Author Archive

David A. Mason, Promoting Traditional Korean Culture

by on Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

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

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

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

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

David’s story

Cheoneun-sa

Cheoneun-sa

Cheoneun-sa with a new lantern

Cheoneun-sa with a new lantern

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

You mean closed to independent travelers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit of the Mountains

The Spirit of the Mountains

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

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

When were you first working on that?

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

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

The book on hiking the trail

The book on hiking the trail

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

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

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

The Baekdu-daegan range

The Baekdu-daegan range

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

Probably lots of Buddhist statues too.

The Seorak Dinosaur Range

The Seorak Dinosaur Range

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

Can you give me some examples?

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

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

Passage to Korea

Passage to Korea

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

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

How much does the TempleStay typically cost?

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

The encyclopedia

The encyclopedia

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

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

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

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

Guiding a tour on Jindo Island

Guiding a tour on Jindo Island

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

All this is in addition to your teaching career.

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

 

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From Adjunct Faculty to Korean Faculty

by on Sunday, March 1st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Gwen’s story

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

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

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

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

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

What percentage of faculty members were adjuncts?

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

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

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

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

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

I can see how that could greatly change teaching composition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you in the English Department or in the institute?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now there are very, very many.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about your students?

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

Links to copy and past in your navigation bar:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jireh Calo, a Filipina Musician on Her Way

by on Saturday, February 14th, 2015

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

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

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

Jireh calling from a practice room at Burklee

Jireh calling from a practice room at Berklee

Jireh’s story

How are you this morning?

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

Can you talk a bit about your name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Percussionist sitting in

Handpan player Aldous Castro jamming with the Jireh Calo Project

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

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

So that really opened doors for you then.

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

At a previous gig

At a previous gig

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

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

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

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

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

Jayman Alviar on drums

Band mate Jayman Alviar on drums

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

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

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

How would you describe your music?

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

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

Bandmate Glen Bondoc

Band mate Glenn Bondoc at a previous gig

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

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

Yes! That’s it.

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

Bandmate Carlos Jesena on guitar

Band mate Carlos Jesena on guitar

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

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

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

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

Sitting in--August, 2014

Sitting in–August, 2014

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

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

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

Did you write the other songs on your EP?

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

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

Jireh Calo's EP on disc. Cover design by

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

Yeah, I uploaded the EP on Bandcamp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Writer, Lawyer, Literary Agent, Part 2

by on Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

At the launch of For Love and Kisses

At the launch of For Love and Kisses

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

Book cover

Book cover

1. “For Love and Kisses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book signing

Book signing

2. “Vanessa Calling.”

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

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

3. “Buttercups.”

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

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

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

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

4. “Skin Art”

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Love in Ministops—

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

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

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

Like a designer handbag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The Hungry Ghost.

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

(Laugh) Yeah.

Was there a little suggestion of magic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writer, Lawyer, Literary Agent, Part 1

by on Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

Andrea at the 2013 book festival

Andrea at the 2013 book festival

Andrea’s story

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

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

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

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

I think bringing in more expats would help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s an extremely insular attitude.

Yeah.

Aren’t you also teaching at UP?

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

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

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

How would you distinguish between literary fiction and commercial fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

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A Year and a Half in Japan

by on Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Patrick and students

Patrick and kindergarteners

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

Patrick’s story

The Fukushima English Center

The Fukushima English Center

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

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

His apartment building

The apartment building and school entrance

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

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

His apartment

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

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

The apartment

The apartment

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

The apartment

FEC common room

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

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

The owner of the Catfish Bar with his staff

The owner of the Catfish Bar with his staff

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

Fourth graders

Fourth graders

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

English center kids

English center kids

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

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

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

At a high school

At a high school

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

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

At another high school

At another high school

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“Well, you’ll see.”

The "housewife" class

The “housewife” class

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

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

[An enormous groan comes from the interviewer.]

A company class

A company class

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

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

An adult class

Another adult class

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

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

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

“They don’t know how to write yet.”

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

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

Co-teacher Abe Sensei

Co-teacher Abe Sensei

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

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

A lawyer and private student

A lawyer and private student

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

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

Just outside Fukushima

Just outside Fukushima

River near Fukushima

River near Fukushima

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

Farmland near Fukushima

Farmland near Fukushima

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

 

 

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A Filipina Vocal Group at Tago Jazz Café

by on Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Baihana doing close harmony

Baihana doing close harmony

At the end of October, I went to the Tago Jazz Café in Cubao to hear the vocal group Baihana (pronounced bye-HAH-nah), which means “girl” or “woman” in Cebuano. It was wonderful sitting four or five feet away from world-class musicians singing close harmony. I almost fell off my seat when I heard “Jeepers, Creepers, Where’d You Get Those Peepers,” one of the songs my parents sang and danced to before I was born and in my early childhood. 

Not long afterwards we met for an interview in Mrs. Graham’s Café in the Tomas Morato district of Quezon City.

Mel Torre, alto

Mel Torre, alto

Mel Torre—I teach yoga and Barre3, which is a mix of ballet barre, yoga and Pilates. It’s been in the Philippines for only about four years. My clients are lunching moms and people who need to unwind from working in Makati. Eventually I would like to specialize in therapeutic yoga.

I started singing professionally about eight years ago, when I was working at a call center and singing in small bars for around eight dollars a night. When my sister died I realized that if I wanted to do something else, I’d have to start doing it. So I quit and started pursuing music full-time. A few months later Krina posted an advertisement for an alto. I knew her already from the University of Philippines Vocal Ensemble, so I decided to audition. That was six years ago. I also sing with the Blue Rats, a blues band which by their own admission is a hobby band, although it is the longest-running blues band in the country.

Krina Cayabyab, arranger and soprano

Krina Cayabyab, songwriter, arranger and soprano

Krina Cayabyab—I’m teaching in the Arts Studies Department at the University of the Philippines and doing graduate work in musicology at UP in the College of Music. I teach voice and music theory at the Music School of Ryan Cayabyab. I’m a freelance arranger and composer, and I do the composition and arrangements for Baihana. I grew up as the daughter of two musicians. My father is a composer, and my mother studied choral conducting, but now she teaches and manages the school.

Anna Achacoso, soprano

Anna Achacoso, soprano

Anna Achacoso—I run Mrs. Graham’s Café with my husband. This is our first business venture together. We started out just selling macaroons online and at bazaars. The café will be a year old in December. The Burger Project next door is also our business and my husband’s family business, which we run together with his family. I also do backup vocals at ABS-CBN, a television network nearby. And I’m a mom. My mother and I are licensed kindergarten music educators. Right now we’re trying to develop our own music program for kids. We’re also expanding the second floor to include workshop space for lessons in arts and crafts.

Baihana—Initially, our main influence was the girls’ vocal groups of the 1940s, when the popular music was vocal harmonies in the bebop style. In 2008 Anna had the idea of taking the style of the Puppini Sisters, an Italian group singing in the bebop style, which is considered jazz. They also do pop songs or more modern songs with a bebop twist. So we also took modern songs and put a bebop twist on them. In 2008 that was pretty new for Filipino audiences. That’s how we connected to the jazz scene here. To many people the word “jazz” means instrumental music, but our vocal style uses the same language, with the harmonic progression and the rhythmic style of syncopation, making it “not pop.” But there is still some pop in our arrangements, so our music forms a nice bridge between what the Puppini Sisters do and what the Pentatonics are doing. We’re not really boxed in by genre. When we’re asked what kind of style we do, we just say “vocal harmony.”

Julius Lopez

Julius Lopez

We try to make jazz more accessible to people who may be put off by music that seems to too elitist or too complicated. When we say that we do “a bit of jazz” they feel more connected. By bridging pop and jazz, we make jazz more accessible, so people don’t think of it as over their heads. Maybe appreciating our music will lead them to explore more. We’ve been told not to stick a label on ourselves, but because we like jazz a lot, so we do try to incorporate as much as we can into our song choices.

The doors really started opening for us when Krina entered the 2012 Boy Katindig Song Writing and Jazz Band Competition. We won as Best Jazz Band, and Krina won as Best Instrumentalist. For our prize Boy Katindig took us to the international festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After that we were invited to several festivals. It was kind of funny because we were represented by Third Line, and they’d discouraged Krina from entering. I’m sure they had their reasons, but we pushed for it. When we won we had more opportunities, both local and international. We were invited to several jazz fests. In October 2013 we did an intermission number at the Borneo International Guitar Festival in Kota Kinabalu because one of the organizers was part of the youth festival we attended. So everything connected. Most recently we went to a jazz festival in Kuching, Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

Kami Santiago with a perfect light touch on the drums

Kami Santiago on drums

The number of gigs we do is different every month. It depends on the season. One year we had a lot of gigs out of town and abroad, and then this year it’s been mostly corporate events and weddings. The out-of-town appearances are usually in Cebu and Davao, where they seem to really appreciate our music. They have awesome musicians in Davao. We’re always really nervous when we go there because we know that people there are very good. We went to Sinapore to sing at the launch of Chanel’s new line. Just this year we went back for the wedding of a couple who’d heard us at the Chanel event.

The perfect light touch on drums

The perfect light touch

Yes, our repertoire includes Tagalog songs. We did a cover version [a song previously recorded by another group] of the APO Hiking Society song “Yakap Sa Dilim” and “Mabuti Pa Sila” by Gary Granada. We also have a medley of music from the 1970s, which is considered the golden era of original Filipino music. We had a corporate gig where we were asked to do a nine-minute slot of purely 1970s Filipino music, and so Krina made a nine-minute medley.

Mel wrote “Ganon Talaga” when she broke up with her then-boyfriend, now her husband, and Krina set it to music. Actually, we have enough original work to fill an album. We keep saying we’ll do it next year, but we just did a rough recording for a demo which we’re going to submit it to an independent producer here. It’s not like signing up with a big label, because then we’d be asked to do more pop, which is not something we’d feel comfortable doing.

Janine Samaniego on violin and Tim Cada on guitar

Janine Samaniego on violin and Tim Cada on guitar

We also do jazz tunes from the 1940s, like a vocalization of an instrumental by Count Basie, and standards like “Orange-Colored Sky,” “Got the World on a String” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” We sing Charlie Parker in Tagalog. The other night we did “Hold Tight” by the Andrew Sisters. We do a lot of Andrew Sisters’ songs and some Chordette songs, like “Mr. Sandman.” When we do pop songs, we always do them the Baihana way. We have songs by Maroon 5, Bruno Mars and the Beatles—“Good Day Sunshine,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Our repertoire contains some classics, like “Time and Tide” by Basia, some Michael Jackson and also the Supremes. Whenever possible Krina does a new arrangement for us, but some standards, like “Orange-Colored Sky,” are not far from the original version.

When we build up the repertoire we always take the audience into consideration. As performers we have a responsibility to entertain or to keep the crowd satisfied. With our uniqueness we’re able to strike a balance where we really enjoy what we’re singing as well. Sometimes when the audience isn’t listening we joke with each other, we become looser and we have more fun singing for each other. It does happen, like at corporate gigs where people may just want to mingle. We were hired for the job, so we will still perform all out while having fun onstage.

Part 4 with Banjo Gonzales, Pael Gutierrez and Toma Cayabyab. The improv group also includes Enjo Mendoza.

Part 4 with Banjo Gonzales, Pael Gutierrez and Toma Cayabyab. The improv group also includes Enjo Mendoza.

The audience response depends on a lot on the venue. In a bar there’s more socializing, and sometimes a people change the dynamics when they come in. They start clapping and the others just follow. If it’s not a concert people are likely to chitchat every so often, even if it’s a good crowd and they really do watch us. If we go to a bar with our friends we’re bound to talk to each other. We’ve been both lucky and unlucky, with really good audiences and some who seem to be not listening at all. But because we enjoy our music anyway, we don’t get annoyed and irritable. That’s why we don’t compromise our music, so that we still enjoy it every time we perform.

One of the things that we learned while performing is that when things happen you have to roll with the punches. In our first big concert at the music museum, during our second song, Krina fell. We just turned it into a joke so it didn’t seem like something went wrong. In a recent concert one of the microphones went off, so two of us ended up sharing. We decided as a group that if we want to be professionals we have to act the part and be at ease. We’ve learned. In our very first videos, we looked super stiff onstage, and we didn’t know how to deliver spiels. It really took a long time.

We joke and interact with the audience, partly because for a time we were managed by The Third Line, a trio of men who do vocal harmonies. A big part of their act was interacting with the audience or being funny. So we picked up on that a bit, although from the start we were already always joking with each other. But then we developed that in our group.

Sometimes audiences here in the Philippines won’t show that they appreciate what they’re seeing. They won’t always applaud or cheer. So we wonder whether we’re getting through. Are they really getting the music we’re offering? But then people will come up to us afterwards and say they really appreciated your music. So it’s like, “Okay I didn’t notice.”

We love performing at Tago. The audience may be noisy sometimes, but they appreciate the music because they know it’s a jazz place. It’s not like singing in a regular bar where the people are noisy and they expect a show band. Besides, Nelson Gonzales, the owner, is a very good friend and he’s been really supportive. There are other musicians who jam with us, and we know they appreciate our music. They always give feedback, sometimes critical feedback. Certainly we’ve heard people say they’d like to hear more improvisation from the musicians and also from us. We learn from watching them as well. We get inspired and try to improve our songs.

We’ve grown a lot since 2008. Krina’s arranging skills and the sound of our voices are on a much higher level. Three years ago we did backup for Richard Poon, who’s popular here. Our voices were so small, tiny. So self-improvement is one reason we always go to Tago. Honestly, Nelson doesn’t earn a lot. He keeps Tago going because he knows so many musicians have a hard time finding a venue to play in.

Links to copy and paste into navigation bar:

http://worldyouthjazzfest.com/2013/baihana/

http://globalnation.inquirer.net/viewpoints/viewpoints/view/20110304-323468/Seduced-by-the-ravishing-sound-of-Baihana

http://www.littlerunningteacher.com/love-baihana-a-soothing-night-of-jazz-music/

 

 

 

 

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Bouncing around the Mid-East, Part 3

by on Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Palestine sunset

Palestine sunset

I met Michele in Korea, when she was teaching English in Cheju Province and I was in Seoul. Recently I asked her for an interview about the time she taught in the Mid-East. Part 1 deals with her experience in Kuwait and Part 2 in Oman. Part 3 comes from both a Skype interview and group letters she sent to her friends at the time. Much of her experience in the West Bank has to do with the difficulty of getting around, or as she says of one trip, “So, it was 6:45 p.m. and we were finally home. It had taken us four and a half hours to travel a distance of just 100km/60 miles – but that’s life in the West Bank!” Again, thanks to Michele for the photos.

Michele in the desert

Michele in the desert

Michele’s story

In August 2004 I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv to begin a one-year contract with Arab American University – Jenin (AAUJ) in the West Bank. The last time I’d been there was twelve years before, but the situation had gotten worse. At passport control I was interrogated for an hour and a half: where I had been, what was in my luggage, who I was meeting, where I was going. They were particularly interested in my trip to Lebanon. They eventually gave me a three-month visa—Israel was no longer giving out one-year visas to foreign workers—and fortunately they didn’t stamp my passport. Otherwise I couldn’t have used it to get into an Arab country. A taxi driver picked up me and another teacher who had arrived earlier, and we rode through Israel to a checkpoint where we got out of that taxi with our bags, walked through the checkpoint, presented our documents to a soldier and then got into a van which was waiting to take us to the university.

Palestine in 2007

Palestine in 2007

The difference between Israel and the West Bank was like in the film The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to Oz and the world suddenly turns from black-and-white to color. Israel is a developed country with paved roads, nice houses and green fields, while the West Bank is basically a large ghetto with unpaved roads, trash everywhere and houses that are falling apart. Our apartments were on campus, on the top floor of the English department’s building, so we had to climb three flights of stairs located outside, on the right side of the building, with heavy bags in the heat. It was about this time that I started wishing I’d stayed in Oman, but after a shower and some rest I had no regrets about my decision to accept the job. For me it was a way of showing the Palestinians that not all Americans agreed with the US government, and I think the two other American teachers were there for similar reasons. The eight foreign teachers were all women ranging from their late twenties to maybe mid-fifties. Our offices and classrooms were on lower floors of the same building.

My furnished apartment was small but clean and fairly homey—a tiny entryway, a bathroom, a bedroom and a large room living room/kitchen. The windows faced west so I got a lot of sun in the afternoon and could watch the sun set in the evening. The building was on a hill and surrounded by hills covered with olive trees and wandering cows, sheep and goats. It was quite pastoral and beautiful.

Zababdeh, the town closest to us, was small but had most of the things we needed. Or we could go to Jenin, about twelve kilometers to the north. Residents there had shown strong resistance to the Occupation over the years, especially during the latest Intifadah. We went there to do some shopping and open bank accounts—we were paid in USD, but everything else was in Israeli shekels since there is no Palestinian money. We weren’t sure we could get through to Jenin because of two suicide bombings in Beersheva the day before. Surprisingly, no Israeli soldiers stopped us. They didn’t roll into the town in tanks and instate a curfew or cause chaos by making people leave their houses and shops while they did a search, which has been the case in the past.

Palestinian Roman road

Palestinian Roman road

The university had around eleven buildings scattered about the campus. One day the English department was in kind of an upheaval. When I went to class I learned that the university was closed because the Palestinian Authority had accused one of the professors of collaborating with the Israelis, and they were trying to get a confession out of him. I don’t know how the issue was resolved, but the university opened a few days later. Surprises would come up out of the blue. Another time I found out that students were barricading the university, so the security guards wouldn’t allow those of us who lived on campus to leave. They did allow us to go to the little supermarket just outside the university gate, but we had to be back in an hour.

Speaking of food, I had to adjust to the lack of variety and somewhat poor quality of food available. Also, most of the products were from Israel, so I felt buying them meant I was supporting the Occupation, but there were no alternatives. The few restaurants served only Arabic food, and you were often disappointed if you ordered anything other than the usual “salads” like hummus or tabouleh, or the standard shwarma or felafel.

One day when I went for a walk with three other teachers, we went around the campus and then off on an unpaved road that I could see from my apartment. The landscape reminded me somewhat of Tuscany with its patchwork fields and tall cypress trees, which wasn’t surprising since we were near the Mediterranean. A young Palestinian of about fifteen rode by us on a horse, bareback. He rode by three times, saying nothing but smiling broadly. Just past the top of the hill we reached a Roman road which must have been built almost 2000 years ago. When one of the women asked where the road went, she was told, “To Rome,” but actually I think it led to the next village. We turned and saw the boy and his horse about half a kilometer up the road, at the crest of a hill. The sun was setting behind them so their silhouette was backlit by an orange sky like in a Marlboro commercial.

An old Volkswagen bus was available when we wanted to go to a real supermarket in Afula, a forty-five-minute drive into Israel. Getting through the West Bank to the checkpoint was difficult. Most of the roads were unpaved, and there were no landmarks, street signs or street lights. As the default driver among us I had to memorize the route. On the gravel road you had to drive just a few miles an hour because it was bumpy and the dust would be all around. The directions were along the lines of go to this house and that store, turn left at that street, and so on. The roads were narrow so I’d have to play chicken with other cars on the road or slow down almost to a stop to let them go by. Eventually we got to Oz, where there were paved roads and big, green highway signs with white lettering in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. The security guards at the store would inevitably ask whether we had a gun.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

On what was supposed to be our day trip to Nablus, we left the university in a taxi at nine, rode for a while to a checkpoint, which was only a barrier across the road. We got into another taxi and after 20 minutes or so arrived at the checkpoint nearest Nablus. This was more formidable. People going into and out of the city had to stand in line to show their identification, and all vehicles—including ambulances—are stopped and searched. The three lines are covered with an awning and separated by concrete walls that are about two feet high. The concrete floor had a three-inch wide shallow ditch running down the middle. When motioned to come forward, you walked up to a kiosk with two tiny windows manned by soldiers. Palestinians were issued ID cards by Israel and had to carry them at all times. Hanging around outside the kiosk were other soldiers, all in uniform with helmets, bullet-proof vests, mobile phones and automatic weapons. We presented our university IDs to the soldier at the kiosk, and he went off somewhere. He came back and said they were still checking our IDs. While we waited we stood to the side and watched people coming and going, a typical mix of old, young, teenagers, men, women, children, as well as the occasional UN worker in a vest with the letters “UN” on it. Most of the people had blank or distracted expressions on their faces, but some men chatted with the soldiers in Arabic and were actually smiling as they left. Even in this bizarre, humiliating situation a bit of humanity was able to prevail.

After about twenty-five minutes the soldier with our IDs came back and told us that we didn’t have permission to enter Nablus. We called the director of our department, who said she’d do what she could. It was now around 11:45. We were hungry, tired of standing and in need of a bathroom. I asked a soldier if we could sit on the benches in what looked like a detention area. We ended up chatting in a mixture of English and Arabic with four Palestinian university students who were trying to go to a club meeting in Nablus. They certainly didn’t look dangerous, but it appeared that the Israeli Defense Forces weren’t taking any chances. Even so, they talked with the soldiers in a very relaxed manner, and one of them offered us cigarettes and orange juice in plastic cups. Then we got a call from the director saying she couldn’t get permission, so we said goodbye and got a taxi for a checkpoint where we could then get another taxi for the city of Toulkarem.

Israel was so intent on controlling the movement of Palestinians that they weren’t allowed to travel from one Palestinian town to another and were also subjected to searches and detention at any time, no explanation needed. As a foreigner I had more leeway than a Palestinian might, but even so anyone who was not an Israeli had great difficulty getting around the West Bank and Israel, while Israeli settlers were free to come and go as they liked at any time, even though it wasn’t their country. As for Gaza, thankfully it wasn’t a place most people wanted to visit as it was virtually impossible to get into or out of. One week several people were assassinated in Jenin and Nablus, two towns fairly close to the university. We’d been hearing a lot of jets overhead recently, and I assumed that they were used in the attacks.

Palestine University

Palestine University

When the semester started, I found that the students in my three intermediate and two advanced classes actually appeared to be at those levels. They were okay for the most part, and they certainly appeared more motivated than the Gulf students I’d taught. The guys wore jeans, t-shirts and sunglasses, carried backpacks, had mobile phones and were very good at giving excuses for why they couldn’t study. A lot of the girls covered their heads and wore ankle-length coats, but there were a number of Christians and Muslims who dressed like western girls. As a result I felt less like an outsider here than I did in Kuwait or Oman, although I still dressed more conservatively than I would if I were teaching in the US, Europe or Asia.

In the student union there was a week-long event held to raise money for the various student groups, including Hamas, Fattah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and a few others. Outside was a large, circular tent, and next to that a mock prison which resembled the one housing a member of Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade who was sentenced by Israel earlier that year to six life sentences. Another simulated setting showed the graves of two men assassinated by the Israelis earlier this year – Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and Mr. Rantizi, the former leader. Radiating out from the middle of the tent were individual stalls where you could buy computer stuff, Islamic books and various things you’d find in a bookstore. There was also a “Ladies Only” stall selling cosmetics and shoes.

Pasha courtyard

Pasha courtyard

One day several teachers and I went to Jenin where we met a Palestinian colleague and her mother, who took us to an old building that had belonged to a pasha, a sort of governor, in Ottoman times. It now housed a women’s group working to keep alive traditional Palestinian handicrafts, including embroidery and wood carving. We walked down two or three steps into a small courtyard that had a few trees, some wildflowers, and an unused fountain ringed with potted plants. A volunteer took us into a room where some of the products were made. The ceiling was high with two domes; Ottoman architecture from what I understand. The stone walls were about 1.5 feet or half a meter thick, and the floor was tiled. After looking at everything there, we were served Arabic coffee. We were told that the pasha and his family had lived on the upper floors of the house while the servants lived and worked on the lower level—a bit of Upstairs, Downstairs in seventeenth century Palestine.

On the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the second Intifadah, the students had a rally. I went to check it out, but it was hot, and there were no shady places to sit. Also, the students were speaking only Arabic, and I wasn’t able to understand much. I hoped that what was being said—or shouted—was constructive and forward-looking, rather than simply a litany of past and present abuses and grievances. The audience was made up of relatively young people who I felt needed to be given the means to find a way to help end “the situation,” as the Occupation is called by Palestinians. It seemed to me that this constant looking back and focusing on what had been done to one side or the other wasn’t getting anyone anywhere. I was tired of all the rhetoric from all sides, and couldn’t bear to think that this generation would also be doomed to live their whole lives under Occupation.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

The sentimental or romantic view seemed to be that Palestinians threw stones at Israeli tanks and soldiers because it personified the battle between David and Goliath, but actually stones were everywhere, a cheap and plentiful weapon. Almost all the buildings in Palestine have lovely cream-colored stone facades, and you’ll often see pathways and steps made from stone. The low hills surrounding the campus look as though someone cut terraces out of the stone—but they’re natural—and the nearby fields have stone walls around and through them which were built using stones cleared from the fields. Years ago I saw t-shirts in Jerusalem with “I got stoned in Jerusalem” printed on the front.

At one point classes were cancelled two days in succession because the university was showing solidarity with Palestinians who had recently been killed in Gaza. On the second day the students held a memorial. Someone was shouting into a microphone, and on the lawn in front of the building were mock corpses covered in the flags of the various political groups, like Fattah, Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. Students were mulling around and flyers were being handed out. The scene seemed surrealistic as it was a beautiful day and here on a college campus these average-looking college kids were looking at mock corpses and listening to a political speech. Palestinians live with death and violence on an almost daily basis, so that for them this was a case of “same shit, different day.” On another day the students went on strike to show support for a dean who’d apparently been sacked for no reason. Office politics had gotten out of hand. The president had resigned the week before, and the university was closed for several days at the beginning of the semester because students had set up a checkpoint outside the university and weren’t allowing anyone in. The Israeli Defense Forces had taught them how effective checkpoints were. I found the irony depressing, and I wondered how I was going to teach my classes. I also had to complete interviews for a case study for a course I was taking. So many things were beyond my control.

I stayed only one semester because it was stressful. One of the things adding to my stress was the fact that every now and then Israelis would drop fake bombs that sounded like someone had slammed a big, heavy metal door right next to my apartment. Apparently they were using these bombs to freak people out. They didn’t destroy anything. It was a psychological tactic to make people afraid, never knowing what’s going to happen next. When I had to make a visa run after three months, I went to Jordan. At the border it was just a mass of people. Arabs, God love them, don’t tend to stand in lines unless made to. I answered the border official’s questions about what I was doing, and eventually she gave me the visa. I got a taxi to Amman and then a bus to Petra. Jordan is very beautiful but some of the desert areas reminded me a bit of Kuwait. When I got to the hotel room I had booked online, I was babbling, “I’m so happy. I’m so happy.” I wondered why I was saying this. I think it was relief from the stress of living in the West Bank. So after my two days in Petra I went back to the university and gave notice. That was in December of 2004.

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Bouncing around the Middle East, Part 2

by on Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Omani cat and goats

Omani cat and goats

I met Michele in Korea, when she was teaching English in Cheju Province and I was in Seoul. Recently I asked her for an interview about the time she taught in the Mid-East, in Kuwait, Oman and the West Bank. Part 1 deals with her experience in Kuwait. (Just scroll down over the last story. ) Thanks to Michele for all the photos.

Michele’s story

Michele in the desert

Michele in the desert

In 2003 I went to Oman, which was totally different from Kuwait—certainly in Sohar. It was lush. I don’t know what they were growing on those farms, but it was just beautiful. Sohar was a little town on the coast, about a two-hour drive northwest from Muscat, the capitol. I was working at Sohar University, which was the first private university in Oman. It was founded in 2001 by Sultan Qaboos, who overthrew his father in 1970 and then instituted much-needed reforms and modernization. Many times I’ve heard that in the 1970s there was only ten kilometers of paved road in the whole country, which seems hard to believe. Sultan Qaboos dragged Oman into the 20th century, building schools, hospitals and roads. Oman doesn’t have much oil, so they rely on agriculture. None of the countries in that area manufacture cars or anything like that.

In Oman the Indians and other foreign workers were treated completely differently from how they were treated in Kuwait. Once I was at the airport renting a car, and the Omani guy at the desk was speaking Hindi to another employee. I was astonished because a Kuwaiti would only speak Arabic to the other workers. Omanis were willing to treat others like people, not as if they were not human. So that was a very nice change. So was the sea. My apartment was right next to the water. Unfortunately I couldn’t see it from my apartment, but I could if I stepped outside. I rented a car shortly after arriving. Omanis drive on the right as they do in the United States, and the laws are basically the same.

Omani door

Omani door

I did have an issue once with this car. I was driving with a Kuwaiti license because I didn’t know I had to have an Omani license. If I’d had a tourist visa, I could have driven on any current driving license. Every now and then there would be checkpoints where the police would stop you to see whether you had a license and were wearing your seatbelt. One day I was stopped on the way to the university. When the officer found that I didn’t have an Omani license, he immediately impounded the car. I was livid. Of course I was wrong. I should have found out what the law was, but I was very angry that he didn’t even give me a 24-hour notice. The car stayed there, and I had to walk the rest of the way to work. That was an eye-opener. I was able to get a license very easily – in less than 48 hours – but still—in Kuwait nobody respected the police, apparently because they were on the bottom rung of Kuwaiti society. Everyone just disregarded them. But in Oman people actually did what the police told them. After that I made sure I had everything right. I had to pay a fine, and I was able to get the car back. You really needed to have a car. Public transportation was non-existent. There were taxis, and they weren’t expensive. Some people did rely on them for years, but I liked to be able to just go out and get in the car and go. Also in Oman the taxi drivers spoke only Arabic. I know some Arabic, but I just found it such a hassle.

The university was nice. I don’t remember how many students we had overall. Again, as I found with colleagues throughout the Mid-East, the ones at Sohar were kind of bizarre. They had issues with alcohol, or they had been there a long time. Maybe it wasn’t the Gulf that had gotten to them, but they seemed cynical and a number were just unhappy people. And they weren’t really teachers. I mean, to teach at the university you had to have a master’s degree in something, but it didn’t have to be in English teaching or a related field.

We had offices which were divided into four by partitions, but the partitions didn’t reach the ceiling. So we had some privacy, but not separate rooms. Charles, an American colleague with a degree in marine biology, shared an office with someone I was going to be co-teaching a class with. In my first encounter with him, I wanted to speak to this instructor but there wasn’t an extra chair in her office, so I went to Charles’ office and asked him if I could borrow his extra chair. He glared at me. I thought, you schmuck. There’s nobody in your office, you don’t need it, and I’m just in the next room. As I found out through subsequent interactions with him, that was his attitude about everything. But it really annoyed me and I remember thinking, I’m a compatriot, I’m new to this country and this university, and this is how you treat me?

I remember another colleague, a woman who’d been there a long time. She was an extremely bitter person; she’d go on about students, how stupid they were, on and on, negative, negative. I’d think, if you’re so unhappy with these students, why are you here? You don’t have to stay. I’ve encountered that time and time again with expats. Toward the end of my time in the Gulf I was also getting very negative, and I told myself I didn’t want to be that kind of person. Eventually I left.

The department head was an Australian, an interesting guy who’d done a master’s thesis about native peoples on some island in the Pacific. For a year or two or three, he’d lived in a hut in one of their villages. He was very interested in language and people. But he was a real people-pleaser, and that’s not good in a department head. So he would try to manage with all these personalities, and it just didn’t work. He’d make a decision, and then somebody would be unhappy with it, so he’d undo it, and then somebody else wouldn’t like that. There was constant upheaval.

An Irishman in my office area took issue with the department head and wouldn’t speak to him. I had to work with this guy for one class. He said he wasn’t going to speak with the boss, so I had to relay to him whatever the boss said. It was so stupid. These people were supposed to be adults in a professional setting, and this was like grade school. Once he didn’t have the key to his office so he actually came into mine and climbed over the wall. He was a total imbecile.

Another guy from the UK would very often not show up for work. When he did show up you could smell alcohol coming out of his pores. He used to joke that he couldn’t be sacked because the boss liked him. I think the boss was probably gay. It was a running joke in the department. The British guy ended up staying there for six years. Those were the types of characters I met. The place was a zoo. I had a two-year contract with the university, but within the first few weeks I’d heard you could request a one-year contract and I did, and it was honored. So I only stayed there for a year.

It was actually a fruitful year in a number of ways. I took a workshop to become an IELTS examiner, and I presented a workshop at TESOL Arabia in Dubai, UAE in March of 2004. I also learned to scuba dive, which was wonderful because we’d go diving in a marine preserve. That opened up a whole new world for me. In Oman the fish in the Gulf are very interesting. You can see manta rays and moray eels, and I saw a shark there once.

I have very good memories of my time in Oman, though not of the university. Omanis are just lovely people. Every other teacher I’ve met who’s been there has said the same thing. If you drive inland from Sohar even thirty minutes or so, there were mountains and then deserts beyond. If ever you’d meet people while you’re out taking pictures or something, they’d invite you to their house. Even though they didn’t know you from anybody, they’d always invite you. Not of course in the city, but outside, if you met them one-on-one.

One day I was out driving just to get out of Sohar. I went to the mountains where the roads were winding curves. I turned a curve and six camels were coming toward me on the road. They can be very dangerous if you hit them because the bulk of a camel’s weight is high up, just at the level of the windshield. They are also quite expensive. They’re used for many things, of course as pack animals, so it’s a big loss for the owner if one is killed. I just pulled off the road to let the camels go by. In Sohar at the side of the road you’d see dead sheep or goats that had died naturally or were killed in accidents. I assume someone was responsible for collecting them because carcasses were never there long.

In Oman I often saw camels grazing at the side of the highway. They weren’t wild. Somebody owned them. There were also a lot of goats. The village of Suwadi, which we drove through on the way to the diving resort, had more goats than people. The road was one lane each way. Goats were everywhere, so inevitably you’d have to go very slowly so you wouldn’t hit them.

In 2003, Sohar had maybe 10,000 inhabitants. Being in Sohar was like going back in time. There was electricity and cars and modern things, but the pace of life was very slow and very laid back. I could drive anywhere in five to seven minutes. Everything was very convenient. But in the supermarket you’d have to dust off the items sitting on the shelves. The meat was always frozen. Not many things were available. The fruit was so-so. When I went back ten years later, there was a big supermarket. Everything had changed dramatically because they were building a big port. So I was glad I lived there when I did.

Alcohol was legal in Oman in hotels, so a lot of my colleagues and I would congregate at the Sohar Beach Hotel, which was right on the beach. There were two bars, one for the Indians and another for the hotel guests. It had a pool table. The setting reminded me of the British colonial period. The food was okay, and the hotel had a pool, a gym and there were yoga classes. I did yoga there once on the beach. It was very nice. In 2004 I went from Oman to Arab American University – Jenin in the West Bank.

Muscat coastline

Muscat coastline

I went back to Oman on a six-month contract starting in January of 2005. I’d already decided to do a master’s degree in England in October. My job was in the Al-Mussanah branch of Oman’s Higher Colleges of Technology, which are government schools where students go who are not able to get into a university. It was near the coast, maybe an hour north of Muscat. I had a twenty-minute drive to work. Again I rented a car. The students were okay, not terribly bright but very nice. Generally the faculty seemed saner, a bit more normal—some Canadians, an Australian and some Americans. I didn’t particularly like the director, and we had these stupid restrictions because the school didn’t have much in the way of financial resources. I didn’t have an office. I didn’t even have a desk. One of the teachers allowed me to share her cubicle, and we timed it so we wouldn’t be there at the same time. If you wanted to make copies of something in a book you had to spend time erasing the answers. And there was this stupid rule that we were limited to 500 copies per semester, but inevitably after you’d made 150 copies they would say you’d used up all your copies. This happened all the time. You were always scrambling for resources and exercises to use in class.

The school had a small cafeteria, but every day it served biryani—rice and meat, usually chicken. There are so many other things that Indian food can offer other than biryani. I’ve never been able to eat it since, and I love Indian food. In the Gulf I’ve had so much good Indian food from little hole-in-the-wall places. I loved that aspect of living in the Gulf. Indian food in Kuwait was wonderful. Other kinds of food I didn’t think were as good, certainly the Chinese food wasn’t. A lot of Filipinos lived there, so I tried Filipino food, but a lot of it was fried, and I usually don’t eat fried food, so I tried it only intermittently. Of course the Mid-Eastern food was excellent.

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Love Surge for Haiyan/Yolanda Victims

by on Monday, October 20th, 2014

Dino Marique

Dino Marique

Dino Manrique: This event is the first of the Countdown events to November 8, the first year anniversary of Haiyan/Yolanda super-typhoon. Rosana and Joel published Surges: Outpourings in Haiyan/Yolanda’s Wake and are among the coordinators of Operation Hope: Transformational Ministry for Haiyan/Yolanda Survivors that covers Relief to Rehabilitation. Another project is the Taclobbags, pioneered by Jourdan Sebastian, which Justin can explain to you. I’m helping them out as the founder of Philippine Typhoon Calamity Watch. Our job is to coordinate the various efforts. I’m also the publisher of the community website Filipinowriter.com.

Rosana Bautista Golez

Rosana Bautista Golez

Rosana Golez: This is an event called Love Surge Open Mic. It was put together by a bunch of us advocates—JoelGarduce, Jourdan Sebastian &Dino Manrique—of rehabilitation and rebuilding life in the Haiyan/Yolanda-ravaged areas from the Eastern Visayas all the way to Palawan. As you know, the super-typhoon, called Haiyan internationally and Yolanda locally, wreaked insurmountable havoc in various parts of the Philippines. Today we’re doing an Open Mic as part of the Countdown to November 8. One can have the mic and take hold of this creative space, do a song or a dance or read a poem. We’ll do this again on Nov 7-8 in Manila and in Tacloban City simultaneously. At midnight we’ll have a moment of silence and concerted prayer. The following morning, November 8, there will be a Rise-and-Shine on climate change, which can join with the Climate Change Walk, a different initiative, but we hope to see everything as connected.

Joel Garduce with a copy of "Surges"

Joel Garduce with a copy of “Surges”

On December 19 my partner, Joel Garduce, and I published Surges, a collection of stories, art work and photographs on what we felt when Yolanda happened, from the onset of landfall until later. [See https://www.facebook.com/SURGES.Outpourings. The book is also available at Fully Booked.] After we published the book, we decided to help rebuild Tacloban, Leyte, Samar, Iloilo and Palawan, which were all affected by Yolanda. Putting this into the larger perspective, there are so many man-made and natural disasters, so eventually we would like to stand together in helping out, whether the disaster is natural or man-made.

In January and February we called together a Roundtable for Rehabilitation and invited Japanese, American and Filipino architects, contractors, engineers and inventors to make a better model for durable homes and empowered living. We had a carefully selected panel of presenters. The goal was to come up with a prototype for a safe place to live, not only for the rich, but also for the marginalized in society. During the discussion we analyzed models and designs, pretty much like America’s Got Talent, to see which would be the most suitable empowerment and sustainable community model beginning with devastated areas in Leyte and Samar.

Jeff Pagaduan

Jeff Pagaduan

At the Roundtable was an American, Eric Leach, who gave a presentation on the Earthbags used in Haiti. Homes built with these Earthbags had withstood the big earthquake. [See http://calearth.org/in-the-news/hesperia-star1.html]. The sandbags are now being produced in the Haiyan/Yolanda-stricken areas in partnership with Operation Hope. Other presenters from a Japanese consulting firm showed us how coastal areas could be protected with submerged water buffers. A Filipino inventor, the famous Architect Eduardo Urcia, presented his invention, environment-friendly blocks that were durable, heat-resistant, bullet-proof and over 1,200 psi. The blocks can be used for roofing, flooring, walls and ceiling. [See http://thepoc.net/index.php/eco-friendly-bricks-showcase-pinoy-ingenuity.]

We chose the house type presented by Architect Urcia, which is designed so that the family lives on the second floor, with the ground floor being used for another purpose, like perhaps livelihood projects. If the family is on the second floor, then people are safer. If the blocks are also used for the roof, then the roof can become an extension of the home—like another bedroom eventually—as well as level for household evacuation.

The durable blocks can also be used for churches, hospitals and hotels, but we made a humanitarian contract in which Architect Urcia agreed not to collect royalties on homes for the underprivileged. We have a model, and we’re waiting for donors/investors who would like to finance the durable-blocks factory and the houses. We plan to set up a factory in Tacloban City, centrally located and serving as a bridge to Samar and Leyte mobilization, and to hire local people to produce the blocks there instead of shipping them from Manila. Giving people work will also give them a sense of being part of the whole nation-building. Another set of workers can construct the homes. People in the area need work. Producing 2,000 blocks a day would mean 10 homes a day. Schools and the barangay centers could also be built with this resilient material and good designs. For serious parties, please contact: empo...@yahoo.com

Justin Capen

Justin Capen

Justin Capen: I didn’t design these bags. I’m a project proponent. The first one is called Compassion, and this is the one that’s for sale to the general public. It’s an up-cycled backpack made of a red Japanese truck tarpaulin and denim. It’s water-resistant. All of the denim sections come from jeans that were donated by Germany for the purpose of creating jobs. Every Compassion backpack is made by Haiyan survivors. So our main premise on doing this was that we would create an opportunity for the survivors. So it was really jobs creation, the ability to give them the dignity of providing for themselves once again.

The Courage bag

The Courage bag

The Compassion bag

The Compassion bag

We just set up our factory this month. We brought in about twenty pieces of industrial sewing equipment and trainers and bag makers. Senior machine technicians have helped us with setting up the facilities and the production line, with identifying the skills of each individual and training people. As of today we’ve had orders from twenty different countries, everything on pre-orders. Now that we’ve finally raised the necessary funds to put the facility up, we’ll be looking at filling all of our pre-orders first, and then we’ll be looking into putting products into retail outlets. Right the Compassion bags are available on our website, www.taclob.com. You can buy with a credit card or Paypal or direct deposit.

Jourdan Sebastian & Jeff Bago

Jourdan Sebastian & Jeff Bago

When you have compassion, you give courage. And Courage is our survival backpack. We donate one to a schoolchild for every Compassion bag that’s purchased. We’re producing the Compassion batch first, and then we’ll be moving on to producing the Courage backpacks.

Courage fills the functions of a school backpack. It’s filled with school supplies and art materials. The bags are donated to the children as a way of encouraging them to go to school and also of relieving the parents of the obligation to provide the school supplies. But we wanted to go a bit beyond the regular backpack. With floods and typhoons there is a great deal of psychological trauma and a lack of preparedness, as we’ve seen from the results of Haiyan. So we designed Courage to have a compartment for an empty two-liter water bottle, which turns into an instant flotation device. The bottle goes in this pocket. We made sure there were reflective stripes across the front and shoulders and also along the back and handles for pulling the child out of the water. Basically the backpack gives the children courage so they don’t have to be afraid of storms anymore. Right now, there’s really big trauma towards the weather, and rightfully so.

Fread De Mesa

Fread De Mesa

Imagine, these children, bless their souls, who have really gone through so much. If you look at soldiers who have post-traumatic stress, you see people who voluntarily go into this line, they train for months knowing what situations they’re going to encounter, and yet after going through this experience they still have PTSD. So look at these children who did nothing to bring this disaster upon themselves and were not psychologically prepared for it. Suddenly within six hours they’ve lost almost all of their possessions, their homes and even their family members and friends. It’s very difficult to make up for what happened to these children. We said, “How can we really give them courage?” Suppose I know that, no matter what, if a storm comes I can float. The extra help gives me some comfort. It allows me to say, “Okay, I know there’s rain coming, but I don’t have to cower, I don’t have to cringe in fear, I can continue on going to and from school.” That’s what we wanted to be able to give back with our Courage backpack.

Jeff Bago

Jeff Bago

It’s been a long, long work in progress. From concept it started in late December and January, and we are just now able to put up the facilities. So it really took us about nine to ten months, using all our energy, hearts, souls and resources, just to get to the point where we could finally put up a facility to produce these backpacks. It’s been your passion. Our core disaster, if you will, is disaster resiliency, which means being ready and able to respond. Our livelihood programs involve manufacturing, despite all of the challenges of putting up a facility and training and working with people in a disaster zone.

There are a lot of challenges. The stability of the area is disrupted. With the influx of international agencies, all the rental prices and all the prices of goods go up. When the electricity lines are in, the price of electricity doubles. There are the logistics problems of having to repair so many different things. A lot of goods arrive for support, so now you’re competing for space. Under the ordinary circumstances of setting up a business you’ve already got complications putting everything together.

Dav Dionisio & Denise Melanie 'Lanie' Lagrosa

Dav Dionisio & Denise Melanie ‘Lanie’ Lagrosa

It’s complicated by trying to put together a work force made up of people who have really gone through the worst typhoon in the recorded history of the world. So you’re not just sitting there thinking, “I’m going to push it, I’m going to get as many products out as possible.” You’re trying to work with people to help them understand. You want to know, “How can we work with you so you can rebuild your life?”

In some areas you have an entitlement issue because for the last ten months they’ve been surviving on dole-outs. Sometimes that turns from immediate relief to dependency. So you also have to work on the mindset of being independent, controlling your own destiny, being in control of your own life through your own efforts rather than saying, “When is the next cash-forward program? When is the next donation arriving?”

We said with some people, “How is it with getting a job now?”

Martin Aguda Jr. with his "Staying Alive" instructional dummy

Martin Aguda Jr. with his “Staying Alive” instructional dummy

“Well, I haven’t really gone out and looked.”

“How come you haven’t been trying to find a way to get your own income?”

“If I leave, who will be here to receive the next batch of goods that come in? What if my family has to go without?”

In addition to human resources, there are other factors that have an effect: the land, the logistics, the normal resources of power. That’s why you don’t see people who’re doing what we’re doing.

But this is the time when people really need it the most. They need to have that extra jump-start. They need have normalcy restored. In a lot of natural disaster zones, the immediate relief comes in: water, medical attention, food. The effort is put into the immediate needs, but not the sustainability from short-term to medium-term to long-term.

Of course, you see in the newspaper that these big amounts of aid have been given, so you think everything’s going to be okay. But if you’re there you a lot of needs haven’t been addressed, a lot of small factors that still need attention. Like sustenance, allowing the victims to sustain their own lives. We’re trying to make a shift towards the rebuilding side.

Lanie Lagrosa doing CPR on the dummy to the beat of "Staying Alive"

Lanie Lagrosa doing CPR on the dummy to the beat of “Staying Alive”

How do we shift our monetary vote? Every day we vote with our money, and that means making a big choice. “Okay, I’m going to Burger King to buy a Whopper.” Whether you acknowledge it or not, you’re supporting Burger King and all their practices. Your monetary vote has been cast. Let’s raise the social awareness of how companies do their work, source their materials, make an impact on the community. With social media more and more people are becoming aware of the choices they’re making—whether it’s for fair wages or whether it’s genetically modified organisms. I’m not saying don’t patronize certain companies. I’m just saying we should be aware of voting every day. It’s those small, daily modifications that allow us to contribute to what we want to see happen in our time on this earth.

Raphael Mijeno and  Aisa Mijeno

Raphael Mijeno and Aisa Mijeno

Aisa Mijeno with her brother Raphael Mijeno: We’re cofounders of SALT, Sustainable Alternative Lighting, one of ten tech start-ups selected for early funding. [See https://www.facebook.com/salt.ph.] I used to work for Greenpeace Philippines, traveling across the Philippines to promote environmental campaigns. I am also a part-time faculty member of engineering at De La Salle University. I was teaching environmental engineering when I conceptualized the lamp.

Jourdan Sebastian

Aisa Mijeno and the lamp

The concept behind the lamp is similar to batteries. If you submerge two dissimilar metals in salt water a certain amount of electricity will be produced. The lamps can power up LEDs or charge smart phones. We’re just starting up. We’re still in the process of developing the product, and then we’ll do scaling, and then we’re going to partner with NGOs and foundations which will help us make lamps for families without access to electricity.

These lamps can use a combination of water and salt, or they can run on ocean water. We’re currently accepting pre-orders. We will be delivering the projects by early next year if we can find someone who’ll help us. We’re in in-house production. The parts were made with a 3D printer. Our first project is to donate a hundred lamps to Mindoro, one lamp donated for each lamp purchased.

  Bong Dela Torre and Fread De Mesa

Bong Dela Torre and Fread De Mesa

They can be used for disaster relief. I can imagine having a power failure, and my battery-powered lamp dies. I have to go outside to buy batteries, and it’s raining. And aside from using it as a light source, you can also charge your phone.

Many of the islands in the Philippines don’t have access to electricity. The people who live on these islands use battery-powered lamps or kerosene lamps or gasoline lamps or candles as their sustaining light. They spend around 5000 pesos [$114] a year sustaining their light source with batteries or kerosene or candles. Another problem is the distance they need to travel to buy gasoline or to acquire batteries. It’s hard. The people who use kerosene lamps have to refill their lamps every other day, and the nearest place where they can buy kerosene is about twenty kilometers away, and they can’t afford transportation, so they walk twelve hours, so a whole day is spent getting kerosene. So this lamp powered with salt water is a simple solution. We’re surrounded by oceans, so why not use natural resources?

Jourdan Sebastian

Jourdan Sebastian

Jourdan Sebastian: Why am I doing the things that I’m doing, setting up these things with all you guys? I do it because of survival. It’s a basic instinct. Climate change is a reality. Typhoons and earthquakes are only going to get bigger and bigger. Hello? Because of global warming because of the tectonic plates. The question is will we be prepared? This is what it’s all about. This is what Love Surge is all about. The survivors on the anniversary of Typhon Yolanda, the survivors themselves, many of them are going to paddle out from the beach into Tacloban Bay at the exact time that Yolanda/Haiyan came to their shores. They’re going to paddle out as a symbolic message to the world. There are martyrs who said, symbolically, the argument about climate change was over. Their lives were sacrificed. At midnight they will tell the world, “The wind came to your shores at 375 kilometers per hour, came to your homes and destroyed you and killed your family. There is no question of whether there is a problem of climate change or not. The question is what do we do?” This is what love surge is all about. At the end we’re saying we have one world, we are one family, and when we see each other as family we’ll take care of each other. We’re going to take care of our home, which is Mother Earth.

There’s a Disaster Volunteer Summit on Nov. 5, 2014, Wednesday. This will be a reunion of all individuals, affiliated or not, who helped in the Yolanda relief efforts. Everyone is welcome. Skydome in SM North EDSA. Anniversary events are being planned for in Tacloban for November 7-8. Check the Facebook page Philippine Typhoon and Calamity Watch for details.

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