Carol Dussere

by on July 27th, 2009

Flags in front of the Korean War Museum, actually flying at the same height.

Flags in front of the Korean War Museum, actually flying at the same height.

Welcome to Turning East.

This website features oral histories–that is, recorded interviews which were edited to be read but also to retain the language of the individual storyteller, whose name was often changed to preserve her or his privacy. I started collecting these stories after I arrived in China in 1984. Almost all are set in  China, Korea, Japan or the Philippines and center on different topics:  religion, commerce, education, home life, economics, politics, health care and life on the road. Occasionally I include a story of my own. There are now 163 posts indexed on the next page. (Please check out the index by clicking at the upper right. If an item looks interesting, check the publication date, then click that date in the archives). For almost five years I posted roughly every two weeks. I’m now going to post every three weeks so I have  more time for book manuscripts. The novel is on the shelf so I can concentrate on a Korea memoir. Please contact me at  if you have any ideas for interviews or want to comment on a post.

Turning East on Facebook: Please check this out.


Duane’s Poetree. <> A place to read and send poems.

“The Old Korean Inn” on Stephen Schuit’s blog, Bookends.

Important post–Galang to the Media.





Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 2

by on February 6th, 2016

Christian and students

Christian and students

Most expats teaching in Korea teach language, not literature, are not involved in administrative decision-making and are not expected to do research. Christian’s situation is quite different, much more like that of tenure-track faculty in the United States before the bottom fell out of the job market thirty-five years ago. We spoke via Skype when he was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Part 1 of the interview dealt with teaching literature and the job market in Korean higher education. Part 2 deals with social issues in the classroom, specifically those that appear in his classroom in 2015 and mine at Dongguk University from 1989 to 2006.

Christian’s story

H. Christian Blood

H. Christian Blood

My students seem to know all the names. At their hagwŏns [cram schools or for-profit “institutes”] they read summaries of Marx and other political philosophies. So they know the words, and they have the passing familiarity needed to pass a test, but they’ve never read the original works.

That was also true of the student activists in the late 80s until the mid-90s, when student activism went out of fashion. The students would believe in Marxism like a religion, as opposed to something that they had studied. It was all tied up with the campaign for Korean reunification.

None of my students would identify as Marxist. I think many of them are wealthy and very privileged, but it’s also a sign of the times. Marxism to them signals North Korea, which is often invoked as a reason not to do things. I put them in groups for writing class, which is pretty standard, and a student said to me, “You know collectivism failed in North Korea.”

They’ve still got ancient Asian collectivism in South Korea. It’s the roots of Confucianism.

I think my students were all born in the 90s. They were little when the currency crisis happened. They see themselves as wanting to start the next Google or Naver [a Korean search engine]. Or as undiscovered K-Pop stars.

When did you first come to Korea? How did it change over the time you were here?

In 1988, I taught in a hagwŏn for a year, and then I went to Dongguk and taught there until December of 2006. During that time I noticed a change in attitudes. When I first got to Dongguk it was not unusual for a male student, a first son, to tell me that the quality he was looking for first in a wife was that she would look after his parents. By the time I left nobody was saying that anymore. But expressed opinions and the behavior could have been different, and often were.

I wrote all my own textbooks. Generally I found that my students were quite receptive, but I had to be careful. I put together some reading and conversation stuff when I first started teaching there, stories and articles on different ethnicities, women’s rights and human rights. Issues like racism and sexism and homophobia. All of the settings were in the United States, but Korea might appear in the discussion questions. For example, I used some scenes from Philadelphia to get the students to talk about homosexuality. After I’d been at Dongguk for more than five years and had finished the composition textbooks, I started writing the second batch of conversation textbooks, which were based on a few basic principles of social science and interviews on living and working in Korea. I had a two-semester book for the majors and a two-semester book for the non-majors. I used them for ten years, revising during the vacations. If I’d started out from the beginning trying to do the same thing but not knowing much about Korean culture, I would have gotten myself into trouble. But I’d learned how to let the material do the persuading, step back and not argue with anyone. The material was not always flattering to Korea, but it rang true. So in the first week we could be talking about racism, prejudice, all that kind of stuff without people getting upset.

I think our situations are very similar except my students now have the internet and so they already know all that stuff. They’re aware of what’s going on. I was very surprised a few weeks ago when they brought up Caitlyn Jenner in class. They were already familiar with transgender issues and comfortable with discussing them. Now, this is a self-selecting group that’s going to take an upper-division course in Greek and Roman novels, not a reliable sample of Korean students, but in this discussion I had nothing to say. They said it. The other thing is my students are very interested in watching police violence in the United States. They are all fully following “Black Lives Matter.”

Well, that’s the old anti-Americanism in a new guise. In the old days some of my students were convinced that American whites were the most racist folks in the world, although that was not the way they were talking during the Los Angeles riots. Korean news coverage was very one-sided, so I brought in an article about how the attack on Korean stores in LA was really set off not by the Rodney King verdict, but by the verdict of Doo Soon-ja, the Korean shopkeeper who got off with only community service after shooting an unarmed teenager she mistakenly thought was going to steal a container of orange juice. They hadn’t heard of this case because the Korean media didn’t mention it. I always seemed to be trying to counter bias about one thing or another.

 The attacks on black citizens by the police probably remind your students of the military dictatorships in Korea.

Yes. The students all understood it from the dictatorships. I’ve been very impressed with how closely and critically they’ve been following police violence in the United States. I think that my students are able to quickly see problems in the US more easily than Americans can.

In some ways the Korean military dictatorships were similar to the anticommunism of my childhood. McCarthyism provided a good excuse for attacks on citizens, for rooting out anti-racism activists, for example. In South Korea it was the threat from the North. At the same time I’m watching the news and seeing many more parallels than I want to see in what’s going on in the United States and a police state.

Absolutely. It’s sad and scary. Was martial law still in place when you got here? When did that stop?

Probably after Chun Doo-hwan was defeated in the summer of 1987 and he had to make concessions to the citizens. There was no curfew when I arrived in September of 1988. Korea had to be “developed” and “democratic” in order to have the Olympic Games. So they had their first democratic election in December, 1987 and elected Roh Tae-woo, Chun Doo-hwan’s buddy. Right after the Olympics the hearings started about government corruption and the massacre in Kwangju.

My students are very conversant in what’s happening in the United States, but none of them really know about martial law in Korea. The parents aren’t talking. None of my students likes President Park Geun-hye, and they’re all critical of her father. But then my classes attract students who want to talk about these things. What I see is that students perceive the military dictatorships to be further in the past than they really were.

They haven’t heard of the massacre in Kwangju?

They’ve heard about it, but it’s as if they think it happened in 1880, not 1980. This is just my impression. This generation is very invested in a globalized, first-world Korea.The post-Olympics Korea is the only one they know. I think they see the assassination of Park Chung-hee as much more decisive than it really was. They have a kind of an ambivalent view of Park. He was bad, a lot of people died, but he built a great country.

I read that a lot of Park Chung-hee’s popularity came after the fact, that there was considerable denial about the Park years. By contrast, the German generation I knew best, those people born shortly before or during World War II, were filled with anger and resentment about the previous generation. I often heard someone say, “I’m not German, I’m European.” More than a few interrogated their parents about what they were doing during the Hitler years.

Park Chun-hee was assassinated at the end of October 1979. Chun Doo-hwan seized power on December 12 of the same year. There was labor and student unrest of all kinds all over the country, and Chun declared martial law, then sent in the Special Forces, and later full military force, to put down peaceful demonstrations in Kwangju. With the knowledge of the US military. So, yes, there was a “Seoul Spring” after the assassination, but it was pretty short. Park Chun-hee was also very pro-Japanese. The “miracle on the Han River” was made with loans from the US and Japan.

I’ve been surprised at students’ attitudes about Japan. No way around it, I’m just always surprised. They’re very cosmopolitan, they want to talk about race and the problems of the militarization of the American police, but when Japan comes up, they think about Japan in a way I don’t fully grasp. Underwood has lots of problems if we try to present a balanced view of Japan. How did your students talk about it?

Well, the student radicals were often hostile both toward Japan and toward the US. The word “nom,” or bastard, was used only for the Japanese and the Americans—Ilbon-nom and Miguk-nom. The other students and the business people seemed to have mixed feelings. Their talk about Japan might be negative, but they might also be attracted to it. I know of a businessman who was sent to Japan for a year, and he had to pretend that putting up with the Japanese was a hardship, but he actually became a closet Japanophile. And I think that was true of a lot of people, an admiration-hate relationship with the Japanese, like you see with the popularity of the Miss Kitty stuff or with students who want to go to Japan and study Japanese but don’t talk about it very much.

My students also seem to overestimate Korea’s importance—but in a way I expect most people think of their own country (this is a hard for me to think through, since I grew up in Washington, DC, which is the center of a world system in an objective way). K-wave has made it very easy.

There’s a feeling that because everyone knows “Kangnam Style” people will be flooding into Korea to pursue a university education.

In some ways that thinking is the same as it used to be, very self-centered. You would hear tons of criticism of the United States. If you countered with one critical comment about Korea you had a big argument on your hands.

So in some ways it sounds like underneath not much has changed.

That I believe. You only have to scratch the surface lightly to get a very nationalist response. I regularly get in trouble for insulting Korea. I say, “Don’t worry. I criticize the United States ten times as much!” I definitely don’t adhere to propriety in the way my students expect.

Yeah, but that doesn’t mollify them. You still insulted Korea.

And I don’t even mean to! That’s the thing. But I don’t think the most decisive issue facing Korea right now is Dok-do, the Liancourt Rocks off the coast which are controlled by Korea but contested by Japan.

Last semester I taught an upper-division seminar on American feminism from the 70s, 80s and 90s. I did this because of student interest. A lot of the women in my classes would probably be taking women’s studies if they were at schools in the US, but we don’t have those. I focused on the 70s and 80s because I wanted to give them more depth and some of the long history of political activism. Also I wanted them to think about class more because my students are not—they’re happy to talk about gender relations, but they are hesitant to talk about class.

For obvious reasons.

So I didn’t want the discussion to be “plastic surgery, good or bad,” or “the objectification of women in K-pop, good or bad.” I wanted real discussion. So I spent a semester with eight women reading Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, mainly African-American women writers. We had a great time. I’ve never had so much fun in class. The students took over, and they ended up almost running it. Then we went to Korean materials, and we talked about the dictatorships, we talked about Korean women, and we talked about the role gender has played in building modern Korea. Without ever talking about plastic surgery.

The women decided to start a club that would work on women’s reproductive health, safety and sexual education because there isn’t a women’s center at Yonsei. They tried to charter it as a club to get sponsorship, and they basically told it was too hot to handle. So they went guerilla and did it on their own. It’s wonderful. I argued that their programs should be a little more conservative, maybe not start out focusing on sexual pleasure, but the woman who was in charge said, “Then you shouldn’t have had us do a critique of respectability politics.” I said “Touché.”

At the Yonsei campus they’ve done workshops for women on contraception, consent, rights of rape victims, masturbation and reproductive health. It is so exciting because my students don’t know about contraception. There’s no sex education in Korea, at least not for the segment of the population I meet. There’s none.

So the women who took my feminism class are doing this. There were condom demonstrations, and now there’s information on campus. If a woman needs an abortion, a morning-after pill, if she’s been raped or wants an IUD, she can find out where to look.

Abortion is both technically legal yet hard to get. I’ve been told that if a woman asks her doctor for birth control, the doctor can refuse, especially if she’s not married. I think it’s the influence of the Protestant churches here. What my students have told me is that if you’re not comfortable Googling in English and you’re doing a search in Korean in Naver, it’s hard to find unbiased information about the IUD. What comes up first is these hysterical pieces about how a woman used an IUD and now she’s infertile for life. My students are taking English resources and translating them. That makes me very happy. I had very little to do with it. I just arranged some institutional support and gave them some pointers for dealing with the administration. It’s great to see what they’ve been doing.

Actually for me teaching the chapters on women’s issues was the most rewarding—partly because I could speak as a former women’s rights activist. They read the chapter, and they saw their professor leading a contingent of women down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. We watched a movie called “How We Got the Vote.” When we started out most of the students didn’t realize that women’s rights were something that American women had to fight for. A lot of their opinions changed very quickly when they came to understand sexism not as a Korean issue but as a global issue.

Yeah. The point I try to make to my students is that the current situation in Korea is not inevitable. The country is this way for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not my role to try to change things in Korea, and it’s not my place. But as an instructor I can show them how things have changed in other countries. The class on women’s studies was the most rewarding class I’ve ever done. The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aenied, I think are beautiful, but they don’t have the same progressive relevance.





Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 1

by on January 14th, 2016

Christian's class in Underwood College at Yonsei

Christian’s class at Underwood College in Yonsei University

Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 1

Most expats teaching in Korea teach language, not literature, are not involved in administrative decision-making and are not expected to do research. Christian’s situation is quite different, much more like that of tenure-track faculty in the United States before the bottom fell out of the job market in higher education about thirty-five years ago. Christian and I spoke via Skype when he was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Christian’s story

H. Christian Blood

H. Christian Blood

I teach at Underwood International College, one of the sixteen colleges in Yonsei University. It was founded ten years ago as a western-style, English-only, liberal arts and sciences college like a top private liberal arts college in the United States. All of the classes, from introductory through upper-division, are administered by one unit. The college was a response to a brain drain; that is, Korean students who wanted liberal arts were going to the States because there was no equivalent of that in Korea. The first class opened nine years ago in the basement of the theology building with four faculty and eighty students. This year we have forty-five tenure-track faculty and two thousand students. Statistically we are one of the most competitive programs in the country, and in Korea that’s what counts. We take about 1% of our applicants.

In order to guarantee its position as a truly international college, Underwood requires every

Faculty member to be from the United States or other English-speaking countries. No one with a Korean passport can have a tenure-track appointment, so we don’t have the problem you find in other schools where a class is supposed to be in English, but in fact it’s only the PowerPoint that’s in English and the lecture is in Korean. By contract, all of my classroom time must be in English. So that it’s actually a professional advantage that I don’t know any Korean.

Our stereotypical student is rich, from Kangnam. Within Yonsei we have a reputation for being a rich kid’s program, although I’m not sure this is true. But our students are the kids who succeeded in the competitive Korean hagwŏn [cram school or for=profit “institute”] game because they were there until two in the morning. In hyper-competitive Korean education, it’s very important for a program or college to be respected by Korean mothers. This is because the admissions process is so competitive, there’s no way in the world a student can do everything without help. Parents guide the admissions process very closely. They are very educated. They’ve pored over the university website, and sometimes I think they know more about our programs and requirements I do. I’ve heard a rumor that I’m known on some of these blogs and online discussions my surname, Blood!

Both the university and the Ministry of Education are very aware of the role that a family plays in a student’s education. This does have some unintended consequences. For example I’ve been told is that the foundational principle of all Korean education is equality, but Korea has huge differences in region and social class. The Ministry of Education will devise a new rule to try to level the playing field, such as, when students apply to our college, they must declare a major before they apply. This was necessary to avoid people just selecting a major on the basis of how competitive it is to get into. Then parents figure out how to crack the code, so to speak, and so next year, there’s another rule, and so on.

At Dongguk University people were selecting majors on the basis of how easy it was to get in decades ago. That’s why there were so many forestry majors. Students would get advice from older students in their departments, their “seniors,” who would tell them what classes to take, but when I left in 2006 the old Confucian “junior-senior” relationship was starting to break down. At Dongguk the students ran a website where they could comment on the faculty. I never looked at it, but I was told I had the reputation for being tough but fair. The mothers were never even mentioned except for their traditional role in managing their children’s primary and secondary education. But times have changed, and your school is much more competitive than Dongguk, which was a second-level university.

The competition doesn’t interest me. I went to alternative schools and a400-person liberal arts college, St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, a Great Books college which did not require SAT scores [Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken toward the end of high school.].The college believed that studying for a grade was antithetical to true learning. The kind of people who go there can’t care about rankings and grades. You just wouldn’t go. My master’s and PhD are in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, another school that was always been antiestablishment.

Then I came to Korea where everything is about your test scores and your GPAs and other measures that Koreans call “specs.”On the campus at Yonsei, everyone is very aware of the school’s status, and sometimes it feels as if we’re acting more for the sake of reifying our institution’s standing. I actually love it, and I kind of enjoy compensating for my status-free undergrad education. It suits me well. There’s a lot of structure. Either I got my rebellion out of my system when I was young, or it’s fun being totally subversive, which at Yonsei can mean showing students that it’s not all about grades and tests.

My students are fantastic. They are hard-working, they are very dedicated, and their English is excellent. They’ve succeeded in the competitive Korean hagwŏn game. They’re very good at listening, taking notes and memorizing, but a lot of them have a difficult time acclimating to classes which are primarily discussion. Many don’t fully understand what means to have an education in western-style liberal arts and sciences. The program starts out with core classes in history, literature and philosophy. For several years I taught for several years a core course called Western Civilization, starting with Homer and wrapping up with Freud. It was a big picture overview for students who might not know the western tradition, which I thought was great. But most Korean students aren’t expecting to be reading Freud if they’re in an engineering program.

Last semester I taught three classes. One of them was Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. There were twelve people in the class. We read fifty pages a week. In class we sat in a circle and talked about it. Another class was on Roman literature, so we did Virgil’s Aenied, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, and the Satyricon of Pretronius. This is in English translation. In the States, I taught the Iliad all through graduate school, and the student reaction was about the same every time—and the opposite of what it is in Korea.

If you remember, in the Iliad, Agamemnon is a commander in the Greek army. It’s the tenth year of the Trojan War, and the story opens after Agamemnon has made some bad leadership decisions. Achilles breaks rank and rebels against him. He’s is quite excessive, he’s very selfish, people who read it think he’s immature. But western readers identify with him as the individual, the hero, whereas Korean students always side with Agamemnon. I have to convince them that Achilles is sympathetic, even though he’s being so selfish.

Do you get into explaining to them what individualism actually is or the good side of individualism, as opposed to individualism equals minus Confucianism?

Yes, and a lot of my students are already sympathetic to individualism, and that’s why they’re at our school instead of Seoul National or Korea University or Ewha Woman’s University.

There’s also not a tradition of literary criticism as an academic discipline here in the way we find it in the west. So sometimes it’s a hard sell. Students are eager to take philosophy and history, but they don’t understand why you’d study literature other than for its historical value. Also, the Korean terms for words we use in literary analysis, like “irony” and “metaphor,” are just transliterations from English. There areno Korean words. I know from publishing literary work in Korean journals—the article would be in English, but the abstract in Korean—that people are never sure how to translate a lot of these technical terms which we oftentimes take for granted. Here there’s not the same sort of tradition of studying literature without reference to history. In Korea it’s usually more historical.

Well, our tradition is based on learning how to come up with your own analysis of something, which I think is very un-Confucian.

In the past when my students studied western literature, their teachers gave them one interpretation. Read Death of a Salesman, and this is what it means. The same goes for Robert Frost’s poetry or Shakespearean sonnets. I say, “What do you think?” We put two competing, contradictory theses on the board along with evidence for both of them. These very accomplished, sharp students are not comfortable with that.

Actually, I even had American graduate students who hesitated to express opinions—or to work out their own analysis of a literary text. I had one class which met three times a week. The first two class periods they were responsible for the discussion of that week’s work, and I’d sit there silently and take notes. On the third class period I’d lecture with an analysis of the work and with answers to points the students had made about it. So they had to come up with their own interpretation before I said a word. That worked.

My experience as a teaching assistant and as an adjunct professor in California in the 2000s was that students would not shut up. They were so confident that anything they said was worth the group’s hearing. So it was quite a shock to be in Korea and see that the students were very, very good, but it felt like you had to pull comments out of them.

I had that problem except when I put them into small groups, and then they would talk. Speaking to the whole class was considered “speaking in public,” which in the Confucian culture was a sign of arrogance, while speaking in groups of four was okay.

The stereotype of Korean students is that they’re good at regurgitating information, studying for tests, that sort of thing, while the stereotype of American students is that they’ve been training in critical thinking. My own experience, especially now with “No Child Left Behind” is that American students are really bad at absorbing and retaining any meaningful information.

I haven’t taught Americans since 1982, so in some ways what you’re telling me is new information.

Even during the short time I taught in California, 2003 to 2011, there was a sharp decline in the students’ ability to absorb anything. I don’t know what is going on in American middle and high schools, but it is frightening. To put this in the best possible terms, American education does not emphasize stuff. It emphasizes patterns. Korean education emphasizes stuff rather than patterns. Korean students will memorize every fact in the book that you give them. The way they learn history doesn’t show them how to extrapolate a pattern and synthesize it on their own. But they can learn it very quickly once they’re working with a teacher who expects that.

Well, actually, I have had a similar experience, first showing students how the Korean approach to something was different from the American approach and then having them apply that information to certain real-life situations. They were able to do that.

My students learned very quickly. In my opinion, all the training in critical thinking in the world is not helpful if you don’t know some things to think critically about. Korean students are willing to do the work and are very fast at applying it. Now, I’m sure it’s very different in business, but the college students are ready to do it. They are such a pleasure to teach. Not only are they good students, they don’t piss, moan and complain about having to work. They want to be there, and I usually only say things once or twice and they’re off and running. Many days I cannot believe I get paid to do this.

I had the same feeling about Dongguk.

Now, on a different issue, I understand it’s much harder for an expat to get a job teaching in Korea than it used to be.

In the early 90s we spent a couple of years trying to find another native-speaker for the other position in the English Department. Nowadays the situation is the reverse. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I sympathize with people who went to Korea thinking it would be different than it turned out to be. On the other hand, with their credentials many people wouldn’t have had a chance of teaching at a university in the United States even thirty-some years ago.

Look, we all know that it’s probably been too easy to get a teaching job here just because you had the right native language. But now it’s going to be harder if you don’t have more credentials and a plan. The Ministry of Education is also forecasting I think a 20% decrease in college enrollment in Korea in thirty years because of the declining population. It’s already started planning ways to contract the university system and has changed the funding formulas for how they distribute federal funds to universities. From what I understand, schools will only get their funds now if they demonstrate how they are going to handle population decline. So in anticipation of this there’s a kind of unofficial long-term hiring freeze. It’s going to be harder and harder for people who don’t have a master’s to get a job they want here.

I’ve heard a master’s plus two years university teaching experience, not including the time you spent at the university where you are currently teaching. I think the confusion and discontent among expats comes from the regulations’ being interpreted in different ways, which has always been a problem with Korean regulations.

One thing Yonsei does beautifully is recognize how time-consuming it can be to develop courses and write papers. When there are high expectation for research output the administration is definitely reasonable about a teaching load. It’s nice to work for an institution that understands. I have it so much better than most of my friends in the United States.

At Yonsei everything is tied to research—all promotion and reappointments are contingent on research output. The point system gives 90% for research and 10% comes from teaching.

That’s university-wide. Yonsei supports faculty research very well. Unfortunately, my college is teaching-intensive. So we’re pulled both ways. But I wake up every morning thankful for this job.

My closest Korean friend still does not have tenure after ten years of teaching and publishing and doing the extra work which is assigned to the lowest-ranking tenure-track faculty.

I have commitments through next week. I spend a lot of time in meetings, on junkets, entertaining people and planning things. Ten years for a tenure decision is pretty typical at Yonsei.

We have a bilingual staff to take care of things, especially for the international faculty who don’t know Korean. It’s so much easier for them to do it than to explain to an American how to do it. So then when I get home from work I have to remember that I don’t have an assistant working for me.

A reader writes:

Interesting article. Thanks, Carol. Relevant stuff for my career…I will look forward to part 2!

Another reader writes:
Good article, quite similar to my experiences teaching Media Studies here the past few years.
Jobs have definitely improved over the years, as have teachers’ credentials.
Yet another reader:
Thanks much for this, Carol.  Since I teach on the Dept. of Global Studies at Pusan National U, which has a similar program to UIC, I can relate to what H. Christian Blood is saying

Galang=Respect for Filipino Lesbians, Part 2

by on December 23rd, 2015

Galang with Anne Lim at left, a nominee for the Baldwin Award

Galang with Anne Lim at right, a nominee for the Baldwin Award

In order to “ground” this interview in its environment. I suggest watching Galang’s two videos before reading Anne’s story. These are “Mama Cash video GALANG English” <> and “Galang in the Grassroots” <>. Just copy the URLs contained in the angle brackets and paste to your navigation bar.

Anne’s story

Anne Lim, co-founder of Galang

Anne Lim, co-founder of Galang

“Galang” is the Filipino word for “respect.” Our organization was founded in 2008 by a group of lesbian dreamers who wanted to change the way things were going in the LGBT sector. A lot of the voices that we were hearing, like in the West, were those of upwardly-mobile gay men professionals. Even the lesbians who were speaking out were upper middle-class. Many felt that in a society such as ours it was necessary to hear also from women who were economically marginalized. Otherwise there wouldn’t be enough momentum for policy change. Our lawmakers need the numbers to know that there is indeed discrimination and there that a large number of lives would be affected by anti-discrimination laws.

Currently, Galang is a seven-year-old feminist human righs organization which has four program components: policy advocacy, research, institutional development and sustainability, and capacity building. Our goal is to help develop community-based LBT leaders who will be on the front lines of the LGBT movement in the Philippines. But that will be a long time coming. It’s easier to train educated, middle-class lesbians to be more articulate about their own issues. It’s a much harder task to expect high school graduates, or those with little education exposure, to articulate what they feel.

In fact, when we first went to the community, and even now from time to time, we found women couldn’t even talk about their  experience. What they know is that at a young age they realized they were attracted to women. They harbor feelings of insecurity because they believe they’re immoral sinners. That’s what they were been taught. However, through the years we’ve had some luck and made some progress, and a handful of community leaders have emerged—although not to the extent that we want. Through the years we’ve learned that this is something that will take a long time to develop.

So our policy advocacy program component is focused on local and national advocacy, anti-discrimination legislation, at the local level the gender-fair ordinances that were passed in Quezon City. There are several anti-discrimination ordinances all over the Philippines, but Quezon City was the first local unit to have one. Now it has a second one as of last year. The problem in the Philippines is we have a lot of laws protecting women, laws protecting several marginalized sectors. But it’s always a question of implementation rather than the passage of a law. These ordinances have never been tested. The first ordinance in Quezon City was passed in 2003, but there never was a case that was successfully won by invoking it. Currently we’re in the process of participating in the development of implementing rules and regulations, but it will take a while to develop because next year is an election year. There are politics among the actors involved. We are pursuing the implementation of these rules and regulations within the year. Because otherwise it won’t be possible to invoke the ordinance.

At the national level, since the early 2000s or the late 1990s, there have been anti-discrimination bills pending in Congress, several versions that have slight differences in nuance. Broadly speaking, there are those that are based only on SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity or Expression}, there are bills on SOGIE and several other bases for discrimination, like disability, race, ethnicity and HIV-status.

For a long time the anti-discrimination legislation sat in committees in both houses of Congress. The absence of a logistical champion has prevented it from getting passed. I think it’s the fifth or sixth time it’s been filed, and it looks like it won’t get passed this time either. What we’re asking for—in on online campaigns and position papers and such, as well as public hearings and depositions–-is support of the bill. Also as part of our policy advocacy we’re in the process of researching other policies that affect LBGTs. As you saw in the film, we’re in the process of getting into other service laws, like the Filipine Health Insurance Act, because we feel that these laws have been in existence for a long time but they don’t specify discrimination against LGBTs and their families. Policy advocacy has to do with the way these laws are applied on a day-to-day basis. Of course our policy advocacy component and our research component are very much intertwined. Our research is dedicated to ensuring that all advocacy work is evidence–based. It’s been easy for us to navigate because we have all these stories from LBTs in our partner communities detailing discrimination. Wherever it’s feasible we try to come up with research papers, such as the one on social protection. In the most recent one on social empowerment, we discuss how LBTs who are excluded from the formal labor sector try to be creative in seeking employment and  other means of earning, for instance by working abroad as domestic helpers or by becoming small or micro entrepreneurs like tricycle drivers.

We’re currently undergoing a survey of our LBT constituents, not only within Galang, but among activists in the Philippines. There are no quantitative data on the sectors, so each time there’s a need to pass an anti-discrimination law there are hardly any concrete numbers to cite except for anecdotal information. So what we’re trying to do is conduct a baseline study and develop an index that would measure at least LBTs that work in Quezon City. We hope to eventually expand the scope of that study so that at least we’ll be able to say how many have experienced discrimination and in what form.

Of course laws ares necessary, but one of the things we’ve learned is that discrimination is more cultural than legal. It’s crucial to change people’s perceptions, and that’s why we have all these education materials like the video, the comics and everything. This is sometimes a difficulty with foreign partners because for us the fight doesn’t end when the law gets passed. It’s not the same as in America and the UK. That’s why we do a lot of training, exposure to students, we give interviews to students and researchers as well. To the media also.

Finally, our institutional development and sustainability program focuses on our own sustainability as an organization. They say that 1.01% of all development worldwide goes to LBGT funding. It has been very difficult, probably in part because there’s the feeling that the LGBT community doesn’t need assistance anymore because marriage equality has been won in the West. It’s a constant struggle for groups like Galang to find funding, especially in the Philippines. There is less evidence of pain than in places like Uganda and Nigeria. Here people are said to be more tolerant. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. What are counted as hate crimes are cases of murder based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but in the Philippines there are a lot of rapes of lesbians and bisexual women. Some say it’s “corrective.” The rapists don’t usually talk about it, but a lot of lesbians feel it’s punishment for being indifferent to the male gaze.

In terms of succession planning, Galang is also very much dedicated to the development of activists on the community level and on the level of Galang as an an institution. It’s important, in the feminist movement and the LGBT movement, for there to be young people involved. Activism is not a very rewarding job. A lot of us get burned out. When that happens it’s necessary for young people to take over. It’s a sensitive issue, I know. It’s something that we take very seriously in Galang because we’re here for the long haul. As you’ve seen in our videos, we invest in young people because we’ve seen they’re the ones who are more passionate about fighting for equal rights.

I would imagine that if it were properly implemented, the RH Bill it would also be very helpful to lesbians. What do you see is the relationship between that bill and the problems  you deal with?

Like any law on sexuality, the RH law would definitely help LBTs because it would improve access to health care and promote acceptance of sexual diversity. But for urban poor LBTs the issue is not necessarily access to women’s health care. For the urban poor, health care in general is not accessible. In the Philippines there is no universal health care. So it’s not just a matter of getting a law passed, it’s a matter of breaking through the barrier of low self-esteem.

We’ve partnered up with Likhaan [a non-government organization engaged in providing direct health care services to women in marginalized communities]. We’ve referred many lesbians to them, those who’ve experienced mioma [benign tumor in the uterus] and things like that, but in the end they refuse to seek further treatment. They don’t have the money, and they would rather spend what money they do have on their children or their partners. I’m speaking about butch lesbians–probably because there’s this notion that lesbians are not women.

Yeah, I heard that a couple of weeks ago. I was very surprised.

These identities are pretty much clear-cut elsewhere, but in the Philippines a lot of terms conflict, probably because our jargon is limited, Initially we were a group of lesbians who wanted to work with the lesbian community. Then we realized that we had to come up with an umbrella term. Personally, as a relatively educated lesbian I identify as a woman who has sexual attraction for another woman. But the lesbians we work with at the community level don’t necessarily feel the same way or identify as such. Masculine-presenting lesbians might say that they identify as lesbian or they are men trapped in women’s bodies, and they are attracted to other women. So “trans” might well be more appropriate. The feminine one in the relationship will identify as either straight or bisexual and see her more masculine partner as actually a man. So we had to come up with a term to embrace all these three identities. Probably the term that most lesbians use is “tomboy,” which describes gender expression, not sexual orientation. There is no Filipino term. There is one for gay men, I think. Bakla [“effeminate man” in my dictionary, or “gay man”] is used as “gay man.” For “lesbian” all we use is lesbyana, or “tomboy” which is also not Filipino.

I have a friend who said shortly after we met, “As you can tell I’m a lesbian.” Well, I hadn’t noticed. I don’t think people in the West do that butch-femme role-playing thing anymore.

Obviously, I’m wearing a dress right now, so people will usually say, “How can you be a lesbian?” Those are stereotypes from the 1950s. for instance, the feminine one is often called the girlfriend of the tomboy. She’s not necessarily thought of as a lesbian herself. One of the research projects we undertook involved migrant workers in Hong Kong. They say a lot of Filipino domestic workers end up “becoming lesbian” because there aren’t enough Filipino men to go around. Some of the women we interviewed said that they’re glad for the opportunity to work abroad—of course, primarily because there are no, or very few, employment opportunities for lesbians in the Philippines, but also because in a more open society they are able to express themselves sexually. As an aside, we can say there are a lot of straight women in need of companionship. So they end up having relationships with butch lesbians. Whether they were actually closet lesbians in the Philippines or not, that’s another issue altogether.

Something we would love to do research on eventually is the fact that some women who have husbands and kids in the Philippines go to Hong Kong and become the butch lesbian in their relationship with other Filipino domestic workers. When they come back to the Philippines they again become submissive to their husbands. So the role play, the power play, is something that would be very interesting to study.

Yeah, it would be. And to see how economics ties in as a component of this too.

In the dynamics among lesbian couples, there’s a distinct separation between “butch” and “femme,” especially among older lesbians for whom the LBT distinctions are not clear. Feminine lesbians tend to have more access to employment, and the butch ones don’t have that because there are gender-prescribed requirements like haircut and that. Usually the power is with the “femme” so that if there is violence between couples, the perpetrator of the violence is usually the femme. That surprised us, actually. When the media portrays lesbians as masculine they are the violent ones, but that’s not necessarily the case. That is also supported by the fact that when the victims go to the police to complain about violence against them, the police either turn them away and say, “You can’t be the victim of violence when you’re usually the perpetrator of violence.” Also there are cases of lesbians who report rape and are told by the police, “You’ve at least had the chance to experience sex with a man.”

The issue of violence and acceptance is inversely proportional to economic empowerment, meaning the more money a lesbian has, the more acceptance she has. That’s part of the relationship. So in the communities we work in some women who were disowned by their parents are accepted as soon as they have stable jobs.

We were talking about this earlier. They’re helping to pay the rent.

In Hong Kong I spoke with a woman who was very proud that she made all the decisions for the family back in the Philippines, even what her parents roles would be, because she was the sole income earner. Of course we’re not sure that’s connected with her being a lesbian. Anecdotally, if she didn’t have money to send I’d say she wouldn’t have that much power in her family.

One of the things I’ve observed since coming here is that the family dynamic is very interesting in terms of money. Money seems to have an awful lot to do with the way things happen in the Filipino family.

There’s not a lot to go around, so maybe that’s why it’s so important.

Yeah, and also because of the very peculiar class structure.

I would say that among well-to-do lesbians, having money could also be a barrier to their acceptance of their sexuality. The family applies a lot of pressure to maintain a certain social status. So that’s an irony in itself.

Yeah, because they feel they have a certain position.

For them coming out may not necessarily be an issue. They have all the perks they need without coming out, and they don’t want to shame the family. So the challenge for activists like us is to involve them. For tactical reasons and for political reasons.

Very interesting. And how are you doing this?

Honestly, as you said, money pays for a lot. Grassroots work requires a lot of money. It’s labor-intensive and ad-intensive. So our dream really is to be able to tap into lesbian heiresses who can support the movement, so to speak. We’ve actually tried to find technical support for that through an NGO in Hong Kong, but we learned that the culture of philanthropy in general is not well developed here. In the US and Europe funders could be the governments or private individuals like Bill and Linda Gates. Here funding is not necessarily possible, despite the extreme poverty in the region. So if you find anybody like that just give me a ring.

I will, although the only rich people I know are Filipinos. But I have another question: how do you avoid burnout?

I have ten dogs and a partner of thirteen years. I try to tell myself that this work is not all on my shoulders. In this office we try to remind ourselves that it’s never up to one person. Actually, I work in another office, and having another focus has helped as well.

Well, that’s certainly true of human rights in the US. The laws or policies put in place during times of prosperity are taken away during times of austerity. It swings back and forth.

Related items: Please copy URL and paste on your navigation bar

Anne Marie Lim and Charisse M. Jordan, “Policy Audit: Social Protection Policies and Urban Poor LBTs in the Philippines,” Evidence Report No. 21, Sexuality, Poverty and Law.

Galang Philippines, Inc. “How Filipino LBTs Cope with Economic Disadvantage,” Evidence Report No. 120, Sexuality, Poverty and Law.

Homophobia May Cost India’s Economy Billions of Dollars, India Real Time.



Galang=Respect for Filipino Lesbians, Part 1

by on December 1st, 2015

One of Galang's neighborhood groups at a meeting

One of Galang’s neighborhood groups at a meeting

Recently I spoke with women in Galang, an organization founded in 2008 in order to empower lesbians, bisexual women, and transsexuals (LBTs) among the urban poor and “to advocate on their own behalf with regard to education, legal and political awareness and economic independence.”  

In order to “ground” this topic in its environment, I suggest that readers watch Galang’s two short videos before reading the text. These are “Mama Cash video GALANG English” <> and “Galang in the Grassroots” <>. Just copy the URLs inside the angle brackets and paste to your navigation bar. Many thanks to Galang for the use of your materials. The staff of Galang also took me along to a Lesbians for Rights event where I could take photos.

Gyky G. Tangente (left) and Maroz R. Ramos

Gyky G. Tangente and Maroz R. Ramos

I spoke first with Gyky Tangente, a staff member in the Galang office on Xavierville Avenue in Quezon City. I said that twenty-some years ago I was surprised when an African-American, lesbian friend returned from a vacation in the Philippines very excited about how “gay-friendly” the place was. She was comparing what she heard from out-of-the-closet men she’d met here with the closeted gays and lesbians in South Korea, where we were both working.

Gyky’s story

I wonder whether you’re familiar with the Pew research about how “gay-friendly” the Philippines is. The Pew survey looked at the correlation of religion and LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] acceptance and determined that the Philippines was one of the most LGBT-accepting countries.

One of the top ten.

But religion is a very powerful here. [The population is roughly 80% Catholic, 6% is Christian of other denominations, 5% to 10% Muslim, 3% Buddhist or Taoist, about 2% adherents of a traditional Filipino practice like shamanism and less than 1% non-religious. Divorce is illegal.] Most research shows that countries where religion has a powerful impact are very conservative, as opposed to liberal countries where religion is not so powerful. Maybe one of the reasons why the Philippines ranked so “gay friendly” is that LBGT people are quite visible in the media—although only as stereotypes. There are no national laws protecting their rights. So some people say, “You’re not really suffering from discrimination here. You’re not being killed like people are in other countries just for being who you are. You don’t need anti-discrimination legislation.” We want legal recognition that we have the same rights, including eventually the same rights for same-sex couples as heterosexual couples.

I would say the number-one barrier to equal rights is religious fundamentalism. The country is very conservative, and the separation of Church and State is not…

Is non-existent.

Yes. Actually, the arguments used against the anti-discrimination statues as misleading as those used against the Reproductive Health Bill. [The RH Bill provides for access to family planning, education and devices, but not abortion. Even after passage, the bill is still vigorously opposed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines despite the fact that the population is increasing among the poor at a desperate rate.  Tactics used by the CBCP are similar to those used by extreme “pro-life” groups in the US.]

The churches use their control over people to turn them against the HR Bill and the Anti-Discrimination Bill, which when passed into law will prevent discrimination against LGBTs and also people with SOGIE issues (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity or Expression). Actually, there are two versions of the anti-discrimination law. One prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation identity, and the other one includes age discrimination against older people, indigenous people, racial minorities, and LGBTs, so it’s more comprehensive. One legislator said that he would support this bill if the language about LGBTs were removed. It’s ironic that someone would support an anti-discrimination bill only if some people were excluded.

I think Galang is making an important contribution by looking at economic rights. When we first began looking at the plight of LBTs among the urban poor, we saw different dimension, different layers of discrimination, one based on sexuality and one based on social class. This makes people very vulnerable, which was really evident in the research Galang did. I should also include gender because of course the Philippine is still very patriarchal. If you’re born female you will be treated as a second-class citizen. Have you ever heard the expression “the third sex”?

Yes. In connection with people in Thailand. A friend of mine was talking about how open, uncloseted and creative his gay students were and how they were accepted as the “third sex.”

Unfortunately the term is also used in Philippines. It’s even deeply embedded in the LGBT communities.

And exactly what do people mean by that?

Well, there’s the first sex—male—and the second sex—female. The “third sex” means “not part of the male-female dynamic,” an outsider, ranked third in the hierarchy. That’s why it’s so important to provide capacity building activities. [Community capacity building is defined as the process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources that organizations and communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in the fast-changing world.] People need to realize that human beings are all the same, that we have the same rights as everyone else and of course that we have to fight for those rights.

We also need comprehensive social protection policies for everyone. [Social protection is about people and families having security in the face of vulnerabilities and contingencies like health care and safe working conditions. The very poor, those struggling just to survive, are the most in need of protection and the least protected.]People are left behind because of how we define family, how we define marriage. Unlike for instance in the States, where the Supreme Court acknowledged that marriage is not only between a man and a woman, in the Philippines we have a law actually defining marriage as between a man and a woman. It’s very problematic. What we need to do is revise those words.

We had the Defense of Marriage Act, which did the same thing, until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. I would imagine that in the Philippines same-sex marriage is a long ways away.

Exactly. Even with the antidiscrimination bill it’s been about twenty years.

Gyky makes a presentation of the Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

Gyky makes a presentation of the Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

Are you familiar with Lee Badgett? She wrote The Economic Cost of Homophobia: How LGBT Exclusion Impacts Development. Her pilot country was India. She showed that, when LGBT people are denied access to employment, it has a negative effect on the country’s economy. I think it very important for development as a whole to have everyone be part of it. There’s also a problem with “development” per se, the definition is usually inclined toward economics as in money. In the Philippines the potential of LGBTs, especially the LBTs, remains untapped. It’s not recognized at all. If you’re poor, probably your education attainment is lower, and you’ll have a really hard time finding a job. There are financial difficulties with higher education. Or maybe people dropped out of school before finishing high school because they were bullied. So this leaves them vulnerable to a lot of abuse—getting a substandard wage and working really inhumane hours. They put up with it simply in order to survive.

Plus, especially if you’re a “butch” lesbian, you may not be seen as a potential employee because of a uniform requirement. You may be asked whether you’d be comfortable in makeup and a miniskirt. Or maybe it will just be assumed that you couldn’t wear those things.

When you apply for a job here, say some kind of office job, are you required to submit a photograph?

Yes, but if you don’t include a picture and you’re called in for an interview, you may be rejected as soon as they see you. You’ll also find small-scale places that don’t pay the standard wage. They might be hiring manual labor. The application process is usually walk-in. If you’re a “butch” lesbian you may be told, “We’re not hiring immoral people like you.” It may be considered bad for business. But I’ve heard stories about a factory which prefers butch lesbians because they believe they won’t be asking for maternity leave and they won’t have children to take care of. The presence of gender roles and stereotyping is very evident.

And they might also feel that these workers won’t have an easy time finding jobs somewhere else so they’ve got them trapped. Social class is more extreme here than anywhere I’ve ever been.

Oh, really? Well, unemployment is one issue and underemployment is another. Many of our LBT partners are employed on a short contract basis. For maybe six months a woman has a job, and then she’s out looking for another one. Or she applies over and over. It’s very hard to tell exactly how many, but most of our partners don’t have stable jobs.

Dancers at Lesbians for Rights

Dancers at Lesbians for Rights

We interviewed Filipino LBTs who worked in Hong Kong and those who worked in the Middle East. In Hong Kong they had more freedom to express themselves, but of course in the Middle East they weren’t allowed to have very short hair because it’s very dangerous for LGBTs there.

It’s dangerous for a lot of people there.

Right. We discovered they had problems finding jobs. Even though they were college graduates they had to work as domestic helpers when they went abroad. They were unable to find jobs in the Philippines, first because of the very limited number of jobs here and second of course because of their sexuality and sexual expression. During the interviews they said they were really happy to be contributing to the family finances and they could see that their family was more accepting of them. If you give money, you have economic power. We were very happy that they found acceptance, but there’s a problem in that not being able to contribute might mean never being accepted. Those are some of the results we collected and shared. We found them both interesting and depressing.

It’s kind of sad when your family only accepts you because you’re helping to pay the rent.

Three of the posts I did on the website dealt with squatters. Both of the families were forcibly moved by the National Housing Authority and sent out to a housing development way out of town, far away from their employment. The rent to own terms were very reasonable, but they had no running water or electricity for a year. Some people were relocated to a flood plain which was under water shortly thereafter. So I have an idea of what it’s like to be poor in the Philippines.

Dancers at Lesbians for Rights

Dancers at Lesbians for Rights

Actually, we dealt with that in our research. One of our social protection policies has to do with the Urban Development and Housing Act, which deals with the rights of everyone, but specifically the urban poor. Maybe their houses are demolished because they’re squatters public or private land [or for some other reason. The land could be on a fault line, and the authorities might be worried about being held responsible in case of an earthquake].

Same-sex partners are not considered a family, so in the National Housing Authority survey only one of the occupants would be registered as living in the house. This means you have less priority. Top priority is given to families with lots of children, even though the law, the Urban Development Housing Act, does not define a household as a family. It’s just a house, regardless of how many people are living in it or their relationship to each other. One demolished house is supposed to be replaced by one house in the relocation area. A group of friends should have the same rights as a traditional family, particularly if they were living in their home in the squatters’ community for a very long time.

The decision lies with the individuals doing the survey. They usually take “household” to mean “family,” using the culturally-embedded definition of “family” as father, mother, children. So same-sex couples without children go to the bottom of the list. So do single parents with children because they also don’t fit into the traditional definition of a family. When the relocation houses are handed out, they’re left behind. Of course those who are close to the head of the homeowner’s association have more houses than others.

Yeah, that would be very hard.

Supportive audience

Fun and supportive audience

In our partner LBO (?), there are areas where people have been moved, but also areas where the squatters are allowed to stay on public and private land until the owner or the government needs it. People feel insecure with possible demolition pending. That’s when the talk about relocation sites begins.

What we’re talking about today adds a whole new dimension to my thinking about poverty in the Philippines. I found it amazing to see how much people were able to do with how little.

Let me put it this way. Thirty years ago I was in China, and I interviewed another foreigner who said, “I don’t know how people can live like that.” My first reaction was shock at this judgmental statement. But then it occurred to me that he actually meant what he said. He really didn’t know how people lived. If he had gone into one of these Chinese rooms, about the size of this office with eight people living in it, and he had seen how they had divided things off to provide privacy and how they did their cooking and hung their washing on the balcony, then he would have known how people lived. So that was my reaction to the very friendly squatters in Makati who invited me in, let me take pictures, answered my questions and fed my friends and me a nice meal.

But when you add more discrimination to their lives, it puts the whole thing on a completely different level.



Related items: Please copy URL and paste on your navigation bar.

Anne Marie Lim and Charisse M. Jordan, “Policy Audit: Social Protection Policies and Urban Poor LBTs in the Philippines,” Evidence Report No. 21, Sexuality, Poverty and Law.

Galang Philippines, Inc. “How Filipino LBTs Cope with Economic Disadvantage,” Evidence Report No. 120, Sexuality, Poverty and Law.

Homophobia May Cost India’s Economy Billions of Dollars, India Real Time.





International Kids, Part 2

by on November 10th, 2015

Crystal's self-portrait

Crystal’s self-portrait

Andrew Dougherty and Crystal Dougherty are 13 and 15; they attend Yongsan International School of Seoul, an American-based private school which is both Christian and broad-minded. I was particularly interested in their stories because when I was a child my family spent a year in Europe every five years, first in Luxembourg then Germany, where I attended public schools and university; it turned out there were some similarities.

Crystal’s story



I’ve lived in Korea for almost half of my entire life. I was born here then I was raised in Seguin,  Texas in Las Brisas. It was a pretty good neighborhood. I went to a good public school which was very strict, although in the third grade I did get bullied by a classmate. She made fun of me, and it really hurt. When there was a book fair she asked if she could borrow some books for a while. I’d just bought them. Maybe I was too naïve—I don’t know if that’s the right word.

In third grade you should be naïve.

Of course. I thought she meant borrow the books for a day or two, so I gave them to her. A week or so later, my mom went up to her and said, “Can you give me my daughter’s books back?” She handed them back to me. They hadn’t even been taken out of the plastic cover. Then one morning I was called into the principal’s office. My parents were there, and we talked about the things she’d done to me. The next year I didn’t see her, and my mom told me that she’d been expelled.

So when did you come back to Korea? What were your feelings about it?

About four years ago, in November of 2011. My parents told my brother and me a few months earlier. We were a bit upset to be moving out of the home we’d been in for seven years. It’s difficult for an eleven-year-old. But by the time we left I’d gotten used to the idea, and I just carried on like a soldier.

You were also moving from a small town to a big city, right?

Yeah, well, Seoul is a lot bigger than San Antonio. I was kind of happy because I had memories of playing in the apartment and on the US Army base. But it had been a long time ago, and some of my memories were not very clear. I felt kind of neutral about moving. I was not sad. I was not happy. I was somewhere in-between.

My first impression of walking around Seoul was the sidewalks. Mom said to be careful because the they weren’t even so I could easily trip while walking. Then I was surprised that people would walk past and wouldn’t say “sorry” or “excuse me” when they bumped into me. Mom told me that it was normal.

Crystal a Christmas (Marianne's photo)

Crystal a Christmas (Marianne’s photo)

If people don’t know you, they’re about as polite as they would be to a lamppost.

Right, then I was introduced to Korean junk food. The sweets weren’t as sweet as American sweets and had a very different taste. Some snacks brought back some memories. like the shrimp snacks, which look like fries, but they’re crunchy, and they have square holes in them.

Actually, I haven’t been outside of Seoul much, no farther than Pyeongtaek, and it only took about two hours to get there. I like Itaewŏn, and some friends of mine live in the area. Mom said that in the 80s and 90s, there was more of a sewer smell than now.

I haven’t noticed a sewer smell, but I don’t have a good sense of smell. What about the school you’re in now?

I’m in the eighth grade at Yongsan International School of Seoul, or YISS for short.

When I was in the eighth grade I was in Germany at a scientific high school for girls.

Well, that sounds pretty interesting. I’ve never been to Europe

So tell me about your school.

My current school is bigger than the one I used to go to and a bit more conservative. We’re not allowed to wear jeans or a polo shirt with a logo on it. If your stomach shows when you put your arms up, that’s also a violation of the dress code. In middle school you’re not allowed to wear short pants, unlike the elementary school where you get to wear long skirts and shorts.

Crystal at gala (Marianne)

Crystal at gala (Marianne)

The school is two years ahead of schools in the States, and that caused me a bit of a struggle when I first came to YISS. We started algebra in the seventh grade. I don’t know if that’s normal.

That was my experience in Germany too. I went from arithmetic, which I had a lot of trouble with, to geometry and algebra, which were much easier for me than arithmetic.  

You had both?

The school year started in March instead of September. So I was there for the end of their seventh grade and the beginning of their eighth grade. So we went from geometry to algebra and biology to physics. Everything changed except Latin.

If I’m correct, at YISS there are like four different classes for math: arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra and geometry. Depending on how advanced you are, in the sixth grade, you take either arithmetic or pre-algebra. In the seventh grade you take either pre-algebra or regular algebra, In the eighth grade you have a choice between algebra and geometry.

Our classes are around one hour and thirty minutes long, but a bit shorter on Fridays because of chapel at the end of the day. There’s a five minute break between the first class and the second class—it used to be ten—and thirty minutes of lunch. Right now I’m taking American History, Science, Media and Technology, PE, English, Algebra, Creative Writing and Speech and then Bible.

When I was in Hamburg, we had Latin six days a week and the other important classes, like math, science and English, German and history we had five days a week. The classes like singing and needlework and gymnastics we had once every two weeks. In your school is there more time given to some classes than others?

It varies according to whether it’s an A-class or a B-class. They meet on alternate days. The only ones I have every day are the electives. For example, Media and Technology, where we do a lot of stuff like filmmaking, yearbook and a little bit of photography.

What about creative writing?

It’s Creative Writing and Speech. We were doing speeches for the last week. We’re doing improv and persuasive speeches.

That sounds like Introduction to Speech in the freshman year of college. You demonstrate how to do something or you select a topic out of a hat.  

That’s exactly what we did. I had to talk about my favorite book, so I chose Sherlock Holmes. I’ve became a fan.

Have you seen the television series from the BBC?

Yeah, I have the first two series on my laptop. I’m trying to catch up.

I’ve seen that too. When I was in fifth or sixth grade took some Ellery Queen short story murder mysteries and adapted them into plays. One of them we performed at a Girl Scout overnight with lighting from the fireplace and a big scream coming out of the darkness. It was sort of dramatic. But what kind of stuff have you worked on in the past?

I haven’t done that much writing, but I did the artwork for a book cover. Writing is just what I do when I’m bored.

Ok, I get that. What other things do you like to read?

Sometimes on the internet I read fan fiction and manga.

What classes do you like?

Well, I like all kinds of history. Right now we’re doing American history, starting with the Native American regions that were all over America and got a view of the Native Americans before the European settlers colonized the land. It went on to the colonization, the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny and currently we’re on the American Civil War.

Are you learning anything about Korean history?

We don’t learn much about Korean history. In the past the social studies classes haven’t really focused on that. We do Celebrate Korea, about a week of field trips to museums or towns. We go to a museum or the Korean Folk Village or learn how to make kimchi. Recently we went to Paju Book City, a town where they have a lot of libraries and exhibits about different children’s storybooks, like “Pinocchio,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Little Prince.”

Who are your friends?

There’s Talei Kau, who’s from Fiji. Mya Diffin is from Mexico although she’s American. Maya Hasumi is from Japan. Maja Kristensen is from Denmark, and Katie Palmer is from San Diego.

So this is a really interesting international experience for you because you have friends from so many different places.

Yeah, well, it’s nice to have lots of people in my grade. To tell the truth, after I came back I went to Global Christian Foreign School for fifth grade. It was so small there was only one other person in my grade. She was from Canada. There were four sixth graders, two fifth graders—which was me and my friend—and no fourth graders. Then six kids from third, second and first grade and in kindergarten. It was really cold during the winter, so to save energy I used to make a couch by putting some chairs together so I could take a nap.

If you had a choice between living in Seoul or living in Seguin, which would you pick?

That’s a bit of a hard question. I couldn’t really choose. Both of them are like my hometown, so it would be like picking my favorite child.



International Kids, Part 1

by on October 21st, 2015

Andrew and Crystal on the way back to Seoul (Marianne photo)

Andrew and Crystal on the way back to Seoul (Marianne photo)

Andrew and Crystal are thirteen and fifteen. They attend Yongsan International School of Seoul, an American-based private school which is both Christian and broad-minded. I was particularly interested in their stories because when I was a child and young adult my family spent a year in Europe every five years, first in Luxembourg and then in Germany, where I attended public schools and university. It turned out there were some similarities. We spoke in their home in Seoul.



Andrew’s story

Before I moved here to my international school in Seoul, I went to Navarro Elementary School in Seguin Township, Texas. It was a good public school in the middle of nowhere but kind of close to our house. It was like any other school. They’d teach us the lesson and ask questions.

I was nine years old when we moved to Korea. We’d been here before, but I was little and didn’t remember. I was expecting this to be like where I am from, but it was really different because of the culture. Like how people like talk to each other, like express themselves. For example, we’re used to having our own personal space. So when we’re talking we just talk like this [about three feet apart]. But in Korea, even though most of my friends are half American, there’s more of a feeling that friends stick together. We’re a little closer when we talk and maybe hold each others’ hands or something like that. It’s kind of a weird. [Korean society is more highly socialized, more tightly interconnected and less homophobic.]

I came from a small town to a big city, and I wasn’t used to being on a busy sidewalk with people rushing and bumping into me. It was so crowded, and there was no personal space. It made me uncomfortable for about a year, but then I guess I got used to it by being with my friends on busy sidewalks. We played soccer, and we went to Korean restaurants and small shops and just hung out. At first, since I’m part Asian they just assumed I knew how to use chopsticks, but they didn’t assume I could speak Korean because they didn’t know whether I was half Korean or half Filipino.

The school is pretty strict. If you don’t do your work you’ll have detention or not get a break between classes. The kids around me are under pressure to get good grades. Otherwise, their parents punish them. So I when I was fooling around with my friends, the girls near me would complain to the teacher that I was making noise and they couldn’t hear or they couldn’t concentrate. I had to do pushups or something as a punishment.

When I was in the Luxembourg in the second grade, I was treated like somebody really special because my classmates hadn’t seen an American before. This was only a few years after World War II. Most of the kids were dark-haired and skinny, and I was chubby and had blond hair and blue eyes. Their first response was, “Oh, an American! Let’s teach her Luxembourgish. Let’s teach her how to play marbles.” Was your experience here like that or different?

It was actually a lot like that. They don’t usually see a lot of almost full Americans in that school. So they said, “Let’s hang out with this kid. Let’s teach him kai bai bo.” That’s rock-paper-scissors in Korean. They also taught me how to speak Korean to girls, just like hello, anyong haseo. And yeah, also some insulting things. The Korean guys taught me a few curse words, but I didn’t want to be the guy that’s always a pain to people who aren’t like him.

With me, being the center of attention got me into trouble. I remember we’d be playing marbles during class, which we weren’t supposed to do, and I was the one always dropping the marbles. So I’d have to stand in the corner behind the blackboard. Was that something like your experience?

Yeah, most of my friends would fool around during class, and I’d follow them. Here in Korea if you want to have friends, you do the stuff they do so you can hang out with them. That’s true in the US too, but here there’s something very different.

How long do you your Korean friends have to study?

All weekend, like sunrise to like ten or eleven at night. They study for five hours, do sports for five hours and then go back to studying. The Korean girls just stay in the house all day studying and reading books. They don’t even go outside. Today when we were at the Seoul Club, one of my friends was in a tournament there. His mom was there too. Afterwards my friend had to go home and study. He’ll get a little free time and then go back to studying.

I tutored a Korean middle school girl who would have loved to have had free time with her friends.

The mom is usually the one who orders them to study, and then the dad gets in the way and says she should give him some time off. So it depends on what happens between the parents. It’s off and on.

My situation is nothing like that. I don’t start studying for a test a month early. I just study, and then I don’t even review it again until the night before the test. My mom just asks me to work a little harder. I have one C, one F for not turning in a paper, then the rest are half A’s and half B’s. I have 100% in PE. Athletic stuff is easy for me because I have more time than the other kids to go outside. I have a 97% now in Mandarin. This is in an international school which is at least two years ahead of schools in America. My sister’s doing high school math.

My schools in Europe were also way ahead of my American schools. What are you doing in your classes?

Andrew on the Han River

Andrew on the Han River

In English we’re reading a book about Greek mythology. In science we learned about ecology, and now we’re learning about the layers of the earth and the atmosphere. We’re learning how a hurricane or a tornado forms. We each have to do a research paper on a specific storm or hurricane which really happened, then for English we have to be able to cite the works with the right documentation. The science part is writing about how the hurricane formed and what damage it did—wind velocity and intensification and all that. I don’t like my topic very much. Hurricane Andrew was one of the five most damaging storms in American history, but I really only chose it because of the name.

I have some advice as somebody who’s done a lot of research. Pick a topic that you really like. Take a careful look at what the options are, like maybe writing about one of the typhoons to hit the Philippines not far from your relatives. Pick something you really want to know about. Before I wrote my PhD dissertation, I had two possible topics in mind, so I wrote a seminar paper on each one to see which one worked better. Taking the time to take a good look at the options ends up saving you time for what you’re actually interested in.

Cool. I’ll take that. Thanks.

So that’s English and science, what are you doing in your math class?

We did geometry—area and volume of specific shapes. Now we’re doing equations, so algebra. We just finished our integer unit and adding and multiply integers and everything like that. In physical education we’re playing soccer, playing capture the flag and doing fitness tests, like pushups. In technology class we’re learning how to program and code our own applications, which is what I’m doing now in my spare time. Classes are a lot harder than last year. Now we’re learning a little bit of what high school students do. Science is going to be hard for me. Oh, I forgot. We also have a Bible class.

In Mandarin I’m doing okay, but nobody likes the teacher. It’s so boring. It’s about 50% writing the characters and 50% memorizing simple phrases. This is the first year Mandarin is being offered, and they made the sixth graders take it for some reason. The seventh and eighth graders have a choice between Spanish and Korean. I wanted to learn Korean. I speak some, but I’ve always lived in an environment where we spoke only English.

If you had a choice between being in the international school that you’re in now and going back to Texas to the school system you were in before, which one would you choose?

In Texas I didn’t fit in. It was torture. I couldn’t cope with the people around me. When I was in kindergarten there were a lot of germs in the school, and I was sick a lot, so I either had to repeat kindergarten or go on to the first grade and make up for the time I’d missed by going to school every Saturday and Sunday. I repeated kindergarten. That meant I was older than my classmates, and some of them would say things like, “Did you get held back? What are you, like stupid or something?”

In the first grade I transferred to public school from the primary school in the education department at the university, where I hadn’t learned anything. So I had to repeat the first grade. I was embarrassed about being older for years.

Andrew with his mother, Marianne

Andrew with his mother, Marianne

The international school is a good experience. I’ve learned a lot from the comparison between American culture and Korean culture. For example, in America you have to sit up straight and pick up food with your fork, but in Korean culture you can just put your face right over your plate and make noises while you eat. Only the elders are allowed to talk or the men that are hosting the dinner. The little ones can only talk if the elders talk to them. The wives of the hosts, they’re just quiet the whole time. But in America the wives talk more than the husbands, at least at my house.

Why do you find it interesting to observe cultural differences?

I observe, and then I wonder, if I was in that position, that specific culture, would I do this or would I do that? So there are more possibilities. In Korea I definitely had to change. If I want to hang out with my friends, who have good grades, I should have good grades too. I mean, I’m kind of off and on. I’m focused now, but maybe tomorrow I’ll say, “Oh, it won’t be a big deal if I don’t get a good grade on this test because I already have an A in the class.”

How about getting interested in the subject just because it’s the subject?

If it was technology, then I would actually do my best because I want to learn. Here I learned that I can achieve something. In Texas I was doing nothing, just playing games. My whole mindset changed. Now I’ll be concentrating in class because I want to get this method right, know it, master it and then go on to something else.

Why do you think you’ve become more outgoing in Seoul than you were in Texas?

I used to be the really quiet kid. But here when I’d hang out with my dad, we’d go to Korean business dinners and he’d make me socialize. So I’d think that I had to talk to this guy or my dad would feel ashamed of me because I didn’t know how to talk. My mom encouraged me too.

You’ve come out of your shell a lot.

But when I want to focus I go into my shell.

Many people don’t understand that when a person is an introvert, someone who turns inward, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shy. It means that you get your energy from going inside rather than picking up energy from lots of other people.

That’s kind of like me.

Do you find that you have to be more polite and respectful of people here than you did in Texas?

Yes. In America at a soccer game or something which calls for teamwork, you’d gradually learn to trust each other and be polite enough not to point out when someone messed up. But in Korea you have to be polite first and then you can relax and go the other way, so at first I’ll be more in my shell, rather than joking around first.


Corregidor, at the Mouth of Manila Bay

by on September 30th, 2015

Corregidor in Peace and War

Corregidor in Peace and War

Recently I talked with Collis H. Davis, Jr., the photographer and independent documentary filmmaker who collaborated with historian Charles Hubbard on a book called Corregidor in Peace and War, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2007. We met at Café Adriatico in Malate to talk about it. I learned again one of the few things I know about war, that new technology in warfare can cause the tide to change very rapidly. Many thanks to Collis for all the photos of from his book. (Please click on any image to enlarge.)

Collis’s story

Collis Davis

Collis Davis

In 2000, both Charles Hubbard and I were Senior Fulbright Scholars in the Philippines. He approached me about collaborating with him on a book on Corregidor Island, a scenic island at the mouth of Manila Bay with an interesting history. As the historian he would write the text, and I as the photographer would do the visual side. The University of Missouri Press took on the project and sent the manuscript out to two expert reviewers who ripped the hell out of it and sent it back with suggestions. Charles made the changes. The press was satisfied and went ahead with the press run. In the meantime I went out to the island and shot color photographs for the present-day depiction of the island. I did all the historical pictorial research as well, with maps, old and new, involving the island’s history. We tapped every conceivable source here in the Philippines, including the Spanish cultural center, the Instituto Cervantes of Manila. I designed and laid out the book and did the first index. The press eventually did their own index. Violeta P. Hughes was the editor.

So what can you tell us about the historical importance of Corregidor Island?

Spanish Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

1727 Dutch map of Manila Bay

1727 Dutch Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

wing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

1727 Dutch Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

Spanish Map sho

1727 Dutch Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

The Reina Cristina

The Spanish cruiser of the 1st class, Reina Cristina

The Spanish cruiser of the 1st class, Reina-Cristina

The island lies at the mouth of Manila Bay. In the early seventeenth century [after aggressive action by Chinese and Dutch pirates, the British military and threats from the Muslims in Mindanao], the Spanish colonizers set up Corregidor Island to protect the city of Manila and the harbor.

I’m sure the strategic value of the island was obvious to the Spaniards because you see it all over Europe, the use of fortresses on islands or hills to control a waterway.

Battery Way mortar

Battery Way, 12″ breech-loading mortar

Right. They set up front-loading cannons which they were still using when the Americans arrived during the Spanish-American War. The US had the modern breech-loading cannons, which were loaded from the back. With all due respect the Spaniards did have a couple of breech-loading cannons in Manila, in Fort Santiago and other places, right on the water. But they were too far away from Admiral Dewey’s fleet, which entered Manila Bay in May of 1898. [The Americans sneaked past with no lights on, changed course and then charged toward Manila.] Because the Spanish had not gotten word that the Americans were coming, they were caught completely unawares and incapable of mounting a serious defense. When the Reina Christina sank, the command ship of the Spanish military here, the Spanish knew that their mission in the Philippines was over. It spelled the end of Spanish rule. It was kind of an easy victory for Dewey.

Battery Hearn fixed gun

Battery Hearn, 12″ fixed gun

Was it kind of agreed that this was going to happen or was it an actual military defeat? Because afterwards in the Treaty of Paris the US bought the Philippines, Guam and a few other places for two million dollars.

No, it was an actual military defeat. I think the sale was a face-saving arrangement for the Spaniards. Two million dollars was a lot of money at that time. Spain must have been happy to extricate itself.

Malinta Tunnel entrance

Malinta Tunnel entrance

When the Americans took over they proceeded to build up the island, to transform it into formidable military weapon which could sink any ship approaching the harbor when it was still 27,6oo yards (25.2 km. or 15.7 miles)  out at sea. During the years 1911-1912 and so on, they put in some awesome weapons, breech-loading cannons and a new innovation, disappearing cannons that would rise up out of a protected bunker, fire, and then recoil back down to the wall where they were protected from any oncoming fire. As World War II approached the Americans laid mine fields on both channels linked to Corregidor Island.

Layout of Malina Tunnel

Layout of Malina Tunnel

They had huge mortars sites on the island also. Battery Way was one site which lasted throughout World War II and was still firing mortars against the Japanese. The advantage of the mortars was that they could pivot 360 degrees, so they could fire in any direction to target any enemy ship they liked and ground targets in Bataan and Cavite, whereas the long guns and the big cannons were very limited.

Ft. Drum

Ft. Drum

But then in WWII the airplane became viable as a weapon platform. After the Japanese destroyed all the aircraft at Clark Air Force Base, they could bomb Corregidor at will because Corregidor didn’t have any significant anti-aircraft capability. So the Japanese had a very easy time targeting everything on the island because it was antiquated, both in weapons and in concept, since it was set up long before air power became an issue. Still, the mortars carried the day for a long time before the Americans finally had to surrender, and that was significant.

The fortified islands

The fortified islands

Of course Corregidor wasn’t the only island. There was also El Frail, a big rock which the Americans covered with concrete and formed into a battleship-looking edifice they named Fort Drum. It was very seriously armed with 12-inch cannons and so on. Then at the end of the war, the Japanese had taken cover the concrete battleship and were holding out to the very end. They refused to surrender, so the Americans came in and poured gasoline into the innards of the island and blew it up, incinerating all the Japanese inside.

Summary of combat

Summary of combat

The Japanese also held out in the Malinta Tunnel which the US had dug under a mountain. When they refused to surrender they were burned out or blown out—killed by detonations. There are pictures of the tunnel in the book, as well as the cliff where Japanese soldiers jumped to their death rather than surrender.

After the war the island was a shambles. A commission was formed, and it decided to reconstruct the island, rehabilitate it as much as possible. A few of the guns had been dismantled by salvagers who had come to the island surreptitiously with their acetylene torches and cut the gun barrels into pieces in order to take them down the side of the island to waiting barges and then to foundries. They were partially successful, but then the authorities caught on and stopped it. There is evidence of the kind of pilferage that went on everywhere right after the end of the war.

The restored isaldn

The restored island

But now the island’s been transformed by the Corregidor Foundation, headed up by Leslie Murray, who was arrested as a child POW during the war and h

eld at the University of Santo Tomas. Day-to-day operations were run by Art Matibag, a retired military colonel. They’ve done a fantastic job of restoring the island, giving day tours and overnight tours and all kinds of activities. But now their role is being phased out because the Department of Tourism is taking over the management of the island.

So there’s overnight accommodation?

View of the South China Sea

View of the South China Sea

Yes. Right off Roxas Boulevard, which runs along Manila Bay in Malate, is Harbor Square and Manila Sun Cruises. From there you can take a 45-minute ride to Corregidor Island at the mouth of Manila Bay. There’s a hotel with a veranda overlooking the South China Sea where you can sit and relax, drink a beer and enjoy the food service. You can stay overnight if you like or return to Manila on the same day. There are several different programs.

A friend of mine, Steve A.Kwiecinski, wrote a book about his father’s experience as a gunner at Battery Way who held out until he was captured by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp in Japan. He survived and lived a long time afterwards. Steve collected his father’s stories and spent six years on Corregidor. Then he wrote a book, Honor, Courage, Faith: A Corregidor Story, which was published in 2012 by National Bookstore’s Anvil Press. He and his wife, Marcia, attended all the historical observances having to do with the island, veterans’ burials, Memorial Day, all kinds of milestones having to do with the island. My connection was not that personal.

The book is Corregidor in Peace and War by Charles M. Hubbard and Collis H. Davis, Jr., University of Missouri Press, 2007. Its 216 pages contain 53 color and 115 black and white illustrations. New and used copies are available via In Metro Manila the book is also sold at La Soliaridad Bookstore in Ermita and on the mezzanine level of Silahis Arts and Artifacts in Intramuros, Manila.

Collis H. Davis, Jr. is the photographer and independent documentary filmmaker who worked with Richie Quirino on the documentary Pinoy Jazz: The Story of Jazz in the Philippines. The post on Pinoy Jazz appears in the previous post at


A Filipino Jazz Musician and Jazz Journalist

by on September 8th, 2015

Richie Quirino on drums and vocals, playing Latin jazz with Quarana at the Sage Bar, Makati Shangri-la Hotel.

Richie Quirino on drums and vocals, playing Latin jazz with Quarana at the Sage Bar, Makati Shangri-la Hotel.

pinoy-jazzOne night in Tago Jazz Café I met Richie Quirino, who’d written three books on Filipino jazz and used the subject matter for the documentary he did with Collis Davis. The following week I interviewed him at the Shangri-la Hotel in Makati, where he had a gig playing Latin jazz in the Sage Bar. With his permission I added snapshots from the documentary, Pinoy Jazz. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Richie’s story

Louisiana houses on stilts.

Louisiana houses on stilts.

My father, Carlos Quirino, studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and graduated in 1931. While he was there he heard of a Filipino community in Louisiana near New Orleans area, so before returning to Manila he visited the bayou area to do interviews and take pictures. He discovered five communities, one called Manila Village.

Philippines/PinoyJazz3/CarolDussereBack in the nineteenth century during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, a lot of Filipinos had been hired to work in the galleon trade between Mexico and the Philippines. It was hard labor, and wages were terrible, so many of the men jumped ship. They had heard that the Louisiana environment was very much like that of the Philippines. So they went there and started fishing or doing whatever they could to make a living. They intermarried with the locals and eventually set up communities. I believe they witnessed the birth of jazz. Filipinos love music, so I imagine that they mingled and absorbed the music. The second song in the documentary is “The Belle of the Philippines” by an unknown composer in New Orleans. Filipinos also love to write letters. These people were homesick. They would send letters and somehow get their relatives to America secretly, tago ng tago.

Philippines/PinoyJazz4/CarolDussereAround the same time, in 1898, the Spanish-American war was raging. Admiral Dewey defeated the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish surrendered. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the Philippines was ceded to the United States in return for twenty million dollars,

When the Americans took over, they brought their jazz with them here. In Pinoy Jazz Traditions, I mentioned David Fagin, a happy-go-lucky African-American who was with the US troops. He came here, deserted and joined Aguinaldo’s Filipino troops. He was well known for singing gospel music, Negro spirituals, and the blues. That was how jazz filtered into the Philippines. In 1901, the Thomasites came to teach English, bringing with them the American education system and Edison phonographs. A couple of decades later there was also jazz on 78-rpm records.

Jazz musicians play at the funeral march of Spanish rule.

Jazz musicians play at the funeral march of Spanish rule.

Filipinos love freedom. It was a big relief to be out from under Spanish rule. We had vaudeville here, stage shows to entertain the general public with comedians and musicians. Then the Dixieland era came in. Filipinos embraced it as freedom music. The heart of jazz is improvisation. That’s what distinguishes one jazz musician from another, how they speak through the universal language.

My own story starts in 1970 when I formed a band with my best friend, Raffy Lopez. He was twelve, and I was thirteen. His brother Gabby returned from the States and brought jazz records with him. They completely blew me away, and I decided jazz was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was more refined, more sophisticated, than the rock and blues we had been doing. It needed research and practicing, but there was no looking back. My mother, who’s a novelist and poet, tried to discourage me because she thought I’d regret it when I’d have trouble paying my bills. But my father said, “Choose what you want to be, but be the best at it.”

Angel Peña

Angel Peña

After high school I enrolled in De La Salle University, where I didn’t want to be. Then I had to go to summer school to retake some required courses I’d flunked. I was so stressed out that I developed a skin condition from scratching. The dermatologist told my parents, “Let your son do what he wants to do. This is a psychological thing.” So I enrolled in the College of Music at the University of the Philippines, where I learned how to read music and to write music. I already played the drums, but I took up piano and soprano sax as well. I also studied gamelan with an instructor from Indonesia and kulintang, brass gong music from Mindanao. I really got into twentieth-century music, like Stravinsky. After three years I moved on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated cum laude three years later with a double major in professional music and audio recording.

Joey Valenciano

Joey Valenciano

I’d come to jazz through Miles Davis and fusion, which wasn’t difficult for me to appreciate because of all the rock elements in it. I thought I was a damned good fusion drummer. But at Berklee I learned how to play big band, swing, cool jazz, and all the genres. Berklee was a great experience. There was Herb Pomeroy, one of Berklee’s founding members, who headed the concert band and the recording band. He taught the Duke Ellington class and a class for arrangers and composers only. For those classes there were a lot of prerequisites. For a while I roomed with Tots Tolentino and Bob Aves.

Tots Tolentino

Tots Tolentino

At the same time I had a series of odd jobs, which I wouldn’t have been able to do here. I told my parents I wanted the experience of working with my hands. It made a man of me. It really enriched my life. My first job was in the work-study program as a janitor cleaning the classrooms and the dormitory during the summer break. One afternoon at a quarter to five, I was hitting on this really cute flute player. Our supervisor had the hots for her too, so he came up with some errands for me. I objected that it was almost quitting time, he ordered me to do it, and I muttered something in Filipino. You know what? He’d been stationed here at Clark Air Base and he knew what it meant. He ordered me to report to the director of the work-study program.

Bob Aves with his album using Filipino gongs.

Bob Aves with his album using Filipino gongs.

This guy said, “Well, Ricardo, I’ll bring you up a notch. You’re going to work as a receptionist at the front desk of the dormitory.” I was promoted! From there I worked in the mailing office, in the scheduling office, in the ensemble office. I got to know the people who were running the school, who were also musicians. On my last job at the school I got into another altercation with my boss, he sent me to  the program director, and I quit.

After that I got a job in a laundromat, where I broke my back for eight months until a Hong Kong immigrant at the school, a guitar player, said he’d been making at least $7 an hour driving a cab. In order to get my hackney license I had to get my driver’s license and then take a seminar on getting around Boston—traffic, street names, locations of hospitals, hotels, clubs—and then pass an exam to get my hack license. I leased a cab from Checker Cab and drove the graveyard shift. I really enjoyed the freedom of moving around Boston. Every passenger was a new experience. I left Boston in 1980.

"Igorot Jazz Fantasy, Bagbagtulambing" by Angel Peña was a landmark piece.

“Igorot Jazz Fantasy, Bagbagtulambing” by Angel Peña was a landmark piece.

In 1991 the United States was told it couldn’t extend or renew its bases in the Philippines, so it packed up its bags and left. All the jazz was gone. The Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center had brought in jazz musicians for concerts. It had a library of audio recordings and books, and Filipinos could go there to learn more about jazz. That folded up. The archives were crated up and stored in a warehouse in Subic. Later I tried to get access but was denied.

Filipinos had been doing American and European music because we didn’t know our own identity, but the enormous void spurred us on in search of it. It took years. In 1999 Jim Ayson, put up a website called Phil Music. He set up Pinoy Jazz E-Groups, creating a forum for everyone interested in jazz to share their dreams. I wanted to write books and make a documentary. Someone else wanted to do his own concerts. This was what started the big bang because it went in so many directions and put people in touch with one another. Filipinos from all over the world would subscribe. There was an explosion.

Jonny Alegre

Jonny Alegre

There are two kinds of Pinoy jazz. One is, like you said, a Filipino playing “Watermelon Man.” We’re good copycats, so we listen to the record and copy what the players are doing, but of course not exactly Herbie Hancock’s improvisation. The real deal is Filipinos who have found their own identity by infusing indigenous ethnic music from the Philippines, from the north and from the south, and incorporating it into their music. We only have a few of these gifted musicians: Bob Aves, Tots Tolentino, Johnny Alegre. Some composers will have one song on their album with Asian rhythms and Asian Instruments are used, specifically from the Philippines. There are also the jazz arrangers and composers like Albert E. Albert, creating their own music—original music—even though it may sound American or European.

Also in 1999 my father died, and my mom in 2002. When they were both gone I felt empty, and that triggered in me a desire to what they did, research, compiling memorabilia, writing, working with an editor. The whole experience connected me with my parents. It started with interviewing older musicians, including people I discovered through the e-groups in Europe and Japan and America. Gradually I realized I might have a book. That was my first one, Pinoy Jazz Traditions, about the American era in the Philippines. To my surprise it won a National Book Award. The only other recipients of that award in music were two of my teachers at the UP College of Music. My second book was Mabuhay Jazz, which covered the post-war period to 1969. It had the same format: the narrative of the era, a photo chest and the interviews. My third book was Contemporary Jazz in the Philippines, from 1970 to 2010. I didn’t have to do as much digging as I did for the first two.

Collis Davis

Collis Davis

In 2003, I called Collis Davis, an American very well-versed in jazz who’s living in the Philippines and asked for help with the Jazz Society in the Philippines. Collis is a webmaster, photographer and documentarian. He did the website for Jazz-Phil, and we did the documentary on the story of jazz in the Philippines. I provided the research and the material, and he provided the camera and the editing software and put it together. Our third partner, Gus Langman, provided the logistics. At that time he was the owner of Monk’s Dream Jazz Club, which was open from 2001 to 2004 or 2005. Monk’s Dream, named for Thelonius Monk, was the venue for the jazz society. I was in charge of the open jam on Sundays. I also conducted clinics and workshops. We screened documentaries on jazz and produced five jazz festivals here. The club will reopen on the ground floor of a five-story structure that Gus is building in Rockwell Center, a high-end, mixed-use project in Makati.

Gus Lagman of Monk's Dream

Gus Lagman of Monk’s Dream

Now, in the meantime my old friend Raffy Lopez had become the CEO of his family business, ABS-CBN. The family also owns Rockwell. When I told him I wanted to have jazz festivals there, he said we could use the parking lot and he’d provide the stage. Since Monk’s Dream was just outside the parking lot, we just had to bring the instruments a few feet outside. We got sponsors who put up booths to sell food. The only thing was I didn’t have money to pay the bands. They said, “Richie, we’ll play for free.” That’s the love of jazz. We did five jazz festivals.

After two years I relinquished the jazz society presidency to Sandra Lim, who took it to an international level. The Philippines became one of the ten member countries of the Asian Jazz Federation, which negotiates for discounts. So for example Chick Corea might play in the Philippines in February, in Indonesia in March and Tokyo in April and so on. Sandra Lim also formed her own organization called PI Jazz Org, which produces the festivals in February. Jazz really exploded.

The first festival I attended outside the country was in Bremen in March 2006. The German embassy and the Goethe Institute sponsored my trip. I was one of fifty representatives from all over the world. All major German cities have their own jazz festivals and compete with one another, but that year they decided to unite and show the world what German jazz is all about. It was a five-day event. At that time there was no book written on the history of German jazz.

After Bremen I started getting invitations to attend more jazz festivals. Rather than bring in a group of people, it’s easier for a festival to bring in one person who’s offering the whole pie, with the books and the documentary, so I started getting invited all over the world.

Charmaine Clamor with her first album of Filipino jazz.

Charmaine Clamor with her first album of Filipino jazz.

In March of 2007 Collis and I were sent to the Java Jazz Festival, which was incredible, rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Scofield, Sergio Mendes, Sadao Watanabe, Flora Purim and Airto, Kenny Rankin, and Gino Vanelli. We were all staying in the same hotel and eating in the same buffet area. Then also in 2007 I went to Los Angeles to show the documentary and to perform for Jazz-Phil, USA, which Charmaine Clamor and her husband Mike Konick had kicked off in 2005 with our blessing.

In 2013, I went to the San Francisco for the second Filipino-American book festival and the sixth Filipino-American jazz festival, which took place on the same weekend. Both sponsored my trip. I screened the documentary and signed books.

In Skarlet's Ten02. there were workshops, jams. performances, everything for players and fans

In Skarlet’s Ten02. there were workshops, jams. performances, everything for players and fans

In the Philippines we enjoyed a whole decade of jazz, but I predicted it would eventually die, and it did. Jazz clubs open and close, open and close. Clubs like Skarlet’s Ten-0-2 started closing. Even clubs that did jazz just once a week were closing. You can’t have it all the time. Let’s put it this way: people will go to hear somebody once, twice, maybe three times. Then they’ll go hear another group. Jazz includes all kinds of music in this country, and it’s a little more sophisticated and requires more listening than some forms of music.

The band Elemento plays its own music on instruments the players maker from things others have discarded.

The band Elemento plays its own music on instruments the players make from things others have discarded.

Tago opened up about the same time other clubs were closing. I’m used to that kind of club from New York and Boston, a dimly lit, hard-to-find hole in the wall. If I lived around the block I’d be there every night.

I’m looking for new leaders. Many of our older leaders have passed on, like the great Angel Peña and Joey Valenciano, both on the UP music faculty. I’m waiting for the young jazz lions to take over. Nobody else has even thought of writing a book on Filipino jazz. I am the lone wolf. But I’ve met many other writers from all over the world, some who’ve consulted with me about Asian jazz and cited my work, so I’m excited that it’s bearing fruit.

Note: The filmmaker Collis Davis was the webmaster for the jazz society’s website, which was set up to promote the jazz scene in the Philippines and the Filipine Diaspora. He said the jazz society began disintegrating after Monk’s Dream closed and it lost its natural clubhouse. At the last meeting he screened the updated version of his film about a jazz musician, The Edification of Weldon Irvine. The jazz society website has just recently closed down. The DVD, Pinoy Jazz, is available at La Solidaridad Bookstore in Ermita and on the mezzanine level of Silahis Arts and Artifacts in Intramuros. Copies can also be ordered directly from Collis Davis from his website, or at




Misspelling “Embarrassed” in Korea

by on August 20th, 2015

King Sejong statue in Seoul with the Gwanghwamun behind

King Sejong statue in Seoul with the Gwanghwamun behind

Ana’s experience teaching in the language school reminded me of the first time my supervisor observed me when I was teaching elementary German in the US as a PhD student in German literature. I was very nervous. At the end of the class she pointed to the blackboard where I’d made a mistake in elementary grammar—in subject-verb agreement or something like that. I blushed, and we laughed it off. At the same institution I took a linguistics class from an instructor whose illustrations of linguistic phenomena on the board always contained English spelling errors. That was a bit much, because she could have checked the spelling in advance, but we pointed the errors out, and she corrected them.

Confucian cultures, however, are “shame cultures” with little tolerance for mistakes or disabilities. Many people also don’t seem to distinguish between “professional” and “personal.” This story illustrates what can happen when Western employees work under Korean management—but also how the employee can eventually excel. Tip: Don’t provide any information the boss doesn’t need to know.

This interview took place over Skype while Ana was in South Korea and I was in the Philippines.

Ana’s story

Before I came to Korea I was living in the United States. I’d just finished a master’s degree, which meant I could teach at a Korean university although my degree was not in language teaching or a related field. When I contacted a friend who’s teaching here, she told me I could check out jobs online or I could come over and find a job, since they were plentiful. I was skeptical because my only teaching experience was a year in South America. But I did come over, and I got an interview at a language school connected with a top university in Seoul. The woman who interviewed me was absolutely delighted with me. She became my boss. Her English name is June.

Nowadays to get a work visa as a foreigner in Korea you need a criminal background check and an apostilled diploma. I’d had some of the paperwork done before I left, but the police station where I had my fingerprints taken did it incorrectly, and the FBI couldn’t read the prints. I had to get them done again here. That meant waiting a month and a half. However, the school was willing to hold the job for me. Then I was sent to a Korean consulate in Japan for my work visa. I couldn’t start working until I had my visa in hand. Before I left, I stopped in at the office to say hello, and June said, “There’s something about you. You bring sunlight into the room.” It was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me.

I was originally supposed to start in May, but my first day was in mid-July. June came in to observe. During the lesson I misspelled a word on the board. Ironically, that word was “embarrassed.” Afterwards June asked, “Why did you spell it wrong? Why can’t you spell?”

There was another teacher in the room, so I said, “Can I talk to you privately?” We went into another room and I explained that I’m slightly dyslexic.

She said, “I feel deceived.” She dismissed me. Her behavior turned very cold, like I was a horrible teacher. I couldn’t spell, and therefore I couldn’t teach. After that she kept repeating that I’d deceived her by not telling her about my dyslexia. She was talking down to me as if I’d been convicted of grand larceny.

Eventually, I said, “Deception is what you do when your intention is to hurt someone, but I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. I feel ‘deceived’ is not the right word to use in this situation.” I tried to let it go.

This was still within the first three days of my job. I was waiting for her to tell me the school wasn’t going to keep me on. At that point I was so disheartened I said, “I don’t know if this is for me.”

It was weird because she was so unhappy with me and she so disliked me, but she wasn’t firing me. She was also hammering away at another message: I needed to make it up to her. I’d wronged her, so now I needed to be perfect. I needed to prove to her that I could teach. I’d come to the school without a teaching degree, and she’d thought I could do it anyway. I realized she was telling me to make sure she saved face in front of her boss.

I became so sensitive that I believed everything anyone said was about me, whether it was directed at me or not. For example, the school had special classes where students could get extra help, but none were assigned to me. I thought it was because people had no confidence in me. It didn’t occur to me that I should be happy I didn’t have to take an extra class or that my assignments weren’t made to fit in with other people’s teaching schedules.

So there was this huge hubbub about my having misspelled a word, and then one of my coworkers confided that he was on thin ice. A few days later, between lunch and the first afternoon class, there was an emergency meeting. Someone took our orders for coffee from a nearby gourmet coffee shop. I heard, “It must be really bad if they’re buying us gifts.” At the meeting they told us they’d had to let somebody go. They wanted us to pick up his classes. So I got another class.

In the meantime, June had taken a leave of absence for a month because she wasn’t feeling well—a nervous condition or something. Within the second week of her absence, I was waking up in the middle of the night panicking that I was going to sleep through my alarm. Every day I hated it. I was going to work with a big fricking smile on my face, but I felt trapped. I felt ill all the time. On top of that I had a full course load. I had four classes a day. That’s seven hours of teaching, every day, Monday through Friday—and the extra pressure. But when I took the job I’d made a vow to myself that I would give it 110%, and I did. I never was never late for a class, and I was never unprepared.

Maybe two months into my five-months’ contract, my boss called me into a meeting and said, “We’re not going to rehire you.” I hadn’t planned to sign up again anyway, but it was still a blow to my ego, and my feelings were hurt. Then I started feeling jealous of my co-workers because they were enjoying their jobs while I was in my own private hell. Fortunately, I had friends outside of work I would see on the weekends.

Things started changing when a friend said, “You need to get a thicker skin.” Other people told me to stop fighting and let it go. “Stop trying to make it right. Stop trying to read meaning into everything. As soon as you stop fighting it will be different.” And it was.

When I stopped internalizing everything, it all shifted. I’d find myself in a negative thought, and I’d tell myself, “Stop. Don’t go there.” I realized I was bringing in stuff from the past that had nothing to do with the current situation. I told myself I needed to have a different attitude. I needed to pick out the things I liked about the job and say to hell with everything else.

I got along fine with all my coworkers, all the other foreigners. One day when June snapped at me in front of other people—which was embarrassing and unprofessional—they said, “What was that all about?”

“I don’t know, she just really doesn’t like me, I guess.”

They said, “Why?”

The head teacher of the Korean staff, a woman named Young-ah, was nice and supportive and kind. I have a lot of respect for her. Even in the thick of things, when she saw me in the hall, she’d always stop me and say things like, “How are you doing? How are your classes? You look really nice. All I’m hearing are good things from your students.”

I had the most wonderful group of students. They were amazing people. At first I’d been nervous because my students are business people, and I’d heard how chauvinist Korean businessmen can be. Ninety percent of them were so nice. Drinking is very big in this culture, but when we went out after class and I said, “I don’t drink,” they didn’t make a big deal of it. They just bought me a soda. They were really genuine people.

It made all the difference to focus on the good things. In the future when I get to something that’s difficult, I can remember being in Korea and feeling trapped. After a while I had started enjoying myself, not only because the end of my contract was near but because I was having a good time with my students. I thought, “Wait a minute, I really like my job. Maybe I have to see my boss twice a week, once at a meeting and once in passing. I can do that.”

Fast forward now three and a half months, and my coworkers were having problems with the boss. For example, there was going to be a North American-style Thanksgiving dinner. June made a big deal about including the wife and two kids of one of the teachers. Then the day before the dinner she called him into the office and said his family couldn’t come. Another teacher, someone who had problems with the boss, wrote her an email expressing her feelings. That didn’t go over well. Since I had already worked through all that negativity, I found it interesting to sit back and watch other people act like babies, responding in a very reactive way.

Then there was the episode of the skiing trip which was supposed to be for the staff and the students. [In Korea and Japan attendance at supposedly solidarity-building work functions is mandatory.] The boss was talking about how we could rent a bus, we could start drinking after skiing and then go bowling at night. I really didn’t want to go, so I told them I had family coming to Korea. Other people were saying they wouldn’t go because they didn’t like the boss, like the guy who couldn’t bring his family to the Thanksgiving dinner.

So in response to your original question, “Would you see something like this in America?” I say no. I think an American boss would have asked me what she could do to help. In the States I’ve made mistakes on the job without getting talked down to. When I ran into another foreigner who used to work with June, he was surprised. “Why is she so close-minded? I’m not a good speller. People make mistakes. That’s why we have spell-check.”

This is a shame culture. Your exterior has to look spotless. My students are in class from 8:30 to 5:30, Monday through Friday, for ten weeks. During the week they live here. On the weekends they go home to their wives and their husbands. Then they come back here and do another week. They told me they feel like robots. It’s almost sad. Here if you screw up, you don’t apologize, you don’t show your face. You’d better just fix it. People around you will remember.

One day the office manager, who was always on someone’s butt for something, realized she’d forgotten to tell the students their pictures were going to be taken. It was time, and nobody had showed up. She didn’t say, “I made a mistake,” she just crumbled. She said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that.” She was in a real panic, and then she squatted down and covered her head like someone was about to beat her. One of my coworkers made a sarcastic remark about her not running a tight ship. People were saying, “God forbid anyone should make a mistake.”

I’ve heard so many horror stories about teaching here that I honestly don’t think my situation is any different. I was never told straight-out what they wanted. I had to read between the lines. One of my first experiences had to do with textbooks. My boss held up a book and said, “This is what we usually use, but I want you to go to the bookshelf and pick out one you’d rather use instead.” I picked out two I liked. When I showed them to her, she said, “Oh, no, I want you to use this one.” Another time she asked, “Do you have time in your schedule to take another class?” I said, “No, I only have a small amount of free time, and I need some time to myself.” She said, “But we really need you to do this.” It’s like they give you the illusion of choice, but there’s only one right answer.

June came up to me last weekend and asked how many weeks I had left. I told her two weeks. She said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner.” At the staff meeting beforehand, I said I really enjoyed working there, people had helped me a lot and given me guidance, and I appreciated the head teacher, who had always been nice to me.

I get uneasy around June, but at dinner I told her how I felt, that I had vowed to do a good job and after everything happened there were times when I wanted to give up, but I was really glad I’d stuck it out. I thanked her for the opportunity, and I meant it.

She listened. Then she talked about holding the position open for me during the long wait for the paperwork. She said in Korea dyslexia was looked upon as a disease, there was such a stigma attached to it. She said, “I refused to look at it that way.” She told me she’d had to meet with the dean. Other teachers hadn’t wanted me to stay, because the school was run like a business and they were afraid their clients wouldn’t like it. Even though her head was telling her it wasn’t a good idea, she’d wanted to give me a chance. She said, “You worked so hard, you’re genuine, you’re honest.” She went on and on.

I thanked her. I reminded her of when I’d walked into her office and she’d said I brought sunshine into the room.

She said, “I still think that. I’m not taking any of the other teachers to dinner, and I don’t care whether they like it or not. You’re probably among the top ten most amazing people I’ve ever met. If I ever meet someone else with dyslexia I’d like to share this experience. Can I use your name?”

It blew my mind. I told her I was flattered. I felt she was being genuine. Dinner was a really nice gesture.

Readers write:

Many of the readers of this story on Facebook made positive comments. The majority were English teachers working in Korea.



Benefit for a Filipino Musician

by on August 5th, 2015

Lilybeth Garcia, Skarlet Brown, Nyng Pinion, Nickie Mossman and Joel Galang

Lilybeth Garcia, Skarlet Brown, Nyng Pinion, Nickie Mossman and Joel Galang

Recently I sat on the porch outside Tago Jazz Café with Nickie Mossman, and she supplied the words to go with the photos I’d taken at a benefit a few nights before at Cafe Astana in Makati. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Nickie’s story

Joel Galang & Nickie Mossman

Joel Galang & Nickie Mossman

The benefit we had was for Joel Galang, who was my pianist from 1987 until I went to Hong Kong in 2007. We were like siblings. His parents loved me, and I was really like a member of the family. I came back in 2011 when my mother got cancer because I needed to look after her. I didn’t have time to look him up. When I did go to his old address in Cubao, I was really
surprised that his house had been demolished. There was just a vacant lot. Then a few weeks ago I heard that he’d had a stroke and his brother had abandoned him. He was living on the streets. The news was very painful.

Was there a story behind why he was abandoned?

John Balmonte

John Balmonte

His brother is a jerk. He’s been spending all the family money without giving any to Joel. I hated him for that. But I knew Joel had a son, Jovy, so I went looking for him. Fortunately, last Saturday I got his number and I called and insisted on seeing him. He came over around midnight. We talked, and I said, “All right, what are we going to do about your father?” We agreed to go through Skarlet and the Heart of Music, which is the official non-governmental organization for helping musicians with severe medical conditions. Jovy doesn’t have much money, but as his son he has an obligation to care of his father. I promised him to help him. He said he has always seen me as his aunt, which I really appreciated.

House pianist, Lando Opon

House pianist, Lando Opon

The benefit happened because a group of friends—the owners of the bar where we performed, the regular customers and other singers—found out about Joel. They got in touch with me and asked if it would be all right to have benefit to raise money for his physical therapy and his medicine. He can raise the affected arm, which is a good sign. After a stroke some people can’t raise the arm at all. So when they asked me about the benefit, I said, “Why not?”

MC, Nickie Mossman

MC, Nickie Mossman

Then I called Skarlet to tell her, since she’s the one looking after Joel. We also wanted her to be in charge of the money we raised. That’s why we were at the table going over the figures. She wants it to be clear that what she does with the money—to avoid suspicion and all that. Everything was written down. That’s why I love her. She’s very transparent. What you see is what you get.

So it really was a spontaneous thing, which was why I happened to see your invitation on Facebook at the last minute.

Floraine Lacson

Floraine Lacson

Yes. I was inviting everyone. The songs we played were mostly the jazz standards we were singing when Joel was still playing the piano. We wanted to inspire him, to tell him, “Look, you have to do something. You have to get well so you can get back to paying for us.” Heart of Music will help him, and I heard there’s another group as well.

Can you tell me something about Heart of Music?

Girlie Benedicto

Girlie Benedicto

Well, HOM has been really, really good to musicians. I think it’s growing slowly. I hope it will be really successful very soon because, as I see it, there are lots of musicians who need help, even people out in the provinces. It’s the only NGO I’ve seen that helps. What HOM does is try to find sponsors for musicians who need dialysis or medications for high blood pressure or some other on-going condition. My mom was a recipient. She was a singer. When she needed blood I contacted Skarlet, and she helped me with two bags of blood. As long as I’m a singer, I qualify for help, and so does my family. I like the people with HOM because they really care. Skarlet is such a beautiful woman with a very big heart.

Nyng Pinion

Nyng Pinion

I think they are going to have another free dental mission or something. I heard that somewhere. And once again it’s Skarlet’s HOM doing this for the musicians.

Now, for my readers who don’t know about music in the Philippines, could you tell me more about Skarlet?

Skarlet Brown (Myra Ruaro)

Skarlet Brown (Myra Ruaro)

She was the lead singer with a ska band called Put3ska [a word play based on the Tagalog phrase, putres ka—damn you] and another called the Brownbeat All Stars. They had cut records. For a while Skarlet owned a bar called Ten02, renamed Skarlet’s Jazz Kitchen. When I first heard her sing, I was so amazed that I said, “Who’s she?” I met her that night. Then when I came back from Hong Kong a few years later she’d already formed Heart of Music. It was a great idea to set up an NGO for musicians. The government certainly wasn’t helping. We’re not earning enough—sometimes as little as 500 pesos [$11.36] a night or even less—and we’re so tired. We entertain people, but nobody entertains us. I’d been telling people that we should do something. We should help each other. But at that time I guess people were scared. That’s why I admire Skarlet so much.

Butch Miraflor & Joey San Andres

Butch Miraflor & Joey San Andres

What would people be scared of?

I don’t know—probably the government. With the system here you’re not going to get protection unless you hand over a certain amount.

There was also that NGO scandal.

Mark Mabasa

Mark Mabasa

Yeah. That’s why during the 1990s musicians weren’t into putting up unions or NGOs. I hope this HOM grows bigger and bigger and gets a lot of sponsors to help musicians like me. To be honest, I’m not getting any younger. One day I’ll have to call Skarlet and ask for help. When I saw how she really helped Joel—I call him my brother—the way she helped my brother, I don’t know how to thank her. She pulled him off the streets, and she asked Nelson if Joel could stay at Tago for a couple of days. That was fine by Nelson, but Joel couldn’t sleep. He needed rest. He’d had a stroke. He’s also really stubborn. He’d go around asking people for cigarettes and beer. Well, he’s in a bar. What do you expect? The temptations are there.

Lilybeth Garcia

Lilybeth Garcia

So scarlet had to pull him out of Tago. After that I heard he was with his brother, and then back on the streets, which was really terrible. But I think everything’s going to be all right. I heard they’re going to put Joel in a hospice. His son and I will provide moral support.

Yes, the hospices are cheaper than the national hospitals [which charge about a third or less than the private hospitals]. The hospices here are run by nuns, and they only ask for a small donation, like 50 pesos [$1.13]. So I think that would be better for him. It’s better than his staying on the streets.

Lando Opon, Anna Tanquintic, John Balmonte

Lando Opon, Anna Tanquintic, John Balmonte

I  know someone who lived on the streets here for quite a while. She looked like she was dying. Very, very thin. Skin that had turned an unhealthy shade of brown from a skin disease. People had tried to get her into a treatment center, but she wouldn’t go. One Sunday afternoon I rode around with some friends who were trying to find an emergency room at a national hospital which would treat an infected cut on her foot. They eventually found one. I’ve seen other people who have no teeth because of methamphetamine poisoning but who keep having babies because reproductive health isn’t available. There’s a nice, gray-haired woman who comes to my friend’s soup kitchen and who showed up once with a knife wound all down one side of her face. So I know what somebody who lives on the streets can look like.

Sammy Sancuan

Sammy Sancuan

I saw the pictures of Joel when he was found. He also had a skin disease from living on the streets. He’d made a bed outside a barangay [district] hall. Skarlet said he’d tried to talk the barangay people into letting him come inside when it rained, but they said no. It did rain when Skarlet went to visit him, and they both got soaked. That’s when Lilybeth offered him a room.

Lando Opon & Dra.Gissele

Lando Opon & Dra.Gissele

URLs to copy and paste on your navigator bar:

Skarlet and friends spearhead advocacy to help ailing musicians.

Facebook Heart of Music page.


A reader writes:

I cannot wait to see your BLOG in print.The interviews are excellent.Contact the New Yorker to publish some of these or National Geographic.
Another reader writes:
This is beautiful, Carol. I hope some of your reader would also send donations for Joel. Thank you very much, my dear friend!