“I had to learn to speak their language, which is called bisaya or cebaono,” he told The Hui.
“I spent my mornings studying the scriptures and studying the language, then I would come at lunchtime to eat, leave the house and start talking to people.”
However, immersing himself in another language and culture left him perplexed.
“I came home feeling almost Filipino – I had a Filipino heart. It was beautiful and I still really love the people and this place,” he says.
“But giving all this attention to Filipino culture made me think about myself and my own blood.”
Eventually, he would move from the Philippine tropics to Ōtepoti in Te Wai Pounamu to train as a doctor. He is now in his fourth year of medical school at the University of Otago.
Despite his intense study schedule, he is equally determined to learn te reo Māori.
Smiler helped set up beginner’s Te Reo classes for students at the University of Otago.
His friend and fellow medical student Nic Sinnott is also on his Te Reo trip, and he sees the huge benefits of trainee doctors learning the language.
“It also means a lot to Maori to be able to use Te Reo in our practice,” says Sinnott.
“Because we are, ultimately, here to help people. If it’s one more thing to remove a barrier to primary health care, we want to do it.”
Smiler knows he has a long way to go on his Te Reo journey, but he encourages others to be brave in their quest for the language.
“My biggest obstacle was the fear of mistakes, the shame of not wanting to try to have a conversation in te reo Māori.”
But overcoming this fear and passing on the language is vital to its survival.
“It’s kind of up to us to revitalize, teach our own children and pass it on.”
Produced with the support of Te Māngai Pāho and NZ On Air.