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The Only Place for Jazz in the Philippines

by on Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Left to right: Nelson Gonzales, Meg Serranicca, Bergan Nunez and Paulo Cortez

Left to right: Nelson Gonzales, Meg Serranilla, Bergan Nunez and Paulo Cortez

When my friend Ivon came to the Philippines for a visit, he searched online for jazz, found only one place, Tago Jazz Café in Cubao, and checked it out. “The players are really good,” he said, “and so young!” We dropped a few times, loved the music–which gets going some time after ten in the evening–and were impressed with the total commitment to jazz we found there. Then we interviewed the owner, Nelson Gonzales.

Nelson’s story

Nelson Gonzales

Nelson Gonzales

In Tagalog, tago means “hidden.” In 2010 when Tago Jazz Café first got started, there were five partners chipping in—three friends, my brother and me. At first, the place was half its current size. We opened in November of 2011 and lasted until July 2012, when we closed down, and I found myself left with all the debt we’d accumulated. We were closed for eight months. During that time, we had no electricity, no water, nothing. Little by little, I renovated the place as best I could. I built the stage over there with my bare hands. I reopened in April of 2013 and joined the UNESCO Jazz Day Festival, which is a worldwide celebration held every April 30. Tago was the first representative in the Philippines. I also got endorsed by the UNESCO International Jazz Day Team and got a signed letter from Herbie Hancock himself.

Paulo Cortez

Paulo Cortez

This place is not your ordinary restaurant or bar. I’m not going for a fancy or glamorous venue. It’s really an uphill battle for a guy like me because I’m poor and have no other source of income. Also, because jazz was almost nonexistent in the Philippines, the hill is steeper than usual. At Tago, I am the default drummer, the security guy, the janitor, the accountant, as well the cook. I do it because there’s something really special here, and there’s something much more for the whole country. Some old folks may argue that there has been jazz here since the 1960s or 70s, and it does exist in the expensive hotels and venues. But the music is more often than not commercial. It’s all top forty, what some people call “elevator music.”

Meg Serranicca

Meg Serranilla

Here, I try to put all these people together so they can interact while playing. This creates something new onstage. In a sense, I’m trying to educate a lot of folks. A lot of the people in the audience are new to jazz. They know very little. After coming here and hearing what we play, even on a bad night, gradually they realize music isn’t just pop and commercial. So yeah, I’m pretty happy blowing their minds by allowing them to experience live jazz in an intimate setting. At first I was just trying to stay afloat as a business, but now my purpose has evolved into educating people and bringing them together. Most of the players who come are between 18 and 35. I’m 39. After me are people in their forties and fifties.

As a drummer, I was influenced by Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa (but without the drugs and all that), Steve Gadd, Vinne Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and new cats like Jojo Mayer, Chris Dave and Ari Hoenig. Back in the 80s there were videos on television of Chick Corea and Quincy Jones and jazz legends. Mostly I heard it on the radio. When the 90s came, it was almost all gone. The few radio stations that played jazz eventually shut down.

Bergan Nunez

Bergan Nunez

There’s a gap of maybe twenty or thirty years between the old players and the kids. From the 1980s to the 1990s, jazz almost stagnated here. Well, there were key clubs over the decades, like Birds of the Same Feather, Monks Dream, and then 10-o-2, and prominent jazz players who persevered, like the Miss Annie Brazil, Emcy Corteza, Eddie Katindig, Bob Aves, Pete Canzon, Boy, Tateng, and Henry Katindig, Elmhir Saison, Koyang Avenir, Tots Tolentino, Jeannie Tiongco, Skarlet, Richard Merk, Mar Dizon, Joey Valenciano, and Noli Aurillo, to name the few jazz cats and educators.

Glen Bondoc

 Glen Bondoc

But in reality, the Philippines doesn’t have a sprawling jazz scene, since politics, mis-education, commercialism, and vicious exclusivity took over, turning people away and pushing them to pursue something else, to somewhere else, away from all the intense frustration. The politics spreads like cancer and is clannish. It gives birth to poisonous rumors and the great divides which ultimately killed Filipino jazz. It almost led to the total erasure of this art.

Most of the kids who come here are going to the University of the Philippines or the University of Santo Tomas. But even in the universities, the training is in classical music with only maybe one percent in jazz. I think kids are discouraged from taking up jazz because it’s hard to find employment in the field of music after graduation. There’s almost nothing.

Jayman Alviar

Jayman Alviar

There is a new generation of jazz cats here though. The master arranger and conductor Mel Villena and his daughter Ria Villena-Osorio and her brothers. Other excellent jazz musicians include Mel Santos, Dave Harder, Simon Tan, Rey Vinoya, Alvin Cornista, Noel Asistores, Karel Honasan, Michael Alba, Paolo Cortez, Chuck Joson, Chuck Menor, Gabe Cabonce, Bergan Nunez, Jayman Alviar, Glenn Bondoc, Jr Oca, Janno Queyquep, Paolo Dela Rama, Otep Concepcion, Reli De Vera, Michael Guevarra, Nikko Rivera, Krina Cayabyab, Mel Torre, Anna Achacoso-Graham and Jireh Calo. They go far deeper. They’re incredibly talented. They own the stage and continue to impress audiences.

Chuck Joson and Patrick Pecho

Chuck Joson and Patrick Pecho

I’m trying to build a healthy and viable Jazz scene here, and so are a lot of folks, but there’s a lot to be done. We lack technical proficiency. We’re maybe thirty years behind our counterparts in the Southeast Asian Region. Some of the foreign cats are really good, and they are well supported by the government and the private sector. Here there’s no support, so players who want to take up jazz or some other “non mediocre” art form just concede. They succumb to just getting by.

At Tago, most of the players do standards from the 1940s like John Coltrane, while others venture into modern jazz. There’s a thing in New York that’s rather heavy. Some really like to stretch it—at least try to stretch themselves. So some pretty interesting stuff is created.

Chuck Joson

Chuck Joson

When foreign acts come here, the turnout is about the same as for an all-Filipino band. We’ve had Christian Bucher, a Swiss percussionist; Todd Hunter and Jeffrey Lewis, who play for Dionne Warwick; the guitarist Chuck Stevens; Claude Dialo, the Swiss NYC-based pianist; Jess Jurkovic, a NYC-based pianist; Art Hirahara, a NYC-pianist; Wes Brown, another NYC-based  bassist; and Edsel Gomez, a New York-based Puerto Rican pianist who plays for Dee Dee Bridgewater and is a Grammy Award winner. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a local act or big names. When the people in the audience finally do get to hear their music, they get hooked instantaneously. They’re enchanted, captivated, hooked. Once, Royal Hartigan, also a grand master and doctor of percussion, was here with his band from New York. It was raining, and the place was packed. Most of the audience didn’t know him or his music. But when they played, man, they ripped the stage, and they killed it. The way he played was so spiritual that everybody seemed to feel it. His aura was just spectacular.

Tim Rada

Tim Cada

But even if I really publicize the performance, not a lot of people come. I don’t know why. Perhaps most are afraid to open up and discover something new that they might eventually love.

When it comes to performing, the local folks tend to be shy. They tend to hide and keep the volume down, while the foreigners just get out there and play and have a good time. That’s why we’re encouraging people to come and jam, especially new guys, so they can learn how to interact with the other musicians and the audience, throwing out energy that comes back to them. This place is very intimate. There’s no hiding it when you hit wrong notes. I want the players to develop their skills and talents so that they can hone their skills and be less anxious about criticism. Some people get intimidated by the genre of jazz because they think you need a certain level of proficiency. Well, it’s true, and everyone has to pay their own dues. We tell them, “Just play your heart out. No one is judging you. You’re not going to learn what you’re doing wrong unless you fail onstage, unless you go up there and really stretch yourself.”

Julius Lopez, Paulo Cortez and Harold Cruz

Julius Lopez, Paulo Cortez and Harold Cruz

I consider jazz as a free art form. It’s not an exclusively American thing anymore. It is global. It is the sound of the heart and the keen mind played in such colorful passion. In the Middle East and Europe, people are coming up with newer and bolder stuff. So why can’t we? I want to fuel it with whatever I can, set it on fire.

Yuta Kanakata

Yuta Kanakata

I’m planning to go to the Department of Education and persuade them to include jazz history as part of a specialized subject. It would be impossible if we just talked to all the individual music teachers about jazz theory. It would take twenty years. So we’ll start with basic history—who’s local and who’s international—and to have a few materials, like a one-hour introduction to Miles, Dizzy, Bird, and all the other jazz gods. Then the kids will at least have an understanding of what jazz is. So that’s the plan. I hope they approve it. I also talked to a college about giving me scholarships to hand out. We’re working on the agreement now. Hopefully, next year I’ll be able to screen applicants and give out scholarships to fifty poor kids for the duration of their college careers. That’s fifty kids off the streets. Fifty kids learning an instrument. Fifty kids can affect the lives of others as well, in an open and positive, and progressive manner.

Harold Cruz

Harold Cruz

Don Balbieran

Don Balbieran

If Tago were in a highly-commercialized location, the rent alone would kill me. I would probably shut down after two months—unless someone gave me 50,000,000 pesos. But in that case, I’d probably end up doing the same as those high-end bars do there, like ask for ridiculous amounts of money at the gate and serve expensive beer and bland, French-sounding food. Tago would then become a glamorous club. It wouldn’t be jazz anymore, just your typical party place. So no, I’m staying here, where it’s real.

Jireh Calo

Jireh Calo

My grandparents settled in this house after World War II around 1947. They were the first to live in this neighborhood. There were no streets, just water buffaloes and grass. Nowadays, I keep checking with the neighbors about whether or not we’re making too much noise. But they’re okay with it. It’s not really loud, just like a big stereo that was left on. When the door’s shut they don’t hear it. The train, the MRT, is louder. A neighbor in front gets grumpy when somebody parks right in front of his gate, so I’m always telling people not to park there. Once, a couple of musicians got into an argument outside and began yelling. Someone complained and the local police summoned me. I went to the station and said the incident was nothing serious, just friends having fun. I try to let the barangay officials know what we’re doing. It’s not just noise. People are not coming to take drugs, set cars on fire, and make a wild ruckus. We’re doing something cultural that you probably won’t hear anywhere else.

Paulo Cortez and Karmi Santiago

Paulo Cortez and Karmi Santiago

We’ve had no security problems inside or outside. No fights. If you come in a stranger, you go out with like twenty friends. I’m trying to get rid of the wi-fi so that people don’t come to talk with each other over the internet. We’re trying to get people to listen and pay attention for once, not just blab to each other and post selfies on social media.

Rick Countryman

Rick Countryman

It’s a great feeling to play and interact with the other players as well as with the people in the audience, from those in the front tables all the way to the last inconspicuous person at the back. You can feel that unexplainable energy. For me, every time people go up onstage it’s astonishing— elating. Again, jazz here in the Philippines isn’t really popular, and being able to play in an intimate setting, it’s really something special. I say, “Intimidation doesn’t exist in my place. Come. I welcome you all.” For the people in the audience who might think they jazz is “hard to understand” I say, “What the heck, it’s music. Jazz is communication without words. You just let your emotions and thoughts flow through you and through your instrument.”



When you play with other people, you’re tossing in an idea, creating a melody and a tempo, something new. If there’s tension, somebody has to give some slack. The interaction is the beauty of jazz. People pitch in and the ideas are like a ball which you throw to other players and the audience. When someone catches it, it burns and so they throw it back, and it builds. It’s all about the emotions of people interacting, sharing a moment of positivity and goodwill with each other.


Ziggy Villonco

Ziggy Villonco

Coming from the South, go North on EDSA. After Camp Crame, the biggest police camp in the Philippines, and after the Boni Serrano flyover, make a U-turn at P. Tuazon. That will put you Southbound on EDSA. At the Petron station, turn right at Main Avenue. You’ll see Tago two blocks away.– Coming from the North, go to EDSA, go South and after the P. Tuazon underpass, turn right at the Petron station, then go straight for two blocks away.

Schedule: We’re open from Tuesdays through Sundays, from 8:00 in the evening until sunup. The players and the music vary every week. We have pop jazz to modern, free jazz to avant garde.

Food and drink: We have comfort food, which is a mixture of Filipino local, Italian, American and Persian cuisine. The drinks are mostly beer, rum, whiskey of course. What’s jazz without whiskey? And soda. Nothing really expensive.

tago-mapLink: Schedule, map, other details are available at;


Korea, Where the Living is Easy

by on Friday, August 15th, 2014

Amy loves to travel. When she was in college she left Seattle during the summers to work in the Alaskan fisheries. After graduation she was in the winter-summer, south-north hospitality circuit—restaurants and bars—to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, to Teton National Park, back to the Caribbean, back to the Tetons, to Key West, Florida for a winter and then a summer in Mt. Rainier. Her life in Korea began with a one-way ticket directly after she earned a certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

We spoke on Skype while she was in Korea and I was in the Philippines. Thanks to Amy for the pictures.


Amy’s story

In August of 2007, I actually came to Korea without a job. Four or five days before I left a recruiter told me I wouldn’t be allowed into the country without a ticket out, so I bought a fully refundable one-way ticket back. When I arrived in Seoul, the public schools had already done their hiring, but I went down to the public school office anyway with my completed application, resume and TESOL certificate. They interviewed me on the spot and called the next day to offer me a job. That weekend I made a visa run to Japan. Training started on Monday. Everything fell into place.

In my TESOL program there was a Korean woman who explained a few things to me about Korean culture. For example, I was expected people to push on the subway, so when it happened my reaction was the opposite of most foreigners, who get annoyed. I giggled to myself because I knew it was going to happen. I felt like a resident already. Also, on the street people’s faces were very stern. In the States it was a lot more common to smile and say hi to strangers, whereas here it definitely was not. Every now and then I would find myself laughing and smiling at somebody, but then I would see they found it confusing. But lately I’ve noticed that more Koreans are smiling at me as a foreigner. They don’t seem to be quite as stoic as in the past. Another thing I noticed right away was little kids were running around on the street without adult supervision. On the subway little kids would be on their own, and there seemed to be nothing strange about it. I was just coming to realize just how safe this country is. Koreans say it’s less safe than before, but it’s still the safest country I’ve ever been in, which seems even stranger in a city of 14 million people.

Once I left a bag of Christmas presents on the subway and didn’t realize until I was halfway up my street. I called my Korean co-teacher, and she translated for the subway station officials. Not only did I get my packages back, they were brought to my local station. If you leave things, they just come back to you.

All the things I find frustrating are my own fault because I haven’t spent the time to learn the language. I just have to smile and put up with it. In a lot of places in Asia, because I have blond hair and blue eyes and am very western in my appearance, I get overcharged for things. So I have to be ready to walk away.

My job at the elementary school was my first kind of professional job. I had great co-teachers and a lot of support. It felt like a really good match for me. I was rated high among the native-speaker teachers in my district. After two years I wanted a break, so I traveled around Central America for five months. Then I was rehired and placed really far north in the country in Nowon, where I worked at an elementary school for two years. In 2011, I won the Seoul Teacher of the Year award, which was really cool because I was nominated by my co-teachers. I started a club with the kids that raised money for UNICEF.

When I was teaching the vocabulary of daily routines, I learned that Korean kids don’t have to make their beds or pack their lunches or do other things American moms expect their kids to do on their own. There are a lot more working parents in the United States although more Korean moms are now going to work than previously. They’re also incredibly involved in their children’s education. Some people would question whether or not it’s a good thing for kids to be in school for 12 hours a day. A lot of parents think the kids need more play time, but pressure still demands that they not act on it. They just can’t afford to let their kids fall behind.

How much time the kids spend in school depends on whether they go to an international school or a public school, whether they go to hagwŏns or have [illegal] private tutoring. There are so many extras that education varies a lot. There is no one path. A kid who goes to an international school gets a different education than a kid who goes to public school plus five hours of hagwŏn a night. It all comes down to these high-stakes tests, the college entrance exams pretty much determine whether you’re going to be a cab driver or a professor. That’s too much pressure to put on a seventeen-year-old kid.

When teachers punish kids they do a lot of yelling and shaming while the kids look down at the floor. During my first year a teacher hit a student in my class with a pointer. He was an older teacher, and it was totally improper for me to tell him never to do that again, but it just came out of me as an instant reflex. I explained to him later, “In my classroom I would feel a lot more comfortable if we didn’t hit the kids.” He kind of laughed it off, but he didn’t do it again. [Hitting students is illegal, but according to current sources still continues, particularly among the older teachers. Or a teacher may smack the desk with a ruler. In respect for the teacher’s age.] Punishments tend to be old-fashioned ones like having to hold your arms up in the air for a long time. Sending disruptive students out of class doesn’t seem to be an option here.

During the regular school year I taught third to sixth grade, then in after-school classes and in English camps and stuff I would teach first and second graders too. It was great. It was like being a rock star because I was really visible as the only foreigner, especially with blue eyes and blond hair. Kids would be screaming at the top of their lungs, “Amy Teacher! Hi, Amy Teacher!” It was always as if they were throwing love in your direction. My energy level was very high during the time I was working in elementary school. With little kids you have to have that energy in order to make it work. I found you also have to act like a clown most of the time, but I am a clown, so it was a perfect fit for my personality.

I went on to a university basically because I got more pay and more vacation time. I have four and a half months of vacation a year, which I love, and I’m paid full-time wages for what is actually a part-time job. The job itself was a new challenge, and I wanted the experience. Tourism English is really a fun subject to teach. I’m teaching flight attendants the customer service and travel skills that I’m already familiar with. They have classes like Image Making, Practical English, Cabin Crew English and Food and Beverage Service. They learn how to make their hair into a perfect bun, how to do a perfect bow and how to smile. My class is like a Business English class focused on tourism. It combines my customer service past with my love of travel. The kids get excited when I get excited, like a symbiotic relationship.

After I got my TESOL certificate, I decided to come here for a year or two. That was in 2007 right after that, in 2008 the housing bubble burst in the States and there weren’t many jobs to go back to. So I was pretty much stuck in East Asia, but it’s not a bad place to get stuck. I paid off all of my debts. I started and completed a master’s program at Troy University on the US Army post in Yongsan, and I paid cash for it in cash. This is an on-the-ground program from an American university, not an online program. I’ve been able to save up a little bit of money beyond that, and I have a job.

Amy with friends at a Buddhist temple

Yes, I came partially for economic reasons, but it was also a new travel experience. I’d traveled to Asia before on vacation, but I’d never lived in here. These days I think people do have different reasons for moving to Asia, or anywhere, really. The world economy has changed, such that people are making quite different decisions based on that. When I came I think the won was 915 won to the dollar, so I was able to pay off some debts pretty quickly. Then later it was 1500 won to the dollar. So I’ve seen both high and low. To be perfectly honest, I think the reason I’ve been here so long is that it’s easy for foreigners to stay. Your housing is provided for you. Living is easy. Food is cheap. Taxes are done for you. You have health insurance. You don’t really need to think about anything. There’s also pension money being put aside for me.

It’s funny because I wish I didn’t like my job. Then I could go home. But the job market at home is bad, and the whole economic climate is really crappy. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do here. I’ve thought of opening a business for Korean students there, but the practicalities of it all are tricky. It’s a big risk. But I really love my job here. I like my students and I like the other professor I work with. It’s a lot of fun, you know?


The Best of Three Worlds, Part 2

by on Friday, July 4th, 2014

Marianne at home

I’ve often heard Filipinos don’t get irony, although people usually seem to get mine. Here Marianne gives some examples of this and more serious cultural differences. Thanks to Marianne for the family photos.

Marianne’s story

Galveston, Texas in 1996

Other than being married to the man I loved, I didn’t think about our marriage until we heard Paul Harvey on the car radio. Harold said. “That’s got to be hard, right? Interracial marriage? I can’t imagine.” Then we realized we were in one. Sure, he adjusted to my culture, and I adjusted to his, but it was nothing I felt I should prepare for.

After we’d been married a few months, we were watching television,and he said, “You’re weird.” It hurt my feelings. A few days I’d heard other guys saying that, and I realized it didn’t really mean anything. It could mean someone was funny. We were in an adjustment period, but I didn’t know it.

We’d been married for a year when we went to his sister’s wedding in Texas. It was a four-day celebration with brunches and a rehearsal dinner.I was going to meet his extended family for the first time. During the reception I was asked to take a picture. It was a nice camera with a zoom lens, but people were too far away. With my Filipino accentI said, “How do I fuckus this thing?” Everyone stared, and no one answered. I looked at HD and said “fuckus” and pointed at the camera. I kept saying it because no one answered me. HD ran over, grabbed the camera and took the picture. He didn’t tell me until four days later when it was all over. If I’d known I would have hidden in the room the whole time.

In Houston to meet his buddies, 1996

In 2004 my parents were watching television with us—this was in Korea—when a preview came on for Lord of the Rings. I said to my mother, “I saw that.” And then I said to HD, “Remember, honey, I went out that Friday night to see it?”

Mom looked at me and said, “What do you mean? You left him?”

“Well, it was Friday night, and he’d just gotten home, I made dinner, I had the kids clean and fed and already in bed so he wouldn’t have to worry about them. I went to the 9:30 show and said I’d be back in two hours.”

“You went to a movie all by yourself?”

In the Philippines that was unheard of, especially if you were female—and you should be home before 9:00. I said, “Mom, it’s okay, it was just for two hours, and I made sure the kids were already asleep.”

HD said dryly, “I know. Who would leave their family for two hours just to watch a movie?”

“Honey, they think you’re serious.”

“Of course I’m serious. What kind of a mother would take a two-hour break from her family?”

Mom was disappointed, and Dad was furious with me. Two days later my sister called from Maryland and said, “What’s going on? Mom is so upset with you.She said HD was even upset.”

“No, HD was joking. Mom and Dad took it literally.”

My sister said she’d said it sounded like HD was joking, but mom had insisted he was serious.

That’s when I said, “Honey, you need to go tell my mom that you were joking.” He didn’t because he was afraid they’d be angry with him too.

In 2007 my parents moved to Texas with us. That was when my dad understood because his American friends at work also used irony. So he apologized to me and said they’d been upset with me for a long time for leaving my children.

Back when we were dating, his parents invited us over for dinner. Then we played Pictionary, a board game where the players have to draw pictures for the others to guess. You take a card which tells you what to draw. Now my husband and I had just seen a movie called About Last Night. I’d seen it in college, but there were some expressions I hadn’t understood, like “a beaver shot.” I had no idea what that meant until HD explained. In the Philippines, a girl’s private parts were called “a flower” and a boy’s “a bird.” This was another example of my being naïve and ignorant in a new culture. I didn’t know a beaver was an animal. I was just happy that I knew the word. I thought I was being wholesome when I drew a back, a butt and a leg with an arrow pointing toward the front. I didn’t think it was bad. His dad thought I meant a tail. HD and I had two different drawings, so no one could guess what the word was. When they finally knew the three of them were on the floor laughing. I laughed too, but I had no idea why.

When I was in high school, every Filipino student was required to do the citizenship army training. We had to tie our hair up like a military person and bring a notebook and pen to take notes. Now, fast-forward to us as newly married and having dinner with his parents, his sister and her new husband. After dinner we played another board game called “Taboo,” where we had to make a list of things that could be in your purse which start with the letter T, like “telephone” and “TicTacs.”If you wrote the same thing as the other players you got a point. I was so proud that I knew this word I’d learned in CAT called a “tickler.” So when I said, “I’ve got a tickler,” everyone started laughing I was trying to be cool about it, but I was thinking, “Oh, no, I did it again.” HD told me, and I said, “No, it means a little notebook.” But it was already too late. I told HD that I needed to check with him when we went to see his family because I didn’t want to embarrass myself anymore.

Father-daughter, mother-son Valentine’s-dance, 2011

Of course there were more serious things. Once when Crystal wasn’t even six years old and Andrew was four, we were on the ranch in Texas, and we took a shortcut past a cemetery. Crystal said, “Mom, my teacher said that’s where the dead people sleep.” A couple of months later they were in the playroom watching Elmo’s World, where there were two characters namedMr. Noodles. One of the actors had died a few months before. When I saw him on the screen, I thought it might be an opportunity to introduce the kids to the concept of death. I said, “Hey, you guys, you know that Mr. Noodles? He’s dead.” They looked at me, and they looked at the TV. They were probably thinking, “No he’s not, he’s right there.” I didn’t know if they understood. I said, “No, guys, he died months ago.” HD called from downstairs, “What are you doing?” Then I worried that I might have traumatized them or something. But looking back, I wonder whether you’re ever too young to learn about death as a part of life.

I’m gradually realizing that I’m a bit more liberated, and that he’s the conservative one. For example, the Filipino culture is okay with homosexuality. My parents were living with us, and we used to watch Filipino shows on cable. One day Andrew said, “Mom, there was a boy who was dressed up as a girl. Lolo [grandfather] said he was actually a boy but he is gay.” I was okay with that.  I don’t remember anybody hiding anything in high school or pretending to be other than themselves. We knew who was gay. We didn’t even have to talk about it. There were boys, girls and gays.

Yeah, Thai culture accepts a “third gender” too.

Really? When Andrew was in kindergarten his teacher commented in his behavior folder that he got in trouble because he wouldn’t stop kissing a boy. He was five! I laughed about it. I remembered my cousins holding hands. It didn’t mean anything. I didn’t think Andrew was gay, but if he was it didn’t matter. HD was upset. He said, “This is a small town.” His response was an eye-opener for me, and I knew we had a problem. Thank God I was able to ask the teacher which boy Andrew kept kissing. I knew his mother, and I said, “Ellen, did Brad say anything the other day about Andrew kissing him in class? Does it bother you that my son is kissing your son?”

“No, I’ve got two sons. They kiss each other all the time.” I was so relieved, and explained everything. She started laughing and said, “That’s how you can tell?” She was grateful that I’d approached her about it, but she was laughing at the same time.

Crystal is now fourteen. HD and I have talked about whether the kids should be allowed to date at an early age. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was eighteen, and I knew there was no hiding or pretending, even with the guys I liked who wanted to date me. In those days in the Philippines dating was preceded by courting. The boy had to visit you and court you and give you flowers and show you that he was interested. Yes, and sing serenades.

My Tagalog language textbook talks about that. 

Yeah? Harana? I was never serenaded because I always refused, but my sister was. After you’re courted you say, “Okay, you can be my boyfriend.” You can’t date anyone else. My relatives still do things the old-fashioned way, but they live in Davao, in the provinces, which are conservative compared with Manila. HD is strict with Crystal, but says it’s okay for Andrew. I don’t want a teen pregnancy, but I also don’t like the double standard. In my household it was equal for both sexes. If the Ate [older sister] couldn’t date, neither could the two younger siblings. My sister started dating when she turned eighteen, but I took my time.

In the Philippines everyone always stated that I was shorter than average. I’m four feet, eight and a half inches, and that one-half is important to me. My height was one of the causes of my insecurity. When I tried to get a job after graduating from college, they measured me, and I was rejected because I was under five feet tall. You had to be between 21 and 27 years old, and they loved that I was part Chinese. I began to think I didn’t want to work in the Philippines after all. When I got to Korea and started hanging out with HD and our friends, my height became more of an asset than a liability. Or no one cared.

Thanksgiving 2010

A lot of Filipinos have told me they lived in the States and couldn’t wait to get out. They just wanted to save money and go back to the Philippines. I was the other way around. Why would you want to leave? I loved the respect of personal space, the big parking spaces, the customer service and the convenience. In the US, I never felt discriminated against. I never had a problem finding work in the States. I’d go out and find a job in a couple of weeks. HD was a good coach on how to do job interviews.

I know. He did workshops on job interviewing for my students. He even hired one or two of them.

He always guided me well when it came to work and business. When he started a new company I was helping for a while. I looked at their contract documents I noticed, “There’s IT guys, doctors, security guards, and other various professionals. What is it you do?” So he explained. I said, “Why can’t I do that?” his reply, “Of course you can but you’ve got to take some classes.” I hated going to those long classes, but I showed my face every time and made connections with the right people at the Small Business Administration in San Antonio. I talked to newcomers and to people who’d been in the business for years. They all said “don’t stop coming.”  In 2007 I started my company, Program Support Associates, which provided support for businesses working for the US government.  It took several years but I finally won my first contract and I was in heaven.  My company grew from six to eleven employees almost immediately, and eventually all the way up to forty-five employees. I loved working at home and also being able to be a mom and do volunteer work at school. I loved being part of the community. I also loved the income.  Then of course my husband announced that we were going back to Korea. I haven’t been able to get a contract from here but I haven’t stopped thinking about the possibilities for the future.

At the Asian Festival in San Antonio

So yes, it was a sacrifice leaving the States. We had a big house in a top-notch neighborhood, and I drove a fancy SUV, paid for by my company. I’m proud of how hard we worked. The kids were in a school where I knew everybody, and they were happy. Why would I come back to Korea? I didn’t know whether I could come back after an absence of seven years. Being jostled or bumped into on the street doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t mean people did it on purpose. But with my children I get protective. We’d just gotten back and were on the street when someone ran into Andrew. I hugged him and yelled, “Watch it, lady.” She couldn’t even understand, but I was ready for a confrontation. Three or four months later I had readjusted. Korea will always be part of our lives.

HD made sacrifices too. I had to accept that it was time for him to be part of the family business; it’s what he had been groomed for the last 20 years. Maybe that’s the Asian part of me that believes it’s the oldest son or the oldest child who takes over the company. Did I make sacrifices? Absolutely. Do I miss the States? A lot. When people ask me where I come from I get confused because in my heart I’m from Texas. That’s where my family is now, and that’s where I am from.

When I was a child, life in Korea was very fancy compared to where I came from, but I loved the Philippines because it made me who I am. My sister used to say,“I think you were already a mother when you were born.” She said I was a mother figure in our family because our parents weren’t around all the time—although my aunts were always there for us. I was very maternal when I had my own kids, and I didn’t have a hard time having babies. To this day, I sometimes call my daughter by my sister’s name, Margarette, and my son by my brother’ name. When I talk to my siblings, I call them Crystal or Andrew.

I know it’s said you have to be away from your own country to see it. I feel liberated. I like the Filipino respect for elders. I still make sure that my kids get that and dinners where the family eats at the table together. I know HD found some of my ideas shocking, but he’s embraced them too. He always said, “Let’s take the good stuff and leave the ones that don’t work for us.”

A later post will be a photo essay of the Doughertys’ Black and White Party in Davao, celebrating their seventeenth anniversary and also Marianne’s extended family.


The Best of Three Worlds, Part 1

by on Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Marianne Dougherty

In May 2014, while I was visiting her in Korea, my friend Marianne and I sat down to talk about her intercultural experience. Thanks to Marianne for the family photos.

Marianne’s story

Marianne and Mommy Gloria

I’m proud that I was born and raised in the Philippines. I was—and still am—a fun-loving kid, running around barefoot, jumping into dirty fish ponds and climbing trees. Because my parents chose to work outside the country so they could feed their family back home, I also got to live overseas. When I was a child I was in the care of one aunt, while two other aunts took care of my younger sister and brother. Then at the age of thirty-one my mother’s younger sister got married, and she and her new husband had all three of us—an eleven-year-old girl, an eight-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy. I didn’t realize how difficult that must have been for a newly-married couple because I was very comfortable with the arrangement. I called my aunt Mommy.

When I was eight I came to Korea for the first time and lived in the five-star hotel where my parents were working. Over the years they worked at the Hyatt in Seoul and Cheju-do, the Chosun Beach Hotel in Pusan, and the Ramada Renassaince Hotel in Seoul. They were featured in newspapers every Sunday. My mother was a singer, and my father was her pianist. For years I wrote school essays about our time here. Everything was so luxurious I felt like I was one of the Hilton kids. I could use the pool anytime or eat in any of the restaurants. The staff looked after me. They were fabulous. I came back again when I was sixteen. At eighteen I came over for six months to work, but actually I just wanted a break from school. Then I went back to college.

Andrew Bajao and Lydia Josol at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Seoul. Yes, married.

I graduated in March of 1995. After that I came to Korea and worked as a singer in Sadang and Uijangbu. I had a very good opportunity to work at the Hilton. At the audition everyone said I could sing, but I was still very young. I was 22. They wanted me to go around the bar, sit down and drink with the customers. I didn’t drink, I didn’t want to talk to customers, and I was uptight. I thought, “I’m a singer, not a bar girl.” I smiled, but I didn’t agree, so I didn’t get the job. My parents eventually learned how to interact with the customers, but since they were partners my mom could rely on my dad, whereas my partner was sixty years old, and he didn’t understand why I was so uncomfortable talking to the customers. He was a sweet man, but he didn’t want any complications. The club at Sadang was my favorite because the owners just wanted me to stand on the stage and sing whatever songs the customers wanted. I felt comfortable there. I sang from November through April.

By May my mom was setting me up for new jobs. I kept saying. “Mom, I don’t want to be a singer forever. I’m using this as a stepping stone. I want a normal 9-to-5 job where can maybe hang out with my friends after work.” The problem with being a singer was I slept all day because I worked from five in the afternoon to midnight or one o’clock, then went home and had dinner with my family at two. We talked until four and then went to sleep. My parents were fine with it because they had each other. My sister was only eighteen, and she was content with that lifestyle.

Marguarette, Marianne and Stephen on a cold day in Korea

Now, I want to make sure I say that without my parents I wouldn’t have had the chance to work abroad. Usually this isn’t easy because you’re away from your family, but my family was with me in Korea, which I always considered my second home. I insisted on having the life I wanted. “Mom, I know what I want. I want to work in an office.”

I had finished a degree in business administration with a major in management. I didn’t take marketing because I hate field work and sales, and I didn’t do accounting because I knew I didn’t have the discipline to study for the board exam after graduation. I chose my major because my parents had tried so hard to run a business in the Philippines and they always failed. They had capital but could never follow up. They couldn’t see the big picture, so there was no long-term success. Also, because they were always out of the country, apart from relatives they didn’t have the connections. For a while they had a student canteen in Davao City where the high school kids would come and eat. They sold school supplies. My mom did money-lending, but some people didn’t pay. The borrowers were all people she thought she knew, so there was no background check. I know she’s done other things, but those are the ones I remember. So I thought that with my parents’ capital and with my formal education—this is how confident I was—some day we could have a proper business together. I enjoyed doing volunteer work at the university. I loved paperwork. I got high looking at the files I got to work on. [Laugh.] I knew you were going to roll your eyes at that.

Lydia at the Hyatt in Cheju-do

Mom was working at the Seoul Club. She would tell people, usually Koreans, that her daughter was looking for a job and arrange for me to meet them.

Yeah, Koreans feel they have to get to know someone first before doing business with them, even for something like editing, which doesn’t require face-to-face interaction.

We could meet for coffee, not a formal interview. It was just to meet me. There was never a follow-up.  This was fine with me because when I asked about the job it was never something I was interested in.

One day my mom said, “This is the last time. I promise you. I won’t set you up anymore.Just meet this guy. He’s looking for an administrative assistant, preferably Filipino because the office is full of Filipinos.”

They told us to meet them at a place in the Dongdaemun area at one-thirty. I assumed it was another coffee time. I had an audition at ten in Apkujong-dong. The club people had told me to come dressed as if I were going to sing. So at ten in the morning I had big hair and makeup, jeans and a sexy top I covered up with a black blazer. I took the subway. I said, “Mom, I’ll meet you and Dad in Dongdaemun around 1 o’clock, hopefully 12:30.” I thought I looked presentable enough. Again, this is being immature and young and inexperienced. I was also delighted that I had gotten the singing job. After I met my parents we couldn’t find the place.

I had trouble finding that place too, and I lived in the area.It’s not on any map.

That was before cell phones, so we had to use a public phone to call and ask for directions again, and I realized I was talking to an American. We finally saw the location, I looked at the guards, and I said, “Mom, this is a US military base.” No one knows there’s a base there.

“It is?”

“What do you know about this company?”

When they signed us in, I realized it was a job interview. Then I met Mr. Dougherty. He said, “Are you ready? Would you like your parents to be in the office during the interview?”

I said yes and then no. When we sat down in his office, I said, “First of all, I want to apologize for the way I look. My mom did not give me proper information about today. All she said was meet somebody for a possible job. I didn’t know this was a job interview. Otherwise, I would have dressed properly and brought a resume. And I wouldn’t have brought my parents with me.”

Back on a Filipino beach with cousins

A week later he called me to say I had the job. That was May 6, 1996. I worked there for two weeks, and then I had to go home in order to change from a concert visa to a consultancy visa. When I got back to the office, they said,“HD’s coming back.” I said, “What’s an HD?” Oh, Mr. Dougherty’s son, Harold Dougherty.  He’s going to be the manager for the admin assistants.”

“What about Mr. Gates?” It made me feel sad because we loved Mr. Gates.

I met HD on June 17, 1996. I thought he was cute. But my mom told me not to encourage that feeling. I didn’t want to get fired. I was picturing the Doughertys as very formal, with classical music in the background, and they were just the opposite.

During the first three months I thought HD hated my job performance. He was always nice to the other girls and very relaxed, but with me he was firm, and he’d use a very flat, monotonous voice. “I need you to make a copy of this.” “I need to make sure that you get the messages from…” This was before the internet, so I had to go from building to building checking the in-boxes to see if anything had come from the company’s clients. At the company picnic I knew something was up because he kept talking to me. That was a Saturday. Monday he asked me to his office.

He started out by saying, “This is not something I do all the time, and I don’t like doing this.”

I thought I was getting fired. All I could think was, “What am I going to do?” To be a singer in Korea you had to have a promoter, and I’d already told my agency I didn’t need my contract renewed.  He kept going on and on, and then I heard, “I’d like to know you on a more personal basis.”

“Wait, what are you trying to say?”

He backed up a little bit and said, “I’m asking you out on a date.”

I was so relieved I had my job that my eyes got teary. “I thought you were going to fire me.”

“No, you’re doing a great job. Why would I want to fire you?”

I was just so happy I didn’t even think about answering him. Then he said, “I think you should say no, and I would totally understand if you said no, and I think it’s probably smart if you say no.”

“Do you want me to say no?”


I asked if I could think about it first because I didn’t know what the rules were about dating someone inside the company, but especially dating my immediate superior. “I don’t want to get fired.” It didn’t help when he said, “Oh, I don’t want to get fired either.”

That was in September. About two weeks later I accepted because a male friend called at the office, HD answered the phone and gave me a message, and I didn’t want him to think I was dating the guy who called. We had our first date September 11. On our third date on September 29, it got serious. In December he asked me to go to the States for Christmas. I asked Mom, “Is this okay? I’ll be staying at Mr. and Mrs. Dougherty’s house.”

“Sure. I could never take you to the States. Just make sure you stay at Mr. Dougherty’s house.” So I did. March 18 we got engaged, and we got married on June 17, 1997, exactly a year after he arrived in Korea. We realized that when we were applying for our marriage license.

Small wedding reception in Seoul

Trying to get our documents finalized at the US Embassy was a nightmare. It took three days. They would never tell you in advance what documents you needed. You’d submit your documents, and they’d say, “Where’s your 100-dash-something?”

“We need that?”


When you went back you’d need another document. They would never tell you. Nowadays you can get all that stuff online. When we had all the documents, they said, “You need witnesses.” We were just going to pick anybody at the embassy. But they said, no we needed witnesses who had official Korean signature stamps, chops. Thank God our driver, Mr. Shin, was waiting. He said at the back there were some guys who had their chops with them who would be willing to be witnesses for 30,000 won [$30]. They weren’t allowed to go into the embassy. They just stamped the document outside. By the time we got back to the office it had closed at three o’clock. When we went back on the third day, we were number 89. We assumed there would be another document we would have to get, but the official started stamping our paperwork. We looked at each other, raised our right hands and said we solemnly swore that this was the truth….

The official said, “Congratulations. — Number 90?”

That was it. We kissed and went back to work. We never had a real wedding, but I wouldn’t change that experience for anything. We didn’t even have a honeymoon until the next year when we went to the wedding of my sister-in-law.

A later post will be a photo essay of the Doughertys’ Black and White Party in Davao, celebrating their seventeenth anniversary and also Marianne’s extended family.



A Teacher in Rural Thailand

by on Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Charlie with a student at Phanatpittayakam School

Charlie identifies himself as a semi-retired writer, actor, and educator from Watsonville, California. We talked on Skype while he was in his beach house in Ban Na Jomtian, Chonburi, Thailand, and I was in the Philippines. Charlie also provided the pictures.

Charlie’s story

Charles and Celeste DeWald

In 1994, I was hired to teach English in a language school in Seoul, South Korea.  While I was teaching there, I brought my daughter to Asia and we toured Korea and traveled to Thailand.  I fell in love with the Thai culture, the climate, the cost of living, and, most of all, the friendliness of the people. I continued to travel to Thailand many times and I finally married a Thai woman who now lives in the US. I started learning Thai and mixing more with the people, who believe in mai pen rai, meaning “don’t worry, be happy.” I discovered that the Thais are, for the most part, playful, funny, and always joking.  Even though I eventually moved to California to teach, I still maintained a relationship with the Thai people and culture.

Five years ago, I decided to retire in Thailand.  I happened upon this very cheap apartment in Jomtien, a small beach community about 10 miles south of the big tourist city of Pattaya. I got on a bus, paid ten baht, and got off at the end of the line. Amongst some highly priced condominiums, in a little tropical jungle, was an older apartment building, mostly occupied by Thai people.  An apartment was available for $120 a month. This old building has problems, like the water pressure can be so low that water sometimes doesn’t make it up to the second floor. But I have a balcony and an ocean view.

In my opinion, the Thais have a sharing culture. They call themselves “sisters” and “brothers.”  Thai sharing even includes sharing the road while driving, like salmon swimming upstream, or sometimes downstream, or any direction.  You can even experience Thai drivers going the opposite way backwards, which can surprise you.  But everyone seems to make room and accept it. Once I was driving on a two-lane road in the country with my Thai wife, and a car was coming toward me, passing another car, in my lane. I said, “God, what should I do?” and my wife said. “Pull over and let him pass.” The simple reality had eluded me—just let them come through. But people don’t always pay attention to what they’re doing and expect people to move over when they don’t, and there can be a lot of accidents. If there’s an auto accident, they’ll wait for the police to come, who then fill out a report, wait for the insurance companies, and then politely say, in the Thai way, “Okay that’s settled. We’ll take care of it and make it right.”

In Thailand there are three distinct cultures: the urban areas in Bangkok and other large cities with their diversity, the rural areas with a quite simple agricultural life, and the tourist areas. This simplicity has led to a lot of political conflicts, unfortunately.  After I lived here for a year or so, I was asked to teach out in a rural town of about 10,000 people where everybody knows everybody. I have an apartment there, and on weekends and holidays and time off, I come down to my beach apartment. It works out all right.  If I want to see some quality entertainment, I can easily go up to the cosmopolitan capital city of Bangkok, and see, for example, musicians like Santana or Eric Clapton, who recently played there.

Chonburi Province

Since this is a Buddhist country, every morning at school we have a large ceremony.  We sing the national anthem as the flag is being raised.  The schoolchildren sing over a loud speaker, leading all three thousand students, and the flag-raising is often accompanied by a brass marching band. Then the children are led in reciting musical Buddhist chants.  After that, we turn toward Bangkok, and the children again sing and praise the King. At eight o’clock in the morning and at six o’clock at night, even in Bangkok, you’re supposed to stop and listen to the national anthem for a couple of minutes and praise the country and the King, who’s an impartial moral compass for the country. He’s a wonderful man but very ill most of the time now. He’s the oldest and longest ruling monarch in the world and also the richest. He has great respect from the people, and from all I’ve read about him he’s very learned, intelligent, knowledgeable, and, above all, benevolent.  It is actually a crime to say anything derogatory about the King in Thailand.

In the rural area where I teach, I’m a bit of an oddity. There are only two other foreigners living there that I know about. One teaches in the elementary school, and the other at the college down the road. I’ve been working at the school for three years. The area is so rural that at night the final bus goes to the nearest metropolis at seven o’clock. Miss that bus and you’ll be in town for the night. Unlike the tourist area—where you see a lot of diverse people of all ages and nationalities—around the rural town of Phanat Nikhom, you see real old people, many who’ve lived their whole lives there. A lot of townspeople are lucky if they make it to Bangkok, which is a big trip for them. So is going to the beach. Most of the kids in my classes have never been to any of the tourist destinations, and I’ve been all over Thailand. In my school, I’ve rarely spoken with any student who’s been outside of Thailand or traveled very far within Thailand itself.  It’s mostly an agricultural community.

The school is a junior and senior high school, so the students are twelve to eighteen years old. Our classes have about fifty students each. I teach all of the seniors, quite a few of the juniors, and special classes for the lower grades. The foreign teachers are strictly for English conversation—just listening and speaking. I have the seniors because of my background at the University of California, where I taught special international student groups and various tests like the TOFEL, the GED test, the TOIC and the IUC. I was hired to prepare students for the conversation part of the General Aptitude Test, which is a required test for admission to a college in Thailand. It’s a written dialogue with missing words or phrases that students have to fill in, followed by comprehension questions. I also prepare them for the English interview for college admission. We do a lot of conversation skills and one-on-one interviews. Since this is in a rural community, there’s no air-conditioner, and when you come out of the classroom you’re soaking wet.

It’s really a family school. A lot of the teachers went to school there and have children in school there today. Funding comes partly from the government and partly from the parents. I give tests and quizzes and assignments. About 90% of the students will turn in an assignment. Everybody gets a passing grade, even if they fail the mid-term. If the students fail I give them a project connected with the material we studied. If they do that, then I give them a passing score. If they don’t, we work out something. Sometimes you go to class and nobody’s there. They’ll just decide to take the afternoon off. The senior class has a lot of extracurricular activities, and the students don’t always tell me. It screws up my lesson plans, but that happens.

The kids can be absolutely wonderful. When I walk in, the class leader says, “Stand up, please,” and they all stand up and bow and say, “Good morning, teacher,” They wait until I tell them to sit down. Of course I get friendly and joke with the students, because I’m that kind of guy. At the end of class they stand up and bow and say “Goodbye, teacher. See you again next time.” I love the students, even the ones who are less willing to learn and want to be the class clowns. I earned their respect with my classroom management skills. Foreign teachers at the school who are new to teaching don’t always have those skills, so I have shown some of the newer teachers some techniques, like just walking over and standing behind the kids. That’s intimidation enough. Corporal punishment is allowed but not especially brutal.  I remember being slapped with a paddle in grade school when I was growing up in the US.

The Thai government informally recognizes “a third gender” in Thailand. Almost all of my classes have a few lady-boys, and they’re completely accepted. The “third gender” includes gays, lady-boys and trans-genders. On the women’s side, there are “tomboys” who have girlfriends. When I do personal interviews, the students sometimes share that information with me because they have come to trust me even though I’m an outsider. There are very few boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, not because it’s discouraged, but because most of these kids take all of their classes together for four and five years. When I bring students up front for a demonstration, I deliberately try to match up people who are going to create quite a stir. This cross-matching always brings a laugh to the class when I ask the boy if he likes the girl, for example.  When I interact with one of the lady-boys, they’ll often ask, “Charlie, am I beautiful?” And I reply, “Yes, you’re beautiful.” Then they giggle and laugh and tell me, “Oh, I love you.” And I respond in kind, saying, “I love you too.”  These lady-boys are fabulous performers. Once every two months certain classes are picked out to put together some very creative performances that are just amazing. The school also has sports days where they divide up into classes and colors. As the kids are competing in track and field events, the others have rooting sections under a huge banner, all trying to outdo and out-yell each other.  The kids become exhausted after a few hours, they rest, and then start up all over again.

Sports Day

Here women seem to have a role equal to men. There’s a lot of gossip, but very little violence or male dominance. There are certainly men who will take advantage of women, but there’s a great deal of understanding between men and women. Both men and women are very physical with each other. I have yet to figure out quite how they interrelate. The fact that a Thai man, the Boy Scouts of Thailand troop leader, accepted me as a friend was considered exceptional. He had never befriended a foreign teacher before me.  I can’t quite figure out the male bonding. In Korea it was quite obvious, but here men communicate very differently, and they also communicate with women differently.

I’m going to generalize that there aren’t a lot of professional teachers outside of Bangkok. Usually an English teacher is here for the experience of being in a foreign country, and sometimes they’re just grabbed up by a recruiting agency. Most of the agencies are fly-by- night outfits which don’t always pay the teachers. You enter into a contract where you have to have a work permit, but often you don’t get it until the end of the term, when you’ve got to start all over. The visa situation is very fluid. A little while ago if you went across the border and came back with a tourist visa you’d get to stay two weeks. Now they moved it back to thirty days. There are foreigners who’ve lived here for twenty years and have never crossed the border, but they’re a big exception.

The average pay for a teacher in Thailand is about a thousand dollars a month, which is why most of the foreigners are just here for the experience. Also, a lot of the foreign teachers tend to drink a lot and sometimes don’t show up for work half the time. One guy I worked with was wanted by Interpol, with a warrant back in Sweden or someplace. He was a heavy drinker, but he would show up for work 90% of the time, and he wasn’t a bad teacher. He was funny, and the kids liked him. It was a shock when he was arrested, but you get a lot of that here.  Thailand is full of oddball foreigners.  The Thais welcome them, as they do all “falangs.”  It is a part of their tradition and history.  The real teachers in Thailand are often married to Thai women, and have children and live here full-time. They’ve made a commitment to the country. I came in kind of through the back door because at almost 69 years of age I’m at the end of my teaching career. I was just planning on working part-time.  But I gladly accepted.

I’m a disabled vet from the Vietnam era, although I never went to Vietnam.  From the US government, I receive social security and a little disability check, which amounts to about $1200 a month. I could never live in the US on that, but here it’s very easy, even if I didn’t work.  For thirty cents I can get around on a bus which will take me ten miles or more. For sixty cents I can take a motorbike taxi almost anyplace. I can eat for less than $3 to $5 a day. The tourist area also has Starbucks, Burger King, McDonald’s, Sizzler’s, Pizza Company, Korean buffets, and Chinese and Japanese restaurants. That’s another reason that I come back to my home on the beach on the weekends.  You can’t get that kind of food in a rural town, not that I eat at those places very much.

I got into a motorcycle accident about ten months ago. I was taken to a private hospital just five minutes away. I didn’t have any insurance here in Thailand.  The doctors there said I had a punctured lung, and even if I couldn’t pay they were obligated to save my life. After I notified the school, my two head teachers came out on a Sunday night to escort me to a big public ICU ward in a government hospital that was ten times cheaper. They were like angels—they took care of everything.  They took up a collection at the school—the students, the staff and the teachers. The school covered everything else and let me pay the rest of the bill off throughout the year. I said, “Thank you for what you’ve done for me,” and they said, “Well, Charlie, you’re family, and family takes care of family.” I’m indebted to them for saving my life, at least my financial life. If I’d stayed in that private hospital, the total bill would have been $40,000 instead of $4,000 or $5,000, and I wouldn’t have been able to pay. Other people also came to visit—friends, some Thai relatives, my girlfriend and other people from the school. When I had no visitors and the Thai families who had relatives in the hospital saw I couldn’t get out of bed or I couldn’t reach the urine bottle, they would come over and help me. The food was the same thing every meal—a bowl of rice and a fish and some kind of a vegetable. Your family was supposed to take care of you there, no private care. When I got out of the hospital, I slept in a chair with a pillow for almost two months because I couldn’t lie down.  At my age, it naturally takes longer to heal.  I’m still broken in a lot of places.

Insurance for foreigners is a big problem here in Thailand.  It’s also sometimes difficult to communicate with the Thai doctors, because of the language and differences in culture.  A doctor out in the countryside at this little government hospital said, “Charlie, we’re not going to operate on your clavicle even though it’s deformed, because we are Thai and we do it the Thai way.  We live with our deformities.”

The Thai government is talking about making it mandatory for full-time residents to have catastrophic insurance, but they haven’t quite figured out how to do it.  I know several people who have ended up in the hospital, some able to pay, and some not. A tourist might sneak out in the middle of the night, go to the airport and leave the country. That happens more often than you might think.

In the States, my Thai wife has a wonderful job, lives in a wonderful place and drives a new car. She wants me to stay there with her there, but I decided to retire in Thailand.  I was hoping she would follow me back to her homeland, but she chose a different path.  International marriages are difficult that way.  There is an age difference and certainly a cultural difference, so we’re at an impasse.  I have a girlfriend here who would like to have the legal status and the ring. In this culture, if everyone agrees you’re allowed to have two wives, only one legal one, of course. Both my girlfriend and my wife know about each other. They have talked on the phone and are friends on Facebook. Although, at the moment, it looks like my Thai wife in America has decided to get a divorce.  I support her in her decision and help her with her life in the States, as she helps me with things I need to have done, such as sending me my mail. We are the best of friends.

In spite of some very difficult medical situations, I thank God every day for just another day of life. I’ve got plenty of wonderful things going on with my family and my beautiful grandchildren, who I visit every six months or so in the US. I have a very full life. Everything is okay. I love my job, I love the people I work with, and I love the kids.  Most of all, I love living in Thailand.  And I think Thai people like me living here as well.





















The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Part 2

by on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

After Benjie’s mother hands her an apple, a little girl touches the back of his mother’s hand to her forehead as a gesture of respect. The sign in the back reads, :”Free food for the hungry, free drink for the thirsty.”

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

Benjie with one of the soup kitchen children

In 2012 when I was walking home from my job at the call center I saw two kids eating fried chicken from the dumpster. I thought to myself that if I just felt sorry for them and went on, that would be the end of it. Pity them and go on. I decided to set up a soup kitchen. I started it with my younger daughter and my niece. We set up a small table on the street corner and twelve people showed up. We served scrambled eggs and rice. It grew into a larger activity because people supported me, and I operated three times every week. So that’s about it.

What about your friendship with the squatters?

Okay, you’re talking about the squatters in Makati. First, I have a friend who’s influential, not because he’s rich but because he has many friends. He’s a policeman who did dirty work for the Marcos government and the Cory transition. He was supplying me with drugs, but he was giving them to me for free. His sons were also policemen, and they were saying, “Dad, we’re not in the business of giving that boy drugs.” Actually, he was not selling drugs but just giving them to me. He was about thirty or forty years my senior. He brought me to his friends. Most of them were from a poor neighborhood. I think they were his assets. In solving crimes they need those kinds of people.

Oh, you mean informers.

Yes. When I went to the policeman’s safe house, I met a man from the forest of Montalban. We became friends. Through him I later met Jose, the guy you met from Makati. So that was the beginning of the friendship. I was his friend because he was a friend of my friend. During the times I was quite well off, I brought them clothes, food or building materials.

This was before your father got sick.

Yes. The people we met were from the boondocks. The guy from Makati and I, we’d bring them to basketball games. Poor people really appreciate that. They never thought that one day they’d be watching live professional basketball games ( PBA)  inside the Areneta Coliseum. We had four or five people, but I also had friends guarding the gates. I could bring in five, ten people at a time without paying. They knew I was bringing in people from the poor. Sometimes rebels from the New People’s Army, not because they were rebels but because I knew they are from the mountains. They appreciated it because they’d been so isolated in the mountains. They didn’t know what a mall looked liked. They’d had no opportunity to watch basketball games.

I also have friends who are military rebel soldiers. During Cory’s time there were rebellions, as you can see on the internet about the Reformed Armed Forces Movement [which was instrumental in the destabilization of presidencies of Ferdinand Marcos and Cory Aquino.] After the failed coup attempt against Corazon Aquino, they were holed up in the Amoranto Sports Complex in Quezon City. They had no food. One of them was my friend, so I brought them food.

Eventually these rebel soldiers left. Some of them are now in government, while others are in prison. They are among my connections because I fed them. So the reason I have no qualms when my children go out, besides the protection of my higher power, is I think no one would dare put a hand on my children because I have friends all over. I have friends from heaven and friends from hell. I’m connected with military right-wing soldiers and leftist rebels. When we were still rich, when I had birthday parties, the guests would be rebel soldiers, soldiers, communist rebels and then ex-convicts and policemen. They would all be sitting at the same table, drinking. They won’t be arguing. They would just be celebrating because it was my birthday. It was just like I was a safe pass. I brought policemen to the rebel-infested mountains for a holiday. It was okay. I brought communist rebels down here to enjoy the city. It was okay. That was me way back then. It seems improbable, but I was able to do that. One of my friends told you I let my children stay with them in the squatters’ area for two and a half days.

Benjie opens a box of goodies from abroad

Explain why you decided to do that.

It was in the early 1990s. We were still financially well-off. I was in the early stages of my marriage. I had two young children, probably age four and five, and I noticed they seemed to be aloof with poor people. There was prejudice. I also saw that with my wife. I’m not saying they were bad, but they’d always been in a rich environment with rich people. I thought they were beginning to think they were better than the poor.

It’s certainly a very common failing.

Yes. They didn’t know I had friends with the poor—or at least how deep my friendships were. So I told my wife and that we were going on vacation and they should pack up their things for two days and two nights. They were happy to do as I said. Then I brought them to Makati to this depressed area. I left them with those people for two and a half days. They had to experience it firsthand. If I’d been there they would have been clinging to me and asking me to ask people to do things for them. So they had to experience firsthand drinking coffee that’s so weak it looks like tea. They were able to share a room the size of our bathroom with six or seven people. So it turned out good for me and for them. They began to appreciate that it’s better to see poor people as just the same as rich people. These people are really appreciative. They don’t ask for anything. Most of the time, it’s the poor who are more charitable, more kind. They will give you everything they have. So that was probably the start of my family’s relationship with the poor.

Now my two older children are grown up, when they go to Makati these people are very fond of my kids. One is an engineer and one is working with Philippine Airlines. I think my wife and I raised them properly because we taught them how to love, which I think is very rare now that people are being taught to love themselves. I taught my family to love others. So that’s it.

Why don’t you talk a little bit about the soup kitchen?

Girls at the soup kitchen

I started the soup kitchen on May 5, 2012. During one of the typhoons, I think it was 2011, a northern part of Luzon in Bulacan was under water. I saw that in the news. They really needed relief goods like fresh water and food that was already cooked. I didn’t buy mineral water because it was too expensive. I took empty soft drink bottles and filled them with boiled water. I’m not rich but I wanted to help. My younger daughter and I cooked some noodles and packed them up. Then we brought the stuff to Bulacan with the help of some soldiers who were there to keep discipline. So that was the first major act of charity.

When I got home my Facebook friends asked about it. They asked me to post some pictures. So I did. They saw the pictures and asked when I was going back because they wanted to make donations. I told them I’d go back if they sent some money. They sent about 10,000 pesos, and I went back with rice and canned goods. After that other people said if I needed help they’d send some.

Then sometime in April 2012, when I saw those kids eating  from a dumpster, I decided to start a soup kitchen. First it was once a week. I had money left over, so I made it three times a week. Now that it’s three times a week there’s money coming from friends, but we can’t rely on that forever. Some will break off, some will need money themselves, and some may lose trust in me. For whatever reasons there won’t be regular supporters. Right now it’s not more than four or five people, and they don’t give enough to maintain a soup kitchen three times a week. I’m not complaining. I’ll do my best to maintain it. I’m thankful. Because I’m not soliciting from anybody, most of the time I have to use my own finances. But it’s okay. After all, it was my pledge to God.

I was also able to bring school supplies to three or four public schools. For the almost two years the soup kitchen has been running, I was able to give about 200-400 slippers and school supplies. I went to Montalban, so far that we had to walk for an hour just to bring school supplies.

This work is very supportive of my spirit although it’s very taxing to my finances. But it’s okay. I’m still surviving. I’m not doing this because I want to show off but because of my pledge, which came from gratitude to my higher power. And I’m grateful for my family.

Now why don’t you talk some about the interaction between you and the people who come to the soup kitchen?

Guys goofing off after dinner

In setting up a soup kitchen, you really have to be patient. You really have to be more than a psychologist. All of these people are outcasts. Most of them have personal and behavioral problems, probably because they’re outcasts. Maybe 70% of the people I feed have families, but they’re sleeping on the streets because they can’t get along with them. All I can do now is feed them. I also tried to give them an opportunity to earn money, but they have a different outlook in life. Very seldom do I see a sense of responsibility. They just want dole-outs. So I make it a point not to give them money.

Some people tell me that feeding them just keeps them asking me for food. It’s like I’m encouraging them to be beggars. Well, I just want to feed them. Some of them also go to our house when there’s no feeding. They come to our house, knock at our gate, and if I have extra food I cook for them. Food is for everyone.

I’ve heard that in other soup kitchens there’s a big free-for-all and everybody grabbing food. Can you explain what you do to keep discipline and make people stand in line with nobody eating until after the prayer?

Waiting for dinner

To instill discipline in street people you really have to be tough inside. That’s was the first thing I had to consider before I set it up. Some of these people are convicts. Some have broken the law but haven’t been caught yet. The law they follow is the law of the streets, survival of the fittest. During the first month I had to psych them out. I had to show I’m the alpha male but not belittle them. I knew I had to instill discipline.

You know I stood in front of a classroom for 37 years, right?

(Laugh) Eventually they learned. It might seem I was exerting control for my own ego, but I was doing it for them. Otherwise it would have been impossible. Every now and then, new people come, like someone who just got out of jail and wants to show off. I have to show them that I’m willing to rough it up with them, but with my higher power I’m able to control them. In other soup kitchens, once the food is laid out people just lunge at the food, breaking the table and sending the food flying all over. But I made a point of saying that without discipline I’d put a stop to it. I made it clear that actually they’re not following my orders. “If you think of it this way I am your slave. I cook for you. I wash the dishes for you. I do the marketing for you. What I’m asking of you is that you help me keep this orderly.”

So that’s it. There’s been only one fight, and that was because of another incident. This was before food was served, and I was able to separate them. They probably saw that I wasn’t joking and that I could enforce what I said.

Thomas’s family home and business on wheels

I think I’ve seen quite a bit of affection between you and the people who are fed in the soup kitchen.

Yes, well, I think that has to be automatic. Without affection no one would do this for so long. If I had the viewpoint of someone who is well-off, I might be aloof. I might think a peso given to another is a peso taken away from my own. But I love these people.

Your family is still in the meat business, right?

Yes, but the business is so small it only pays for our employee. When my wife and I took it over we made it a point not to deal with anyone asking for a commission under the table. We only have two clients, Chili’s and Texas Grill. Business with them is clean. In the Philippines there’s always corruption. Money talks. In Marcos’s time the important thing was not what you knew but who you knew. Now it’s what you give them. Even if you’re the devil, if you give them money they’ll make you a saint.



The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Part 1

by on Tuesday, 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 Friday, 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 Saturday, 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 Sunday, 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.

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