Naklin is the sweetest, purest, naive-in-the-most-precious-way soul you could ever meet.
As a young teenager, she was a student at our school for a few years. At age 14 or 15, like most Palawano girls, she dropped out to get married and start having children. (However, Palawano culture is changing fast. Our current students are making plans for college, not weddings.) Now Naklin is 21 years old and has a son in school and a baby girl. Since she is my language teacher, we have started to build a friendship.
This Sunday at the lilinguan (market), Naklin invited me to sit with her behind the booth where her brother sells his wares. We watched the men play basketball, and I listened to the conversations around me, trying to absorb the language. The men soon finished their game and left the ball on the court to be pounced upon by children eager for their turn.
I stood up. “Gaay mu megkurikuri et basketball?” (“Do you want to play basketball?”) I offered to Naklin, since her husband had just returned and taken the baby off her hands. She gave me a shy smile and shook her head. “Come on! Dun siyu ne!” I encouraged. She hesitated, then declined again. I sensed the desire behind her timidity, so I wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her onto the dirt court without much resistance. Grabbing a rebound, I passed it to Naklin and motioned for her to pass it back. We practiced passing a few times, and then I showed her how to line up a shot with proper technique. “Have you ever played before?” I asked. She hadn’t. I wish you could have seen the grin on her face when she made the first basket of her life.
Twice a week, I make the 15-20 minute hike up from Kemantian to the village of Saramirig to learn language with Naklin. The trail goes straight up a steep incline and is notoriously slippery during rainy season. I am pretty surefooted (for an American), but I have ended up on my rear more times than I care to count.
I don’t mind the hike, though. The view is worth it. As I look out over the jungle, catching glimpses of the metal roof of the clinic far below and the cluster of grass-roofed huts on the little knoll to the west, I imagine that this is what I grew up seeing—this was my view of the world from childhood till now. I imagine that the most exotic places I have ever visited were perhaps the ocean and maybe even Puerto Princesa with its whir of traffic and throngs of people going here and there. They live a high-tech life that is utterly foreign to me, full of machines that wash their clothes, electric stoves, computers and smartphones.
Manila, China, France, America—these are places I’ve only heard about. I try to imagine what they are like by adding or subtracting elements of the world I do know. “Like Puerto Princesa but bigger.” “Like rainy season, but colder, and the rain is white and piles up on the ground.” Somehow saying that America is very different from here doesn’t quite relay how different, or in what ways.
“Indu’ mu maya uma?” Naklin asked me once, as she patiently taught me how to pound rice. “Does your mom have a rice field?” The only thing she knows for sure about America is that it’s cold. “Is there snow all the time in America?” she asked. I tried my best to explain that some places have it some of the time, and other places don’t.
Sometimes I’m surprised or get frustrated at the narrowness of the Palawano worldview, but I also know that one doesn’t need to understand a whole lot about other parts of the world to know what’s important in life. For Naklin, her sweet baby Ji’an is important. Her bright little scholar Jitni is important. Nitu, her loving and attentive husband—he is important. The rice field that keeps them fed—that’s important. The little bamboo home they have built together to raise their family is important, too.
They don’t need much to keep them entertained. Visiting a friend and talking on the porch for an evening—that is enough. Telling stories about how their kid pooped on them or their husband got bitten by a centipede and cried—that is amusement. Harvesting the rice together as a family—that is memorable. Keeping the clothes washed, the yard swept, and the family fed—that is fulfillment.
Sometimes I’m jealous of the beauty of Palawano life, the tight-knit community into which they have graciously let me intrude for a year. I’m drawn to the simplicity and the common bond of understanding they share. Then I remember how exciting my life is—my friends from all over the world, all the exotic places I’ve traveled, the things I’ve seen, and the education I was able to get—and I feel sorry for them, trapped here in lives of manual labor that will almost certainly never earn them even enough to buy a ferry ticket off the island.
But wait. I need not feel jealous, nor sorry. We each have our lot in life. I was given a life with tremendous socioeconomic privileges and abundant opportunities. They were given the fertile mountain, the people they love, and shockingly delicious purple sticky rice. There is no use for me to whine that I didn’t grow up eating fresh coconuts and living within yelling distance of my cousins. That was given to them. They are extending their generosity by welcoming me in, by sharing a piece of what they were given with me. I feel overwhelmingly grateful for that.
In turn, I am sharing of the privileges I was given—the wealth of friends who donated so I could come, my education as a nurse, my modest knowledge obtained from world travel. If I can give back by sharing with them the things God has seen fit to give me, then I would count us both blessed.