Standing at a busy street corner with rumbling jeepneys and pressing crowds around me, I try to pin down the unfamiliar energies of the city. Anyone who has encountered something foreign or new can relate to how I’m feeling. Actually, so could anyone who’s ever stepped outside his comfort zone. It’s an ambivalent sensation of excitement, unease, curiosity and caution, all rolled into one. While trying to navigate Manila’s vibrant, gritty streets, I’ve learned firsthand the importance of flexibility and respect when it comes to the unknown. As I witness the mix of East and West here in Manila, I realize that the chances of confronting the unfamiliar are increasing for everyone.
I came to the Philippines because it was a question mark. It was a part of me I didn’t know what to do with. Growing up, my Filipino heritage was never my comfort zone. I spent my childhood in the world of club soccer, surrounded by screaming coaches and tough athletes — a far cry from Filipino culture. Coming to the Philippines as part of a summer fellowship, I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. I was right. Ten days later and I’m more disoriented now than when I first arrived. I don’t have an accurate precedent for this Eastern metropolis. I’m not sure what the rules are or how to behave in everyday situations. But it’s made me feel uncomfortable in the best of ways, since I know that it’s this feeling of unease that will help me grow.
What’s more, I’ve seen how my ventures beyond the familiar also benefit those around me. During our last fellowship session, we discussed Filipino psychology. My peers from the West Coast (where large Filipino communities were abundant) grew up learning Filipino kapwa, or a collective identity shared with others. In contrast, I had learned American individualism and independence. Generally speaking, Filipinos prefer doing things together, whereas Americans don’t mind doing them alone. I realized then how starkly Filipino values contrasted with American ones. Flustered and confused, I eventually raised my hand and said, “This goes against everything I’ve been taught.” And although I felt like the black sheep (I was), I realized I’d spun the angle of discussion in a way that brought new perspective. It made us all pause to think a little deeper, to reflect on our own respective values and how they formed.
Strangely enough, my last term paper on Jesuits in China has a lot to do with my experiences so far. Let me explain. Five hundred years ago, 16th-century Jesuit missionaries traveling to the foreign East dealt with their own form of globalization. They knew better than most how to navigate unchartered waters. The Jesuits looked to find parallels between East and West, fostering meaningful cultural exchange and opening up doors for both hemispheres. Here in the Philippines, I’ve tried to adopt both their flexibility and their genuine will to understand. For everyone traveling this summer, these traits would allow us, like the Jesuits, to integrate and interact with new peoples as comrades rather than outsiders.
Take for example my experience this past weekend, when I visited the Aeta community in the Bataan Mountains. People tend to preface an introduction to the Aetas with phrases like “marginalized indigenous population.” While sadly not untrue, I think that starts things off on unequal footing. It certainly put up a barrier when I first met Lucille, my hiking buddy for the day. At first, things were stiff. Neither of us knew what to say. But it turns out that this was just the mark of awkward small talk, not some underlying cultural chasm. By day’s end, we were comparing summer tans and sharing Facebook names, two new friends hitting it off. The foreigner’s divide was an illusion.
Now, I write to you across from Starbucks, in a Korean bakery that serves Filipino dishes and fried chicken. Globalization is hard at work. And as the world’s cultures continue to overlap, we need to rethink our approach to the foreign. Rather than apprehension and aversion, we should respect the unfamiliar and explore the unknown. We should have the curiosity and initiative to deliberately discover what makes us uncomfortable. Investigating new ground, literally and figuratively, gives it new meaning for everyone involved.
Sarah Santos is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Coconut Girl appears every other Friday.
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