Peace Corps

9 lessons from 19 months in the Philippines

First of all, that’s right. I arrived here on June 29th, 2018. My life in the Philippines has breached a year and a half. Once reaching the one year mark I began to re-experience a lot of moments for the second time such as All Saints and All Souls Day, Inopacan Day, my birthday, and the Filipino Christmas season. This inherently became a reflective period for me as I couldn’t help but recall how I felt the same time last year. I was SO confused from the language barrier, I felt like I never knew what was going on, and I was always being told where I needed to be, what I needed to wear, and what time. It’s like being the new kid at school but instead of a kid, you’re like, an infant. A literal baby. You can’t express yourself quite yet, you can barely get around, you CRY, you need assistance with daily tasks like groceries and transportation. Now, all these sources of clueless-ness are second nature to me. I am so comfortable in my second home and very aware of the ongoings. However, for similar reasons, this time around was also difficult. As my experiences in my Filipino community became more routine and therefore less distracting from what I may be missing back in Texas, I came down with my first hard spell of homesickness. Two years is a long time! In near-perfect timing though, the entire Plotkin clan came out to visit me here for Christmas and New Years 2020! I feel so fortunate and forever thankful for their visit. It served as an energy boost and source of motivation to power through the rest of my service. My family meeting my Filipino family is also a moment I will never forget. In preparation for their visit, I briefed them on some Filipino cultural norms, expectations, and the general way of life. While typing away I realized how fitting a blog post this would make. Plus, it’s been 8 months since my last… oof. So here we go, 9 lessons from 19 months sa Pilipinas. Pag-Enjoy Ha!

The Plotkin-Villarubin Gang :)
The Plotkin-Villarubin Mega Fam

1. If you are tired, take a nap

During a particularly hot afternoon in the office, I fell asleep on my desk, full force, head on forearms, passed out. I woke up startled and embarrassed to my officemate who sits across from me motioning me to put my head back down. “Go back to sleep! It’s okay!” he ushered. Later after returning home, I told Nay and Tay about my afternoon torpor and they advised that I actually take a nap every afternoon. “But in the office…?” I questioned. “Oh yeah!! Sure!!” they said. “You just nap, you nap every day”. I think coming from an aggressive work ethic in the U.S where deadlines and due dates preside, something like allowing myself to rest during traditional ‘work hours’ made me uncomfortable. I can’t nap when there’s work! When I’m on the clock! No way, no how. Here in the Philippines, there is an emphasis and respect for maintaining your personal well-being. Do whatever you need to do to feel your best, and your best work will follow. I’ve learned the importance of tuning into my body and my emotions. Whether it’s a moment to heal emotionally or physically, give yourself that break! Break na ta! (Let’s take a break already!)

me and fisherfolk
taking a tuba and snack break between buoy installations


2. Patience is a virtue

I can be very impatient. It’s a flaw I have, and I recognize that. I like to be efficient with my time and resources, and when something inhibits that I start cringing. Never in my life have I been so forced to be patient than in the Philippines, huhuhu. Whether it’s waiting for a meeting to start that’s already behind schedule, an hour on the side of the road for a van to the city, or an additional 2 hours in a terminal because of a delayed ferry, I tend to become increasingly flustered with every minute. But then, I look around to find the locals waiting with me are perfectly content. They pass the time with small conversations, laughs, or simply laying their head down to rest. There is no irritated checking of watches, angry phone calls, or outright complaints. Oh, how I admire this. Being patient is indeed a virtue, as it allows you to be present. It keeps you from stressing about the next move and instead enjoy the time and place that you are in. It shows control and understanding. I’ve realized just how foolish it is to allow myself to become worked up over something I can’t control, over waiting for the dang bus. I believe my capacity to be patient has absolutely increased in my year and a half here, but of course, you can never stop improving.

waited in line for 2 hours for our typhoon refund only to find out we had to do it online

3. Bahala Na

“Bahala na” is a socio-cultural term in Filipino culture that can best be translated to “It’s up to God”. It has Catholic-colonial roots and historically takes on a negative, fatalistic interpretation. An attitude that you can only work so hard because ultimately your fate rests in God’s hands, or unfortunately, the colonizers. However, Bahala Na has now taken a modern, affirming, DETERMINED definition of “whatever happens, happens!”. It embodies risk-taking and the strength to face the potential consequences. Bahala na can be appropriate under sobering circumstances such as the Taal volcanic eruption, where, despite any preemptive actions the volcano still erupted. Bahala na gives peace of mind and courage to face the difficulties since the eruption. Bahala na is also applicable to lighter situations. It is free-ing. For example, when Tay had been repeatedly pressuring me to get up and sing “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz at a government official’s birthday party. He knows I know it. I know I know it. He even queued the song with the live band that was there. Eventually, I gave in to his charm and exclaimed “bahala na!” before making my way to the mic stand.

bahala na si god

4. Stop taking yourself so seriously, seriously

Expanding on that last scenario. Filipinos have a huge affinity for performing, entertaining, and joking. At any given time of day, you will hear someone videoke-ing, or see a Zumba class, or pass a group of Ate’s rolling in laughter. I’ve always been the type to laugh at myself and be vulnerable, but oh MAN has it taken a new elevation here. I used to get caught up in the awkward, embarrassing, “oop” moments I’ve had when asked to participate in a game, dance, or song but I’ve realized there is literally no point. There’s no room in this country for a sour attitude, leave it at home! Filipino culture is bona fide extroverted, laughing with one another is equivalent to bonding, and there is never a misplaced joke. If you aren’t smiling, if you aren’t surrounded by others, if you aren’t participating, then something must be wrong with you and you need to join in the fun ASAP. There is no harm in dancing like an idiot because the only person who thinks you’re an idiot is YOU. So lighten up, who cares!

giving in to peer pressure

5. Family is everything and everyone is family

EVERYTHING. Families in the Philippines love each other unconditionally through good times and bad. They know you the best and therefore know what’s best for you. They are your #1 fan, critic, and support system. Your family shapes your entire life as they influence your social circle, your job networking, and your future spouse and family. It is socially acceptable to drop all responsibilities to attend to family matters. There is a deep respect for providing for the family. It is also common for families to be physically close. Starting with the central home of the matriarch/patriarch, all the siblings often live just next door or in an extension of the house with their children, the in-laws just across the street, and the great aunts and uncles down the block. Young adults maybe continue to live at home, even in the same room as their parents, until they are married. Cousins will grow up together from grade school to university. This has been an element to my service that has been very different for me. While I grew up sharing a room with my sister, we had our own wing of the house. I would see my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents maybe once a year for the holidays, and when I turned 18 I was out of the house and in another city for college and so on. My home life and work/school life became very separate very fast as I grew up. In the Philippines, your family, friend, and work circles are so intertwined that they are essentially the same! Here at the house Nay and Tay, Mark and Aries are technically family and my host family at that. But, there’s also all the boarders that rent rooms in the house which add another family of 4 and a couple local teachers! We eat together, we clean together, we go to parties together, we share the same space, we are family! Everyone is family and family is everything, it’s clear through Filipinos warmth, care, and love for one another.

nanays bday2
a full house for Nanay’s bday

6. Food…food is also everything

Oh how Filipinos love their food! Closely related to the importance of family, food represents togetherness. Mealtime is essential in the Filipino household; you do NOT miss it. If you do, you will be tracked down to ensure you have eaten. Never before have I received a Facebook message like “Maayong buntag Mam Julia, kaon na pamahaw nimo?” “Good morning Mam Julia, have you eaten your breakfast already?” Aside from the typical 3 meals a day there are also 2 snacks a day; one at 10 AM and the other at 3PM. During a workday someone generally goes out and grabs snacks for the whole office. Snack is usually something very carb-y like pandesal (fresh bread), banana Q (exactly what is sounds like) or even pancit (noodles) on sliced bread. Being in the agriculture office we sometimes get MASSIVE papayas or jack fruits to share. I am almost guaranteed to hear the words “Kaon na!” meaning “Eat already!” when walking into the house around lunch or dinner time or passing by a group of food vendors. Food is also the main event of any celebration. While in the States people shell out money for the DJ, the décor, or the outfit, Filipinos are more than willing to drop 5K php on lechon, (an entire roasted pig) for their loved one’s birthday/graduation/baptism. You must of course also have an abundance of cake and sweets for your celebration too. Filipino’s love for food has taught me the importance of enjoying one’s company over mealtime. Being offered food is an act of love, it shows you are cared for!

the display
the food display for a 2 yr olds bday, seems about right

7. There is always room for one more

“Usa pa!” meaning one still! or one more! One more chair at the dinner table, one more group photo, one more spot in the jeepney. No matter the situation, there is always room for one more. Filipinos’ generosity, willingness to share, and determination to fit 14 adults, 2 babies, 1 chicken, and a new bike in a van is unparalleled. Just yesterday when getting my tofu in the nearby city I passed the jeepney home with maybe 6 people already inside. The driver, who recognized me assertively said “Inopacan!” I replied, “Oo pero mobalik ko lang! Sa merkado una!” (Yes but I will just come back! Going to the market first!). When I returned the jeepney looked full as I walked beside it. Concerned, I asked “Usa pa?” Unanimously at least 3 people confirmed “OO USA PA!”, and we all chuckled together as I literally crawled inside the jeepney, tofu in hand. On a more sentimental note, the idea of 1 more is so inclusive and selfless. Here, there’s no second-guessing when inviting someone to join a meal, a drink, a trip, a picture, a game, a dance, a MOMENT. The more is absolutely, 110%, for sure, the merrier.

Screenshot (48)
in this case, there was room for 3 (!!!) more in this already full van

8. No words necessary

I feel like non-verbal communication is its own language here. Eyebrow raises say ‘what’s up’, pursed lips are used to point something out, and while using a finger at someone is rude, you can aggressively wave your hand back and forth to usher them over. More so, without using words Filipinos will show respect, affection, and friendship through body language and touch. Generally, if a family member is older than you, you will take their hand and bring it to your forehead as a greeting of respect or ‘mano po’. For friendship, you might see grown men walking arm in arm with each other down the street, young boys hand in hand. Kuyas and Ates will throw their arms around each other or rest their hands on the other’s thighs while sitting together. Good friends and family almost always greet each other lovingly with cheek kisses. While this element of Filipino culture has been difficult for some of my fellow volunteers to adapt to, I personally have enjoyed integrating using non-verbal cues. I have always been a touchy person myself, so it brings a source of comfort for me and has especially allowed me to grow closer to Nay and Tay. It also helps in the face of a language barrier to show respect, interest, and attentiveness towards someone. Lately, I’ve been running into the same elderly woman around town. Every time we see each other we end up arm in arm, strolling down the street while she tells me a story that I can only understand half of. Sometimes, there’s no story at all and we walk hand in hand in comfortable silence until we take our separate ways. With or without words we are embracing each other and bonding via touch. A gesture can go much farther than words!

Screenshot (47)
Nay making me feel loved on my 25th


‘Sana’ means to wish for or hope for, so ‘Sana all’ means to wish for all. It has recently picked up in usage in Filipino pop culture to mean ‘I hope everyone can have that, do that, or achieve that’ especially among young ‘barkadas’ or friend groups. Comically, I’ve seen it used in reference to romance. For example, someone sees a young couple expressing PDA and yells “SANA ALL!” like they are wishing that everyone can have a relationship like that! Sana all can also be associated with achievements in school or success at work. It is admiring someone else’s accomplishments and happiness and then wishing it upon the rest of the friend group, or the rest of the world! Why? Because why not? I think ‘sana all’ perfectly captures the friendly, warmhearted, and sanguine nature of Filipinos and their culture. So, Sana all!

sana all


It’s Monday in the office and has been raining all morning. Last week we finally finished the buoys in the final barangay! Between typhoons, rainy season, the holidays, and simply communicating, buoy installation took a solid two months longer than anticipated. Yeesh. There are a couple buoys from other barangays that need some upkeep but as far as I’m concerned, the buoys are nearly done. Thus far we have completed the MPA awareness campaigns, planning workshops, management boards, and are finishing up the implementation of management practices. Now, I am setting my sights on working with the youth to get some ocean-inspired murals painted in the name of each sanctuary as well as formal signage outlining the coordinates and legalities of the sanctuaries. My counterparts and I have decided on and begun planning a larger, much more costly grant project – sanctuary guardhouses for the Bantay Dagat. This will ideally take me through the rest of my service too. It’s still nascent and the first deadline for submission is early March so I have time to work out budgeting details with the government engineer and identify construction sites and contractors. Nanay is visiting her niece and family in the states in the literal CITY my parents were visiting my Grandma and Aunt– Raleigh, North Carolina. You can imagine my FOMO. I miss her so much but life at the house has been fine. One of our lady dogs popped out 5 pups last night, the whole Leyte Peace Corps Volunteer crew visited my town’s islands this weekend, and I have a valentine’s trip planned with the boy that I’m looking forward to.

the Leyte crew after our island over night

Thanks for sticking through this post with me I know it has been a while!





3 replies on “9 lessons from 19 months in the Philippines”

This is amazing, Julia! Good life lessons for all of us, in every circumstance. I read it twice and no doubt will read it several more times. So very proud of you, sweet niece.


You’re an inspiration Jules! Miss you a ton. Enjoy the time you have left and I can’t wait to see you and hear where life takes you next!!


Well, at last, a blog from my neighbor Julia (AKA Jules) And it is a spectacular read. I love the way you organized the information and the photos. You have a pleasant writing style which makes for enjoyable reading, so keep the blog coming. You have anxious readers. I invited ur dad to join 4 other guys for lunch every two weeks at the Flying Saucer, a craft beer emporium that serves sandwiches. Dave is the only one who is not yet retired. We just talk old guy stuff: politics (we are all democrats), favorite foods, wild women we once knew in our youth (mostly lies) and craft beers). We will b announcing a Fiesta block party for Hunters Run (April) soon with food, music and of course beer. We follow the weather and events in the Philippines in our news but the island chain stretches so long that it is hard to determine if you would be affected. Ur Mom invited us to one of her choirs (women’s singing group) concerts. Ur Mom not only puts her whole heart into it, she puts her whole body into it). When they say opposites attract, they had David Plotkin and Laura Horansky in mind. Clarke Bird

Sent from my iPhone



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