From the first few moments of arriving in the Philippines and stepping out into the dense humid heat of the monsoon, I realised that this experience would see me meet many different and unknown challenges. In many ways these challenges would not be entirely dissimilar to those I had faced in the past, applying myself to a project, working out its obstacles and cooperating in a team are all experiences I had delved into in the past. But this was hardly the extent of what faced me in my next 4 week of my placement. From cultural disparities in high and low context communication and the excessive politeness of Filipinos colouring my time in the workplace, to more personal issues of culture shock and struggling to adjust to a 9-5 (or in our case a 10 – 6) work cycle. I found myself being pushed out of my comfort zone again and again. But for every low, there was a high and I found myself enjoying adapting to and solving the problems that I was presented with.
Perhaps the most commonly shared and understood aspect of my time in the Philippines was my adjustment to the culture and the way Manila especially operated. Manila, including Quezon City where we stayed, is an archetypal developing Asian urban hub, its smeared in a thick coat of grime and a haze of pollution. Within the filth and fumes resides 2 million people, crowded and packed into slums high rise buildings, into malls and street stalls and jeepneys, trikes and bike. It’s an overwhelming presence, that threatens to disorientate and confuse you, to steal the bag from your shoulders and to smear you under an oncoming jeepney. The mangy stray dogs and cats stare hauntingly at you from emanciated frames and the poverty stricken children beg for money. But before you can be crushed by this overwhelming cacophony of beeps, filth and smell, a group of children yell out toward you in evident excitement, ‘Hey Joe. how are you?’. Manila may be dirty, over populated and poverty stricken, but its people are friendly, hospitable and extremely kind.
It was through my work with the Center for Migrant Advocacy that i was able to gain a real insight into the Philippines and its people. The stories of the overseas workers that we were tasked to find were ones of hardship and struggle, but ultimately brave tales of love and kindness for their family. As much poverty and difficulty as there is in the Philippines, there is an overwhelming and seemingly infinite amount of love and kindness to match. It is a strange thing to come from Australia where we can have so much but give so little, to be inside a small ramshackle building that a family calls home and to see that this same struggling family has prepared a feast in honour of your visit. Our interviews with these migrant workers challenged what I thought makes a community, and more importantly, what makes a family. At the same time, my work within the CMA office made me rethink just how vibrant and caring a workplace can be, and how fellow employees can be less like colleagues and more like family. Over my time and travels in the Philippines, I have come to realise that for a poor country, its people are incredibly wealthy.
Timothy McElhenny is a law student from Macquarie University, Australia who interned with CMA in July 2018.