Carol Dussere

by on July 27th, 2009


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 134, 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). I’m posting roughly every two weeks, so please visit regularly, or better yet…

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Post-Yolanda: Leyte school children and their teachers need donations of books suitable for kids and teens. Books can be sent to the C&E Foundation, which has an ongoing mobile book project in Leyte (three jeepneys going around with books and teachers for students still without school libraries). Books for Philippine Schools Foundation, Inc. is also accepting books, but they donate only to school libraries, which haven’t been rebuilt yet.



The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Part 1

by on April 15th, 2014


Benjie on his way

If you go to the corner of Examiner Street and Quezon Ave in Quezon City, and you go on a weekend night, look for the parking lot of the Bank of Commerce where Benjie sets up his soup kitchen. The turnout varies. I’ve seen a low of maybe forty and a high of maybe a hundred and fifty people waiting patiently or helping to set up by bringing stuff from Benjie’s house nearby. They get a full meal. something to drink and a dessert. The people are orderly, friendly and grateful. When I stop by there to bring a dessert or take pictures I always happier when I leave than when I came.  

Benjie’s story

I went to kindergarten at a Dominican school within walking distance of our home. Most of my friends were from the have-nots. When I brought them home, my mom didn’t approve. I remember thinking, I don’t care if they’re poor. They’re my friends. So probably that was the start of my love affair with the poor.

On my sixth birthday my parents and my godmother came to my school with things for the class to eat. The nun told me to stand in front of the class. She asked me, “Who is the person you love the most?” I thought if I said either one of my parents, the other one would get jealous. They both would be if be if I said my godmother. The nun asked me to write the answer on the board. So I wrote, “God.” Later the nun called my dad and said, “Mr. Abad, let’s help each other. I think your son is bright.”

In the second grade I had a nun who was quite strict. The class was supposed to memorize the Apostles’ Creed, which was probably 60 or 70 words. She called on me first. How could I have memorized that prayer in five minutes? When she called me up to recite, I just stared at her and smiled. She was irritated, so at lunchtime she wouldn’t let me eat my lunch. I was okay with that. The problem was I was eating my lunch at home, and my father saw me and asked why I hadn’t eaten it earlier. When I told him the story he got very angry.

We weren’t rich, but my dad was influential. He was friends with Ferdinand Marcos, who was the current president. So he went to the school and threatened to go to the Department of Education to get it closed down. He said, “This is child abuse. You shouldn’t prevent my son from eating his lunch.” They’d given me a low grade for poor conduct, but my dad was so angry they fixed up the grades. I transferred to the primary school at the University of Santo Thomas, partially because my mom was a dressmaker with a client who was a teacher at UST. I had to make some adjustments, but that incident caused me to treat my own children in a non-dictatorial way.

At UST I was quite a good student. I was given awards and medals, but my parents were never there because they were always busy. My mother had a dressmaking shop, and my father ran errands for her, like buying fabric at the market or making deliveries. In the early 1970s, about the time I graduated from primary school, the ready-to-wear business was introduced to the Philippines, and people were buying their clothes from department stores instead of having them made. My family was really struggling. I remember hearing that I was very sick and my dad begged his sister for money for my hospitalization.

Mom’s business was failing, so she started buying meat from the market and delivering it to restaurants. Most of her siblings were also in that business. I remember overhearing a phone call—either I was standing beside my mom or I was naughty and picked up the extension. The man on the other end said, “Is this Mrs. Abad?” She said yes. “I believe you’re in the meat business.” “Yes, but we just supply meat to one or two restaurants.” He said, “I’m with Silahas International hotel and Philippine Village.” These establishments were owned by the Enriques, friends of Marcos. “Would you like to be our meat supplier?” She said, “We don’t have the money to supply you with the volume you want.” “Okay, for the first three or four months, we’ll pay you cash. Once you have enough capital, you can provide us with terms and give us a month or two to pay.”

My mom was dumbfounded. In hindsight, all of these hotels—like the Manila hotels, the Peninsula, Rustan’s supermarket, Manila Hilton, 80% of the hotels and businesses, as well as Makati Sports Club, Metropolitan Sports Club, Green Valley, Valley Verde, Quezon City Sports Club, Alabang Country Club—all of them are run by Marcos cronies. Ferdinand Marcos was the current president, and my dad had been his campaign manager during his 1965 presidential campaign, when he won against the incumbent, Macapagal. Dad worked with former Sen. Ernie Maceda, who was I think also campaign manager then. At that time Manila had been pro-Macapagal, especially in the district of Sampaloc in Manila. President Marcos addressed my dad as the old vanguard of Sampaloc. Marcos won there by a landslide. The two other gentlemen who campaigned with my dad got high government positions, Sen. Maceda and I think Administrator Llanes of MWSS. I still have the letter Marcos wrote my dad offering him a high position.

Dad just went on with his life. So probably Marcos told these guys that he owed my dad a debt of gratitude and they should look out for him and give him the opportunity to be successful as well. When I was young the village officials—that’s the barangay captains—would sometimes come to our place, a small apartment in a poor neighborhood near the University of Santo Tomas. We had just four rooms because we were renting out two rooms to students at the university.

The barangay officials said, “Mr. Abad, we were in Malacañang [the presidential palace] yesterday.” That was 1973-74, during martial law, when Marcos gave 10,000 pesos to the barangay head just for showing up at the meeting. [This was such a common practice that it was mentioned in my Tagalog language textbook, a relic of the 1960s.] At that time it was a lot, maybe worth 300,000 to 500,000 now. The kagawads, the council members, got 5,000 each. The meetings were at the Hero’s Hall in Malacañang. The officials said, “President Marcos is quite angry. He’s looking for you.” “Why?” “Because there’s two bags of money for you every time your name is called, and you’re not there.” Paper bags of money had been piling up for him.

It was just like giving bones to a loyal dog. My dad told them, “I helped Marcos, but not because I wanted something in return. I helped Marcos because I believed in him and because he was an Ilocano just like me.”

When I was in my twenties I finally worked this out from my childhood memories. As a teenager I was quite a rebel. I used to take my dad’s letter from Marcos and his 45-caliber and bring them with me to parties. This was during martial law. Carrying a gun was a capital offense. Every time I was apprehended by the police, I just showed them the letter, and I was let off. My dad had no idea I was using his influence. He was very angry when he found out. It was all just for the hang of it, just a teenager’s bravado. I had a gun. But I didn’t point it at anyone. I didn’t abuse anyone.

During that time I was making friends with the poor, like the ones we visited, who’ve been my friends for twenty years now. []

When we were living in that small apartment, I was raising homing pigeons on the rooftop. I loved those pigeons. But apparently they were wrecking havoc on the neighbor, who was a lawyer. So this guy went to the police headquarters and filed a complaint against my dad. The policeman came to our house and said, “Mr. Abad, please come down to the station. You’ve got some explaining to do.” My dad obliged. We had this dilapidated car, a late 60s Opel Cadet station wagon we used it to deliver meat. At the police station the lawyer and the officials were smirking, like, “Now we’ve got you.” They questioned my dad, and he gave them something, I think the letter from Marcos. They took it inside the commander’s office. When the officer returned, he was pale and he saluted and said, “Sir, Why didn’t you tell us who you were?” “I shouldn’t have to do that. I didn’t do anything wrong. You invited me here.” The lawyer was quite shocked at being upstaged in this scene. The policemen never came back.

My dad is also an alcoholic. When he woke up in the morning he downed shots of whiskey or rum. During martial law—even now—a minor was not allowed to buy liquor. But the liquor store owner sold to me because he wouldn’t get arrested. My dad was that influential. As obedient child I never went because I was afraid of my dad. I wanted to obey. Because of his alcoholism, arguments between my parents were frequent. I remember watching television, and they were walking in front of me because the apartment was so small. On one of those occasions I just stood up and said, “If you won’t stop this, why don’t you separate?” They stopped.

I was playing in the streets with kids who were really poor. They didn’t even have slippers [flip-flops]. That’s why even now when I see people without slippers I give them some. I brought my friends home with me. My mom was angry because the bed was dirty from people jumping on it.

In high school I really wanted to impress my parents and do them proud. The first year I got good grades, and I thought finally they would appreciate my efforts. But they didn’t. So after I was sent to a higher section in second year, it started a spiraling downward. Most of my energy then went to just passing. My grades went from the higher 80s to 75 or 76. In my third or fourth year the class advisor said, “I think you’re intelligent. So why are your grades just barely passing?” I said, “Ma’am, that’s harder. I don’t have any failing grades. All my grades are just passing, 76, 75. 77. It’s hard to hit an exact score.”

At the end of high school there was a national college entrance examination. I think it was from seven in the morning to one in the afternoon, with an hour for each subject. But my grandfather had just died, and that was the day of his funeral, which was a long way away. So I asked the proctor. “Can I just take the exam all at once and leave?” Luckily, he agreed. So I took it in an hour and a half or two hours and left. A week later I was called the principal’s office. They showed me my grades and the exam, which was 99+. Only the class salutatorian had a grade that high. They said, Mr. Abad, is this true?” I said, “Why, do you think I cheated? That was such an easy exam.” They said, “You’re just bragging.” “No, I’m not. If you want me to take it over, I’ll do it in two hours.” My teachers teased me by asking how I managed to cheat. Since we were seated in alphabetical order, I was right in front. I said I didn’t have to cheat. That was one of my proud moments because I knew I had something others didn’t. I was an under-achiever because of the lack of support. What was the sense of having all these awards if my family didn’t appreciate it?

After the offer to supply meat to the hotel, our finances improved. In 1982 we moved to an affluent neighborhood in Quezon City near the house of the current president. I was sixteen and in my first year at the university. Now I had everything I wanted, I did everything a son shouldn’t do. I drank a lot, I took drugs, I gambled, I womanized. I did crazy things, but abusing people was never one of them. And taking advantage of the poor was never one of them. I don’t know, my heart is always with the poor people. I have made so many friends among the poor that now they’re my children’s friends.

I went to college at the University of Santo Tomas to the College of Commerce. I was just an ordinary student. I was full of bravado. I wanted to show off. I was always the leader in my group, and I always had a need to tangle with authority, like getting into discussions with teachers. I wasn’t able to finish my college studies, but I had the distinction of attending for nine years without getting kicked out. Supposedly if you do five years without finishing a four-year course you will be kicked out. One semester when I dropped all my classes the dean asked me to come to his office. “We have to kick you out because you dropped all your subjects.” I told them there were personal reasons. He asked me to bring my parents the next day so he could talk with them. I said, “Sir, I’m not in high school anymore. You don’t have to talk with my parents. You can talk with me. I’ve been in your university since I was in elementary school. All I want is to finish my studies here.” “Okay, come back tomorrow.” I went back and he said, “Okay, Mr. Abad, even if it takes you twenty years, you can finish your studies here because you have been here so long. So that’s the sad story of the college education I wasn’t able to finish. I didn’t finish three minor class requirements: Spanish, a computer class, military and physical education.  I shouldn’t have obeyed my parents when they said I should take up commerce because we were in business.  My first choice would have been Astronomy.

So now we went from being poor to being quite rich. We had three cars, we had a big house, and there were parties at all of my parents’ birthdays. We had all of these fair weather friends. I wasn’t able to make the transition. I never enjoyed moving with the socialites. I thought all my dad wanted was to prove to his relatives that he was now successful. I only went to the family parties if they were at our house. Most of my godparents were Marcos cronies just like those who owned the hotels. I was not able to integrate with the socialites. I still spent my time with the poor. I brought food, and if they needed some I brought sheets of galvanized iron to fix their houses. When the squatters’ colony was razed by fire—the one in Makati that we visited—I brought about 60 sheets.

So I became an addict. But I didn’t put a stain on our name, and I never abused anyone. Probably my addiction was hardest on my parents and my wife. I used drugs from my first year of college, when I was sixteen, until I was thirty-four. In high school I did everything within the rules, but in college I had adventures.

In 1987 I married this girl who is still my wife and I hope will be until I die. I’m quite lucky that she didn’t leave me. I have three kids with her and one with another girl. My wife was able to shrug it off. Now I’m clean and sober. My gambling is not that bad. Once in a while I buy a lottery ticket. I used to go to casinos and squander lots of money from my mom and my dad. I had to settle down. I have to be grateful because I have a good wife and good children.

In 1982 my parents went from being poor to being rich, and then the reversal came. I was released from rehab on June 21, 2000.  I’d been there for six months. When I went home I learned my dad had suffered a stroke. That was the start of the downward spiral. He had three strokes within a span of three or four years. With the last one he was disabled. He lost his balance. He couldn’t eat with his mouth. He had tubes all over him. And the expense for medical care, including medicines and nurses, was so high it was just like getting robbed.

Health insurance was one of the things my parents had overlooked. Probably they thought their savings would be enough, not knowing that my dad would be bed-ridden for four years. The expense was enormous. We were forced to sell our “big house” and set up a small one. That was okay with me. I wasn’t born rich, so the transition was not hard for me. Life is too short to waste on whether you’re rich to poor. It’s okay. At least I know we took good care of my dad. The proceeds from the sale of our house were used up, and I was forced to go to work.

I hadn’t worked during my first 33 or 34 years. I just looked after the family business. If you’re the son of the owner it may seem like you’re working, but I wasn’t. I made deliveries and collections, but I didn’t do any paperwork. I didn’t talk with clients. But after Dad got sick I worked at a call center for I think three and a half to four years. It was fun. I was able to prove to my wife and my family and my friends that I could work efficiently because I had several recognitions for my efforts. For me it was a challenge to talk with Americans eight hours a day. I thought they thought I was an American. The problem was it was very hard to work every night and sleep during the day. The first two years I worked in ICT, a call center in Mandaluyong City, with the General Motors account. So I was talking with Americans about their vehicles, their loans, their titles, their plates—what have you. That was for two and a half years, usually from eight in the evening to four in the morning or from ten to seven. It varied. Sometimes it was one in the morning until night. It was quite taxing to the body.

When my dad died I told myself, okay, I did my part. I just want to relax. A year later one of my supervisors called me and said, “I’m with another company. If you join us you’ll be promoted in six months. Well, I went. Unfortunately, it seemed like every time it looked like I was going to be successful something happened. I finally resigned. Now my job is maintaining a soup kitchen.

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Silvia Wilson Moves to South Korea

by on March 28th, 2014


Silvia at the Marrakesh Night in Seoul on December 25, 2009

This interview was originally posted in November, 2010. I’m posting it again in her memory. Silvia died of a heart attack on March 27, 2014. We know she was happy and posting on Facebook the night before. She was well loved on both sides of the Pacific. The photos of her surroundings are Silvia’s own. I have added a few of her.

Moving to Korea to teach English can be difficult. In fact, Silvia’s experience with less-than-honest recruiters and insolvent private language schools is fairly typical. What is much less typical is her decision not to give up and go home. To me her experience illustrates how much personality determines a person’s ability to get along abroad. Here are her words from a 2008 interview.

Silvia’s story

Silvia in Seoul in May, 2013

In July of 2001, my son Jim called from San Francisco and said, “I’m going back to Korea to teach. You want to come with me? You’ll love it.”

I had become a passionate Asiaophile by reading on the floor of my grandfather’s attic with the sun pouring in onto the unpainted wood. He had a collection of National Geographics which went all the way back to the 1880s. I was entranced by the stories of people going down the Yangzste River in steamboats and Victorian ladies visiting royal courts in Thailand. I saw Europe as an extension of my own culture but Asia as alien and fascinating. It was so different, and there was so much to learn.

On my sixteenth birthday, my father took me to a Korean-Chinese restaurant and taught me how to use chopsticks because “you never know where you’re going to end up.” So decades later when I asked what he thought about my going to Korea, he said, “Well, you won’t starve.”

I contacted recruiters to put my name in for various jobs, and they promised that they would find me a place in Seoul where I could teach high school students. I waited and waited.

The last five years in Maine had been really hard. My husband died, I had no income and was struggling to keep afloat in a business that was going down like the Titanic. I was just miserable. I couldn’t find work, and I was taking one temporary job after another. In early September my father died. Then 9/11 happened, leaving us all traumatized. On October 4 my furnace was declared dead. This was Maine, where it’s impossible to live without heat. Three days after the furnace died, I got a call from a recruiter in Korea asking if I could come within two weeks. So I gave up the course I was taking in computer repair and gave away my animals—a lama, a herd dog, and I don’t know how many cats. My brother lent me enough money for a round-trip plane ticket, which I had to have to get into the country. At the consulate I got a visa stamp on my passport. I got to Korea before the deadline.

The girls in Seoul, May 2012

The recruiter who met me at the airport told me he was taking me to Seoul, but instead he took me to Ilsan, about two or three kilometers from northeastern Seoul. I didn’t even know where I was. I had a nice studio apartment on the seventh floor with a view of the hills of North Korea in the distance. In 2001 the mountain nearest me had propaganda signs posted on it. At night when the billboards lit up, the light was so bright that the whole mountain glowed like it had a little halo around it. It was kind of pretty. There was a river with a road beside it—maybe the Imjin River, but I’m not sure—and an extremely high barbed-wire fence with coils of barbed wire on the top.

The next day I discovered the school wasn’t a high school, but a pre-primary daycare center. Some of the children were not entirely toilet trained. I had a little boy in my class who was supposed to be four years old, but he was very, very tiny.  I was told he was born premature. If he said “shil,” apparently meaning hwajangshil [toilet], you had to pick him up and run like hell.

A rock garden nearby

In the meantime, my son Jim was still in San Francisco trying to sell off the possessions he and his wife had accumulated. It took him three months to get to Korea, so he didn’t get here until after my school went bankrupt. Both of us spent the winter running around looking for work, so our paths only crossed maybe five times in three months, but I remember we saw The Lord of the Rings together.

The daycare center was an attempt to help poor, working mothers, who would drop their kids off on their way to work. Because of their working hours, we were open from 9:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, sometimes later. It was a hard job, ten hours a day, sometimes six days a week. For the first two months I was paid two million won a month, which was about $1,500 at the time. The third month, the place was going bankrupt. They gave me a choice: a ticket to go back to America or whatever they could pay me, which would probably be half my salary.

I did have a ticket back, but I still didn’t have any heat in Maine. That was the deciding factor. I had survived the ice storm of 1998 huddled down in that house. I knew how hard it was to heat a house with wood, and I didn’t have enough wood to get through the winter. It would have been totally impossible. So I said I’d take the half pay and the apartment they rented for me, and I’d hunt for a job.

Motorcycle delivery people

Motorcycle delivery people

I left there in January 20, 2002, and I found a job where I taught for three months before I was out of work again and had to re-register in a different district with different regulations. I had to write back to my college to get more transcripts and all that stuff. My boss was a great guy, but his wife was the bookkeeper, and she figured out very quickly that they couldn’t afford a native speaker. In fact, she said they were making more money with the math tutoring part of the school, so they should get rid of the English language part of it.

So there I was. No job again. I stayed in an apartment that belonged to my son’s employer, who was nervous about leaving the place empty because it was on the edge of the red light district. After that I moved to a yŏgwan, an inn, with a pleasant enough space. I was there during the 2002 World Cup, and I was right on the main street where all the parading was going on in the middle of the night. Every time Korea won a game, there would be a parade. I had made friends in the neighborhood by this time, so for the last Korean game one of them pasted a Korean flag on my cheek, and I had on my red bandanna and red tee-shirt. I was out there at two o’clock in the morning, marching along and singing, “We are the champions.” Very exciting. A lot of fun. Also, by this time I’d been in Korea almost nine months. I felt really at home.

I find people here very easy to live with. I think it’s because they’re basically small town people who know they have to get along with people, even if they don’t like them. I approached the Koreans around me in the same way I would the people in my hometown. Now I know Mainers in general are similar to Koreans because we have a lot of the same values: a work ethic, a desire for our children to have a better life, often a social life that revolves around the church. I grew up on a farm, and most Koreans have some connection with farms—growing up on one or visiting their grandparents’ farm when they were children.

A temple garden near my house

People are friendly. I’ll be walking down the street, and they’ll nod and say hello to me. Sometimes we’ll stop and have a little conversation that is half words and half charades. The other day when it was threatening to rain, I was coming down the mountain. A lady who was walking up said hello to me in Korean and rubbed her knee, indicating her arthritis, and pointed at the sky. I said hello and agreed that it was going to rain. We communicated mostly through hand signals, but it was a very satisfying conversation.

To give you an idea of how the farmers from both countries can interact, in 1979 some Korean farmers came to Vassalburo, Maine because land was cheap then. They rented some land and everybody in town noticed that the Koreans grew the most wonderful cabbages. But at the end of the year the contractor reneged on his promise to buy them. We had gotten screwed six years previously by big city a contractor who had promised us good money for daikon, the large white Japanese radish. The Koreans’ cabbages rotted in the fields, but some of the people stayed, settled in, kept on working and got jobs locally while they continued to farm. We admired them, so that when Mr. Kim got around to building a house, the people in the neighborhood helped him and showed him about insulating for Maine winters. It was really interesting to see how the villagers watched the newcomers before welcoming them. They liked what they saw, so they helped out when they had a chance, which is classic Maine behavior.

Shortly after I came here, I began meeting people who looked familiar. I met a woman who looked so much like someone I knew in Maine. Mainers often don’t admit it, but we’ve got a lot of Native American blood, and of course there’s a strong racial connection between Koreans and Native Americans.

A street corner

For example, my friend William Turner, who’s half Native American, was lost in North Korea during the Korean War. When he found an abandoned farm house, he ditched his uniform for some farmer’s clothes and carried his gun on his back in a wooden A-frame pack. He crept south, going into abandoned farmhouses and unearthing the kimchi that was hidden there and eating it. From a distance he could pass for Korean. The hardest part was making it through to the American lines. Eventually he got to a place where he could see some sentries, and he called to them in a low voice. They were going to shoot him, but he told them that the Yankees had won the World Series that year or some other dumb-fool baseball fact that identified him as an American.

In Korea I met a man who could have been William Turner’s son—same spiky hair sticking out, same sort of aquiline nose, high cheek bones and a good sense of humor. Not quite as quiet as William was. I kept meeting people who looked like Mainers I knew in their appearance and mannerisms. And there were language similarities between Korean and Algonquin, even between the l-and-r sound of Korean and the same sound in Mainer French. The first winter I was here I imagined myself living in the French-speaking quarter of Lewiston, and I felt comfortable. I said to myself that I was only a day’s flight from home, so it was pointless to get homesick. I was so interested in learning about the culture that I just never thought about it.

The differences I saw just seemed to highlight the similarities. The mountains don’t look exactly the same because they haven’t been scrubbed down by a glacier, but the trees and the forested nature of the country is very similar, with conifers and deciduous trees—pines and oaks and maples. The smell of the dead leaves on the ground in the fall is very much the same.

I was amused the first time I saw a roll of toilet paper on the dining room table of a house, completely bare and unadorned, without even a doily covering it. Toilet paper is used as napkins. My grandmother was always making lacy, fluffy things to cover the toilet paper in the bathroom.

A school where I taught

My family has a strong oral tradition, and we remember the Civil War—literally. It was passed down to us. My Grandmother Neal’s father was at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot. My maternal great-grandfathers and one of my paternal great-grandfathers were in the Union Army. So I have a sense of what Koreans experienced in their civil war, which is what they call it. If the Confederates had stopped fighting under a cease fire, but not a peace treaty, the South and the North would be two very different places. South Korea was like the South in the United States, mainly agricultural, and the North in both places was mainly industrial. The difference was that in Korea the industrial base was destroyed during the war, whereas in the U.S. the South never made it far enough north to bust up the factories in places like the Boston suburbs. If that had happened, it would have been a different kind of war. Also, the Canadians didn’t come down like the Chinese did in Korea, and the Spanish didn’t come to America the way the Americans did to Korea.

I’ve been here for close to eight years, and I’m comfortable. I have enough money to get by and a tiny apartment with a little squat of a bathroom and a large shower room where I keep my washing machine and my refrigerator. I have a little galley kitchen and a normal, maybe ten by twelve bedroom.  The first time I flew back to Korea after trip to Maine, I felt really good as we started flying over the peninsula. The last time, I felt the same thrill you feel in your heart when you come back to your home country. Maybe it’s because the last five years there were so hard, but Maine just doesn’t do that for me anymore.


Sunshine Joe through Our Eyes

by on March 15th, 2014


Aida Aspiras and Imelda Marcos

Jose Aspiras

Jose Aspiras was one of a group of journalists who in the 1950s made history by refusing to reveal their sources. They were jailed for contempt. The incident led to legislation which protected journalists and their sources. Under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, Jose Aspiras became Presidential Press Secretary and then the Minister of Tourism. He served as a Representative of the 2nd District of La Union to the 7th Congress (1969-1972) and then a member of the Interim National Legislature established when the country shifted from a presidential to a parliamentary system. He was then elected to the 8th Congress (1987-992), 9th Congress (1992-1995), and 10th Congress (1995-1998). He also served as president of the World Tourism Organization and the Pacific Area Travel Association. He is considered the father of the Balikbayan and the Reunion for Peace Programs. At the time of his death in 1999, he was the head of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, the Philippines’ coordinating agency in Taiwan.

Aida Aspiras is my friend and neighbor. This interview took place in my study. Later Aida invited me to sit in on an interview with Imelda Marcos, which appears in an edited version below.

Aida’s story

My father, Jose Aspiras, was from a modest family. All he had was a good head. I never met his dad, but he was very close to his mother, a very prayerful lady in a long Filipina dress. She spoke very little but when she did it was something of substance. Dad was basically a simple provincial man who on a hot summer night could sleep inside without air-conditioning or outside under a tree. He was brought up by his half-brother, a priest who became the Archbishop of Pangasinan, near Baguio. Dad’s brother was to me the epitome of priesthood, a holy man–honest, strict and disciplined. We weren’t allowed to curl our hair, use makeup or nail polish or wear revealing clothes. He officiated at my wedding and at my brother’s wedding, but after that no more. Maybe he thought he hadn’t done a good job because both marriages ended in separation.

La Union Province in northwest Luzon..

As a boy my father lived in the archbishop’s palace, where he served mass with his older brother. He was very good in school. He went to the University of the Philippines and Ateneo University on scholarships. He finished a degree in journalism and started a law course. His first job was writing for The Manila Times and what was then The Manila Chronicle.

Having a journalist for a dad meant he was asleep when we left for school and gone when we got home. He had to be in the office at night because the papers came out early in the morning. He worked so hard. Like a lot of journalists, he was thrown in jail for contempt because he refused to disclose his sources. Their defense lawyer was Ferdinand Marcos. After my father got out of jail, he started to follow Marcos and write speeches for him.

Before my father joined government, he was the public relations officer for the Textile Mill Association of the Philippines. He ran for Congress and lost. We were packing up to return to Manila, where we were going to school, when he told all of us we had to go congratulate his opponent, Congressman Manuel Cases. I didn’t want to go because Cases had said so many bad things about my father. Dad said, “Aida, don’t be mad. Politics is like a contest. Somebody wins, somebody loses. People like me too. I got thousands of votes. They like him more. So let’s all go and congratulate him.” After the election he decided to move back to La Union. In the next election Marcos was running for president, and he supported my father’s candidacy. Dad became a Congressman.

Later Marcos appointed him as his first Press Secretary, a job he held for five years.He’d say, “I really don’t like making enemies. As the mouthpiece of the president, you’ll always have people mad at you. I’m a PR guy. I want a job where I can make as many friends and as few enemies as possible.”

My father held two portfolios, one as member of the General Assembly [popularly still called the Congress] and one as the Minister of Tourism. He said, “I am in government now. I don’t want anybody to make money out of my position. If you’re not called to my office, please don’t come.”

Then in 1983 Ninoy [Benigno Aquino] was killed. I never saw my dad so angry. He said, “We’re finished.” Then of course one thing led another [as public outrage rose over the assassination]. In 1986 Dad took the Marcoses up to where they were supposed to get a chopper to Hawaii.

For a long time I was the leader of the youth organization, the Namnama Ti La Union, a youth organization with no political affiliation.  After Marcos was deposed, I took over in my province. I went to La Union for a meeting. One of the candidates for governor of the province was Joaquin Ortega, a 70-year-old man. I walked into the room and said, “Hello everybody.”

The governor said, “Here’s your candidate for vice-governor.”

My father said, “One politician in the Apiras family is enough.”

Then the candidate for vice-governor, a doctor, pulled out of the race at the last minute. The deadline for filing the certificate of candidacy was midnight of the following day. My dad said, “You’re not going back to Manila. I want you to run for vice-governor.” They put me in to solidify the support of the electorate. Someone else might have been as electable.

After the election my dad took me aside. He said, “Congratulations. I never got the lead you had. You won by a landslide.” What he said next didn’t make sense at the time, but I always kept it at the back of my mind. “Listen to me, and listen to me well. Now that you have won, you have nothing else to prove. Remember you owe the people who elected you, not the other way around. Lead with humility and courage. When you make decisions always take into consideration what’s best for the majority.” I’m repeating this verbatim. At the time I was thirty-eight. I didn’t understand, but I discovered what he meant later.

When I was Officer in Charge of the province and had to make decisions, I brought all my documents home to get my dad’s opinion. Once I said, “Dad, look the cost of this cement. How come we’re buying it at a high price when we’re supposed to have a 20% discount?”

He would just read the documents one by one and set them aside. Then he’d say, “Okay. Wait for the governor to decide. You know, Aida, in government if you make a mistake, even after your tenure as a government officer, and people want to make it difficult for you, they can sue you for irregularities. So it’s best to play it safe all the time. If you’re not sure about a document, don’t sign it.”

I came from the private sector, where the paper trail is the same every day. In government, it can change. Today it’s from left to right, but tomorrow it might be from right to left. So it’s hard. The system is difficult. At that time I was also having problems with my sons. My father saw I was really distraught. He told everybody, “Aida’s not running anymore. She’ll have to take care of her children first. What good is she in politics if her family is broken?”

In 1996 when my father got cancer, he was diagnosed here, and my mother said, “We’ll get a second opinion in the States.” I went ahead to look for an oncologist. At the time Dad was in Taiwan as the head of the Manila Economic Council Office. Since we didn’t have an embassy in Taiwan, as the chairman of MECO was the equivalent to a Philippine ambassador to Taiwan. Anyway, in the States he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The doctor said he would have to have chemotherapy. We were living in my sister’s two-bedroom house in San Francisco. I saw him counting out money. It was so sad to see a man of his stature counting money and telling my mom, “Amparo, you keep this. I’m not going to undergo chemotherapy. I’m not going to get well anyway. It will just prolong my life.”

My mother was angry. “No, no, no. Even if we have to sell our home in Manila, you are going to have chemotherapy. If we have to sell, we will.”

I was angry too, and I was sad. My dad was sitting in a Lazy-Boy reading the newspaper. I said, “Dad, why didn’t you make yourself rich?”

He didn’t answer me. He didn’t even put down the newspaper and look at me.

When I asked again, he lowered his newspaper and said, “Torpe,” which is Tagalog for stupid. “For what? So people spit at you when you turn your back? For you and your brother and sisters to be fighting over what I made? I’d be tossing and turning in my grave.” Then he went back to his newspaper.  “Sorry, kid, all you’ll inherit from me is a good name.”

I thought, “What’s a good name anyway?” I’m a slow learner.

Even at the height of my dad’s popularity, our lifestyle didn’t change, and I’m grateful for that.  My son Padjo married a woman who came from a well-educated, well-to-do family. She said, “Your grandparents’ life is so simple.” Maybe she thought for dinner we would put out a lot of silver and crystal on the table. It was the same before and after Marcos left, even after Dad became ambassador. My dad sheltered us from politics. He didn’t expose us.

As a matter-of-fact, when people said the Marcoses were thieves, it was a shock to us. That’s why when we hear that, I say, “I don’t know those things.”

Martial law was good for the first year. There was a curfew. Filipinos don’t listen to their leaders if they’re not afraid of them. Marcos ordered the execution of a drug dealer, Lin Seng. After that the dealers were too scared to sell drugs.

My dad was like a man who’d swallowed Emily Post [the best-selling Etiquette, 1920]. He was so proper, and he always had the right thing to say. For instance, when he was very sick and in a wheelchair, he said, “Aida, what are you doing this morning?”

“Why, Dad?”

“Because there’s something I’d like you to get for me—but only if you’re not busy.” So how do you react to somebody who would ask you that? He never felt entitled.

“Ok, what can I get for you?”

He sent me out to get some jewelry for my mother, something not too expensive and not too cheap. He asked someone else to buy each of us the least expensive Cartier watch. There was a note saying, “Thank you, Dad.”

Even though he was in pain and couldn’t eat or sleep much, he was always very considerate. He had a doctor, Francisco Lukban, who never charged him for his services. When the doctor came in, my dad would try to stand up to shake his hand. Once when the doctor told him he should take a test he didn’t want to take, he blew his top and walked out of the hospital.

I said, “Dad, why did you talk to the doctor like that? And why were you mad at him?.”

Before he went back to the hospital, he told me to fetch the bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label that had been given to him by some important people. He took it back to the hospital with a note apologizing for losing his temper.  The doctor told me later that he’d never drunk the whiskey because it was so precious to him.

So that’s pretty much my dad. If he were alive he would be ninety years old in August. We’re writing a coffee table book which will be The Life and Times of Jose Aspiras.

In preparation for the book, journalist Jojo Sylvestre interviewed Imelda Marcos. I was present for the interview, which with his permission I’ve presented here in a shortened form.

Imelda Marcos’s story

Jose Aspiras—he was called Sunshine Joe—and Marcos were friends even back when Marcos was a Congressman. When Marcos became Senate President, Joe was involved in many projects for Ferdinand. Then when Marcos became President, he became Press Secretary. Because of his very pleasant and wonderful personality Marcos put him on tourism, and he did a lot for tourism and for the country—showing the real potential of the country. Marcos also had great need for him. When there were conflicts and misunderstandings among the different people in the Cabinet, he was a peace maker. He fixed things up. That was very important because there was a lot of intrigue. In the midst of power, there is a lot of envy and fighting for a higher post. I used to ask him to join me on my travels because in the groups there were always misunderstandings. You don’t need that, especially when you’re working for a foundation. He was democratic. He brought people together. If I had a social event, for instance, he was very good at organizing it.

He knew what to do, and he was almost indispensable. When people were fighting he was always the one who talked to everybody and put things in place. He had charisma. He could attract people. And he was a credible speaker, a big asset to a political campaign. During the election he was Press Secretary, which was tremendously important.

Tourism became a very important department in the Marcos administration under Aspiras. Mrs. Aspiras and the whole family worked with us because they were all pleasant. Mrs. Aspiras helped in many projects. She was very efficient. It was nice to have her around because she was a beautiful woman. Having beauty around you helps your mind and your spirit. Joe had a wonderful family. The children were hardly walking when they came to visit in Malacañang [the presidential palace].

The Marcos monument in La Union

When the Miss Universe Pageant was held here, I presented a parade of the history of the Philippines, starting with the Stone Age. We were not ashamed to show all the different tribes, to show how rich our culture was, to show our history, to show the best parts. Then to show the Spanish colonization and World War II and what we had to go through under the Japanese. And also the Americans. I wanted people to understand the Philippines and see how beautiful our culture was. Well, I suppose Miss Universe became my responsibility because it was hosted here and I was First Lady. Joe’s opinion was important because we wanted beautiful things not only for women, but also for men. He had quite a talent for visualizing how things would look.

From the beginning to the end, he was with us. Even before Malacañang. That was because 1) he was pleasant to be around, 2) he was very useful in calming down misunderstanding, 3) he was very efficient, 4) he could put things together beautifully and 5) he was Ilocano and he was super-loyal. In fact, we were surprised that he even had a monument of Ferdinand built in Ilocos. Ferdinand never saw it. Unfortunately during the Ramos time they blew it up. I saw it only after we came back from exile. We always stopped by La Union when we went north to Agoo. Joe was a friend. A delight. Above all, he was a man of good character.



Becoming Useful

by on March 2nd, 2014


I met Kee Park in 2013 when I was in Seoul during the Buddha’s Birthday week. He’s a very laid back, relaxed man who often interrupts his conversation with a joyful, delightful laugh that sounds exactly like my former meditation teacher, a Canadian who was a Buddhist monk for twenty years. This is a recent Skype interview which we did when he was in Cambodia and I was in the Philippines.

Kee’s story

Dr. Kee Park

So why don’t you just start telling me about yourself? When did you and your parents go to the US?

I was born in Korea. My dad’s a doctor. In the early 1970s he was in private practice in Seoul. Because of the shortage of doctors in the US at that time, it was fairly easy for foreign doctors to go there. A lot of his friends had already gone, and it sounded like a good move. For Koreans the US had always been a sort of older brother. It was the place to be.  Everybody wanted to go there. So when the opportunity came, my dad said, “We’re going to move to the US.” We immigrated in January of 1974, when I was nine years old, and he did a three-year residency in Hoboken, New Jersey.

I remember the move to the States as quite painful. My mother didn’t speak any English, my dad spoke functional English. We children didn’t speak any English. It felt like, “Throw the animals in the water and see which ones can swim.” We had to pick up the English language very quickly.

In the mid-70s, it seemed to me all the Asian immigrants were lumped together in people’s minds as “boat people”, Vietnamese war refugees. Also, in Korea at that time we didn’t have much of an identity. Korea was a country torn up by war trying to rebuild itself. It still had a fairly low standard of living. So if you look at it from a social standpoint I felt inferior. Obviously, from a national standpoint we couldn’t even liberate ourselves. We had to be liberated from the Japanese during World War II by the Americans, and then we were occupied by the Americans, and a government was set up in South Korea. So we always sort of never really felt…whole, I guess.

Back in Korea, my dad was a professional, and we were solid middle or upper-middle class. We had a maid, we lived fairly comfortably. I don’t remember feeling socially inferior in Korea. But when we immigrated, we were told, “We’re never going to be as good as the American people so we have to try twice as hard.” The message was clear.  I was not as good as these people. Sometimes that can make someone very ambitious to be become “somebody”.  It’s probably not like that now, but in the 70s, being an immigrant from Korea was very difficult.

I think for the most part I’ve overcome that, but it took a long time. I did what I thought I had to do. I could see it was important to succeed in American society. But success—nobody taught me what success should look like. Nowadays I would define success as being useful. But when I was a teenager success meant money, status, power, respect, those kinds of things. I was only 5’7” and 125 pounds. I wasn’t going to be successful as an athlete. For me the way to succeed was to study hard and become a professional of some sort.

I attended junior high in Union City, New Jersey, which is on the others side of Lincoln Tunnel from New York City. I picked up the language pretty quickly. We then moved to Wayne, New Jersey. In high school I was the student council treasurer. I remember hearing, “Let the Asian guy be the treasurer. They’re good at math.” Typical stereotype. It seemed funny at the time. I was part of the all-school musical production we put on every year. I was on the crew side, starting out the first year as a stagehand and spotlight operator, which meant standing on the catwalk on the roof of the auditorium with this 50-pound light generating all kinds of heat, just aiming it a character on command from the lighting director and following that person across the stage. Then I moved up and became the lighting director my senior year.

Were there other Korean-Americans around you? Or did you feel isolated in that way?

There were only a few Koreans in Wayne during the 1970’s. Forty years later things have changed. There are massive Korean churches in Wayne, New Jersey. There are Koreans everywhere.

Our parents wanted us to assimilate quickly as possible. There was no emphasis on trying to teach us about Korean history and culture and language. I think that also contributed to this feeling of weak identity.  I had to become an American as quickly as possible. All I remember was that I just had to succeed and do well in school and all that.

When I was a kid we went to Europe several times, and I felt that the Europeans, particularly the Germans, were much more sophisticated than I was, particularly when I was a college freshman. I’d been in high school there, so I knew how much better their education was. It really stuck with me. The other students thought the Americans were just so naïve.

I see what you mean, but with me it wasn’t sophistication. It was more the fact that the Korean people—and now I’m going to talk about Koreans in a general way, have issues.

Whenever a country is occupied by outside forces, by force, someone takes us and strong-arms us and says, “Do you give up?” and they make us subjects to their will, that has an effect on the national psyche. Then, when we don’t liberate ourselves through our own strength, we don’t kick them out but are liberated by another force, a “friendly force,” but still…. There are people in Korea who will always look up to the US and say, “They’re so much better than us.” They see the US as protector and defender, and that’s okay. I’m grateful for what the Americans have done, but there comes a time when Koreans have to overcome that and say, “We’re well now. Thank you for what you did, but we’re okay now. You don’t need to meddle with our internal affairs now.” It’s like a kid growing up, a teenager trying to find his identity. It is important to allow him to make his own decisions. But until Koreans become fully actualized, we will tend to believe Americans are better and smarter.

Looking back, there was some of that going on when I moved to the US. I think it played into the way I felt about me in relation to Americans. If I want to be somebody, I have to work twice as hard as they do. This was drilled into my mind. It also made me feel like I was never going to be as good as them.

But things evolved. As got older, clearly I was doing better at taking tests in school. I was a very good student. So academically I out-performed my peers, but that never took away from the thought that they were better than me.

I became a neurosurgeon, and I thought all my problems were solved.  I had achieved success. “I’m done. I’m at the top.” I got married. I had children. I had a very successful practice. I was a prominent member of my community. I was well respected. But I felt something was missing.

I’d become a Christian sometime during my residency, so maybe in my early 30s, which played a big role in what I’m doing now. Gradually, as I developed spiritually, I overcame my demons, such as low self-esteem. I could lighten up and be free of all those things, so I could become more useful to others. I found out I wasn’t as bad as I’d thought I was, other people weren’t as good as I’d thought they were. We’re all the same. Doesn’t matter if you are Korean or American. Everyone has guilt feelings and fears and resentments. It’s amazing how similar we are no matter what backgrounds we come from. That’s helped a lot for me, as an immigrant.

Through spiritual development I was able to ask, “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” I was practicing neurosurgery in a small town. When I first went to this small town in Missouri, there were only three neurosurgeons. By 2008 there were nine. We had more surgeons than we knew that to do with. A time came when I said, “There’s got to be a place where there’s a bigger need than in this small town. Maybe there’s another place where I’m more needed.”

I took a year off. My wife and I took our two daughters out of school—at that time were eight and ten—and we went traveling around the world. The plan was to travel for one year. We stopped at places where I volunteered to teach neurosurgery to local surgeons. This was through an organization called FIENS, Foundation for International Education of Neurological Surgery.  I volunteered in Ethiopia and Nepal. Then we found out my wife was pregnant. So we cut the year short and came back to the US in the spring and had our third child.

By this time I had caught the bug of helping in developing countries. So I formally closed up shop. I decided I was not going back into private practice. I tied up the loose ends and then started working in Ethiopia on a regular basis. I would go back and forth, sometimes taking my family for a while. In 2009, I became the director of spinal surgery at a teaching hospital in Ethiopia. I did that for four years.

Then in January of last year I was invited to do a training course hosted by the Cambodian Neurosurgical Society. It’s a fairly new society, there are only nineteen members. Until now each one of them had to go abroad and get some training and come back. They wanted to start their own training program in Cambodia. They were looking for outside teachers, and I said, “You know what? This might be an opportunity for me.”

So I talked to my wife, and we came to Cambodia, and committed to staying for one year. We moved our family here in August of last year, and now it’s already February and we’ve pretty much decided to stay here three years. I don’t know where I’m going to go from here. I’m not a high-profile academic neurosurgeon with my name on textbooks.  I’m US-trained, board-certified neurosurgeon who is willing to serve in Cambodia. And that’s enough for these people. They’re saying, “We want you to teach us essential neurosurgery, basic neurosurgery.” They’re not looking to do esoteric stuff. They don’t have the capability. So I’m uniquely useful. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m a full-time volunteer. My title is Consultant in Neurosurgery in a government hospital here in Cambodia.

How do you like it?

We love it. Well, first of all, I feel very useful. What little I can bring here means a lot to the people. I could also provide kind of a bridge between the Cambodian neurosurgeons and the outside world because I brought contacts from the world organizations. Sunday night we have a professor from the University of Toronto coming for a week to help teach. We have another professor coming at the end of February. Next Saturday I’m going to Myanmar because the Myanmar Neurosurgery Society wants to get some training. I feel very useful. I’m making an impact, it’s deeply satisfying professionally, and I’m appreciated by the patients and the local surgeons and the residents. I can tell that they are really glad that I am here.

What about your wife and kids?

My wife’s an English teacher who stopped teaching when our children were born. She’s come back to teaching at a Christian international school here, where our children also attend. She works part-time, so we get a discount on the tuition, which is a big help. We get another discount because we were commissioned as missionaries by our church in New Jersey. It’s been good for my wife to get back to teaching. I think she really missed the connection with the students. It’s been challenging because she’s teaching eleventh and twelfth grade English.

My children—my little one, you can take her anywhere and she’ll have a blast. My oldest one is doing very well. My second one, we brought her here when she was thirteen, which is a very difficult age. I think she’s still angry. We’re trying to get her more involved with activities and things like that. We hope the more she’s engaged, the better she’ll adapt.

Overall the transition has been very refreshing. We don’t have all the insanity we have back home. Christmas was as relaxing as ever for us. There are no crazy shoppers, no ads on TV blasting away about what we’ve got to get now. No catalogs getting piled into our mailbox. We took two weeks and went to Vietnam and hung out at a beach resort. It was very relaxing.

How did you find Korea? Was that your first trip back?

No, actually I go to Korea at least a couple of times a year. We have relatives. I also go to North Korea to support the North Korean doctors. We bring in teams of doctors from the US. We always stop in Seoul. Now that we live in Cambodia, we hope to go to Korea fairly often. The whole family is going there in April for a few days.

More stories on Kee Park:



Korea Forty Years Later

by on February 16th, 2014


Stephen in front of the Foreign Language Institute after turning in his grades (Stephen Schuit)

Forty years before this Skype interview—almost to the day—in late November 1973, Stephen Schuit arrived at Kimpo Airport as a US Peace Corps volunteer. After three months of training he taught at what was then Keimyung Christian College and is now Keimyung University. When his  two years in the Peace Corps was over, he returned to Maine and became a human resource professional with a focus on management training. In the mid-90s he started teaching at the business school of the University of Southern Maine. His consulting practice took him to about thirty different countries, including Korea. In 2011 he returned to teach English at Yeungnam University near Daegu. Please note the URLs for his blog below, particularly the article on No Gun Ri. All photos are courtesy of Stephen Schuit. 

Stephen’s story

The young American history major at the DMZ (Stephen Schuit)

When I arrived in late November 1973, Kimpo was a military airport on the outskirts of Seoul. Everyone we saw was a soldier. At that time the student demonstrations against the military regime of Park Chung-hee were so frequent they weren’t even newsworthy. There were about fifty Peace Corps volunteers in my group, and we were quickly bused to Daegu. The three-month training period was Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturday. It consisted of three subjects: Korean culture, Korean language and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. The learning was intense and a lot of fun. My group was training to be university instructors of English. I chose to be located in Daegu because I was here and I was enjoying it for the most part. Others went all over the place, a lot of people to Seoul, one guy to Cheju-do.

I was assigned to a school called Keimyung Christian College, now Keimyung University. In those days what stood out for me was the dirt and the hygiene problems like the use of human excrement as fertilizer and the lack of potable water. Since all the water had to be boiled, you just had barley tea. You couldn’t purchase dairy products like milk or cheese [which are not part of the traditional Asian diet]. There were no private cars. There was ostensibly no middle class. There was public transportation—the trains were decent and the buses were good but crowded—and taxis. There was no subway system.

The Korean War had ended about 19 years previously, and you still had the after-effects of the Japanese occupation. For example, the hills and mountains were barren. There were no trees. My take on this was that the Japanese were building wooden homes and were heating their homes with wood. The Japanese were of course defeated in 1945, not much had grown back by 1950, and with the Korean War, pretty much everything was obliterated. In the winter the landscape was all brown.

Students in uniform (Stephen Schuit)

Both male and female students were still wearing Japanese-style uniforms—black with gold trim, gold buttons with a tunic neck. The other reminders of the occupation were the stories about having to speak Japanese, about having to go through the Japanese regimen in schools and about the tens of thousands of women being raped. My students were probably born in the mid-50s, so their stories were coming from their parents. I suspect that significant numbers of these students’ mothers and grandmothers were sexually harassed by the Japanese.

Those were the days of mimeograph machines and cold, very poorly lit classrooms. The blackboards were all made out of this rubberized material similar to the material the Koreans now put down on running and biking paths in public areas. In the States traditional blackboards were made out of slate. In Korea slate was not available so they had these smooth, rubberized black and green blackboards. Even using chalk was somewhat problematic. It often wasn’t available when needed, and it just didn’t work well on those boards. Today we use wet boards with markers.

I had some classes with fifty students. You had to be an actor, a showman. You were dancing. You were doing anything you could to keep the kids active, interested, engaged and having a good time. If you were dry,boring and stationary at your desk it wasn’t going to happen.

I designed a teaching technique using articles from Newsweek and Time Magazine. I looked for appropriate vocabulary words that I wanted to teach, found them in articles and copied the articles if I could. I put together a half-dozen sentences or so to give them an understanding of the article and the vocabulary I was trying to teach, came to class early and put them on the board. After doing drills using the sentences, we could discuss the article, and I could ask them questions about it and how it related to them.

Today here at Yeungnam University, the only thing I need to bring to class is a memory stick—and markers. Every room has a computer, a very large computer screen, and a wet board. So I use PowerPoint. We use the textbook and videos. The books are the same for everyone teaching a particular class. I’m teaching a business English class, and that textbook is standardized as well. So the curriculum is consistent. Within that the classroom you can do whatever you want, but the tests are standardized. I think it works great. It assures that there’s a minimal level of skill attainment. We teach the four skills. We recently integrated writing with the listening speaking and reading, and I think our students are largely insured that they’re going to get good basic education.

Starting with the spring semester on March 2, we’ll have new textbooks for every class, every level. A number of options were presented to us, and we were asked to evaluate them. When I show up toward the end of February, I’ll be told which textbooks we’ll be using. That’s okay with me. As long as the classroom belongs to me, I feel fine.

Right now my smallest class has 19 students, and the largest 23. I have students paired as learning partners. They have the same partner from the beginning of the semester until mid-terms, when they take their speaking tests together. I give them questions to start the conversation between them, and they talk. Then they also take individual exams inlistening, reading and writing. For the second half of the semester they have new partners. For group work, I often take the partners and put them together to form groups of four or five or six, depending on the activity.

Downtown Daegu in 1974 (Stephen Schuit)

Forty years after I first arrived in Korea, the major differences I see are the world-class train and subway systems. In Daegu,  Busan and Seoul these systems are probably as good as any in the world. You can also drink the water from the tap. I don’t, but you can. You see touching and perfunctory sexual behavior among male and female students—the hand-holding, the hugging, the embraces are very explicit and visible. You never saw that 40 years ago.

The other thing that is significantly different is the vibrant, large middle class. I think that’s the key part of Korea’s success. Basically, the Confucian model hasn’t changed, meaning the hierarchy nd what it means to be rich or poor. People’s language still reflects their positions, their roles and their age [in relation to the person they’re talking to, for example in “talking up” to some people and “talking down” to others]. What has changed is the growth of the middle class, the high percentage of Koreans who have graduated from college and become professionals. There’s now a tradition now of going to college, finding jobs in these large companies, called chaebǒls. People can afford to buy cars to drive the economy, and they can travel abroad freely.

In the Korea of 1973, in order to go abroad you had to get permission from the Park Chung-hee government, either the man himself or his staff. People didn’t even have money to travel. Now you don’t need anyone’s permission, and many Koreans travel and live overseas. Their global awareness has changed significantly. This middle class owns property, spends money, is credit-charged to world historic levels of indebtedness. By some measures the economy is the fifteenth largest in the world.

I left the Korea of 1975 not feeling good about the country. After two years I was bitter and exhausted. I wanted to get on with my life. I was tired of being so visible [as a foreigner]. I had started growing a beard. Kids were cat-calling me all the time, and there was no place I could walk without being approached or singled out or noticed. It was only very few people’s intention to hassle me, but I was at the whims of kids and people wanting to practice their English. There were maybe a dozen English teachers at the university level in Daegu. I knew them all. Now the expat community in Daegu is huge, probably 10,000 people. If you’re a foreigner and you’re walking down the street, people don’t even notice you anymore.

The Peace Corps told us, “This is an apolitical role, please respect that.” But as soon as you said you were with the Peace Corps, people knew that you’d been sanctioned by the Park Chung-hee administration and that you worked for the US government. So how could you possibly be apolitical? It would be like saying you worked for the US Army or the CIA or the General Services Administration but you weren’t political. You represented policy, you were an arm of the US government.

Well, sure. I wasn’t in my classrooms, for example, criticizing Park Chung-hee. Nor were any other professors who valued their lives. No one could legally criticize Park Chung-hee in public [and usually not in private]. So that’s political.

I don’t want to say that was the most significant factor. Communication was slow and different. Obviously, we didn’t have Skype or computers. If I wrote a letter to my family, I wouldn’t know they’d received it until I got a letter back. There was usually a four-to-eight-week turn-around. Peace Corps volunteers didn’t have phones. If you and I were both teaching in Daegu, one of us at Yeungnam and the other at Keimyung, and I saw you on Thursday, I’d say, “Hey, Carol, let’s meet again on Sunday.” We would establish a place and a time, but if we both showed up at that place and that time it was a minor miracle.

So two years of slow communication, two years of being on my own, two years of hassles and not being able to drink the water, two years of the daily frustrations of living in a third-world country with the Korean bureaucracy and ice-cold, poorly-lit classrooms—all of that was fairly taxing. I needed a break. I was looking forward to hopping in a car, driving somewhere and eating a hamburger or a pizza. And just getting on with my life.

The advice I wrote on my blog about ten days ago [“Beyond Surviving: How to Thrive as an Expat,” see the URL below] was a reaction to office conversation. What precipitated it was that a young colleague of mine, otherwise a decent enough chap, went into the office of the Korean director. The director told this young man that the assistant professorship he was expecting and hoping for was not going to be forthcoming. He said, “I’d like you to take the next semester and demonstrate that you do have a solid, good character and professionalism. Then you can come back and we’ll talk about an assistant professorship.”

A fifteen-minute argument ensued. This guy was infuriated at the—in his mind—broken promise and the allegations about his character. He picked up a chair and threw it at the director, hitting his desk and knocking his computer and other stuff off of it. He took his ceramic coffee cup and threw it, barely missing the director’s head and hitting the wall, where it shattered. Then he walked out. He told us that he “died on his sword,” meaning that he’d stood for truth, justice, and the American way—or whatever it meant to him. In other words, he wasn’t going to take any shit. He quit. I’m sure by that time he was fired anyway, but he was very proud of having taken a stand.

It caused me to be upset and very reflective for the next three or four days. And nauseous.I felt I had failed this young man—he’s about thirty-three—as a colleague. I felt I hadn’t coached him well if he could be that disrespectful in spite of being frustrated and perhaps having a promise broken to him. I also wondered how he could he be so disrespectful after living in Korea for four or five years. How could he not know what a violation this was to anything that was reasonable and normal? This was the worst extreme of a continuum of behaviors which suggested to me that some people didn’t respect this country or understand its customs. They might feel their own country is better. So I spent the next week thinking about it before putting my thoughts down in writing.

I’d say probably 70% of my colleagues are very professional, they take teaching as an awesome responsibility, and they are constantly working on their professional development. Then I would say about 10-15% of the people seem to be riding it out. They don’t see teaching as their primary reason for being here. It’s just a vehicle for sustaining themselves. Maybe another 10% go either way. I wouldn’t call anyone in our 53-person staff a “backpacker.” Even those who don’t seem truly professional seem to be here to give it a go.  

My love for Korea was based largely on the romantic notion of love in a rear-view mirror. I mean, the bitterness kept dissolving the longer I was away from Korea. As the years passed, and I met Koreans in the States or visited Korean restaurants, or took out my Korean language books to look them over again, my bitter memories faded, and I was left with only a very romanticized residue: how wonderful the country really was, how much I loved the food, how much I loved the people and how much I loved the language. I came back in 1988 for the summer Olympics. I returned on a number of business trips to train Korean managers in the late 90s, which is when I visited No Gun Ri. [See the URL below.] In addition to visiting my son, who was teaching in Seoul in 2011, I had about a half-dozen trips to Korea. I was staying in touch. Those visits helped nurture this very romantic recollection I had of the country.

Coming back and seeing the country as it became the new, modern Korea, I saw that the things I’d found frustrating were just memories of a Korea that had gone past. So this time when I came, I appreciated more of the “romantic aspects” of Korea. When I met people who shared the Korea of today, I could tell them about the Korea of the 1970s. When I came back for the Olympics, I saw a former student of mine who was now a businessman living on the thirtieth floor of a fancy apartment building in Seoul. The new Korea was indeed fascinating. The food was delicious. Our conversations about the way Daegu used to be, now that I was free of the hassles, was a romantic story, and a powerfully emotional one as well.

Stephen’s blog (Copy the URL and paste it in your navigation bar.)



From a Squatters’ Village to a Housing Project

by on February 3rd, 2014


Row houses in Bulacan

In December 2012, I posted an interview with Maria, who at that time was living as an “informal settler” on public land in Blue Ridge, in Quezon City, a good location close to her work and to facilities and shops. She’d been living there since 1979. She and her husband had to use community toilets, but they had their own running water and electricity. Their room was small, about the size of a middle-class bathroom. In 2005 their houses had been demolished to make room for road widening. For months they lived in tents, but then the barangay [local government officials] told them they could rebuild their shanties further up the hill. Before my previous interview with Maria, the squatters had been told they’d be relocated far outside the city, in Montalban Rizal. To read that interview, please check it out by copying this URL and pasting it in your navigation bar. The following is an update about a year later.

Maria’s story

Maria at the door of her new house

In Blue Ridge we had a community of 75 families. I’d been living there for 23 years. Others had lived there most of their lives. The old people might have been there for 50-60 years. Some said that at a long time ago maybe only 15 families lived there, but the children got married and built houses there also and settled down.

Then in 2012, the barangay officials came with the mayor and some media men who interviewed us. The officials told us that our place was dangerous because it was on the fault line and it was also on top of the sewer. They said they would be moving us all to Montalban Rizal, over 25 kilometers from Quezon City, but that it would be good for us because we wouldn’t be squatters anymore. The new places were rent to own or rent to buy. The first year was rent-free because we’d have to adjust to the new location. After that, 200 pesos [$4.76] a month for four years, then it would double, then after a year it would double again to 800 pesos. It would take 30 years to pay for the place. In Blue Ridge I didn’t pay rent because I owned the house, but the land it was on belonged to Metro Manila Water. I just paid for the electricity and the running water. Water was about 500 pesos a month [a day’s salary].

We told the officials we would agree to move if the whole community could still be together. We heard this was approved by the National Housing Authority, but we didn’t hear from then for a long time. In the middle of 2013, just before the election, the barangay officials came back, and they said the first 23 families on the list would be moving to Montalban Rizal the next day. We were kind of shocked since we hadn’t heard anything from them for three or four months. We said. “Sir, why didn’t you tell us that you would be moving us?” They didn’t explain. They just said it had been decided and the papers had been processed, and the National Housing Authority had told them to move some of the residents.

When we had a barangay meeting, there were 47 families who had finished the paperwork required by the National Housing Authority. Some people didn’t want to move because their work was nearby. Blue Ridge was a very good location. But maybe 18 families volunteered to be first. Then right before the move another five volunteered. I couldn’t move because the paperwork wasn’t done.

Anyway, the first batch moved before the election on May 14, 2013.  Then maybe two weeks after the election the second batch moved, the 47 families who didn’t volunteer. The officials said, “If you don’t move now you won’t get another chance. They’ll take your name off the list. This area is a danger zone, but don’t turn to us if anything happens. No one will help you.”

So there was the fault line, the sewer, and flooding with Typhoon Ondoy and then again with the habagat, the heavy rainfall where lots of Metro Manila got flooded. As it turned out, we were lucky we weren’t among those who moved to Monaltban Rizal before the habagat because their new houses had water up to the roof even with the very high ceilings, maybe like one and a half stories. Some of the people who were flooded out just grabbed empty houses in Montalban. “I will take this place then.”

The authorities moved the second batch, maybe another 23 families. All of them filled up one block of houses. It was good for them to be together, but this time it was in a different area. The moving broke up the community. The rest of us were just waiting to be moved. We were shocked when they said there was no more room in Montalban Rizal. We were moved to Bulacan, which is 39 kilometers from Quezon City. But there’s a very good road going to Bulacan. The road to Montalban is shorter, but the roads are not very good, you have to change jeepneys more often and you have to go by the Payatas, the dump.

At first we refused to go to Bulacan. One of our neighbors said, “No, sir. We won’t go because our relatives are in Montalban. We’re all family. The five families in our area are together.” From Bulacan it’s too far to go visit the people who were moved to Montalban. You have to take three jeepneys and a pedicab, so it’s 60 pesos [$1.39] one way.

The officials said, “Take a look at the place first. If you really don’t like it, wait for a vacancy in Montalban. But if there’s no vacancy and Bulacan is full too, then you’ll have to move even further away.”

The National Housing people took us out to see the houses. They showed us ours, and they also showed us a model house which had been fixed up with a loft. I think our house sits on 40 square meters. Then there’s two meters in the front and also two at the back. So for two people like us it’s quite big. It’s one large room—two rooms if you add a loft.

The place is nice, but we only have electricity at night when they turn on the generators. Sometimes we don’t have power for three days. It’s hot in the evening, and there are lots of mosquitoes. They’re putting in big posts for electricity, but we don’t have it yet. Actually, water is more of a problem. You can buy mineral water to drink, which is 25 pesos for five gallons. Otherwise, there’s no water. The National Housing Authority told us before we moved that there was no running water, but someone would deliver it. It’s not purified, just deep well water. In one day I have four containers. I can do the laundry at work, so we use the water here for showering and washing dishes. Then we run out and we have to make another trip. Sunday I paid 65 pesos.

Also, the delivery doesn’t accommodate all of us who live there. Yesterday somebody was saying, “Five days, no delivery of water in our area.” Sometimes the water is delivered by three trucks a day. In Block 1, there are 44 houses. There are 59 blocks. One truck holds enough for one block of houses.

When the water service was privatized, the price went from five pesos for a five-gallon container to ten pesos. I heard that the people delivering the water are making a big profit. Even if they have to pay 22,000 pesos [$500] for the water, they can charge 30,000 pesos for it, so they’re making 8,000 pesos a day. People argued about it, and we decided we’ll have to approach the National Housing Authority people because it’s very difficult for all the people living there. We were told it’s not a public utility. It’s private. So there was nothing they could do. Last Saturday reporters came from ABC5 Action News in response to complaints. They wanted to interview people, but security threw them out.

Before we moved, one of the barangay officials said that they would set up livelihood projects for us, like making some potholders or stringing beads or something like that. But later they didn’t mention it. There’s nothing to do, and I don’t know most of the people here.

On the days when I have jeepney service, we leave there at 3:30, and I’m at work at 5:10. The driver doesn’t stop to pick up passengers. If we commute, when it rains it’s too muddy and slippery to walk, so we have to take a tricycle [motorcycle with sidecar]. They charge 20 pesos for a very short distance. Then after the tricycle we take four jeepneys—to Tunko, to Philcoa, to UP campus and then to  Kalipunan. All together it’s 300 pesos just for transportation for the two of us.

If it’s not raining, it’s dusty because they’re making houses still. There’s lots of heavy equipment. I think the National Housing Authority is planning to build 4900 houses there by October or something like that. Tomorrow I think they’re moving in 500 families from Payatas City near the dump and near the river. In Payatas City garbage is a problem, and the waterways should be clear so there’s drainage when it rains.

In Bulacan there’s good access to the hospitals in Commonwealth, and a there’s a nearby clinic, whereas in Montalban Rizal there’s only an infirmary, and the nearest hospital is on East Avenue in Quezon City.  Maybe the transportation costs the same, but you have to walk from your house to the street. If you don’t have transportation no one will take you there—unless maybe a neighbor has a tricycle and you can talk him into taking you.

Some kids in Bulacan have already started school. There’s a tricycle service to take them to school for 300 pesos a month, which is not bad. The government or public school is free, but you have to buy your own school supplies and uniforms.

Food is more expensive in Bulacan than in Quezon City. Bananas like the ones I bought for one peso in Blue Ridge are 2.50. Fish might be cheaper if there’s a fish pond. But meat is more expensive, maybe another five pesos. I heard that in Montalban in the afternoon you cannot get fresh meat, the meat smells bad. But in Bulacan people raise hogs and chickens, so even if the meat was quite expensive, you can see it’s fresh. When we get electricity I’d like to have a little refrigerator so I can buy food in the city and take it home.

We’re happy in Bulacan although it’s an inconvenience because it’s far from my work. We’re hoping and praying that we will have running water and electricity soon and that Jessie will have work. We have our own toilet inside the house. We just got new door knobs. We’re fixing up the house, but only little by little because of the expense. When Jessie doesn’t have work he works on the house.

At Maria’s old place in Blue Ridge there’s now a warning posted saying no houses are allowed.


Among Filipino Mountain Tribes

by on January 20th, 2014


Shamanist stone configuration intrudes the humans to the river and asks permission to be there. (Bong)

I first met Bong Dela Torre through a mutual friend. After we happened to see each other again at a political event, we arranged this interview at my house. Thanks to Bong for his photos.

Bong’s story

Edwin “Bong” Dela Torre (Bong)

My name is Edwin Dela Torre. I come from a theater background and used to be with the Philippine Educational Theater Association. For the past five to seven years I’ve been doing volunteer work with tribes in Mindanao, basically with the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribe. The root word is bukid, which means “mountain.” Daraghuyan is the name of their sacred space, where the community lives, upslope in Mt. Kitanglad, where other tribes live as well.

In that part of Bukidnon, there are huge pineapple plantations. Usually the politicians are part of the business, with either piggeries or poultry chicken farms which encroach on the ancestral domains of the tribes. So you might have a sacred river on the left and two or three kilometers away huge farms owned by businessmen-politicians. Those two spaces say a lot about the social, political and economic realities. The tribes usually live a marginalized, hand-to-mouth existence. Mindanao is migrant country, where there was an influx of Visayans, so for their language of wider communication some people speak Ilonggo and some Cebuano. Most of the tribes learned Cebuano so they could interact with the migrants from the Visayas. They speak Tagalog because of television, the great equalizer.

At a workshop (Bong)

Since I have a theater background, I used theater to draw out their myths and legends, but you have to develop trust first. Only after two or three years did the elders start talking about their creation myths. The tribe was trying to set up its own school of living tradition with its own curriculum. With indigenous cosmology you may be setting up a module, a curriculum or a syllabus on something like marriage, but people always go back to the very beginning. The tribal youth were talking about a Christian creation myth involving Adam and Eve, when one of the elders, Datu Dumapal, said, “No, no, no, no. We have our own story.” He started talking about it, and he said, “I am ready to tell the whole story, but you have to come to my house. You can write it down while you listen to me.” The following day I found out that it was the first time that the tribal youth had heard it.

At a workshop

We decided to collect a piggy-bank of stories, and I drew out the stories through a theater-based evocative process. But when I looked at the contract between the foundation, the funding agency, and the NGO, it stated that the intended result was a teaching aid in graphic book form on four subjects: creation, traditional marriage and reproductive health, maternal childcare and responsible parenting. Since it was going to be a commissioned work it would be the property of the foundation. Eventually, I decided I didn’t want to participate in a process that would sell the tribe’s cultural heritage to a foundation. So I left.

In the early or mid-90s, a Jesuit priest and anthropologist, Father Albert Alero, tried to come up with a pan-tribal peace pact ritual, at the foot of Mt. Appo. It fell through because like the different tribal ritual leaders couldn’t agree on the first steps. For example, the Manobo tribe couldn’t agree to using candles, since it wasn’t a part of their culture. Father Alero discovered that each tribe, each ritual, had a cosmology and a context of its own.

In Malaybalay City, at Bukidnon State University, there’s a recording studio donated two years ago by the underwater and wildlife photographer named Ding Cabrera. He used to stay up in a tree up in the mountains for two weeks at a time just to get shots of a monkey eating. Anyway, the facility was meant to be used for recording tribal music, stories, myths and legends. But things are slow. Whenever Ding sees me, he asks me to ask about it. In terms of time, the tribal consensus process is different from what we’re used to here in the city. You really have to listen to what is being said and but more importantly to what is not being said. Time has to be understood like planting a seed and watching the plant grow to fruition.

You know how beauty contests are for Filipinos—we’re all about basketball, beauty contests and boxing. Three years ago I watched a tribal beauty contest sponsored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It was like the competitions you see on television but with local music, tribal leaders as judges and tribal girls in their finery. They were barefoot but walking on their toes, pretending be wearing high heels. Of course beauty contests can be exploitative. The audience came primarily from the different tribal communities, mostly old tribal men who’d had too much to drink. Since the event was both a beauty contest and community dancing, the Daraghuyan Bukidnon tribe did a dance, and Bae Inatlawan, their spiritual and political leader, was part of the contest. I was uncomfortable, but also criticizing myself for being judgmental. Afterwards I asked the tribes where they got their trainers, and they said from gay men in the city, which to me meant that if we were serious about creating a good cultural program we should support the gays, who are very influential and looked up to as very artistic, even in tribal communities in Mindanao.

I believe the tribes should be seen and heard—and not just with festivals, tribal music and tribal costumes. To be really seen and heard is to be understood in terms of how you live your life. Now the tribes are only visible in tourist festivals, a commercialization of their culture. The way the tourist industry does it now—from the perspective of outsiders—turns my stomach a bit. But now some tribes in Mindanao, like the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribe, the Talaandig tribe and the Matigsalug tribe, have come up with their own tourism program based on the idea of people meeting each other as equals. For instance on Talaandig Day, the tribe opens up its community to people from the city. In the morning they have a welcome ritual, tribal games, music and then a walk in the forest and a demonstration of drum-making and soil painting. The Matigsalug tribe and the Talaandig tribe are also using part of their territory for planting coffee. They’re building cafés which will also be art houses and workshop areas. They’re taking an alternative tourism approach by bringing in a few outsiders—environmentalists  and people from different university disciplines—in order to have an exchange of skills.

In Manila there’s a growing community of drum circles with new ethnic, new tribal music. A lot of young people are trying to connect with their roots, and music is one way. I want to involve my friends, my colleagues in improvisational storytelling with drums and flute. We anticipate that within two years a lot of different artists, musicians and healers will be coming to Manila from the different tribes in Cordillera and in Mindanao. That’s one way of welcoming them. Or some of us will be going there. We’re very clear about it’s not being co-opted by commercialism.

The Talaandig tribe is a very artistic tribe. In fact, one of their members, Waway Saway, has been touring, and he’s performed at the Smithsonian Institute. They play music with drums they’ve made themselves. They’ve developed a soil painting genre using soils [and glue] on canvas, literally earth colors, which Waway Saway has been teaching the other tribes.

There’s an interesting creative tension in terms of work that’s culture-based, beginning with culture and art and evolving into livelihood crafts. The tension arises when NGOs or private individuals intervene. Generally the end is to raise the income of these marginalized tribes. So last year a well-meaning art curator from Cebu wanted to market the soil paintings of the Daraghuyan Bukidnon tribe. He gave them an advance. It was planting season, but they were told they would make money with their paintings. So for four or six weeks, the tribal youth painted. The result was not up to standard. Out of thirty paintings, only three were considered good enough for the gallery. The rest were sent back. The community was so hurt. As part of the workshop I had to explain that even experts, people in Manila who had been painting for twenty years, found their art was not easy to sell. The youth leaders said, “They should have told us that.”

I talked to the head of the NGO, who said, “Maybe I’ve spoiled them because when they’d come up with necklaces and stuff like that, they can sell them to the NGO and people buy them. There’s been no aesthetic quality control.” The NGO didn’t really have the skills or the time for marketing. The marketplace is also an entirely different culture. It would change them.

A lot of people have taught livelihood stuff, like making citronella, but there’s no marketing mechanism. We’ve sort of tried to bridge that. There’s an organic network in Taywana, in Sikatuna, but you can’t just put products on the shelf and expect them to sell themselves. There are people with money who are interested in social entrepreneurship, but it’s complicated. It took me four years of going back and forth to understand what I do of the tribal dynamics. There are a lot of conversations that are not seen and heard. I also have to disabuse myself of the notion that I can play a major role, the occupational hazard of a do-gooder.

Whether down south in Mindanao or up north in Cordillera, the Philippines is going through a very interesting transition period. A lot of institutions aren’t working. There’s a lot of room for change. For me the tribes represent the most spiritualized and most marginal sector. There’s a lot of wisdom in tribal culture. I’m glad that I am very close to these people. I won’t become part of structures like the National Commission on Indigenous People because you can only work for the commission if you are indigenous yourself, although once you have a university degree, you can be alienated from your own ritual culture. People from the urban areas and those with degrees have most likely been Westernized to a certain extent. The power dynamics between the tribes and the urban mindset is a tension between oral culture and written culture. The challenge is to come up with a space where people can meet each other in a circle as equals. I’ve witnessed so many seminars or conferences which are reportedly trying to help but in the handling of space and communication intimidate and alienate a tribal culture.

In 2009 we had a Bukidnon environmental summit in Malaybalay City. It was hosted by Kitanglad Integrated NGO Network, whose mandate is to work with the tribes, and held in a small, three-star hotel in Valencia City. The space was divided into different focus discussion groups. The local government leaders had the best room with air conditioning and coffee, and the business sector was also very comfortable. When the head of KIN found the space for the tribal leaders, she was shocked. She took me out to the pool area, where a makeshift tent had been set up. Then she said, “Let me handle this.” In a gentle and very quiet voice she explained to the local organizers, “Look, these are tribal leaders. They’re at par with our mayors, our governors and the business leaders.” So at the last minute they had to do some rearranging.  I share that anecdote because it’s typical of the almost blind mindset of the local government units and people from academia. They’re not even aware of it.

These tribal communities are going through their own transitions. I have an architect friend who helped come up with a communal design process for the cultural center up in the mountains. She said, “You know, Bong, when we interact with another culture it’s a mutual myth-busting process. We have certain myths about them which we form out of convenience, and they have certain myths about us. Then we meet, and it’s not what we expected.

Bae Inatlawan in Manila (Bong)

Bae Inatlawan is the spiritual leader or healer, shaman or the visionary of the Daraghuyan Budkidnon tribe in Mt. Kintanglan. They’re the ones who are the caretakers of this tribal cultural center, which is funded by the World Bank. She attended a conference on herbal medicine in Bangkok, and she does two or three rituals here in Manila. One thing I’ve noticed about rituals: if you take a ritual out of its locus, it changes. But I think it’s about exploring and seeing. It’s better to commit mistakes while talking about ritual culture rather than to be too insular about it.

One day I was talking to her and I noticed that she uses “spirituality” and “culture” interchangeably. Then it dawned on me: that’s right. Spirit manifests through culture. It’s one of those small things that give you a little insight which will eventually grow into “oh, I see.”

I want to share something about the spirit of languages from a shamanic perspective. My father is Bikolano, and my mother is Visayan-Ilonggo.  Here the lingua franca is Tagalog. I write poetry in Tagalog, and I discovered the spirituality of language, that words can actually be living beings. When old words come to me or I hear something, sometimes I close my eyes and I feel and talk to the word or the spirit of the word. “I humbly sit before you, I humbly kneel before you. Please unfold.” Then images come. In listening to different Philippine languages, I get with the onomatopoeia, and the very sound of the language carries with it some kind of meaning and it resonates in the body. In Tagalog, the term for “meaning” is “kahulugan.” The root word is hulug, which means something descending from above. When I first felt that, it was almost like a mystical experience for me. When I talk to a Filipino who speaks a different language, I ask, “What’s equivalent of ‘meaning’?” The Ibanak word is like Tagalog equivalent,  kagabanag which is “fruition, completion, totality.” After you’re open and you go into that space, in the dream state you get glimpses of the stories, the myths and legends. Just glimpses.

When I was up in the mountains giving a workshop in Daraghuyan Bukidnon, we did a vocal exercise using mambabaya, the word for “creator” or “god.” The exercise turned into a spontaneous chant. I saw Bae Inatlawan rushing from the kitchen with her eyes wide open. Suddenly she turned a corner. A few days later I heard that for her it was an invocation, and there were spirit beings coming out and entering the creative space. That was her perspective, but I honor that, and I feel that I am blessed to participate.

The first time I went there I brought art materials, and I painted some of the things I picked up in a dream state. A few days later I showed them to Merly, the youth tribal leader. She stared and me, but didn’t say anything. She spoke quietly to Bae Inatlawan, who looked concerned and then rushed to me and said, “Oh, Bong, Merli here told me that you painted certain things that you saw in your dreams. Can I have the art works please?” I gave them to her. Later I realized that there are certain words or certain deities—of the river and so on—that they don’t share with outsiders. In their cosmology spirits are words. If you share them with an outsider who leaves, the local spirit might leave the territory. It’s a protection of their culture.

Drumming at the Luna Festival in Manila

Links (Copy URL and paste to your navigation toolbar):

For soil Paintings see <>

The series has now been published. See “Comics series on Budkidnon tribe out.”  <>



Skateboarding in the Philippines

by on January 6th, 2014


Todd outside his apartment with a skateboard bearing the logo of the Tondo crew

This Canadian is helping to build a recreational outlet and group solidarity among the poor in the Philippines.

Todd’s story

Todd at the Heal-om Festival

I’ve skateboarding on and off for over twenty years. When I was teaching English in Taiwan, I needed to leave the country to apply for a work visa. A high school friend was filming skateboard spots in Las Piñas, so I came to the Philippines, stayed with him and his family and did some video footage of skateboarding spots. It was such a wild week that for the first time I realized my partying was just too much. So I went home to Canada, saved money and came back to the Philippines about a year later. We kept filming.

There’s nothing like rolling down the street on a skateboard with my headphones on. I hold onto jeepneys. I go in and out of traffic. People say I’m crazy, but I get a natural high from it and sense of freedom. Everyone else is stuck in rush hour traffic, but I can go from Malate to Makati in fifteen minutes, down Adriatico to Corino to the highway to Buendia, then into Makati. That was what got me so caught up in skateboarding, not doing tricks on the board, but the freedom of rolling past everything with my music on. It’s bliss. Of course it’s dangerous being in traffic with earplugs on, but when you practice it enough you’re aware of everything. No, I don’t wear a helmet, only shorts and a tank top. Sometimes not even a shirt because it’s so hot. I’ve never taken a nasty spill in traffic. I’m pretty confident about it. Even though I’m in and out like a maniac I’m still somewhat in control, aware of what’s going to happen next and what my options are. If they’re not good, I’ll just slow down. But I have a sense of fearlessness. This freedom everyone is looking for, it’s hard to find.

Todd behind a jeepney (Todd’s photo)

Back home in downtown Vancouver, if I went through a red light in full-blown rush hour traffic, there would be consequences. In America I’d get thrown in jail. But here I seem to get away with it, although unfortunately my habits seem to have caught up with me. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’ve sprained or strained this ankle many times. This current injury was from trick-boarding, jumping off something too high, not from skating in traffic. You see how swollen this ankle is in comparison with the other one. I thought it would just heal like it did the other times, but there’s a weird pop to it, and it hurts after I skate. It’s not as strong as it should be. It could be broken. It could be a snapped tendon. Or it could be just a sore muscle that isn’t healing. So next week I’m going to a sports therapist, who will probably tell me that I need either surgery or cortisone shots every six months. Maybe I’ll hear there’s nothing really wrong with it and I’m just old. I’m worried about it, but it’s rainy season time to take a break, although it’s been a test mentally. Usually when things happen I skate out my anxiety or my anger. So now I’m just being frustrated, sitting with my ankle up, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s been good in helping me learn to deal with things.

When you get to a certain stage in life, you want to put back into the community. Skateboarding saved my life. It gave me something other than self-destruction. When I wasn’t skating I was always getting into trouble. I’m very grateful, and I want to give back. For roughly the last four years I’ve been promoting skateboarding in the Philippines. I struggled a bit in the beginning, partly because I’m an outsider, partly because I’ve been sticking my neck out and making a statement, which a lot of people here don’t like to do. So I’ve gotten negative reactions. Sometimes I get called an arrogant, obnoxious Joe. One guy spit on me and wanted to get into a fight. But others have embraced my ideas because they want to see the change.

All over the Philippines there are little street spots that are unique in the world—and I’ve been to Europe and all kinds of places. For example, in Imus, Cavite, near the city hall there’s a cool plaza that’s one of the best places I’ve ever skated. Of course here it’s warm all the time, which as a Canadian I really appreciate. People are kind and don’t kick skateboarders out, which people do most of the time in other places. They say, “What are you doing? You’re loud, you’re noisy, you’re damaging property.” They see skateboarding as a threat, rather than as a lifestyle—as recreation.

At the plaza in Imus they embraced it, which is very rare. People were standing around watching us skate, and locals were skating too. We call spots like that hidden gems. They’re very hard to find, and when you find them you want to skate them all the time. They exist in all the little cities. In Batangas City near the city hall there’s a brick quarter pipe, a curved ramp which resembles a quarter of the cross-section of a pipe. It was built as part of a monument, but it’s ideal for skating. The architecture in Barcelona is like that, beautiful for skateboarding. I just came back from a trip to Angeles, San Filipe and Subic. In Liw-liwa, San Filipe, there’s a guy who built a skate bowl next to the beach, so you can skate and then go for a swim. There’s no wi-fi, and the phone signal is really lame. It’s the ideal place to disappear into, do what you love and forget about the mayhem of the city.

A lot of people like street skate spots. You can find little spots to skate, but you almost always get kicked out. Occasionally, you can buy the security guard a bottle of Coca-cola, and he’ll say, “Yeah, okay, it’s cool.” But usually you’re expected to behave like everyone else. In Canada you get thrown out less often than in the States. In some places in southern California you can actually be put in jail for skating. Here, oh they say, “Bawal na bawal” [strictly prohibited] but when you ask them for the ordinance code there isn’t one. They were told to just say no to anything that’s not “normal.”

On the way to Bicol there are little towns with open areas in front of beautiful churches. If you show up and ask permission politely—you smile you say kumusta [how are you] and gwapo [handsome] or maganda [beautiful], depending on whether it’s a guy or a girl—they laugh and say it’s no problem. There are a lot of hidden gems in this country, but a lot of people don’t come from abroad because they assume from the broadcast news that the Philippines is a third world hole with guns and violence and terrorism. Sure, there are slums in Malate and Tondo, but if you get out of the big city and into the provinces you’ll find it’s just beautiful—just jungle with little cities here and there and nice people, who may be living in shacks. I was in Naga City, Bicol for six months working for Gov. Lray Villafuerte as a skateboard park manager. I just hung out and had a good time with tourists there.

I’m working toward some urban development projects now. They’ve been slow taking off because a lot of the local governments don’t have land, and they have priorities other than building a skatepark. I have a contractor, and I resource land. Going through government channels turned out to be an endless process, so now I’m looking at the private sector to help set up multifunctional family facilities where maybe one kid could skate, another other use the wi-fi and the parents watch from a restaurant or coffee shop—like a shopping center with skateboarding. For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with Primer Group, a corporation of a lot of surf-skateboard brands. I come up with ideas and they give me a little money here and there, and the company helps out skate communities. Eventually I expect to be getting a monthly salary as an athlete consultant.

The Tondo crew (Todd’s photo)

We’re making good, slow-but-sure progress, and the kids are very appreciative. The skate crews, or posses, include the Tondo crews—which I’ve been involved with the most—then the Makati crew near the KFC on Buendia, the Tagaytay mountain crew and the Malate crew. They’re just groups of kids getting together to have ownership. They don’t have a lot of money, so the structures they build to skate over are really shabby—made of wood rather than concrete. The community wants to build something like a box twice the size of this coffee table.

In Las Piñas we built a transition wall. There’s also a new indoor facility there, since it rains all the time in during rainy season. The owner of a warehouse wants to help the skate community, which us rare, like the security guard who’ll let you skate after you buy him a coke. We’re really excited about that. He’s charging 20 pesos [47 cents] to skate. We’re trying to get Primer Group involved so we can give back to him. I’ve been waiting a couple of years for something like this to come along. I was just about to give up on it when we started making progress. But that’s life, eh?

Skateboarding is a beautiful art form which allows people to express themselves. You’ve got your guys who cruise-board, your guys who jump down big things, and you’ve got some guys who just keep it simple. You’ve got your long-boarders, you’ve got your short cruiser boarders, it’s all different. Skateboarding always was a lifestyle and an art form. If the corporate world embraced it as that and understood the passion people have for it, there probably wouldn’t be such conflict. On the one hand, there are the smaller core skateboarders who want to keep it a lifestyle and make just enough money to be comfortable—like Primer Group, which wants to make a contribution, just good will. On the other hand, there are the corporations who started trying to take it over in the 1990s and promote it as an “action sport.”

People use skateboarding as an outlet to keep in touch with themselves for life. Surfboarders pick up energy from the waves, we get energy from the street, which sounds really hippie-spiritual, but there is an energy to it. Windsurfing, volleyball, football—those are outlets like skateboarding. When people get paid for doing what they love, that’s amazing, but also the way everyone should live. It’s harder now than it was in the 1980s and 90s. Still, skateboarding is forever.

Todd is now doing physical therapy, recovering and skating a little. He has returned to Canada for the holidays.

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A Marine in Tacloban

by on December 23rd, 2013


Unloading aid boxes from an Osprey (Photo from III MEF/MCIPAC Facebook)

Super-typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines on November 8. On November 24, I went to Villamor Airport in Manila with some friends who were serving as volunteers, greeting evacuees from the stricken areas and asking them about their needs. No planes arrived that night, but I did meet a Capt. Caleb Eames, a US Marine who was working there. On December 11, when he was back in Okinawa and I was in Manila, he talked over Skype about his experience with the relief effort. (Photos used with permission.)

Caleb’s story

(Photo from Capt. Eames)

On Monday, November 4 or Tuesday, November 5, we got notification of the approaching storm. We started by planning in case we had to respond to the Philippines. We identified which people would be sent first, what aircraft were available to go, and what parts would have to be moved quickly if indeed the storm was quite serious. And of course it was.

The storm hit, as you said, on November 8. It was so big that it brought down the communication system. All of the telephone lines and cell phone towers were gone. As a result, the news of the damage was at first slow in getting out. However, as the storm hit, our weather guys were getting wind speed readings, so we knew right away that the situation was quite serious and the Philippine government would likely request help.

The US military and the US government cannot respond until we’ve been requested to do so by the host nation. The very first thing was that the government of the Philippines had to go to the US Embassy and, via them, request assistance from the United States. That request went from the State Department—was obviously approved at probably quite high levels—down to the first responders, including the Marine Corps. We’re considered the crisis response force of choice in the region. Within 48 hours of the storm we had the first planes landing in Manila.

I was not on that first wave, which consisted of kind of an emergency assessment team. Our name for it is a Forward Command Element, or FCE, and also a HAST, which stands for Humanitarian Assessment Survey Team. Members of that group were the first on the ground in Manila. They went very quickly from Manila—with representatives from the Philippine government—down to Tacloban and the surrounding area. They immediately determined the severity of the situation, in close partnership with the government of the Philippines and also in close partnership with US AID, or US Agency for International Development. They saw that a large response would be required because there was significant damage in the area. Very quickly afterwards, the Marine Corps began sending in items that were requested. The first things that were needed were our heavy-lift and medium-lift aircraft, the cargo planes and our MV-22 Ospreys, to move aid and evacuees. A total of eight Marine Corps C-130s responded, two from the US west coast and two from Okinawa. We also sent 14 Ospreys down from Okinawa.

Now the Ospreys are a unique aircraft. They’re actually both a helicopter and an airplane. They have rotors that tilt so they can fly both vertically and horizontally. They were important in this situation because they were able to go directly from Okinawa to the Philippines without needing to refuel. We moved our Ospreys down because we knew right away that there would be an immediate need to get into the airport in Tacloban. The airport was completely wiped out, so it wasn’t suitable for heavy aircraft to use. Our Osprey aircraft were some of the first aircraft on the scene in Tacloban. They flew in aid packages, Philippine government assessment teams and many international aid organizations. Because the Ospreys could land as helicopters, we used them to fly into remote areas in Samar and Leyte and get the Tacloban airport up and running. Within the first two days we enabled 24-hour operations in Tacloban, and as soon as the airport opened up, the heavy-lift cargo planes from around the world could begin landing.

There was a tremendous amount of assistance headed that way. You probably know that over eighteen different nations were sending help. One role the Marine Corps could play was to help manage the air flow because you can only land a certain number of planes at a time at that small airfield. Together with the Philippine air controllers, we scheduled blocks of time and helped coordinate those flights so we could get maximum effectiveness out of our flight operations. We wanted to prioritize flights bringing in the items that were absolutely needed, top-priority items: food, shelter, doctors, medical teams. Then on all of the flights headed out, we loaded as many evacuees as we possibly could to get them to Manila.

Once that airflow was open in Tacloban and some of the other places—Samar, Ormoc, Borongan and Cebu—then our Ospreys played a critical role in getting out to the areas that were very hard hit but were very far away from any kind of central hub, small villages along the coast and small villages inland that were cut off by debris or fallen trees. A regular helicopter probably would have been able to service only one or two areas before having to go back to refuel. But because the Ospreys were able to fly long-range, they could get in four, five or six stops and refuel on the George Washington aircraft carrier or even refuel mid-air.

Early relief deliveries (Photo from III MEF/MCIPAC Facebook)

The Ospreys were actually based out of Manila, where we were able to keep all of our maintenance staff. If we had based regular helicopters out of Tacloban, it would have required additional services and support in order to provide for our own people. But with the Ospreys we could base them back in Manila, 400 miles away. All the service and support was already in place there, we didn’t have to put an additional requirement of supporting ourselves on the Tacloban area. Instead, every flight could be used just for bringing help to the people who needed it. So having the Osprey aircraft was quite a success story.

Another interesting fact: the typhoon hit on eighth of November, and the Marine Corps first arrived in those devastated areas on November 10, the 238th birthday of the Corps.

I came into the picture when the Marines had been on the ground for about four or five days, I arrived on Sunday, November 17, after our flight was delayed by one day. When we received word that additional people were needed to support, I was one of the people chosen. Honestly, Carol, I had hoped I would get picked. The Marine Corps trains for this type of operation all the time. We’re always ready to go help our allies. I’ve been to the Philippines many times. I love the people there, and I was glad to go help as much as I could. And every single Marine I talked to felt exactly the same way. We all wanted to be there to help. I was very blessed and humbled that I got to help out our friends.

I returned to Japan on Wednesday the 27th, right before Thanksgiving. So I was down there just a little over a week. I was absolutely honored to have been a part of that help and also really humbled by the very strong Filipino people that I met. I love the Philippines, as I mentioned before. This disaster really showed the character of the people who were affected. I met many, many people down there, and everybody seemed to have a spirit of hope and recovery and pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps. Actually, when I left one of the things I remember very vividly was walking through the Tacloban area and hearing the sounds of people rebuilding. Hammers going and plywood being put up and sheeting being put on the houses and roofs being repaired. I really got the feeling that the people were going to recover from this. I don’t know if every American has that same kind of gumption to get back up on our own feet. I remember after hurricane Katrina there was quite a bit of back-and-forth about who was responsible for what. The Filipino people are a great example to me of how to get into the spirit of recovery very quickly.

I was the part of Operation Tomodachi in northern Japan in March of 2011. The damage to the infrastructure was very similar to the storm surge damage in the Philippines. With the tsunami and this typhoon, the airport and many of the coastal communities were just simply wiped out. One of the other similarities between the North-eastern Japan and the Philippine disasters was the spirit of “hey, let’s get our lives back together.” I saw that demonstrated in both places.

Yeah, my home was flooded during Ondoy. The water was about maybe shoulder height inside the house—well, it wasn’t water but flood mud, so water and sewage and rat shit—but unlike Katrina, the water subsided immediately. In Katrina part of the problem, as I understand it, was that the flood stayed in parts of New Orleans for months.

During Ondoy I was also amazed at the people I saw around me. People seemed to have dealt with disaster so often that they knew things like the refrigerator was going to be okay after drying out for three weeks, something I never would have thought. The refrigerator, the stove, the microwave, all that stuff was under water, and they’re all working now. We threw out sofas and mattresses and cushions because the bacteria got into the stuffing and could cause disease—although I’m sure someone else is using them now.

Which leads me to another question. I know people who are going down there. Actually, my friend Maria went down to Tacloban and Leyte just a few days after the storm hit. What advice do you have for people going into disaster areas in terms of immunizations or taking Vitamin C or any of that kind of stuff?

I’m not a medical expert, so I’d say you’d have to consult the people who are the experts in that area, a doctor or the aid workers who are there. Our Marines took anti-malaria medication, since malaria can be problematic in that area. Also, as you mentioned, the risk or bacterial infections is probably higher after a disaster like that. So keeping clean is important. The Filipino people are used to disasters so they know to keep very clean. With Marines, one of our general rules is to take care of our feet. In areas where you might have standing water or mud from a disaster, if your feet get wet you should dry them out and clean your socks. If you take care of your feet, they kind of take care of the rest of you.

The local government is now well in place and established. They have Filipino aid agencies working in that area as well as continuing international help. A lot of local people really know the area and the risks associated with it. People should consult with them, see what they’re doing and do the same. Anyone going there should make sure that they get clean drinking water, a good place to sleep and adequate resources to stay healthy. One of the dangers of going there without a good plan or without knowing how to take care of yourself is that you can become part of the problem instead of part of the help. So we make great efforts to make sure our Marines stay healthy because we don’t want to be burdensome in a situation where there is already a lot of need.

Do you think there’s going to be a big TB outbreak down there or don’t you know?

I’m not an expert, but I don’t think so. I’ve heard medical professionals speaking about that, and I think the situation is much more in hand than it was weeks ago. As I mentioned the efforts of the Philippine government to restore order and to provide health officials, that’s well in place. I think those concerns have been diminished.

I’ve read about outrage that foreign aid packages like ready-to-eat meals and were taken by the local officials and put on the market.

There’s an interesting point about that. I saw that news story. Those Meals Ready to Eat [MREs] were never intended to be part of the aid supply, but to feed the people who were helping, namely the military. It wasn’t part of the food that was designated for the evacuees. I don’t know the history of that story, but that much I do know.


Scrap Pork

by on December 10th, 2013


Demonstration in front of Ateneo University

In the Philippines each member of the Congress is granted a lump-sum discretionary fund for spending on priority development projects, mostly at the local level. This money is called the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). In July the Philippine Daily Inquirer published an exposé of a scam masterminded by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, whose companies specialize in trading agricultural products. The scam involved members of both the House of Representatives—commonly referred to as Congress—and the Senate and was estimated to have cost the country 10 billion pesos. In the widespread outrage the PDAF has generally been referred to as “the pork barrel.” Several large demonstrations have called for scrapping it.

On October 31, I attended a meeting of the Scrap Pork Network, a coalition of media experts and artists wanting to do something about this. I talked to Von Ramiro “Bombi” Blaka and Patricia “Peachy” Tan, the official spokesperson, and took pictures of the Power Point presentation done by Inday Verona.

Bombi Blaka

Bombi’s story

Basically, Scrap Pork Network is a group of people who recognize that there is an economic and financial crisis going on in the country and also cultural corruption, which is predominant in the political system. I visualize it as a monster that has grown throughout the years because of the people’s indifference to it. There’s this belief that corruption doesn’t really affect the day-to-day grind because people think they can’t really feel it, especially for the upper class and the middle class. There’s this misconception that leads people to turn a blind eye to it, this monster which has sucked the country dry for years. Somehow I see it as a blessing that it’s finally been exposed.

The problem is the message has not yet reached the grassroots level. There’s no strong message. It’s too vague for the regular working man to understand, so he doesn’t realize that he’s getting robbed. The pork barrel is basically legalized theft. Money is being taken just because those in power can do it.

From what I read it didn’t seem all that legal.

Last night the president asked for fifteen minutes of prime time in all major networks, and that’s exactly what he said. He’s saying the pork barrel is illegal and he’s with the people in fighting it, but he’s also justifying it. Our group believes all forms of pork, all kinds of patronage politics, in whatever name or whatever form, should be avoided. We should root out the cause of corruption.

I am basically a filmmaker. I’m a musician and a father and a Christian Catholic. But I volunteered for Scrap Pork Network as an individual, a concerned citizen. I believe that people in the media have been given a lot of power to influence people, to create perceptions. I work in the advertising industry.

Then you know how to do it.

We have ideas, but I need people like the ones I invited here to come up with short-term and long-term solutions. We need to figure out how to approach this problem. I am hopeful. The fact that the president had to beg for prime time certainly shows we’ve been gaining some ground. He talked to the general public because the demonstrations in Luneta and Ayala and EDSA are beginning to scare him. That’s why he’s desperate to address it the way he wants to. His popularity rating is sinking. It’s been in the headlines.

I feel kind of sorry for him. I like him.

I voted for him. I am volunteering now because he said I am his boss. It’s my right to ask for the things that I’m asking for, right? I’m just doing my job. I was looking for a group of media practitioners and artists. As it turned out, there hadn’t been any initiative yet to unite the artists. A few months ago, I started a text brigade, and I was overwhelmed by the response of friends and coworkers from the media, who’re saying, “Ok, Bombi, what do we do now?” I said, “I have no idea. I just asked you people what you feel about it. I just feel we should get together and plan something.” So this is what’s going to happen tonight.

Patricia Tan

(Please read the text of Peachy’s interview first, then the PowerPoint slides by Inday Verona. Click any picture to enlarge.)        

Peachy’s story

This will be my own narrative in terms of how it happened.

Targeting the pork

The PDAF is a pork barrel fund that individual legislators control. They get to name their projects, and they also choose the implementing agencies within the executive branch and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which will get the funds. So Janet Napoles set up these bogus NGOs and conspired with certain legislators to select the fake NGOs for their projects, since the legislator names the project and the implementing agency which chooses the NGO.

Are you pork?

Phony NGOs were set up, they received the funds, the money was turned over to Janet Napoles and she divided it. Let’s say you’re a Congressman, and you’re allotted ten million pesos for a project. Five million goes back to the NGO, and after the NGO has laundered it, the money goes back to Janet Napoles. She gives half of it to you and keeps half of it. None of it goes to the project. It’s not a small kickback for a project that gets implemented. They get the whole caboodle, they get the whole pie.

In the States we use the term “pork barrel” to mean something that’s not really necessary that a Congressperson does in her or his district in order to get reelected, not to not to take all the money and keep it.

That’s the way it actually started. Some legislators would allot some of the funds for projects that would get them elected, but usually the funds were used to get reelected—as campaign funds or to buy votes.

So they may say, “Okay I’m going to upgrade this road.” Instead of upgrading the road, they take the money and they use it for their political campaign and go around handing out 1000-peso bills to people to vote for them.  

Pork barrel

Yes. It could happen that way. It could also happen that they just pocket the money, since legislators have used the money differently. People got very angry. We did acknowledge that in certain cases corruption does exist, but all of us thought it was just a certain percentage of the funds. But in this case Napoles and the legislators took all of the money, and none of it went back to the beneficiaries. After that came out, there was an investigation and the Commission on Audit (COA) came out with a separate report. They audited pork barrel funds from 2007 to 2009, and part of that report actually confirms the existence of the Napoles scam. Other scams that were also revealed in that report. So now it’s not just Napoles. Some legislators actually set up their own NGOs, some bogus NGOs and some used for patronage politics as well. So you as a legislator have an NGO that’s under your name, you channel funds there. You say it’s for training purposes, but the NGO implementing the project is using your name. So that’s how you get reelected. You can use the money for patronage, and then you pocket some of it. I was personally very angry after I saw the report, just reading the summary and looking at the amounts of money listed in the tables.

You’re selfish. What about the student scholarships? What about the disaster victims? What about the sick?

Like for example?

In the summary a person named Luis Abalos got 20 million pesos. He’s not even a Congressman.We can’t even figure out who he is.

So that might not be a real name.

There were so many discrepancies and so many findings in the audit report that people got riled up. On top of the Napoles scam there was the COA report, and then came a call on Facebook for a million people march to Luneta.

Don’t meddle

I responded to that. I volunteered as a coordinator. We had to coordinate for the sake of security and logistics and cleaning up Luneta after the march. We had three major demands. First, to scrap the pork barrel system, meaning an end to all pork barrel funds. Second, to account for all pork barrel funds that have been spent over the years. Third, to prosecute and punish all those who misused funds. It should not matter whether you are allied with the former president or the current president. If you misused funds you should be prosecuted.

Carrying our pork burden

When did all this start?

Based on what the whistle-blowers are saying, it started in 2004. But the COA report only covers 2007-2009, during the presidency of GMA [Gloria Macapagal Arroyo]. She was president from  2000 to 2010. Now we’re disappointed with the current administration. President Aquino keeps pointing to the previous administration as the only ones who stole the people’s money, but the whistle-blowers said it was still ongoing at the time it came out in the newspapers.

“We’re in this together”

We formed Scrap Pork Network to make sure that the three demands made at Luneta would really be implemented. In the president’s address last night, he was saying what his first allocation program was doing and what his Department of Budget and Management was doing was not pork. But immediately after that he said from 2011 to 2012 nine percent went to projects for legislators. The legislators actually pinpointed what the projects would be. That’s what the pork barrel is. It may be just nine percent, but that equals twelve billion pesos—not a small amount. The money was supposed to speed up the economy, and yet you’re still asking legislators to name projects under the program. So how are you speeding up economic growth?

One of the allegations was that part of the PDAF funds were given as incentives to Senators to impeach former Chief Justice Corona. Those are allegations that of course no one is owning up to. It gets very complicated. If you look at the list of Senators who took funds, all of them voted for Corona’s impeachment. None of those who did not vote for his impeachment got funds. Even though they are denying that the funds were used as an incentive, it’s quite difficult to defend.

Direct method! Another 400 million went to Napoles

Congress has already passed the budget and approved it. It still gives seventy million pesos to each Congressman, and they will still nominate their own projects. That’s still pork. But Congress and the President are saying there’s no more pork because they’re not calling it PDAF. The budget is now at the Senate, where hearings are going on. The President has said that he has made a resolution that the Congress will not get their pork funds, just the Senate. They are not touching the funds that were allocated for Congress.

Who is Villa? Liberal Party, former Secretary of Department of Agrarian Reform. Napoles’ lawyer, who didn’t give a receipt.

We’re asking for all pork barrel funds to be removed from the budget. Members of Congress and the Senate should not have sole discretion in naming the projects. We’ll see how the Senate responds. Then there will be a bicameral meeting when the Senate version of the budget and the Congress version will have to marry.

In the Philippines the bicameral budget meeting is closed to the public. They do it in secret. We’re asking them to open it to the public. These are public funds. The committee and the plenary hearings are covered by media, and you can watch. If those are open to the public, why is the bicameral meeting closed? We want it to be transparent without any Congressional insertions into the budget.

Blocking the road

We support the Freedom of Information Bill, which we don’t have yet. That would give us access to those records. If we want transparency, of course citizens have to do their part. We’re calling on citizens: if you want a government that’s accountable for the public funds, you have to be able to audit and you have to participate. Even without the FOI bill we’re still planning a citizens’ audit team, but FOI would be a big, big help so we could look for the documents and find out who stole our money. We have other initiatives. The current Chief Justice Puno—not the one who was impeached—has called for a people’s initiative to pass legislation that would abolish the pork barrel. Right now I think two other groups are also planning on coming up with legislation. One is the Cebu Coalition, there’s Ipirma, and then there’s Scrap Pork Network. We’re still discussing how to go about it, whether by passing a law or by amending the constitution. We want to take the better avenue to be sure the pork barrel is no longer included in any future budgets.


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