24 March 2005
by Lee Ji Hae
Filipino school children.
(Photo by Aurelio Maria R. Rodriguez) Seoul, Korea:
I'm looking at Catherine's picture with pride. I remember the day that the Filipina child I now sponsor said "Thank you."
In the summer of 2003, I was in the Philippines as part of a volunteer program sponsored by Daegu Catholic University. We stayed in Manila for seven days and the rest of our time there, from July 5 to July 16, we were at the Focolare Center, in Tagaytay, which is about 30 minutes outside Manila.
It was extremely hot when I arrived at the Manila airport. I took in the atmosphere and the people around me. Unfortunately, nothing was as new or exotic as I had expected. I checked my luggage and went to a washroom. Once inside I felt things were not getting better; the tap was out of order and some of the doors didn't work. I washed my hands and looked in the mirror. "What was I here for? " Soon, I became aware there was something I misunderstood about being a volunteer.
My first impressions of the Philippines disturbed me and can be summed up in two adjectives: filthy and boisterous. Electrical wires and coconut palms crossed the deep blue sky. People disregarded signals in the street; others were living under a bridge with dogs. Naked babies were playing on the ground. And this was just the beginning.
The first day, I cried
When I went down to the front desk, a girl was reading the newspaper. Her name was Elisa. A member of Bucas Palad, a Filipino volunteer organization, she was 24 years old and the oldest daughter in her family. She was dedicating her life to being a volunteer, but she didn't think she was helping people. She was just doing what she thought she had to do.
As I listened to her, tears came to my eyes. She said, "I don't think of myself. That's why others are thinking of me. Also, my life is not mine." I thought over what she said. Her life is not hers, however, my life was mine. I concluded that she is living as a Catholic, but that her efforts to help people do not just stem from her religious beliefs.
The third day, I saw a pathetic sight
We were divided into six groups and took turns working at each program over the coming days. There were several programs: healthcare, abortion, and long-distance adoption, among others, and each group traveled to a different area to work with its program staff.
That day our group took a look around with some of the Filipino staff, who explained what went on in a slum. A typhoon had just passed in the area and there was a lot of garbage strewn about.
We visited people in the neighborhood, house by house. Some paths were too narrow to pass through. On balconies, women were hanging out the wash to dry on clotheslines. The staff explained they washed clothes for a living. While passing by and shaking people's hands I thought, "I do not understand. How come they are wearing such big smiles in this miserable situation?" I found this most curious about the Philippines.
Later on, we went to a bridge near the center. One staffer pointed out a tiny place under the bridge where some kitchenware was laid out on the ground. Two families were living there. Another staffer called out to someone, and surprisingly, one person came out from under the bridge on his knees. He looked so happy and peaceful. All of us were dumfounded; no one said a word, no one breathed.
All of a sudden, I was reminded of how much I paid for a cup of coffee or snacks or even ice cream in Korea. To live like a normal person, how much money did I waste money on me? To maintain a humdrum life, how many times did I spend money on myself? Our lives are relative, I thought. That was my final answer as a consolation.
On the fifth day I gave my hands
In the morning, we planted trees in an empty lot. The staff had prepared boxed lunches for us, and after working, we were dying to eat. After a while, we began to enjoy our free time. People from the neighborhood soon gathered and there were children romping around.
It was an experience I had never had before. Children grabbed my hands when I passed. They wanted to touch me and craved my hands to hold. I learned love has a lot to do with tactile sensations, and I realized my hands were more valuable than before. I had something to share and it had nothing to do with money.
The last day, we sang together
We held a big party and put on a Korean performance, demonstrating our traditions, a puppet dance and a mask dance. Scenes were whirling in my head. Everything I experienced had truly broadened my perspective.
Sleeping in the same room as a lizard, I realized we have to share the earth with animals. When I was sweeping dirt in a slum, when I was walking on an unkempt street, I saw clearly how extravagant my life was in Korea. Whenever people smiled, I recollected my hair-trigger temper with everything in my life at home and how I didn't realize that having something doesn't bring happiness all the time; happiness is a state of mind.
At first I thought, they need to smile to feel happy. There was no reason to smile. They are too poor to smile. I was wrong. Their smiling reflected their happiness.
In Korea, I'm in front of a teller's window in a foreign exchange bank to send money to Catherine, who I sponsor in one of the center's programs. If I save 30,000 won per month from my pocket money, Catherine can enter elementary school. For her birthday I sent her a gift.
For New Year's in February, she sent me a card with a picture drawn with the pencils and crayons I sent her. Just then, I remembered the day back in the Philippines when Catherine said "Thank you." But I said to her, "You have done more for me than I have done for you." Now, I'm not helping her. She is teaching me.