Knowledge, Disillusionment, Imperialism: The Peace Corps In the Philippines
Issue #26, May 1996
The war of borders is a war waged by the West on a global scale to preserve its values. Its expression is always associated with seemingly generous motives and the pass-key ideal to provide a 'richer,' 'more meaningful' life for all men. Whereas its by-now-familiar purpose is to spread the Master's values, comforting him in his godlike charity-giver role, protecting his lifestyle, and naturalizing it as the only, the best way...'Don't they see We are only trying to help?!' The compulsion to 'help' the needy whose needs one participates in creating and legislating ultimately leads to 'bombing people into the acceptance of gifts.'
— Trinh T. Minh-ha "Cotton and Iron"
When the Moon Waxes Red
In our current age of cynicism we are saturated with images and voices which serve largely to numb us into blind submission to the "way things are." Those in our midst who express a desire to foster change provoke a healthy dose of skepticism in response, and sometimes even downright derision. The reasons for this are many and complex, deriving mostly from the lull of normalcy fostered by a blasé post-1960s media. Compounding this is a long-overdue admission that we as a nation do not have a handle on all the world's problems, that in this era of post-modernism, we can readily confess that we do not know the extent of what we do not know.
Although social decay has reached undeniably dire proportions in the United States, the situation abroad is even more pronounced. Nations which had been under American social, economic, or political control either indirectly or directly for most of the past two centuries, are now contending with life in a post-colonial age, one where they are surely not independent nor free from American interests and capital, but neither are they observable beneficiaries of any sort of benign paternalism. Contemporary post-modern and post-colonial theorists have made a strong case for non-intervention in these cultures and nations long sullied by decades of official intervention.
The liberal arts curriculum on college campuses accentuates this sense of impotence. Students learn about environmental destruction, social inequality, and the Stepford-wives infiltrated culture industry in a manner that encourages detached anxiety. At the same time that Knowledge is challenged by knowledges, entreaties towards a liberal and modernist morality reign. Consequently, the contemporary college graduate does not know what to do or how to act.
This situation has particular resonance for me as a former anthropology major. After four years of traditional anthropology courses at UCB, the professorial staff decided to let the undergraduates in on a little secret: anthropology was dead. It had died about 20 years beforehand, and everybody in the field could smell it but us. In a way, this revelation was exhilarating. It was as if a secret panel in the library parted to reveal wonderful new worlds of thought: deconstructive, post-modern, post-colonial. On the other hand, the information left those of us considering a career in anthropology uneasy about how to proceed. Contemporary critical theorists were grappling with the moral and ethical implications of attempting to do classical ethnographic research in a day and age which rendered that practice imperialistic and destructive. One of the "answers" for people who still found the "other" fascinating was to be painfully self-reflexive at all times. The era seemed to call for a return to armchair anthropology: "Don't leave home and no one gets hurt."
The questions also loom large for those of us who are not anthropologists but who want to travel without being relegated to the role of the "ugly American" tourist. Is it possible to travel to another country — particularly in the so-called "Third World" — without in some way further determining the economy of that country by forcing it to rely more on the tourism of the so-called "First World?" Is there a way to attempt to experience something "other" without essentializing or exoticizing the people of that culture or nation? Is such an undertaking implicitly appropriative? How can we hope to understand or even appreciate the everyday experience of specific individuals who live other realities than our own?
These questions were swimming in my head when my friend Kevin expressed to me his desire to join the Peace Corps. By the time he received his acceptance letter some months later, I balked: my criticism of that and similar development organizations had reached its pinnacle. To me, the Peace Corps represented the worst sort of hegemonic power abroad. Disguised as well-meaning humanitarians, ambassadors from the United States would infiltrate foreign lands, and in doing so, further world domination by the West. The values that the Peace Corps represented, and therefore that Kevin wanted to propagate, were in my opinion thoroughly modernist. Firstly, the idea of "development" implies an entrenched and non-reflexive belief in science and technology, in the redeeming nature of "rationalist" thinking. Additionally, "development" necessarily contains a moralistic belief in a good or bad way of doing things, in a right way or wrong way to live. In short, the belief in "development" does not exist without a belief that there is a Truth with a capital "T" and that the West has a monopoly on that Truth.
This past April, I had the opportunity to visit Kevin in the Philippines. By that time, he had spent the previous two years on Camotes Island in the Southeastern part of the country as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I was eager for travel, but I was nervous about seeing Kevin. Although we made each other laugh easily and often, our friendship had always been trying for us both. We are very different from each other; I hail from New York City, and Kevin was raised in small-town Santa Rosa. While in college, we engaged in countless arguments which highlighted our ideological and political differences. Although Kevin claimed to be liberal, his off-hand and off-color running commentary about life in Berkeley did not always bode well for my (at the time) extremely sensitive liberal constitution. We often joked about our contentious way of relating, telling our fellow housemates that we must have been brother and sister in a former life.
The weeks I spent traveling around the southeastern islands of the Philippines were unlike anything I could have expected. The Philippines is undoubtedly one of the most physically gorgeous places I have ever seen. The most straining part of my trip was not the physical discomfort, caused by the scorching heat; nor was it the inconvenience of being a vegetarian in a land where the practice not only does not exist but inspires derision; it wasn't the language barrier; nor was it the spectacle I made of myself as the only white woman ever seen by many of the children and others around many of these regions. Instead, what made the excursion onerous was the numerous rigorous contentions I had with this former close friend and housemate.
What a man looks for, as already mentioned, is fortunately what he always/never finds: a perfect reflection of himself.
— Trinh T. Minh-ha "The Language of Nativism" Woman, Native, Other
Kevin was notably frustrated with the difficulty of accomplishing his mission during his sojourn in the Philippines, and was vocal in his complaints. Although he attributed some of the problem to the sheer difficulty of contending with a huge state bureaucracy, mostly he blamed the people of the Philippines themselves. These feelings led to an onslaught of puerile and racist musings to which I was to be subjected during my three week stay. Kevin was not the only purveyor of these sentiments. In fact, practically every single conversation I had with Americans during my stay was rife with negativity regarding their host country. Many of the Peace Corps Volunteers I spoke with referred to the Filipinos as "stubborn": "They have to learn their lessons the hard way." "If they had any brains" is one way the rantings often began.
In my opinion, the "failure" that the majority of the Peace Corps Volunteers experienced was inevitable due in part to the nature and professed agenda of their mission. Undoubtedly, the complexity of international relations, international capital, and the Philippine's status as a former colony each contributed to the impossibility of achieving what it was they had hoped to accomplish. There was also the additional problem of imposing a foreign logic onto a particular regional culture. In spite of the overdetermination of the Philippines from years of manipulation by multinational capital and representation by others, the hegemony the Peace Corps strove to achieve is ultimately unattainable.
Unfortunately, this brush with and subsequent realization of failure ended for Kevin in a cynical reversion to another type of modernist behavior. His initial impetus was towards a modernist optimism fortified by a self-righteous morality. When his optimism was thwarted, he reverted to a cynical attitude rife with racist, sexist, and imperialistic sentiments. Sadly, his behavior mirrored that of the other male American expatriots, particularly with regards to women. Upon closer investigation of the relation between the American men and Filipina women I found that it seemed to closely mirror that of the unequal relationship between the two countries: laden with power, based on a gross misunderstanding of the O/other, yet admittedly complex and symbiotic.
I discovered that while living in the Philippines, Kevin had determined that non-Filipina women were not "real" women. Since we did not fit his ideal, Kevin spoke of me and of other American (non-Asian) female friends in a derogatory manner, calling us "Amazons". He even commented on a mutual friend that he had slept with when she visited him in the Philippines, telling me how he found her body disturbingly "white, hairy, and fleshy." The first night I was there, Kevin divulged to me how intensely he wanted a Filipina girlfriend. I asked him what this meant to him, and he answered: petite, demure, with a tiny waist, soft-spoken, conservatively dressed, etc. In our three-weeks of travel we often came across countless women who were incompatible with this stereotype for one reason or another, but Kevin chose not to notice: when I mentioned their incongruence with his description, he told me they were "not typical Filipina."
We did, however, meet some women who superficially fit this stereotype perfectly; often, they were partnered with an American male. Nida, for example, is married to Kevin's friend John. I came to the Philippines suspicious of the expatriot men, but Kevin swore to me that John was "different from the others." Nida is gorgeous — she is also a bundle of contradictions: college graduate; farmer's daughter; former PAL poster girl. When men are present, she comes across as a Filipina "good girl gone bad": every adolescent boy's fantasy.
With her husband, Nida displays a certain brand of subservience, although they appeared to have a somewhat more equitable relationship than other "mixed" couples I met. She acted in a manner it seemed she thought he would enjoy. Although it seemed as if he did get some pleasure from her public adoration, he also appeared somewhat embarrassed by her unceasing devotion. One evening as John joined our group, he quickly "shh"-ed his wife's exuberant greeting. John often spoke disparagingly about the Philippines and the Filipinos without even seeming to take notice of his wife's heritage. Nida aped these sentiments from John: she told me that "Filipinos are lazy and dishonest," "the type of people who won't "help you if you need it." Later on in the week John said of the people of his host nation, "they're wonderful people, the best," and she concurred.
When Nida and I had the opportunity to speak alone while the men were elsewhere, I got a different impression of her: that of an intelligent woman choosing her fate from among limited and equally problematic choices. In private, Nida confided in me that she is very glad that she "married white." When she worked for the airlines, she was constantly harassed by her bosses; her life consisted of going to work and back home again. She and John got married when she was 8 months pregnant with their son Joseph. They had slept together two weeks after they met — her only "mistake" as she put it. Although I thought she was beautiful, Nida told me that she is not the "ideal" Filipina. "Women here are very insecure," she says. "They feel that they are too dark, with noses that are too flat. Those who can afford it buy soap to bleach their skin." The irony of her describing to me the "ideal woman" was not lost on me: as a white woman with a large-ish nose, I had been commanding attention all week! Of course for the Filipina, this "ideal" is unobtainable. Notwithstanding this, there were Avon stores in the remotest areas we visited.
Helen (one of the PCVs that Kevin and I stayed with on Camiguin Island) lives next door to Neth, a 25 year old Filipina, and Jim, a 50 year old American. Thankful for someone to gossip with, Helen easily divulged to us that Jim does not grant Neth much freedom, and furthermore, that he does not treat her nicely. A few days before we arrived, Helen had been visiting the couple when Neth learned that Jim had been having an affair with another Filipina, five years younger than herself. Instead of answering Neth's persistent inquiries about his trysts, Jim used Helen's presence as an excuse to avoid responding to the accusations.
One night Kevin and I went over to visit Neth. We spent the evening playing Scrabble; she beat us both easily. Neth explained that she spends much of the day reading the English dictionary. She has a lot of time on her hands because Jim expects her to serve as the house watchdog. He travels often, but she is not to leave the house. After the game, Neth spoke to us about her life before meeting Jim and about the subsequent changes their coupling has brought. She had been in secretary school when they met on the beach. He approached her as a man of wealth and experience; the fact that he is American had positive implications. Like Nida, Neth saw her life ahead of her as a choice between scanty unattractive options. In her case, she envisioned either the monotonous workworld as a secretary, or being a life partner of this apparent sophisticate. At first Jim thought Neth was a goddess and treated her accordingly, but ultimately her humanness betrayed her. Now their relationship is rocky, but predictably Neth has no recourse: she is "ruined" and angry and upset, with no allowable means of expression. As I left Neth's house in a pensive and somber mood, Kevin turned to me and commented: "that's a nice piece of meat."
Clearly, the relationship of the Filipina women I met to their concomitant American men was one of concocted representations and the subsequent actualization of those stereotypes. Along with the presence of imperialistic interest embodied in these individual men, the Peace Corps is one of many institutions which help create a situation of limited options for people who then have little choice but to implicate themselves in an insidious scheme which will bring about their further dependence. This situation could be witnessed on many concurrent levels.
For example, due to imperialist and capitalist ideology, the island on which Kevin was stationed was in the process of finalizing a deal in which a Japanese company would buy land to develop a luxury golf course which would serve as a retreat for Japanese businessmen. The individuals who had lived and fished on this property for years would be displaced; those in power had given no thought to providing for them. Similarly, some of the projects the PCVs were implementing will indelibly alter the local economies to the point where they cannot help but be dependent on neighboring regions. Mostly, these projects encouraged a move towards a single-item economy. Although in theory this system may have been designed to encourage self-sufficiency, in actuality it helps foster dependency.
Similarly, although the relationships I saw between the Filipina women and the American men may have been imagined to grant some freedom and self-sufficiency from the narrowly defined gender roles for the women, in actuality they too fostered a climate of dependency. The American expatriot men helped to perpetuate a myth of the "Filipina" through their interpersonal relationships. In turn, this myth is upheld by the women themselves, for they too are dependent on foreign interest, both literally and figuratively on both a micro and a macro level. The situation is already overdetermined. Doubly damned, the people of the Philippines are looked upon with derision for being in this situation by the same Americans who helped to create it.
Although Kevin himself is thoroughly modernist, his reaction to life abroad can be analyzed in a post-modern way. The threat of losing his identity in this unfamiliar culture inspired fear; in response, he retreated to a reliance on archaic, racist understandings and reactionary ways of interrelating. Ironically, it was the undefined nature of his post-college identity which led him to initially join the Peace Corps.
Not all of the Peace Corps volunteers reacted in this manner to their experience abroad; some adopted a more post-modern attitude. Since they did not come to the country hoping to "teach" or else learn a life "Truth" from the "primitive other," they do not see a relationship with the Other as a "yielding of presence-power." (Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Woman, Native, Other, p.55) Consequently, these people exhibited a more complex understanding of the symbiotic relationship between the two countries, and consequently, a more nuanced appreciation for the lives lived by the individuals therein.
In my opinion, these individuals represent a more fitting model for our pluralistic world. Cynicism is an admittedly compelling attitude in this day and age, and one that intensifies in direct proportion to a perceived gain in knowledge. To truly be a cynic, one must know everything. The challenge is to resist succumbing to the fiction that one can be knowledgeable enough to claim the title of the "cynic" so self-assuredly. In order to successfully do so, one must be comfortable with not knowing. This includes not knowing ourselves, or at least not limiting ourselves to the knowledge of how we are at present. To actively seek not to quantify what it is that you do learn about the o/Other, to view each encounter with another as a means to understanding the everydayness of individuals — this is the challenge of life in our times.
Rena Diamond is a writer and critical theorist who lives in Oakland. She can be reached at email@example.com.