks. Bangar seemed like such a small town, even though I knew that some 30,000 people lived within the city limits, some hidden in remote barrios. Beatriz seemed proud to display me as her surrogate daughter; she walked tall and stopped to speak to each of the merchants, introducing me.
Most of the vendors were women, their stalls small roughhewn tables shaded by palm fronds. The tables displayed a variety of things: bagnos or milk fish, a staple here, seaweed, tobacco, in leaf or rolled form, rice, cacao; and many local fruits. Also for sale were special items like sacks of real coffee, tsinelas or flip-flops, a few bolts of fabric, and washing detergent. I bought coffee for a treat, tired of instant Nescafé, a staple in Filipino kitchens.
“Manó ti báyadna?” I asked the cost.
Now came the hard part: understanding the answer.
She laughed, showing stained teeth. “Talló a písos,” she said slowly, helping me to understand. Three pesos? Was that all?
“Nalaká!” I said, it’s cheap. The woman laughed again and tossed the coffee in my basket. Beatriz leaned in close to me and whispered, “special price.” So she did know a little English after all.
The market was very social; people, mostly women, were gathered as much to talk as to conduct business, all the while smoking fat cigars and wearing damp cloths on their heads to both avoid the sun and to cool themselves. It was a tobacco growing region and I was growing used to seeing old –never young-women smoking cigars. Filipinas were in Western dress. Most wore cool, loose-fitting housedresses in subtle patterns and colors. Even the cloth they piled upon their heads was not colorful; it looked like unbleached cotton. I wondered how they might have dressed long ago before the Spanish then the Americans occupied their country. Was their native garb more colorful?
Beatriz had many long discussions in quick-quick Ilocano and I understood very little of what was said. I bargained for a few fruits in Ilocano - mangoes, bananas - which entertained the entire market, a crowd grew around us as I drew the transaction out. With Beatriz as my kasama the crowd didn’t bother me. In the offing, I learned something new about myself: I liked bargaining. I liked the dramatic quality of it, as if we were all actors on a stage, frowning at each other, pretending to take offense when none was taken. When I finally added the fruit to my basket, I felt a part, even though a very small part, of this community. As we walked home, Beatriz asks me to address her as nánang Beatriz, a kin term meaning older sister. I was so pleased that she asked me to do this; it signaled she welcomed me to her home and culture.
Dina and Tessie arrived at eight - again. Last night they confessed to loving coffee; so tonight I tried to make the coffee I purchased. Tessie helped: she found porous paper to use as a filter and we placed the filter in a metal funnel, pouring it drip-style into our cups. It was very successful. By nine, everyone else had gone to bed, but we stayed in the kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. They told me they envied me, being on my own and traveling to foreign lands.
Dina said, “You are so free! Your parents must worry about you.”
“Sure they do,” I told her, “but this was something I wanted to do and they agreed that it was a good idea.”
Pursuing cultural differences, Tessie asked, “In your country, did you live alone or with your family?”
“I have lived with my family, by myself, and with friends, depending on the situation.”
Tessie moaned loudly, rolling her eyes at Dina.
“We cannot live alone as long as we are single. At least until we are too old for marrying.”
“I have to ask you something,” I said. “Is it wrong for a woman to walk alone? I walked to the beach, and children followed me all the way there and back. Later, I was told it was not good for me or any woman to walk alone. Is that true?”
Tessie tilted her head, giving me a questioning look. “We heard of this walk you took. Auntie Beatriz asked us to accompany you around Bangar so that the children won’t chase you.” The children chased me because I was an oddity, a white person, a woman. They pestered me for money, candy, all the way to the beach and back. While Tessie never answered the question about whether or not it was appropriate to walk alone, she let me know that people were watching me, talking about me. I was embarrassed that my new kasamas were, in a way, forced to spend time with me, schooling me in what was right and wrong for women in their culture.
I wondered now just who disapproved of my independent ways. Was it my new kasamas? My host parents? The larger community? It chafed me that women were believed to need kasamas. There was nothing inherently wrong with kasamas, we all need friends, but I was independent, enjoyed my ability to roam the world unaccompanied by others. Were kasamas seen as protecting me? The Philippines was not a violent culture; interpersonal violence was very uncommon here. But what about other kinds of protection? Was my host family embarrassed because an American woman who lived under their roof refused to behave in a culturally appropriate manner? Would I dare to walk to the beach again? I struggled to rein in my anger.
At the same time I realized that my behavior might be making it hard for my host parents to avoid hiya, shame. My training was sketchy, but hiya was an important cultural lesson we had learned. No more solitary beach walks, not as long as I lived with a family. In addition, I probably needed to change my wardrobe, make it more traditional. It would not cost much to have some modest skirts, perhaps dresses made. As much as I loved wearing pants, especially my scruffy bell-bottomed jeans, I knew that they were only drawing more eyes my way, more whispers, more chismis.
Yet another misunderstanding arose. Dina asked, “Why do you want to go to the beach? It is not good to spend time in the sun.” Raised in Phoenix before understanding the damage that the sun’s rays could cause, I always wanted a tan, especially when we had a pool.
“In the States some people like to darken their skin. It’s called tanning.”
“Diós ko!” shouted Dina, my God. Tessie nodded agreement. I knew it seemed strange to them; Filipinos so valued white skin. Everywhere, women carried umbrellas to shield them from the sun. Turned out they were right.
Exhausted by our cultural differences, Tessie and Dina began to get ready to leave. I was sorry to see them go, but was eager for bed, to be alone so I could think, process our conversation, maybe read for a while. I had a buzz from the coffee and the conversation and wondered if I’d be able to sleep.
We vowed to see each other again soon. I walked them to the door and as they left, I brought their hands to my forehead, a cultural sign of respect for elders. They were wide-eyed at my small joke and began to giggle nervously; it was slightly sacrilegious to do this in a joking way. Even though they were older than me, this was a gesture meant for children who were greeting elders, such as grandparents. But Tessie and Dina laughed and I knew they had not taken offense.
The laughter made me realize how badly I had to pee. With the whole household sleeping, I’d have to make my way through the dark to the outhouse. I felt my way back through to the kitchen, which opened up on the back yard where the outhouse and bathing room were located. As I opened the back door, the dog immediately began to bark, even though the damn thing knew me. The hogs were excited, too, snorting, egging the dog on. The chickens left their roosts to join the chaos. I stood still, just outside the kitchen door, trying to will silence.
But the noise continued and I really had to pee. I walked slowly toward the outhouse, the dog dancing around my feet. He was so excited I expected him to nip my ankles at any moment; it was all I could do not to kick him. Finally, I reached the outhouse door. As I opened it, all I saw were the spiders, some quite large, skittering across the floor, pulsing on the walls. Just enough moonlight made the small room frighteningly alive. I cried out a little, making the animals excited.
Since I was a child, I’d been afraid of spiders. My worst nightmares always involved spiders. When I used this room in the daytime, they didn’t bother me, at least not to this degree. In the dark, my heart pounded loudly, fueled by the caffeine. I was sure spiders lurked in every corner, careening down their creepy webs to bite my bare ass if I could force myself to squat over the hole. I left the door half open in case I needed to escape.
The dog stepped up its barking, the hogs moved in my direction and chickens landed on the outhouse roof, making small cries, mocking my fears. I forced myself to squat, releasing the pee, my whole body shaking. I was sure the whole family was awake, wondering if a thief had tried to steal their livestock.
Just as I zipped my jeans, I saw a ray of light coming toward me; my host father held a flashlight, checking things out.
“I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I had to use the outhouse.”
Nanang Beatriz stood beside him and began to giggle, covering her mouth. I giggled a little, too. Inside the kitchen, she handed me a round enameled metal pot with a handle that folded down on either side, allowing one to sit on top of the pot. She motioned that I should take it upstairs with me.
“Agyámanak,” I thanked her.
She covered her mouth and continued to giggle. I thought of the stories she would tell her friends tomorrow.
Upstairs in my room, I fidgeted on my bed, restless, reviewing tonight’s discussion with my new friends and the questions it raised. It would be hard for me to give up my independence, and if I did, it would be harder for me to behave as I had always behaved when I went home. I could try to find other volunteers to live with, but first I had to try to settle in the town to which I’d been assigned. When I finally closed my eyes, drifting off, I knew I would have to behave differently or go home. Stubbornly, I still resisted changing, thinking of it the broad terms I’d learned in college: sexist, discriminatory and anti-feminist. When weighed against all that I was learning, would it get easier to give up my freedom? Maybe.