Since arriving in the Philippines I have had to come to the surprising conclusion that, for the next six months, I am going to be tall. A veritable giant in fact. It may seem odd that this presents so much of an issue to me, but alongside the other adjustments that I need to make to the local culture in order to settle in it is this challenge to my bodily perception of myself that has come to signify much of the way that “culture shock” when travelling is about the impact that being in a new place has on your own identity.
In England I took it very much for granted that I was short, practical and competent – a sort of highly motivated pixie, always buzzing around busily getting on with useful things. Now I am suddenly very aware of my enormous, clumsy, pale body as I bumble around awkwardly, unable to even understand what useful things are, never mind how to get on with them. The rituals of eating, socialising and the office are baffling to adjust to, the public transport system is full of rules to learn and trying to avoid unknown cultural gaffs becomes an obsession that inevitably leads to making them anyway.
And yet, I was always aware that this would be the case. Interestingly, it’s the attempts of my new colleagues and friends to help me feel at home that are having the biggest impact on my perception of myself. There’s a big hospitality culture in the Philippines and they helpfully try to provide me with a knife in case I find it hard to eat with a spoon and fork, always order me bottled water when we’re out even though the tap-water is generally safe and often insist that I look tired or hot and should go and lie down. I know they’re worried that as a volunteer with them I might feel exploited, that I’ll be a constant target for pickpockets and that everywhere I go people will charge me more for goods and services than they cost. But its these attempts at protection that leave me feeling the most out of place and the most incompetent, bound up as they are in the Filipino perception of my identity as a “foreigner” and, most importantly to them, as a “guest”. And because their attitude is a mark of their incredible kindness and generosity it’s very hard to explain how their construction of my identity affects my own, or in other words that as long as I’m their guest it’ll be hard to settle into my new, big, bumbling body, or my new, big, baffling home.