Author Archive

Author Interview on Krys Lee’s “How I Became a North Korean”

by on Monday, November 21st, 2016

Book cover

Krys Lee is a Korean-American writer living in Seoul and teaching at Underwood College at Yonsei University. Three years ago we talked about her short story collection, Drifting House. (See the link on the right labeled “Korea: Stories of Korea and Koreans, Well Told.) Recently we discussed her novel, which centers on three major characters who are kept in a safe house in China on the North Korean border—where exactly, she doesn’t say. Since much of the novel is inspired by Krys’s activism for human rights, I asked her to talk about her activism and the North Koreans who asked her to tell their story. We spoke over Skype when she was in Seoul and I was in the Philippines.

Krys’s story

Krys Lee (thanks to Krys for photo)

The novel is inspired by the people’s stories but not based on them. It was important for me that the characters not be recognizable people. I started the book over five years ago because it was the material I knew best and I understood best.

For over ten years I’ve had activist friends and North Korean friends. My involvement included being a mentor to North Korean friends, interpreting or teaching within an organization, working at a safe house near the border, trying to help right wrongs, tutoring people from when they arrived in South Korea to when they got into school, helping financially and being a spokesperson. For example, on Friday I spoke out about an individual who’s been victimized. Basically, I’ve done what anyone else would do in a particular situation; for example, if you’re with a group of single mothers and you help with whatever they need at that time—like anything in social work.

Before I started teaching I was more of an activist. People asked me to do things, and I had more time. When I first got involved there were so few people—definitely so few foreigners—and a real need, whereas now organizations in South Korea have so many people wanting to help that they are actually turning them down. These days they probably need money more than hands.

Activism will always be a continuing part of my life. Human rights in general is important to me.   The world and the community I was part of and which was closest to me included North Koreans. I call myself an “accidental activist” because it’s not a role I sought out. My experience was very different from those who start out wanting to write a book or do research and then seek out North Korean activists in order to do that.

What about the guy you helped get out of China, the one being held by a missionary like the characters in your novel?

In a safe house out on the border area, a man who’d escaped from North Korea was being held against his will. He begged me to get him out of the country. The missionary made it clear that he wasn’t going to get him out, and so the man had to pretend he was okay with the situation. Obviously, you’re not going to risk the modicum of safety you have by rebelling against the person who provided it. The man asked me to help him because he sensed that I was more receptive than the people who set God first, before the people they were looking after. That’s a very common situation, unfortunately. If you’re an escaped North Korean in the border area, what do you do? You don’t really have a choice. Are you going to get kicked out of the safe house and thrown out on the streets, where you run the risk of being captured and sent back to North Korea?

Who are the people helping North Koreans? NGOs or churches?

There are a lot of churches, there are individuals and a few non-denominational-related NGOs. There are some moderate Christians who get people out of China without imposing all kinds of conditions on them, but not many. Helping escaped North Koreans in China is life-threatening work. People who get involved have to have a real incentive, which can be God or money or both. It means they don’t want to let go of people.

I read that the missionary set gangsters after you?

Anyone who works at the border area in a developed, mature capacity has a relationship with gangsters. Otherwise you can’t do that work, which requires the escape, whole fake identification and everything. You need the aid of people who work in illegal capacities.  

Getting to your novel, I must tell you I really enjoyed it.  One of the things we talked about with your short story collection was your interest in how individuals are shaped by the country they live in. You talked about the country inside the person and the country outside the person. So with the novel, did you start with that in constructing Yongju, Danny and Jangmi? Say, with the idea of an elite North Korean who grows up sheltered from the realities of the country? Did you build the characters up from there? How did your process work?

I actually started with many more characters than the three who compelled me most. I couldn’t fit in as many stories as I wanted. I did want characters who represented different sides of North Korea. The famine was so powerful that people sometimes perceive North Koreans as just coming from a very poor place and being in great difficulty. With Yongju I wanted to show another side. He was also inspired by a North Korean friend of mine who is a poet and a very sensitive person. I very much wanted someone with that kind of gentle nature in the book.

Danny was inspired by a couple of articles I read in the Korean press and the English press about Korean-Chinese kids who were running with North Korean kids on the streets and providing them a certain amount of protection because they were not illegal and therefore had safety and more freedom.

Danny struck me as being different from the others in the sense of always having an escape door open. He also seemed a distinct individual and quite American, perhaps because we first meet him in the United States.

Danny’s more his own character because he doesn’t really belong anywhere, which may seem very American. He wasn’t accepted in America either. He has freedom that none of the others do—freedom of movement and freedom from fear. He isn’t afraid in the way that a refugee is. He doesn’t share almost anything about himself with anyone. For him it’s a masquerade that’s imposed on him. He enters the safe house, and he wants to be a part of the group. For the other two main characters, being North Korean means other people want certain things from you.

Jangmi was just inspired by countless women I’ve met and women’s stories I know of, variations of that terrible story of exploitation. Her story wasn’t taken from one person’s life, but I had so many models and examples. I felt I could very easily create my own character because I understood her best and felt so intimate with her.

Could you describe exactly what it means for each of these characters to become North Korean?  

As soon as you’re in China, you’re a target. When North Korean refugees cross into South Korea they face the same discrimination and perceptions by default of their identity alone. That also comes with privileges. North Koreans going overseas find that everyone wants to hear their story. This is not necessarily who they are, but just their nationality and the fact that they escaped. People who are truly complicated, sensitive individuals are stereotyped by their nationality as if it were a brand name. Obviously it’s important that their stories are listened to, but on the other hand there are consequences. A North Korean friend of mine has been constantly under surveillance and constantly taunted by a South Korean government official.

I’ve always been interested in identity, which appears here through the lens of national borders and national identity. The self is there, but the individual and the self aren’t always listened to. I didn’t intend to write this book in order to explore that, but writers can’t get away from their obsessions.

Do you think that over the last ten years or so there has been less discrimination against North Koreans in South Korea, or is the situation about the same?

I think it’s about the same but it’s better for a much younger age group because they’re growing up with more stories and more testimonies. Also, more North Koreans are being absorbed into the society. A lot of news agencies have at least one North Korean journalist, somebody who’s motivated to tell the powerful stories of North Koreans. That makes a big difference. You also have refugees coming of age here. They’re young and more vocal, which is definitely creating an understanding for everyone of that generation, but that’s a small group. People of an older generation have been too indoctrinated against North Koreans.

Change is slow. All the North Korean political issues can flare up and feed into the existing discrimination. Right now the economy is getting worse. When that happens North Koreans’ receiving subsidies and support become the target of envy. Poor South Koreans can feel left out.  “Look at the North Koreans. They get all this support, and I get nothing.”

When I was in Seoul I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and I was so moved that I decided I had to meet the memoirist, Chol-hwan Kang, to make sure he was all right. He was doing fine.

Right. He’s probably one of the most famous refugees. The educated people who came early and gave testimonies received a very different kind of treatment in South Korea than the others. They had a much easier time getting established. Because of his class and education and early entry into South Korea, Chol-hwan Kang has become part of the greater society in a way that a lot of others haven’t been able to.

Refugees leave South Korea because they think it’s a very difficult country to live in. It’s very competitive. The public is also not interested in or hungry for the stories of North Koreans, who aren’t listened to the way they are in the West. It’s just sad. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

There are a number of things about the craft of your novel that I really admire. For example, the three point-of-view characters have an average of seven chapters each–seven, eight and six. There’s a sense of real balance among the three.

Krys signing “Drifting House” in Manila in 2013.

That’s a relief, It was very hard to do a mixed point-of-view in a first novel. It took years of rewriting.

Well, I was impressed. Do you have any suggestions for other writers about how to do it?

It’s hard to say because I rewrote that book so many times. Chung-rae Lee said that if you’ve already written one novel you think the next one will be easier. Then you have to sit down and write the next one, and you see you have to learn how to do it all over again. Each book teaches you how to write that book.

I particularly liked the way you combined the character’s sensibility and point-of-view with place description. The character always seems to be there even though the subject may be a dark cave. Yongju says, “Each morning I woke up in the hollow full of orphans who had crossed out of hunger, to the music of misery in their  arrhythmic breathing, the grinding of their rotten teeth. The morning cold burrowed into my bones and made its home there and my hands and knees became slippery on the cool earth, and my eyelashes thick with the loose soil that trickled down. It was so dark that the word dark was inadequate. So dark it was as if I was dead. The cavc was full of haunted life and the stink of urine, and the only relief was to close my eyes and pretend that the darkness wasn’t there.”

I think when writing from a first-person point-of-view you have to totally enter the person’s perspective. With the first-person you have to know how they experience the world, how they see the world, what’s important to them in that world. Those details male up their vision of the world. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. Entering deep point-of-view is actually the biggest struggle. With a novel it takes much longer and requires getting farther inside the character’s total complex world than it does with a short story. Fully inhabiting the character takes a huge amount of energy and imagination, more than I’ve ever experienced before. I’m in my third book now, and I feel exactly the same way. You can’t sit down for an hour and write. It takes an hour to get into the world.

When you were in China near the border and moving around in the landscape, did it speak to you and show you how a scene could play out?

I wasn’t thinking of my book at all back then. I was thinking about the people I was trying to get out, who were living in very terrible circumstances. I was there as a person who was asked to do something good and right. That’s all I was. Writing was so far from my mind—so, no notes, nothing. What stayed with me were those things I recalled later, and then I did a bit of visual research. Ironically, another activist who was working on a project asked me to take a bunch of landscape photos for him because he’d been banned from China. So I took pictures for him. If I’d taken notes they probably would have been very useful, but it’s like when I was in Japan last week. I was too busy experiencing Japan, experiencing Tokyo to take notes for a possible short story.

In the end your experience would probably be more useful anyway.

I don’t live to write. I live, and things happen, and sometimes magically they do something in my fiction. My problems are that I’m slow and that I don’t work nearly as hard as writers who devote their whole lives to their art. By comparison I feel like a dilettante. I don’t have to look for ideas. I see things all the time that I care about or that interest me, but not all ideas are all meant to be written about. If it stays with you long enough, if it haunts you—if the character or the voice or an image haunts you—then it might be a good thing to pursue. It’s so hard to finish anything, whether it’s a poem, a short story, an essay or a novel, that if you don’t care enough about it, if your interest isn’t deep and sustained, you most likely will not enjoy the process of writing it as much as you could, and it won’t be as rewarding. There are many ways of being a writer, but that seems to be my way.

In your novel each chapter seems to have its own kind of independence in that there is at least one event encapsulated in it. The chapter organization seems to be one of the reasons why it works.

There are very distinct arcs, I think because it was my first novel and I came from a short story background. And yet I’ve always had big story arcs which I struggled to fit into stories. The chapters were distinct shapes for me. It’s not a quiet falling away. I like a lot of tension. I think I experience the world and daily life dramatically, which forms my characters.

With my third book I did something totally different, not in chronological order. I actually started consciously in chaos and went in reverse. If something excited me—an image or a line—I just went with it. I’m rewriting the book now and trying to let it find its own shape. For me as a writer, enjoying whatever I’m doing sometimes means doing something different each time. I like to play with the form.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book?

It is a political novel, and at the same time it’s real and yet not real. Since it was very important for me, it took a long time to get away from feeling that I had a responsibility to tell a certain story and to give myself the writer’s freedom to imagine. I think and I hope that I found a balance.

In many ways it presents a ghastly picture, but it does not feel polemic.

And I hope in the end there’s a little bit of hope there too. The book is over, but the characters live off the page. It’s an ongoing journey for them.

Toward the end Yongju summarizes the refugee experience beyond the scope of the novel: “This is how it happened. We fled in the broken footsteps. We scattered into small dark spaces in the backs of buildings, trains, and buses, through the great mouth of China. Our feet made fresh tracks as we weaved through mountains and made unreliable allies of the moon and the night and the stars. Every shadow a soldier, a border guard, an opportunist. Each body of water reminded us of the first river, the river of dreams and death, where we saw the faces of people we knew and would never know frozen beneath it. The children who had run and been caught and sent back. The pregnant women repatriated in our country and thrown in jail, forced to run a hundred laps until they aborted. The women who gave birth in the same jail and saw soldiers bash their new infants against a wall to save bullets. The countless others whose peaceful lives ended when an enemy informed on them—ours was one small story in all the other stories. We stumbled across the jungles and deserts of Southeast Asia, seeking safety and freedom. We would look and look. A few of us would find it.”


From Japan to North America, Reverse Culture Shock

by on Monday, October 31st, 2016

Nik and the rice fields in 1994

 Nik is a Canadian who had three stints working in Japan for a total of twelve years: 1992-94, 1997-2003 and 2007-11. He is now living just outside New York City, where he’s working in IT. It’s a two-hour flight from his childhood home in Nova Scotia. I reached him from the Philippines via Skype. (Thanks to Nik for the photos.)

Nik in 1995

Nik’s story

In 1992, I went to Japan on a working holiday visa. The idea with this international exchange program was that young people could work abroad for a year in order to supplement travel costs and experience the culture. There were so few Canadians going to Japan that I was able to work for two and a half years as an assistant English teacher in both junior and senior high schools in the Gifu and Nagoya areas.

In 1997-2003, I worked with computer-related companies. I first had a job with a venture business trying to develop a competitive product to Java, and then an internship in database programming and software development. I worked in Nagoya for four years, then moved just outside the Tokyo area with my wife and two boys. On the third stint in 2007-11, I was an application support engineer with a US-based company. I had a side project of gathering all of the company’s knowledge and making it searchable through one knowledge-based search system. This system became so popular that the company transferred me to the NY office.

2006–Nik and his wife Nana with their sons Taz and Leon

Durig my first time in Japan in q992, I met a lot of foreigners who were teaching English while trying to get into graduate school in Japanese universities, where a lot of the reading and writing can be done in English. The undergraduate programs were all in Japanese. I met a guy whose Japanese was really just fantastic and who was enrolled in an undergraduate program. I wanted to do that too, but I found that getting into a Japanese program in the sciences was extremely competitive. Some students spent years in an endless state of trying to write entrance exams before finally getting in. There was also the expense.  Japan was good for making money, but it was extremely expensive to study there.

So I decided to switch gears. I spent a year learning French and then went to the University of Montreal for computer science. However, I couldn’t shake my attachment with Japanese culture, so I lived in downtown Montreal with some young Japanese folks. My social life was mostly built around associating with Japanese people. One became my wife.

What drew you to the Japanese culture?

In learning basic Japanese and French, I discovered that Japanese people were quick to complement me, whereas French speakers would often snicker and tell me to speak English.  So I guess the praise and the humility of the Japanese culture I found very appealing. I didn’t feel awkward about making mistakes. But I was also frustrated that I didn’t get corrections. I was attracted to the lack of sarcasm, which I found extremely refreshing, although after some years in Japan I learned about alternate ways to be insincere.

I also found a lot of ingenuity among technical folks, and I was attracted to the amount of detail Japanese engineers used in figuring things out. I really enjoyed working with the technical people.

Nik and cherry blossoms in 1994

In Gifu and Nagoya I felt extremely welcome, connected both with the foreign community and with my Japanese friends. This part of Japan was extremely warm and welcoming. My wife is from Fukuoka, and I enjoyed my visits there as well. In Tokyo I found that, because of the large number of foreigners, there was a wall between Japanese and foreigners and that the Japanese would push me over to the other side of it,

The only time I felt truly connected with Tokyoites was during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. I was watching one of the final games outside an electronics shop which had a huge television screen in the window. Quite a large crowd had gathered. Korea’s star pitcher had already dispensed with several Japanese batters. He was at the top of his game, and most betting people probably thought Korea was going to win. But then Suzuki Ichiro was up, and he hit the ball to allow Japan to win the championship. Everyone was overjoyed. Strangers were talking to each other and to me. It was a wonderful experience. Overall, if I were to live in Japan I’d choose western Japan, not Tokyo.

What about reverse culture shock?

I experienced reverse culture shock three times. When I returned in 1995 I felt extremely disconnected with my own culture and the people around me. I’m not a generally a talkative person, but in Japan I never felt socially awkward. There was always a basis for starting a conversation: how long have you been in Japan? what do you do? Among foreigners there was a camaraderie which I missed back home. I’d meet people who’d lived in another foreign country, and I could identify a bit, but there was never the same level of connection I had with my foreigner friends in Nagoya.

In November 1994, between Japan and Canada I went to Hong Kong. A café waitress serving my coffee just plopped the cup down on the table, and some of it sloshed over the edge. That would never happen in Japan, where coffee was carefully set down with two hands and without noise or spillage.

In North America everything felt a little bit raw or in-your-face. In New York ethnic restaurants with Spanish-speaking or Middle Eastern people behind the counter, I didn’t know how loudly to project my voice in order to be heard. A big one was interrupting people. In Japan people are very respectful about allowing others to speak. Of course in a senpai-kohai [superior-junior] relationship that could change. When I first came to New York, I was dealing with Israeli-Americans and an Israeli manager and coworker. I couldn’t get a word in.

In my own family, everyone interrupts. For me it was a psychological trigger back to my childhood. While I was in Japan my social skills with people in my own culture remained at a standstill. When I came back people would ask me about something they considered common knowledge, and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Like what happened to Seinfeld and Friends.

Then I might get asked, “Why don’t you know that?”

“Excuse me, but I’ve been cryogenically frozen for the past seven years.”

Some people would laugh, but at first they were definitely a bit surprised.

Once in Canada I asked a Japanese for a certain number of meters of network LAN cable.

He said, “Why are you asking in meters? You’re Canadian. You say ‘feet.’”

On  the Internet, Japanese immigrants to Canada [who are undoubtedly struggling to become as Canadian as possible] would say, “You’re Canadian. You should know that.”

Canadians would just give me a funny look as if wondering whether I was really from there.

At the same time, my accent had mellowed out so I didn’t sound markedly Canadian. In the US a lot of people don’t pick up on my not being American right away. If they know I’m Canadian they expect me to know about, say, a well-known Canadian band I’d never heard of.

Going back to 1995 when I was 21 years old, at first I couldn’t identify culturally with a lot of people my age. But after maybe two or three months I discovered there were large groups of people who were actually very interested in Japan and maybe interested in going themselves. They wanted to ask about my experience. People were impressed when I spoke with my Japanese girlfriend and would come up and ask me questions. That was mostly in Vancouver, but in Montreal it happened as well. There it was awkward. I’d be reading a Japanese book on the Metro and people would ask in French what I was reading and where I learned Japanese. I wouldn’t be able to respond because my French wasn’t very good yet. Finally, I bought an Oxford guide to French grammar, read that on the Metro, and immediately people assumed I was a regular Anglophone learning French. They stopped talking to me.

Where there’s culture shock, there’s also culture benefit. Learning Japanese was the catalyst which led me to the career I have. It became my buki, my formidable or marketable professional skill immediately after I arrived in Canada. From then on I could always rely on my Japanese speaking ability as a tool I could use professionally.

During my first time in Japan, it seemed that the only Japanese people who wanted to talk to me were those who wanted to practice their English, while I was trying to practice Japanese. It was like a river of Japanese people coming downstream toward me while I was trying to get upriver.. I was dead-set on speaking only Japanese even though that probably meant closed doors and missed opportunities.

But there are well-educated people in Japan who speak educated English very well, so instead of having baby conversations in Japanese you can have intelligent conversations in English. There were also foreigners who were intellectually transferring their Western life to Japan while being well paid as English instructors or business people, so they had no incentive to learn Japanese.

What about the earthquakes?

About the Fukushima earthquake, on March 11, 2011, I was at work in Tokyo. I had experienced lots of smaller quakes. At first the shaking wasn’t scaring me even though most people were leaving, but one shake had such a depth that I thought that the building might come down. I was in the middle of the floor, probably the most dangerous place. Half or two-thirds of the computer monitors flipped over. There were no extremely huge tremors after that, but when I was outside I saw a lot of buildings swaying, which means they were probably more structurally sound. Our eight-floor building was not. The ones that just shake and don’t sway are the ones that crumble to pieces. I was extremely glad to be out of there. The most difficult part was that the tremors didn’t stop for days and even weeks. At night you couldn’t sleep. Every after-tremor might be the big one.

The earthquake was on Friday. For the following week we had a schedule of rolling blackouts to save power. On the Monday after the quake there was a sudden, nonscheduled power outage with a warning maybe an hour before. My company was figuring out whether people should go back to the office or not.  I asked my manager if I could work remotely from Kyushu. The following Wednesday I continued working in Kyushu at my in-laws. Because of power outages in Tokyo I was the only Japan contact the American offices had. I was online and could tell the American office that the tsunami did not reach Tokyo, that it was just a sudden, unplanned power outage.

In Tokyo after the earthquake all of the convenience stores had nothing left to sell. The trains stopped running, but there were shuttle buses to the airport. As soon as I got to Kyushu, I found it surreal that it looked so totally unaffected. It was like night and day, although people were very concerned about the tsunami that hit Fukushima. Kyushu felt like a safe haven from the quakes. You may know that Kumamoto in Kyushu had an earthquake this year.

How did you adjust to Japanese working environment?

For several months in 1997 I worked in a smoking office. People were smoking right beside me. I found that extremely stressful. After some concessions I was allowed to move to a no-smoking floor. Once I was on the ferry from Kyushu to Osaka, and a Japanese gentleman came right up to me and asked what I found the biggest cultural difference between Japan and North America. I didn’t want to tell him it was cigarette smoke because he was smoking right in front of me and I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. I just wanted to get away from him.

How about things, like the way the hierarchy functions and the way Westerners are treated?

Since I went to Japan at nineteen, in many ways I learned how to be a functional adult in Japan. Probably I would have had a different experience had I remained in Canada longer. That led to more culture shock in North America. In Japan the pecking order is very clearly defined, including linguistically. When I learned Japanese–and I think a lot of foreigners do the same thing—I imitated the way people spoke to me, so if they spoke to me in honorific Japanese I would reply to them in honorific Japanese. If they spoke to me in plain Japanese, I would reply in plain Japanese. This can be awkward. If you establish a relationship with your company president and four months later you realize speaking plain Japanese to him is totally inappropriate, what do you do? Switching over is also stressful. So even though my language with the company president was wrong, I continued using it with him because of the rapport we’d established. It was the same with friends I made early in Japan, people I spoke to in English. Sometimes they would go away for a year. By the time they came back I was already comfortably speaking Japanese, but because our rapport was already established in English, I would revert to English with them.

After many years in Japan I did discover that not everybody followed the rules. There are people who may be at various places on the Asperger’s scale, who don’t pick up on social cues the way 99% of their fellow Japanese do, and so they speak in rough or inappropriate language. They just get segmented out so they aren’t forefront in social situations. They aren’t trusted to deal with customers, but are put in a back room. Not picking up on the cues doesn’t necessarily mean being ostracized. They’re just treated differently.

It’s the same with foreigners. I remember reading—I think it was a guide to etiquette–advice against trying to be Japanese because it would only confuse people. Just use your best Western etiquette. A book like that was written for Western business people, not a kid of 19 who was trying to immerse himself in the culture. I probably did end up confusing people by trying to act Japanese, to the point where I did actually begin to develop something of a Japanese persona.

How did you find moving back to a Western workplace?

I came to really appreciate a lot of aspects of Japan. In the US, and probably in Canada too, there’s a bit of a fight-or-flight phenomenon in the workplace and in personal relationships. In Japan there’s a group mentality, along with the concept of dealing with a problem until it’s resolved, although younger Japanese businesses don’t necessarily operate this way. Traditionally, a problem is handled within the group. That includes how to deal with an employee who can’t be trusted with business decisions anymore. The idea is they don’t fire people. Lifelong employment is not a business policy but a social dynamic. The first impulse is to restructure the group in a way that works for the group, not to get rid of the guy.

Anything that you want to talk about that I haven’t asked?

Just that what’s going to happen in the future is anyone’s guess. In some ways I was disappointed that Japan lost the mobile phone race. They were the first to introduce color liquid crystal screens and to make smart phones. Then US companies like Apple and Google came and took their lead away. Japan has a way to go in terms of learning how to innovate and improvise. They’re a great culture in terms of following established formulae, but not in coming up with new ideas. I hope it finds a way to reinvent itself. But with China as the world’s number two economy, I think I’d tell young people they’d be better off learning Chinese.

Would you like to move back?

Not at this stage. My wife and I would be interested in retiring there. There’s a lot we love about Japan. Right now we’re pretty happy in the US with our three boys.

A reader writes:

Interesting story about Nik and his Japan experiences, specially now that I’m in Tokyo for a short vacation far from his extensive stories however. Great read just the same and an eye opener for many.


Cindy Starts a Business in Japan

by on Thursday, October 13th, 2016

Lucinda Lohman-Oota and her husband Hiro

Many of the things Cindy says about the traditional workplace in Japan are also true in Korea: the cozy relationship of government and large corporations, which undermines small and medium-sized companies, the obligatory after-work drinking sessions, the mandatory early retirement, the ambivalence about having foreigners in the workplace and—particularly in Japan—the marginalization of foreigners. Fortunately, shortly after having been knocked down by early retirement, Cindy was on her feet again, making a new career for herself and finding more freedom and more satisfaction in trying new things.  

 Cindy’s story

On January 29, 2014, my life as I had known disappeared forever. My mother and I were very close. On that same day, she died in Maine. I was also downsized from my job as in-house legal counsel at a Japanese  pharmaceutical company where I had worked for 4 years. I was 55 and had spent two-thirds of my professional life in Japan, quite often feeling excluded and marginalized. I felt unanchored and yet strangely liberated. It was a time of immense change, upheaval, personal growth and the beginning of a new adventure.

Fortunately, three or four months earlier I’d already started thinking of switching to something with more lifestyle balance—perhaps freelancing as an legal translator. Toward this end, I spent a year—April 2014 to March 2015—in an intensive Japanese language program at a YMCA. I was quite perplexed to have tested into the highest of 12 levels, since I had always been told by my Japanese colleagues that “my Japanese was not good enough.” I was put into a class of fifteen Chinese students, all  aged twenty-five or younger. Being Chinese, they all knew the characters, the kanji. I had to study four to five hours a day outside of the five hours of class at the YMCA just to keep up. Week after week, I kept getting essays backed bleeding red, because I could not write the characters properly by hand. Prior to this, I had not even so much written an email, let alone full-blown essays! I would come home in tears of frustration because I couldn’t keep up. I’d fail a paper or exam and have to do it over. What I really wanted was the grammar and vocabulary to pass the first level of the Japanese level proficiency exam, which I eventually did.

I decided to leave the Japanese language program and said to myself, “Eh, I’m fifty-five, I’m not doing this for anybody but me. It’s okay  not to finish.”Passing the proficiency exam was good enough. I am sooo over doing things to please others.

Before all of this, I’d spent the better part of twenty-five years in Japan, ten at a very traditional Japanese law firm, four at the large Japanese pharmaceutical company, and the remainder in similar jobs. The pharmaceutical company hired me because they had a US company and decided that they should “globalize”. I was part of that initiative. Now, the problem for foreigners is that people may want to hire you because of those magic words, “globalize globalize, globalize,” even though there’s no consensus about what “globalize” means. Or maybe there’s only one person who wants to hire a foreigner—your boss—but after a honeymoon period of three to six months, the newness wears off and you are judged by Japanese standards. You don’t go out drinking enough, you take too many vacation days, you are too loud, you ask too many questions…. You start to lose your self-confidence pretty quickly. You start to believe what you are told over and over.

At the pharmaceutical company, the head of the legal department told me that I needed to go out drinking more in order to set an example for other people. In Japan people don’t talk at work, ever. So this usually obligatory drinking or getting together is part of your work. It’s how you get to know people and make connections. My thought was that I was setting a good example, especially for women, by showing that your off-work time was private and that work-life balance was important. When I was being pushed out, they told me I wasn’t Japanese enough because I took too many vacation days. (I was allowed 20 in my contract and had taken 10.)Basically, you’re excluded, you’re marginalized and you start to internalize  and believe what you are told.

On the other hand, I have had fantastic opportunities in Japan—exciting work with top companies, more responsibility than I would have had if I had stayed in the U.S., like the chance to teach law.

Anyway, I decided that I wanted more autonomy. That’s why I didn’t want to be just a freelancer; I wanted my own company. This decision came from desperation more than anything else. The greater Kansai area—Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe—has a large GDP, but for foreign women there are almost no jobs here. Whatever you want to do, you have to do it on your own.I was faced with a lot of things I’d never done before. I’m good at what I do, but I’ve never been the type of person who’s eager to acquire new skills.

I started by coming up with a name for the company. InScribe Language Consulting. Then I did a business plan for the services I’d provide initially—translation, editing and teaching Business English. I’d been an ESL teacher for a long time, and I thought teaching would provide me with a springboard to get into companies so once people got to know me they’d ask me to do some editing or translation.

I needed to have a sense of mission. It couldn’t just be about my bank account. So for my target clients, I decided to focus on small and medium-sized companies because the whole Japanese economy is set up to benefit the large multi-national companies, which are well connected to the government and the banks. The smaller companies really get squeezed. Over my years as a lawyer, I’d seen that the biggest risk for small and medium-sized companies came from lack of sophistication and the lack of a level playing field. Offering language would give small and medium-sized companies access to a good professional who could help them to do websites, give business advice for globalizing, and otherwise help them reduce the risk and increase their reputation. That would be contributing to a sector of the economy that was under-served. I am very passionate about helping the economic underdog.

Although I talk about autonomy, I need to give full credit to my Japanese husband of close to 25 years, who is a law professor at a prestigious private university. He has supported me emotionally and financially throughout this transition, including actually doing translation work. In June of 2015, he also found a wonderful month-long class offered by the city for entrepreneurs. It was four Sundays in a row, four hours each time, and it took you through setting up a business, all the way through registering the business and accounting requirement.

So, one year after losing my job and my mom, I had passed the difficult proficiency test and started down the road to being an entrepreneur. From that point, I was faced with innumerable challenges—doing things I had never done before—like setting up my own website. I spent hours and hours looking at websites of competitive companies-50 for translators, 50 for editors, and 50 for freelance English teachers. I spent a lot of time networking with people who were doing what I wanted to do, both in person and online. I was amazed by their generosity and encouragement. I didn’t have enough confidence to draft the web content myself, so I outsourced it to someone I found online. I paid her $500 for about six pages of text. When it came back, it was repetitive and needed editing. I began to suspect I was competent at more things than I’d thought I was!

I found a great office situation with 3 other foreign women entrepreneurs from Norway, Switzerland and India. One of my office-mates designs websites, and she showed me where I could find stock photos, which I’d never heard of before. I chose ones I liked, all Japan-based. Because I wanted to market us as a husband and wife legal professional team, I arranged for a photographer to spend the day in Kyoto,taking shots of me and my husband. Then I worked with my office-mate and her husband to get my website up and running. Before this experience I didn’t know what a web host was or a service provider was. Now I do.

We’re now coming up on the first anniversary of the business. We have business cards, a dedicated bank account for business only, the website, a virtual secretary and an accountant. I also invested in a new computer and downloaded some new translation software.I’m a member of five or six professional organizations for copy editors and translators in Japan and elsewhere. I just finished a year-long copy editing program at the University of San Diego. It’s one of three in the US that’s pretty highly regarded in the industry.

More importantly,I have clients who come back to me. There’s a song from The Sound of Music that’s going through my head. Julie Andrews is singing,“I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that spring will come again. Beside which you see I have confidence in me.”It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up every morning knowing that it’s a new day and that I’m in charge of how it goes. I no longer feel marginalized or excluded. I often have a sense of joy and anticipation that I hadn’t felt in a while. It was always,“Just grin and bear it. You’re getting well paid. There is nothing you can do about it.”

My clients include a medium-sized law firm, where I work 2 days a week. I enjoy the people there. It’s very laid-back, I go in and do translation, editing and legal work. The job provides me with a stable income so I’m no longer in constant fear of being unable to pay my bills.

As for other clients—I just recently finished drafting an application for UNESCO patronage for a foreign scientist working at a national university; I have fun writing a monthly newsletter for a foreign real estate agency. I met this woman on LinkedIn. I put myself out there, made myself vulnerable, by sending her an email saying I also had a business, why not meet for coffee and see whether we could work together. When we sat down, she knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted me to help her with her website and also do a newsletter for her. The newsletter has turned into a golden opportunity for me because I need to contact people and interview them for the little articles I write, and that in turn helps expand my own network.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of English language websites, either from scratch or from a draft written in English. There’s a huge market for that in Japan right now because the economy is increasingly focusing on tourism as its one last hope. Lots of small and medium-sized companies are rushing to have English language features to their websites. As a result of the small jobs I get and the skills I discover I have, the focus of the business is shifting in completely unanticipated ways, like web content, grant writing, letter writing.

These small successes have given me confidence to tackle some larger projects—doing some direct marketing instead of doing the Asian thing and waiting for introductions. Some of my marketing efforts have failed, others produce surprising results. The success of the direct approach was a surprise.I assumed in Japan I’d need introductions.

I don’t. I am my own introduction.

I’m doing things I never thought I could do. I don’t think of myself as a lawyer anymore, but as a business owner. It’s scary sometimes because it starts with and ends with me. At the same time,that’s very liberating.

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A reader writes: I liked the article, very uplifting. 



Baihana’s First Album

by on Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

At the end of October, 2014, I interviewed the three members of the Baihana, which means “woman” in Cebuano. Krina Cayabyab (soprano, songwriter and arranger–center in above photo), Anna Achacoso (soprano–right) and Mel Torre (alto–left) talked about their music and their individual lives. The post is available via the link in the right column on the screen as Philippihes. A Filipina Vocal Group at Tago Jazz Cafe. Recently Baihana celebrated their eighth anniversary with their first album. I attended the album launches at 12 Monkeys in Makati and Historia in Quezon City. Mel and I talked again before the second launch on August 30.

Mel’s story

Melinda Torre

I’m a fan, as you know, and I love the album. Why don’t you tell my readers about your music in general and also a bit about each song on the album?

Our music is heavily influenced by the 1940s by the Andrew Sisters’ pop swing, by the sound of the Chordettes and more recently by Manhattan Transfer and The New York Voices. We use a lot of vocal harmony. Since early this year we’ve been adventuring more into the more frightening waters of a capella, so it’s just the three of us without musicians behind us. Or we sing in collaboration with other groups, a beat boxer or a bassist.

The album contains some of our favorite songs from over the years, and some are more radio-friendly, which we think will entice listeners to hear our music as accessible. People might think of jazz harmony as something that they wouldn’t understand or that would be challenging to listen to. So with this album we’re trying to bridge that gap.

But also so that jazz people won’t turn up their noses up at it, right?

I hope not. We worked really hard on it. Our sound has matured over the years. When we started it was a lot more Andrew Sisters, but now it’s a lot more personal. Baihana has a sound of its own. Krina does our arrangements, and most of the songs are in Tagalog. Most of the album is original songs based on our personal experience—heartbreaks and lessons learned. For us this album is a story of ourselves and not just a random collection of songs.

Why don’t we go through the list?

1. “Isaw” is one of our first original songs, written by Krina. In 2010 it won the best song in the novelty category at the FILSCAP [Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] Songwriting Competition. It was one of our first awards. “Isaw” is based on an event in Krina’s life at UP [University of the Philippines], when she ate ten sticks of isaw and then got sick afterwards. It’s a Filipino street food, basically intestines [chitlins or chitterlings] . We all graduated from UP, and “Isaw” is kind of our ode to the school. Several members of AMP Big Band played on that track, and Mel Villena did the big band orchestration.

2. “Problem,” originally by Ariana Grande, goes back to our roots with the sound of the Andrew Sisters, but with a contemporary popular song.

3. “Java Jive” (The Ink Spots, 1935, Manhattan Transfer, 1975) is a favorite we’ve been singing for seven or eight years. We freshened it up for this album by having Lester Sorilla play trumpet.

4. “Chill” is an original song written by Krina, and I think this is really her advice to herself. It’s about taking the time to relax if you’re busy and knowing when it’s time to pull back. The sound is very Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

5. Anna wrote the lyrics for “Bintana” [window], and Krina did the music. It’s was about Anna’s still having a weird connection with a guy she’d already broken up with. So even if the door was closed a window was still open, which was confusing and hurtful.

6. “Sirena/Pusong Bato” is my personal favorite. It’s a playful mixture of two very popular Filipino songs. In a way it’s very technical, but not so much that listeners don’t enjoy it.

7. I wrote the lyrics and a simple blues melody for “Make it Hurt,” and Krina made the fancy, funky arrangement. I drew it from my experience when I first started singing about ten years ago. I realized that life was too short not to go after what you want, so I quit my job at a call center without a back-up plan. For two years I worked on my music career—this was way before I met Baihana. It was a struggle, and I really had to hold on. I was singing in small bars with a guitarist, earning 300 pesos a night for five hours. I was baking cakes to make a bit of extra cash. The song is about not giving up, holding on, even if it hurts. It was very unyogic. Yoga is a little more about detachment, letting go of external things and learning to distinguish between external things and who you are as a person. And this was about not letting go. But I wouldn’t be here now if I’d just given up.

8. “I know” is Krina’s song about her ex and that feeling you get when you know the relationship is about to go south.

9. “Let Me Love You,” with Anna’s lyrics and Krina’s music. The arrangement is very pure, just vocals, piano and cello, so that the poignancy of the song would show through. It’s about her and her love for her husband.

10. “Donna Lee” is Charlie Parker with Tagalog lyrics. It’s about how much we love jazz. It’s usually the song jazz musicians appreciate most when we perform outside the country, because they all know “Donna Lee” and they appreciate that we put Tagalog lyrics to it even if they don’t understand them.

11. “Mamang Kutsero” was written by Krina’s dad, Ryan Cayabyab. We got the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra to play the music. So it’s a super-special last track.

All of the songs have Paolo Cortez on guitar, Julius Lopez on bass, Jesper Mercado on keyboard and Karmi Santiago on drums.

Baihana at the Historia launch with Paolo Cortez on guitar

We’re really proud of the album. We produced it ourselves with no record label, completely independently. We relied a lot on help from friends. For example, for “Mamang Kutsero” the orchestra played for us for free. We still haven’t made back what we put into it. Our struggle now is to market and sell it. We’d like to reach a wider audience, which is where the international release will come in.

Sax and brass from AMP Big Band, Julius Lopez on bass, Baihana

When are you anticipating that will happen?

We’re still waiting for some tracks to be remastered and remixed. We’ll get them in September, so probably around October, just in time for our concert November 18 at the Music Museum. You were at the other album launch at 12 Monkeys, right? We got the album that day, and we weren’t even sure it would arrive in time. There wasn’t enough time to market the album. That’s why we decided to move the Music Museum concert to November 18. It will be more a thanksgiving show than an album launch.

How would you say Baihana has grown as a group over the last eight years?

We definitely sound tighter. Even though we still sound different, we sound more blended. No one voice sticks out, compared to how we sounded when we began. Krina doesn’t have to direct us as much, although sometimes she has to indicate where she wants the song to go. Our voices have also matured individually. But we always want to sound better and better. I think we find it easier to learn new songs. We’re much more familiar with Krina’s arrangement style. We’re also a lot more comfortable performing than we used to be when we stood there frozen. People would say, “You guys look so shy” or “You look so scared.” We’re still shy and scared sometimes, depending on the audience and the venue, but at least now we’re more comfortable putting on a game face.

Mel and Krina

What I saw was people who were very relaxed and joking with the audience and having a good time. That was at least twice at Tago and once at City Club.

Well, we’ve definitely improved in that respect. Even my mom said so, and she’s hard to please. We’ve also gotten more comfortable with giving each other feedback, whereas in the beginning we weren’t that close as friends, so it was hard to tell another person she was singing a note wrong.

Do you think Filipinos are reticent to offer criticism? I noticed that when I took a couple of creative writing classes at UP.

For sure. Actually, even now we’re very careful to be nice to each other when we provide feedback.  It works for us because there’s no hard feelings.

What events have you been to since we talked the last time?

I think we told you already about the World Youth Jazz Fest, right? February last year Diane Schuur played in Manila with AMP Big Band, and we opened for her. It was so nerve-wracking, knowing that she was probably backstage listening. She’s got a super-sharp ear. But my God, the experience was amazing. I was in tears after we performed and she was singing. Her voice is still so good, and she can still hit those hit those high notes.

In November of 2015 we participated in the Tokyo Manila Jazz and Art Fest, the second Tokyo-Manila jazz festival held here in the Philippines. There were a lot of Filipino acts, like The Brat Pack. Isabella, the daughter of Kuh Ledesma, is now venturing into jazz. Of course the big star was Charito, a Filipino jazz singer based in Tokyo. She brought her amazing Japanese band with her.


Also in November, when APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] was here we did four or five performances of a suite put together for the event. We worked with the Philippine Opera Company to show a different kind of harmony, then also with a traditional folk dance group. We did four performances, two in Manila, one in Cebu or Davao and one in Iloilo.

Around the same time we started to record the album, and we were rehearsing for Lani Misalucha’s European tour. She’s a great singer, and I’ve been a fan of hers since I was a kid. For all of us it was a dream come true to sing backup for her. The best thing was she gave us a couple of our own spot numbers when she was changing costumes. So we got to show our stuff to audiences in Europe–London, Manchester, Norway, Denmark, Geneva and Finland.

What time of year was it? How was the weather?

That was late April to mid-May of this year, so springtime. The weather was perfect. It was cool, but the longer periods of daylight were starting.

April this year we ventured into a full a capella show with Pinopela, a nine-member a capella group based in Baguio. We’d met them a couple of years ago at the A Capella Open. It was super-challenging for us to do a whole show a capella because we’re used to the comfort of having a band. Usually we do at most one or two songs a capella. It was really nerve-wracking because we had to have choreography and then costume changes in-between. We had to practice with the choreography a lot so it wouldn’t show when we were out of breath.

Actually, choreography is not a bad idea.

For sure. It made a huge difference. We’re used to a small space, but this was on a big stage at RCBC in Makati [Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation]. For a show like that we can’t just stand still, especially if we’re singing lively a capella. Now we’ve finished recording the album and the album launch at 12 Monkeys. We’re getting ready to take the a capella show to Baguio.

Do you feel that you have grown, apart from wanting more exposure?

We have definitely grown musically. We’re more comfortable performing. After doing that a capella show all of us felt that there was nothing we couldn’t do. As far as exposure is concerned, we still have a long way to go. We haven’t tapped into social media much yet. Really just Facebook and Instagram for us. We need to build our base and to get our music out there. We only have a few songs on Youtube.

Paulo Cortez on guitar, Anna, Jesper Mercado on keys

How old are you?

I’m 33. Krina and Anna are 28, turning 29.

So you could have another 40 years of singing.

That’s the plan, to go for as long as we can.

What about the work-life balance? You’ve got a lot of things going with teaching yoga.

I have only about eight classes a week of 60 or 90 minutes each, so that’s not bad at all.  But Krina is teaching and studying musicology at UP, and Anna has a full day’s work six days a week in the bakery and café. She and her mom also sing backup for a singing contest on ABS-CBN. That’s six to nine in the evening. She has rehearsal, then there’s waiting time, and the show is about an hour long.

Baguio concert September 24

We sing two or three times a week and we’re preparing for the a capella tour in Baguio. So we only really rehearse if we have a new song or songs we haven’t sung in a while. We’ll rehearse them with a band and among ourselves. But aside from that, each of us practices on her own so that when we rehearse together, maybe once a week, we all know our parts, and it’s just a matter of cleaning things up. If we have a big show coming up, we rehearse two to three times a week, especially if there’s choreography.

What’s your feeling about bringing Filipino elements into more international jazz?

I think we should. Early last year we went to a festival in Taiwan, where we met a band who played jazz standards on all traditional Taiwanese instruments. It was all instrumental. But we did learn a Taiwanese folk song. I loved it. It was a children’s song with nonsense words which imitated the sound of the rain on the roof of a train.

I’m not well versed in traditional Filipino instruments, but Anna has a degree in Asian music, so she should know. I’ve been hounding her for the longest time to accompany one of our songs on a traditional Asian instrument. She said the tuning was different so she would have to retune the instrument.

The scales are different.

Right. So it wouldn’t be that easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. I think Bob Aves is doing stuff like that, jazz fused with Filipino elements. A couple of years back he did at one of the Philippine International Jazz Festival.

Johnny Alegre is doing world fusion in addition to western-style standards. But he has a couple of groups, right? Humanfolk and Johnny Alegre Affinity.

I’m not sure when we will get around to it. It’s not in our immediate project.

What do you see as the next thing you’ll be doing?

After the concert? I’m not sure. We’re talking to a group of people now who might manage us, so a lot of things are kind of up in the air. We would definitely love to start participating in more festivals abroad, like Java Jazz [in Jakarta, Indonesia] and other international festivals. Next year I think is their tweveth year. For the past three years we’ve gone there to watch. It’s kind of a tradition. But we’ve never applied to perform there, although it’s a dream of ours.

Hopefully, one day we’ll do a tour of our own. When we were on Lani’s tour we made some friends in London and the other places we visited. We could maybe ask them for help. Then also the new manager could make the arrangements. One of the things we’ve learned is how hard it is to manage ourselves while also worrying about the creative side. Haggling with clients over the price and also performing. We really need to have management.

To purchase the album, go to Baihana’s Facebook page at

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Photos of BASECO on Manila Bay

by on Sunday, August 28th, 2016

BASECO children on Manila Bay

A nun from Missionaries of Charity

Nicer housing we passed on the way

In September of 2007, my friend Bob Barton and I went to  BASECO with our friend André and nuns from the Missionaries of Charity. I think Bob’s photos show the friendliness and resiliency I have often observed among the poor.

The community is on a stretch of reclaimed swampland bordered by Manila Bay and the Pasig River. It’s called BASECO for the shipyard, Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company, which has abandoned it.

After turning off a main road, the van passed through a better-looking housing development and then stopped not far from the water’s edge.

About 12,000 of Manila’s poorest families live here as squatters, euphemistically called “informal settlers,” who are under constant threat of natural disasters, eviction and demolition.

We make our way to the squatters’ village

High water forces residents out on a regular basis. Fire breaks out every few years—maybe because of landfill gas rising from the dump below—and spreads quickly through the ramshackle huts, along with rumors that fire was deliberately set in order to clear the area. Infectious disease spreads easily.

A few years ago BASECO gained notoriety as a place where economic necessity forced residents to sell their blood and sometimes their kidneys for transplants into the bodies of rich foreigners. Malnutrition leads to underweight and under-height. A large number of children do not complete elementary school.

The ramshackle huts we saw were put together with bamboo and whatever pieces of corrugated iron, cardboard, bamboo, scrap wood and plastic sheeting. Some houses were on stilts with space in the bamboo floors allowing people to see the sand and water below.

The people were curious about these foreigners and friendly. Predictably, when Bob pulled out his pocket-sized camera he attracted a crowd of children, and he kept shooting after the rain splattered and streaked his lens.

Several boys were happy to run and fetch the soap because the rain gave them an opportunity to take a bath.

We took a look at the church and said goodbye.

Afterwards, André, Bob and I went for coffee at the nearby Manila Hotel—so, from one end of the economic scale to the other. (Click on a photo to enlarge.)


Bob and me











A Vision List

by on Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Geri with fruit

When I met Geri in Seoul in 2006, she struck me as being always cheerful and positive, but also definitely intelligent. After I left Korea in 2007 we kept in touch via Facebook and sometimes saw each other when I made my annual trip to Seoul. This interview took place over Skype, when Geri was in Seoul and I was in Manila. Thanks to Geri for the wonderful photographs.  

Geri’s story

Hiking in Korea

I was raised in Idaho around Mormons and Methodist farmers—good, hardworking, solid German stock. Before me no one in the family had gone to college or traveled, except for an uncle who died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Wake Island. I went to the University of Oregon and got a degree in architecture, but the dysfunction of my upbringing derailed me and sent me off in a different direction.

By 2003 I was on my second marriage, which lasted 26 years, and I had four kids who were almost out of the house. I’d become a therapist—because that’s what you do if you’re looking for a way to fix yourself, right?—and I was working in a women’s recovery home in the Ventura, California, a beach town with a conservative edge to it. My husband and I had been in marriage counseling for five years, and it wasn’t working. We were $80,000 in debt. We had lost our business, our house, everything. He was working under the table, so I was the one the creditors were coming after. I spent a lot of time being very angry at him. He deserved a lot of it.

The moment came when we were in a Mexican restaurant and I was really pissed off for some reason. As I looked at him, I felt a wave coming over my body, and I thought, “You poor man. You’ve been living with this really angry person for all these years.” It was at this point that I truly took responsibility for myself. Then my perspective shifted, and said to myself, “I’m responsible for my own happiness.”

That was a huge thing for me. But then I got the brilliant idea to leave my husband, who was no longer in charge of my happiness, move across the country to Baltimore and reconnect with my old boyfriend from high school. I also wanted to get far away from my husband to avoid being stalked. By the time I got to Baltimore I was willing to tell a potential employer I would do anything, just hire me. I was hired as a mental health worker, which is a very hard job, for $12 an hour. But it got me back on track. I’d been there for a few weeks, I told an old friend, “Oh my God, I made a huge mistake.”

He said, “Get your career together, get your life together, get everything together, and when everything falls into place you’ll know what to do.”

That was in 2004. I put my head down and worked very hard in an on an in-patient treatment program for adolescents in a very big health organization. I stayed there for two and a half years and paid off all the debts. When it came time for me to leave, I was doing some networking, and I found out about treatment programs for the US military overseas. I called the program and said, “I’d like to go to Germany, please.”

I think this was about family tradition and trying to find some connection with my family line. My grandmother was German. In high school and college I took five years of the language in order to become a high school German teacher, but I quit because the education classes were so boring.

The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Ah, well, there’s no place there, but you could go to South Korea.”

“There are nuclear things over there, right?”

So I vetted it for a while and asked myself why not. I did some meditation and prayer. “God, you have to get me out of here. I want to go overseas. You have to help me because I don’t have the money and I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

I made a big “vision list” of what I wanted my life to look like: job, working conditions, house, car and relationship—all without reference to culture. I was very intent about it when I did it. Within a very short time I got a call. In July of 2006, I was on a plane for South Korea. I had no idea about moving overseas, but I was so desperate to leave Baltimore that I was willing to do anything.

Geri in Kyoto

My personality is such that I will be scared to death and do it anyway. I was terrified. I’d thought I’d had enough culture shock moving from California to Baltimore. Coming to Korea was a lot harder. After few days of being here by myself with no one to really talk to and no contacts, I decided to walk down the hill from my house and have dinner. I walked into a Korean restaurant and I saw all these slippers at the bottom of the little steps. I guessed that I was supposed to take my shoes off and put some slippers on. When I came marching into the restaurant I caused a big commotion. So they took me back to the entryway and made me take the slippers off. I was wearing someone else’s. That was the beginning of my fumbling my way through the first year in Korea.

Over here I felt like a cork on an ocean, bobbing around with nothing firm beneath me. But I just sat down and tried to do the best I could with my job. I really fell in love with Korea. I went on the Royal Asiatic Society tours all over the country. I loved the lectures they held twice a month, Tuesday night at the Summerset Hotel. I loved meeting all kinds of people, and I finally felt I had found my niche. I feel comfortable. When I was growing up I felt an affinity with exchange students and other people who were different. I loved trying to figure out the language. I took a couple of classes and learned hangǔl [the Korean alphabet]. I’d sit on the subway and listen to the announcer call out the stations and sound out the hangǔl, and that’s how I learned. I’d get taxis to take me places, and I’d watch how the driver got around. That’s how I learned to drive in Korea.

Geri and Chris scuba diving

I’m a contractor for an international corporation as a counselor for military dependents in the high school on the US Army post at Yongsan. As a contractor, I live off the base. I don’t have as many privileges as a civilian working for the government, but I have commissary and PX privileges and SOFA status. I have a good job because I get to support the military by working with the kids who have mental health problems and academic problems. It’s a hard job. It’s stressful, but I feel that I’m serving a purpose, a calling. It’s fulfilling.

The Aikido group with the Grand Master

Seven years ago I met Chris, who teaches humanities, world history, psychology and sociology at the high school on the US Army post. I’d done yoga for fifteen years. I started learning Aikido from him and then studied under a Grand Master Nubuo Maekawa in Kyoto. I got my black belt. I think that’s has been very good for my self-confidence. It has also influenced my therapy. I’ve written a couple of articles for the Grand Master’s annual journals about it. Chris also talked me into getting certified in scuba diving. I had to kind of talk myself through my panic attacks, but I got certified. So I’ve done two things I’d always thought as a kid would be really cool, to be like a Jaques Cousteau and to be a ninja. I’m an avid photographer and I take a lot of pictures

My employer didn’t help me find a place to live but did steer me to a couple of realtors, and I got a place through them. I think I am a pretty proactive person. I’ve always been that way. If something has to be done, I just do it even if I’m terrified. I’m not really good socially in big groups, and I’m not that great about making friends. One-on-one I’m good, and with coworkers I’m pretty good. But in groups I feel hesitant—no, I need to change that. I used to be that way. I think Korea has changed me. When a taxi driver says, “Are you American?” I say, “No, I’m Korean.”

Our mountain god

I do feel I have an Asian quality about me, but it wasn’t necessarily conscious. Some of my adolescent interest was very superficial, like the television show Kung Fu, an American action-adventure martial arts drama with David Carradine. I devoured the Chinese philosophy that was in that show. I was greatly affected by it, but I can’t tell you why. I always secretly wanted to be a Ninja. Then when I was in college I found the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu. I loved it and I used it a lot. I think it formed some of my early patterns of thinking. I’ve always just been drawn to reading books about China and Japan. Looking back I see I often didn’t feel an affinity with American culture. When I arrived I was planning to stay in Korea for only three years, then move to a base in Japan and try Japanese culture for three years.

Here’s the interesting thing. Remember the “vision list” I made in Baltimore? I got everything I asked for on the list except the fireplace in the house, and I have that now. I feel like my life is coming together, like all the puzzle pieces are coming together. I look back and those little bits and pieces that didn’t mean anything a long time ago, now they’re fitting together. I once felt very upset that I never used my bachelor’s degree in architecture, but now Chris and I are remolding the house we bought in Turkey, and it’s useful. In Turkey I’ll be near all that old archeological stuff. I can even use my German because of all the Germans living there.

Temple magic

At one point it seemed as if my life had been a total waste. I hadn’t made the right choices and hadn’t done what I really wanted. I just took second best. I settled for it because I felt I had to. Or because it seemed expedient. Or because people would approve. I’m the kind of person who will do what I think I have to despite how I feel.

I have a thing about going to temples. I feel thrilled. Such a sense of awe. In April we were planning to go scuba diving and we decided on the spur of the moment to do a temple stay at Haein-sa instead. At three in the morning we were sitting in the temple, and the monks came in chanting the Heart Sutra. It was such a high for me. I experienced great peace and a sense of well-being in that time. After Haein-sa we went on down to Tongdo-sa, which is supposed to have some Buddha relics. There’s something about being in those big temples on that sacred ground.

I’m very sensitive to energy. Inside a temple I can feel the shift and changes in energy. I think this sensitivity comes partially from being a therapist, partially having a history of trauma and partially from having done martial arts, Aikido and tai chi, for about seven years.

Chris and I are friends with David Mason, and whenever we can go along when he’s giving a tour or when he suggests going somewhere for the weekend. There’s just something about being around all that old architecture that is just thrilling for me.

The house in Pyeongchang-dong

Frank Tedesco and Geri

Yes, I feel the mountain energy also. About two years ago Dave Mason called us to ask whether we could put up one of his friends, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer and a Buddhist scholar, Frank Tedesco. At the time we had a large, five-bedroom house. So we said sure. He ended up staying for a hundred days. Through him we met people who have become important in our lives.

Chris and I had this big house near Kyong Gee University, and we were thinking it might be nice to move somewhere a little more rural. As fate, or karma, would have it, we found a one bedroom house located on the side of a mountain, complete with a Zen Buddhist meditation hall and a dance studio. As we pondered whether or not we could let go of much of our stuff–it was much smaller than where we lived–so we returned home and measured and talked. We came back and measured and talked. Finally we said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

The shaman ritual for the house

Since moving into our little house at the top of 72 steps, we have witnessed two shaman rituals. Above the house there’s a big rock carving of the mountain god. There are some traces of the shamans who were up here. The energy is really strong. We had a little kut, or ritual, when we moved in. The shaman and her assistants threw red beans all over the house, they put written blessings on the doorways, they threw bags of things around, they beat the drums, they butchered a pig and put the head on a plate. I still have the pig’s head in my freezer. I don’t know what to do with it. But I’m pretty familiar with shamanism now, a long way from my Methodist background in Idaho.

The 72 steps

I have felt very happy and at peace here in this little house on the side of a mountain in the center of Seoul, but now my life has taken a dramatic turn. At four in the morning on August 10, I received a phone call from Chris’s brother, telling me Chris had been in a terrible accident in Florida. I learned later that morning that he had lost both legs to amputation. I flew to the US and spent the next three weeks living in a hospital room as Chris went through eight surgeries in 14 days. I returned home alone. We both have struggled to recover from and reconcile with this terrible trauma. As is my history and my nature, my warrior spirit has taken hold, and though terrified, I have pressed forward in faith of a path unseen, but fully laid out ahead of us. And this little house on the side of a mountain in the center of Seoul has taught me many deep things about the nature and the WAY (Tao) of life. Chris calls it his “unintended journey” and, of course, this is true for me also.

The house in Turkey

As I said, Chris and I bought a house in Turkey, which we’re remodeling and planning on livining in at least half the time. In Turkey I’m discovering all the old archeological stuff. Right below our house the Temple of Dionysus is being put back together. So just when I’m starting to get my Korean down I have to start working on my Turkish.

So that’s our life today. I’m here on the side of a mountain with nobody around, seventy-two steps from the ground level. At the moment there’s only me and the seven dogs and the 200 wild pigs that are protected by the Korean government. As for what’s ahead for us now, we are unsure, but we are certain that 2016 is going to be a SPECTACULAR year for us!

Sometime soon Geri and I plan another interview on the adventures she and Chris have had since the motorcycle accident which took his legs. Only eight months later he was up and walking.













Launching “The Rise of the Pinoy”

by on Monday, July 11th, 2016

The enthusiastic overflow crowd at Fully Booked

The Rise of the Pinoy is built around twenty-one short interviews, most of them with the heads of social enterprises. The seven chapters challenge readers to find their inspiration and personal assignment, to deal with the enemy and pain within, to focus on daily victories and the possibility of their own greatness. Each chapter contains exercises for self-examination and directed journaling of the type that is standard with self-help and motivational books and workshops. The Rise of the Pinoy is dedicated to Overseas Filipino Workers and their potential to become truly world-class. It is currently being translated into Tagalog, with translations into Cebuano and other Filipino languages to follow. Other volumes are also anticipated. The first volume is available through Fully Booked and in a Kindle version through Amazon.

On June 11, the first launch took place at Fully Booked in Global City. Sponsors included Bo’s Coffee, Bag 943, Amici Restaurants, Paris Deli, Bayani Brew, Messy Bessy, People Dynamics, Vita Coco and Human Nature. The overflowing crowd was enthusiastic. The speeches were obviously warm and heart-felt, with a strong appeal to OFWs to come home, do what other Filipinos have done and develop their innate excellence here. Some said their goal was to see the Philippines as a first-world country during their lifetime.

Author Mike Grogan

Author Mike Grogan: I am from Ireland. Irish people, we’re the Filipinos of Europe. The history of Ireland is so similar to the history of the Philippines. Both have been colonized. Both have a history of mass immigration. Both were influenced heavily by the Roman Catholic Church. Both have extremely good-looking people. I can’t think of any other nation in history [than the Philippines] which has given so much for other nations to be wealthy, which has sacrificed so much for other nations to prosper. It is an honor to me as an Irish person to come here and dedicate myself to help inspire and empower Filipino excellence.

Jocelyn Pick

Joccelyn Pick, President of People Dynamics: I’m so proud of my [informally adopted] son. I met Mike in Tanzania where he was an engineer working on projects which were simple and not expensive. One of the things I learned from him was an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, do it alone. If you want to go far, do it together.” After seventeen years working overseas, I decided to come back, as do most Filipinos, because of family. My parents were getting older so I thought it was time for me to spend the last few years of their lives with them. On the plane I was sitting with many other overseas workers, and I heard their stories of sacrifice, of love for their families, of how they made things, of how they were strong and always sent things back to the Philippines. When the Asian Financial Crisis happened and there was a lot of negativity around, I told myself that we were a very positive people and someone should write a book featuring stories about wonderful Filipinos. So thank you, son.

Issa Cuevas

Issa Cuevas of Gawad Kalinga: [GK’s very impressive programs include building homes and facilities for the poor, child and youth development, community building, saving the environment with “green” communities, family gardens, health education and support for entrepreneurship. Its goal is to “un-squat” the squatters and to develop prosperous and self-sufficient communities. Daughter enterprises include health-drink manufacturers Bayani Brew and Vita Coco.] I come from a family of over a million volunteers. working and day out because they believe in the power of caring and sharing. This is evident in our name, which means “caring.” We started many years ago and we were a bunch of young people asking ourselves, “How can there be so much poverty in a country that is so rich in natural resources, where every Filipino is so talented? And what are we doing about it?”

You can sign up to be a GK volunteer right there at the right, and I promise you we’ll call you. But one major step is just to think about where you can help. Is there a poor person in your family? Is there a poor person in your community?  or there is a poor person in your company who lives in the slums? If everyone cared for one family there would be no poverty in our county. If we are the best of who we are and if we allow each one of us to bring out the best in others, that’s what I believe is world-class.

Josh Mahinay

Josh Mahiney, founder of BAGS 943: I am the youngest of nine in the family, so I grew up poor, and I came from a province that is very poor. When I was in elementary school I carried my things in a a plastic bag of the kind you see at the market. My goal was to have a nice pair of shoes. But I was given a time in the States and the chance to change the course of my life. I returned to the Philippines, a country without a lot of opportunities, and I saw a little kid using a plastic bag as I had. I started this social organization as a way of encouraging people to work hard, get an education and particularly to be givers.  I realized that I was going to turn twenty-seven and it was the perfect time for me to do something for my country. I have learned from poverty that generosity is a way up. If we want to be a better Philippines, we need to be giving people. We need to promote generosity and to look after those who have less in life. So at BAGS 943 we design and sell bags. For every one you buy, we give one to a needy child, who also receives an email from you. You get the child’s picture. So this is something that is personal to you and valuable to people you cannot see. Bags 943 is not about making a lot of money. We’ll see the measure of our success when another kid joins us on this campaign. I am happy to report to you that we have reached out to 7000 people in the Philippines and we have a great many who have committed already. For me being world-class is about the values of the culture that we stand for, the culture of generosity, patience and hard work. I believe that these are the things that will eventually create a larger community. Look around for an opportunity to help people and make their life better.

Benjie Abad

Benjie Abad (aka Mang Urot and James Bradock), founder of Kalinderia ni Mang Urot. I started the soup kitchen after I was walking along Quezon Avenue and passed a fast-food restaurant where I saw two kids sitting near the dumpster eating fried chicken. What clicked in me was not love or empathy, but anger. Why should a Filipino have to eat out of a dumpster? The Philippines is a rich nation, but we face apathy, indifference and selfishness. Imagine the food we have in our refrigerators and the clothes in our closets. If we can just let go of it, it can help people.

I started a soup kitchen, at first once a week and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday. One of my favorite quotes is that for evil to succeed in this world it only takes good men to do nothing. To me successful people are those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. If you want, you can contact me on Facebook at Kalindereta ni Mang Urot, or you can visit the soup kitchen [at the corner of Quezon Avenue and Examiner Street, Bank of Commerce parking lot]. Donations are not a prerequisite. Just bring your heart. You can also bring your friends and family, I assure you that is the safest soup kitchen you can visit. There are now seven new soup kitchens modeled after ours. When we have a surplus of money I give school supplies to schools, fourteen schools within a span of four years, My pledge to my God is that I will continue with this work and never take advantage or use the poor for my own personal well-being.

Angiela Mae Deligero

Angiela Mae Deligero from Messy Bessy:  [Messy Bessy Home Cleaning is a social enterprise dedicated to giving young adults education and employment opportunities through the working student program. The goal is for beneficiaries to obtain a college diploma and stable employment.] Messy Bessy is a line of natural household, nontoxic, biodegradable household cleaners and personal care products. At its heart is the dedication to helping ourselves through sustainable enterprise. I am the first graduate, having earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting last year. Our working students have mentors in the organization who can offer help with studies like algebra. Some of us are victims of human trafficking or other abuse. There are seventy-nine of us in the company, where the graduates work in the corporate sales department. For me, world-class Filipinos remain strong and in every place we go show what Filipino cultural values are.

Rey Bufi

Rey Bufi, co-founder of The Storytelling Project: I am a storyteller. My partner and co-founder, Mary Grace Soriano, and I go to remote communities, staying in each one for a month. I do storytelling for kids; she does storytelling and then story writing. We want the kids to have a passion for reading. We want to introduce to them to the concept that learning is fun, not an unpleasant academic activity. We also do training seminars before we start the actual twenty-one days because we believe that learning should start at home. We visit the homes of the children because we want the parents to have a part in the education process. In 2014 we launched a book written by one our learners, Super Labandera. Half of the profit from the sales goes to the foundation of Jim Mark Carolino, the author, and the other half to the school in his community. I invite you to “like” our Facebook page and to share a story you may have about a small act of kindness.

Tony Meloto with beneficiary Danilo Ablen


Tony Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga: Tomorrow is Independence Day. We will celebrate the liberation of the Filipino from colonial mentality as well as material, emotional and spiritual poverty. In the past we made the poor the object of our charity, which will not end poverty but just perpetuate it. Now we have seen in Human Nature, in Gawad Kalinga, in Messy Bessy and many other social enterprises in the country that they are giving the poor the gift of excellence, a world-class quality.

I’m very happy that you heard Issa speak. I’m no longer part of the management team, which we’ve passed on to the younger ones. Issa was only nineteen when she started with us. It has been a journey for her as well, finding peace in a world of conflict arising from poverty. When she was thirteen years old, her father was killed by the NPA [The New People’s Army is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines]. He took six bullets in order to shield her. [Issa’s story in The Rise of the Pinoy deals with her forgiveness of the man who killed her father.] She healed herself by helping to build a community for rebel families in Mindanao, where our Muslim community is. We realized that such action would give us sustainable energy and peace.

GK beneficiary Johnson Acdang

Anna, my own daughter, was my guinea pig when I started entering the world of the slums. She and Issa helped me work with street prostitutes. One particular incident that really overwhelmed me occurred when Anna was sixteen or seventeen. We were in the slums, and she came to me in tears. She said, “Daddy, I have never met anyone with so much pain. This girl was raped by her stepfather when she was young. She has had two abortions, she was also raped by seven men on top of a tomb.” I looked at the girl, and it suddenly dawned on me that if my daughter had been born in the same slum she could have been that prostitute. That was my moment of awakening. It spoke to my heart. So from that moment I had expanded my definition of family.

So now I am so happy that so many Filipinos see the Philippines as the land of opportunity. This is the best time to be Filipino in the Philippines. Ours is the second fastest rising economy in the world. We can be the call center of the world. We connect, we serve humanity because of our facility with language. I also feel that the Philippines is the best place to develop agriculture and tourism. To be world class is to make new health drinks like Bayani Brew and Vita Coco. We have the best coconut, the best mangoes, the best chocolate. So why are we importing almost all of our food? Today I was on a farm where I think they said the butter and yogurt were made from caribou milk. This is the age of innovation. We need to come up with world-class Filipino products and build a patriotic market like Japan did after World War II when “made in Japan” meant the product was cheap. Japanese just kept buying them, and they improved every year.

Mike Grogan’s book signing

So are we ready to claim our independence? I am very happy that we will be graduating the first graduates of our college for social justice, the only one in Asia. We call it our silicon valley for social entrepreneurs. We were able to patiently restore the confidence of the bright poor who have intelligence but low self-esteem because they were always seen as second class. They could not even speak English. In this country the elite speak English. If your parents do laundry or drive a tricycle, you don’t because your friends would make fun of you and say you’d get a nosebleed [from all the effort you have to put into it].

Two years ago, we found forty-five children of the very poor. We taught them English because we wanted them to feel confident. We also developed their competence. Last January they entered a social business competition and our 18-year-old, a college student, won first place. I just received an email from Paris that the magazine Elle might sponsor two of our graduates— Danilo Ablen and Johnson Acdang—for the business school in Paris. If not, Air France will send them to business school in Singapore. One is becoming an expert in tilapia and the other is building an herb garden. They just had their first coffee at Starbucks, a place they never believed was for them. [The price of one cup of Starbucks coffee is more than many Manila residents live on for a day, even though the price is half what it is in the US.]

So now we have to show the world that Filipinos are world class—and in this country, not just abroad. We can compete globally. The greatest wealth of the country is still down there, a vast minefield of precious stones, maybe covered with dirt. We we will remove the dirt with the power of our kindness, our caring and our love for our country and our people. Then the world will see the precious stones from the Philippines, here in the Philippines.

Related posts: Check out the links in the column on the left for posts on the soup kitchen. “Love Surger for Yolanda Victims” has brief accounts of social organizations, which also appear in the post on the iVolunteer expo. The three posts called “Squatters’ Tales” show the plight of Manila poor people before and after relocation.


A Filipino Graphic Novelist

by on Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

Paolo Herras and his graphic novel Sumpa

Paolo Herras, who writes both graphic novels and screenplays, met with me last September in a coffee shop in Eastwood Mall in Quezon City. After the interview we went to the Meganon Comics both at the nearby comics exhibition. His work makes some interesting connections with the supernatural in pre-colonial Filipino culture.

Paolo’s story

Maika Ezawa (Mark 9 Verse 47) and Paolo Herras (Sumpa and Strange Natives) at the Meganon Comics booth at Eastwood.

Meganon Comics will be there!

Filipino comics or graphic novels live in a fringe arts community and only appear during local comics events. This year our group, Meganon Comics, along with other comics creators, created the KOMIKET, the Filipino Komiks & Art Market. A lot of us are only available at these pocket events and on Facebook. We were reaching the same group of readers and selling the same number of issues, so we wanted to branch out.

The comics community consists of students, yuppies and a handful of local comics “super readers.” Most of us are hobbyists. Only a few rely on comics as a source of income. People create comics as a way of getting their stories across. It’s very pure, and that’s why it’s also very beautiful. It’s work made by the community for the community. That’s why we greatly appreciate it when people buy our work, or when we meet new readers.

Our work is very much influenced by mainstream comics from the West, like Marvel, DC, Image, Vertigo, Archie, Asterix/Obelix and Tintin, which appeared in comics bookstores. Then in the 90s we had the influx of animation and manga from China and Japan. At first, locally produced work was highly derivative, and then each artist developed their own unique, distinct style added with local flavor. What makes the comic book Filipino is the melting pot of these influences—the story.

Meganon Comics ventures forth into different literary and art markets in search of new readers of locally made comic books.

For example?

One of the successful ones available in bookstores is Trese (Thirteen). This is a noir-type detective story of supernatural crime. Another is Zsazsa Zaturnnah, whose lead character is a gay beautician who swallows a big enchanted stone and turns into a female superhero. These books made it into mainstream publishers and bookstores, and some even crossed into musicals, theater and film. The winner of the 2015 National Book Award is Rodski Patotski, about a genius baby who turns into a beautiful young lady and loses brain cells when she falls in love for the first time.

After these creators have been exhibiting at local comics events, have enough material and have gained popularity, they get picked up by a mainstream publisher or self-publish their work. Publishing your work is still one of the best platforms for wider reach.

Meganon Comics registered as a publishing company in 2014. Whenm we were planning we said, “Okay, if we print a run of 1,500 books how are we going to sell them? We don’t want to spend so much without knowing how we’ll earn our money back.” We were lucky to get a booth at the Manila International Book Fair. Fully Booked [a bookstore chain] also wanted to carry our titles.

Our first batch of books are Noodle Boy (Romantic Comedy); Mark  9Verse47 (Fantasy/Action) written by Maika Ezawa; Strange Natives: The Boy with Capiz Eyes illustrated by Carlo Clemente; and Sumpa, meaning both “curse” and “promise” illustrated by Brent Sabas.

When we launched at Fully Booked we partnered with some of our friends who also publish their books, like Aaron Felizmento and his sci-fi material, Minkowsky Space Opera and Gwapoman 2000. We also got picked up by, so we’re available online.

We printed our titles with the initial fund of the comic book sales, the zines and our own savings. Sustainability is always an issue. We decided to publish five titles this year. Since graphic novels are both literature and visual art, we’ve been attending both art & literary fairs.

We are always happy and grateful to meet people who support us and invite us to their own events. That’s how we grow.

What’s your readership?

Comics are an impulse market, so you never really know what will sell at a particular event. The three target markets are students, yuppies and parents with kids. The major genres are humor, supernatural, action/fantasy and romance. Because of the adult coloring book craze, we created Comicolor, a thirty-six page coloring book which features the different art work of our graphic novels.

So what do you write?

Each of my work is different, but they’re all rooted from my writing journey in creative writing, film and advertising. Conceptually, a lot of my stories are rooted in defining, redefine or familiarizing myself with my cultural identity. That’s why it goes back to a literary play on the supernatural or magic realism. The Philippines is a country that is still rooted in a tradition that believes in the supernatural or the spiritual. We treat our patron saints like spirit-protectors.

I’m really interested in Filipino themes. I grew up in an English-speaking home, with my grandparents, who were raised in the American period. We didn’t speak Filipino at home.

The Boy with Capiz Eyes. Capiz is a translucent sea shell you see in Filipino light fixtures or fixed on windows. The story is about a disobedient little boy who was sent to his grandmother in the province. He angers a forest spirit, who gives him eyes made out of capiz. The eyes give him the ability to see the spirit world. He learns how to respect nature and traditions. So it’s a story like the emperor’s new clothes because you don’t see the traditions if you don’t know them. Strange Natives embodies the Filipino trait of not being able to see the past, our traditions and our connections.Buhay Habangbuhay explores how one can discover a new life after the death of a love life. Here, death means change. The heroine is a white lady ghost when she’s happy or peaceful and she’s dark when she’s angry or emotionally negative.  It shows that people aren’t just white or black, they’re both. The message is about choosing to be a being of light.

You also do film?

Yes. Buhay Habang Buhay was just turned into an indie film at the 2nd CineFilipino Film Festival held in March 2016.

Where are you giving workshops?

I taught the Comic Book Creator’s Workshop under the Komiket University last June and we’ve just started this May at Fully Booked BGC. We might have one in Cebu this November. So we hope to inspire other creators to tell their stories. Storytelling is for for everyone. We all have stories we’d like to tell the world.


Journey to the Philippines, Part 2

by on Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Interior of the church in Antipolo where Bean & Tina were married

By Marita Lopez-Mena

Tina and Bean after the wedding ceremony

A year after my first visit to the Philippines, my brother Rick’s son, Enrique (Bean), invited me to attend his wedding in the Philippines. He was marrying a lovely Filipino woman, Christina (Tina) Angeles from Antipolo, on February 25 th , 2016. My brother, Rick and his wife, Linda, proposed that we fly to Paris and spend a few days, on to Manila via Seoul, South Korea, and then Paris again for a few days on the return leg of the trip. Who could resist that itinerary? Unfortunately, I caught a cold and it only got worse by the time we arrived in Antipolo where Tina’s family resides. Fortunately, Tina’s family includes a physician who just happens to live next door to where I was housed with the groom’s mother, Nancy. She prescribed a slew of prescriptions that went to work on the cold symptoms in short order so that by the time of the wedding I was fit to participate as a “candle sponsor” with the “auntie” from the other side of the family. The wedding took place in an open air church in Antipolo that was large and modern, yet beautiful and embracing.

The ceremony was held with at least one hundred of Tina’s family members present. There was a full complement of ushers and bridesmaids, and the bride’s sister’s young daughter was the flower girl. The priest officiated at a ceremony that was simple and touching. The wedding was in the Filipino tradition, a first for our American side of the family. Celeste (Cele), sister of the bride’s mother, showed me the way to the altar to light my taper before lighting her own on the other side. The lighting of candles symbolizes a joining of the families and the presence of God at the ceremony.

The couple was attended by “veil and cord sponsors” (the best man and the bride’s sister as matron of honor). After the couple exchanged rings, they knelt so that the best man could place the bride’s veil over the couple’s shoulders, pinning them together to symbolize that they dress “as one” to the world. A decorative cord in a figure eight design was then affixed by the matron of honor, also binding the couple together in a bond of fidelity and equality throughout the marriage. At the end of prayers the ceremony concluded and these symbols were removed and the bride and groom were received by the congregation. Relatives of the bride’s parents (Lino and Victoria Angeles) were each separately photographed with the newlyweds. Our family foursome also posed happily with the newlyweds.

Painting by contemporary artist of a photo at Pinto Art Museum

View of gallery from outside at Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo

A wedding reception was held out of doors nearby at the family’s Christina Villas Resort, which has a spectacular view of the Manila skyline. The traditions continued with the wedding party being announced as they entered the reception area, followed by the newly- wed couple. There was a lovely dinner, primarily fish and other Filipino fare, which included the bride’s favorite foods. After eating the couple engaged in various games with members of the wedding party, and concluded with the “prosperity dance,” wherein people pin currency to the bride and groom as they dance. The couple pledged the money they received to charities. The band, G7, played throughout the night heating up the festivities with great dance music for the crowd.

The next day Bean and Tina took Rick, Linda and me for a visit to the nearby Pinto Art Museum. The building began as a vacation home for a Manila neurosurgeon, who is also an art collector. As his collection grew he commissioned more buildings by an artist (who still lives on site), and created an artist-in- residence program. The exhibition we viewed was eclectic, and included work from the collection and pieces done by artists who had attended residency programs. The outdoor spaces were filled with stone work and tropical gardens – a beautiful place to walk in nature, as well as eat at the little restaurant, read, and see art through the open doorways.

View of a gallery at Pinto Art Museum in Antiipolo

Doorway at Pinto Art Museum.

Two days later the wedding party flew out to Caticlan and then took a ferry to Boracay for some beach time. It is an area that attracts tourists, especially because of the good diving to be had there. Rick and Linda did some diving, even though the water was very rough that day. One evening we had a wedding party dinner on the beach, hosted by my brother, which was buffet style and filled with a good sampling of Filipino food. The chicken adobo we ate there reminded me to make my own family’s adobo recipe recently. The beach is lined for over a mile with restaurants and shops – a serious tourist haven. My favorite memory is of children building intricate castles in the sand and then cheerfully kicking them down. At night people lounge on the sand by candlelight (some were in bean bag chairs!) to eat and drink.

Marita, Rick, Linda at Barbara’s Restaurant in Intramuros

After a few days the bride and groom headed home to the United States and Rick, Linda and I returned to Manila. In addition to sight-seeing, we took a trip out to Green Hills Shopping Center to the pearl booths and visited shops in Intramuros that sold fine Filipino hand crafts. We did a lot of cultural exploration including a visit to the massive Philippine National Museum where we saw gallery after gallery of exhibitions of Filipino art, both classic and modern. We also visited the Museo San Augustin housed in a church and convent, home of the Augustinian Friars since 1571. It is also located in Intramuros near our hotel – the Bayleaf. We then walked the grounds of Fort Santiago, a 16 th century military fort that today hosts visitors who can enjoy open air theatre, picnics areas and promenades.

Gardens De San Diego

Ft Santiago

Ft Santiago with Manila skyline

Another fort, Baluarte De San Diego, was designed in the circular form and built in 1586 by Jesuit priest, Antionio Sedeno. The fort was replaced, however, in 1644 after it fell into disrepair. There was a British occupation of the fort in 1762, subsequently in 1863 it was damaged by an                 earthquake. The worst came when Baluarte De San Diego was totally destroyed in 1945 during the battle of Manila. But, the resilient citizens of the Philippines once again undertook the fort’s restoration from 1979 – 1992. The Gardens De San Diego, were also of great interest with a magnificent archway and rambling garden beds that incorporate vines and containers of plants.

The highlight of the trip for me was visiting the San Sabastian Cathedral, the only steel cathedral in the world, where we found the family crypt. Buried there was our grandmother, Dona Ortiz de Leon, who died in 1927, a cousin, Felicidad Ortiz, our aunt, Encarnacion Lopez-Mena, her husband Judge De Chanco, and their son Enrique (known in the family as Enriquing) De Chanco y Lopez-Mena. We stood in the dimly lit crypt in the presence of these far away relatives from another continent. At last the American wing of the family visited our ancestors, people we had only heard about all our lives. Before leaving we lit candles and had a moment of silence with our kin.

The Lopez-Mena graves in the family crypt


Journey to the Philippines, Part 1

by on Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Marita (far left) with Paloma (far right) with family friends at Casa Blanca in Intramuros the day before the 80th birthday party for Marita’s father’s second wife’s granddaughter, Jess Huberty. Everyone’s wearing traditional Filipino blouses as requested by the birthday girl.

This post is my friend Marita’s revision of our earlier interview write-up of her first trip to the Philippines with her daughter Paloma. Part 2 will deal with her second trip with her brother Rick and his wife. (Click on a photo to enlarge.)

By Marita Lopez-Mena

Grandfather, Enrique Lopez y Mena

I’ve wanted to make the journey to the Philippines since I was a child. Born in 1883, my father and his two sisters enjoyed a colonial lifestyle in Manila that he spoke about frequently. He told stories about the family’s big house and luxurious way of life. The tales painted a paradise for me– a happy, lush tropical place. I am quite sure that the upper classes who lived in Manila (The Pearl of the Orient), the Spanish and the Americans, had a much different life than most everyone else.

Manila is a huge city of over 12 million people, but when my father was a teenager the entire country had a population of under 7 million. The city is densely populated today and growing rapidly. Metro Manila has been steadily re-built from the ground up in the decades following the massive US bombing while liberating the country from the Japanese during WWII. I wanted to see what life was really like where my family lived for so many years, so I made the big trip from New York City to Manila.

My father was born in Vigan, an old Spanish colonial military settlement [previously Chinese]. I believe that his father was assigned there as the head of military forces. The family moved to Manila, probably when my father was nine or ten. As a colonial from a prominent family his life of privilege included a young boy who slept on the floor by his bed at night.

My father’s mother was an active businesswoman, and he saw her by appointment every two or three weeks, a more European style of parenting than I grew up with. He said that he had to sit in a straight-backed chair, legs uncrossed and answer questions about how he was faring in his studies. He also reminisced about my grandmother’s parties. There were a lot of servants in this house, and they would wrap their feet in cloth and dance in the ballroom to polish the floor. He remembered dancing on the floor with them and laughing and playing. It sounded like an idyllic early childhood from his point of view, but I always wondered what it was like for the workers. His father died of consumption at about the age of thirty. His mother was left with three young children to rear. She owned an indigo plantation, and shipped the product all over the world on square riggers. She was part of society and involved in the life of Manila. She was one of the founders of La Cruz Roja (the Red Cross) in the Philippines.

I calculate that my father lived in Manila into his early twenties, so that would be approaching 1912 or so. He traveled a good deal, circling the globe four times in his life. He was seventeen the first time he sailed away. My grandmother paid for him to travel first-class on steamships, and I remember his set of monogrammed trunks and suitcases which had heavy canvas covers with stitched leather corners that rested in our attic. The set included everything a young gentleman of the world migt need, including a round leather box for his shirt collars. He also had a leather bound flask with nesting stainless cups for travel, his own wooden deck chaise with a steamer blanket. He traveled alone on this first voyage. He said that he got halfway around the world and was on his way back when he ran out of money. He wired his mother for more money. She said something that translates to, “too bad.” So he went over first class and returned on the same ship as a stevedore working below decks.

Grandmother, Felicitas Ortiz y de Leon

He described this experience as a turning point in his life. He hadn’t thought much about who was outside his social class, and how they lived, until then. He was an independent, gregarious young man and didn’t object to performing chores he was not accustomed to. He made many friends as he worked his way home. My mother said in later years she never knew whom he was going to invite to dinner at their home in New York State — the electrician, the plumber – anyone he took a liking to. He apparently was socially flexible and also entertained a count, a Russian princess and other dignitaries in his lifetime.

We know little about our grandfather, he died young of consumption, but everybody knew my grandmother as a strong and opinionated woman. When my father was working for the government in the Philippines, his first wife and their daughter Nina, my half-sister, lived for ten years in the Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence and offices. My grandmother, when she came to visit her son and his family, would roam through the palace in her long gown. Nina remembered that she would encounter her in the dark hallways, something she dreaded as the grandmother would jump out of the shadows wielding a little pair of scissors that she kept tucked in the deep pockets of her dress. She would grab Nina and insist on giving her bangs an impromptu trimming. The women in the family had a tendency toward thinning hair in front, and she was convinced that if she cut Nina’s hair back she would have thicker hair. My father probably never spent any time on the indigo plantation that my grandmother operated. It was said to have been one of the largest ones in the world at that time—but that might have been an exaggeration. It was said they had sixty people working between the house and the plantation and the numbers don’t add up to a huge operation. I’ve heard that when one of her ships went down laden with indigo, she would wade into the sea and threaten to kill herself. The servants would “rescue” her from the waves. It must have been a tough decision as to whether to bring her to shore or not.

Paloma and Marita at a cathedral in Dumaquete

When we came to Manila I expected its size, but thought there would be more of the old Spanish neighborhoods still existing. I didn’t realize how thoroughly the American bombing had decimated Manila. Our family homes were blasted along with everyone else’s. People I traveled with during our stay who came from the same old families said their houses were destroyed after the Japanese invaded and appropriated them. On their way out, they burned and sacked homes. An American man in our party said that part of his family died and part of it survived, but every single thing they owned was gone. After the war they would sometimes find their silverware for sale in stores or on little tables on the street. They’d have to buy back their possessions.

My younger daughter, Paloma, and I spent nine or ten days in Manila and then went north for three days to Vigan. We visited the cathedral there to find my father’s baptismal certificate (the priests were very helpful and located it within fifteen minutes of our request). We hoped to find an address where the family lived. We toured the right area with a young, municipal employee who volunteered to help. We got a much better sense of what the Spanish architecture was like—large, square or oblong houses on the streets with window panes made of shell, tiled floors and beautiful hardwood floors—but never located the house my grandparents lived in. Then we moved on for three days at the seashore outside Dumaguete in Negros Oriental. It’s a very pretty place, with lush land and country roads.

Maria (Marita) Cerilia Lopez-Mena

We have no relatives in the Philippines that we know of. The person who enticed me to visit was my father’s second wife’s granddaughter. She remembered my dad fondly from when she was a small child. The other people we traveled with knew my Aunt Marita, my father’s favorite sister, the woman I’m named after, who perished during World War II. She was caught in Manila when the Japanese invaded and one day was marched away to her death like the family members of two people we were traveling with. A gentleman named Rod Hall remembered my Aunt Marita with clarity, as he was twelve years old when he last saw her. The Japanese had taken most of the houses in the neighborhood by the time they got to the one owned by this man’s family on the same street. My aunt retreated to his family home after her own house was seized. Other friends were there too, sleeping four and five to a bedroom. Aunt Marita had been out shopping for scarce food the day the Japanese came to the house. The families were separated, some were left and some were taken away. When my aunt came back from shopping, the Japanese soldier at the gate refused her entry. For some reason she insisted that she lived there and was thus was captured and never seen again. No one knows for sure where the two women went, but it was thought that they were taken to the Masonic Temple—a building the Japanese used as a prison. The incarcerated were kept alive for a few days, families even brought them food, and then they were shot and burned.

Almost everybody has been friendly and helpful in Manila. We attended a birthday party in the Casa Blanca for the woman who contacted us on a whim – my father’s second wife’s granddaughter. Some were Americans, some Spanish-Americans, some Spanish-Filipinos or Filipino-Americans—any number of combinations. They were all very welcoming, pleasant and curious to know why we were here and what we were doing. They found it amusing that we were visiting my father’s second wife’s granddaughter

My overall experience of Manila was colored by the contrast between the fortunate who are prosperous and those mired in poverty. Even in the financial district in Makati, there was a lot of wealth but also a lot of extreme poverty—people living on the streets or in tin shacks, small children asleep under a tree alone in the midst of people walking on the sidewalk.

St. Sebastian Church in Manila

The sanctuary at St. Sebastian Church

Metro Manila is suffocating in air pollution. They tell me it’s so much better now than in the past, but I can’t imagine how. When we were walking around and asked for directions, everyone we approached was willing to help. People said we shouldn’t take taxis, but we found them reliable. We’re used to taxis in New York City and a cab is a cab. So we began to feel more adventurous. But we did a lot of walking.

Paloma at a shop in B-Side, Makati

One day my daughter and I walked over to The Collective, a dark, dank former warehouse which now houses stores and the performance space called B-Side. It’s a community project where counter-culture events take place. We walked through all manner of neighborhoods to get there, including some where we were the only Americans. People seemed a little curious about what were we doing there, but I felt less comfortable there than my daughter did. That said, we had a lovely time. At a little restaurant we split a good sandwich, and at another Paloma bought one of those gadgets that shreds melon into curly strips. I purchased two of the best chocolate bars I’ve ever had in my life — handmade and beautifully wrapped.

As a student I didn’t learn a lot of history about the Philippines, but I am grateful that to have learned more by visiting this wonderful country. We wanted to visit the San Sebastian Cathedral as someone mentioned that our family crypt might be there, but we ran out of time. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to understand my father’s birthplace a little better by traveling with people whose families have lived in Manila. I don’t know if I will ever return, but some questions have been answered and new ones have arisen from seeing firsthand the country where my family lived so long ago.

The Lopez-Mena family graves in the St, Sabastian crypt. The caretaker said someone had come recently and lit a candle. We have no idea who that might have been.

The crypt at St. Sebastian.

I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world. It has put to rest certain questions that I’ve always harbored— a measure of the reality against the fantasy. I didn’t really expect to “find” my father or a lot about my roots. He died when I was very young — six years old. I never met my namesake aunt, but inherited some  family jewelry that I treasure from her older sister, my Aunt Encarnacion. In a photo of my grandmother in her mantilla, she is wearing the diamond earrings that I was bequeathed. Under the circumstances, the best I could discover at this late time would be a glimpse of their personalities from a story somebody who knew them might tell me. And that has happened with our kind traveling companions and has been very satisfying.

A reader writes:

I love this piece about historical Manila; so many themes that resonate with expats.

Another reader writes:

Very interesting   great story/