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A Filipina Vocal Group at Tago Jazz Café

by on Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Baihana doing close harmony

Baihana doing close harmony

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

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

Mel Torre, alto

Mel Torre, alto

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

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

Krina Cayabyab, arranger and soprano

Krina Cayabyab, songwriter, arranger and soprano

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

Anna Achacoso, soprano

Anna Achacoso, soprano

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

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

Julius Lopez

Julius Lopez

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

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

Kami Santiago with a perfect light touch on the drums

Kami Santiago on drums

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

The perfect light touch on drums

The perfect light touch

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

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

Janine Samaniego on violin and Tim Cada on guitar

Janine Samaniego on violin and Tim Cada on guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bouncing around the Mid-East, Part 3

by on Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Palestine sunset

Palestine sunset

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

Michele in the desert

Michele in the desert

Michele’s story

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

Palestine in 2007

Palestine in 2007

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

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

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

Palestinian Roman road

Palestinian Roman road

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Palestine University

Palestine University

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

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

Pasha courtyard

Pasha courtyard

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

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



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

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

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


Bouncing around the Middle East, Part 2

by on Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Omani cat and goats

Omani cat and goats

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

Michele’s story

Michele in the desert

Michele in the desert

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

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

Omani door

Omani door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muscat coastline

Muscat coastline

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

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


Love Surge for Haiyan/Yolanda Victims

by on Monday, October 20th, 2014

Dino Marique

Dino Marique

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

Rosana Bautista Golez

Rosana Bautista Golez

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

Joel Garduce with a copy of "Surges"

Joel Garduce with a copy of “Surges”

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

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

Jeff Pagaduan

Jeff Pagaduan

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

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

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

Justin Capen

Justin Capen

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

The Courage bag

The Courage bag

The Compassion bag

The Compassion bag

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

Jourdan Sebastian & Jeff Bago

Jourdan Sebastian & Jeff Bago

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

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

Fread De Mesa

Fread De Mesa

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

Jeff Bago

Jeff Bago

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

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

Dav Dionisio & Denise Melanie 'Lanie' Lagrosa

Dav Dionisio & Denise Melanie ‘Lanie’ Lagrosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raphael Mijeno and  Aisa Mijeno

Raphael Mijeno and Aisa Mijeno

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

Jourdan Sebastian

Aisa Mijeno and the lamp

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

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

  Bong Dela Torre and Fread De Mesa

Bong Dela Torre and Fread De Mesa

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

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

Jourdan Sebastian

Jourdan Sebastian

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

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


Bouncing around the Middle East, Part 1

by on Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

kuwaitI met Michele in Korea when she was teaching English in Cheju Province and I was in Seoul. Recently I asked her for an interview about the time she taught in the Mid-East, in Kuwait, Oman and the West Bank. This interview took place over Skype from me in the Philippines to Michele in Philadelphia. Thanks to Michele for all photos.

Michele’s story

Michele in the desert

Michele in the desert

My introduction to the Middle East was fraught with a lot of tension and uncertainty. In January of 2000 I accepted an offer to go to Kuwait City to teach at AMIDEAST, a nonprofit American association established in 1951 to foster greater understanding between the US and Middle Eastern and North African countries, but as far as I could see the Kuwait office was there only to offer English language instruction. The Kuwait director, Kathleen, hired me to teach on a two-year contract, but I only stayed about two and a half months. I realized later that I shouldn’t have done this, but I’d paid the airfare to Kuwait myself after having been told I’d be reimbursed at the end of my contract. I was also told I would get a work visa when I got there.

The AMIDEAST office in Kuwait was housed in a rented villa. It had about fifteen bedrooms, which were classrooms, and huge open spaces. They had classes in English for students who were going to take the TOEFL exam. When I arrived I was moved into a three-bedroom apartment which was a nice enough. I was told I would be getting a roommate, and I did after maybe a week or two. The director had asked me about certain things, and one of the things I said was that I didn’t smoke and I would rather not live with somebody who smoked. However, the roommate I got shortly thereafter smoked. She said she’d smoke only in her room, but of course since we had central air the smell went everywhere. She also met some guy who would come to our apartment at about midnight. I could hear them having sex in her room and he’d leave about ten minutes later. I spoke to the director, but nothing ever came of it. The director herself would actually scream at employees about minor stuff in front of students and everyone in the hallway. She was getting so bizarre that I eventually called the head office in Washington DC to inform them of what was going on. They sent some people who were in the region, and she was removed from her post. So, the living situation wasn’t good and the work situation wasn’t good – not a good beginning.



Kuwait was very hot, even in January. I never dressed provocatively as I wanted to be respectful of the local customs, but I also didn’t cover fully. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the cooler months and short-sleeved (never sleeve-less) when it was really hot. Even so, wherever I went men just stared. My hair was a different color, and I was a Westerner, so maybe that was the attraction. I didn’t have a car initially so I was reliant on walking or taking a taxi. But when I did get a car I found that driving in Kuwait was just bizarre. People from many different countries—Indians, Pakistanis, other Asians—just drove their own way. So it was a very unpleasant experience being on the road.

Two and a half months after my arrival the director was still unable to get a work visa for me, and I was informed I wouldn’t get my airfare money back. AMIDEAST did offer to help me get another job in Kuwait, which they were able to do in April of 2000. The new organization was based in England and called IPETQ, which provides all sorts of training to military organizations, the Kuwait National Guard, as well as Saudi Arabian Texaco and other companies. I started working at Saudi Arabian Texaco, teaching company employees. I was living in a small town called Mahboula, and every morning I had to ride about forty minutes south to Mina Al-Zour (Port of Zour), which is about a ten-minute drive from the Saudi border.

The Texaco compound was on the Arabian Gulf, right on the beach, and the water there was beautiful—turquoise and clear. From my classroom window I could see the water and date palm trees. The training facility was built specifically for teaching. There were maybe eight classrooms and some offices. Texaco provided lunch for us in the restaurant, which was a 3-minute walk from the training facility. Lunch was very nice—salads, several main courses, a variety of desserts and fresh fruit.

Kuwaiti sign

Kuwaiti sign

Classes started at 7:30 in the morning and finished at 2:30 or 3:00. Three days a week were long days, and then twice a week there were short days so it wasn’t eight hours every day. All the students were Saudi men. They were very nice, actually. Of course, many men dressed in their traditional garb, but most of these guys were just relaxed in jeans and a shirt. Some of them might have worn uniforms. At one point I had a somewhat advanced class of students who wanted to study overseas and who needed to get a Band 6 in IELTS [International English Language Testing System], meaning they had a generally effective command of the language. If they got a Band 6, Texaco would pay for them to study in England. Otherwise I had intermediate students, maybe twelve to a class. The guys all knew each other. If they were relatives or they knew each other well, they would shake hands and kiss each other two or three times on the left or right cheek. If they knew each other really well they would touch noses, which I’d never seen before. In this society men could touch each other, shake hands, kiss cheeks and all of that, but never with a woman. I’m not a huggy person anyway, especially with men I don’t know, but I was conscious of giving myself a lot of personal space around them, which they did as well. But they were very open, very nice.

If you’re teaching EFL you ask students about their experiences relating to the topic being taught. Once we were talking about family, and I asked a student how many brothers and sisters he had and he said, “I don’t know.”

I said, “Come on!” But then it occurred to me that his father could have been married more than once. In the end I said, “Okay…approximately.”


Obviously, his father had been married four times or more. Saudis do consider half-siblings to be siblings, and they’ll introduce them as a brother or sister. Supposedly in Islam, if the man marries more than once, each wife is to be given her own place to live, but I found that some men would have a wife on one floor of the house and another wife on another floor. It’s up to the women to agree to this or not. The students said that these days, marrying more than once is sort of old-fashioned. None of the men I met who had married in the previous five, six or seven years had more than one wife.

I didn’t meet many local women because there weren’t any other women in the Texaco compound, and my activities outside of work were mostly with other expats. A lot of British people were there, not surprisingly because Kuwait was once a protectorate. I became friendly with some Brits and an Irish guy and various people from different nationalities. I did find that a lot of my colleagues were a bit—off, shall we say? And I don’t exclude myself from that. For example, alcohol was not allowed in the country, so it seemed that a lot of people became obsessed with it. They’d go to the Sultan Centre, a very nice supermarket which had everything – lots of different cheeses, all kinds of food – and they’d buy grape juice, sugar and yeast to make wine. Or they might make beer. Some of the stuff was pretty serious, like strong enough to make you go blind, and it must have caused killer hangovers. But these people were not necessarily alcoholics. They just wanted something that wasn’t available. Despite the possibility of being searched when they got off the plane in Kuwait, they’d smuggle it in from other countries. However, not everyone was searched, maybe a handful.

In Kuwait there were fast food restaurants all over the place – it was horrible. Burger King, KFC, Applebee’s, TGIFridays, McDonald’s… it was just gross. They were everywhere. But you could also find fabulous Indian food and great Middle Eastern food.

Anyway, I stayed in Kuwait for about three years, mostly at Saudi Arabian Texaco, although at various times I would go elsewhere if I was needed. I taught the Kuwait National Guard and other military personnel at another location.

Overall the experience was not great. There were a lot of foreigners in Kuwait, specifically Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who did manual jobs like cleaning the streets. They were often treated like they weren’t even human. At gas stations the guys who were pumping gas would be out all day, even in the summer when the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit [50 Centigrade]. They’d be out there in horrendous sand storms, when the sand would get in your nose, in your hair, in your eyes. Sandstorms would come every couple of months and last for about 24 hours.

Kuwaiti camels

Kuwaiti camels

Kuwait was flat for the most part, with the highest point being Mutla Ridge, which was made infamous during the First Gulf War as the point where Iraqi soldiers were retreating and US forces bombed the shit out of them. No sand dunes to speak of in Kuwait, just trash everywhere, like plastic bags. The only part that’s nice is by the water.

Water usage is another issue. Kuwaitis often have several servants—a driver, maids, various others—and they want their houses and themselves to look good. In summer the traditional garb, the dishdasha, is worn in light colors like white, ivory or tan. They’re starched and spotless – never dirty. The men’s headgear is always perfect. Cars are washed every day. I wondered where they were getting the huge amount of water they were using. It’s a desert. It might have been taken from the Gulf and desalinated. When the issue came up on essays, like with a cause-and-effect paper, the students inevitably blamed the people who worked for them. They didn’t seem to want to take responsibility for any of their own actions. I also found that to be true in other Gulf countries.

One of the reasons I wanted to leave Kuwait was that I couldn’t stand the inhumanity shown toward the overseas workers. You’d often see stories in the newspaper of maids from countries like Malaysia “falling” from balconies and dying. You’d hear horror stories. It would seem that the male members of the families would try to have sex with the foreign maids. The wife or husband’s mother would beat them and overwork them. You’d see them all the time in the shopping centers. They had the unhappiest faces I’ve ever seen on a human being. It was horrible. I hated to look at their faces. They looked so unhappy.

Many women who survived would seek refuge in their embassies. A friend of mine would have a party every six months or so and ask people to bring clothes they didn’t want. We’d trade, and whatever was left over my friend would take to the Indian, Pakistani or Malaysian embassy for the women who were hiding out there. They had no money, no means to get back home. Also, they were probably embarrassed because their families had had to put money together to buy the visa to get to Kuwait. They’d thought it was such a great opportunity to earn all this money and send it back to their families. Then everything fell apart. If a woman was raped, the possibility of getting married when she returned home was greatly reduced. It could scar her for life.

After three years I wanted to leave. I’d been made redundant by my employers in late 2003. So I left Kuwait and did a course in Hungary. Then I needed a job. I don’t know why now, but I decided to go back to IPETQ. I did this knowing that in about Sept. of 2001, after working there for a year and a half, I found out that they’d been paying me less than other teachers even though I had more academic degrees. The others were getting 700 Kuwaiti dinars a month—$2310 at that time—while I was getting 685. Apparently the Welshman who hired me thought he could get away with pocketing the rest of it. They were all creeps at that company, the men especially. When I found out the pay discrepancy and confronted him, he just said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll pay you 700.” However, I was never compensated for the previous 18 months or so.

I should have known not to go back to them, but I did. I got a year’s contract in May 2003, and two weeks after I arrived in Kuwait I was handed a two-month notice that my job would end. They’d just needed someone short-term but didn’t want to tell me. As of July I was out of a job. I’d shipped a box by sea from the US, which can take a long time. In the end I had to have it sent on to my new job, which was in Oman.


The Only Place for Jazz in the Philippines

by on Thursday, September 4th, 2014

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

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

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

Nelson’s story

Nelson Gonzales

Nelson Gonzales

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

Paulo Cortez

Paolo Cortez

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

Meg Serranicca

Meg Serranilla

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

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

Bergan Nunez

Bergan Nunez

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

Glen Bondoc

Glen Bondoc

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

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

Jayman Alviar

Jayman Alviar

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

Chuck Joson and Patrick Pecho

Chuck Joson and Patrick Pecho

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

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

Chuck Joson

Chuck Joson

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

Tim Rada

Tim Cada

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

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

Julius Lopez, Paulo Cortez and Harold Cruz

Julius Lopez, Paulo Cortez and Harold Cruz

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

Yuta Kanakata

Yuta Kanakata

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

Harold Cruz

Harold Cruz

Don Balbieran

Don Balbieran

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

Jireh Calo

Jireh Calo

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

Paulo Cortez and Karmi Santiago

Paulo Cortez and Karmi Santiago

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

Rick Countryman

Rick Countryman

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



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

Listen (copy and paste in navigation bar):


Ziggy Villonco

Ziggy Villonco

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

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

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

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


Korea, Where the Living is Easy

by on Friday, August 15th, 2014

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

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


Amy’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy with friends at a Buddhist temple

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

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


The Best of Three Worlds, Part 2

by on Friday, July 4th, 2014

Marianne at home

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

Marianne’s story

Galveston, Texas in 1996

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

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

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

In Houston to meet his buddies, 1996

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

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

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

“You went to a movie all by yourself?”

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

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

“Honey, they think you’re serious.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Tagalog language textbook talks about that. 

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

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

Thanksgiving 2010

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

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

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

At the Asian Festival in San Antonio

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

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

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

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

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


The Best of Three Worlds, Part 1

by on Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Marianne Dougherty

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

Marianne’s story

Marianne and Mommy Gloria

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

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

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

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

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

Marguarette, Marianne and Stephen on a cold day in Korea

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

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

Lydia at the Hyatt in Cheju-do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is?”

“What do you know about this company?”

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

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

Back on a Filipino beach with cousins

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, what are you trying to say?”

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

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

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

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

“Do you want me to say no?”


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

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

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

Small wedding reception in Seoul

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

“We need that?”


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

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

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

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



A Teacher in Rural Thailand

by on Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Charlie with a student at Phanatpittayakam School

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

Charlie’s story

Charles and Celeste DeWald

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

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

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

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

Chonburi Province

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sports Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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