Carol Dussere

by on July 27th, 2009

 Big Lalaguna Beach as seen from Campbell Resort in Puerto Galera, Mindoro,

Big Lalaguna Beach as seen from Campbell Resort in Puerto Galera, Mindoro,

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 154 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 keeping it a little loose so I have  more time for book manuscripts. The novel is on the shelf so I can concentrate on a memoir based on the Korean material you find here. Please contact me at duss...@yahoo.com  if you have any ideas for interviews.

Turning East on Facebook: Please check this out. https://www.facebook.com/turning.east.

 

 

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Following the Plan through Southeast Asia, Part 2

by on May 17th, 2015

Sunset

Sunset

This is a 2014 interview with a man who went to Southeast Asia looking for something. In the first part he’s on the road in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Here he returns to the Philippines. Thanks to Joe for the photo.

Joe’s story

In 2003, having just completed my round-the-world trip, I was newly back back in the UK. I decided that rather than go back to work perhaps I should go back to the Philippines as I’d promised my girlfriend. She and I had been sending daily texts, but suddenly the contact just died. So whilst I was calling there was no answer. I started to worry that maybe something had happened to her. Sometimes it would ring and there would be no answer, and at other times it just wouldn’t ring. It never crossed my mind that for whatever reason she just didn’t want to talk to me. I’d been such a catch while I was there (or so I thought at the time), getting drunk every night, being an obnoxious SOB.

Not to be deterred, I thought, “Right. I’ll go anyway.”

On my first night in Manila I bought a new SIM card, giving me a new number, put it in my phone and called. She answered.

“It’s me, I’m back.” I didn’t quite get the happy reception I thought I might. “What’s going on?”

“I met somebody else after you left.”

At that point it would have been understating it to speak of my ego as a bursting balloon. So I did what any self-respecting man of the world would do, went out and got shit-faced. I went to probably one of the worst places in Malate, a joint infamous for foreigners and “hunting girls.”I sat at the bar. Whenever any girl came up to ask if I wanted some company, I’d tell my story, and she’d bugger off. Then I got this idea that rather than slink back to the UK with my tail between my legs, I’d stay and make a success of my trip (or at least try to). After a few months bumming around Manila and some other places, including Puerto Galera, I decided to fly down to a province in the south.

There I met another lady who seemed quite intelligent and had a job with a respectable organization for a regular salary. We got on, so I decided to open my own business down there. I’d get my own bar. My business plan was non-existent, my research on how to get a return on my investment was non-existent, and I hadn’t considered the fact, which is blindingly obvious now, that I really had quite a drink problem. I thought with my own place I could drink with friends and close when I wanted to. A recipe for disaster in the making!

I was still traveling back and forth to do the odd contract in Europe or wherever else and earn a bit of real money. Having decided to settle down in the Philippines, I demolished the bar on the inside and rebuilt it. Afterwards people said, “Wow, this is such a nice place. It’s something we’d expect to see in Greenbelt in Makati.”[Greenbelt is an affluent urban mall with trim, pristine greenery, while Makati is the urban financial center.] This I took as a compliment, but what they were actually saying was it didn’t fit the environment. I was about five years too early with my grandiose scheme.

Finally the bar opened. It was a nightmare. Everybody who came in wanted to have a drink with me (or so I thought at the time). Everyone expected me to be there (or so I thought at the time). I was there trying to be the disc jockey at night, staying open until three or four for the late drinkers and then opening back up at seven for breakfast. Sometimes people driving home would see me asleep on the porch where I’d not managed to finish locking up.

One night a quiet, self-assured guy came in. I went over to talk with him and found out he was an active-duty soldier, an Englishman named Fletcher who was stationed in Iraq. He was on leave, and he’d come to the Philippines to meet a girl he’d gotten to know online. If it worked out the way he believed it would, he was going to marry her.

So I said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit rash? You’ve not even met her yet.”

“But I know her heart. She’s the same faith as me, and we talked a lot. I asked God to show me if this is meant to be.”

Over the course of the next year or so, when he came back on leave to see his fiancée he’d always come to have a drink with me. I got to know him really well. Fletcher was by no means a saint, but he had a real working version of the faith I’d known when I was younger. When it was time for him to go back, I’d drive him to the airport with my girlfriend and his fiancée. Before he left we’d pray together. I told him I’d kind of been searching. He always said, “Jesus hasn’t turned his back on you. Just petition him for help.”

I wasn’t ready.

Then, finally after two and a half years, my bar business was gone, along with yet another relationship. Looking back I can see I wouldn’t have wanted to stay with me either. But at the time all I could see were the wrongs everybody else had done to me.

One day in August I packed my remaining personal possessions into my car, said goodbye to my few friends in the province and drove onto the super-ferry bound for Manila. It was raining and gray and horrible. The ferry sailed along the coast, past the bar I’d once owned that was now no more, the place where I used to live, the place where my ex-girlfriend worked. I told myself to start looking to where the ship is going, not where it was coming from. Try to be positive. I wasn’t. In Manila I met a housing agent through some friends of mine. For five days she took me to look at different apartments in Makati. I was in a trance, saying no, no, no. In the province I’d been able to get a three-bedroom villa with two bathrooms and a garden for about 7,000 pesos a month, yet in Makati they wanted upwards of 20,000 for a shoebox. I just couldn’t see it. Late Friday afternoon the agent said, “I’m sorry, but my patience is gone. I’ve spent five days showing you everything in my portfolio. If you can’t pick one of the places we’ve looked at, I’m finished with you.”

I just picked one of the last two we’d seen. For a few months I stayed in that apartment and didn’t want to do anything. In the province I’d been given a medication to help with my depression. Combined with the alcohol it took me on a roller coaster ride, up and down. Every time I went out and walked around Greenbelt, I only saw happy couples everywhere I looked.

Standing on my seventeenth-story balcony, I’d have very negative thoughts. Then at a quarter to ten on the morning of Friday, on September 1, 2006, I felt the overwhelming need to ask for help. I got on my knees and asked Jesus to help me. It wasn’t like suddenly something lifted, but I did feel able to go out, and that evening I went to get something to eat. On Sunday I went to the same church that I’d been to two weeks before, the same denomination Fletcher belonged to. He’d said, “If you want to go to church, choose carefully. Try to find one that really does teach from the Bible and practices what they teach.”

The first time I went, a loving, warm, engaging pastor greeted me, shook my hand and gave me his phone number and said to call if I had any questions and wanted to get together. That was Pastor J.

So on Sunday I went to evening service. Afterwards when Pastor J asked how I was I admitted to being a bit down. He took me home to have supper with him and his wife. I told him I’d really been struggling and that on Friday morning I’d gotten on my knees and prayed for help. He asked me to reiterate what I’d said, and when I told him a beaming smile came across his face.He said, “On Friday morning my wife and I were praying for you.” We worked it out, and he and his wife had been praying for me before I got on my knees. “I can promise you now that God will help you.” He told me about a loving God who cares about me and will always love me.

Within a few weeks I asked to be baptized. We went to a condominium belonging to some people in the church, and I was baptized in their swimming pool. That was September 17, 2006. With my new-found fire and passion, I went north in the Philippines, sharing the good news with as many people as I could. I found myself in kubos in the north, sharing passages of scripture that had given me hope. For a while I was alive and felt reborn.

I brought a friend down from the north to visit their friend in Hospital in Manila. That’s when I met Celina, a young lady I quite liked. She was helping to look after my friend’s friend in hospital. I left my phone number pretending it was for the patient, her uncle. She picked it up, we communicated a few times and even went out on a date, but it really didn’t work very well, partly because I was still an obnoxious, self-centered, selfish, very mixed-up person. We did get in touch occasionally.

It was wonderful for a few months. I stopped drinking. I stopped womanizing. But little by little I started struggling, and then started going back to bars that I’d been avoiding. Basically, over a period of four years, things declined. Sometimes I still tried to go to church, but the closeness I’d felt before with God was missing. I was spinning out of control again. At the time of the 2010 World Cup, I was at my lowest ever, just going from blackout to blackout, not knowing what day of the week it was or being able to distinguish one day from the next. Then one afternoon I was sitting on a bar stool outside my local bar, not knowing why I was taking another drink when it was the last thing I wanted.

A guy walked into the bar. The guys I was sitting with made a joke. “Oh, that’s Clem. He doesn’t drink.”

My ears pricked up.

Then one of them said, “Yeah, he’s something to do with AA.” They were joking and laughing.

I followed Clem into the bar, and I said, “Excuse me, are you with AA? I might have a bit of a problem.”

“Well, do you want to stop drinking?” When I said yes, he said, “That’s the only requirement if you want to give it a go.”

He gave me a phone number, but I think it was another two weeks before I called. I went to my first meeting on August 5, 2010. That morning I took my last drink. Since that day, I’ve been learning to live my life a different way. I now have what I believe is a real relationship with my higher power whom I chose to call God. I have a conscience now.

After I had been in my recovery program for a few years, Celina and I met for coffee and had a real heart-to-heart. I told her that I wasn’t really the godly person I had pretended to be when I was going around trying to share the Bible. I said that although I’d liked her when I met her in the hospital, I’d thought I could never have a relationship with someone like her. I’d thought she was better than me and that I wasn’t worthy of anybody decent. I told her that I was now in recovery and was different to what I was like before. Something changed in our friendship. She told me she struggled to live up to the image other people had of her as a pastor’s daughter.

I saw her again just before I had to leave the Philippines–my mom was really sick and I had to look after her. Then on the Christmas of 2012 I asked Celina if she’d be my girlfriend. For a year we had a long-distance relationship, communicating every day. In 2013, I came back, and before I left I asked her to marry me. We recently married and are expecting our first child together.

I can’t believe how blessed I am. Being able to love somebody I know loves me as well, that’s a gift of recovery. I know I would never have gotten into recovery had my higher power not heard me when I asked for help. This is a new beginning. So now I know, I went around the world trying to find the answer. The answer, that the whole time was hidden deep within me. I just had to ask God for it.

A reader writes:

What a beautiful story of Joe. Inspiration, trials, courage, inner strength, faith, success. Found his way to Celina.

 

 

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Following the Plan through SE Asia, Part 1

by on May 1st, 2015

Cambodian Temple

Cambodian Temple

This is a 2014 interview with a man who went to Southeast Asia looking for something. In this first part he’s on the road in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. In the second part he returns to the Philippines. Thanks to Joe for the photos.

Joe’s Story

Cambodian Temple

T Cambodian Temple

In 2001 I was living in an apartment in Amsterdam when friends told me about their traveling experiences, meditating in ashrams in India and wats in Thailand. At that point in my life I was earning good money as a contractor, I had a nice car, and my house in the UK was rented out. But I had a deep sense of wanting to get in touch with myself. Apart from a few typical package holidays in Europe and a three-week trip to Thailand, I hadn’t done any travel abroad. I was thinking about Southeast Asia.

I said, “I can’t travel because I have a contract and a job and a house.”

They said, “You can if you really want to, although it will take a bit of organizing.”

Cambodian Temple

Cambodian Temple

I started making preparations so I could put my important stuff in storage, sell my car, finish my contracts and go. Then my mum had a minor heart attack, so the trip was delayed for a year. When I set off I was in good shape, and I’d been gym training regularly. I’d been told to take as little as possible because I’d have to carry it. So in March 2002 I’d got my life down to one 35-liter backpack with an extra eight-liter pocket. I had a round-the-world ticket, a package deal with Virgin Airlines, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines—all really good airlines—so I could take as many flights as I wanted as long as I kept moving east and got back to my point of origin within a year.

My first flight was from Manchester to India. From there I was going to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Los Angeles and back to the UK. The first night I took a train from London to Manchester, and I kept thinking, “This is it.”

The first two nights in India I was using the privilege card points I’d saved up from a hotel chain —so two nights in the Holiday Inn, a five-star hotel, in a resort area near the beach, where there were six and even seven-star hotels. From the airport in Mumbai to the hotel I saw people sleeping in the middle of the road and cows wandering around on the highway. I’d never seen anything like it, either the abject poverty or the luxurious, six and seven-star hotels.

The plan was to get over the jet lag and then go backpacking. Since I’d earned good money over the years, my idea was to keep a credit card in my back pocket so if it got too rough I could check into a nice hotel. But I did plan to hang out with backpackers and do what they were doing. I loved India, particularly not knowing what was around the corner. It was one surprise after another; people were always smiling and had a sense of playfulness about them, although things were not always good. After six weeks, I realized that my 35-liter backpack wasn’t big enough, so I asked my sister to DHL me my 70-liter backpack. I sent the little one back, even though I felt I was cheating a bit.

After Mumbai the next stop was Goa, where I knew there were ashrams, but also parties. I found all these western, modern-day hippies who were doing all the drugs that were available and having hill-top, full-moon parties. During my first week I washed the pair of really expensive trekking shoes I’d bought in Holland and put them outside my cottage to dry. I was so green that the next day I couldn’t understand why they were gone. I started to learn some valuable lessons.

I traveled all through Goa, down to Kerela, where I made friends with a local guy who owned a hotel and was planning to study in Europe. Then I came down with amebiasis—a parasite like dysentery, which I must have gotten from something in the water or in the food. In the space of two weeks I lost about ten kilos (twenty-two pounds). In photos I looked skinny. I was not eating properly, drinking a lot of alcohol and partying. I read the books I’d brought on the Dali Lama and all sorts of things that I thought were spiritual. Although I didn’t actually get into anything spiritual, I did spend quite a lot of the time out of my head, partying and waking up on beaches.

Angor Wat

Angor Wat

Vietnam

Vietnam

Then I flew to Thailand and met up with a contracting friend who was there for the 2002 World Cup. I put the backpacking on hold for two weeks, checked into a nice hotel and went out to clubs with my friend and pretended to watch some football. I got into all sorts of scrapes.

I got robbed one night. Actually, there was a real good Samaritan, an Australian guy who’d seen it all happening and who waited for the police to come and went with me to the station. He spoke Thai because he’d lived there a long time and had a Thai wife. He was translating. It didn’t help that I’d had quite a few drinks that night and didn’t really know what was going on. I was a bit wound up, but he told me to stay cool and calm. In the police station the police officer invited a camera crew to film me and the culprits who’d robbed me. I had cameras waved in my face, and I think the results were transmitted live on television. The police took one of the perpetrators into a back room and beat the crap out of him.

Vietnam

Vietnam

In Vietnam I met Louis, a really cool French guy and traveled for a while with him. We went to Cambodia together. I then left Louis and went on to Laos alone. In Laos I was backpacking, and for 50 cents a night I was staying in tiny, dimly-lit nipper huts on the side of the Mekong River. I went off on two three-or-four day treks up into the hills. On the first trek there were four of us: the local guide, a Uruguayan guy, a girl from Israel, and myself. After two days we came to a hill village where we saw a lad running around playing with his friends, but limping and wearing a really dirty, triangular neckerchief tied around his ankle. When we took it off we saw a huge gash which had obviously gone septic. Kio, his name was. I squeezed his toes, and he couldn’t feel anything. We concluded that if he didn’t get treatment for it soon, antibiotics or something, it was probably going to become gangrenous and maybe he would lose his foot or even worse. We asked the guide if we could take this lad back down to maybe the nearest field hospital, which he told us was about a day’s walking. The lad didn’t want to go, he said he was fine, but you could see he wasn’t. In the end he agreed. His parents let us take him, but they couldn’t come because they had to go harvest rice the next day. It took us about a day to get down to the valley, where there was a field hospital, which was staffed two or three days a week. They did have antibiotics. The three of us came up with about $20 to get this kid what he needed. Straightaway the nurse hooked up an IV. It felt like we’d done something worthwhile. The guide said the people in the village we talking about what we did. We stayed there for three days. Some of Kio’s cousins came down to fetch him, and last we knew he was making a good recovery. I kept his contact details. He’d be in his mid-20s now and probably has a family. It would be nice to go back one day and see him.

Vietnam

Vietnam

On the second hill trek, I was with the same Uruguayan guy and a different local guide who kept saying, “Yeah, this way, this way.” We were convinced he didn’t have a clue where we were. We walked for hours and hours through the jungle, and there were leeches attaching themselves to us. Seriously, we thought we were going to be lost in the jungle in Laos. The guide was showing us animal crap on the ground and telling us that it was tiger poop,that a tiger had passed through not long before! It felt like a real adventure. We stayed with locals in hill tribe villages and sampled the local Lao-Lao, which is rice whiskey.

When I went back to Thailand, I got the name of a wat that I was going to visit to practice Buddhist meditation, but I never quite got there. I thought I’d gone in search of myself, but I was really just running away from myself.

In October, my sister’s fortieth birthday was coming up, so I thought I’d just get a quick return flight back to the UK and surprise her! It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Without telling anyone in my family, I booked a return [round-trip] ticket from Bangkok to Holland, had a couple of days with my friends, caught up with some other stuff, took the boat to England and got a taxi from the ferry. I was two minutes from my mom and dad’s place when a car crashed into the back of the taxi and gave me a little whiplash. I got out, put my backpack on and went marching up the road and round the corner and just rang the doorbell. My mom nearly had another heart attack to see me standing at the door!

“What are you doing back? You’re not meant to be back until March!”

Vietnam

Vietnam

“Well, I just thought I’d come back for Sophie’s birthday. But you can’t tell her, it’s a surprise!”

A few days later I went down to the pub where Sophie was celebrating with her friends. She was absolutely gob-smacked.

Back in Thailand, I was emailing with Louis (the French guy I had traveled with in Cambodia and Vietnam), about my next stop, which was Indonesia. The first of the Bali bombs had gone off in Kuta, where all those tourists got blown up in a restaurant. I’d missed it by two weeks. I’d been planning on going to Kuta, so the news of the bombing was like an advisory not to go to Indonesia.

Louis said, “Well, maybe you should try the Philippines instead.”

“Really, why the Philippines?”

“It’s a really good place, like Indonesia but easier because they all speak English, and the girls are pretty, and everything’s cheap there as well.”

“Okay, why not? Something different, give it a go.”

So I arrived in the Philippines in November 2002, a week after my thirty-sixth birthday. I landed at NAIA Airport in Manila with my faithful Lonely Planet Guide in hand. I’d read everything it said about getting ripped off by taxi drivers and decided that wasn’t going to happen to me. I walked out of the airport, got in a jeepney, a conveyance of a type I’d never even seen before [inexpensive public transportation originally made from US military jeeps]. I rode to an LRT [Light Rail Transit] station—to this day I don’t know where it was. I’d never in my life seen so many people queuing up a stairwell, and there I am with my 70-liter backpack. I got to the security desk where they were checking bags and giving passengers the mandatory pat-down. They wanted to look inside my backpack. I argued that there was no way I could start taking it apart with my whole life inside and all these people around. I was sweating and tired and had probably had a heavy night in Bangkok the night before I left. In the end I allowed them to poke around in the outer pockets with their wooden stick. Then I got the LRT to probably Taft and walked from Taft to Ermita.

Laos, Mekong River

Laos, Mekong River

I thought, “What on earth is this place?” Guards were standing in every doorway, with pump-action shotguns. Nowadays Ermita and Malate are okay compared to twelve years ago when there wasn’t as much development. It was pretty grungy. I was walking up Mabini Street, looking for a place to stay. All of a sudden a head popped out of a window and said with an English accent, “Where you off to, mate?”

“Looking for somewhere to stay.”

“Aw, right.” He told me where to have a try.

I said I’d come back and have a drink with him later that night. So I did. He was peeling potatoes, chopping up chips up and doing the short-order food in a dingy bar in Malate. While I was there I met a “guest relations officer,” a girl who worked there. I got on quite well with her. I persuaded her to come on a trip with me. We spent Christmas and New Year’s in the Philippines, basically two months of partying. Then I realized that, shit, I’d only got two and a half months left to fit in Australia, new Zealand, Fiji and LA. The new plan I came up with was to spend maybe six weeks in Australia, six weeks in New Zealand, skip Fiji altogether and just get a transit through LA. I’d fallen for this girl even though we hadn’t met in the best of places. I was determined to make it work.

I said, “I have to go to Australia and new Zealand and finish my trip because I can only go one way. But I will be back, probably by April or May. So wait for me.”

Lao Hill Village

Lao Hill Village

Lao Temple

Lao Temple

In Australia I hired a camper van and drove all the way up to the coast to Byron Bay and Airlie Beach and did some scuba diving, because I’d taken two diving courses in the Philippines. But after the Philippines I found Australia a bit boring. You drive for hours, and hours and nothing changes. New Zealand I liked. It was so much more compact. I did all the really crazy, high-adrenaline stuff. Sky diving. Bungee jumping at what was then the world’s highest bungee jump.

On a bus tour they said, “Whoever wants to do the bungee jump, you need to let us know now because it’s got to be booked in advance.” So I signed up for it, then spent the next week not sleeping or having bad dreams and cold sweats. Actually, I don’t like heights. But if I get an idea in my head and then I start to question whether or not I can go through with it, then I’m screwed because I’ve already entered into a contract with myself. I can’t have the feeling that I’m afraid of something.

It was like 143 meters over a gorge, like the Road Runner cartoon where Wily E. Coyote goes over a cliff and he’s falling and getting smaller and smaller,and then there’s a crack where he hits the bottom. It was like looking down one of these gorges, sheer rock on either side and a little streak at the bottom. A massive gondola was suspended on a cable across the gorge. To get to it you had to cross on a little cable car. The gondola had a glass floor so you could see the bottom of the gorge. Between the time you stepped off it into space to when the cord started to stretch was nine seconds of free-falling. It was horrifying. But I did it. I was really ecstatic at having overcome my fear.

Links to copy and paste on your navigator bar:

Indonesian bombing, www.nytimes.com/2005/10/02/international/asia/02bali.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Nevis Bungee Jump http://youtu.be/1vzOIrC9xJw

A reader writes:

Loved it.

Another reader writes:

What a horror show he was at the time! I assume things get much better for him in part II.

A reader writes:

This blog is such an education – Paul Theroux, travel author, hasn’t got anything on you.

A reader writes:

Read it. You always make the story interesting, while keeping it true to the person’s narrative.

 

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Having “Urgent” but not “Emergency” Surgery in the Philippines, Part 2

by on April 15th, 2015

 

Dr. Ramos with a nurse in Bob's room

Dr. Angliongto-Ramos, head of plastic surgery, with a nurse in Bob’s room

My friend Bob interrupted his one-year trip through Southeast Asia in order to have to have a large carcinoma removed at The Medical City in Manila. This interview took place at my home in Quezon City. The story of the decision-making and the successful outcome appears in Part 1. Part 2 deals with post-surgery care and the conflict with his US insurance company. In an email to me, Dr. Angliongto-Ramos writes,The blog has been making the rounds in the hospital and Bob’s concerns are being looked into. I am pleased with how Bob’s surgery turned out. I hope it was an overall good experience.”  Yes, indeed, Bob found his experience at Medical City overwhelmingly positive.

It will be interesting to see what effect cases like Bob’s have in the future as Americans choose to have surgery overseas. I’m predicting that US insurance, healthcare and malpractice industries will close ranks to protect themselves from foreign competition at one-tenth the cost–how bizarrely, I can only guess. A couple of years ago I attended meetings with Filipino-Americans campaigning to have Medicare available to US citizens living in the Philippines. But then someone speaking as an expert said, “Not only is this a long shot, but the doctors would have to have malpractice insurance.” That did it for me.

Bob’s story

Across the road to McDonald's

Across the road to McDonald’s

After the surgery I was very careful. When you’re 65 years old and paying for surgery yourself, you don’t want to screw it up. Dr. Angliongto-Ramos practices at three hospitals, so she’s got a lot of experience, and she’s very conscientious about avoiding infection. Because she’d done a flap operation and not a skin graft, I only had to stay in the hospital for four days. On the second day I was allowed to get up to go to the bathroom. On the third I could go across the open courtyard to Starbucks. Instead I broke the rules and crossed the road to McDonald’s because the WiFi was better.

My defection led to an international incident with the security guard who saw my hospital ID bracelet and tried to block my path. I was having none of it. He followed me. While I was inside McDonald’s on Facebook, the first guard and his boss were outside on their walkie-talkies. Another guard monitored me through the plate glass. They were trying to figure out a strategy because I was not going to be taken alive. All of these guys were impeccably dressed and ready for the most demanding of inspections. The supervisor was a big bruiser who assessed the situation and finally came in. We shook hands, and I invited him to sit down. He asked to see my ID, and I asked to see his, which he wasn’t prepared for.

He said, “Why are you here?”

Medical City tower as seen from a table outside McDonald's

Medical City tower as seen from a table outside McDonald’s

“Because the Internet at Starbucks sucks.”

“We have Internet at the hospital,”

“That’s even worse.”

He understood. “Are you going farther than this?’

“No, this is as far as I go. I promise you. I can see my room from here.” I pointed out the tower. “I will go no further. And I am coming right back. I am not trying to escape.”

“Okay.”

We shook hands. He patted me on the shoulder and gave me a big smile. I apologized through the glass to the first guy. Everything was fine. I did worry a bit that Dr. Angliongto-Ramos was going to hear about it because she was responsible for injecting this foreigner into the system. So I did what I could–I apologized to the people of the Philippines on Facebook, and I tried to be a better person thereafter.

Bob wearing bandages and drainage tube

Bob wearing bandages and drainage tube

The total bill was a shock. It was $5,700, still a huge bargain by comparison with the US, but it took me a bit of processing to get over the difference from the $4,300, the lower of the  initial estimates. Before I was discharged, I had a meeting with the surgeon and more testing. She signed my release and met with the desk staff who were preparing my bill. Then I met with the finance department and with the cashier. I paid and got a receipt to submit to the charge nurse on the floor,  who released me. That system is certainly efficient and keeps collection costs down. I was fortunate in having the money available on my Bank of America Travel Rewards Card, which contains an internationally recognized computer security chip.  To my relief the charge went through immediately.

The additional costs came from the many extra biopsies and tests which had to be done because squamos cancer cells–much more serious–were found among the basal cancer cells. Also, the operating room was used two or three hours longer than planned. Imagine all the surgeons and technicians in the operating theater standing around, the patient waiting in the anteroom and finally the anesthesiology team strolling in forty minutes late. When they finally wheeled me into the OR and the anesthesiologist entered, none of us looked at her. We were all silent but polite. I certainly didn’t want to piss off the person putting me to sleep. The extra charges included the longer use of the OR, the extra tests and I suspect the extra nursing care from the staff. Had I understood the Filipino system, I would have had a companion with me instead of making many demands for assistance. Once they understood my situation, the nurses and assistants really went out of their way to help me.

My conflict with Blue Cross Blue Shield HMO Blue was over a common sense issue, not a legal one.  BCBS’s bureaucracy is so entrenched that in order to satisfy their definitions of coverage–definitions which disagree both with my US doctor and within BCBS itself–it sacrificed huge savings both to the company and to me.  It was a word game: “emergency” versus “urgent.” Despite the enormous savings, urgently needed surgery was not covered if done overseas. They chose to focus not on my large, bleeding, bursting carcinoma but on what part of the hospital admitted me and where the biopsies and surgery recommendations were coming from.  When surgery became necessary, we’d lined up Dr. Angliongto-Ramos. Then I saw what a bargain the surgery would be and asked my wife, her company’s BCBS liaison, to contact BCBS HMO Blue to see if they would authorize overseas surgery at a leading hospital in the Philippines. Keep in mind that BCBS is a major insurer in the Philippines, so the local staff could easily have verified that the hospital was excellent and the surgeon very highly qualified. Instead BCBS looked at the computerized decision tree that insurance companies train their staff to use in order to pay the minimum number of claims at the lowest cost. Any variation from the standard falls on the patient. This network of prepared questions is designed to take claimants where the company wants them to go.

The insurance representatives had charts. They knew what the surgery would likely cost in the US and in the Philippines, they had the dimensions of the carcinoma, they had photos, they had all the information they needed to make an informed decision. Instead of factoring in the cost, they kept saying, “Come back to the US for the surgery, and we’ll cover it.” The ridiculous thing was that for me the BCBS deductibles and the cost of going back to the States far exceeded the total cost of the surgery in the Philippines. My family doctor, in a very long conversation with them, was also unable to persuade them to accept the surgery as an emergency and cover it. In order to satisfy a processing clerk in the US, I was advised to instruct this leading Filipino hospital to play silly, unprofessional games like writing “emergency” into every service order. My surgeon in Manila should conspire with the emergency department to admit me on an emergency basis, to have biopsies done in the ER and to have me checked into the hospital from the ER. At every turn it should be classified emergency, emergency, emergency. Even then coverage was not guaranteed. None of this smelled right from the beginning.

The scar and draining tube

The scar and draining tube

Dr. Angliongto-Ramos was so generous with her time. Her office hours don’t start until four p.m. because she’s done six to eight hours of surgery before that. She didn’t take a vacation last year. And BCBS said she should plan out this whole ruse? It was just absurd. I did run it by her. She listened, but I could tell she was going into a slow burn herself. She’s had previous experience with American insurance companies and with their attitudes, the ignorant assumption that everything in the Philippines is like jungle surgery, with doctors eating greasy pork with the fingers of one hand and operating with the other. It’s humiliating. She’s a leading plastic surgeon, practicing in three hospitals. Now she’s supposed to call a junior functionary at BCBS from from her home at night—there’s a thirteen-hour time difference—to create this artificial construct, then write up reports that only an idiot, certainly not a medical school graduate, would believe? So the insurance people in the US would have a good laugh over the stupidity of these people in the Philippines, writing something up as an emergency that doesn’t fit? I was embarrassed for having asked her. I’m really glad she took offense and absolutely refused.

I’ve heard estimates from the high $20,000′s to low $100,000′s for this surgery and hospitalization in the US. With all the tests I had done, I can see it’s far north of $29,000 and maybe not too far south of $100.000 that I saved BCBS. They’re getting excellent premiums for insuring my body, not the location at which I have something done. They can’t get out of their own way. If I don’t deal with them again in my life I’ll be only too happy—and that is what I feel about the entire medical system in the United States.  I would have all my surgeries for the rest of my life at Medical City if I could.

How to apply the bandages

How to apply the bandages

Someone who’s never lived overseas might be taken aback by the cultural differences in care and communication. Here there might be information you don’t get which the doctor doesn’t think it’s necessary to tell you and other information which seems far too technical for a patient to absorb.  There are also systems which are routine in the Philippines which are different from US routines that they don’t think to mention.   The systems of floor doctors and assigned doctors are different. I don’t think one is better or worse than the other.  I was surprised to learn that there are routine procedures, such as dealing with catheters or dispensing medication that only doctors are allowed to perform at Medical City, but I will tell you that my surgeon saw me three times before the surgery, every single day in the hospital, in the late afternoon or at seven at night. I don’t know where she got her energy. On the discharge day she spent quite a bit of time with me and with the staff getting me cleared for dismissal. And she saw me for times in the ensuing five weeks at no additional charge.

I’d thought in two weeks I’d be on my way, but she knew from the beginning that the first three weeks would be very delicate and require strict germ control and antiseptic procedures and that it would be a minimum of six weeks before I could resume full activities. I had very thorough visits with her. She did a lot of care herself, like inspecting, de-scabbing and re-sterilizing the area, reapplying the bandages and changing the types of bandages and elastic pressure bandages. She taught me how to apply them and Carol how to do the things I couldn’t see, mostly applying disinfectant and things like that. She didn’t charge me for follow-up visit or for medical supplies that aren’t cheap anywhere. Her whole share of the $5700 fee was $1000. The anesthesiology team’s fee was only $500.

As I said, the biopsies revealed a second type of cancer cell. The tests for those took fourteen days. Then I found out that on top of that one-millimeter basal cell carcinoma I had a squamous cell carcinoma–on top, but not reaching in. Squamos is a still treatable but much more serious form of cancer that does metastasize, although it’s far more treatable than a metastasized melanoma. Dr. Angliongto-Ramos was constantly testing my lymph system. Metastasizing cancers go first to the lymph nodes, then to the lungs, to the liver and kidneys and other vital organs and then to the bone. So if you have a squamous cell that’s metastasized, you’re likely to become a stage-four cancer patient. Fifteen percent of people diagnosed with stage four-cancer are still alive a year after diagnosis and one percent are still alive five years later. I’ve had two friends diagnosed with stage-four cancer, and they were both dead within months. So I’d been flirting with a possible death sentence and didn’t know it.

The pressure bandage

The pressure bandages

Fortunately, all the pre-screening and post-screening tests were exactly the right ones to rule out any metastasizing squamous cells in my body after the surgery. Migrated cells would have shown up on the chest x-rays. Anyway, it was enough to throw a scare into me. I’m not the doctor I think I am. I get too blasé about things. I have no patience with ill health. I really believe that staying mentally positive has given me a great quality of life. I don’t go running to the doctor for an antibiotic every time I sniffle or get a hacking cough.

If I were to have surgery again I would probably have it done in Korea. Nearly 100% of Korean doctors went to medical school in the US. Their reports use the same formats, so I can read the results of a blood test by looking at the US heading. Plus, Korea was my second home for over ten years. In order of preference I’d put Korea first and certainly the Philippines second. Singapore would be too expensive. Then probably India, where some modern hospitals are dedicated to medical tourism, which I would highly recommend. The savings are phenomenal.

I should add that Korean doctors hate to be questioned by anybody. Confucian society holds that you don’t question educated people at all. Everything they say is true and they possess profound knowledge that mere mortals don’t. Historically, doctors in the Confucian countries–China, Korea, Japan–were trained to protect you from yourself, not to tell you when you were dying of cancer, not to discuss what was wrong with you, only to tell you what treatment plan to follow, and sometimes not even to tell your family. The doctor knows best.

Once I stopped by a Korean hospital to get some antibiotic salve. The young, American-trained doctor asked how I knew what salve to request.  I said, “Well, it’s only pink eye. It’s not the end of the world.”

He snapped, “Where did you get your medical degree?”

I snapped right back, “Do you think that doctors own all the medical information in the world? Do you think that people should not be allowed to have the medical information they need and pay for? It’s out there. Live with it.”

He was furious. But things are changing. As Koreans travel and return to Korea, they have a different expectation of the doctor. As doctors are trained in the US, they understand that there’s a different way of doing things which involve making a patient a partner in their own recovery.  Many are starting do take that on board.

A big part of the savings in getting healthcare outside the US is that the doctors are not paying hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for medical malpractice insurance.  Dr. Angliongto-Ramos pays no malpractice insurance. She doesn’t need it. Even if a plaintiff won an award, the award wouldn’t be significant. Here people have to accept responsibility for their own decisions and behavior—spilling hot coffee on themselves at McDonald’s, for example. The medical malpractice industry in the US has become absurd and it places a huge cost burden on the healthcare industry. It’s layered and appears in every aspect. The Band-Aid you get in the hospital is $20 because the manufacturer is being covered against claims for failure to maintain an antiseptic environment. The hospital is being covered against claims of improper storage and handling. We need national health insurance. Then all this malpractice insurance scamming and greedy patients going for the malpractice lottery grand prize will disappear. It’s the golden rule: he who has the gold gets to make the rules. If you’ve got one entity, the US government, paying for healthcare, then the laws would quickly contour to fit. You can’t sue over a free lunch that you didn’t enjoy.

So that’s my ten cents worth on the subject!

Links to copy and paste on your navigation bar:

Here’s my (Carol’s) post on eye surgery after the first one or two. I’ve had sixteen in total, all at the expert and caring hands of Dr. Milagros Arroyo, who is also connected with Medical City.  “The Eye Thing,” http://caroldussere.com/2010/11/04/the-eye-thing. Three-fourths of all cost connected with my macular degeneration was paid without argument by Pacific Cross, which is associated with Blue Cross Blue Shield. Years earlier I had a $2,000 gall-bladder operation in Seoul. Korean National Health Insurance paid half, and Pacific Cross paid the other half.

For a completely different surgery-in-Asia experience, check out “Robert’s Appendix,” which happened in a small town Chinese hospital thirty years ago. http://caroldussere.com/2009/08/26/roberts-appendix/

A Medical City doctor writes:

Yes I read it and enjoyed it very much also. Had a funny moment when Bob, in response to the guard who followed him at McDonald’s said the internet in the hospital was even worse! Oh he speaks the truth. Anyway, what a folly the Health Insurance is indeed. I do hope it gets better so that it can also be availed off with less hassle here.
Response:
I doubt seriously that insurance private insurance will improve in the US. The companies have too many lawmakers in their pockets, and state control of the industry means only piecemeal reform. As I said in the intro to that piece, I suspect the insurance industry will put up more barriers against medical tourism when they get threatened. That’s why we need comprehensive reform in the US with a single-payers system of the type you find in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand…
A reader writes:

I live in Taiwan. On April 16 I went to the emergency room at Xinwu Clinic and immediately saw a physician. I’d made two previous visits to the clinic and received 36 pills and four containers of cream for cellulitis. On this visit I was told I had an abscess. I was given super antibiotics and pain pills that proved too strong. Three days later I had a 30-minute incision and drainage procedure in the ER and was handed four bags of meds. Five hours after that, I had the bandage changed there. The total bill for the clinic visits and surgery was 600 Taiwan New Dollars or $18 US dollars. In contrast, in the ER at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, I was wrongly diagnosed with cellulitis of the eye, treated and billed $2,000. This was later negotiated down to $800 after the county hospital UMC advised that the condition was in fact pink eye.

A reader writes:

Interesting, but I did think your friend Bob played a little fast and loose with his health.

 

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Having “Urgent” but not “Emergency” Surgery in the Philippines, Part 1

by on April 1st, 2015

Open foyer between the towers at Medical City

Open foyer between the towers at Medical City

This year my friend Bob is making a one-year trip to Southeast Asia and cashing in the huge stockpile of Korean Air frequent flyer miles he built up over his decades as a merchant banker in Asia. The trip had to be interrupted for surgery. Based on my personal experience, I recommended The Medical City in Metro Manila, one of the leading hospitals in the Philippines. Although It is not the most expensive hospital in Manila, Medical City costs three times as much as the national hospitals. Excellent physicians also practice at public hospitals for humanitarian reasons, so the care is the same for the patients of equally qualified doctors, whether at private or national hospital. Of course any hospital is beyond the reach of many of the poor, who have no choice but to go back to the provinces and die.

For those of us with some knowledge of healthcare in Asia and health insurance in the US, the end of Bob’s story is highly predictable. I wonder what defensive tactics we’ll see from US insurance companies as they feel more and more threatened by medical tourism.

Bob and I spoke at my house in Quezon City. Thanks to Bob for some of the photos.

Bob’s story

Bob at lunch

Bob at lunch

In 2006 I developed a basal cell carcinoma on my face. It looked like a pimple, but it wouldn’t heal, and it got larger and larger. When I had my executive physical in Korea, I was referred to a dermatologist who did a biopsy and told me it was a basal cell carcinoma. It would never metastasize, never enter my lymph system or my blood stream, never travel to my lungs, my vital organs or my bones. It wasn’t dangerous, but it wouldn’t heal. He told me he could remove it on my Korean National Health Insurance. It was getting pretty ugly. The removal was just a two-hour procedure done under local anesthetic. All during the surgery the doctor and I had a pleasant conversation about living and working in the US and Korea. I did notice that the carcinoma was a less than dime-sized lesion, but the doctor had to tunnel under the skin on my cheek almost over to my ear and almost up to my eye and almost down to my chin. He kept taking biopsies and sending them out for results in order to determine that there were no cancer cells left in my face. I had a four-inch scar on my face which within two years wasn’t even noticeable.

Probably about 2012, I got a spot on my back to the left of my right shoulder blade. It felt similar to the earlier one. Remembering how slow-growing that was I just told myself I’d get around to having it removed eventually. Two years later when I was getting ready for my one-year travel adventure throughout Southeast Asia, I decided I should probably have it removed. My primary care physician referred me to a dermatologist and surgeon, Dr. Patel, an ethnic Indian physician in his seventies who’d been practicing in Massachusetts for forty years.

He said, “It looks like a basal cell carcinoma to me, but it’s so large that it’s going to need a skin transplant. When are you going to Asia?”

The scar from the first carcinoma

The scar from the first carcinoma

“September 17. I’ve already got tickets.”

“We don’t have time now because a skin graft is a delicate operation. You have to have the area immobilized for some time after to make sure that it takes. You’re grafting your own skin, but it has to establish a connection with the nerves and blood vessels. Really, you have no time. You should probably reschedule your trip.”

“Well, I had great experience with surgery in Korea. Maybe I’ll get it done there, maybe in Thailand or the Philippines.” I was still thinking it would be a simple procedure.

That led to a discussion about overseas surgery. He seemed very enthusiastic and proud of India’s growing reputation for medical tourism.

I said, “Since these things are slow-growing and never fatal, I might come back a year from now.”

“It’s going to be about 30% bigger, but you do have that option,” he said.

When I left on my trip the carcinoma had gotten larger and more ugly, but it never bothered me. If I took a hot shower or I rubbed it against the sheets, the scab on top would occasionally come off, and it would bleed a little.

Three months into my trip, it suddenly started getting much bigger, bursting and bleeding every couple of days. I was staying in different hotels every day. I bought two bath towels to place over the hotel sheets so that I wouldn’t bleed on the sheets. Some Asian countries can get very fussy about stains or a cigarette burn on their linen. I had an argument with the Hotel Stella in Cebu, Philippines, which wanted to fine me $17 because I hadn’t had time to wash blood from a towel before I left.

About four or five months into the trip I was in the Chulalongkorn Hospital, the finest teaching hospital in Bangkok. I got in line and went through a screening, and the doctor told me I had to get it done right away, I should come back and he’d schedule surgery. In the hotel I was filling out the hospital forms when I came to the section which said, “You must have 60 days remaining on your entry visa or we will not perform any surgery.” Thai immigration regulations are very cumbersome and very rigid, giving you a fixed number of days you can be in Thailand over various periods of time. I’d already used up a lot of time. So I went to Vietnam for a couple of weeks and tracked the number of days I’d been in Thailand during the last ninety days, and I saw that surgery in Thailand was out of the question. In the meantime the carcinoma had become a bloody mess, seeping and weeping and smelling.

I contacted my friend Carol Dussere about coming to visit earlier than we’d planned. She’d had fantastic experience with surgery in the Philippines—and eye surgery at that. I arrived in Manila on February 19. Carol had made an appointment at a beautiful medical facility, The Medical City in Ortigas. There are twin towers surrounded by a couple of other medical buildings and a really fully equipped, state-of-the-art hospital, very well staffed, covering every discipline available in medicine. It’s one of the leading hospitals in the country.

Dr. Lourdes Ramos

Dr. Lourdes Angliongto-Ramos

I saw Dr. Lourdes Angliongto-Ramos, the head of plastic surgery. Like Dr. Patel in the US, she was concerned that the carcinoma was so big she might have to do a skin graft, but she also thought there was a 30% chance she could just do a flap operation. During the flap procedure they remove the carcinoma in concentric circles leading out from the lesion, and do lots and lots of biopsies, stopping only where there is no cancer in the entire circle. The surgeon moves live skin and fat cells, tunneling under the skin and leaving a large area detached from the flesh, then filling up the hole made after the carcinoma was removed, in this case about a four-inch by seven-inch section. After that the skin and flesh are dragged forward and up and over from the different sides and attached where the carcinoma was. The advantages are that there’s usually not a problem with skin rejection or infection, and the hole is filled to a great extent with your own fat, whereas if you take tissue from your thigh and transplant it to your back, you’re got two very different kinds and colors of tissue and textures with no fat tissue for filler. Dr. Angliongto-Ramos said it would be very noticeable on my back, and I’d have a rectangular scar on my thigh where the skin came from. That was why she strongly favored the flap operation, but wouldn’t know until the surgery whether it was possible. Off the top of her head, Dr.  Angliongto-Ramos listed everything I would need from the surgery and recovery and hospital stay and said the bill would be between $4300 and $4700. This included seven days in one of the best hospitals in the country, food, nursing and everything. The following week I’d have surgery.

The pre-surgical preparation and testing was impressive. Dr. Angliongto-Ramos wrote what looked like prescriptions for blood work, pulmonary and cardiological work and chest x-rays. Then she sent me downstairs to an outpatient clinic in the next tower, where I took a number. Filipinos are both very kind and respectful to senior citizens, and there were senior priority queues throughout the hospital, so I didn’t have to wait very long for any procedure. I’d get in line, take a number and check my number on the video screen to see what to do next. I’d go to the cashier to pay, wait until I was called and have the test. I did probably three or five tests the first afternoon, went home, returned and found I had an appointment wiFth the cardiologist who was in charge of my pre-surgery screening. He sent me out for a couple of other tests. After a couple of day’s break, I learned that I’d just screwed up the system because the electrocardiograph would take so long. But the technicians moved heaven and earth and finally gave the cardiologist an unsigned, unofficial reading which he used for my clearance, knowing that the final report would be in before the surgery.

Then I met with an anesthesiologist. We reviewed my allergies, my history with anesthesia and my family history with anesthesia. He explained what would likely be used and gave me a couple of skin-prick tests. That was very good because my aunt had nearly died from anesthesia thirty years before during a very simple procedure at the hospital in Berverly, Massachusetts. Every time my mother had surgery her blood pressure dropped dangerously low, and that had happened with me too. Not only was the preparation incredibly thorough, these tests—it was pay as you go—were so inexpensive. A series of chest x-rays, including the scans and reports in English, cost me 500 pesos or $12.50. Other tests were five dollars here, four dollars there. If I’d been buying candy, I’d have bought a truckload. The most expensive test was the very involved electrocardiography done on a very expensive machine and with well-trained technicians reading these results, and that whole procedure was only $100.

I’m not used to going to doctors. I went for thirty years without going to a doctor. The only surgery I’d had prior to the first carcinoma was an appendectomy in 1967. I stay healthy, which is so much a state of mind in my opinion. The strongest thing I’d taken in the last forty years was aspirin, which is an amazing painkiller. I insisted to the anesthesiologist that I be given the absolute minimum of pain medication and that I be able to stop getting it at any time. He agreed. Later I got into discussions with nurses and floor doctors who just couldn’t believe I wanted to avoid pain medication. I got it stopped as soon as I got out of the operating room. I figure pain is your body’s way of telling you something. If you move and it’s painful, don’t move. I healed very quickly and wasn’t constipated from the narcotics. It was a great experience.

The day before the surgery I checked in. The room looked just like Beverly Hospital where I’d brought my mother many times, truly a state-of-the-art facility, but there were subtle differences that I hadn’t really thought about and wasn’t prepared for. As in other Asian countries, in the Philippines a hospital patient has a “companion” staying with them twenty-four hours a day—a domestic helper, a relative or even someone who’s been hired for the occasion—so the nurses are not tied up doing things that a layperson can do, like emptying a bedpan or getting a glass of water or picking up something. They staff accordingly. There aren’t as many floor nurses or aides as there are in the States. I think there was little bristling on the part of the desk staff because in their opinion it was not their job to dump my urine bottle or get me a knife and fork from across the room. It wasn’t their job to do many of the things I couldn’t do for myself the first few days. But several of the staff went out of their way to help me and make me comfortable and make me not feel guilty about it. It was obvious that I hadn’t planned that part.

The nurses' desk

The nurses’ desk

When I was brought out of surgery and returned to my room, the urinary catheter came halfway out. As soon as I came to I was in agony. I was using my nurse call button, but the call didn’t get a quick response because everybody assumed my companion would come to the desk for anything important. The other thing I didn’t know was that the communication systems are different. Everything goes through your surgeon, who has doctors who are assigned to cover her patients when she’s in surgery or at home. With the slightest movement came intense pain. I kept pressing the button. Responses were mixed. A nurse would come in, and of course in the Philippines for most people English is not their first language, although it’s a strong second language. Between an American English speaker and a Filipino English speaker there can be communication problems regardless of education level.

So there was confusion. The surgeon had ordered the catheter to stay in for three days. No one was authorized to remove it. Only a doctor could touch it, not even a nurse. On my fourth call the nurse came in, and I explained that I was looking up on the internet how to remove a frigging catheter myself. That’s how bad the pain was. I knew I needed a ten-milliliter syringe to put in the tube and remove the sterile water in the balloon in order to pull the catheter out, but of course I didn’t have access to the syringe. Finally they contacted the doctor who was assigned to fill in for my surgeon. However, her primary purpose in life was to avoid disturbing the surgeon at home. She was playing pain chart games with the nurse. “Well, find out is the pain a four or a six or ten.”

So the nurse was going back and forth. At this point she was convinced that there was something wrong. “Yes, he’s in great pain, and he really needs to see you.”

Bob after surgery

Bob after surgery

She refused to come and look at it. Finally, I went on a bit of a rampage. With the nurse’s full support, we upped my pain estimate to eight. According to hospital guidelines, at seven or over the doctor had to come and see me. She came, but she obviously still didn’t want to disturb Dr. Angliongto-Ramos. I’m the last one to bother the doctor at home, but it was agony. Finally she was persuaded to call, and Dr. Angliongto-Ramos authorized removal of the catheter provided that I promise not to try to get out of bed. They removed the catheter and gave me a urine bottle, which was a great relief.

The care was fantastic overall, and the sanitation was great. The food was amazing. I didn’t get a choice of food, but it didn’t matter. Later I found out the dietician had decided I was overweight so I should be on a low-carbohydrate diet, but I hadn’t noticed. There were lots of great soups, pork soups or chicken soups that you spoon over rice, and lots of vegetables. They fed you five times a day, three meals plus a mid-morning snack and a mid-afternoon snack. I couldn’t get over it. I don’t like fish so there were a couple of dishes I didn’t eat, but it was not a problem. After a couple of days I learned you could order room service twenty-four hours a day.

A readers writes:

Hi. I happened to awaken early this morning and so had time to read Bob’s story. Also, of interest due to my medical past and the issues with healthcare. Fascinating the differences between the cultures.What remains the same in both, however, is the godlike status of the surgeon who cannot be disturbed post surgery for anything less than an 8 on the pain chart. At least his pain didn’t cost him thousands upon thousands of dollars! I hope that Bob is recovering nicely.

Response:

In my experience, the attitude of the junior doctor in question is very, very much in the minority, actually if you discount punctuality the only one I’ve heard of among lots of helpful, caring, humble people, whereas in my experience in the States the godlike attitude seems to affect even medical students, including one of my former roommates. Bob is doing well.

A reader writes:
Forwarding to my husband and a few others who work at Medical City. Thanks, Carol. Hope your friend is well.
Response:
Bob’s doing well and following doctor’s orders to the letter.
A Medical City doctor writes:
First of all, congratulations on that detailed experience by your friend Bob. Nice to read a story which absolutely hides nothing. Experience wonderful or not is always valuable more so medical as this provides help to others as they too in the future may need it, and don’t we all in one time or another? I do agree that there is a chain of command in the medical hierarchy and this will continue to do so with good reason, but one thing is certain and that is cultures do differ. Having written that I can say that the care given here usually is more compassionate. Nice to know that Bob is doing great.

Response:

Thank you. I agree. Yesterday I had a reaction to the sugar shock test at Megaclinic. The staff immediately had me in a wheelchair and on a bed, took my blood pressure, gave me a electrocardiogram and sent in a doctor . In a short time I went back to the lab for the second blood extraction. When I thanked the technician for her kindness, she said, “We love you.” The doctor saw me again. Then I had my badly needed coffee and breakfast. That’s the kind of treatment I’ve had here. At home on the Internet, I found that passing out–which I came close to–is a common reaction to the sugar shock test, which would be why the staff wouldn’t let me leave the lab area.

A reader writes:

Good to know local medical facilities and health care specialists and teams are appreciated One should realize, though that the cost of less than US$5k, including taking lab tests for the cost candy, is still outside the reach of the regular working man in Manila. That amount is still over 200k Philippine Peso, more than half of our annual wages. How I wish we all could just afford ‘urgent care’. May I share this post with my friends who work in TMC?

Response:

I understand. That’s why I inserted that bit into the introduction about national hospitals and people who can’t afford them either. If I need any long-term care myself it will be in a national hospital where one of my Medical City doctors practices. Please share the post with as many people as you like. Perhaps they might do a pamphlet for foreign patients who don’t understand the Filipino companion system or the doctor system.

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David A. Mason, Promoting Traditional Korean Culture

by on March 17th, 2015

David standing in front of the tiny Yeonhwa-sa in the alleyway next to Kyung Hee University

David standing in front of the tiny Yeonhwa-sa in the alleyway next to Kyung Hee University

This is my second Skype interview with David Mason. The first was on Korean mountain spirits and is archived at http://caroldussere.com/2013/04/27/the-korean-mountain-spirit. The photographs are used with permission and come from his websites http://san-shin.org and http://baekdu-daegan.comI highly recommend spending a couple of hours browsing through the many pictures and stories.

I began by asking David when he first came to Korea and under what circumstances.

David’s story

Cheoneun-sa

Cheoneun-sa

Cheoneun-sa with a new lantern

Cheoneun-sa with a new lantern

Well now, I was one of those Lonely Planet book carrying, backpack travelers that everyone loves to either admire or disparage. In East Asia this kind of travel didn’t get going until the 1970s. I left America in 1981 with just a backpack and very little money. I really wanted to see China and Chinese culture, but the People’s Republic was closed then.

You mean closed to independent travelers.

Yes, group tours could already get in there. A professor of mine at the University of Michigan Philosophy Department went there in ’76, and that seemed kind of miraculous to us. He was on some kind of academic group tour. But I couldn’t get in, so with my backpack and very little money I went around China—Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taiwan I heard that Korea was worth visiting. I didn’t know anything about Korea except something vague about the Korean War. The Lonely Planet company put Korea and Japan in the same book, which must have infuriated the Koreans. Other people considered Korea just a branch of China, which also would have infuriated them!

I took a test-journey up there and was immediately intrigued. I thought it was a third, distinctly separate, independent culture, noticeably Northeast Asian, but with its own flavor, different from Japan and China. I thought of it as a mystery country I didn’t know anything about, and few others seemed to know much either, I was inspired to hang around and check it out.

In March of ’83, I was teaching English in Korea when the PRC opened to independent travelers. I started making plans. My visa number was 00000978, so apparently it was the 978th independent visa, one of the first thousand to get in as independent; I was proud of that. It was very restricted, and many Chinese had never even seen a foreigner. They had no idea what to make of a foreign tourist. By contrast, Korea seemed sophisticated!

I’d first arrived in South Korea in July, 1982. The country was still noticeably suffering under brutal dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, an unpopular dictatorship because nobody liked him or wanted him. People were very grim, and there were soldiers were out on the streets, sandbag bunkers and even tanks near the universities. It was a very locked-down atmosphere. This surprised me because I didn’t know the recent history. When I started teaching English at a hagwŏn, or for-profit language school, the first thing I was told was not to talk about democracy or civil rights. “Don’t even say the word ‘democracy’ in your classroom.” I was pretty weirded-out by that.

It sounds like I had more freedom teaching in China in 1984.

Yeah, maybe… I stayed in South Korea for a year. After that I thought I was done with it. I went home and spent two years in California with a small business. But I kept thinking about Korea. I felt there was some karma, something unfinished that involved research, study and discovery. In January 1986, I returned and haven’t managed to change my country of residence ever since. My attention was captivated by the traditional culture and how little of it was known to the world, how little was available in English. Very slowly, step by step, I started making a career of explaining Korea to the world, exposing parts of its traditional culture in English, getting it on the internet, getting it in books and academic articles, things that had not been reported before. For maybe the first fifteen years I was English teacher doing my Korea stuff as a hobby. Slowly the hobby became a career, which is what it’s been for the last fifteen years. So that’s been quite gratifying.

Could you talk about your books and your work as a travel expert?

The Spirit of the Mountains

The Spirit of the Mountains

The first big breakthrough was co-authoring with Robert Storey the 1997 Lonely Planet comprehensive travel guide to Korea. That got me into the tourism business as an international writer about Korea. The second big break was with the book about the sanshin mountain spirits that we discussed in our previous interview. It was the first publication ever in English which treated the spirits in depth–with the deities, the art work, and the role the spirits played in Korean culture. Since it was groundbreaking, it created a lot of interest among Korean professors, the Korean government and other aficionados who celebrated its having been done for the first time.

Because of the sanshin book, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism hired me for the 2001-2002 Visit Korea Year Program. For five years I worked for the Munhwa Cheyuk Gwangwang Bu and also the National Tourism Organization, which gave me five years of experience with tourism programs and official promotion of Korean culture to the global community, another step up the ladder. I was one of a twenty-member committee which designed and implemented the TempleStay program.

When were you first working on that?

In 2001 Korea held the World Cup soccer finals in the summer of 2002. In connection with that we had a two-year long promotion of Visit Korea Year. The TempleStay program was one of many programs and projects, initially just for the spring and summer of 2002. But it was very successful. The Jogye Order of Buddhism, which had at first resisted, came to like it too. We kept it going for one more year and then gave it over to the Jogye Order. After a one-year hiatus, they picked it up and got it running. It’s been very successful as a part of Korean tourism and as a Korean cultural-missionary-religious activity.

I’ve seen the signs when I’ve come into Korea, but the temple-stays I’ve done were organized earlier through the Lotus Lantern Buddhist Center.

The book on hiking the trail

The book on hiking the trail

The TempleStay program was over the long run probably the most successful thing I’ve been involved in. It was a big step. So then I was hired as a professor of Korean cultural tourism, not as an English teacher, based on my five years with the government tourism industry and my master’s degree in Korean Studies from Yonsei University. So I spent nine years teaching at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, which had one of the biggest national hotel and tourism colleges. In a large faculty they had space to hire an unusual person like me to fill a certain niche.

After becoming a professor of cultural tourism, I started a new project promoting the Baekdu-daegan or the White Head Great Ridge, essentially the backbone of Korea. It’s the main mountain range that runs through the whole peninsula from north to south, the geographical-topographical definition of Korean landscape. It was totally unknown to the world community, without even a magazine article to explain it. There was some stuff in Korean, but not in any other language. I found out everything about it, put it in English and start promoting it to the world. This was my fourth big step, and it was also very successful. We started a website, baekdu-daegan.comand wrote a guidebook about hiking along the 735-kilometer mountains trail within South Korea. You can hike from near the south coast all the way up to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, through seven national parks and four provincial parks. It’s a wonderful hiking opportunity and a great way for Korea to promote itself. We were the pioneers who got it all into English and on the map of international hikers.

I have a picture in my head of the map of that mountain range. Is the trail mostly on the ridge?

The Baekdu-daegan range

The Baekdu-daegan range

Yes, the trail runs along the crest-line, from peak to peak to peak along the ridges that directly connect the peaks, so it’s never broken by water. Water never crosses this trail. Each stream or river in Korea begins on the eastern slope or western slope and flows from there out to the ocean. So that makes it a very special trail. There are other trails like this in the world, but only a few are this long. Think of the Appalachian Trail or the Sierra Crest Trail in the United States. They’re mostly about beautiful nature, with only a little bit of culture along the way. But on the Baekdu-daegan you’ve got Buddhist temples, little hermitages, shaman shrines, Confucian shrines, old battlefields and other historical sites and lots of shamanistic mountain worship. So it can also be a pilgrimage trail.

Probably lots of Buddhist statues too.

The Seorak Dinosaur Range

The Seorak Dinosaur Range

Certainly. There are a few spectacular Buddhist carvings high up on the crest-line and many others nearby. If you hike down from the crest into some mountain valleys, you can find many cultural treasures. Some of Korea’s greatest Buddhist monasteries are near that trail; let’s say within five kilometers of it.

Can you give me some examples?

The trail begins in the Jiri-san National Park, where you’ve got three temples, Ssanggye-sa, Hwaeom-sa and Shilsang-sa. Further up there are very famous temples like Jikji-sa, Buseok-sa and Jeongam-sa. Then all the way up at Seorak-san National Park are Shinheung-sa and Baekdam-sa. They’re all some of Korea’s greatest, most historic and most famous temples.

The combination of the TempleStay program and the hiking trail is really fantastic. You can stay overnight at some great monastery, live like a monk, get yourself some monastic education and meditation, hike for two or three days along the Baekdu-daegan crest-trail, then come down to another great monastery for another TempleStay. You can hopscotch through the mountains using the guidebook that we wrote, giving you a religious pilgrimage experience as well as the experience of hiking through splendid nature.

Passage to Korea

Passage to Korea

For the TempleStay do you have to make arrangements in advance, or can you just show up at the temple?

You have to arrange it in advance. There are some temples that run a regular program so you can arrange everything only one day in advance just by letting them know you’re coming. There are others where you have to arrange a week or more in advance, and maybe you have to have a group of people to do it—not just one person. We devised a website, templestay.com, where you can make those arrangements. You can find the information, decide where you want to stay, like in some of the twenty great temples in the Seoul area or spread out over the rest of South Korea. You decide on which temple and what kind of program. You can check the availability and make a reservation right there online. This is the only program like this in the whole world, really. People can stay in temples in Japan and Thailand and other places, but there’s no organized system like this with a central website, information in English and a standardized program in English.

How much does the TempleStay typically cost?

Around 50 USD, which is really very reasonable for a 24-hour experience with everything included: vegetarian food, green tea ceremony, meditation practice, spiritual lectures and formal ceremonies.

The encyclopedia

The encyclopedia

My next step, let’s say part five of this effort, was to co-author an encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism with Ven. Hyewon. This was something that needed to be done. There had been some dictionary efforts in Korean culture, religion and even specifically Korean Buddhism. But nobody had done an encyclopedia with the key terms given attention, long explanations in very clear English and reference to international terminology in order to make very clear what Korean Buddhism was all about. The encyclopedia was connected to the TempleStay program and was a major part of the target audience. The people running the program really needed it, and a hundred of them did buy copies. They needed to know how to explain Korean Buddhism—the deities or the art work or the type of building or some type of Zen Buddhist practice—in clear, simple English foreigners would understand. Some foreigners who really love the program have been buying the encyclopedia so that they can look things up and have a deeper understanding of what it’s all about. So I think this has been another breakthrough, the globalization of knowledge about Korean traditional culture, getting it clear and accurate, not in a rah-rah booster way, but in a very realistic way that’s acceptable for a foreign audience. We started doing the encyclopedia three years ago, and it was finally published a year ago. In the past year it’s been reasonably successful.

My ambition is to get the Encyclopedia into the twenty-first century by making a digital edition with the entries properly linked to each with cross-links, hot-links like a Wikipedia page. It could be online and searchable and even in an app with different terminology for a hand-phone or an iPad. That way someone standing in a temple can look up more information on the spot.

I want to digitalize my works so the public can use them as digital information sources. I’ve broken my book about the sanshin mountain spirits into a few different sections, and I plan to publish those in a self-publishing, digital, downloadable fashion so that people can read them on a Kindle or an iPad or a hard copy, as they choose. Digitalization would also permit cross-linking and enlarged photos and everything else that goes with digital content. For someone who is already fifty-seven years old, it can be a little difficult to get going with this twenty-first-century technology, but I’m trying my best to figure out how it works.

You’ve also been giving lectures for the Royal Asiatic Society?

Guiding a tour on Jindo Island

Guiding a tour on Jindo Island

Yes, I would have to say I’ve been keeping pretty busy. I do half a dozen public lectures every year for various organizations. I guide maybe twenty to twenty-five tours every year recently for various organizations, tours to mountain areas and temples and shaman areas and Confucian shrines. I’m showing Korea’s traditional culture in very personal way to those clients who are interested. I give lectures for universities and organizations like the Royal Asiatic Society, explaining Korean culture in English, trying to say something interesting that foreign audiences can get something out of it.

All this is in addition to your teaching career.

I am now with Chung-Ang University in southern Seoul, south of the Han River. Chung-Ang is another one of the top ten or fifteen universities, a big school with a great reputation. They’re treating me well, and I have good students. So I might be there for the duration of my career, for eight more years.

 

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From Adjunct Faculty to Korean Faculty

by on March 1st, 2015

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.

One event that was been very much in US social media lately was the National Adjunct Walkout Day, a nationwide strike and education project on February 25. Stories had appeared of someone teaching as an adjunct faculty member dying in poverty, homeless PhDs living in their cars, teachers not having the time to go over students’ exams or homework, people living on food stamps without health insurance. (Please see the links below, which include some compelling videos.)

The stories resonated with me because even way back in the late 70s I’d been unable to find a permanent job after getting a PhD in German literature and cranking an impressive list of scholarly publications. In 1983, I gave up and went back to graduate school for an MA in linguistics and certification in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I then taught at universities in China and Korea. I eventually got tenure at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a former adjunct faculty member from California who is now teaching at a Korean university. We spoke over Skype from Korea to the Philippines. I asked her to talk about her experience in the States and in Korea.

Gwen’s story

I’d originally planned to teach English in high school. I hadn’t thought about academia until one of one of my professors said I was suited for graduate work. I decided to do the master’s degree in English language and literature. During my second year of graduate school I had the opportunity to teach two composition classes. That’s when I decided teaching in college was an option for me. I was accepted as a PhD candidate at a university on the east coast, but at the time I was married and living in California.

I really enjoyed teaching composition. As soon as I graduated, my department rehired me as an adjunct. I thought I’d just teach a few classes. The next year I started teaching at a community college as well. I liked the differences between the two student bodies. The community college was in a lower socioeconomic part of town, and the students came from more diverse backgrounds. I taught at the two campuses for my last five years in the States. I had between four to six sections, usually composition, but sometimes a Developmental English class, which made my workload quite a bit lighter.

Can you give me some specifics in terms of how much money you were making and what conditions were like for you and your colleagues?

Absolutely. I had a somewhat different perspective than some of my adjunct friends who had kids to support. They tended to complain more about the wages. In 2012, my last full year in California, I grossed just over $50,000 between the two campuses.

By my last year, my workload was quite significant, but not totally overwhelming. I had full healthcare coverage from my university even though I only taught two classes. A colleague of mine had full coverage for herself and her two children. That’s California, and clearly some of the circumstances are different in other states or within other university systems.

What percentage of faculty members were adjuncts?

Our department had close to 50 adjuncts. The number of classes taught by each adjunct varied from one or two, up to four. Four was considered a 0.8 appointment, the maximum appointment for an adjunct, but not full-time, or 1.0. Because of the way our contracts were written, all adjuncts were considered “part-time, temporary employees.” What that boiled down to was that if budgets for are department changed or enrollment was down, they could cancel our classes at any time without having to give us another class to compensate for the loss, as they would have had to have done for full-time faculty. Technically, five classes would have given us full-time work, but because we were teaching composition classes of up to 25 students each, our department head said, “You can’t have five classes because of the overwhelming amount of work.” As a result, adjuncts would teach four classes at my campus and then teach more at community colleges. I heard of one guy who had eight composition classes one semester.

We were appalled. We’d hear horror stories from students about his never returning students’ papers and never providing any feedback on their writing. Eight composition classes is ridiculous. Four is a lot, particularly since our students were required to produce 8,000 words each semester, usually divided into eight essays, four in-class and four out-of-class. Later for some courses we could consider revisions toward that 8,000-word count. Over time I fine-tuned my course so I was not absolutely killing myself and still getting my students to do the work required of them. They were also doing a lot better work because we used the revision process.

Each semester I used similar reading materials based on current social issues. It got boring, which was a big job dissatisfaction issue. And, I hate to sound like an old person, but in California I even noticed a difference between my first year of teaching in 2003-04 and my ninth year in 2011-12. There was an increasing sense of entitlement. A handful of students would not be jazzed about having to take composition. They figured if they just showed up and turned something in they should get an A. Because of the economic issues in America, they realized they were spending a lot of money on a degree and they probably still wouldn’t get a job when they were done. Their disheartened attitude translated into a bad attitude in the classroom.

When I started teaching in 1966, it was a lot of fun. But by the late 70s, attitudes had changed. I remember an article called “Whatever Happened to the Class of ‘65? They’re in the Classroom with the Me Generation.” The illustration showed a balding, long-haired hippie in jeans with a peace symbol around his neck and a sad-resigned expression on his face. Beside him were rows of students in business outfits, all looking straight ahead with fixed expressions, like “I’m looking right through you at the money I’m going to make after this stupid foreign language requirement.” It mirrored a lot of my experience.

Right. In the States for some students I was just an obstacle. Also, the digital native generation had arrived in college. These students didn’t see communication as something needing thought or processing. They communicated instantly. They were so used to saying anything, in any form, at any time to anyone that it made an impact on how they viewed a course in composition or critical thinking. In that nine-year period I mentioned, Smartphones became more prevalent, and along with them were texting and gaming. It didn’t register that writing was a process or that communicating effectively and clearly and succinctly was important.

I can see how that could greatly change teaching composition.

Composition carried the heaviest workload in the department, which is why the majority of adjuncts were teaching it. Of course I’ve heard of adjuncts feeling exploited. I never viewed myself as exploited because teaching comp was something I’d chosen to do. But it would have been nice to teach a literature class once in a while. I could play the devil’s advocate and tell dissatisfied adjuncts to teach at another campus like I did, but I’m from a densely populated area with lots of universities and community colleges. For someone in a small town that might not be an option. Maybe that’s why a lot of people are living below the poverty line. I know one of our faculty members was living in low-income housing. Actually at one point my salary would have  qualified me for low-income housing in California—until I started teaching at the other campus.

Getting back to when you were thinking about getting a PhD, what happened to the graduate assistantships? Those used to provide a university’s cheap labor. I had teaching assistantships the whole time I was in grad school, so I emerged without debt. I understand that nowadays that is not possible.

There are a lot fewer of those positions because the market is saturated with PhDs who can’t get appropriate positions. Schools have cut back on the number of people admitted to their PhD programs and even more on the number of people who get funding.

Well yeah. The job market was bad even several years before Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

But in 2004 you could see a massive shift happening, where tenure-track faculty positions had become rare. Literature seminars would get cut because they weren’t filled.

Actually, I also came out of graduate school without debt. I was married at the time too, so I wasn’t the sole financial earner in the household. In 2002-04 graduate tuition at my school was about $3,000 a year, which I don’t find an obscene amount. Since then it’s skyrocketed. As a potential PhD candidate I wasn’t offered any financial assistance. Out-of-state tuition would have been $10,000. I felt it was one thing to go to law school and get $50,000 in debt, then make $80,000 or $90,000 in the first year after graduation and more money after that, while it was quite another thing to get $20.000 or $30,000 in debt for a PhD in the humanities, then come out and make $30,000 in the first year—maybe. I decided I wasn’t going to go into debt for a PhD in English literature.

Well, in Korea my colleagues at Dongguk University appreciated the fact that I had a PhD, but it was my master’s degree in linguistics and the TESOL certification that was paying the bills.

Exactly. My graduate school also had a TESOL master’s, but at the time it wasn’t even on my register. I’d thought of living abroad for quite a number of years, but I’d never thought I could do it. Then for personal, and I guess you could say soul-searching, reasons I decided to move to East Asia. A friend said she thought Korea would be a good fit for me, and she helped me through the process. When I came to Korea I was teaching for EPIK, a government-run program which places native English speakers in the public schools. I’d also been offered a university position, but I turned it down because EPIK was more supportive in helping teachers get their feet wet. I’d never lived anywhere other than my home town. So I taught at a high school for the first year in Korea, which was totally different from anything I’d done in California. My whole life was turned upside down, but in a good way. That was what I had chosen, but a year and a half later I left the high school for a university position.

Are you in the English Department or in the institute?

No, I’m teaching English Communications in General Studies. It’s quite easy and pretty much set up. I could have gotten a class in the English Department, but I declined. I haven’t taught writing from a strictly ESL perspective, although at my community college most of my students were not native speakers. In Korea I wouldn’t want to teach a writing course at my current university because the workload would be astronomical and they wouldn’t pay me any more for it.

The class I teach covers the first four semesters. It’s based on a book that still has some grammar in it, middle-school-level grammar points the students have studied it a million times over. They can ace any test I give them. If I were doing a pure conversation class and I could control it, it would be speaking 90% percent of the class time. But I don’t have that freedom.

Could you go around the classroom and write down grammar mistakes you hear students making and then go over them at the end of class? In my experience students wake up when they realize that grammar doesn’t just mean falling asleep during mechanical exercises, that it actually applies to their own speech or their own writing.

I do have that flexibility, but I’m supposed to cover one unit per class, and they’re tested in a standardized mid-term and final. If I don’t cover all the material my students might feel they were done a disservice. Next semester I’ll be more familiar with the material, and I’ll know the students, so I’ll have a better idea of where there’s wiggle room for adjustments.

One of the mentors for the foreign faculty said, “Look, don’t keep stressing grammar, grammar, grammar. These kids learned all that. If you look at their KSATs, they have been having this stuff pounded in their heads for the years.” So this person suggests being friends with the students and making them feel comfortable. I do that and I tell students that if they just speak they’re creating language. So far I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses from that. And guess what? The more they talk, the better their language gets.

At Dongguk University we spent five years looking for another native speaker with an MA in TESOL. We finally hired someone in 1993, but people with master’s degrees and teaching experience were still very, very few.

And now there are very, very many.

I heard that teachers in Korea were panicking because English departments—or maybe the Ministry of Education—wanted job applicants with PhDs, and they were reducing the salaries.

I haven’t seen that PhDs are becoming a necessity, but I suspect there will be more strenuous monitoring of master’s degrees from online programs or diploma mills. Salaries have certainly been decreased and workloads increased. People who don’t meet the qualifications are scrambling. Last year when I applied for university positions I was told by one of the larger universities that I didn’t get the position because I didn’t have any university teaching experience. I said, “I have nine years university experience.” He said, “But not in Korea.” Now, it’s true that they did have a big pool of applicants to choose from, but they didn’t even look at my US experience. I was shocked. But I’m okay. I’ll be at this university for two years. When I apply again, my resume will show that I have two years of university teaching experience in Korea. I suspect then they’ll see that I also have nine years of teaching in America.

A lot of people are trying to find out where the next place is going to be and what credentials will be needed to get jobs there. People who went back to school for a master’s in TESOL aren’t necessarily getting jobs either. You hear about DELTA certificates and CELTA and all these different credentials. Jobs in the Middle East were once paying over $100,000, but now those salaries have gone way down. Plus there are the significant cultural differences. I think that in Korea more teachers will be ethnic Koreans who are completely bilingual, meaning that they speak both English and Korean at a native-speaker level.

When I first went to Korea in 1988, ethnic Asians weren’t getting jobs because they weren’t white. There was considerable prejudice against them.

I know that there’s a mindset here about learning English from foreigners, rather than English-speaking Koreans. And I’ve heard from the students that they don’t like classes taught by people with strong accents, such as Filipino-accented English, because the teachers’ language is hard to understand.

Of course some Filipinos speak English without a Filipino accent, but Filipino-accented English can be quite noticeable. For example the unstressed vowels are not reduced. So even highly educated people might pronounce “curtains” as core + tains, with two stressed syllables. The intonation and lack of reduced vowels take some getting used to. I can see why those kids might be objecting, but I’m sure at least some of that is an attitude against people from a third-world country.

When I was looking for a job, a friend said, “Oh they’ll love your blond hair and blue eyes—and smiley and happy personality.” I can see that appearance is still an issue with parents especially. I mean, in the hagwons, the language-school businesses, the parents are paying for what they want. I’ve heard horror stories about a hagwon hiring a foreigner who doesn’t look like what the parents wanted. And they had to get another one.

What about your students?

In Korea people’s attitudes are so different toward teachers and education from what I encountered in California. Most Korean students view me as someone who can actually give them what they need. I frequently have students coming to me, thanking me and shaking my hand. If they do something wrong they’ll take responsibility for it. It’s so night and day from the States, which is one of the reasons I’ll probably stay in Korea.

Links to copy and past in your navigation bar:

Death of an Adjunct. http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2013/09/18/Death-of-an-adjunct/stories/201309180224

At Last: New Labor Board Ruling Could Finally Allow Professors at Private Universities to Unionize. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17639/professors_unions

Facebook page: National Adjunct Walkout Day. Lots of articles and videos. https://www.facebook.com/search/str/National%20Adjunct%20Walkout%20Day

National Adjunct Walkout Begs Reflection on State of US Faculty http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2015/02/24/national-adjunct-walkout-begs-reflection-on-state-of-us-faculty

http://www.syracuse.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/02/why_syracuse_university_adjunct_faculty_will_walk_out_poor_pay_and_working_condi.html

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. http://chronicle.com/article/Today-Is-National-Adjunct/190339/

Underpaying Adjuncts Hurts Full-time Professors and Students Too. http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/29293-underpaying-adjuncts-hurts-full-time-professors-and-students-too#

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/hashtag-turned-international-adjunct-movement/

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/o-adjunct-my-adjunct

Warwick University to Outsource Hourly Paid Academics to Subsidiary https://faceducation.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/warwick-uni-to-outsource-hourly-paid-academics-to-subsidiary/

 

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Jireh Calo, a Filipina Musician on Her Way

by on February 14th, 2015

Jireh Calo on vocals and keyboard, Paolo Cortez on guitar and Glen Bondoc on bass guitar

Jireh Calo on vocals and keyboard, Paolo Cortez on guitar and Glen Bondoc on bass guitar

When we saw the Jireh Calo Project and heard that Jireh would be leaving for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, my friends and I asked each other, “What else does she have to learn?” She’s now at Berklee, probably the best music school for jazz in the world. The night before her departure from Manila she did one last gig at Tago. All the seats were taken, all the standing room was packed, every third or fourth person had a camera, and for at least the first couple of hours everyone listened attentively. After the Jireh Calo Project played the first set and the jam session began, the stage was crowded with people sitting in. It was a fantastic night, even more fantastic than other fantastic nights at Tago. Two weeks later we had this interview on Skype.

Jireh calling from a practice room at Burklee

Jireh calling from a practice room at Berklee

Jireh’s story

How are you this morning?

Good. Yesterday I had classes from ten a.m. until five with no break in-between, just time to get to my next class. But today I’m free all day.

Can you talk a bit about your name?

My full given name is Hosanna Jireh. In Hebrew, “Hosanna” is an exclamation of praise, and “Jireh” comes from “Jehovah-Jireh,” which means “the Lord will provide.” My mother gave me that name, and my siblings also have Biblical names which I think serve as both prophecy  and as testimony to how God has been working in our lives—her life and ours. I grew up being called “Jireh,” and in the music circle, I am known as Jireh Calo. At this point in my life, I now want to embrace my full name because of the significance of its meaning in my life. Truly, the Lord has been my provider, and I’m glad to have a name that gives Him praise.

When I saw you last you did a song about Yahweh.

Ah, that song was born out of an impromptu set with my band and handpan player Aldous Castro during my last 2014 gig at 12 Monkeys in Makati, which I performed again during my last gig in Tago. It was a song born out of my joy and gratitude for the overwhelming blessings God has given me in 2014. He gave me music, and I wanted to give it back to Him.

Jireh singing with Paolo Cortez on guitar and Ryan Villimar on keyboard

Jireh singing with Paolo Cortez on guitar and Ryan Villamor on keyboard

I gather that the church has been very important in your life.

Yes, I grew up very active in church, especially at 14 when I started playing with the praise and worship band of my church, Bread From Heaven Community Church. But when we moved to Makati we started attending CCF (Christ’s Commission Fellowship).

Now your career started early, like at the age of two?

My mom is a songwriter, pianist and singer, and I grew up listening to her music. Eventually, both my sister Nicole and I became pianists and singers as well as songwriters, but we grew towards different genres. My first performance on stage was when I was 2 years old. It was during a school musical, and I sang the national anthem in gibberish and played the roles of a spider, a baby bird, and a turtle. I was six years old when we got a piano and I started tinkering around with the keys. I learned a lot from listening and finding my way around the piano, exploring the sounds the piano makes and associating them with the songs I heard. I never had any formal music training, but I relied a lot on my ear and my feelings. Throughout grade school and high school I was very active in performing in events and contests in school, church and family events, and I usually performed duets with my older sister Nicole. It wasn’t until 14 when I first got into jazz that I found a strong musical direction.

With the church band I was a keyboardist/singer. That’s where I first started learning my chords and truly absorbing from other musicians. We had sheets that just had chords and lyrics, and it was up to me how I would color the chords. That’s also where I developed my improvisation and where I learned to give the music my own interpretation. I learned to listen to other musicians so we could play together as one. There was a discipline to it as well because it was a form of worship, so I couldn’t just play whatever. I gave it my best.

Percussionist sitting in

Handpan player Aldous Castro jamming with the Jireh Calo Project

I’m blessed to have grown up with a very creative and supportive environment. I never had any pressure to excel and was never forced to pursue anything I didn’t want to, but I did have a mother who always inspired me to follow my passions and never to give up on my dreams. I am very grateful for that.  Learning music in an informal setting has its advantages. I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and to experiment, and I had to make use of what I had and learn to absorb from others.  I wouldn’t consider myself entirely self-taught because I learned lot from other people and picked up things here and there. There’s so much I want to learn that I can’t do all by myself, and that why I decided to take up music in college.

My debut into the Manila jazz scene happened when I was 17 when my sister’s band, Mann Atti, got into the Grand Finals of the 2012 Boy Katindig Jazz Competition (BKJC) with her composition “Dugong Maharlika,” which means “noble blood” in Filipino. That song I eventually rearranged and performed a lot with my band two years later. I was her keyboardist, we were the youngest band in the competition, and I was the youngest participant. We didn’t win, but we gained much more from it than we ever could have expected. That’s where I first met Boy Katindig and the other amazing musicians in the Philippines jazz scene.

So that really opened doors for you then.

Definitely. Boy Katindig himself has been a big supporter of me and my music. After the competition, we had some jam sessions together, and he mentored me when he could. He and Elea, his fiancee and manager, have seen me grow as a musician throughout the years since that first BKJC.  In 2014, I entered the Boy Katindig Jazz Competition again and won, along with a band called the Swingster Syndicate, which plays regularly at Tago Jazz Cafe. We went to Malaysia together to represent the Philippines at the 3-day World Youth Jazz Festival.  It was an incredibly humbling and inspiring experience to share the stage with so much amazing talent from all over the world.

At a previous gig

At a previous gig

You have a two-year International Baccalaureate degree from the British School in Manila. How does it compare with degrees in the United States?

The IB prepares you for college. You choose what subjects you want to take and whether to take the degree at the higher level or at the standard level. It’s very personalized and very intensive. It’s challenging, but it really pushes you to think and do things beyond the average. I learned so much from it. After graduating from the fourth year at the local high school, I got a scholarship for the British School IB program. I took it because I knew I wanted to study music in the States.

So then you were admitted to Ateneo University, but you decided to apply to Berklee and went to Hong Kong for your audition. How was the audition?

It was very relaxed. I didn’t feel nervous or anything. I only stayed in Hong Kong overnight. I just went there with my mom because that was the closest audition center to the Philippines. You have a prepared piece which you perform for them, and then they ask you to improvise over a standard. I applied as a vocalist, so they focused on my voice, but I accompanied myself on the piano. For the improvisation part, I did some scatting while one of the professors was playing the piano. After the audition I went to another room for the interview. It was a very chill interview. They really just wanted to get to know me as a person. The questions were like, “What do you want to pursue? Why do you want to go to Berklee?” It was a good conversation.

And how have you found Berklee? You’ve only been there for what, a couple of weeks now?

Jayman Alviar on drums

Band mate Jayman Alviar on drums

Yeah, two weeks. The first week was orientation week—about the school, the students, how things work. It was really fun because there were jam sessions and concerts with student bands and alumni bands. It’s a really amazing community. Everyone I meet has a story to tell, and everyone here in Berklee wants to be here. Nobody forced them to be here. For me, it’s a dream to be surrounded by people who are all so passionate and who all have their own kind of music. It’s very diverse. The students here represent 54% of the world’s countries. Meeting people from different countries and different cultures is very interesting. You can also see how much we all have in common and how music can connect people. It’s very inspiring.

I had a somewhat similar experience at a writer’s conference that was hard to get into.

It’s not easy to get in. Even if you get in, there are a lot of obstacles to getting everything together—the finances, your visa—so everyone here worked hard to get here.

How would you describe your music?

I like to call my music jazz fusion. I take elements from different genres, like hip-hop, world, soul, funk, and blues and fuse them together with a jazz attitude. I have quite an eclectic and broad taste in music, but jazz is my home. There’s so much freedom in jazz, but I think the most important element is the discipline of listening to other people and being able to play with other musicians. For me, more than the scales and chords, it’s an attitude. The attitude of letting yourself go when you play music, to keep breaking boundaries and trying something new.

Going back to your sister’s composition, “Dugong Mahalika,” is that a protest song? It’s a great song, and it gets a rousing response.

Bandmate Glen Bondoc

Band mate Glenn Bondoc at a previous gig

It’s not a protest song, but it does call upon my fellow countrymen to rise up—I guess from their way of thinking—and see their worth as Filipinos. There are lines like, “Akala mo ba na nandito lamang ang abot ng mga Pilipino?” which is a question thrown out to the listeners, challenging them to see themselves beyond the limitations we give ourselves. The words come out strong, and so it may have the spirit of a protest song, but essentially it’s a song that challenges and encourages. Dugong Maharlika literally means “noble blood,” so it refers to the blood that flows through our veins, that connects us as one race. It’s in Tagalog, so it was really meant to address Filipinos.

Halika, halika, kaibigan—come, come, my friends—is that like Jessie Jackson on the Washington Mall yelling out to the crowd, “I am somebody” and everyone yelling back “I am somebody”?

Yes! That’s it.

Now, the other night, one of your improvisations that I particularly liked was from “Take Five.” When you were doing that was there a particular process that you went through?

Bandmate Carlos Jesena on guitar

Band mate Carlos Jesena on guitar

For every performance with my band I actually don’t prepare anything. I don’t prepare a set list, and even if I know what songs I’m going to play, I don’t prepare how I’m going to play them. They’re different every time. I always put my band mates on the spot because I want to challenge them to listen to each other. That night when we played “Take Five,” I started with the defining feature of the song, which is its 5/4 rhythm. [Jireh plays the very recognizable first chord.] I play it a bit more until my band mates get it. I don’t even have to tell them what song it is because by then they already know. From then on— actually, I don’t really think about it. So I really can’t explain it.

It sounded great. To be honest, I didn’t know that “Take Five” had words.

It didn’t originally. A lot of jazz standards were written with the melody and the chord changes, and then other artists add lyrics. For example, “Take Five” was an instrumental which Al Jarreau wrote lyrics for.

Now on your CD, I notice the only cover here is “Tenderly.”  The song that first opened your ears to jazz was Oscar Peterson’s “Tenderly,” right? Only yours doesn’t have those old-fashioned flourishes that his does.

Sitting in--August, 2014

Sitting in–August, 2014

I love to listen to music. I can appreciate how people play without needing to sound like them. Oscar Peterson’s “Tenderly” recording is how he played it. The song itself is also beautiful, and it’s very special to me because that’s how I fell in love with jazz. I listen to a lot of the classic artists, but I don’t sound like them at all. I can’t be like Oscar Peterson. I don’t want to try.

Do you have the sense that you have really found your own sound or your own voice?

I think it’s a constant exploration. At this point I know what kind of music I play, and I sort of know what sound I want, but I’m aware that it’s bound to change and develop over the years. I know my direction, but things change in different environments and different types of culture. It’s much like how I approach everything. I have no idea what’s going to happen, I don’t know how it’s going to sound, but I just keep going. It’s part of the excitement.

Did you write the other songs on your EP?

Yes, although the “Intro” and “Outro” were excerpts of a live jam session in the studio. I wrote “Stay”, “Seventh High”, and “Drift.”

The CD version is sold out, but people can order the music online, is that right?

Jireh Calo's EP on disc. Cover design by

Jireh Calo’s EP on disc. Cover design by Seed Bunye.

Yeah, I uploaded the EP on Bandcamp.

I’d heard you play a couple of times before your last evening at Tago, but the last night left me totally bowled over. I think probably a lot of people felt that way. Do you have a special message to send back to Tago?

The people at Tago have helped me grow so much, and I’m so grateful for the whole community over there. They supported me even when I was first starting out. They saw the light and potential in me even at an early stage in my musical journey. I didn’t know I could play the way I do now. They formed an environment where I, or anyone else, could go to just jam and learn. There’s no ego, just music.  It’s a very healthy and supportive environment for a young, aspiring jazz musician. I love the people at Tago, and I’m definitely coming back to that place to jam when I go home.

You took a year off after you were admitted to Berklee, and it seems to have been really important to you—in terms of forming your band and getting the EP out.

Yes, I was admitted to Berklee for the Spring 2014 semester, but I deferred for a year.  I didn’t plan anything that happened in 2014, and so it still overwhelms me how everything fell into place. Much of it happened serendipitously. My first jam in Tago was also the first time I met Paolo Garcia, the producer of my first EP. Apparently, it was also his first time to visit Tago, and he wasn’t one who went out too much. He contacted me soon after, and we started sharing our music. That’s how the EP was born. Tago was also the place where I met and formed my band. I’ve met so many people who’ve contributed so much to my growth as an artist and as a person. I didn’t know where I was going, but I trusted that by following my God-given passion and believing in my big dreams, I was going the right direction. After I deferred for Berklee, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I wanted to make the best of my time. It was heartbreaking at first, but I trusted that it was part of a greater plan. True enough, some of the best things that ever happened to me happened that year.

The night after the interview I mentioned to Nelson Gonzales, owner of Tago, that I’d talked to Jireh and that she was happy and grateful. He said, “Oh, she’s always like that.” And I thought to myself: Happy and grateful, what a way to go through life.

Links to copy and paste in to your navigator bar. These include great music videos:

Jireh Calo’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jirehcalo.official

The Jireh Calo Project Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jirehcaloproject

You may purchase a copy of Jireh’s recently released EP online at https://jirehcalo.bandcamp.com/album/jireh

Soundcloud URL:https://soundcloud.com/jirehcalo

Youtube –>https://youtube.com/c/jirehcalo

Twitter –>https://twitter.com/jirehcalo

 

 

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Writer, Lawyer, Literary Agent, Part 2

by on January 28th, 2015

At the launch of For Love and Kisses

At the launch of For Love and Kisses

Andrea Pasion-Flores holds a BA in journalism, an MA in creative writing and a JD in law from the University of the Philippines. The first part of this recent, edited interview deals with her career, the second part with her short story collection, For Love and Kisses. The volume is short and light enough for a trans-Pacific flight or maybe a trip to the beach. The seven stories are character-driven, revealing the darker side of the human psyche, and they work on different levels. The language is of a quality associated with literary fiction. What makes For Love and Kissesparticularly appropriate for readers of Turning East is that it is well grounded in place—in the physical setting and in certain sectors of middle-class and upper-middle-class Filipino society.

Book cover

Book cover

1. “For Love and Kisses.”

I noticed the influence of the Catholic Church in the five-year-old protagonist’s having an intimate familiarity with the divinity she calls Mama Mary, which made me wonder where the story came from.

It began at the wedding of someone whose mother was battling bipolar disorder. The father had left the mother and the children, and the grandmother had stepped in to help, providing for the family financially as a husband would. At the wedding the mother became very fidgety and broke her large pearl bracelet, scattering the pearls all over. When she started to pick them up, she held up the ceremony. It was a scene I couldn’t forget. In the story I intensified the mother’s illness and used the point of view of her five-year-old daughter. A child wants a normal mother who will cook for her and be present for her in a way this woman couldn’t. I wanted the child to begin to understand the woman, who was full of pain and dependent on the support of those around her.

You give the reader a sense of how the extended family works in the Philippines.

My parents’ generation had a lot of siblings. The family unit is so large–with grandmothers or aunts, uncles who feel part of the primary family unit–that one feels intruded upon at times. For example, my mom has become an American living in the US with my siblings. I used to resent all these relatives asking me to bring things home: socks, chocolate, shampoo, things that are available in the Philippines. I wanted to bring back books, but they’d say, “Well, ship your books.” There’s an aunt who’s a matriarch, like the grandmother in the story.She gives out advice rather freely, and what she says is law.

I’ve seen a similar family dynamic here with an aunt who has a business. It’s also similar to what I know of a black family in the US where the matriarchal aunt ran the family business.

In my husband’s family, the aunt with the most successful businesses is the one all the other siblings turn to when they need something. It’s clear that she’s that kind of figure in the family, the matriarch, although she’s not aggressive and she resists this role.

Book signing

Book signing

2. “Vanessa Calling.”

Reading the second story, told from the point-of-view of a ten-year-old, I began to see the thread running through the collection, namely what people would do for love and kisses. This is the second story where self-image is based on what others think. The protagonist doesn’t want either the attention or the disapproval of her classmates. She’s drawn toward the culturally desired characteristics of being pretty, smart, rich and light-skinned, preferably tisay (short for mestiza) of Spanish descent. This is another story which shows real psychological truths about both children and their parents. For non-Filipinos, “Propaganda” might seems like a strange name for a prestigious hairdresser’s—probably a mistranslation—but it’s the name of an actual shop in Metro Manila.

Yeah. Propaganda, I thought, was a cool name and I wanted to use it, the way beauty in the minds of the characters of this story is a bit of a false illusion, like propaganda of sorts. It shows how the child wanted all this for herself and recognized the antithesis of this beauty in another character who exists on the fringe. She is suddenly made painfully aware of her, and she condemns her without realizing it. Propaganda, the salon, was quite popular back when I was still working for magazines. The people who made it popular are still very much around.

3. “Buttercups.”

The tree featured in the story is not actually a buttercup tree, but that’s what the teachers used to call them in the elementary school I attended. The trees were everywhere. I think they’re endemic to the Antipolo area. At that time there were rolling hills and lots of trees. What was nice about that school was that you could roll down the hill and land on a grassy spot. I did a lot of that when I was growing up. There were lots of flowers and trees and bushes and signs telling you to keep off the grass and not to pick the flowers.

The story starts with the narrator telling you something bad was going to happen. I was very conscious of ramping up the suspense and the fear factor. There’s also superstition. I grew up with nannies who told me that dwarves came out at dusk and if I didn’t come inside they’d get me. Or that something living in the tree would attack me if I didn’t behave. As a child I regarded this as fact. I wanted to believe that buttercups were homes for fairies. Especially in the provinces, you’ll find kids walking down the street and asking a big anthill for permission to pass. Makikidaan po? These stories about the supernatural are woven into the Filipino society. It’s a wonderful intersection of stories passed on through the domestic help to the members of the families they serve. Those stories are built into the child, at least children then I suppose. Superstition is deeply embedded, particularly in the rural areas where people are not as economically stable. In the cities it’s disappearing. You won’t find large family trees or rows and rows of “buttercup trees.” So maybe I was lucky to live in a house with a large garden and nannies who’d tell me to come inside because the dwarves were out.

The story reminded me of one we read in Ma’am Jing’s class where there was a bougainvillea that was possessed. We discussed Filipino magic realism in other stories as well.

When I was a lawyer volunteering for an NGO, there were a lot of rape victims. Poor people lived close to each other, or they had large families in one home. For a child that could be a dangerous situation. Sometimes when the mother was in denial you’d hear stories like that. Her daughter was raped—she’d say ginamit, “used”—by the tikbalang. The social workers were already keyed into something like that. In the bougainvillea story in Jing’s class, the whole community was in denial. Something very wrong was blamed on the supernatural, making it unexplainable, when in fact there was a logical, perhaps shameful, explanation for it that people didn’t want to acknowledge. I thought the bougainvillea story was well done. And I’ve actually seen that kind of thinking in a case where the mother of a rape victim didn’t want to sue the rapist, who turned out to be her boyfriend. So she says, “Sinabilang ng kapitbahay,”referring to the alleged rape of her own daughter by a supernatural being.

4. “Skin Art”

In this story the setting really seemed to play a bigger part. Recto is an actual place which the reader can find pictured on the Internet.

I had an uncle who had a school on Recto, a computer school which supplemented kids’ schooling with computer skills. One summer I went there every day with my cousins. The street looked exactly like it appears in the story. There were diplomas and transcripts for sale—or whatever else you wanted to buy. In college I did a story for the school paper on something I saw in Recto. There was a used flask-shaped gin bottle which was labeled “Pang palabas ng regla.” To bring on menstruation. Inside was a root-like thing and water that had turned a strange color. Of course that product was something you might be conned into buying if you had inadvertently gotten pregnant and wanted an abortion. You could drink the filthy water. This stuff was being sold next to votive candles, rosaries and statuettes of the Virgin Mary. One time, I was doing a feature on it for the school paper. I asked my then boyfriend, now husband, to come with me and look around Recto. We would always get stopped and asked, “Do you need a room? 100 bucks [pesos] for two hours.” As for the story, I guess I always wanted a tattoo, but was never brave enough to get one. In a place like Recto you really couldn’t trust a tattoo artist, so it had to be the place to put a character who was getting a tattoo for the first time.

In your story the protagonist is looking at the back of the tattoo artist as he’s working on her. He’s sweating, so his tattoos seem to come alive. There’s a suggestion also of tribal demons and an undertone of his sexuality.

Yes. I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story with clear sexual undertones, with the tattooing as the drawing of first blood, the loss of virginity/innocence. It’s a sexual encounter of sorts. She’s both attracted to and repelled by this sweaty, half-naked man. She has a crush on the other boy, but she also wants approval from this man who’s comfortable with his sexuality and his concept of beauty. But when she confronts herself she sees it’s really not pretty at all, and he’s ridiculing her and shaming her. I needed the protagonist to realize this in the most painful way a girl her age might experience it.

I was surprised at the character’s needing to get her mother’s permission to shave her legs. I started shaving my legs in junior high because it was expected.

It was expected? My God. – When my mom was growing up she told me she wanted to be a nun. I was the oldest child. I think we had to go through a mother-daughter process. I was a hairy kid. I always wanted to shave my legs, but my mom didn’t want me to. There was an event, maybe in seventh grade, when I had to wear stockings. I said, “Mom, if I don’t shave my legs they’re going to look really funny with the hair curled up under my stockings.” She said, “When they start growing out, they’ll be prickly.” “So I’ll shave them again.” My parents went to the grocery and I remember asking them to get me a razor. She said no. I think she relented eventually. When she went to the US, I could do what I wanted.

5. Love in Ministops—

Another interesting concept and certainly very Filipino is the worker as call center worker.

Yes. I’ve wondered about the call center culture. You read all sorts of stories about sex going on with all these young, hormonal kids who work strange hours in the night in order to accommodate businesses in other parts of the world. There’s apparently—I should verify—a place where you rest. The employees are young, single and well paid, so they have all sorts of wants and apparently also needs. We all do I suppose, but it’s different when you’re confronted with all these when you’re young. I would think a call center agent would have to compromise or negotiate with her conscience about many things, and that’s interesting.

Their life styles have changed, and they’ve started wanting cars and other things they could suddenly afford. I wanted to get into that world to see, for example, if their relationships are as fleeting as their jobs. The way they jump from one call center job to another, they sometimes don’t stay a year unless they get into a managerial position. It’s the kind of job where you only stay if you’re well paid. So I wonder what’s negotiable, what can be bought by stuff.

Like a designer handbag.

Like a bag. Is it okay to sleep with a guy you know is married? Maybe the character knows it’s not okay, but she thinks that at least she got a bag out of it. I don’t know. If you keep thinking that way, how far are you willing to negotiate?

In my generation, growing up attending an all-girls Catholic school, it was hammered into our heads that you had to be a virgin when you got married, you had to be able to wear a white dress when you walked down that very long aisle, et cetera. On the other hand, that’s not expected of the men, isn’t it? It screws you up, doesn’t it? “Ministop” is about denying that you’re in a relationship where you want more than what’s given.

There seems to be a lot of self-denial with both of the characters. It also continues to ask what you’re willing to do for love and kisses. What are you willing to do for male approval?

It continues from the beginning of the stories until the end.

I was impressed with how well you got the smell of the Ministop.

The smell of used cooking oil. You’ll never get me to eat chicken from a Ministop. It’s refried and refried. For a while there were more Ministops than there were 7-Elevens, and they appeared wherever there was a call center. I used to do yoga in Eastwood, which is call center country. I’d go to the Ministop for a bottle of water or a banana and see kids eating. Ministop food is cheap, fast and available 24 hours a day, with rice and chicken and whatever. In the morning it was evident that the smell had been lingering all night.

I also liked your descriptions of the rain. Despite the floods I never appreciated rain until I moved to the Philippines.

When I’m in another part of the world and I hear “rain” it’s not quite the rain I expect. Rain here is both pretty and terrible. I wanted to set the story it in the monsoon season to show the character’s life was like a monsoon—chaotic, devastating.

6. The Hungry Ghost.

I first encountered the Hungry Ghost in a Korean temple. If you were staying there, after meals you had to rub your bowl down with a pickle, rinse it with clean water and pour the water with the little bit of rice dregs into a bucket for the Hungry Ghost. So in your story there’s Chinese influence in the form of the extra place the wife puts on the table for the wandering ghost of the dead, despite her husband’s discomfort and disapproval. The table is the setting. It was immediately clear to me that the characters belonged to the social class which would have dinner knives on the table, unlike most of Filipino society.

(Laugh) Yeah.

Was there a little suggestion of magic?

No, just superstition. Here you have the wife negotiating with the husband, but she’s quietly forceful in a way that might be a little unexpected. I actually attended a 12-week culinary course in one of the cooking schools in Manila. It was great fun and hard work. So I put a lot of that in the story.

I think this story turns around the question of what a woman is willing to do, and the last one slams the door on it.

7. “How to Drink Whiskey if You’re a Girl.”

I picked the title thinking maybe it’s not about the negotiation, it’s drawing the terms of the contract: this is what I can give you, and this is what I want in return. At a time before the story opens the character was with a guy who was married, like the one in “Ministop.” But she’s had enough. It’s done. Now she’s going to do only what she wants to do. We do compromise every day, but maybe I wanted to show a point where you mustn’t compromise. And that might be how to drink whiskey if you’re a girl.

She’s thinking: I’m not going to get picked up in a bar, forget it.

More than that. It’s about how a woman might want to live her life. The unwillingness to compromise might be good too, to be content with self.

Notes to “How to Drink Whiskey if You’re a Girl”: There’s a brief exchange in Tagalog. Here’s a translation. Kaka-mis ang Pinas. I really miss the Philippines. Kelan ka uwi? When are you going back? Alanis is Alanis Morissette, a Canadian rock singer.

For international and local readers (copy links and paste to navigation bar):

You can order For Love and Kisses from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House https://www.facebook.com/USTPublishingHouse/photos/a.196215013731534.48340.184133008273068/767480273271669/

In the Philippines it’s also available via National Book Store and Powerbooks. Also via Mount Cloud in Baguio.

In Singapore, it’s distributed by Kinokuniya and Littered with Books. Also Closetful of Books: http://www.closetfulofbooks.com/?page=shop/flypage&product_id=255

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Writer, Lawyer, Literary Agent, Part 1

by on January 13th, 2015

Andrea in the harbor in Hamburg, Germany (Thanks to her husband for the photo.)

Andrea in the harbor in Hamburg, Germany (Thanks to her husband for the photo.)

Andrea Pasion-Flores is a copyright lawyer, author and tthe only literary agent in the Philippines. We first met in Prof. “Jing” Hidalgo’s creative writing class at the University of the Philippines and then at the various events she organized for the National Book Development Board when she was its Executive Director. She holds a BA in journalism, an MA in creative writing and a JD from the University of the Philippines.

The first part of this recent, edited interview deals with her career, the second with her short story collection, For Love and Kisses.

Andrea at the 2013 book festival

Andrea at the 2013 book festival

Andrea’s story

After receiving my undergraduate degree in journalism, I spent two years working for Mccann-Erickson, an advertising agency. I was handling the McDonald’s account. It was while I was there that I was admitted to the UP Baguio Writers’ Workshop for my short stories. I thought writing might be something that I’d like to do. Immediately after the workshop I enrolled in the MA program at UP. That’s where the first three stories from short story collection come from. Then I wondered what I was going to do with this degree. I worked with Cosmo for two years, but magazine publishing didn’t feel like home. It was fun for a while. Magazine jobs are good if you’re young. There are lots of perks. It’s different if you’re married with kids.

I feel I’m both creative and logical, so I thought I should feed the other side of me. I studied law for five years, and I quite enjoyed it, actually. Afterwards I volunteered for a non-governmental organization called Bantay Bata, which has as its mandate helping out physically and emotionally abused children aged twelve and below. I was also working with a law firm. My first court hearing was at the Sandiganbayan, the grafts and corruption court. The first case called was People of the Philippines vs. Imelda Romuáldez Marcos. The second case was people of the Philippines vs. JosephEjércitoEstrada. The third case was mine. I had this strange feeling that maybe I was working for the wrong side. I took that feeling as a sign but plodded along anyway and really tried to figure out whether law firm work was for me. I went back to magazine work, but by then I felt I’d outgrown it.

Then a board member at the National Book Development board suggested that I apply for the opening for executive director. I saw that the position married the law side of me with a bit of writing. There was a lot of legal administrative work, and it dealt with books and publishing. I stayed there for about six and a half years. I think the longest of any executive director. That’s where I really got to do interesting things, like I put poetry in the LRT [Light Rail Transit], namely I got organizations to sponsor posters of poems for people to read on the train and celebrities to record poems so they could be heard at stations. They’re down now, but I I still have people coming up to me, saying, “Thank you for putting poetry on the train.”

With the festivals, it was good to have been able to bring in people I’d read and really admired. And see them talk to Filipinos and engage with the writers here. I thought people needed that interaction. You may have noticed that people here tend to be insular. There’s not much international thinking going on. When you go outside the country and you talk to people, you see that Filipinos tend to keep to themselves.

I think bringing in more expats would help.

Sure. I think Filipino writers could only benefit from the thinking of someone who has been around, who’s experienced living all over the place. When I’m outside the country, I see how much richer the writing and how much more varied is the experience of the different human condition. It feeds the fire and provides so many different perspectives.

As a literary agent reading I’m reading all sorts of people from all over the world, and I see where Filipinos might be able to improve and where we perhaps need to widen our perspective. It’s not just writers. I think it’s the whole industry. We talk to the same people who say the same things, echoing each other—people they’ve had lunch with, people who’ve had dinner or had a drink or coffee with. You know? They’re always saying the same things. It’s different when you go out there and meet people from all over. You get to see from different perspectives.

A lot of places are like that. It would be difficult to find a place that’s more insular than the US was in the 1950s.

It still is a little, isn’t it? A lot of writers want to break into the US publishing market, but they realize that it’s pretty much self-contained. The market tends to pick writers from the US and publish them in the US. The big publishers bring the same US writers outside. But very little exchange happens. So Filipinos know of the US literary canon, but it doesn’t work the other way around. We know more about the US than it knows about us.

So now I work for Jacaranda, a literary agency registered in Singapore. Technically it’s a Singaporean company. We’re three agents, a Singaporean of Indian heritage who lives in Bangalore, an English woman who lives in Singapore and me. We have nonfiction about almost everything, fiction of all sorts, including literature for children above six years old. We have a couple of non-fiction children books as well. We represent a lot of writers from the Asia-Pacific region—the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and India—as well as quite a few from the UK and a couple of people from the US. We’ve represented publishers carrying manuscripts by a Dutch writer, for example. Our authors are as diverse as people in the world, as diverse as our agents are.

We realize of course that it’s not going to earn us the big bucks, at least not yet. People who get into publishing or writing a book are not doing it for the money. We represent a whole slew of writers because otherwise the agency won’t be viable. So we try to pick the best of the various genres we can find in the region. We have a few stars in our roster, which is nice. It’s been only a couple of years since we formed the company, although the lady who founded it has been doing this since 1997. She was the first literary agent in India. Then she partnered up with an Indian-American for five years. When they split up, I was at the National Book Development Board, and I said, “Hey, why not pick someone from my part of the world?” I was practically volunteering. So we found each other—Jayapriya Vasudevan, Helen Mangham and I. We’re spending a lot of time reading and seeing how far we can take it because we do feel that this part of the world is not as well represented as the West.

When I was pushing writers at NBDB, I saw that representation was what we lacked. Back when I was doing the MA, writers were telling each other, “You know, we’re not published in the west because we’re too ‘exotic’ for them. Their imaginations can’t fathom us.”

In my job I see that’s not true. There’s nothing wrong with the imaginations of Westerners. It was just that no one was selling us, plain and simple. No one was picking up Filipino works because no one was selling Filipino writers. Thinking that you have to move to the US to get an agent, that’s a strange kind of thinking, but as awful as it may sound it also almost rings true. You need to think in another way in order to make it to happen.

It’s an extremely insular attitude.

Yeah.

Aren’t you also teaching at UP?

This is my last semester. I’m teaching Composition and Introduction to Literature, but I also have three kids, so I have to find ways of earning a living so I can do the stuff I love. I may go back to teaching when my kids are a little bit older. Right now I figure I should concentrate on my literary agenting job and maybe find something exciting within publishing that might be more in line with what I’m doing. I’d thought that in academe I’d be in touch with all sorts of people working on manuscripts. That might be true, but Filipinos seem to take a while to write, and there’s more of the short form than the long form. They’re always trying to do literary fiction, which is more difficult and more demanding. It’s tough to sell because you’re in competition with the world and there’s just so much excellent work out there. There’s only so much money because it really doesn’t sell, but then again who’s doing literary fiction for the money, right?

Last year when you came back from the Frankfurt Book Fair, didn’t you say there was a demand for it?

In Frankfurt the publishers were looking for fiction, contemporary realism, because at that time the fad was dystopia and sci-fi fantasy, and most publishers had bought enough to last them a long time. Now we’ve gone through the vampire phase, we’ve done dystopia, and we’re in the fault-in-our-stars, make-people-cry phase, right? Commercial fiction is very market-driven. What’s good about literary fiction is that if the story is excellent you know you can sell it. A good story will last through time. But, having said that, when money’s put into something, someone’s job is on the line. If you’re an editor who picks up literary fiction and it doesn’t sell, you’re actually endangering yourself. There are targets. They have to sell. It would be great to find a wonderful book that also sells.

How would you distinguish between literary fiction and commercial fiction?

Defining literary fiction is hard because it’s more about language. When I look at something that’s plot-driven I know that it’s probably going to be commercial fiction, which has to be fast-paced—start with action and conclude at a high point. However, when you put in good language and layers of meaning, it becomes more than just a story or a plot. Then of course there’s what judges tell us is good, the award winners, the books that make it to short lists.

And those awful out-dated things that you have to read because you’re an English major.

Because they were doing something different at that time. Also, nowadays if you’re doing something different from what’s being done, trying to do with language what other people haven’t done yet, that’s also exciting to read. Yes, “literary fiction” can mean difficult, yes boring for some.

With some big exceptions, I find some commercial fiction so badly written that I rewrite every sentence in my head. It’s no fun for me. 

When you look at what sells, it’s probably not going to be what you and I want to read. I’ve come to realize that there are more people in the Philippines, for example, who read Wattpad stuff. Those little Tagalog romances are doing very well. They’re being turned into movies and read on Wattpad by the millions. Romances always sell. They’re formulaic, which means they must have a happy ending, they must titillate. If a book has done that, it’s done its job. They also speak to a particular market, economic stratum and age. They’re like Fifty Shades of Grey except very short.

I did a romance in English for Summit Books. Have Baby, Will Date. I’d just given birth, and a friend of mine was the editor. She said, “Why don’t you write about a single mom who’s had a baby?” She gave me the milestones of what had to happen in the story. My first manuscript didn’t have a happy ending. The protagonist and the father of her baby weren’t supposed to get married. I left it hanging. So I got a call, and I rewrote the ending.

While writing that, I had in my head the kind of girl I was writing for, what kind of job she might have, where she lived, where she shopped, how she dressed, what she could afford. I knew she had to be single and had maybe had a couple of break-ups. I was really writing for the market. When you’re doing literary fiction you don’t have a demographic in mind. That might be where you distinguish between writing for the market and writing as literary art. For the short stories I didn’t write for the market.

Links:

http://jacaranda-press.com.sg/

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A Year and a Half in Japan

by on December 24th, 2014

Patrick and students

Patrick and kindergarteners

In the English as a Second Language program at Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis, Patrick was both an administrative assistant and a short-term or part-time lecturer. He has a master’s degree in Elementary Education and a TESOL Certificate. Sometimes he still thinks about teaching overseas, although he’s almost sixty-five. Recently he’s been working as a private chef. We spoke via Skype when he was in Indianapolis and I was in Manila. Thanks to Patrick for the photographs.

Patrick’s story

The Fukushima English Center

The Fukushima English Center

In 1999, after teaching international university students part-time, I decided to apply for a full-time job in Japan. I’d liked working with Japanese students, and I’d heard the money was adequate and the language schools mostly honest. I had a telephone interview with an American representative of the Fukushima English School, and then I sent a video so the administrators could check my English. They hired me. I was thrilled. I was 49 years old, and this was my first attempt to live abroad.

Before going on to Fukushima, I stayed in a traditional inn in Tokyo and visited with a friend I’d met in Indianapolis. For the first week when walking down dark side streets I often caught myself looking over my shoulder, an American habit. Gradually I realized I wouldn’t get mugged in Japan, even in that huge city. In fact, Japan was a cash-based society, meaning people carried around huge amounts of cash because they didn’t use checks. There were no guns and little violent crime. After I started working my pay came as an envelope of cash.

His apartment building

The apartment building and school entrance

When I saw six-year-old children taking trains and subways to school, I looked around for their parents. I discovered that everybody felt safe sending their kids off alone. I could get on a train or a subway and go to any part of the city, walk around and feel safe. That was so refreshing. I was brought up as a totally nonviolent pacifist. Sometimes I wish I’d stayed in Japan because America can be so horrifying these days.

I also loved the fact that the Japanese put group interests above those of the individual. Most young people lived at home, and sometimes their families arranged their marriages, which were like business relationships without the romantic notion of finding the perfect mate and the perfect sex partner. People weren’t as brainwashed by romantic TV shows and movies. Marriage and child-rearing were about the good of society. It took me a while to get a sense of the collectivist’s view of the group and how it felt in the culture. Japanese customs seemed so alien to ours.

His apartment

The apartment: two tatami rooms, kitchen, bath with tub

Japan was a high-tech, world-class economy. People had Smartphones years before we did. On the trains and subways I’d watch them with their phones and wonder what was going on. They were interested in automobiles, but the nationwide train system was incredible, and everyone used it. Nowadays I’ve read all the books of Haruki Murakami, a famous fiction writer who’s got a great sense of humor and writing style. The protagonist of his latest novel, Colorless TsukuruTazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is an engineer who plans and updates train stations. The book contains a subway map of Tokyo. I think it may be the most sophisticated system in the world.

The apartment

The apartment

Juxtaposed to the modern side of Japan was the ancient side. In a Kyoto side street I came across a big sign over the entrance to a retail shop showing a naked butt being slapped with two gloved hands. The store sold motorcycle gear. Right next to it was a stairway leading to a tiny Zen temple which was probably a thousand years old.The modern-ancient dichotomy was everywhere, and the contrasts were sometimes jarring. I was impressed with how nice people were—although once an old lady yelled at me for crossing against the light. Generally I thought Japanese was such an interesting-sounding language, and there were common words that sounded hilarious, like words kids would make up.

The apartment

FEC common room

In Tokyo the subways and trains have signs in English now, but there were none in Fukushima and on the highways just north of there—not in those days. Once I drove up to Sendai, and I couldn’t read any of the signs. In Fukushima I’d go into stores wanting to buy a boom box and discover it sold clothes. Even though I was 49 years old, I felt like a pre-schooler. I probably learned more in one year than I’d learned in my life. For the first month or so I was exhausted at the end of each day.

It was the first time I’d been part of a racial minority, so noticeably not Asian. People on the street would stare, especially in Fukushima, where at the time we had probably seventy westerners, almost all English teachers. Once a friend and I decided to blow kisses at people who stared at us, but the reaction was a little disconcerting. Of course the kids all knew how to say hello in English, so they’d ride by on their bicycles and yell, “Hel-lo-ow. How are you?” Then they’d ride off so they wouldn’t have to say anything else.

The owner of the Catfish Bar with his staff

The owner of the Catfish Bar with his staff

Fukushima had a blues club called Namazute, or Catfish, which was a hangout for native speakers of English and people who wanted to practice the language. The owner had lived in Tokyo for years and loved American music. On weekends I’d go there to listen, socialize, and maybe meet a Japanese woman who spoke English. About once a month the owner brought in a live band, and I found the Japanese blues bands were fantastic. The singers all sang in English, but none of them spoke it offstage. There were great harmonica players and guitar players. I even got to sit in a couple of times.

Fourth graders

Fourth graders

FEC started in April with the school year. The school system had required English classes which started in junior high—nowadays English starts in grade school. Students could also attend language schools, called juku, to learn more English and other subjects. They were under lots of pressure to do well, but at the same time their traditional collectivist culture prohibited them from standing out. Or as the Asian proverb goes, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” In front of their classmates, students wouldn’t even tell me what their academic plans were. If I put a question to the class nobody would raise a hand. Ever. If you responded incorrectly you risked embarrassing your parents, your ancestors, the other students and the teacher. If you responded correctly you were showing off. So how was I supposed to teach English communication to students who would not participate?

English center kids

English center kids

The kids were an interesting amalgam of western influence—mostly music and television and movies—and traditional culture. In Tokyo kids with purple hair were singing folk songs on the street, but in the school system any student with hair dyed brown would be sent home.

Fukushima English Center was centrally located. It owned several businesses, including some retirement homes, two kindergartens and two high schools. I taught all age groups—junior high school kids, high school kids, several really advanced adults, and then several company classes in the evening. Every week I drove a school car to the two kindergartens and the two high schools. I usually worked a split shift.

The whole experience swept me away. I loved it, even though as a gaijin in a juku you’re basically an entertainer keeping the kids happy so the school can keep the business. The teachers were responsible for the curriculum. We had lots of materials, but we were free to expand on them as we wanted to, especially in the children’s classes. Other teachers were better at singing songs and doing chants and making friends with the little ones. I worked better with the adults and the high school kids. For the adult classes we used textbooks and current magazines. Of course, for beginning English speakers one class a week is not much time. It was up to me to make things interesting, bring in outside materials and form relationships to help students.

At a high school

At a high school

The government supervised the schools and made sure that the foreign teachers earned enough money so they wouldn’t be begging on the street. Teachers were not supposed to take on extra tutoring, but everybody did. Often private tutoring just meant going out to lunch with adult students. I worked with a woman who’d been in Japan for three years, and I think she stayed on for two more. She made a lot of extra money. Usually the school didn’t care as long as it didn’t interfere with the teacher’s official job.

After a year I was offered a job in a private Catholic institution called Sakura no Seibo, which had a junior college, a high school, a junior high and an elementary school. I taught at the girls’ high school, which was run by nuns although the kids weren’t Catholic and there was no religious instruction, just chapel occasionally. The school was known as good for learning English, probably better than the local public schools. In Japan generally the state-run universities and high schools were the better ones. The salary I was offered was double that of the English center—$60,000 a year. I thought, “Wow, I could never even make that in America.”

At another high school

At another high school

But before I left the center, my boss, a sweet older man who has since died, told me, “Patrick, you’re going to a different Rome,” referring to the adage about doing as the Romans do.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ll find out when you get to that school. There are very strict rules, and you don’t want to stand out in any way. Just keep your head down and do what they tell you to.”

“But this school is known for its English teaching. That’s why I got the job.”

“Well, you’ll see.”

The "housewife" class

The “housewife” class

I had no sense of what he meant, but I found out from other teachers that you weren’t ever supposed to rock the boat. The curriculum was dictated by the government and standardized from school to school. I was assigned to teach the required English general classes, five different English groups which met once a week in the language lab, forty students to a class.

Even before they walked in the door, the students looked depressed. They’d come in with their heads hanging down like they were going to be tortured. They had to sit next to a partner, put on a headset and go over a dialogue while the teacher listened secretly from the enclosed booth in front, ostensibly to correct them. The textbook was Side by Side.

[An enormous groan comes from the interviewer.]

A company class

A company class

When I was trained in TESOL, I learned many best teaching practices, which were nothing like this. So being the rebel that I am, I started bringing in music and fill-in-the-blank exercises for the lyrics. I brought in videos of the music the kids were listening to, like Michael Jackson and the Backstreet Boys. Shortly after school started, I had several visitors from the administration and my boss, a guy from Pittsburgh who’d been there for ten years and had a Japanese wife. The visitors strongly doubted the viability of using this music, which they told me I could play only after the Side by Side routine and only at the end of the hour for entertainment purposes. Once I realized I was trapped in an absurd situation I started not really caring how my boss felt about me, just as I’d responded to idiot bosses for years.

Three times a week I met with my freshman English majors, kids who’d either shown an interest in English or who had actually lived in English speaking countries, often in home stay situations. One had an American mom. They were much more enthusiastic than the kids in the required classes, and some of them had been to the US or Australia or England and had good skills already. One had an American mom. They were a really interesting group of kids, and I thought I could make some headway with them.

An adult class

Another adult class

But with this class another incident occurred which added to my growing sense of the absurd. Once a week we met in a computer lab and used computer software to improve pronunciation—for them just more of the same old stuff. I decided they should get email pals abroad. My brother teaches in California, and he was having his students make contact with students in other countries. Dave’s ESL café also had a list of students who wanted to contact others using English. So it was the perfect setup. It took maybe two class periods to get them all Hotmail accounts and get them started writing. Soon they were eagerly waiting to come into class.

My boss, this guy from Pittsburgh, came to visit the lab one day and said, “What are you doing?”

“They’re writing letters to people in America.”

“They don’t know how to write yet.”

“Well, this is how they’re learning to write.”

“Oh, no. You can’t do this. This is unacceptable.” He shut the whole project down.

Co-teacher Abe Sensei

Co-teacher Abe Sensei

In Japan I discovered Penguin graded readers, which I later used very successfully in the US with people I tutored and with English-language community college classes. If I’d been allowed to set up my own curriculum in Japan I think I could have made a difference for my students. The graded readers enable kids to read quickly at a level where they’re comfortable and where they can assimilate the grammar and vocabulary, just from reading and discussing what they read. I used the readers for extra reading—and also for the people I tutored privately. But in Japan the whole approach to education is just backwards. Change takes time, and it has come from the top down. [Reading has been shown to be the best way to improve vocabulary. For another experience with the readers, go to http://caroldussere.com/2013/02/02/teaching-in-gangnam-seoul.]

My approach has always been student-centered, not teacher-centered. My first teaching experience was in a small alternative school in rural Maine that had no curriculum except for what the kids and the adults involved wanted to do. What I learned was that children love to learn and that they learn best by pursuing their own goals. All the basics needed for life-long learning can be “taught” by supporting the natural interests of children.

A lawyer and private student

A lawyer and private student

Some teachers had been at Sakura No Seibo for years. The ones with the best jobs were making $70,000 a year at the junior college, where they seemed to have a lot more freedom in an enjoyable atmosphere. But in my situation, I didn’t think I could do it no matter how good the money was or how much I liked Japan.

Exams came on a regular basis, for all students in all subjects. They took up a whole week, and proctors monitored them. Everybody taught to the exams. When the first exams came around, I was worried because we hadn’t covered very much and the students hadn’t learned very much, especially the ones who didn’t want to learn English. I didn’t want them to fail, so I wrote an exam that was pretty easy but would pass inspection, then started teaching not the exact questions on the exam, but ones like it. One day I held up a copy of my test and said, “Okay, here it is. It’s only three pages long. It’s all things we know about, so don’t worry.” Two days later I was called into the office to meet with the head of the school. Somebody’s kid had told their parents I’d showed them the exam. I’d gone too far. They offered to let me resign, and they paid me for another month. I didn’t think I could find another job in Japan at that point, so I came home.

Just outside Fukushima

Just outside Fukushima

River near Fukushima

River near Fukushima

There are things I miss about Japan and things I’d still like to experience in Europe. I’m sort of an armchair radical, upset for so long about what my government is doing or not doing. It pisses me off that I haven’t had the nerve to emigrate. Today I’d choose one of the advanced social democracies in northern Europe like Sweden or Denmark. One of my nieces did her junior year abroad in Nicaragua and Ghana. My other niece went to Bolivia, Mexico and Kenya. My daughter went to several countries in Latin America. Back when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I didn’t enjoy school much, and with all the protesting I didn’t take it seriously, but as far as I know they didn’t have a junior year abroad program. Harvard was the pinnacle of education, so why should anybody want to leave? I really think every American should have to live abroad to experience other ways of living and participating in society and other democracies. There are issues apart from what brands to buy. I always advise recent college graduates, especially because it’s so hard to find jobs, “Go abroad and teach English. Start now. You can make it a lifetime pursuit.”

Farmland near Fukushima

Farmland near Fukushima

[The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster which leaked radioactive material into this beautiful countryside in the spring of 2011 is still leaking into the land and the Pacific Ocean. Travel is restricted.]

 

 

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