Being Filipino in PNG

Normal, Weekender

Filipino physiotherapist RYAN JOSEF G. CALAUOR, compares life in PNG to that of his hometown

Before coming to PNG for the first time last year, I was told by my mother not to miss the Sepik River, one of the things PNG is best known for.
Mother had read about it in her youth, the ancient body of water in the league of the Nile and the Yangtze. I assured her it would not be a problem because my assignment as a physiotherapist is in East Sepik province, where the river is.
“Just don’t go near where the crocodiles are.” she had entreated
Of course, the Sepik River is, to borrow from the title of the book by Benedict Allen, the crocs’ nest. One can’t relish the spectacle and not remember Tarzan wrestling the alligator in the movies. The peril extols the legend.
Shortly after my arrival, I traveled to see the famed wara; my team even took a canoe to cross to the other side. It was a placid morning sail, I recall. Mother would have liked the view: the Sepik zooming to life, belying all portents of evil. The crocodiles moved near to make an ocular inspection, and let us through. Thus did my initiation spare my limbs, and I have felt welcome ever since.
I originate from a country that resembles PNG in three prominent ways: a hot climate, a considerable experience with foreign rule, and the predominance of Christianity.
My country’s proximity to the equatorial heat generates an abundance of melanin in the Filipino skin, the reason Americans used to refer to us as their “brown brothers”, not exactly a compliment in these modern times. I am fundamentally brown and have been so since forever, the reason I blushed when I first heard a PNG friend pronounce me “white man.”
I thought she was stricken with a cataract until a probe later revealed the term covers many foreigners. Still, I find it uncomfortable and would usually ask my colleagues to call me Filipino instead or even, aptly, “brown man”; that way, I shall feel an affinity with them, a factor essential for success at work.
The hot climate has effected both PNG and the Philippines an agricultural economy, the estranged cousin of industrial economy. In the reckoning of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), PNG is suffering from “extreme poverty.” I think about this every time I amble down the streets of Maprik and ordinary folks would approach to ask if I want to buy a gram or two of gold. Maprik is pregnant with the precious metal. The locals dig it up in their yard and collect it by the river, giving “river bank” a whole new meaning. The way some of them would talk, you would think they were hawking sweet potatoes or greens, entirely nonchalant. I am in awe of such offers. I would thank the seller and walk away flabbergasted. I disagree with the UNDP every time I meet a gold dealer in Maprik.
Australia is to PNG as America is to the Philippines. What I would see in the highways as AUSAID donations I would read back home as USAID projects in much larger quantity. The main difference is the impact on the educational system : whereas America single-mindedly pursued Americanizing our schools, Australia did not seem to do so in PNG. The result is Filipinos wishing to be American, and PNG nationals resolutely wanting to remain as they are.
My coming to PNG sometimes impels me to wonder what I would be like if American forces had not shown up at our shores. But then again, another empire would have done so. 
The Christian church is without question the noblest thing ever imported to PNG for it has nurtured the spiritual and physical health of the people through the missions in the communities. The PNG citizens I collaborate with at mission stations are genial, diligent, and imbued with ideals, committed to continuing the work for the disabled began by Jesus Christ, no doubt the finest physiotherapist who ever lived.  
Christianity is a pillar of joy in PNG. On Sundays, it’s a treat when the choir sings rare songs I learned as a child, more so when I meet a Filipino nun or priest. And when I see Jesus’ image contextualized in a wood carving, making him appear he was born in PNG, I remember our own brown Jesus in the Philippines. I have looked upon Jesus in barong and now I gaze at him in laplap. It is the same exact God of love and bliss, the same exact God who makes all places home.


The writer works as a physiotherapist at Maprik District Hospital in East Sepik through the auspices of Callan Service National Unit (CSNU) and the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).