For the Missionaries: What you should learn before you leave for the Philippines

Here’s a list of things you should know or know how to do before you leave for your mission in the Philippines. This is stuff beyond the gospel message and basic personal hygiene and the things they teach at Mutual like sewing on a button. I’m guessing the things I’m about to list either aren’t covered in the MTC or they aren’t stressed, because it seems like many of the foreign missionaries struggle with them at the start.

1. Learn to wash your clothing by hand. As far as I know, no missionaries have washing machines, and missionaries are not allowed to have househelp. There are no laundromats, and while there are laundry services, they are generally out of the budget of most missionaries and would require you to have more clothing than a typical missionary. Also, it wouldn’t be an option during transfer weeks, when you might be gone before your clothing was delivered back to you. Part of your PDay is for laundry, and it is active work, not just throwing it in the machine and going off to do something else.
Detergent here is usually in the form of powder or little hard rectangles like a chalk-board eraser. Laundry is typically done here in short, round tubs, but you could practice in a sink. Fill it with water. Put the clothes in with some soap and let it soak for a half hour or so. Then, have at it, scrubbing well at the stinkier and dirtier bits. You can either use a laundry brush for that or just hold bunches of fabric in each hand and rub them together. Transfer the clothing to a tub of clean water to rinse. Wring them out gently, but firmly, and hang to dry. Follow the directions on bottles of bleach religiously, and know that just because one brand calls for a certain amount doesn’t mean another brand requires the same amount. Avoid bringing knitwear, like sweaters (even thin ones) as they don’t tend to hold up well to inexperienced hand-washers and need to dry flat, which won’t work so well during the rainy season when the humidity is constantly high. If you are headed to the Baguio mission or other areas that can get chilly, opt for a cloth jacket rather than knit wear. Pick outfits that are simple in design that will make laundry easier. Avoid anything that needs to be run through a dryer in order to spring back into proper shape. Because I can pretty much guarantee you won’t have a dryer.

2. Learn to cook on a tight budget. Filipino missionaries tend to get fatter on their missions, because the food budget is more than many are typically used to working with. Americans tend to lose weight. (This isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s a movement toward health as opposed to starvation.) To be clear, if you know what you’re doing, the food budget missionaries receive is more than adequate. On a mission budget, though, you will not be able to afford a meat-filled, sweet-filled American diet. The only times I’ve ever seen church members disgusted with missionaries is when they hear that a foreign elder is running out of his food allowance after a few days. Filipinos are so understanding of the language and cultural issues that foreign elders face, but this inability to feed ones self on such a comparably generous amount of money is just mind bending. Understand that processed foods are pretty much out, other than breads and pasta, and swinging in to a restaurant on a whim will be a rare treat. Cereal is expensive. Boxed meals are expensive. Learn to cook things from scratch using real vegetables and meats. Learn to eat foods that may not appeal to you for those rare occasions when you get a dinner appointment. There is a good chance that you will be given a snack at every house you enter. But it may be saltines or chips. You can’t live on saltines or chips, especially if you are living on ramen packets for your real meals. You need to learn to cook nutritious food on a budget, using locally available food. So, start now. Really. Start now.

3. Learn to do your dishes in cold water and get in the habit of doing them immediately. Like roaches? Admire the work ethic of ants? How about mice? Or rats? Leave dirty dishes around on the counter or soaking in the sink while you’re out for the day and you’ll need to learn to love those critters, because they will move into your apartment faster than you think possible. Cook your food. Eat your food. Put all food remnants away immediately and wash up right away.
If your apartment has a two sided sink, wash your dishes in one, and fill the other with water and cap-full of bleach. Dip the washed dishes into the bleach water. When you’re done washing everything, take the dishes out of the bleach water and put it in the dish rack or dry them immediately. The bleach water is a necessary step, because cold soapy water doesn’t work as well as hot soapy water and most sinks are not connected to water heaters, so whatever the temperature it is is what you have to work with. Maybe you’ll be lucky and your water line will pass under an asphalt road in front of your house and you’ll get some sun-warmed water that way. Most likely not, though.

4. Learn the symptoms and treatments for various common illnesses. Know how to treat a cold, a stomach bug, and skin rashes caused by a simple fungal infection. Still report them to your mission president if your mission rules call for you to do so, but a little knowledge can stave off excessive worry and catastrophizing on your part. It will also make you better able to care for your companion should he or she fall ill.

5. Learn to stay quiet and listen. Americans grow up hearing that we are the best and everyone in the world would live in the US and be like us if only they could and knew how. That’s not true. Americans have a lot right, but we also have a lot to learn from other cultures, and most people would rather not leave their friends and family to live in a foreign land.
Learn to stay quiet and listen. Learn to ask questions. Don’t assume that because something is different that it is wrong or needs fixing. You are not coming here to railroad people into doing things your way. You are coming to present them with the message of the gospel and invite them to live it. You cannot expect to change a whole society single-handedly, and you need to understand that you will not fully understand the ins and outs of this country in your time here as a missionary. Acting like you think you do is a good way to ostracize those around you.

6. Learn to stay calm. You’re going to be in frustrating and confusing situations from time to time. People may stare at you. People may laugh at you for reasons you don’t quite grasp. They may try out their English on you in really rude or inappropriate ways. (I once had a stock boy in an Ace Hardware come out with a rather impressive string of swears that he’d memorized from a movie, with a proud-as-punch grin on his face.) They may be very vocal about how they feel about Americans, and it may not be positive. You may not get along well with your companion right away. Learn to take a deep breath and not take things personally. It’s a lot better to laugh along with the absurdity of it all than to blow your lid.

7. Learn to self-soothe. Are you used to turning to your bestie for a chat when life gets hard? Is your mom or dad always there for you to turn to at a moment’s notice when you face a big decision? That is awesome. It is one of the main purposes of family and friends, to offer support. But, it would be a good idea to have some basic self-soothing skills in place before you arrive. Try finding some solutions without running them by a friend or parent so you can learn to trust your judgement. Take your concerns to Heavenly Father in prayer instead of a late night texting session with your bff. You will definitely learn those self-soothing skills here if you haven’t already, but it could feel rather like a trial by fire to have to learn them as you really, really need them. You may be assigned to an excellent trainer right out of the MTC who would be a wonderful source of comfort for you… if you could communicate properly. There may very well be a window of time where you have to cope with things largely on your own, as you wait for your language skills to become adequate. Make it an active goal to start developing these skills immediately.

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