Archive for January, 2011

The Crazy Lady

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Life in the Philippines
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“Manila is like a crazy lady,” one of our new friends said to us our first month here, and then quickly added, “but eventually you learn to love her.”

With its mishmash of Spanish, American, and Asian cultural influences (the product of centuries of colonial rule), its two extreme seasons (hot and wet; hot and dry), and its stark contrast of glitzy shopping malls next to sprawling squatter communities, Manila often feels schizophrenic, or at least manic depressive.

Early on we learned about the phases of culture shock: stage one, the honeymoon phase; stage two, the I-hate-everything-about-this-place stage; and finally, stage three, where you come back to earth, accept the tough stuff, and are finally useful in the midst of the struggle. The stages never quite fit for us, both because we’d done enough research to feel somewhat prepared, and because we were thrown into negative aspects of our new home too quickly to experience anything like a honeymoon. We’ve decided that “culture fatigue” more accurately describes our adjustment to life here.

A few months ago I had a day that brought me to the depths of culture fatigue. I spent four hours traveling to and from an airline ticket office to try to (unsuccessfully) change tickets I’d purchased for my parents’ upcoming visit. It began to rain—hard—and for the first time, I had forgotten my umbrella. Tired of waiting, I ran out into sheets of rain, my clothes immediately soaked. I rushed to an already packed MRT train, and then, seeing that there was just enough room for me to fit onto the last car, ran toward it before the doors closed. In the seconds before they did, my foot slipped between the train and the cement platform, and my entire body dropped until I felt splintering pain where my upper thigh finally stopped my fall. There were gasps around the train, but I hobbled to my feet and squeezed inside.

I watched a huge squatter community whiz by out the window, stood with six passengers pressed up against me on all sides with my hand on my wallet (I was pick-pocketed in a similar situation just a few weeks before), and then limped to a jeepney. Most jeepney drivers remind me of an impatient sixteen-year-old boy learning stick-shift for the first time—which is not so bad once you get used to it. But on this particular day, the tires squealed as we raced around buses three times our size, and the engine roared as the driver jammed the gas pedal to the floor. When I called out “para po!” (please stop) he slammed on the brakes, paused long enough for me to start walking hunched over toward the open back of the jeep, and then gunned it before I could step off, sending me flying and, unfortunately, clocking an innocent passenger in the face with my flailing hand.

As I got off the jeepney, I mused that so far, the crazy lady had mostly just driven me crazy. But every now and then, I understand. Manila may be a dirty, sweaty, chaotic place, but it’s also the kind of place where things happen—things so special that you would never dream of them on your own.

A few weeks after we arrived we found ourselves listening to Joniver Robles, a local blues artist, on a rainy night when most Filipinos didn’t venture out. Joniver sounds an awful lot like John Mayer, Johnny Lang, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, depending on the song (he covers all three artists), and can rip up guitar solos almost as well. We chatted between sets, and when I mentioned my singing background, he invited me to join him on stage. I crooned my way through a Norah Jones song, and then he asked me to do some blues improv. Being the blues junkie that I am, I knew the consistent themes (I’m so lonesome I could die, my baby left me, why you gotta treat me so bad, etc.), and so I got to live out a lifelong dream of belting the blues.

Or there was the seemingly ordinary Tuesday when I suddenly had a handful of texts from friends urging me to look at the Philippine Star, one of the major newspapers here. The previous weekend I’d had the good fortune of winning a trail running race, and there I was, right on the front of the sports section, looking a little too giddy as I crossed the finish line. I can count on one hand the number of times the local paper published my picture in high school even though I won far more races back then than I do these days . . . never once did I make it into a major city paper. But in Manila, these things happen.

There have been other, daily “good crazy” moments: flying seatbeltless down a darkened street perched on the back of a “tricycle” (a motorcycle with a sidecar); finally getting to ride on the back of a jeep (not usually something women get to do); admiring plastic soda bottle sculptures carved by a woman with a face as ancient as time; watching kids gleefully play basketball in flip flops in the middle of the street; having an hour-long conversation with a new woman friend at the bars during outreach (all in Tagalog!); tasting a mango, and realizing that nothing I’d tasted back in the States deserved that name.

Without a doubt, the best sides of the crazy lady’s personality are Filipinos themselves. It’s Hazel, our teacher friend, showing us true Filipino hospitality in a delectable dinner even though she just met us. It’s one of the Samaritana women worriedly sending another volunteer after me so I wouldn’t have to make the walk to the jeepney without a kasama (Tagalog for “companion”). It’s the way the Samaritana women tell me I’m beautiful and give me hugs for no reason almost every day. Filipinos are pretty amazing people. They’re the reason we came, and the reason why even on the hard days, we’re not ready to go home.

The crazy lady still drives us crazy. But slowly, we’re learning to love her too.


Because Justice Matters is a San Francisco-based NGO (whom some of you might’ve met at Taste for Freedom last May), and they work to combat modern-day slavery, domestic violence, discrimination against immigrants and economic inequality. They are having a fun Valentine’s Day outreach event, and could use a few volunteers. We hope you might be able to spare a few hours, dollars, or words to help!

— Nate

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Valentine’s Women’s Outreach!

February 12th, BJM is hosting our next women’s outreach event to coincide with trafficking awareness month here in San Francisco. (This is one of many events happening to address the issue of trafficking; for a full list of events click here.)

Saturday February 12th, 10am-noon we will be opening our doors to women and offering free manicures, an individually written Valentines card and a safe place to sit with other women and enjoy coffee and candy!! What better way to gear up for Valentine’s?! The purpose of our outreach day is to create a safe place for women to connect with us for friendship and resources; many who attend these events end up returning for our free weekly nail painting and pursuing referrals and support.  But we need your help to make this day a success! To sign up please e-mail

Volunteer Nail Painters: don’t worry, no experience needed. We do a simple massage, file and paint. You will receive a 101 training from our cosmetologist on staff,

Prayer Team, Coffee Servers, and Friends (people to sit with the women after their manicure and simply talk). All volunteers must arrive at 8:45am for orientation. The doors will close at noon and we ask that volunteers stay for a short 30 min clean-up and debrief.

Personalized Valentine’s Cards: We would like each woman to receive a card for valentines. We’re looking for people to purchase a card (or make one), write an encouraging word, prayer, scripture etc inside and give to us. These cards will be handed to the ladies as they leave. Please DO NO SEAL your cards or give personal contact info. This is an easy way to touch a life. Perhaps your place of worship or small group could get on board. We need 80 cards. (Please refrain from ‘preaching’ or offering ‘challenging’ words in your cards. Notes should be uplifting and hopeful) Cards should be sent or delivered to BJM before Feb 7th. 357 Ellis Street, SF CA 94102.

Candy: If you would like to make a donation of Valentine’s themed candy, it would be appreciated. Women will be invited to stay in a coffee house lounge atmosphere. Candy will be in bowls on tables and women will be allowed to help themselves. Please drop or send donations by Feb 7th to address above.
If you cannot be with us on the day, please consider donating or joining us in prayer. We look forward to partnering and blessing many women this February! With thanks,

Ruthie Kim
Director, Because Justice Matters