Author Archive

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.

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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 Lazada.com, 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.

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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

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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/

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A Filipina Jazz Singer in Japan, Manila and Hong Kong

by on Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Nickie Mossman at the Tago Jazz Cafe in Metro Manila

I met Nickie at Tago. She and her mother both live not far from me in Tagaytay, a beautiful vacation and tourist spot well outside Manila. This interview took place at my house. Unfortunately, photos of Nickie’s early singing career were lost in the 2009 Ondoy flood.  

Nickie’s story

When I was twenty-one I was performing at five star hotels, the Mandarin Hotel and Philippine Plaza, and a Japanese agent saw the show. We had a meeting with him, my Filipino agent and me. A month later I was in Japan. I worked there from 1985 to 1992.

My first job was in a small bar in Kumamoto City on Kyusho, a very conservative place compared with Tokyo and Osaka. Other Filipinos were also working there as dancers, while I was singing with a band. The yakuza were everywhere, the gangsters who call themselves the Japanese mafia. Once a guy came into the bar wearing expensive clothes—his coat, his shoes, everything. I think he had a very high position. The waiter said this guy wanted to meet me, make friends with me. I agreed, but then I saw he had three fingers missing, and I realized he was a notorious yakuza. I asked what happened to his fingers. That’s how I learned that if you did something wrong you were forced to cut off your own finger and give it to the superior. I asked the waiter to get me away from his table. I’d already heard that he had had a Filipina girlfriend, he’d given her money and jewelry, and when he found out she had a boyfriend back in the Philippines he hurt her pretty badly. I didn’t want that to happen to me.

He said, “Why are you trying to avoid me?”

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m scared. I don’t want you to be my friend. Your missing fingers make me think you’re a very scary person.”

I tried to ask around about how the yakuza families lived. I found out that their children are not accepted in schools, so they had to go to their own school. The parents are recognizable because of their shaved eyebrows [with fake eyebrows painted on], their clothes, their speech and their last names. The lower-level yakuza wore curly, kinky hair and either all black or all white clothing. Their speech contained none of the respectful parts of the language. I can speak Japanese, but I couldn’t imagine myself talking that way. I could easily tell just from the language.

In 1989 I moved to Osaka to perform at one of the big hotels, the Hankyu Hotel for three months and then the Shin Hankyu Hotel Annex [New Hankyu Hotel Annex]. Every Saturday night after work at the Shin Hankyu Hotel—this would be about midnight—my pianist and I had to hide on the street corner because the yakuza had a kind of street parade. The boys on motorbikes rode by first holding sticks or tubes, and if you were blocking their way they would whack you. After the motorbikes came the cars and then one very expensive car, probably carrying the boss. It was really frightening.

Then two friends of mine, a Filipino couple, went to Japan to perform for six months. A group of yakuza went to their bar to have a drink and asked the couple to join them during the break. When the yakuza saw they were husband and wife, they tied the guy’s hands and held his head so he would have to watched as they touched his wife. She was screaming and begging them to stop. This was right in the bar where other people could also see. No one stopped them. The yakuza could kill you at any time. When they were done the yakuza gave the couple a huge amount of money which they accepted because they thought they would be killed if they refused it. The experience was really terrible.

I had a Malaysian friend who was very beautiful. I heard that in Malaysia she was a commercial model. She called me when she was on her way to Japan. I was excited because I was also on my way back to Tokyo. When I arrived I called, and someone took down my number. Three weeks later I got a call from her. She was crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“Help me. I need your help. I’m having a horrible time here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ll tell you later. I’ve got to go.”

A couple of days later I got another call from her. She’d run away and was hiding in a telephone booth. She’d found out she was working for the yakuza. They slapped her. They put their cigarettes out on her arm, her stomach, all over. When they got drunk they were violent like a bunch of maniacs.

So I said, “All right. What do you want me to do?”

“Just help me, help me get out of here.”

“Okay, I’ll talk to my boss and see what I can do.”

My boss felt sorry for her and agreed to help her, but unfortunately the yakuza caught her. I waited another few weeks until she was able to escape again.

“What do you want me to do, Mei-mei?”

“I just want to go home.”

So I sent her some money, and she went back to Malaysia safe and sound.

That’s why every time I went to Japan I checked out the hotel. I usually performed at a first-class jazz bars or five-star hotels where the yakuza were not allowed. I performed in a first-class bar twice in Tokyo. In a small town bar you could end up working for a yakuza.

The bar where I worked in Tokyo had a door from the dressing room to the back of the bar. I was in the dressing room when somebody knocked. I opened the door to a man with a bouquet of flowers which he asked me to give to my boss. When I handed over the flowers, my boss said, “Oh my God!” The flowers were a message that it was time to pay the protection money.

Yes, the yakuza have tattoos, some of them are all over the body. I only saw one when a guy rolled up his sleeve and there was a snake on his forearm. And yes, some establishments do not allow the yakuza to be around or anyone with tattoos, especially the five-star hotels and the first-class bars and restaurants. The thinking is that those are the places where foreign tourists would go, so they’re off-limits to the yakuza.

The last time I was in Japan my agent, who was such a nice guy, checked in on the talent sometimes. Sometimes I’d see him talking to someone and then they’d leave the bar quickly, and sometimes I’d see him outside talking to yakuza. Sometimes I would see him talking to a policeman or a politician. The government people were very well-groomed, and they bowed a lot. I wondered why the boss would be talking one minute to a yakuza and the next minute to someone who looked so decent.

After I’d been there a month or two, he said, “Hey, Nickie. I know you’re bored. I know you’re lonely. How about shopping or going to the grocery store after work? My treat.”

“Sounds good.”

In the car on the way to the grocery store, he said, “Let me tell you something. In addition to being a talent agent, I work as a mediator between the yakuza and the government.” He said that in the event of a conflict he talked to each side and tried to get them to reach an agreement. He also said that sometimes the yakuza could be quite helpful. For example, once he had two clients who had run away because they were at the end of their six-month visas and they wanted to stay in Japan. Filipinos would call them tago ng tago [always hiding]. He asked the yakuza for help, and in two days they found them.

In Japan entertainment visas were only good for six months of work at only one place. After six months back in the Philippines you could return to Japan. I was paid in US dollars, about twice what I made in the Philippines. During that time I was one of the highest paid singers. My monthly salary was $2,500 plus a food allowance of ¥40,000 and a transportation allowance of ¥20,000. Housing was free. Plus tips. A single tip could be as much as ¥50,000 [$459 at today’s rate, roughly the same then] or ¥30,000 or ¥10,000. Or jewelry. So I was earning a lot. In Japan before you left the country they gave you a one-month cash advance so you could go shopping. At that time my adopted daughter was a baby, and I’d call my mom to ask what she needed. Then on your last day you were given the rest of your salary. I kind of liked it that way, getting $12,500 all at once.

I had to work in evening gowns, and since I’m a lesbian I had a terrible time because of that. I had men running after me. Oh, God, one guy was smelling me.

“Joy cologne?”

“No, I don’t have any cologne.

He gave me ¥50,000. “Tomorrow you go buy Estee Lauder.”

Okay, I went to the shop, but I bought the small bottle and kept the rest of the money. Or someone would say he didn’t like my watch. I should buy a Calvin Klein. He’d give me money, and I’d get a cheap one.

Japanese men can be very generous. They’ll give you everything. But in the end, they say, “You’re mine now.”

The other Filipinos pleaded to be taken out to buy things without knowing it was a trap. But I might say, “No, you might ask for something in return.” Or I’d say, “I don’t know. What do I have to give you?” I never asked for favors.

In the Philippines audiences are really attentive. Even if you make them sing and they can’t sing on key, they can tell if you’re really good. They listen. In Japan the audience was like a group of robots. They talked to each other throughout your song, but when they heard it was finished they clapped. I would ask my pianist why they clapped when they hadn’t heard it.

In Hong Kong I was singing in a jazz bar on Chatham Road. Most of the musicians were from different countries–Cuba, the US, the Philippines and China.  I really liked the customers because I felt they were with me. They really listened, and if they enjoyed the performance they applauded.  In jazz bars they were mostly foreigners, mostly white or black Americans. Very few Chinese, who probably felt too intimidated to go in. The customers enjoyed jamming, like starting with the blues and then making up their own lyrics, having fun. There was performer-audience participation all the time. You could become friends with everybody. I even met some guys from the US Embassy. We were like family inside that bar and partying practically every night.

In the Philippines I in the late 80s to the mid 90s, I had a regular following, fans who really listened. In those days singers and musicians had respect for each other. Like, for example, if we were both performing in this bar on the same night, back to back, and if we had the same repertoire, and you sang first, you might sing a song I had on my list. I’d erase that song because you sang it already. Or if I got sick I’d call a colleague and ask if she was free and could fill in.

I was lucky because I always had a gig, Monday to Sunday. When singers without jobs walked  into the bar, I’d tell them what nights singers were needed or ask them to jam so the owner could hear them. But these days, nada. I don’t know what happened. I’ve heard that there’s too much competition. Even if you sang that song already I’d go ahead and sing it anyway.

I had a gig in Cebu with a one-year contract. The musicians were so thankful. They said, “Oh Nickie, we’re so glad you’re here. It means our music has changed. It’s totally different.” Like the Latin singers, if they sing “The girl from Ipanema,” they all sing it in English, while I sing it in Portuguese.

In the Philippines I would hang out with the musicians but not really with the customers. Especially in five-star hotels here we’re not allowed to mingle with the customers. We’re not even allowed to walk back and forth in the lobby. We just stay in our own rooms. Once we were performing in the Manila Pavilion Hotel, and we invited some guests to come to watch our show. When they came, we were told we weren’t allowed to talk to them. We were so embarrassed. The band leader even said, “Okay, if that’s what they want we’re going to put some chairs and tables onstage and entertain our guests there.”

In Hong Kong they didn’t care. After you sang you could go straight to your customers and talk to them. Here you don’t get to talk to your customers unless they’re your friends or they want to meet you. Most of the time musicians just talk to other musicians.

In Japan it would depend on the place. Since I was considered a class-A singer I wasn’t allowed to sit next to customers. They only got to see me during my show. But if a VIP customer walked in, the manager would tell me to join the customer at his table. There was one in the diamond business.

Once he invited me, another singer, the hotel manager and my agent for barbecue at his house. He showed us a large room full of boxes of diamonds. Shelves of them. Oh my God, I wanted one. He was a nice guy who tipped me ¥13,000 yen every time he came to the hotel, but I wanted a diamond. He introduced his wife to us, but instead of joining us she served us food and tea while kneeling on the floor, sitting on her feet with her back straight as if she were wearing a kimono. I felt so sorry for her but you couldn’t do anything about it.

One of my girlfriends went to Japan as a professional dancer. She got a job in a first-class bar. I had to take a plane to see her. I went to her club and ordered some food. I had to pay for my table every hour, and when I did that I asked for her. After she danced she came over and she was kneeling in front of me.

“What in the hell are you doing?”

“This is part of my job. I have to kneel.” She was serving me a drink.

“Would you please sit next to me? I can’t stand looking at you when you’re serving me like this. I don’t want that. I’m not Japanese.”

I talked to the manager. I said, “Look, I don’t want to see her kneeling in front of me. Just let her sit next to me.” He said okay.

The first time I had Christmas and New Year’s in Japan I was so lonely. You know how the holidays are in the Philippines. In Japan Christmas was an ordinary work day. Lunar New Year was the saddest part. It was so quiet everywhere. Shops are closed. There was no place to go. The Japanese went to the cemetery to honor their dead. That was the first time I saw Filipino men crying. They missed the fireworks and the family reunions and the drinks and food and the parties. We were together in one place, the dancers, the singers and the band. We were so quiet doing our own little count-down on Philippines time.

It was such a lonely place. But as years passed I got used to it. What can you do? Here you can light your own fireworks, In Hong Kong you can only go out on the street to watch, which I think is a lot safer.

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Filipino Volunteers Help the Disadvantaged

by on Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

On March 6, I went to the Go Volunteer Expo in the Glorietta Activity Center in Makati in order to meet some members of the 25 participating non-profit organizations. Their aim is to improve the lives of Filipinos, particularly the underprivileged. My friend Benjie Abad was there from Mr. Urot’s Eatery or Karinderia ni Mang Urot. Benjie’s program has inspired spin-offs, and he’s expanded his activities to include donations to schools in isolated or impoverished areas. He has appeared on this website several times—listed in the index—under his pseudonym and has been the subject of television short documentaries. 

Bel Padlan onstage for iVolunteer

JB Tan (right) with Rey Bufi and Mary Grace Soriano

1. I’m JB Tan, Executive Director of Volunteer and one of the co-founders of iVolunteer. We started iVolunteer about 2009. There had just been flooding with Ondoy, also called Typhoon Ketsana. We found that so many people wanted to help but they didn’t know where to go. The media giants and foundations were already super-full of volunteers. They kept on saying on national television, “Please don’t come here anymore.” In fact there were smaller operations doing disaster relief, but people didn’t know where to find them. So we started iVolunteer Philippines. We wanted to help the smaller NGOs, promote volunteerism in the country and basically help people participate in nation-building. That’s why eventually we found Karinderia ni Mang Urot and started sending volunteers to help. Now. while one group gives out food, another teaches the children to read and write using a small blackboard.

Assorted signs spread the idea of volunteering as adventure.

At iVolunteer our main purpose is to get everybody involved. We want to put into the consciousness of all Filipinos that they can help. It doesn’t have to be a big organization. They can do something every day. We have a 21 Days of Kindness campaign, which is done online via social media. Every day we provide a small challenge: compliment your neighbor, say good morning to the security guard at your office, follow traffic rules. Hopefully these will become a habit of possitivity.

Every month we do community meet-ups because we realize that volunteers have to meet other like-minded people. We bring them together and provide them with a deeper understanding of different causes they can join. On the NGO or partner side, we work to build our capability. For example, in the area of Payatas [an area in NE Quezon City with a lot of poverty and a notorious, several-acre dumpsite],there are probably 50 NGOs, but they’re not reaching out to each other. They merely focus on the community that they help. So iVolunteer is helping with that. There was so much good connection from yesterday that we are now friends. If volunteers are looking for something that doesn’t match what a particular NGO can offer, they can be referred to another NGO.

A documentary on the soup kitchen

2. I’m Benjie Abad, founder of Karinderia ni Mang Urot. iVolunteer helps with my feeding program, and so I was invited to join this expo. We started the program almost four years ago, feeding the hungry Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. We also give out supplies to public school children. Up to now we have already provided supplies to up to 12 public schools around the country. On their own initiative, some of the volunteers at the soup kitchen started teaching the children aged from about three years old to about twelve.

Malou Virata models the soup kitchen shirt

At Karinderia ni Mang Urot we will do what we can for these people. Recently we started constructing a bathroom for the marginalized because they don’t have daily access to one. The local government units and the churches don’t allow them to use their bathrooms. The officers in the barangay [the smallest government unit] admit that the homeless who are coming to my soup kitchen are not given permission to use the public toilets because they’re not voters. My solution is just to construct a bathroom for them at my home. I believe it’s essential for people to be able to wash in order to preserve their dignity and self-esteem. The soup kitchen is just about a block and a half away from my house—and also just a block and a half away from the residence of the President of the Philippines.

No, urinating on the side of the road is not legal. Some of the homeless have to pay to use public toilets. It’s quite a sad experience for them. They might be able to use the toilet at a gas station, but not as a regular thing.

Let’s see, when I was onstage I talked about the history the karinderia, how it started because I saw two children eating fried chicken that they’d retrieved from the dumpster. That led me to start my soup kitchen with just one table, and now it has grown to quite a big activity. I basically told the people that you don’t have to be rich to help the poor, that you don’t have to do great things to help. And if you can’t feed a hundred you can feed one. In closing I told them to keep love burning in their hearts for their brothers and sisters.

John Auste

3. My name is John Auste. I’m the admin officer of Cancer Warriors Foundation Inc., which helps indigent Filipino kids with cancer by giving them free medication and offering other medical assistance. We’ve been doing that for 16 years at different locations—Manila, Batangas, Cebu, Tacloban, Cabanatuan. Aside from the practical benefit of providing medicine, we have an advocacy campaign regarding children with cancer.

4. My name is Lisa Bayot. In 2008, I founded BINHI English Literacy Foundation, an NGO to help children who have fallen through the cracks, who have difficulty in reading. So we come into a community and do an intervention. We administer a pretest to children aged four and five. Those who fail become BINHI students. In a way it’s unique because we diagnose those who are doing well in school, but we target those who aren’t. Our six-month program includes a teacher’s manual accompanied by books, flash cards and games. The English Learning Kits were developed and written by Chona Colayco-Lagoutte, a graduate of Bank Street College, Graduate School of Education in New York and currently an English teacher in the American School in Paris.

Lisa Bayot

We have several communities. In Metro Manila there’s one in Baseco called the ING Learning Center. In Santa Ana we work with Tomas Earnshaw Elementary School. In Quezon City we work with the Bagumbayan Elementary School and Libis Elementary School. Then there’s the Rosalie Rendu Development Center and San Ramon Elementary School. For the 2015-16 school year we have 397 children in the program. More than 2000 children have been through the program. We’re now in our eighth year of operation.

The program is free for the children. The sponsor selects the community and funds the project—the materials, the program, the monitoring and the teachers’ time. BINHI has a Memoranda of Agreement with each school. The principal oversees that the program and makes sure it’s properly implemented. We train the public school teachers, and we have monitors who go to the site once a week. It’s low cost because we don’t build structures. The program could be run in any existing community in a covered court. In one community we held classes in a library, and in a second site we used a chapel. Then the mothers spoke to the local barangay, and they were able to get us a small room to use. The mothers did it on their own initiative.

CARA Volunteers

5. My name is Avy. I’m one of the senior volunteers of CARA, Compassion and Responsibility for Animals, a nonprofit organization. We receive animals who have been abandoned and who need medical attention, mostly cats and dogs. We rescue dogs from dog fights, particularly in Quezon. We have a cattery in Mandaluyong which houses more than 80 cats, all for adoption. So we rescue animals, bring them back to health and find homes for them.

We offer low-cost neutering, one of the cheapest services you can get around the Metro. For a female cat it would be 850 pesos [$19.30]and for 650 for a male. There’s an additional fee for pedigreed cats. For a Persian mix it would be a total of 1600 pesos. Our main advocacy is the trap-neuter-return program, which we do quarterly. We find sponsors to help. March is national spay and neuter month, so we had about 30 cats spayed.

For selected individuals who can’t afford neutering, we’ll help. People can contact us through their barangay. We get the animal to the clinic, have them spayed or neutered and then bring them back. If there’s a sponsor we offer free spaying and neutering for people who can prove they really can’t afford to pay themselves. Normally we announce any free programs on our website so the people who are selected can take advantage of that. There are also other organizations which can be found online. There are about 200 spay and neuter programs for the nearby community. We tell people that if right now you don’t have enough money, then we suggest you keep your pets indoors.

We promote adoption rather than buying, like my shirt says, “Adopt, don’t shop.” Breeders don’t care about the health of the young animals, and mother dogs and cats can be sick, weak or aged and still made to reproduce because the breeders want the money. CARA is focusing on stopping the breeding. If you buy from a breeder you’re not helping to reduce the population of cats and dogs in a shelter. Most pounds in manila don’t have enough funds to feed the strays, so every Friday the ones which have already been in the shelter for a week are euthanized.

The solution is for people to only get a pet if they’re ready for a lifetime commitment. Our local breeds have an average lifespan of up to 16 years, but I have some friends who’ve had cats living for 19 or 20 years. Of course it depends on the care—proper food, love, and veterinary needs. If you can’t provide that you shouldn’t have a pet. Pets should be considered part of the family, and they need to be included in your plans to get married, take another job or move to another location. Don’t abandon them or give them to shelters. If you really can’t take care of a pet, find them a friend or relative who will love them and give them a home. If pets were treated like family, there would be no cats and dogs on the streets of the Philippines.

Don’t let pets go outside. It’s a cruel world out there. It’s not safe. In the Philippines we have a law against animal abuse which carries a penalty of up ten years in prison, but people don’t take it seriously. Most of the animal rights groups are spreading awareness that if you catch someone abusing a dog or a cat, you should call the police. Animals have rights, but they’re voiceless. So we’re acting as the voice of the voiceless.

Derek Canavillia

6. My name is Derek Danavillia. I’ve been doing volunteer work since I was twelve years old in a school-based Philippine Red Cross program. I started as a volunteer, then participated in training programs in first aid, basic life support and swimming. After I graduated from college I became a Red Cross employee because I believed in their advocacy.

For me, volunteerism means doing it with passion and a great mind. You have to learn so many things. I believe we’re all equal. In volunteerism there is no such thing as rich, poor or middle-class because we’re all equal. I joined iVolunteer Philippines because I believe we share the same goals and the same passion. I joined other groups, like Earth Power, Greenpeace Philippines and the green earth movement.

I happened to be browsing on Facebook when a friend of mine tagged me to “like” the page for iVolunteer Philippines. So that’s why I came to this two-day event. I learned so many things. Being a volunteer requires passion and dedication. You’re unsung heroes. You’re not compensated for anything. The only return you get comes from your own perseverance in being part of it.

Rey Bufi (right) with Benjie Abad

7. My name is Rey Bufi. I’m a co-founder of The Storytelling Project. We go to remote communities around the Philippines and stay in each community for a month. We partner with the school. I tell stories to children in the second and third grades, children aged 7 to 9. My partner and co-founder, Mary Grace Soriano, teaches fifth and sixth grade students to write their own stories. After the storytelling session they have a story writing session.

But before we start the program we assess the talents of the kids because we believe learning should really start at home. We want people to embrace the experience of reading to children every day. We want the kids to read for pleasure. In the Philippines reading is always an academic activity. So we want to kids to see the fun in reading.

Before we start the storytelling session we have songs and dances to motivate the children. After the month of storytelling we do the library project. We build or renovate a library. We’ve seen in our volunteer activities many people who would like to donate books, the books may not be being used in the community. Most of the time, they’re left in dark rooms. This doesn’t mean that the kids don’t want to read books, but they still have this idea that reading is only an academic activity. After we build the library we help the kids create a book club. Later on we want to produce storytellers and story writers in the community. The goal is that in the future they can have their own reading program and they won’t need us anymore. We can leave and more on,

Super Ladandera by Mark Jim Carolino

I’m a graduate of philosophy and course development, but I don’t have units in education. We have consultant teachers who help us in putting together our modules and learning activities. My partner is by profession an IT developer. But we really love teaching kids. We met each other in a summer volunteer activity. Afterwards we decided to put up our own organization.

This book was written by one of our learners. After publishing the book, Super Labandera, we decided that half the sales would go to the foundation of Jim Mark Carolino, the author, and half of it would go to the school in his community.

Miko Mojica

8. My name us Miko Jazmine Mojica, and I’m on the staff of iVolunteer Philippines. I was the typical millennial shown in one of the iVolunteer videos, namely I had a full-time job but wasn’t satisfied. It was like I was looking for something meaningful and productive to do. I went online and typed “volunteer” and “Philippines” and found the iVolunteer website. There was an opportunity to volunteer for Mang Urot’s feeding program the next day. Immediately I signed up and then showed up at Mang Urot, where I met the staff of iVolunteer. Eventually I became a staff member myself, It all just happened very naturally.

Working in the soup kitchen was very eye-opening and also humbling. It was really inspiring. Before this I didn’t want to go to a feeding program because I thought it was just a dole-out, it was not really sustainable help that you offered, so people would become dependent on you. But when I got there, I saw that Mang Urot was just really passionate about helping anyone who was really in need. You didn’t have to have a lot to help. I saw people like you who came regularly, not only to assist in the feeding but also to interact with the people. Just because people are poor and hungry doesn’t mean that they’re different from us. They may have a different social status, but they appreciate receiving and giving help just like we do. So it’s really a simple way to make a difference in other people’s lives. It felt really meaningful for me to have that opportunity.

I was inspired to see you there with your husband or your friend, always bringing ice cream with chocolate sauce [or brownies]. It was like you were really putting effort into it. I saw how you interacted with people [taking pictures], I saw you were selfless in giving your time. These people were expecting to be fed simple food, but you made it extra-special by bringing in ice cream with chocolate syrup. It was really something amazing for me to witness. [This last bit was included to show how little it takes to make the friendly people at the soup kitchen grateful and happy.]

A reader writes:

Wonderful article about volunteers! May their tribe multiply!

 

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The Workshops of Filipino Screenwriter Ricky Lee

by on Sunday, February 28th, 2016

Ricky Lee in his library, where the workshops are held

Ricky Lee in his library, where the workshops are held

Ricky Lee has written over 150 produced screenplays—as well as short stories, novels and essays. He’s worked with famous directors and received numerous awards. While some Filipino writers write only in English and some in English and Tagalog or another Filipino language, Ricky Lee writes exclusively in Tagalog as a matter of principle. His subject matter tends to deal with the marginalized in society, social problems and the dark side of human nature. He’s been quoted as saying that writing can change the world. A friend of mine is among his many devoted former students and workshop participants, and he introduced us at the University of the Philippines after Ricky received an award from the College of Mass Communications.

As a former teacher who’d attended several inspired writing workshops, I knew what effect they could have on a person’s work and life. From Ricky’s workshop participants I learned about his emersion method, where he had them engage in totally new experiences. I suggested that he begin our interview by talking about his own background.

Ricky’s story

I grew up in a very small place in Bicol about eight hours from Manila. My mother died when I was five, and my father turned me over to my relatives, who adopted me. I started writing fiction when I was in my fourth year of high school. At sixteen I wrote my first short story and sent it to Manila, where it was published.

After some misunderstandings with my relatives, I ran away from home, so from the age of sixteen I survived alone in Manila. I was a working student—a waiter, an accounting clerk, a salesman and a tutor of English and math—who was always writing. There were short stories, and then I went into journalism. I studied English at the University of the Philippines while I was working first as a proofreader, then copyreader for a magazine and eventually a staff member.

While I was a student I got involved in the movement against the Marcos dictatorship. Martial law came when I was in my fourth year of college. I dropped out of school and went underground for three years, mostly writing. I never handled a gun. We were assuming different names and hiding most of the time. We lived in underground houses. The military raided my place, and I was arrested and put in prison for a year. That was 1974. At Christmas time they released fifty prisoners as Marcos’s “gift.” I got out and started looking for a job. That’s how I got into the movies. I worked in the movies and television for fifteen or twenty years. On the side I wrote fiction and a couple of plays.

In 1982 after I had done four or five scripts I started conducting free scriptwriting workshops. Many writers asked how I had the nerve to conduct workshops when I’d written only five or six scripts.

That’s a lot.

Yes, but some people believe you have to accumulate so much “knowledge” before you can transfer it to other people. [This is in the Asian tradition of the master’s “transmitting” to the students.] I thought that you should share while you’re learning.

Yeah. It’s more alive that way.        

It’s more dynamic: you learn, you share, you learn more, you share more. Rather pass dead knowledge from your head to other people. I never charged money. I’ve never stopped. Basically, it’s about opening your sensibility, your heart, your mind to all the options and the possibilities. Share all the techniques. Then the choice is up to you. You write stories with your unique voice. There’s no formula.

This room is where we do the workshops with twenty to thirty participants. I never thought of myself as a teacher. We’re sharing with each other all on the same level. Usually the workshop goes on for about twenty sessions, all day Sunday until five or six in the evening or later. During the week most of the time participants will be here in the house. They’ll sleep over. We’ll watch films until morning. We call them film orgies.

While a workshop is going on, the participants become part of my life. I spend most of my time with them because they’re usually fresh from high school or college. They don’t know anything about the world or about the movies. I take them to premier nights and shootings. So people say, “Be careful when you invite Ricky to a premier night. He’ll always bring his angels.” I’ll have ten, fifteen, twenty who are always with me. Invite me to parties, and they’ll be there.

That’s also how I conducted my classes at UP and at Ateneo University. I’d bring my students home, they’d sleep over, we’d watch films. They’d take books and CDs home with them. We’d go to shootings. They’d become my friends. Many of my former UP students are still my close, close friends.

Usually I say, “Inside the workshop space, pull everything you can from me, in much the same way that I’ll pull everything I can from you and you from each other. The main thing we’re doing is just being together.”

Are you reading and critiquing scripts?

Yes. We talk about techniques. They go through the entire process from concept to sequence outline, to the script, revising the script and rewriting scenes. We critique each others’ work. They learn how to “punch the bag”: you have this idea or this story, and you work it left, right, east, west, up, down until all the juices come out. Then they start revising. We do critiques, film viewings, lectures, discussions and exercises. And sometimes emersion trips. They choose a place like Ermita, Malate or Roxas Boulevard because of the bars or the prostitutes and the pimps—a very colorful place where they don’t usually go.

And they feel safe with the group.

They feel safe with the group, and they get to see. Each participant chooses a character to inhabit, then just goes with it. I don’t force them. They can just be there and observe the others. Beyond that, they could pretend to be hookers or go farther than that. Someone might work side-by-side with a sidewalk barbeque vendor. The more adventurous ones totally inhabit the character. When we arrive at the place, usually on Sunday evening around six, they’re in costume, maybe as homeless people on the street. I’ll have about five volunteers going with them just to make sure that nothing untoward happens to them.

Do you get much into the issue of privilege? Do you get your students to see social class from another perspective?

I suppose indirectly. Mostly what we see are the marginalized, and that’s most of the emersion we do: with those living in the streets, the prostitutes, the lesbians, people not in the middle of society. They’re not the privileged who have everything. Most of my own characters are also marginalized. I have some rich characters, but I wouldn’t know how to really get the character of a privileged person. I do agree that you have to see from whatever vantage point.

If you take a look at the racism issue in the US, you see people with no idea of what it’s like on the other side. None.

Here privilege can also be like a macho guy who believes that his wife is his property, that that’s what women are. He can rape his own daughter because he might as well be the one to devirginize her instead of somebody else. We have Filipinos in the barrios who think there’s nothing wrong with incest because their daughters are their property. The man, the male, feels entitled. I’ve written about that in many of my films. Or the privilege of feeling you’re “normal” if you’re straight, not sick like lesbians and the transgenders. That prejudice still exists although we’re taking some very progressive steps. The poor are still mistreated. Also, to a great extent Filipinos are still colonized. The tendency is to be more forgiving or more lenient towards the American than a Filipino because we will always look up to the white man. We’ve always been the poor little brother.

Is your idea to have students write more realistic characters? Or is it to give students a view of a social situation that they haven’t been in before?

Yes, yes, and more. Of course it’s a good thing to see, to observe everything, to become “the other.” I think it’s important for a writer to cross a threshold where there’s a sense of danger, where you don’t know what lies behind that door. You it, and then you don’t know if you’re facing just darkness or a monster. I think it’s important for a writer not to know everything, not to be sure about everything, not to have a safety net. Becoming someone else means crossing a threshold, losing control, not knowing how to be yourself. You’re disconnected.

So the writer comes in contact with his or her own fear and also with the darkness.

You can get in touch with your own darkness. You also have a chance to empty yourself. I think sometimes we’re too full of ourselves—our fears and our joys and everything else. By inhabiting another person, even for a few minutes, or maybe hours, you’re able to free yourself of all your baggage. It will come back, but at least for a length of time you’re completely lost. You’re completely…

Empty?

You’re empty, so you’re able to see or to feel without rules telling you how you should feel, how you should be, who you are. You are able to be free by not knowing.

I notice a big change when people come back from the emersion trip. About one or two or three in the morning, we meet and start sharing. Each participant gives a monologue from the point-of-view of the chosen character. “I am a call boy, and ….” In the monologues they are able to articulate and systematize whatever they felt. So it does a lot. Maybe they’ve blocked their emotions, their instincts, their intuitions. Through this process some of the blinders get removed, and something inside gets unblocked because they feel looser or freer. Because they enjoy the whole experience, they don’t have their defenses up, they’re more off guard.

If I ask people to write a storyline to submit on Monday, and I tell them to make it beautiful, make it correct, do it well, they’ll have a hard time. But if I say, “Let’s play a game, just go there and come up with your story. It can be a mess, but let it come out. You can revise it later. Honesty is the only thing that matters.” Then they can write a story in twenty or thirty minutes, and when they read it in class it will be meaningful. And it will be very fluid. When you force them to write, sometimes the results are very choppy. The same thing happens on an emersion trip. Things get cohesive. They suddenly flow easily and seem to come from a continuous flow inside. Their monologues are more fluid.

I’ve noticed that, when a piece reaches a certain emotional point and I pour it all out for several hours, the emotion seems truer than if I try to do it in a more controlled manner.

Yes. The conscious mind is a liar. It keeps telling you what’s correct based on what it has seen or what it has read or what other people have said. But the subconscious mind is more honest. It usually doesn’t tell lies. So write from the subconscious, from inside, rather than from the head. Although that’s difficult because from the moment you sit down, it’s the conscious mind that’s operating. It takes a while before you can get inside to the subconscious, before the real you starts writing.

Doing the emersion trip in a way helps you get inside faster because it tears down the defenses. Once several participants said to each other, “Let’s not apply for a job at a gay bar or beg on the street. Let’s crash a Chinese debutante’s party.” So they did. They registered, took pictures of the debutante and mingled with the guests. That was their experience, and they were able to inhabit somebody else. It was as harmless as that.

One workshopper applied to be a dancer in a club. She passed the initial stage of the hiring process, but when the manager came back with a tiny bikini for her to wear she admitted she was just doing research. At least she was able to take some steps. The wife of a really famous filmmaker, when she was younger, inhabited a fortuneteller in Qiapo. People started coming up to her and asking her to tell their fortunes. She did for about thirty minutes to an hour, but then she told many of them what she was doing. Filipinos are really nice people—usually, not all the time. Luckily, these people didn’t resent it. I suppose because she also handled it well.

We also do a lot of exercises, sometimes in class, often on the first day. I say, “Write down the name of a person you can’t communicate with. Maybe your mother died before you were able to talk to her, or your father left and you never saw him again or your boyfriend jilted you on Facebook and you weren’t able to talk to him.”

Facebook?

Yes. They do that now. The first exercise is to write a letter to the person in class, uncensored. Nobody else will read it. As they write people start crying and so forth. It gets them to unblock. Afterwards it’s easier because the emotions from the first exercise get transferred to the next. They feel relieved, and they feel ready. The second part of the exercise is to assume the point-of-view of the other person. If your boyfriend jilted you, inhabit the character of the boyfriend, write as the boyfriend. They start writing, not logical writing but associative writing.

The pen doesn’t stop.

The pen doesn’t stop. The writing helps them understand because usually a person, even one who does bad things, believes he’s right—at least for the moment—and he’s doing the right thing. He justifies it to himself. So be the person who dropped you or the parent who died without saying goodbye. That exercise has helped them open up their sensitivity.

Writing is being open and opening your material, but sometimes you can’t be open unless you go into the dark place to something dangerous. You can make it go white and light, but first you have to go dangerous and dark. There’s that journey that you need to do in order to get on the safe and bright side.

In Korea I had a meditation teacher who used to say, “Embrace your dark side.” Become friends with all this anger and resentment and fear. Accept it.

Yes, because it’s part of you. You can’t keep denying the dark side. Embrace it. I say, “The coin always has two sides. It’s bright because it’s also dark. We can see the stars because the sky’s dark. You need both. The protagonist’s story can’t just proceed on a plateau. It dips and soars, dips and soars, and the emotional range is larger. It has to go down so it can go up. When it goes up it’s sweeter because it’s more fulfilling.

If you’re a writer and you’re able to articulate thoughts from the gut, not from the head, which are more difficult to articulate than the ones from the conscious mind, then you’re trying to articulate something that can’t be articulated, that’s unfathomable, from the darkness of the emotions. That’s what’s important.

My meditation teacher talked about breathing from the abdomen and feeling from there.

Yes. I believe that’s where the writing should come from, at least for me. It’s more honest, and it’s what we want to read. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of workshoppers and students over the years. Most of them aren’t working as writers, although many writers came from my workshops. Some are on the production side, or they’ve gone back to advertising or being housewives. Still, the workshops benefit everybody. I say, “You don’t have to be great writers when you come out of the workshop, but at least become better people. Hopefully by becoming a better person you also become a better writer.

Is that how writing changes the world?

Ha! I suppose, yeah. I always tell them that in a way we’re all broken and wounded and in need of another’s hand on our shoulders. The story gives you a shoulder to lean on for a while. It can be a hand that’s extended to others who are also broken. But first you have to have your eyes and your sensibilities so you can see what’s around you. You can’t write stories in order to blind people. You have to open their eyes, open up their consciousness. As far as changing the world goes, you have to see the darkness, the brokenness, the disconnection and the connection.

Readers write:

fabulous interview/write up/thank you.

I love his stories. I have his book, Si Tatang at ang mga Himala ng Ating Panahon. Wonderful interview!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 2

by on Saturday, February 6th, 2016

Christian and students

Christian and students

Most expats teaching in Korea teach language, not literature, are not involved in administrative decision-making and are not expected to do research. Christian’s situation is quite different, much more like that of tenure-track faculty in the United States before the bottom fell out of the job market thirty-five years ago. We spoke via Skype when he was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Part 1 of the interview dealt with teaching literature and the job market in Korean higher education. Part 2 deals with social issues in the classroom, specifically those that appear in his classroom in 2015 and mine at Dongguk University from 1989 to 2006.

Christian’s story

H. Christian Blood

H. Christian Blood

My students seem to know all the names. At their hagwŏns [cram schools or for-profit “institutes”] they read summaries of Marx and other political philosophies. So they know the words, and they have the passing familiarity needed to pass a test, but they’ve never read the original works.

That was also true of the student activists in the late 80s until the mid-90s, when student activism went out of fashion. The students would believe in Marxism like a religion, as opposed to something that they had studied. It was all tied up with the campaign for Korean reunification.

None of my students would identify as Marxist. I think many of them are wealthy and very privileged, but it’s also a sign of the times. Marxism to them signals North Korea, which is often invoked as a reason not to do things. I put them in groups for writing class, which is pretty standard, and a student said to me, “You know collectivism failed in North Korea.”

They’ve still got ancient Asian collectivism in South Korea. It’s the roots of Confucianism.

I think my students were all born in the 90s. They were little when the currency crisis happened. They see themselves as wanting to start the next Google or Naver [a Korean search engine]. Or as undiscovered K-Pop stars.

When did you first come to Korea? How did it change over the time you were here?

In 1988, I taught in a hagwŏn for a year, and then I went to Dongguk and taught there until December of 2006. During that time I noticed a change in attitudes. When I first got to Dongguk it was not unusual for a male student, a first son, to tell me that the quality he was looking for first in a wife was that she would look after his parents. By the time I left nobody was saying that anymore. But expressed opinions and the behavior could have been different, and often were.

I wrote all my own textbooks. Generally I found that my students were quite receptive, but I had to be careful. I put together some reading and conversation stuff when I first started teaching there, stories and articles on different ethnicities, women’s rights and human rights. Issues like racism and sexism and homophobia. All of the settings were in the United States, but Korea might appear in the discussion questions. For example, I used some scenes from Philadelphia to get the students to talk about homosexuality. After I’d been at Dongguk for more than five years and had finished the composition textbooks, I started writing the second batch of conversation textbooks, which were based on a few basic principles of social science and interviews on living and working in Korea. I had a two-semester book for the majors and a two-semester book for the non-majors. I used them for ten years, revising during the vacations. If I’d started out from the beginning trying to do the same thing but not knowing much about Korean culture, I would have gotten myself into trouble. But I’d learned how to let the material do the persuading, step back and not argue with anyone. The material was not always flattering to Korea, but it rang true. So in the first week we could be talking about racism, prejudice, all that kind of stuff without people getting upset.

I think our situations are very similar except my students now have the internet and so they already know all that stuff. They’re aware of what’s going on. I was very surprised a few weeks ago when they brought up Caitlyn Jenner in class. They were already familiar with transgender issues and comfortable with discussing them. Now, this is a self-selecting group that’s going to take an upper-division course in Greek and Roman novels, not a reliable sample of Korean students, but in this discussion I had nothing to say. They said it. The other thing is my students are very interested in watching police violence in the United States. They are all fully following “Black Lives Matter.”

Well, that’s the old anti-Americanism in a new guise. In the old days some of my students were convinced that American whites were the most racist folks in the world, although that was not the way they were talking during the Los Angeles riots. Korean news coverage was very one-sided, so I brought in an article about how the attack on Korean stores in LA was really set off not by the Rodney King verdict, but by the verdict of Doo Soon-ja, the Korean shopkeeper who got off with only community service after shooting an unarmed teenager she mistakenly thought was going to steal a container of orange juice. They hadn’t heard of this case because the Korean media didn’t mention it. I always seemed to be trying to counter bias about one thing or another.

 The attacks on black citizens by the police probably remind your students of the military dictatorships in Korea.

Yes. The students all understood it from the dictatorships. I’ve been very impressed with how closely and critically they’ve been following police violence in the United States. I think that my students are able to quickly see problems in the US more easily than Americans can.

In some ways the Korean military dictatorships were similar to the anticommunism of my childhood. McCarthyism provided a good excuse for attacks on citizens, for rooting out anti-racism activists, for example. In South Korea it was the threat from the North. At the same time I’m watching the news and seeing many more parallels than I want to see in what’s going on in the United States and a police state.

Absolutely. It’s sad and scary. Was martial law still in place when you got here? When did that stop?

Probably after Chun Doo-hwan was defeated in the summer of 1987 and he had to make concessions to the citizens. There was no curfew when I arrived in September of 1988. Korea had to be “developed” and “democratic” in order to have the Olympic Games. So they had their first democratic election in December, 1987 and elected Roh Tae-woo, Chun Doo-hwan’s buddy. Right after the Olympics the hearings started about government corruption and the massacre in Kwangju.

My students are very conversant in what’s happening in the United States, but none of them really know about martial law in Korea. The parents aren’t talking. None of my students likes President Park Geun-hye, and they’re all critical of her father. But then my classes attract students who want to talk about these things. What I see is that students perceive the military dictatorships to be further in the past than they really were.

They haven’t heard of the massacre in Kwangju?

They’ve heard about it, but it’s as if they think it happened in 1880, not 1980. This is just my impression. This generation is very invested in a globalized, first-world Korea.The post-Olympics Korea is the only one they know. I think they see the assassination of Park Chung-hee as much more decisive than it really was. They have a kind of an ambivalent view of Park. He was bad, a lot of people died, but he built a great country.

I read that a lot of Park Chung-hee’s popularity came after the fact, that there was considerable denial about the Park years. By contrast, the German generation I knew best, those people born shortly before or during World War II, were filled with anger and resentment about the previous generation. I often heard someone say, “I’m not German, I’m European.” More than a few interrogated their parents about what they were doing during the Hitler years.

Park Chun-hee was assassinated at the end of October 1979. Chun Doo-hwan seized power on December 12 of the same year. There was labor and student unrest of all kinds all over the country, and Chun declared martial law, then sent in the Special Forces, and later full military force, to put down peaceful demonstrations in Kwangju. With the knowledge of the US military. So, yes, there was a “Seoul Spring” after the assassination, but it was pretty short. Park Chun-hee was also very pro-Japanese. The “miracle on the Han River” was made with loans from the US and Japan.

I’ve been surprised at students’ attitudes about Japan. No way around it, I’m just always surprised. They’re very cosmopolitan, they want to talk about race and the problems of the militarization of the American police, but when Japan comes up, they think about Japan in a way I don’t fully grasp. Underwood has lots of problems if we try to present a balanced view of Japan. How did your students talk about it?

Well, the student radicals were often hostile both toward Japan and toward the US. The word “nom,” or bastard, was used only for the Japanese and the Americans—Ilbon-nom and Miguk-nom. The other students and the business people seemed to have mixed feelings. Their talk about Japan might be negative, but they might also be attracted to it. I know of a businessman who was sent to Japan for a year, and he had to pretend that putting up with the Japanese was a hardship, but he actually became a closet Japanophile. And I think that was true of a lot of people, an admiration-hate relationship with the Japanese, like you see with the popularity of the Miss Kitty stuff or with students who want to go to Japan and study Japanese but don’t talk about it very much.

My students also seem to overestimate Korea’s importance—but in a way I expect most people think of their own country (this is a hard for me to think through, since I grew up in Washington, DC, which is the center of a world system in an objective way). K-wave has made it very easy.

There’s a feeling that because everyone knows “Kangnam Style” people will be flooding into Korea to pursue a university education.

In some ways that thinking is the same as it used to be, very self-centered. You would hear tons of criticism of the United States. If you countered with one critical comment about Korea you had a big argument on your hands.

So in some ways it sounds like underneath not much has changed.

That I believe. You only have to scratch the surface lightly to get a very nationalist response. I regularly get in trouble for insulting Korea. I say, “Don’t worry. I criticize the United States ten times as much!” I definitely don’t adhere to propriety in the way my students expect.

Yeah, but that doesn’t mollify them. You still insulted Korea.

And I don’t even mean to! That’s the thing. But I don’t think the most decisive issue facing Korea right now is Dok-do, the Liancourt Rocks off the coast which are controlled by Korea but contested by Japan.

Last semester I taught an upper-division seminar on American feminism from the 70s, 80s and 90s. I did this because of student interest. A lot of the women in my classes would probably be taking women’s studies if they were at schools in the US, but we don’t have those. I focused on the 70s and 80s because I wanted to give them more depth and some of the long history of political activism. Also I wanted them to think about class more because my students are not—they’re happy to talk about gender relations, but they are hesitant to talk about class.

For obvious reasons.

So I didn’t want the discussion to be “plastic surgery, good or bad,” or “the objectification of women in K-pop, good or bad.” I wanted real discussion. So I spent a semester with eight women reading Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, mainly African-American women writers. We had a great time. I’ve never had so much fun in class. The students took over, and they ended up almost running it. Then we went to Korean materials, and we talked about the dictatorships, we talked about Korean women, and we talked about the role gender has played in building modern Korea. Without ever talking about plastic surgery.

The women decided to start a club that would work on women’s reproductive health, safety and sexual education because there isn’t a women’s center at Yonsei. They tried to charter it as a club to get sponsorship, and they basically told it was too hot to handle. So they went guerilla and did it on their own. It’s wonderful. I argued that their programs should be a little more conservative, maybe not start out focusing on sexual pleasure, but the woman who was in charge said, “Then you shouldn’t have had us do a critique of respectability politics.” I said “Touché.”

At the Yonsei campus they’ve done workshops for women on contraception, consent, rights of rape victims, masturbation and reproductive health. It is so exciting because my students don’t know about contraception. There’s no sex education in Korea, at least not for the segment of the population I meet. There’s none.

So the women who took my feminism class are doing this. There were condom demonstrations, and now there’s information on campus. If a woman needs an abortion, a morning-after pill, if she’s been raped or wants an IUD, she can find out where to look.

Abortion is both technically legal yet hard to get. I’ve been told that if a woman asks her doctor for birth control, the doctor can refuse, especially if she’s not married. I think it’s the influence of the Protestant churches here. What my students have told me is that if you’re not comfortable Googling in English and you’re doing a search in Korean in Naver, it’s hard to find unbiased information about the IUD. What comes up first is these hysterical pieces about how a woman used an IUD and now she’s infertile for life. My students are taking English resources and translating them. That makes me very happy. I had very little to do with it. I just arranged some institutional support and gave them some pointers for dealing with the administration. It’s great to see what they’ve been doing.

Actually for me teaching the chapters on women’s issues was the most rewarding—partly because I could speak as a former women’s rights activist. They read the chapter, and they saw their professor leading a contingent of women down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. We watched a movie called “How We Got the Vote.” When we started out most of the students didn’t realize that women’s rights were something that American women had to fight for. A lot of their opinions changed very quickly when they came to understand sexism not as a Korean issue but as a global issue.

Yeah. The point I try to make to my students is that the current situation in Korea is not inevitable. The country is this way for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not my role to try to change things in Korea, and it’s not my place. But as an instructor I can show them how things have changed in other countries. The class on women’s studies was the most rewarding class I’ve ever done. The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aenied, I think are beautiful, but they don’t have the same progressive relevance.

 

 

 

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Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 1

by on Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Christian's class in Underwood College at Yonsei

Christian’s class at Underwood College in Yonsei University

Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 1

Most expats teaching in Korea teach language, not literature, are not involved in administrative decision-making and are not expected to do research. Christian’s situation is quite different, much more like that of tenure-track faculty in the United States before the bottom fell out of the job market in higher education about thirty-five years ago. Christian and I spoke via Skype when he was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Christian’s story

H. Christian Blood

H. Christian Blood

I teach at Underwood International College, one of the sixteen colleges in Yonsei University. It was founded ten years ago as a western-style, English-only, liberal arts and sciences college like a top private liberal arts college in the United States. All of the classes, from introductory through upper-division, are administered by one unit. The college was a response to a brain drain; that is, Korean students who wanted liberal arts were going to the States because there was no equivalent of that in Korea. The first class opened nine years ago in the basement of the theology building with four faculty and eighty students. This year we have forty-five tenure-track faculty and two thousand students. Statistically we are one of the most competitive programs in the country, and in Korea that’s what counts. We take about 1% of our applicants.

In order to guarantee its position as a truly international college, Underwood requires every

Faculty member to be from the United States or other English-speaking countries. No one with a Korean passport can have a tenure-track appointment, so we don’t have the problem you find in other schools where a class is supposed to be in English, but in fact it’s only the PowerPoint that’s in English and the lecture is in Korean. By contract, all of my classroom time must be in English. So that it’s actually a professional advantage that I don’t know any Korean.

Our stereotypical student is rich, from Kangnam. Within Yonsei we have a reputation for being a rich kid’s program, although I’m not sure this is true. But our students are the kids who succeeded in the competitive Korean hagwŏn [cram school or for=profit “institute”] game because they were there until two in the morning. In hyper-competitive Korean education, it’s very important for a program or college to be respected by Korean mothers. This is because the admissions process is so competitive, there’s no way in the world a student can do everything without help. Parents guide the admissions process very closely. They are very educated. They’ve pored over the university website, and sometimes I think they know more about our programs and requirements I do. I’ve heard a rumor that I’m known on some of these blogs and online discussions my surname, Blood!

Both the university and the Ministry of Education are very aware of the role that a family plays in a student’s education. This does have some unintended consequences. For example I’ve been told is that the foundational principle of all Korean education is equality, but Korea has huge differences in region and social class. The Ministry of Education will devise a new rule to try to level the playing field, such as, when students apply to our college, they must declare a major before they apply. This was necessary to avoid people just selecting a major on the basis of how competitive it is to get into. Then parents figure out how to crack the code, so to speak, and so next year, there’s another rule, and so on.

At Dongguk University people were selecting majors on the basis of how easy it was to get in decades ago. That’s why there were so many forestry majors. Students would get advice from older students in their departments, their “seniors,” who would tell them what classes to take, but when I left in 2006 the old Confucian “junior-senior” relationship was starting to break down. At Dongguk the students ran a website where they could comment on the faculty. I never looked at it, but I was told I had the reputation for being tough but fair. The mothers were never even mentioned except for their traditional role in managing their children’s primary and secondary education. But times have changed, and your school is much more competitive than Dongguk, which was a second-level university.

The competition doesn’t interest me. I went to alternative schools and a400-person liberal arts college, St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, a Great Books college which did not require SAT scores [Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken toward the end of high school.].The college believed that studying for a grade was antithetical to true learning. The kind of people who go there can’t care about rankings and grades. You just wouldn’t go. My master’s and PhD are in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, another school that was always been antiestablishment.

Then I came to Korea where everything is about your test scores and your GPAs and other measures that Koreans call “specs.”On the campus at Yonsei, everyone is very aware of the school’s status, and sometimes it feels as if we’re acting more for the sake of reifying our institution’s standing. I actually love it, and I kind of enjoy compensating for my status-free undergrad education. It suits me well. There’s a lot of structure. Either I got my rebellion out of my system when I was young, or it’s fun being totally subversive, which at Yonsei can mean showing students that it’s not all about grades and tests.

My students are fantastic. They are hard-working, they are very dedicated, and their English is excellent. They’ve succeeded in the competitive Korean hagwŏn game. They’re very good at listening, taking notes and memorizing, but a lot of them have a difficult time acclimating to classes which are primarily discussion. Many don’t fully understand what means to have an education in western-style liberal arts and sciences. The program starts out with core classes in history, literature and philosophy. For several years I taught for several years a core course called Western Civilization, starting with Homer and wrapping up with Freud. It was a big picture overview for students who might not know the western tradition, which I thought was great. But most Korean students aren’t expecting to be reading Freud if they’re in an engineering program.

Last semester I taught three classes. One of them was Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. There were twelve people in the class. We read fifty pages a week. In class we sat in a circle and talked about it. Another class was on Roman literature, so we did Virgil’s Aenied, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, and the Satyricon of Pretronius. This is in English translation. In the States, I taught the Iliad all through graduate school, and the student reaction was about the same every time—and the opposite of what it is in Korea.

If you remember, in the Iliad, Agamemnon is a commander in the Greek army. It’s the tenth year of the Trojan War, and the story opens after Agamemnon has made some bad leadership decisions. Achilles breaks rank and rebels against him. He’s is quite excessive, he’s very selfish, people who read it think he’s immature. But western readers identify with him as the individual, the hero, whereas Korean students always side with Agamemnon. I have to convince them that Achilles is sympathetic, even though he’s being so selfish.

Do you get into explaining to them what individualism actually is or the good side of individualism, as opposed to individualism equals minus Confucianism?

Yes, and a lot of my students are already sympathetic to individualism, and that’s why they’re at our school instead of Seoul National or Korea University or Ewha Woman’s University.

There’s also not a tradition of literary criticism as an academic discipline here in the way we find it in the west. So sometimes it’s a hard sell. Students are eager to take philosophy and history, but they don’t understand why you’d study literature other than for its historical value. Also, the Korean terms for words we use in literary analysis, like “irony” and “metaphor,” are just transliterations from English. There areno Korean words. I know from publishing literary work in Korean journals—the article would be in English, but the abstract in Korean—that people are never sure how to translate a lot of these technical terms which we oftentimes take for granted. Here there’s not the same sort of tradition of studying literature without reference to history. In Korea it’s usually more historical.

Well, our tradition is based on learning how to come up with your own analysis of something, which I think is very un-Confucian.

In the past when my students studied western literature, their teachers gave them one interpretation. Read Death of a Salesman, and this is what it means. The same goes for Robert Frost’s poetry or Shakespearean sonnets. I say, “What do you think?” We put two competing, contradictory theses on the board along with evidence for both of them. These very accomplished, sharp students are not comfortable with that.

Actually, I even had American graduate students who hesitated to express opinions—or to work out their own analysis of a literary text. I had one class which met three times a week. The first two class periods they were responsible for the discussion of that week’s work, and I’d sit there silently and take notes. On the third class period I’d lecture with an analysis of the work and with answers to points the students had made about it. So they had to come up with their own interpretation before I said a word. That worked.

My experience as a teaching assistant and as an adjunct professor in California in the 2000s was that students would not shut up. They were so confident that anything they said was worth the group’s hearing. So it was quite a shock to be in Korea and see that the students were very, very good, but it felt like you had to pull comments out of them.

I had that problem except when I put them into small groups, and then they would talk. Speaking to the whole class was considered “speaking in public,” which in the Confucian culture was a sign of arrogance, while speaking in groups of four was okay.

The stereotype of Korean students is that they’re good at regurgitating information, studying for tests, that sort of thing, while the stereotype of American students is that they’ve been training in critical thinking. My own experience, especially now with “No Child Left Behind” is that American students are really bad at absorbing and retaining any meaningful information.

I haven’t taught Americans since 1982, so in some ways what you’re telling me is new information.

Even during the short time I taught in California, 2003 to 2011, there was a sharp decline in the students’ ability to absorb anything. I don’t know what is going on in American middle and high schools, but it is frightening. To put this in the best possible terms, American education does not emphasize stuff. It emphasizes patterns. Korean education emphasizes stuff rather than patterns. Korean students will memorize every fact in the book that you give them. The way they learn history doesn’t show them how to extrapolate a pattern and synthesize it on their own. But they can learn it very quickly once they’re working with a teacher who expects that.

Well, actually, I have had a similar experience, first showing students how the Korean approach to something was different from the American approach and then having them apply that information to certain real-life situations. They were able to do that.

My students learned very quickly. In my opinion, all the training in critical thinking in the world is not helpful if you don’t know some things to think critically about. Korean students are willing to do the work and are very fast at applying it. Now, I’m sure it’s very different in business, but the college students are ready to do it. They are such a pleasure to teach. Not only are they good students, they don’t piss, moan and complain about having to work. They want to be there, and I usually only say things once or twice and they’re off and running. Many days I cannot believe I get paid to do this.

I had the same feeling about Dongguk.

Now, on a different issue, I understand it’s much harder for an expat to get a job teaching in Korea than it used to be.

In the early 90s we spent a couple of years trying to find another native-speaker for the other position in the English Department. Nowadays the situation is the reverse. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I sympathize with people who went to Korea thinking it would be different than it turned out to be. On the other hand, with their credentials many people wouldn’t have had a chance of teaching at a university in the United States even thirty-some years ago.

Look, we all know that it’s probably been too easy to get a teaching job here just because you had the right native language. But now it’s going to be harder if you don’t have more credentials and a plan. The Ministry of Education is also forecasting I think a 20% decrease in college enrollment in Korea in thirty years because of the declining population. It’s already started planning ways to contract the university system and has changed the funding formulas for how they distribute federal funds to universities. From what I understand, schools will only get their funds now if they demonstrate how they are going to handle population decline. So in anticipation of this there’s a kind of unofficial long-term hiring freeze. It’s going to be harder and harder for people who don’t have a master’s to get a job they want here.

I’ve heard a master’s plus two years university teaching experience, not including the time you spent at the university where you are currently teaching. I think the confusion and discontent among expats comes from the regulations’ being interpreted in different ways, which has always been a problem with Korean regulations.

One thing Yonsei does beautifully is recognize how time-consuming it can be to develop courses and write papers. When there are high expectation for research output the administration is definitely reasonable about a teaching load. It’s nice to work for an institution that understands. I have it so much better than most of my friends in the United States.

At Yonsei everything is tied to research—all promotion and reappointments are contingent on research output. The point system gives 90% for research and 10% comes from teaching.

That’s university-wide. Yonsei supports faculty research very well. Unfortunately, my college is teaching-intensive. So we’re pulled both ways. But I wake up every morning thankful for this job.

My closest Korean friend still does not have tenure after ten years of teaching and publishing and doing the extra work which is assigned to the lowest-ranking tenure-track faculty.

I have commitments through next week. I spend a lot of time in meetings, on junkets, entertaining people and planning things. Ten years for a tenure decision is pretty typical at Yonsei.

We have a bilingual staff to take care of things, especially for the international faculty who don’t know Korean. It’s so much easier for them to do it than to explain to an American how to do it. So then when I get home from work I have to remember that I don’t have an assistant working for me.

A reader writes:

Interesting article. Thanks, Carol. Relevant stuff for my career…I will look forward to part 2!

Another reader writes:
Good article, quite similar to my experiences teaching Media Studies here the past few years.
Reply:
Jobs have definitely improved over the years, as have teachers’ credentials.
Yet another reader:
Thanks much for this, Carol.  Since I teach on the Dept. of Global Studies at Pusan National U, which has a similar program to UIC, I can relate to what H. Christian Blood is saying
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Galang=Respect for Filipino Lesbians, Part 2

by on Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Galang with Anne Lim at left, a nominee for the Baldwin Award

Galang with Anne Lim at right, a nominee for the Baldwin Award

In order to “ground” this interview in its environment. I suggest watching Galang’s two videos before reading Anne’s story. These are “Mama Cash video GALANG English” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xq3tynzpmvU> and “Galang in the Grassroots” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eKEFN4-YE4>. Just copy the URLs contained in the angle brackets and paste to your navigation bar.

Anne’s story

Anne Lim, co-founder of Galang

Anne Lim, co-founder of Galang

“Galang” is the Filipino word for “respect.” Our organization was founded in 2008 by a group of lesbian dreamers who wanted to change the way things were going in the LGBT sector. A lot of the voices that we were hearing, like in the West, were those of upwardly-mobile gay men professionals. Even the lesbians who were speaking out were upper middle-class. Many felt that in a society such as ours it was necessary to hear also from women who were economically marginalized. Otherwise there wouldn’t be enough momentum for policy change. Our lawmakers need the numbers to know that there is indeed discrimination and there that a large number of lives would be affected by anti-discrimination laws.

Currently, Galang is a seven-year-old feminist human righs organization which has four program components: policy advocacy, research, institutional development and sustainability, and capacity building. Our goal is to help develop community-based LBT leaders who will be on the front lines of the LGBT movement in the Philippines. But that will be a long time coming. It’s easier to train educated, middle-class lesbians to be more articulate about their own issues. It’s a much harder task to expect high school graduates, or those with little education exposure, to articulate what they feel.

In fact, when we first went to the community, and even now from time to time, we found women couldn’t even talk about their  experience. What they know is that at a young age they realized they were attracted to women. They harbor feelings of insecurity because they believe they’re immoral sinners. That’s what they were been taught. However, through the years we’ve had some luck and made some progress, and a handful of community leaders have emerged—although not to the extent that we want. Through the years we’ve learned that this is something that will take a long time to develop.

So our policy advocacy program component is focused on local and national advocacy, anti-discrimination legislation, at the local level the gender-fair ordinances that were passed in Quezon City. There are several anti-discrimination ordinances all over the Philippines, but Quezon City was the first local unit to have one. Now it has a second one as of last year. The problem in the Philippines is we have a lot of laws protecting women, laws protecting several marginalized sectors. But it’s always a question of implementation rather than the passage of a law. These ordinances have never been tested. The first ordinance in Quezon City was passed in 2003, but there never was a case that was successfully won by invoking it. Currently we’re in the process of participating in the development of implementing rules and regulations, but it will take a while to develop because next year is an election year. There are politics among the actors involved. We are pursuing the implementation of these rules and regulations within the year. Because otherwise it won’t be possible to invoke the ordinance.

At the national level, since the early 2000s or the late 1990s, there have been anti-discrimination bills pending in Congress, several versions that have slight differences in nuance. Broadly speaking, there are those that are based only on SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity or Expression}, there are bills on SOGIE and several other bases for discrimination, like disability, race, ethnicity and HIV-status.

For a long time the anti-discrimination legislation sat in committees in both houses of Congress. The absence of a logistical champion has prevented it from getting passed. I think it’s the fifth or sixth time it’s been filed, and it looks like it won’t get passed this time either. What we’re asking for—in on online campaigns and position papers and such, as well as public hearings and depositions–-is support of the bill. Also as part of our policy advocacy we’re in the process of researching other policies that affect LBGTs. As you saw in the film, we’re in the process of getting into other service laws, like the Filipine Health Insurance Act, because we feel that these laws have been in existence for a long time but they don’t specify discrimination against LGBTs and their families. Policy advocacy has to do with the way these laws are applied on a day-to-day basis. Of course our policy advocacy component and our research component are very much intertwined. Our research is dedicated to ensuring that all advocacy work is evidence–based. It’s been easy for us to navigate because we have all these stories from LBTs in our partner communities detailing discrimination. Wherever it’s feasible we try to come up with research papers, such as the one on social protection. In the most recent one on social empowerment, we discuss how LBTs who are excluded from the formal labor sector try to be creative in seeking employment and  other means of earning, for instance by working abroad as domestic helpers or by becoming small or micro entrepreneurs like tricycle drivers.

We’re currently undergoing a survey of our LBT constituents, not only within Galang, but among activists in the Philippines. There are no quantitative data on the sectors, so each time there’s a need to pass an anti-discrimination law there are hardly any concrete numbers to cite except for anecdotal information. So what we’re trying to do is conduct a baseline study and develop an index that would measure at least LBTs that work in Quezon City. We hope to eventually expand the scope of that study so that at least we’ll be able to say how many have experienced discrimination and in what form.

Of course laws ares necessary, but one of the things we’ve learned is that discrimination is more cultural than legal. It’s crucial to change people’s perceptions, and that’s why we have all these education materials like the video, the comics and everything. This is sometimes a difficulty with foreign partners because for us the fight doesn’t end when the law gets passed. It’s not the same as in America and the UK. That’s why we do a lot of training, exposure to students, we give interviews to students and researchers as well. To the media also.

Finally, our institutional development and sustainability program focuses on our own sustainability as an organization. They say that 1.01% of all development worldwide goes to LBGT funding. It has been very difficult, probably in part because there’s the feeling that the LGBT community doesn’t need assistance anymore because marriage equality has been won in the West. It’s a constant struggle for groups like Galang to find funding, especially in the Philippines. There is less evidence of pain than in places like Uganda and Nigeria. Here people are said to be more tolerant. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. What are counted as hate crimes are cases of murder based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but in the Philippines there are a lot of rapes of lesbians and bisexual women. Some say it’s “corrective.” The rapists don’t usually talk about it, but a lot of lesbians feel it’s punishment for being indifferent to the male gaze.

In terms of succession planning, Galang is also very much dedicated to the development of activists on the community level and on the level of Galang as an an institution. It’s important, in the feminist movement and the LGBT movement, for there to be young people involved. Activism is not a very rewarding job. A lot of us get burned out. When that happens it’s necessary for young people to take over. It’s a sensitive issue, I know. It’s something that we take very seriously in Galang because we’re here for the long haul. As you’ve seen in our videos, we invest in young people because we’ve seen they’re the ones who are more passionate about fighting for equal rights.

I would imagine that if it were properly implemented, the RH Bill it would also be very helpful to lesbians. What do you see is the relationship between that bill and the problems  you deal with?

Like any law on sexuality, the RH law would definitely help LBTs because it would improve access to health care and promote acceptance of sexual diversity. But for urban poor LBTs the issue is not necessarily access to women’s health care. For the urban poor, health care in general is not accessible. In the Philippines there is no universal health care. So it’s not just a matter of getting a law passed, it’s a matter of breaking through the barrier of low self-esteem.

We’ve partnered up with Likhaan [a non-government organization engaged in providing direct health care services to women in marginalized communities]. We’ve referred many lesbians to them, those who’ve experienced mioma [benign tumor in the uterus] and things like that, but in the end they refuse to seek further treatment. They don’t have the money, and they would rather spend what money they do have on their children or their partners. I’m speaking about butch lesbians–probably because there’s this notion that lesbians are not women.

Yeah, I heard that a couple of weeks ago. I was very surprised.

These identities are pretty much clear-cut elsewhere, but in the Philippines a lot of terms conflict, probably because our jargon is limited, Initially we were a group of lesbians who wanted to work with the lesbian community. Then we realized that we had to come up with an umbrella term. Personally, as a relatively educated lesbian I identify as a woman who has sexual attraction for another woman. But the lesbians we work with at the community level don’t necessarily feel the same way or identify as such. Masculine-presenting lesbians might say that they identify as lesbian or they are men trapped in women’s bodies, and they are attracted to other women. So “trans” might well be more appropriate. The feminine one in the relationship will identify as either straight or bisexual and see her more masculine partner as actually a man. So we had to come up with a term to embrace all these three identities. Probably the term that most lesbians use is “tomboy,” which describes gender expression, not sexual orientation. There is no Filipino term. There is one for gay men, I think. Bakla [“effeminate man” in my dictionary, or “gay man”] is used as “gay man.” For “lesbian” all we use is lesbyana, or “tomboy” which is also not Filipino.

I have a friend who said shortly after we met, “As you can tell I’m a lesbian.” Well, I hadn’t noticed. I don’t think people in the West do that butch-femme role-playing thing anymore.

Obviously, I’m wearing a dress right now, so people will usually say, “How can you be a lesbian?” Those are stereotypes from the 1950s. for instance, the feminine one is often called the girlfriend of the tomboy. She’s not necessarily thought of as a lesbian herself. One of the research projects we undertook involved migrant workers in Hong Kong. They say a lot of Filipino domestic workers end up “becoming lesbian” because there aren’t enough Filipino men to go around. Some of the women we interviewed said that they’re glad for the opportunity to work abroad—of course, primarily because there are no, or very few, employment opportunities for lesbians in the Philippines, but also because in a more open society they are able to express themselves sexually. As an aside, we can say there are a lot of straight women in need of companionship. So they end up having relationships with butch lesbians. Whether they were actually closet lesbians in the Philippines or not, that’s another issue altogether.

Something we would love to do research on eventually is the fact that some women who have husbands and kids in the Philippines go to Hong Kong and become the butch lesbian in their relationship with other Filipino domestic workers. When they come back to the Philippines they again become submissive to their husbands. So the role play, the power play, is something that would be very interesting to study.

Yeah, it would be. And to see how economics ties in as a component of this too.

In the dynamics among lesbian couples, there’s a distinct separation between “butch” and “femme,” especially among older lesbians for whom the LBT distinctions are not clear. Feminine lesbians tend to have more access to employment, and the butch ones don’t have that because there are gender-prescribed requirements like haircut and that. Usually the power is with the “femme” so that if there is violence between couples, the perpetrator of the violence is usually the femme. That surprised us, actually. When the media portrays lesbians as masculine they are the violent ones, but that’s not necessarily the case. That is also supported by the fact that when the victims go to the police to complain about violence against them, the police either turn them away and say, “You can’t be the victim of violence when you’re usually the perpetrator of violence.” Also there are cases of lesbians who report rape and are told by the police, “You’ve at least had the chance to experience sex with a man.”

The issue of violence and acceptance is inversely proportional to economic empowerment, meaning the more money a lesbian has, the more acceptance she has. That’s part of the relationship. So in the communities we work in some women who were disowned by their parents are accepted as soon as they have stable jobs.

We were talking about this earlier. They’re helping to pay the rent.

In Hong Kong I spoke with a woman who was very proud that she made all the decisions for the family back in the Philippines, even what her parents roles would be, because she was the sole income earner. Of course we’re not sure that’s connected with her being a lesbian. Anecdotally, if she didn’t have money to send I’d say she wouldn’t have that much power in her family.

One of the things I’ve observed since coming here is that the family dynamic is very interesting in terms of money. Money seems to have an awful lot to do with the way things happen in the Filipino family.

There’s not a lot to go around, so maybe that’s why it’s so important.

Yeah, and also because of the very peculiar class structure.

I would say that among well-to-do lesbians, having money could also be a barrier to their acceptance of their sexuality. The family applies a lot of pressure to maintain a certain social status. So that’s an irony in itself.

Yeah, because they feel they have a certain position.

For them coming out may not necessarily be an issue. They have all the perks they need without coming out, and they don’t want to shame the family. So the challenge for activists like us is to involve them. For tactical reasons and for political reasons.

Very interesting. And how are you doing this?

Honestly, as you said, money pays for a lot. Grassroots work requires a lot of money. It’s labor-intensive and ad-intensive. So our dream really is to be able to tap into lesbian heiresses who can support the movement, so to speak. We’ve actually tried to find technical support for that through an NGO in Hong Kong, but we learned that the culture of philanthropy in general is not well developed here. In the US and Europe funders could be the governments or private individuals like Bill and Linda Gates. Here funding is not necessarily possible, despite the extreme poverty in the region. So if you find anybody like that just give me a ring.

I will, although the only rich people I know are Filipinos. But I have another question: how do you avoid burnout?

I have ten dogs and a partner of thirteen years. I try to tell myself that this work is not all on my shoulders. In this office we try to remind ourselves that it’s never up to one person. Actually, I work in another office, and having another focus has helped as well.

Well, that’s certainly true of human rights in the US. The laws or policies put in place during times of prosperity are taken away during times of austerity. It swings back and forth.

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Anne Marie Lim and Charisse M. Jordan, “Policy Audit: Social Protection Policies and Urban Poor LBTs in the Philippines,” Evidence Report No. 21, Sexuality, Poverty and Law. http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/2892/ER21Policy_Audit_Social_Protection_Policies_and_Urban_Poor_LBTs_in_the_Philippines.pdf?sequence=7

Galang Philippines, Inc. “How Filipino LBTs Cope with Economic Disadvantage,” Evidence Report No. 120, Sexuality, Poverty and Law. http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/5873/ER120_HowFilipinoLBTsCopewithEconomicDisadvantage.pdf?sequence=1.

Homophobia May Cost India’s Economy Billions of Dollars, India Real Time. http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2014/06/10/how-homophobia-hurts-indias-economy/

 

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