Archive for May, 2011

An Englishman in the People’s Republic, Part 3

by on Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

In 1985, I interviewed a New Zealander who had just had his appendix out under local anesthetic. (See “Robert’s Appendix, August, 2009). Some months later Tom and I were talking about Robert’s experience, and he said he knew about another foreigner who’d gotten an appendectomy in China. He knew the story was true because he knew the people involved.

Link to “Robert’s Appendix”:

Tom’s story

There was a Frenchman who was in Nanjing University in 1981-82. He got an acute pain in his stomach. He went to the Number One People’s  Hospital in Nanjing, where he was told his appendix would have to come out. Unfortunately, it had ruptured, and they left in a lot of the poison. He was getting really bad, really fast—fever, delirium. Some of his friends were quite worried about him and contacted the French Consulate in Shanghai.

Now it just happened that there were two French warships in the Shanghai harbor on one of those exchange visits. The Consulate General asked the Chinese authorities for permission to send a helicopter to Nanjing to pick up the French student for treatment. It was a half-hour trip. The Chinese refused on the grounds that allowing a foreign plane to fly over China would be a violation of sovereign territory. As you know, the Chinese are touchy because of their memories of foreign imperialism, when foreigners could sail freely up the Yangtze and the Chinese couldn’t. It was a very big thing for the communists to be able to say to people, “Look, there are no foreigners here now. We have control of the country.”

The student’s friends in Nanjing—there were four of them—were left with no other recourse but to pick him up physically, carry him out of the hospital, put him on the train, and sit with him for the four hours to  Shanghai. Then they walked with him, took a taxi part of the way, to the warships docked on the Bund.  It had probably been over twenty-four hours since the first operation. The doctors on the ship operated again, apparently for some time, but they decided they’d better send him to a better-equipped hospital in Osaka. He was operated on there, and he recovered. He could have died in China.

I’ve been ill quite a few times here. Before I came to China in 1982, I’d never had an illness other than a cold. At that time I was smoking a lot, and I think smoking in China is deadly.  There are a lot more germs floating around than there are in England and America, and your body is weaker when you smoke. Then also, I was changing climates—from Shanghai to Yunnan to Xinjiang to the north. Especially if you’re in the desert, getting a cold is really dangerous because it can lead to an infection. Everyone I know who’s been in the desert has had something go wrong with them, like a horrible fungus growing on their faces for two days and then disappearing.

When I was in the desert in Gansu province I had a bad cold which led to an ear infection.  I was coming back on the train alone from Lanzhou on my way to Xian. Suddenly in one ear BANG…BANG…BANG…BANG. Then it started in the other ear. It continued for the last two days of a three-and-a-half-day journey. By the time I got to Shanghai I could hardly hear at all with my left ear. I thought I was losing my hearing. I hadn’t slept in two days, and I was crying because it was so painful. There was no one on the train to help or even to express sympathy. The guard wanted to know what was wrong, but he wasn’t a medical person, so he couldn’t do anything.

I went to the doctor in Shanghai. He was American-trained and did not do what they often do at the hospital here for ear problems—take this piece of wire, put some cotton wool on it and ram it down your ear. He said, “You’ve got an ear infection. I can give you Chinese medicine for it, and it will take about six months to heal. I don’t have any antibiotics.”

I believe traditional herbal medicine is good because it’s natural and doesn’t have any harmful side-effects. It can only do you good, and it can’t really do you harm. But it’s very slow, and I was really in pain. I was just thinking about flying to Hong Kong.

He added, “You can’t fly because it’s in the eardrum, and the eardrum could burst.”

I was very lucky. I went to see the American nurse at the American Consulate, and she said, “You need some antibiotics. I’ve seen this before, and if you can get these antibiotics, no problem. I don’t have them, but you’re in luck, because one of the American students had something almost exactly the same, and he had the antibiotics sent from America.”

I went to see him, and he gave me the rest of the antibiotics. Within two weeks it had cleared up, but it was scary, particularly when I was on the train and didn’t know what was happening. You’d think that in the largest, most modern city in China they’d have adequate medical facilities.

Another time, also in 1982, there were four of us in Chongqing—Cliff, myself, and two French students from Fudan University. I wasn’t feeling too good. We got our boat tickets, and we sent off down the Yangtze. I was sweating a lot, I obviously had a temperature, and I was itching all over my body. Scratching. So then I went and showed the rash on my foot to the doctor on board ship. It was lots of lumps.

He said, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about. I’ve got the same.”  He was totally uninterested.

When we got to Wuhan, I was really in a bad way, and that night I went to bed about 8:00 or 9:00 and slept all the way through to six or seven in the morning. I woke up to find the sheets absolutely wet. I had broken this fever, and I was absolutely covered in spots. I didn’t know what it was. One of the French students thought it was chicken pox. When we went to the hospital, the immediate reaction of the staff was, “Have a penicillin shot.”

So I had a penicillin shot.

“You’ve got an allergy.”

“Could it be chicken pox?”

“No, no, no. You’ve got an allergy.”

“Well, what am I allergic to?”

“We can’t tell that, but it’s an allergy.”

“All right.”

I just wanted to get back to Shanghai, so we took the boat the rest of the way down the Yangtze. On the boat we were trying to get better conditions for me, get me moved to a better class. They boat officials looked at my spots and said, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with you.”  They didn’t want to give me a better cabin. We stayed in fourth or fifth class, whatever we were in. After the fever broke I felt a lot better, and my friends gave me Calamine Lotion to stop the itching.

The afternoon we arrived in Shanghai I went to the hospital. There were no doctors about, but there was a nurse.

“Well, it looks like it could be chicken pox, but it could be an allergy. I’m afraid I can’t tell you. I wouldn’t like to say. You’ll have to wait for the doctor to come tomorrow.”

Finally, five days after my rash appeared, the doctor was willing to tell me that I had chicken pox. There’s nothing you can do for it. It just goes. But they wanted to give me an injection every day, and no one would tell me what I had. I had to keep badgering them for information.

Then there’s my back. Yes, my back. I used to go to the acupuncture clinic every week, every day. When I first went I’d never had acupuncture, so I was a bit apprehensive. They just gently sat me down—they assumed I would be worried about it—and started sticking needles in. It really does not hurt. No, I didn’t think to avoid Hepatitis B by bringing my own needles. I’ve always just let fate take its toll.

The doctors in the clinic had no idea what was wrong with my back. Eventually, after about a month, I started asking them, “Could it be a strained muscle?”

“Oh, it could be.”

“Could it be something else?  Could it be the nerve?”

“Oh, it could be the nerve.”

“Could it be a ligament?”

“It could be the ligament.”

In the end it proved they didn’t know what had happened. I was getting a bit worried by this point and thinking of going to Hong Kong if they couldn’t settle it soon. So I said to the head of the acupuncture clinic, “Look, I’m really worried. Your acupuncture in the long run might be doing me good, but I’m in pain. Can’t you help me? What’s wrong with me?”

They just kept evading the question. They were asking me what I thought was wrong. I wanted them to tell me, because they are the doctors.

“Well, okay, we’ll send you to the back people.”

“You mean there are specialists here?”

“Oh, yes, yes.”

“Well, why the hell haven’t I seen them?”

“Oh, no, no, you didn’t need to.”

“Thank you.”

This day I was really in agony. I think it was about the 23, 24th of December, 1985. It was quite close to Christmas. I’d been in real pain since about the 11th. I’d had a twinge in my back for about three or four months. At first I hadn’t taken much notice of it, and it hadn’t really bothered me. But that day I’d had it.

So the back people came to see me, and they turned out to be the surgical department. In Chinese hospitals there’s usually a major division between the Chinese medicine sections and those that deal mainly in Western medicine and Western techniques.  The surgical department were Western medicine people. The doctor checked me all over and said, “You’ve pulled a muscle in your back.”

“Well, is that simple?  Is it easy to fix?”

“Yeah, very easy to fix. All right. Come with me. We’ll just give you an injection in the back.”


I’m quite skeptical about injections, though by now I’ve had lots of them, but I didn’t fancy an injection in my back. Cortisone—we looked it up in the dictionary. I knew they gave you cortisone for pain, but I remembered hearing it’s not good for you. I wanted to talk to somebody who could speak good English and explain this to me. I just felt they weren’t very encouraging.

I actually met the head of the hospital, Dr. Li, the same lady who operated on Robert. She’s a lovely lady. When I met her I said, “I know Robert.”

She was very pleased. She said how nice Robert is and that he’s really a good friend of hers. I think that’s surprising, but he is. She speaks very good English, and she said, “It’s just a little injection. It doesn’t go deep into the back. It will ease the pain, and you can come back in about a week, and then if it is a pulled muscle there should be no more pain.”

I thought about it for a while, and they kept trying to convince me and saying they’d had the injections themselves, so I lay down and waited for him to do it. He stuck this need in my back, and I screamed and screamed. People came running in from other rooms and watched. It was fucking agony. The needle stayed in for a few seconds and then it was okay. I could feel this burning sensation in my back, and then about half an hour later my back went numb. They’d told me I wouldn’t be able to move around a lot for the rest of the day, and I couldn’t.

The next day there was no pain. It was incredible. The shot relieved all the pain. Then I talked to other people about it and decided I should go to Hong Kong to see someone about my back. I wouldn’t have another injection, so I the pain came back. I don’t think cortisone injections are the answer. I should say that the Hong Kong doctors didn’t know what was wrong with my back, either.

Acupuncture is interesting, though.  The acupuncture clinic is the biggest one in the hospital. People obviously have great faith in it, because a lot of people come there. You know Jessica?  For years she had a bad skin problem on her face which European doctors couldn’t cure, and acupuncture here has cleared up in a few months.

The same day or a few days after that, I had a throat infection. It was something very simple, easily cleared up—in England. I had it two years ago. My doctor gave me some antibiotics, and it cleared up within a week. So I told the doctors here, “Look, it’s nothing really very dangerous. I’ve had it before. An antibiotic will work, but I don’t know which one.”

They looked at my tonsils, and just said, “Aah!”

The people there didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t know what the word for “tonsil” was. We looked it up, and they said “It’s acute tonsillitis.”

“No, it’s not. It’s an infection of the tonsils. It’s different.”

I think it could have been a translation problem, but it ended up with me trying to shout at them, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

They wanted to give me two injections a day of penicillin.

“Can’t I have tablets?”

“Oh no, no. No tablets here.”

I know for a fact that there are penicillin tablets in the area. I’m not particularly worried about the hepatitis problem. I just didn’t think I could stand more than one injection a day. When I went to Hong Kong the doctors gave me some antibiotics, and the infection cleared up in about three or four days.

So now I would rather not see any more Chinese doctors, thank you. I’m leaving soon, so maybe I won’t have to.

An Englishman in the People’s Republic, Part 2

by on Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Tom is a tall, gregarious, generally enthusiastic Englishman in his late twenties who studied at Fudan University in Shanghai and Xiamen University in Xiamen, Fujian Province. In Part 1, Tom talked about sex, privacy and surveillance in the PRC. In this segment he talks about food, drink and hashish.

Tom’s story


For me the whole time in China has been an enormous culinary and consumer experience. I’ve spent two and a half years in China—half a year of that in Taiwan. I haven’t done anything here except consume, buying things or eating and drinking. Yes, eating and drinking are the most important things in my life, and they are for most Chinese people as well. I love it.

It’s really great in the morning to be sitting in a restaurant having dimsum. It comprises some fried and many different steamed dishes. They come in little long [bamboo steamers], and they’re all sorts of different things, dumplings with prawns and beef, all sorts of dumplings, and chicken feet, which are very bony but very succulent. The variety seems to give everything a very rich taste. Most items in the restaurant I went to in Guangzhou were three or four mao [ten to thirteen cents]. A few are one kuai [1¥ or 33 cents].  The waitresses were very friendly, I used to chat them up, and they would help me get what I wanted because there was a bit of a mad rush in the mornings, a big hubbub of a mass of people. It’s just noise. I know it’s a cliché, but the Cantonese must be the noisiest people in the world. It’s really great. You can go in and sit down and say, “We’re going to drink tea.”  You can just have a pot of tea put down next to you, and you can choose things off the dimsum trays as they come around, or if you don’t want to eat anything you just pay for the tea, which costs virtually nothing. If you want, you can just sit and take something every hour or not at all.

Coming away from Zhongshan University in Guangzhou just over the bridge and past the statue you see the Overseas Chinese Hotel. There’s a wonderful pastry shop right near there, maybe as part of the hotel. There’s another one on a street opposite Shamian Island. It’s just a little store front run by two guys who make the best egg custard tarts I ever tasted. We used to go along there about ten at night—they stayed open until 12:00—when they were just baking them fresh…aahHH!  Two mao [7 cents] each. All the pastry’s good. I think that’s quite a new thing, actually, baking. I don’t think it’s traditional Cantonese. Or perhaps it’s just started up again because they didn’t have the materials and it wasn’t something the state deemed necessary to produce. They make good savory bread in Canton as well—not sweet, like it is here.

The snake restaurant in Guangzhou is excellent. But, really, you need to spend about 7¥ or 8¥ [$ 2.33 to $ 2.66] for a meal. Then you’ll get a lot of food as well. You can also get snake in our favorite Cantonese restaurant here in Xiamen. The other night it was Mike’s birthday, and we went to the Guangzhou restaurant and ordered some dishes. Then we saw someone lifting this snake out of a basket. So we canceled some of the dishes and had this snake. They said one snake costs 12¥. We chose the snake. You could say, “I don’t want that one. I want another one.” He just picks it up with his hand, totally unconcerned.

“You say it’s poisonous?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

For 12¥ [$4] you’ve got a dish of snake meat–not a big dish, but delicious–and they use the bones for soup. I lifted the cover of this soup tureen, and this bony head was looking at me. After we ate the soup we took the carcass, and we stretched it out. It was about a meter long.

Snake blood is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. In Taiwan I’ve met men of eighty who say they’re still having an active sex life and who put that down to drinking a glass of cobra blood every month at $80 U.S. a glass. In 1983, when Tom and I were in Taiwan one of the biggest male–and also tourist–attractions was the snake market. It’s behind this massive Buddhist temple. People will go to the temple and give offerings for fertility, and then the man goes to drink snake blood. It’s really quite a horrible sight. They’re just rows of stalls–like restaurants–with every imaginable type of snake, live in cages or already pickled in big bottles.

There’s a man standing there shouting to attract customers. He shows you the snake, holds it in front of your face and says, “This snake’s very good. Come and try my snake.”  Some of the hawkers have the snake’s natural predators, like ferrets, and they have fight between the two and take bets. If the snake wins, which it usually does, there are customers for that snake’s blood.  They slit the live snake at the top and at the bottom and run a hand down it to get the blood to drip into a glass. They might  a half a glass of blood. They keep the sex organs because they’re very precious. Then they fill the glass up with an incredibly potent alcohol, and they give you two “energy” pills to take with your glass of snake’s blood.

Now here’s the sordid side of this. Right next to the snake market is the main red-light district of Taipei, which is basically one big red-light district. There are streets and streets of dilapidated houses filled with very young girls. The men, after they’ve drunk their snake’s blood, go to the brothels and get laid. We didn’t go in, I hasten to add. In Taiwan today, as in China before liberation, a lot of the peasants sell their daughters into prostitution for two or three years. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, girls have very little value in the house. So you recoup some of the money you wasted on them in the first eleven or twelve years. After all, the boys are the important offspring because they’ll look after you in your old age.


There was a place in Shanghai near Fudan University. I don’t know if it’s still there because they’re making the area into a tourist center. We used to call this place Rick’s Cafe. It used to be a real dump, like a really filthy baozi and hundun joint [for dumplings and wanton]. They had this enormous vat—about two meters in diameter—with a plastic tube leading down to this kettle. You’d go in and pay a mao fifty or two mao [less than ten cents] for a big bowl of beer, and they’d just pour it out of the kettle. I used to go down there very often at night about 10:00. I thought it was excellent beer because it was quite flat, like English beer. When you pour it out there’s usually no froth, maybe just a few bubbles on the top. Chinese beers are usually somewhere in the middle between flat English beers and heady German ones. Qingdao and the local beer here are a bit gassy for me. If you pour them fast, you get a good head, and it will stay there for quite a while. Here, if we’re feeling like drinking a beer we’ll probably go to the bar on Zhongshan Lu [Sun Yat-sen Street]. It’s really sleazy. It’s dark, they’ve got terrible music, and the people are very friendly.

Ah, yes, drinking customs. I should say first that I like drinking, but I’ve never been a fast drinker. I sip drinks, even beer. The Chinese will fill up a glass, even with a foreign brandy, and just drink it down. You’re senseless after that, and you miss the taste. But then if you’ve been drinking baijiu [white grain alcohol] all your life—the taste of the grain alcohols isn’t so nice, but the effect is. You get very heady. They don’t affect your stomach, but the next day they can give you an almighty headache.

In Taiwan, which is the same as Xiamen—same language, same games—we used to go and eat out a lot in sidewalk restaurants. When you as a foreigner go there, people you’ve never seen before always start want to buy your dinner for you. It’s amazing. People have the money to do this. They want you to sit and eat and drink with them. Well, we don’t mind having our meals paid for if people want to do that for us. But that gets you into drinking games. There’s one where you have two people each throwing out a hand and shouting out the sum of the extended fingers. There’s rock-paper-scissors, where instead of counting fingers it’s matching up a clenched fist, or the hand held as scissors or a piece of paper. The one who loses has to drink a glass. I don’t know the number of times about two or three o’clock in the morning I’ve had to make excuses and stagger off, having lost at a drinking game. Some people are very good at it, because it’s all a matter of tricking your opponent. It’s a skill, not just luck. It’s quite good to watch when you know what’s happening.

Guests and newcomers on the scene always have to be toasted. I don’t know why, but you are, and that means you have to drink a whole glass down. Obviously Chunjie [Chinese New Year] is particularly difficult. You can’t say no, it would just be rude. We went to visit a Chinese family, and we’d brought a bottle of dry red wine and a bottle of very sweet white wine with us. The men in the family—the father and three brothers—had all sorts of stuff, and they were fetching in people to drink. Even the women were drinking at Chenjie, quite a lot, in fact, but they weren’t being toasted as much. They could just sit and drink. After a while, because we kept toasting them, and we were obviously not getting as drunk on this putaojiu [wine] as they were on the rice alcohol, they insisted that we polish off this weak stuff we were drinking. So we had to move on to this Shaoxing wine, which was horrible for us and got us quite drunk, which is what they wanted, being the hosts. The object of the games and the toasting is to get people drunk, maybe not paralytic, but definitely tipsy. Losing control is looked down upon.

Obviously, during Chunjie you have some heavy drinking. I don’t know about alcohol problems. I don’t know how you could find out about alcoholism here. In China of course you very rarely see people sleeping out, but even when you do—in Guangzhou I saw a lot of people sleeping out in the streets—rarely do they have a bottle of alcohol. I’ve seen a few people staggering around over Chunjie, but that’s an exception.


I wonder about drug addiction. China is usually not thought of as a drug-producing nation, though it’s starting to get that reputation. They’re growing opium in Yunnan and they’re going to transport it via Guangxi and Guangdong to Hong Kong [in 1986]. North Americans coming out of China to the States, especially flying direct from Beijing or some other city in the PRC, are just not going to meet officials on the alert to search people for drugs.

When we arrived in Shanghai we were all psyched up for going a year without, we expected to find no drugs, no vice of any kind, and we found all kinds, including this American student who had no money but a kilo of hash. He just hung around the Peace Hotel looking for Canadian or American businessmen who looked not be too conservative, and he sold the kilo he’d paid 70¥ [$25-28 at the time] for about 1,500-1,600 American dollars. Can you imagine a kilo of hashish?  It’s a big slab, a big block. This stuff is very condensed, it’s green and crumbles easily. It’s more like Lebanese hashish than any other I’ve seen. It was excellent—very potent. Some of the best hashish I’ve ever had. I heard that in some places outside Urumqi it’s 50-70¥ a kilo. I was told to take a small bit and roll it in my fingers to get most of the oil out of it, but you don’t really need to. It’s very potent.

We bought 10¥ worth—a film canister full—which lasted us the better part of a year. That was great because we could sit in our rooms and roll up a cigarette and say to our Chinese roommates, who were supposed to be reporting on us, “Ah, British tobacco, very aromatic, isn’t it?

“Oh, yes, British tobacco is very aromatic.”

Not the faintest idea, absolutely none.

In Xinjiang people were very friendly and invited you to smoke in their houses, and it was possible to buy hashish, though I didn’t.

Now I’ve heard a story that two foreigners were in Urumqi, and they bought 20¥ worth of hashish off this old Uyghur, and they were smoking it in their hotel room. Most people in Urumqi do know what hashish is, and they know it’s illegal. It’s all right for them, [the minorities], but the Han Chinese don’t smoke it.

The fuwuyuan [maid] knocked on the door and said, “Do you think you could stop smoking hashish here, please, because it’s illegal.”

They continued smoking.

She came back and said, “Look, if you don’t stop I’ll have to tell the gonganju [public security or police].”

They continued smoking.

The gonganju came along and said, “Sorry, it’s illegal. Where did you buy it?”  They told them who they bought it from. The man was arrested and put away for five or ten years as an example. This so incensed the Uyghyrs—understandably—that they won’t sell it to foreigners anymore. But in Shanghai they’ll sell it to you. When you change money on the street [from Foreign Exchange Certificates to Reminbi] and you’re trying to get a better rate and they’re not going to give it to you, you can ask for a lump of hashish.

I’ve seen marijuana growing in Beijing, and it grows in Dali. I’ve had some Dali marijuana which was very potent, but I don’t know whether Beijing marijuana was or not. In places like Bhutan, the farmers grow it as a crop or else it grows wild, I’m not sure which, but they feed it to the pigs.

We had a harvesting expedition in Xiamen after someone had spotted this field of what looked like marijuana. It must have been in October, and there were four or five of us who cycled out there, it was a blistering hot day, and this field was a long way from here. It did look like marijuana or one of the hemp family. I assume they use it for rope. There were fields of it. There were all these peasants working in the fields, and they all came and watched us hacking away and tearing the best leaves off. No one seemed too bothered about it, so we harvested two or three carrier-bags full and cycled back feeling very pleased with ourselves. We kept it for about a week in a private place, dried it out in the sun, and then tried it. It was very disappointing. Virtually no effect. But it was a nice day-trip out.

The Author of “Astigirl”

by on Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Tweet Sering talking about living on one's own terms

At the end of April, 2011, I interviewed Tweet Sering, author of Astigirl: A Grown Girl Living on her Own Terms, which is available at Powerbooks in Greenbelt 4. The word astig (meaning “confident” or “go-getting”) is a colloquial Tagalog term coined from tigas, meaning “tough,” “resolute,” “having a moral backbone.” Astigirl is an elegantly written, thoughtful, often funny memoir which grew out of Tweet’s blog. She is also the author of a novel, Wander Girl, a weekly columnist for the Philippine Star, a writing coach/teacher and a filmmaker. She is currently working on another book. Her websites are and For a write-up on Tweet’s recent talk at Bo’s Coffee, go to

Among the topics in Astigirl are Tweet’s relationship to her writing, the break-up of her only codependent romantic relationship and her decision, when she was in her thirties, to move back to her parents’ house temporarily—paradoxically allowing her to be more independent. Her sense of herself as an individual was central in all of these. I began the interview by mentioning the film The Dead Poets Society as a teaching tool. I had used it in Korea to teach my students about individualism, and Tweet is using it in Manila for her journal writing class.

Tweet’s story

I don’t think individualism begins and ends with the individual. If that’s all it is, then you’re only doing something for yourself. When you do what you love, it begins with you so it can overflow to others, so you can actually contribute more effectively wherever you are.

The Filipino culture I grew up in teaches us that everything you do is for your family. I call it the Sacrificial Lamb Syndrome. You take a particular course in college—information technology or nursing—even if you have no inclination or even inherent talent for it, because it’s going to get you a job when you graduate. Then you can go abroad to work and send dollars back to your family. That sort of thinking is not just for the very poor. It’s actually very middle-class. When you move up, the increased status is for your family. So really, you have no boundaries whatsoever. It’s as if you were created for the group and whatever gifts you were born with can just fly out the window. Instead of really being able to contribute by bringing what you have to the table, you’re a robot. I found it very troubling because the books and movies that resonated with me and the people I gravitated toward were the complete opposite. There I found a much more joyful, much more meaningful life. So I wanted to explore that.

The Philippines is very Westernized in the sense of exposure to American pop culture. My friends and I grew up watching Sesame Street. We speak American slang. It’s Hollywood, right? English is a second language here. Our laws are written in English. A lot of people aspire to go to the States. Every family has a Balikbayan member [expat Filipino], and they work mostly in the U.S., but they’re also all over the world now. On the surface it’s Western, but it’s not Western in the sense of cultivating strong individuals.

The Philippines was once described as a nation with a Latin soul and a California accent. My friends and I agreed, but I decided later that the writer must have been exposed only to middle-class Filipinos. People in the lower classes do have Latin souls. They can break into dance and song, they can be incredibly expressive and emotional, but their English is not the language you learn in school. [It’s something of a mixed language.] I grew up in the provinces—in Surigao, which is at the northern tip of Mindanao. We spoke English at home. I thought it was what my classmates spoke, but when I was maybe eleven years old it dawned on me that it was different. When I was thirteen, my family moved to Manila, where I went to a private school and most of my classmates spoke the kind of English I did.

I went through different kinds of transformations: as a daughter, as a writer, and as an individual. I had an idea of how I wanted to live. When I failed or when I felt things I didn’t want to feel, I learned to look inward instead of trying to fix things on the outside. The outside involved other people, and I didn’t have control over them. It felt so much saner and healthier to look at fixing myself, which I had learned to do at an early age. I’m kind of prayerful—and grateful to my parents for that. They’re very Catholic, so we were told to ask God for whatever we wanted.

I’m the eldest granddaughter, and I daresay I was the favorite. I always felt my family’s protection and love. They all had dreams for me and set notions about how I was going to be. For a while it was nice to see myself through their eyes. But when I started making choices that felt real to me and that I was happy with, I couldn’t understand why they weren’t happy for me. For example, my choices of boyfriends made sense to me and my friends. My family would say, “Oh, why him?” There was always a reason, but it felt as if no one would ever be good enough.

I always felt pulled in different directions, toward the person I was choosing to be with and toward my parents—when I say “my parents,” that means my aunts and my uncles because they are all so tied together. So I could be with the family but not bring my boyfriend or be with my boyfriend but not go to the reunion. I was in my thirties before I finally put my foot down and said, “No, we will have one birthday celebration.” Before that there were two, one on my birthday with the family and another, secondary one afterwards with my friends. I was trying to make everybody happy. I didn’t want to go on like that, so I said, “No, we’re either going to have one celebration, here in my apartment, or nothing.” My friends and my boyfriend were there. They’re very cooperative. My mom showed up, but my dad didn’t.

When I decided to quit my job in advertising, my parents didn’t understand giving up a stable career. Afterwards I was freelancing, trying to be a writer, and I’d get comments like, “Hey, why don’t you apply at this airline?” or “Why don’t you take the law aptitude exam? You can still be a lawyer.” At thirty! I guess it’s natural for parents to worry. At the time I wasn’t making much money, and writing seemed like a hobby to them. “Yes, but you can work at the airline company and write on the side.” “Really? You want to try that and see if it works?” It used to hurt me so much that they didn’t think my work was real. So instead of just trying to do my own thing I was always trying to prove them wrong, and I think that was causing me so much stress. I decided to stop trying to get them behind me. I’d go my way and if I looked behind me and they were there, wonderful. If they weren’t, that was fine too.

Another thing was that I’d wanted to be a parent since I was in my twenties, but the nearer I got to thirty, the clearer it was that it wasn’t happening. Of course at the times when I thought I was pregnant I would panic. I wasn’t stable financially, or even emotionally, because I felt I wasn’t seeing results from all my hard work. It could barely sustain myself. I had to take on other jobs to support my writing and filmmaking. So I doubted that I could be a good mom. Again, this developed over the course of several years. I decided I would really feel prepared when I was completely okay with my family. Otherwise I would just keep dragging this unresolved shit around with me at forty.

I had thought the fear of being a mom was just financial, but when I was worried about being pregnant I’d have nightmares imagining how my parents would treat my kid. Would I be able to protect my child from their expectations? Or bring my kid up the way I’d have liked to have been brought up, really supported all the way? There came a point when I couldn’t see blaming my parents anymore. If I wanted to be a grownup, I should be able to see my parents not just as parents, but as people.

I thought maybe I didn’t feel grownup because I skipped my teens. I was always the responsible one. I got good grades. I was never in trouble. When they told me I couldn’t have a boyfriend until I was eighteen, I agreed and kept my part of the deal. I graduated on time. I did all the right things. I tried to be a good soldier so I could leave. Then I spent my thirties running away, not knowing I was being held back by a tight leash.

I kept saying I that I just really needed time [to write] and somebody to take care of me, to be my mom, to be my dad, or just to cook for me so that I didn’t feel so stressed and so alone and disconnected in my apartment. I was living alone and working alone. I didn’t live in New York, but I knew how it felt to die alone in a New York apartment with only the cat to smell you. Why did that feel so real to me? I thought, okay, my writing is so solitary. Maybe I should surround myself with people. I should be in a community again. So I moved back with my parents, temporarily.

I wanted to go back there on my own terms, which meant living by their rules instead of trying to argue my way out of them. “Okay, yes, I’m moving back to your house, I respect that this is your house, and this room is not really my room, it’s the room that you are so generously lending to me, and thank you for doing this for me.” I tried to have an attitude of gratitude, not entitlement. When my mom said, “Oh, no, don’t use this plate.” — “Okay, sure.” I followed their rules, and not grudgingly, because that’s how I would want anyone to behave in my house. No matter what someone’s relationship was to me, I would want them to respect my place. It felt right.

At that time I was writing my blog, and then I was made a columnist for the Philippine Star. By then I had things to write about on a regular basis. I had dreamed of having my own column, but I knew it would only come when I knew what to say. Every week I had a different way of saying something or approaching it, so I could hammer the thing out. I think I found what I was looking for.

Some time before I moved back to my parents’ house, I was in a relationship that really scared me. All my previous boyfriends had been old friends. We would be hanging out, and one of us would say, “How come we aren’t together?” “Yeah? Maybe we should be.”  But this person seemed to have come out of nowhere. I’m probably giving her too much credit, but around the time I ran into my former boss, and she asked if I was seeing someone. I said, “Yeah, I met this guy, but I think it will be years before we’ll be together.” “Why?” “Because I want us to be really good friends first. That’s my requirement. Friendship is very important to me.” She said, “Funny. I never pegged you as a safe player.”

Then I asked myself if I had been playing it safe. Could that be why I wasn’t making progress in my writing career? I decided my feelings for this person were real. It wasn’t some kind of test. So I decided to give it everything I had. I lived with him for eight months. I was really unhappy, and I felt suffocated. I thought maybe I just needed my own room. That wasn’t enough distance. So I said, “I need to start paying my own rent again and not relying on you because I feel like your fricking wife.” Left at home, lonely, sad, nobody to talk to. When he came home I’d be like this panting little dog, eager for attention. It was so pathetic, so uncool. He came from all these exciting things, and I was feeling apart from myself. When he had an idea at 3:00, he’d wake me up, all excited, and I’d say, “Oh, that’s so wonderful, honey.” Groggy and all. He was like a kid. Maybe I became his mother.

I was afraid of ending up a cliché: the wife that you cheat on, the wife who looks well preserved but is dying inside, who is soul-less already and really taking the blows. He had all these habits that were so different from what I thought my ideal was. So it was one disappointment after the other. My heart kept breaking. The ground had given way under my feet. If he remembered me that day and was sweet and attentive, I was happy. If he was away being his workaholic self, I was miserable. It was very sobering to see myself as just like the women I had severely judged in the past. I never thought I had the qualities of someone like that, but I do. I just have to keep them in check.

Oh, yes, there are a lot of men who cheat in this culture—but not just here. It’s a macho country. I didn’t want to be the kind of woman who would just accept it. So I guess my real issue was with my gender. It felt like I was always looking for role models because most of what I saw alarmed me. I guess I needed to be friends with my boyfriends so they wouldn’t treat me as “the girlfriend,” but see me as a person. Men cheat on their wives, on their girlfriends, on all these women they have labels for. With my friends I was an equal. We told each other everything. We were mutually respectful. With them I hadn’t worried about cheating. But with this particular guy, I was so scared. Because I thought, what is this? Am I the prize? Am I the catch? I think it becomes easy to think of that person as an acquisition, and then you can do whatever you want with it.

The misery accumulates. There are all those moments when you’re brushing your teeth, crying without knowing why. Or you’re washing your underwear. One Sunday I was brisk-walking around the oval at UP [University of the Philippines] with tears streaming down my face, thinking, When will this end? When will I find the clarity and the strength to leave? I kept praying for it.

It really came to a head when I saw that the things I really loved about him were the things I wished he would change. I thought, Hmm, I don’t think that’s his fault anymore. I think he’s just really being himself. Maybe I should stop focusing on him and trying to mold him into something to my liking. So that’s what I did. I put this space between us in order to work on myself, and it got better. Instead of seeing his flaws, I again saw everything l loved. But that didn’t mean that I had to be around him. I had outgrown the relationship. My parents’ house was some distance away from his, and it made the break-up easier. I haven’t seen him since February, 2008. There’s no bitterness and no blame. It’s so freeing. I feel so grateful.