Author Archive

Evolution of an Intercultural Text—Free Textbook Download

by on Thursday, March 9th, 2017

Pittsburgh bridges as seen from Mount Washington

Bridges: Intercultural Conversation 1 and 2 is available in PDF files at the textbook page.

I’m a staunch believer in using materials designed to meet the particular needs of particular students—their current circumstances, their culture, their preparation for the jobs they were most likely to have. I came to this conviction in 1984 when I arrived at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, China, and was told that the fourth-year composition classes I’d been hired to teach had been given to someone else. I would be doing first-year and graduate-level conversation. Instead of the box of composition books I’d brought with me from the University of Pittsburgh, I needed conversation materials. In the stacks of the university library I found almost nothing useful.

English teacher and student in the classroom

The freshman conversation book had already been selected. It was a cheap reprint of a pirated English as a Second Language textbook used in the US, but not as adaptable as the no-content ESL text I’d disliked using at Pitt, with discussion questions like “what are holidays like in your country?’ In China, in this distinctly English as a Foreign Language setting, my students didn’t understand their textbook. The Chinese teachers didn’t understand it. Those who had selected it—who probably wouldn’t have understood it either if they’d read it—thought it would teach something of modern technology via English, economically doing two things at once.

So, for example, one reading selection the students were supposed to discuss described how health care professionals in rural areas in the US could use a touch-tone telephone to transmit their patients’ vital signs to a hospital computer miles away. Right. The kids had never seen a touch-tone phone. When they used a telephone at all, they’d made operator-assisted calls. It didn’t help much for me to draw a phone on the board and make beeping sounds in different pitches. They still didn’t get it. They thought of a computer as a television set connected with a typewriter. They knew only what a computer looked like, not what it did. They were still campaigning for access to typewriters. The teachers would ask me, “What does it mean, ‘reach out and touch someone’?” They’d never even heard of the Beatles. How would they know about a telephone commercial? This was before the internet. Where could they look it up?

English language textbooks produced in China had as their first sentence, “Long live Chairman Mao.” An elementary German textbook talked about German as a tonal language. My colleague on the other side of the classroom wall appeared to be teaching English that way, as I often heard him declaim, and the students repeat, “What (rising intonation) is (rising intonation) man (falling intonation)! What is man!”

Eventually I discarded the textbook I’d been told to use and put together some readings stolen from various places, like Ms. Magazine’s Stories for Free Children. Descriptions of life on the American frontier with technology on the level of the butter churn they could understand. They knew of simple machines from the Chinese countryside. For the freshmen I wrote a book of dialogues to illustrate cross-cultural situations. Later I made it available to the other teachers in the department, and my boss had printed off and distributed.

For the graduate students I also typed out readings and discussion questions on mimeograph stencils and took them over to the printing factory to be run off. One article was another Ms. Magazine piece called “What Is Fear?” At that time psychology was illegal in the PRC. Who would need it in a workers’ paradise? I looked at how tightly the students’ lives were controlled by the society and the state and decided they needed to be introduced to some basic concepts. They were as eager to learn this as they were practically anything coming from the West.

Another time I got so ticked off at the repeated invasion of my privacy at the guesthouse where I lived that I gave an inspired lecture on the Bill of Rights while students scrambled madly to get it all down. In those days the foreign faculty were still trying to get students to think about what they read or heard instead of just memorizing, swallowing a whole article in one gulp to be spit out later, unchewed and undigested, word for word with some words missing. After the Bill of Rights lecture, two middle-aged men appeared in my class. They sat through a lesson on how to use the computer as a research tool, probably without understanding a word. No one gave them a copy of the materials. I’d already decided that if the department’s party secretary told me I couldn’t do something I’d just done–as happened later in Korea–I’d apologize and not do it again, but until then I’d do what I wanted.

So in 1989, when I started teaching at Dongguk University in Seoul, my bias was for materials based on students’ need. Meet the kids where they are, not in some imagined place where the school curriculum or the textbook publisher said they ought to be. I continued with the reading selections—reading is the best way to teach vocabulary—plus recordings I made of National Public Radio stores, later scenes from movies or television, whatever seemed to be something that would speak to them.

I discovered that although my Korean students didn’t know much more about Western culture than my Chinese students had, they often thought they did. For example, they knew that all eighteen-year-olds were thrown out of their parents’ homes and forced to sink-or-swim on their own, a prospect these very dependent kids clearly saw as undesirable, if not terrifying. They knew this because they watched recordings of Friends and saw young people living together instead of back home with their parents where they belonged. Some knew that driving habits in the US were worse than they were in Korea because they saw chase scenes on television. They were not buying the argument that this was just television–fiction. A few knew that African-Americans were the lowest on the hierarchy of races, because for them everything in life was placed on a hierarchy. Some told me the world was controlled by the international Jewish conspiracy. In general, students were often very critical of the US, which didn’t bother me, but would tolerate no criticism of anything about Korea unless they said it themselves. The female students believed that oppression of women was a Korean thing; the male students were glad of the lack of female competition in the workplace.

My response was a collection of texts called “American Pioneers,” with short stories or articles showing the lives of Americans from various racial and ethnic groups, women’s and family issues, gay issues and assorted windows into the US government and the US Constitution. In class I was neutral. I stepped back and allowed the material and the students to do the talking. The materials were available at the start of each semester, photocopied and bound into books by a shop down the hill from the university.

In the meantime I was interviewing people in preparation for a book. It had started in 1985 with a lively New Zealander who’d undergone surgery for a ruptured appendix under local anesthetic at the Xiamen University hospital. I realized then that my job was to take his words from his mouth, record them, transcribe them and edit them to make an oral history where his voice was still clearly audible. I put a manuscript of oral histories together but couldn’t find a publisher. I admit I didn’t look very hard. In Korea I added more interviews from expats and Koreans and put together a China-Korea manuscript which also didn’t find a publisher. One editor said, “This is a wonderful book, but last year we did four books about Asia from a Western perspective, and they were all financial failures. We can’t afford to publish yours.”

By that time I’d written and published a composition textbook made of my step-by-step instructions, sample compositions by my students and additional stuff like proof-reading exercises. It was accompanied by a semantics workbook which emerged from a my discarded MA thesis in linguistics. (My actual thesis for Pitt was a language attitude study about Korean reactions to non-native speakers of Korean.) A colleague and I got both textbooks and a teacher’s manual published by a Korean company.

Mary French at my house

When the oral history book was rejected I told myself I knew people who would be interested in the assorted opinions expressed in the interviews. So I cut the interviews up into bits and constructed reading selections about the experiences of expats dealing with Koreans and Koreans dealing with expats, adding a sociological perspective—individualistic cultures vs. collectivist cultures, for example. My colleague Mary French suggested making it more textbooky by adding precise definitions of key concepts, inserting quizzes and reading questions inside the reading texts. We worked out practical applications of the lessons learned and illustrated main points with role plays and recordings to use as listening tasks. I took the language of the reading selections—that is, spoken English—and used it as the basis of grammar and word study lessons. I added photos of my friends and my students and crossword puzzles of words used in the chapters. There are two surveys which students could do in either English or Korean.

The result was a two-semester book which I used for ten years at Dongguk, revising a bit every vacation for the first six or seven years. I looked for a publisher and didn’t find one, although again I didn’t try very hard. If I were to use it now, I’d use most of it as it stands and some of it as a basis of comparison of the America of twenty years ago and the America in the age of Donald Trump. I’d have students compare the traditional Korean workplace with the current workplace as they discover it from conducting their own surveys and interviews. All real, discoverable facts, not stereotypes or rumors. (In my composition classes the students did interviews, and they found the real world of work was not at all as they’d been told.)

My purpose, as I said to my sophomore-level conversation classes for English majors, was to show them what they needed to know to get and keep jobs in places where they’d have to work with people who looked like me. I thought, but did not tell them, “Look, this may be the English Department, but Shakespeare is probably not going to get you a job.” I knew this myself all too well. My first career was in teaching German and German literary scholarship.

Me in my Dongguk classroom

The students loved the textbook. They wanted to be eavesdropping on what Westerners were saying about them when they weren’t in the room. Reality often has an odd way of sounding like it. They wanted to know not only what not to say but why. Or why some Western behavior is not seen as disrespectful to Westerners as it is to Koreans. Or how much some Westerners knew and understood about Korean culture. A few  students who’d lived abroad told me the book explained things about Korean culture they’d never understood before. Some kids told an Australian colleague who was interviewing them that they felt they’d become “more international people.” The most popular chapters were the ones on the women’s rights, supplemented with a movie, and on consumer and business issues.

Bridges: Intercultural Conversation 1 and 2 is currently set up to be a two-semester book with a parallel set of topics. A student could take the first semester, the second semester or both. Each chapter is self-contained with regard to subject matter, vocabulary and language study. The material could also be restructured by removing the grammar and word study sections or by using only chapters on certain topics. It is suitable for university or institute classes, conversation or culture or four-skills classes, in-house classes for employees preparing to work abroad, translator training, independent study for individuals preparing to go abroad. It could be easily expanded with audio-visual materials or out-of-class assignments like more surveys and interviews.

Volume 1 has a two-chapter introduction to cultural differences between Korea and the US, followed by chapters on asking personal questions, non-verbal communication, deference in Korea, family structure, misunderstandings in the workplace and women’s history, plus lots of exercises. A final chapter on Canadian views could be used for either a paper or extended discussion. Volume 2 combines the two introductory chapters of Volume 1 into one chapter. Then there are chapters on friendship and respect as seen in the US, intercultural dating, the financial problems of getting through college, life in the military as told by Americans who are fluent in Korean, women in the Korean workplace, cultural differences in doing business, a historical look into racial relations–including the story of a Korean-African-American war baby–and a final chapter on Americans who have become experts on Korean Buddhist temple painting, Korean shamanism, and Korean birth dreams. Again, lots of exercises.

Mary and I dedicated the book to the memory of Darcy Shipman, a dear friend who taught at a school in Incheon and also at Dongguk University, who loved her students and taught them well.

So, please, check out my website, Turning East: Stories of Living, Working and Traveling in Asia, which currently contains 186 posts from experiences in China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere. Explore the offerings on the index page. Go to the textbook page and download the eighteen chapters and teacher’s supplement which are waiting for you as PDF files. Then please log in via Facebook and leave comments. Just don’t republish, please.

Donna Miscolta, Author of “Hola and Goodbye”

by on Friday, February 17th, 2017

Photo by Meryl Schenker

Donna Miscolta and I did an interview after the publication of her first book (Signal 8 Press, 2011), a novel dealing with a Filipino’s immigration to the United Sates and his subsequent family life in Southern California. The interview is available on this website, The Author of When the de la Cruz Family Danced. There’s also an accompanying video.

The opening story in her newly released story collection, Hola and Goodbye (Carolina Wren Press, November 2016), recently appeared online in Kweli Journal.“Lupita and the Lone Ranger” depicts a telling event in the life of a Mexican immigrant to California. Click on the link to read and enjoy. 

Donna and I Skyped recently about Hola and Goodbye when she was in Seattle and I was in Tagaytay, Philippines.

 Donna’s story

The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Four Women,” deals with concerns of survival—language, employment, friendships, and family ties – and the issues that threaten them, sexual exploitation, for example. There is also one character longing for a gringo husband, and other characters placing themselves on this or that side of a cultural divide. I asked about the dates and location of these stories.

As the title suggests, this section is about four women, each having arrived from Mexico in the 1920s. Each has her own story of assimilation and coming to terms with the realities of life in America. Lupita’s mind and tongue are resistant to the sounds of English, and she clings to the poetry of her Spanish. Her best friend Rosa is intent on becoming American and considers a gringo husband the path to doing so. Ana is young, a gullible romantic determined to find happiness. Irma is her older cousin, cynical of love and friendship, but loyal in the end. It’s Lupita’s family that the subsequent stories in the book focus on, with her bilingual children leading lives in lower-middle class neighborhoods, and her grandchildren learning that, even as English-only speakers, their American identity doesn’t guarantee an easier life than their parents’.

I like this passage:

If Lupita wasn’t so picky about the size of the onions or the firmness of the tomatoes she wanted, she could send one of her girls to do the shopping. Instead, she always had to rehearse her English ahead of time, scripting what she’d say to the talkative shop lady. But Mrs. Dawson asked different questions each time. Not easy ones about the weather. No, she wanted to know what Lupita thought about this or that complicated, inexplicable thing. Sometimes Lupita could do no more than smile politely.

Her tongue seemed incapable of forming the sounds of English, her mind confused by its structure, her heart despairing of the effort. Besides, what use did she have for English, sorting fish in a cannery that employed so many Chinese workers? Better to learn Chinese.

I know the frustrations of trying to learn a second language. I’ve studied Spanish at various times of my life and though I can stumble my way through a Spanish-speaking country, I’m far from fluent. I find myself rehearsing what I’m going to say before I walk into a store or restaurant, always fearful that I’ll mangle a pronunciation or botch a conjugation. My grandmother never learned English, maybe for those reasons, but also because she was busy raising seven kids and working in a factory where conversation wasn’t required and maybe even discouraged.

In the second set of stories, called “Ambition,” characters battle disappointed dreams and manipulate their families to get what they want. So, who are these people?

They are the first American-born generation of this family, born in the 1930s and coming of age during and after World War II. They’re from a working-class family, but in the post-war boom there is a sense of promise. But that promise never quite delivers. Their hopes and expectations are never quite realized. They find opportunities available to them are limited. They themselves are uncertain of their place in the world. They’ve grown up bilingual, with a push-pull identity, feeling very much a part of American culture – its music, movies, and fashions –but still aware of what makes them different: their immigrant parents. They decide their own children will speak only English.

There were a number of details which rang true for me, like consulting the Ladies’ Home Journal on how to be American and the longing for an avocado-colored refrigerator.

The details came from memories of my mother’s house and the homes of my aunts. They read the same magazines, even though their tastes differed slightly, I think they got many of their home decorating ideas from the latest fads featured in those magazines. Movies and television were another source of inspiration as they sought to be relevant. The characters in these stories are striving for a place to fit. To be American. To be seen as American.

Millie is the character who wants an avocado refrigerator. She’s a stay-at-home mom, as many women were in the 1960s.She’s not the most nurturing mother. This is a woman whose skills and temperament would allow her to flourish in a job outside the home but who lacked the opportunity, but also perhaps the consciousness, that this is what she in fact desired. Millie does her best by trying to improve both her home and her kids, but in a very twisted way. Her sense of self is askew because she isn’t making the most of her talents. When I was growing up, I sensed that often among the women around me.

In the dominant culture of the 1950s, there was also a desperate desire to belong, to be properly domesticated, followed in the early 60s by housewives stereotypically out in the suburbs, feeling unfulfilled. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963.

I think feeling unfulfilled might’ve been true of women across America, wherever they lived, and regardless of class or color. There was the expectation that women should stay home, which meant a lot of talent was going unused in society. In that particular story, “Ambition,” Millie wants to escape the restraints of her life by moving to a white neighborhood because she thinks that’s where success is. Her husband doesn’t want to move out of their neighborhood of mostly brown families—where he fits—to somewhere he’d feel out of place. So Millie becomes determined to change where she’s in charge: with her house and her children. Which doesn’t prove to be enough.

In the last section, “Leaving Kimball Park,” individuals in the third generation find themselves being exploited by a wrestling coach, looking for friendship in a mental institution, attending a high school reunion, taking off for an unknown destination or wandering the grandmother’s place of origin in Mexico. The final story shows the extended family humoring Lupita with a recreation of the old tradition of Sunday dinner, as Lupita communicates with her dead friend Rosa about loss and neglect.

The third generation in these stories was born in the 50s and 60s and speaks only English. Yet they have feelings of inadequacy, ironically stemming in part from their inability to speak Spanish, and a sense of removal from the culture and traditions of their grandmother. Julia travels to Mexico to the place her grandmother came from. She’s hoping to find a definitive answer about who she is and where she belongs, but such things are not so straightforward. She’s in an in-between place, between where her grandmother came from and where she is now, an English-speaking American who doesn’t quite fit in. That last story brings the whole family together, though there have been many changes over the years, most significantly aging and death, with the elderly Lupita feeling as if she’s on the fringes of the family as the younger members are occupied with the daily demands of raising children – as Lupita once was.

I’ve encountered quite a few Asian-Americans, who didn’t feel they fit in the US and who went back to Asia to discover their heritage, only to discover how American they really were.

Yes, it’s a familiar story. As you know, I’m part Filipino too. For a long time because of this mixed heritage, it felt as if I belonged nowhere, but I eventually decided that feeling originated within me, in my insecurities. Now I claim my multiple spaces. I belong to and participate in cultural, political, and artistic groups that are Latino and groups that are Filipino. My daughters are further mixed: Filipino-Mexican from my side, white from my husband’s side. Both have traveled in Spanish-speaking countries and are fluent in Spanish. My older daughter Natalie recently visited the Philippines. She had been in contact with the Las Piñas Heritage Guiding Association, which helped her locate my father’s sister and other family members. She was able to meet them and interview my aunt. Even though Natalie spent many days on the beaches of Palawan, she said the best part of her trip was meeting family in Manila. She’s trying to figure out where she fits in this world. I think this is a natural journey that people of color go on. Honoring and understanding the source of their otherness, while claiming space in the land of their birth—America.

One of your characters is a trans-woman who goes to her high school reunion. She’s now a woman after having been a boy in high school.

Twenty years ago at my twenty-five-year high school reunion, word passed from table to table that a classmate, a boy in high school, was now a woman. I didn’t seek her out. I hadn’t known her in high school, hadn’t had any classes with the boy she’d been. I didn’t want to be a gawker. But I thought what a courageous thing to do, to come to your high school reunion as your true self. It seemed a wonderful thing to be able to find yourself that way. So I wrote the story “Lovely Evelina.”

I didn’t do a lot of research for the story. I think I wanted to rely on my instincts and imagination in creating Evelina –  someone unlike me, yet similar to me and to all of us, in fact, in her need to find her place in the world. It was the same for my story “Strong Girls” about the twin wrestlers. They’re large people. I’ve always been skinny, and I used to be called names because of it. I know what it’s like to be shamed for your body, so I felt I could imagine the girls’ feelings and what was it like for them to be so conspicuous because of their size. The fact that they’re twins is important because they have each other; they aren’t alone in their circumstances. But when they are pitted against each other, they realize that their relationship as sisters is in trouble. So again, it is about discovering who they are and being okay with it, even happy, despite the opinions of others.

In “When Danny Got Married,” the second generation appears through the eyes of Julia, who comes from the third generation.

Yes, Julia’s a young teenager waiting to grow up so that she can escape her family and find herself. She feels kind of lost in her large family, or rather left outside of it. She discovers she’s lost the connection she once had with her uncle, and she wonders whether it ever really existed. She does make a connection to his new wife, who is also an outsider—she’s Spanish, although the family, in their penchant for gossip and tendency to jump to conclusions, at first assumes she’s German. It’s all part of the miscommunication Julia thinks characterizes her family and the reason for her misunderstood self.

Let’s include a passage:

But with the news of Danny’s marriage, my sighs were lost in the collective moan. Danny was ours no longer. Lupita lamented the loss of her youngest, Connie and my aunts shook their perms at the intrusion of Teutonic stock into our family. He should marry his own kind, they grumbled of their only brother, their fingers twanging the telephone cord as the called each other over morning coffee. None of the sisters, though, had married her own kind, having introduced Filipino, Polish, Irish, and Caribbean genotypes into Lupita and Sergio’s Yaqui-dominated Mexican bloodline. Lupita liked to emphasize the fierceness of the Yaquis, their resistance to enslavement by other tribes, even their murderous attacks on trains when they sliced the wrists and ears of passengers for speedy acquisition of a silver bracelet or pearl earring. Then they were crushed like the rest, Sergio always added as epilogue, the heel of one hand grinding into the palm of the other. Let’s face it, even at thirteen I knew we, as a family, were a hodgepodge of conquered peoples.

And there you have an American family.

When I was reading the collection, I became interested in the relationship of these characters with each other. The book reminded me of being at a gathering of a large extended family, meeting people and wondering exactly what their connection was to the others, particularly as the family branched out with the third generation. 

With Lupita’s children – Petra, Millie, Connie, Frannie, Lyla, and Danny – I focused only on three children. Millie had three children and they appear with her in the story “Ambition,” and later Bonita has her own self-titled story. Connie’s three children appear with her in the story “Fleeing Fat Allen,” and later Julia is featured in “Cursos de Verano,” in which she travels to Mexico in search of her roots. Lyla is the mother of the oversized twins in “Strong Girls.” That leaves Tony, the protagonist in “Señor Wonderful.” To be honest, I didn’t assign him a parent. He was just one of the crowd of cousins we see in “When Danny Got Married.” There’s another cousin in that story named Leonard and the collection originally contained a story about him, whose mother is Petra. But I took that story out. It was long and maybe not quite cooked. I put Tony in as Señor Wonderful, and I guess I overlooked his parentage. We can for convenience sake make him Petra’s son as well.

It seems really close to a novel in short stories because of the connections of the people with each other and because you seem to have a story arc that encompasses the whole thing.

When I was writing the stories, I was seeing the characters connected to each other, even while they had their separate stories. I didn’t expect the book to have a novelistic flavor, but I did see there was some sort of arc. For the most part, I wrote the stories in sections, the way they’re grouped in the book by generation. The stories in the first section are built around something I’d observed of my grandmother or some bit of family gossip or anecdote I’d heard about her, so that’s what ties those stories together for me. For the reader, I hope it’s the relationships among the women that links the stories. Taken together, they give a sense of family. And yet, I feel that each story can stand alone. There are recurring characters throughout the book, but the reader isn’t following one particular character from A to B. But Lupita begins and ends the collection and she’s inserted here and there among the other stories. She’s the anchoring point. I didn’t have a novel in mind although one editor suggested that it should be rewritten as a novel. I resisted. I liked the individual stories.

Do you think of Lupita as a matriarch?

I do. Though I don’t think I made it explicit in the book. I think of her that way because her story gives rise to almost all of the others. In the first story, we find her dutiful and nurturing, if at times in a self-serving way. In the final story, she feels relegated to the margins. The fact that she speaks only Spanish makes her both special and remote to the grandchildren. Her inability to fully interact with the world at large has made her children and grandchildren underestimate her capabilities, especially in her old age. Even so, they’ll miss her when she’s gone.

The story I identified with the most was the one of the foreigner in Mexico, although I hope I haven’t followed somebody around who speaks the language quite like Julia follows Margie, who is putting up all kinds of little signals that she’s not going to be nurse-maiding her.

Yes, in that story Julia takes summer classes in Mexico to learn Spanish and to find some connection to the land of her grandmother’s birth. While Julia and her friends are struggling with their rudimentary Spanish, Margie is dizzying them with her fluent Spanish and outdoing everyone in the cultural immersion experience. Julia feels she has a personal claim to Mexico because of her grandmother and she’s desperate to feel at home there. She seems to blunder about with her insufficient Spanish and inadequate self. Margie’s a bit of an outcast too, due to her odd looks and poor social skills. The two of them end up sharing a bus seat to Mexico City and a hotel room. Then a weird cat-and-mouse game commences, which finally ends with a confrontation on top of a pyramid.

What similarities do you see between extended Filipino families and extended Mexican families?

For me the main ones are the closeness of the families and the large family gatherings with lots of food on the table. There’s the shared history of Spanish colonization and the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco from the sixteenth century to the Mexican War of Independence, with food and fabric and styles passed back and forth. Look at the guayabera in Mexico and the barong in the Philippines and the similarities between them. And Tagalog contains a lot of words borrowed from Spanish. I’m proud to claim both heritages.

So one last and unfortunately in these times rather predictable question: If you were putting this together now in the current political climate, how would you write it differently? Or would it be the same?

It’s sort of an impossible question to answer since these stories were written over a period of twenty years. Even now with what’s happening now in the United States with Donald Trump having campaigned and won on rhetoric bashing immigrants, women, Muslims, and the disabled, I don’t know how it will affect the projects I’m working on now. I tend to write about things and events after I’ve lived through them and not while they’re happening. But because the stories in Hola and Goodbye begin with an immigrant generation, I think that they are in a way a response to Donald Trump. The book is saying that immigrants are part of this country’s history and future. Immigrants are part of America.

A Memoirist of the Marcos Years, Part 2

by on Monday, January 23rd, 2017

Philippines/susan-in-luneta-park

Susan at Luneta Park

In Part 1 of this interview, Susan Quimpo talks about her family’s activism during martial law and the initial impetus for the memoir. In Part 2 she continues with a description of writing the book and her own life afterwards.

Susan’s story

susan-2-bw

Susan Quimpo

At first I wrote two chapters. Then I went for two master’s degrees, one in Asian Studies and the other in journalism. For my journalism class I wrote about the family and martial law.  I thought if I could make my narrative comprehensible to Americans, who knew little about the Philippines under martial law except the name Marcos, if I could write so everybody understood, then maybe my children and my brothers’ children and their children would understand despite the passage of time. With each story I brought to class, my classmates were really interested, and they’d say, “When is the next chapter coming? What happened to this character?” A journalism professor said, “You know that there’s an option to do a writing project instead of a research thesis. You could do this.”

I did a book outline of sorts and submitted it to her, and we worked on ten chapters. That became my thesis. My teacher suggested submitting it to her literary agent so the agent could find a publisher. Nothing came of that. By that time I was already married, organizing among the Filipino-American (FilAm) groups in New York. I put the manuscript on the shelf. Without a publisher what was the use of writing it up? We went home to the Philippines, I got into other things. I had kids.

Years later, I think in 1997, I was talking about FilAm programs with Vicente Rafael, a professor from the University of Washington. He said, “Oh, I heard about this activist family of Quimpos. Do you know them?”

I told him I was the youngest of that family of Quimpos.  He said, “Well someone should write that story!”

I said I’d tried, but no publisher was interested, He asked to see the ten chapters I had written for my graduate school requirement. I handed him my manuscript and forgot about it.

A year later, he came back, we had lunch, and he said, “You know that manuscript you gave me a year ago, the one about your family? Anvil Press wants to talk to you next week. You have a meeting with a publisher.”

“But I haven’t touched it in ages.”

“Just go.”

Anvil Press edition, available at National Book Store

So I met with the publisher, and they were interested. Karina Bolasco of Anvil Press was very supportive. Later, when I talked to Vince, I said, “I don’t know where to take the book.” I’d gotten to the part about the armed resistance against Marcos, but I hadn’t been part of the Communist Party of the Philippines. I didn’t want to assume things. That wouldn’t be history. Vince suggested asking my siblings to contribute. My brother Nathan liked the idea, and we started talking to the others. There were varying reactions. One sister said, “Why do you want to wash our dirty laundry in public?”

I answered, “What dirty laundry? This isn’t dirty laundry. This is history.”

She didn’t speak to me for two years. I persisted. I said if she didn’t want to write her story I’d write it for her. I wanted to respect her, so I wrote around her. I consulted with people who were part of that scenario or human rights reports about her arrest. So when she saw I wasn’t going to stop she said, “Okay, I’ll do my bit,” and she did.

The family had serious fights over the book. I wanted it to be a tribute to young martyrs. A brother who’d been deep into the revolutionary movement wanted to critique it. I said, “No, this isn’t about the dialectics of the movement. This is a memoir.”

It took a long time for the book to come out. In fact, Karina Bolasco said in her twenty-five years of publishing it was the most difficult book to get published because of the fighting among the Quimpos. Finally we got to the point where we knew if we kept retracting, rewriting, re-angling we’d never finish it.

After the book was published a whole new life started for me. I started receiving invitations to speak at schools, and these haven’t stopped. I was horrified at how little people knew about martial law history. At first I just went and told my story. Then I realized young people didn’t understand me. At that time there were only a few small rallies, maybe one every six months. They couldn’t imagine the First Quarter Storm with daily rallies of 5,000 people in front of Malacañang. In 2013, a rally would draw maybe a hundred. Even now. At the one in Luneta Park [a demonstration against the burial of Marcos in the heroes’ cemetery] there were three or four thousand, but that was so hard to piece together. A few hours before the rally started we were still considering calling it off, thinking no one would come.

It was hard for students to imagine the military being brutal or people getting picked up.  They had no concept of a curfew. So I turned to my own children, who at that point were in high school, and I’d discuss it with them. Before the book came out I wrote an article for Rappler to announce the book. [http://www.rappler.com/move-ph/3053-no-lives-wasted]

At that point my youngest was about eleven years old. She said, “Good article, Mom, but you know what? You don’t say ‘underground’ to us. We think that’s the subway or we think Harry Potter’s subway.”

I decided that I’d have to provide images. I started digging out pictures. Then I realized I could only speak from my own perspective. “My brother Ronald Jan was 15, your age, when he started going to rallies, at Malacañang. This boy next to him, who was 15, got his head blown off.”

My children were wonderful. One of my first presentations was at their high school, and my little girl was among the students. When she frowned, it was a sign that I had to explain more. Eventually I was able to reach the audience with actual stories. I kept getting invitations.

When Bongbong Marcos,Ferdinand Marcos’ son and namesake, ran for the vice presidency, strangers on Facebook wrote me to ask what could be done. I took chapters of the book and posted them on Facebook. Some went viral. I was getting more “friend” invitations and more questions. I said, “I don’t know what can be done. Don’t ask me, I’m not an organizer.”

After a while I agreed to meet with people who wanted to do something about the Bongbong Marcos’  candidacy. When we got 15 people, we decided to launch a campaign against revisionism. Our little group created four short online videos targeting millennials. These went viral. That wasn’t enough. So I went back to our funders and asked if we could get a team of people to talk to schools.  For three and a half months, we reached people from Baguio to Zamboanga with one speaker per place. Bur once there, we’d contact other schools. That way we were able to maximize. We also gave interviews. Our audiences ranged from 20 to 800. Soon we got invitations from churches, barangays [local districts] and factories. I went to a sweets factory in Bulacan because the owner was horrified that her staff was thinking of voting for Marcos.

After the elections I said, “Okay, enough already.” Then the burial issue came up, and I found myself helping to organize the rallies against that. At the same time I was still trying to pay my bills. My husband is amazingly supportive. Whenever I get an invitation and I’m free, I say yes, but add, “Can you pay for my transportation?”

It’s been hard but also strangely encouraging. For example, on September 8, when the Supreme Court decision was announced [allowing Marcos’s burial in the Cemetery of Heroes], I was in Cagayan de Oro facilitating a group therapy workshop. Someone who’d heard me speak messaged me on Facebook, saying how dismayed she was about the court’s decision. I looked at her profile and saw she was from Cagayan de Oro and asked whether there was a rally I could attend. They were doing a nine-day rally for the nine justices who voted for the burial. At the rally, total strangers were coming to me, hugging me and crying, sobbing. They said, “We’re here because you spoke to us.” They arranged for me to speak the following week at a church, and a thousand students turned up.

So things like that are very encouraging. I’ve found that young people were not apathetic at all, but very affected. They understood the lie in having a dictator buried in a hallowed place. They knew this affected history. That’s why we saw millennials marching from the University of the Philippines, to Ateneo, to the People Power Monument last Friday.

When I picked my 15-year-old up from school, I told her about Marcos’ being brought in by helicopter and buried. After a silence, she said, “Today?” Then she put her bag in the car, got in, and after a few minutes she was sobbing. Weeping, sobbing and shaking. I asked, “What happened? Did you get in a fight? Did you have a problem with an exam?” She couldn’t speak for a full hour. When she could get the words out, she said, “The Marcos burial. How dare they?” Now she’s got her friends and their mothers going to rallies with us.

These high school kids are so wonderful. Despite the fact that we’ve supposedly losing the burial issue, I think we’re actually winning the hearts and minds of young people.

Personally, I’m committed to the cause for the next six years. I was devastated by the Supreme Court vote. Nine to five? One Justice abstained. Something is really wrong with this court. I’m hoping for a snowball reaction. We talked about the nation, all the way from the Katipuneros, the fight against Spain and America, then the Japanese and Marcos. We have to learn to take these things seriously, or history will just keep repeating and repeating and repeating.

I said to a Buddhist friend of mine, “Spiritually, I don’t understand. Is God’s justice not available to us?” She said, “It’s all karma because we haven’t learned.” I agreed, that was the whole point. If I can be part of the instrument of learning, so the next generation won’t repeat our mistakes, then I think I’ll have done justice to the martyrs of martial law.

I’ve been trying to mediate between anti-Marcos burial protest groups these past weeks.  And some people asked me suspiciously about my ideological affiliations. In my head I answered:  I belong to the group which believes in the martial law martyrs’ sacrifice. I used to be red, I’m no longer red; I was never yellow [pro-Aquino]. Now I’m more pink. But come on. We have to learn our lesson sometime; we need a united force to overcome a dictator.

I have one more question for you. I was amazed at the amount of detail in your book that went into names, and dates of this meeting, and this and that group. During martial law you had to be careful about not keeping records around because they could be found. So my question is where did all the detail come from?

My brother Nathan was writing his own memoir at the time Vince Rafael suggested that we do a family project. I think he’d been writing it for years, so he’d already researched the times and dates and places and things like that, while I’d gone into the files of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, a human rights group, for information on my siblings’ arrests and detention.

Then, as I said, at the age nine or ten I knew I was going to write this memoir, so I consciously remembered. I could draw Ronald Jan’s detention cell right now. I know where the guard sat, and where that corridor was and where the bathroom was because I committed it to memory. When Jun was killed, we really didn’t know who killed him or what the circumstances were. In 1991 when I came back from New York, I looked for members of his old guerrilla squad. Two members were still alive, and they brought me to a place very close to where he died. They gave me the story and the descriptions and other details.

I think for my other siblings writing the book was cathartic. My brother Ryan had a lot of friends who disappeared, were tortured or killed, and he kept the memories close to his heart. His first drafts for our memoir were excruciating to read because they were all snippets of painful incidents. Perhaps not literary enough, but nonetheless wonderful. They were so raw and honest that his stories and images stayed in your head for months.  I think the book was an opportunity to get it all out.

So there was healing in the family?        

I can’t answer for the others, but for me, yes. That’s why I can go to schools and give talks without breaking down—which I did at first when I told my story. Initially, it was so embarrassing when I spoke to audiences and my voice cracked and I held back tears. Then I realized that my role was to speak out. The more I spoke, the more I realized I was getting through to young people. Now I see this is probably part of why I’m here and why I survived martial law. To be able to bear witness. This was how I healed.

A lot of people say, “Why don’t you move on? You’re so full of hatred. You need to forgive.” My response is it’s not about hatred or forgiveness. It’s about truth. You do a disservice to continue to believe a lie about our biography as a nation.

When some people say “forgiveness,” they mean putting the problem in a box and putting the lid on it, you seem to mean more like “acknowledgment” and “acceptance.”

Forgiveness demands justice.  The Marcoses have not even acknowledged the grim history of martial law, much less apologized for their father’s brutal dictatorship.  In a sense I pity the Marcoses because they’re continuing to propagate the lie their father started, passing it onto the next generation so that they have to live it and defend it. Why keep lying to yourself and rationalizing? What about the Marcoses’ children? Do they wish to continue living this legacy of lies?

I have close friends who are loyalists because of their family and because of the region they came from.

That’s another thing we have to learn. The truth is beyond family ties, friendships, regional loyalty and things like that. You can be friends with the Marcoses but still acknowledge that he was a dictator, a thief and a human rights violator. That’s just stating a fact. People are marching in the streets because they see the truth. For me, I think that’s enough of a reward.

A reader writes:

Carol, really enjoyed the two columns on the Marcos resisters. Good stuff.

 

A Memoirist of the Marcos Years, Part 1

by on Saturday, December 31st, 2016

cover-of-international-subversive-lives

University of Ohio Press/Swallow Press

Susan Quimpo is a friendly, soft-spoken woman who laughs easily and often. She’s an art therapist and counselor. Besides her private practice, she works with civil society groups to help alleviate trauma in communities affected by typhoons and war. She provides therapy to political prisoners and victims of human rights violations. She also writes for Philippine news publications and international journals. She is the co-author of Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years (Manila: Anvil Press, 2012), recently re-released by the University of Ohio Press/Swallow Press.

I met Susan after a rally against the proposed burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes. The body had been flown over from the United States in 1993 and placed on display at the Presidential Center in his home province. The Marcos family was waiting until an administration took power which didn’t oppose his internment as a hero. With the election of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte and the subsequent approval of the Supreme Court, the time seemed right. On November 18, when Duterte was conveniently out of the country, the body was brought in by helicopter. There was a 21-gun salute, but only an hour before the ceremony did outsiders learn that this was not a rehearsal.

On Nov. 24, over lunch in Manila. I asked Susan to tell her family’s story of political activism during the period of martial law and to include an explanation of the anti-Americanism in the revolutionary movement, the burial controversy and the talks she delivers to Filipinos too young to remember martial law.

Susan’s story

Susan Quimpo

I was born in 1961, the youngest of ten children. My parents were married during World War II. They were very pro-American. They grew up in Philippines when it was still a colony of the US.  The Philippines was under the US from 1898 through 1946, except during the years of the Japanese occupation during World War II. [The Americans brought in English language education and established public education. As colonizers they were far more popular than the Spaniards.]

But to go back a bit, in 1898 with the end of the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Paris, the Philippines was sold to the US for $20 million. The Filipinos, who’d been fighting for their independence from Spain since 1896, now discovered they had a newer, stronger enemy. In the Philippine-American War, they put up a good fight. They had gotten some concessions from the Spanish government, including money to buy arms, but these were peasants used to machetes who’d never held guns before. A historian told me that triangular thing on a rifle—the sight—which allows you to aim at your opponent, they considered it a nuisance, so they tore it off and threw it away. The Americans were amazed that the enemy kept firing above their heads. The war supposedly ended in 1903, when the revolutionary republic told people to lay down their arms, but some were still fighting until 1907.

The war was called an insurrection but was actually a national revolution against the new colonizer. The Americans won in part because the Filipino leaders were not united. The different factions were even killing one another. General Luna was assassinated by people within the revolution. In-fighting was a recurring story throughout WW II and throughout the Marcos era, spoiling the revolution against the oppressor—the Americans, Japanese or Marcos.

Anyway, my parents grew up under a time when American education was in the schools. They grew up saying “A is for apple” and “S is for snow,” even though they had never seen snow. They were both staunchly pro-American.

Your dad worked for Coca-Cola as an engineer.

Yes, his entire life. Mom came from the landed elite, although over the years they lost whatever prominence they’d had. In WW II, when my parents were in college, Dad wanted to volunteer as a guerrilla fighting against the Japanese. He went to say goodbye to his sweetheart, my mom, and when he got back to where the volunteers were being bused out of Manila, he missed the bus, which saved his life. All the students were leaving for the provinces because Manila was obviously going to be a battleground for the Japanese and the Americans. My father couldn’t get back to Iloilo, his hometown on Panay Island, so he followed my mom to Pangasinan, where they were married.

When the Japanese came, they lined up all the young men, and when they realized that my dad couldn’t speak the local Pangasinan language they suspected he was a guerrilla. He was about to be shot when my grandfather intervened. Again my dad was saved. He stayed in Pangasinan and was very valuable to the Americans, when they came, because he’d repair the jeeps and military trucks. When the Americans left, a mechanic gave him all his tools. He kept them until the day he died.

Moving into the 1960s, there was the Vietnam War and an overall sentiment against America. My brothers and sisters were in high school and university, where some of the students were mouthing anti-US imperialism slogans. In 1969, I was eight years old. There were heated debates at the dinner table, where my siblings would be spouting Marxist theories and my father would be really angry at them for shouting slogans in the streets against US imperialism.

As the youngest I had no voice. Looking back, I see I kept wondering, “What is my role in all this? All I do is I watch.” Only very recently did I think of the phrase “bearing witness.” I know it’s a biblical term, and I’m not religious, but I suddenly realized I’d watched the transformation of my siblings from good academic students to student leaders to activists to guerrillas and leaders of the revolution against Marcos. Now I am not an eight-year-old anymore, and I see it as my role to speak out for the martyrs of martial law. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

The first activist in the family was Ronald Jan, who went to Philippine Science High School, the premier science high school in the country. When he got there the school building hadn’t been built, and classes were held in an old building that had held government offices. The roof leaked and the chairs were broken. He told us that the chemistry class heated up chemicals in coke bottles because they had no test tubes. Students had to wait in line to use a Bunsen burner. When they complained to the principal, he said, “Look, I’m a government employee, and this is a public high school, I really can’t do much. Go to Malacañang [the presidential palace] and air your grievances there.”

So these kids between the ages of 13 to 17 went to the Presidential Palace. At the gates students from all the other schools were there also. It was the First Quarter Storm—the first quarter or the first three months of 1970, when Manila was hit by a storm of protest rallies. Three, four, five times a week, students were at Malacañang or at the US embassy or at the Congress Building shouting slogans.

Why demonstrations at the American embassy?

It was Marcos’s second term and the height of the Vietnam War. Anti-American sentiment was worldwide. Besides, Marcos was saying things like Filipino troops should be sent to fight in Vietnam under the American flag [as South Korea did]. Filipino students looked at the controversy over the draft in US universities and young Americans’ returning from Vietnam in coffins. They didn’t want that.

Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base [not far from Manila] were the largest American bases outside the US. There was a lot of abuse—prostitution, drunk American soldiers. Outside the bases, a lot of poor people, scavengers, were picking up garbage, and there were stories of American sentinels using them for target practice. The New York Times ran a story on this. If I remember right, over three years there were at least 32 deaths. The shooters would say, “Oh, we thought it was a wild boar.” It enraged people. [The US military also left a massive amount of chemical waste which has still not been cleaned up.]

People were angry with Marcos for pandering to the Americans. As a child I saw pictures of Marcos with Lyndon Johnson and their wives, all decked out. Imelda invited American dignitaries to lavish parties while the economy was failing. College students had no jobs when they graduated.

I remember Jane Fonda showed up at an antiwar rally. This was just after the release of Barbarella, where she was a sexy science fiction character, and there she was in a baggy white shirt waving her fist in the air. It got the students all fired up to be with an American movie star who was also an anti-imperialist.

In 1970 one of the worst typhoons, Typhoon Yoling, hit the Philippines. For the first time, Nueva Ecija, the rice region, was under water. For weeks only the tops of the coconut trees were above water. As a result, there was a lack of rice and the economy dipped. There was an oil shortage, and the price of gasoline went up. But still Marcos and Imelda were holding parties on their yacht; Imelda wore a diamond tiara like royalty at State functions. The typhoon had led to economic ruin, and during the typhoon the government did not help. It was the priests, the nuns, the civic organizations that brought relief to the victims.

So there was a lot of uncertainty inside and outside the country because of the situation in Vietnam. I remember as a kid seeing pictures of Woodstock in Life Magazine and thinking, “Wow, this is wild. Why are people wrapped in mud and dancing? Why’s a half-naked woman dancing in the mud?”

You were not doing drugs at the time, obviously.

[laughs] But I think there was worldwide anxiety anger against anything from the previous decade. I didn’t understand. I was just taking it in. We lived close to the presidential palace, and there were rallies three, five times a week. At least five thousand people marched past each time. Nowadays I tell friends, “As a kid I didn’t watch church parades, I didn’t watch the saints go by, I watched the police beating up demonstrators.”

At that point Mom was still alive, and our home was at the end of a row of modest apartments, which today would resemble townhouses. The row of eight apartments had a metal gate facing the street. We’d see a group of students march to Malacañang, and the mothers in our apartment row would watch for the students running back with the police after them. They’d open the gate for the students and close it so the police couldn’t get in. They’d give the students water or bread or let them use the telephone to call their parents. Despite the fact that my mother was very pro-American, she behaved like a mother. She was worried about the kids.

Ronald Jan, the brother in Philippine Science High School, was demonstrating in the streets. The activists went into all the schools. My siblings were part of it, consciously or not. It was the thing to do. Inside school campuses, at teach-ins students sat in circles on the grass while student leaders lectured on Marxism and imperialism and service to the people.

At the time my father was earning a thousand pesos a month. [During the First Quarter Storm, the value of the peso slipped from P4 to P6 to the dollar, so 1,000 pesos would have been roughly $200]. That was for food, rent, utilities, clothing and tuition for a family of twelve. That was really nothing, even then. We had rice, and we had eggs because an aunt who had a poultry farm brought us the damaged eggs, the ones with two yolks or something. But much of the budget was ear-marked for tuition because my father always believed education would be our deliverance. He was hurt when his children became activists because their grades suffered. It came to the point when he told Jan, “If you attend that rally tomorrow, you’re out of the house.” And he was. Then martial law came.

A week before the declaration of martial law in September 1972, Marcos threw all  the legal opposition in jail—Ninoy Aquino, the senators, the Congressmen, the trade unionists, the vocal faculty members of the University of the Philippines. The only ones left to challenge the dictatorship were high school and college students. At least three of my siblings were very much involved in Kabataang Makabayan, a militant youth organization that went underground. I don’t think they’d have become as radical in the underground movement or even in the Communist Party if Marcos hadn’t been so vindictive in going after student leaders.

At the gate of each high school and university was a huge billboard with pictures of all the student leaders, the president of a theater group or the botany club or a writer for the school paper or the head of the student council. If you were the president of anything, you were on that billboard, and the minute you stepped on campus the military picked you up. You were lucky if you were only questioned. A lot of people were tortured. Basically, the idea was that the intelligent students would lead the would-be opposition. That’s why Marcos was so bent on getting them.

Nobody was prepared for martial law to rule the entire country for fourteen years. Everybody had thought that we’d only have a suspension of habeas corpus or that martial law would be declared only in Mindanao. A few months after the declaration, the populations in high schools and universities had dipped because the students were hiding—or going abroad if they had money. Students were scrambling to get to the provinces. The extreme left had painted romantic images of a people’s army. These young people being hunted by the police thought their only option was to join this army. But it wasn’t even an army. According to Time Magazine, there were only 600 guerrillas with arms from WW II which were so covered with rust they wouldn’t fire. A lot of the students who made it to the mountains to form the New People’s Army were killed. They were all young, some of them teenagers, nobody over thirty. They didn’t know how to use guns, which—if they had them—would jam. They’d be ready to fire on the police and the military then retreat because they were out of ammunition. Some of those who died were friends and classmates of my siblings.

Between 1973 through 1978, our family went through arrest after arrest, raid after raid, torture after torture. Once they got you, they’d torture you so you’d point to other students, and then they get them too. The police and the military were seen as pretty much the same thing — Marcos’ soldiers of terror.  The military eventually took four brothers and a sister and threw them in the Marcos prisons; four of them were heavily tortured.

A week after martial law was declared, our house was raided. The police were just looking for guns and subversive materials in the homes around Malacañang, not making arrests. But when they came to our apartment, we knew it wasn’t safe for my siblings to come home. They started staying wherever they could spend the night. My brother Ryan, the one who has polio, was 15. He said that he and student leaders from other schools would spend the entire day in Luneta Park eating fried bananas or crackers, and at nightfall, because of the curfew, they’d go into funeral homes and pretend to be relatives of the deceased. They’d eat the food provided at the wake until someone asked them about their relationship to the deceased. My siblings weren’t home much. Now and then they’d call, but we were worried that the phone was tapped. We spoke in codes. So I grew up always conscious of being watched, aware that my siblings could be arrested, I wasn’t supposed to know where they were. It was a very paranoid childhood.

I was just thinking that here was a therapist in the making.

Exactly. Early training. Then they were captured. I’d read in the newspaper and hear on television, Marcos telling the press there were no political prisoners, and he’d laugh it off. And yet every weekend for four years I visited siblings in one or two or three camps. I was really confused. “What am I doing? Are they criminals? I know they did nothing except go against Marcos. So why are they in jail?”

They took people without warrants of arrests; they just barge into your homes, taking people and confiscating property. The military would throw you in jail and there you stayed indefinitely, without charges being filed against you. No court trials, no sentencing procedures. Then I’d hear my dad speak to my sisters who were not arrested, and they’d whisper about the others’ being tortured.  “Why were they being tortured? What did they do wrong? What’s wrong with shouting slogans at a rally?”

The pain didn’t stop when they were released. Ronald Jan would have nightmares. He’d be shouting, kicking, screaming and falling out of bed. At the time I didn’t know about post- traumatic stress, but now I do. When my sister was released we were very worried about her. All my siblings played the guitar and sang very sad songs. Once she was singing a song with words like “and this is the end.” My other sister Caren and I exchanged glances as if to say, “Oh, my God, what’s she going to do?”

Well, they were able to pick up their lives somehow. Ronald Jan returned to university and completed his studies.  One day, in late 1977, he left to go to school and remarked that we should leave him some dinner that evening.  He never returned.  To this day, he is a desaparasido [disappeared].  We believe he was picked up by the military and executed extrajudicially.  A week before his disappearance our home was raided again, so we knew that we were under military surveillance.

Another brother, Jun, was a college freshmen when he joined a Catholic volunteer organization that assisted an urban poor community set up a livelihood program.  When the government moved in bulldozers to demolish shanties, Jun joined the residents in a protest rally.  I think 200 people were picked up by the police at the rally and 199 people were released that same evening. The only one detained Jun because they found his school ID with his name on it.  The police said, “Oh, another Quimpo. Your family is  like a factory for activists.” So he was beaten up for ten days just because his surname was Quimpo.  When he got out he was so angry he joined the guerillas. A few years later he was found in an open rice field in the province of Nueva Ecija, with seven bullet wounds in his body.

The sister who was detained and tortured, when released, moved to Australia, got married, had a family and stayed there. Two brothers whom the police were instructed to “neutralize” (kill on sight) sought political asylum in Europe. One of them eventually became a professor in Japan; the other raised a family in France, and after his kids grew up he moved back.

People went on with their lives, but I think the hurt was never processed. Our family doesn’t talk much about it. In fact, Ronald Jan went missing in October 1977. I came back from the States in 1995. Over dinner at my sister’s house, I said, “You know, there’s a wall of remembrance called Bantayog ng mga Bayani or Monument to the Heroes. We should get (Ronald) Jan’s name on it.” She answered, “Oh, this fish is really good. Have more rice.” If you mentioned his name, my siblings would change the topic. So I knew my family wasn’t dealing with it at all.

But because I “bore witness,” all these stories were in my head. In fact, when I was ten I told myself ,” I’d have to write this down. “Much later, when I was in graduate school in the US, I was taking a class called Southeast Asian History from a fantastic professor of social history. He said, “You know, it’s a lot more interesting to look at a country from the perspective of ordinary people, not the leaders.” At that point I started writing.

An Unintended Adventure

by on Saturday, December 10th, 2016

The wedding

In 2015, I interviewed my friend Geri about how her life had changed since she’d moved to Korea. To access the post, click “Korea. A Vision List” at the end of the Korea items on the column at the right. At that time Geri was a counselor at the US Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, where her fiancé Chris was teaching World History and Advanced Placement Psychology at Seoul American High School. Shortly after our interview Chris was wounded, although not in a motorcycle accident as I reported in a note at the end of the post.

For this interview, Geri and I spoke via Skype when she was at Kadena AFB, Okinawa and I was in the Philippines. (Thanks to Geri for the great photos. )

Geri’s story

Geri and Chris

Chris’s accident was August 9,2015, when he was visiting family in Florida. On his last day of vacation, he was riding in a friend’s Mercedes when an SUV rear-ended it from behind at a stoplight. Chris got out to look at the damage and was standing between the two cars when a third car rear-ended the SUV. Fortunately,someone screamed “look out” and Chris turned, saw the car coming, and because he was a martial artist, he jumped straight up—no time to go anywhere else. The SUV hit him at the knees and dragged him beneath the car. The Mercedes was pushed fifty feet into the intersection. Chris remained awake and aware the entire time, telling people how to tie off his legs, and to get a helicopter instead of an ambulance. Thank God he’s in quite good shape except that he doesn’t have anything from his knees down. In fact, there was no trauma to his brain or his internal organs.

Geri and Chris

Chris spent about two weeks at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, Florida and then another two weeks at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville. I flew over and lived in the hospitals for three weeks, sleeping on a cot. Because we couldn’t predict our cash flow, we decided I should go back to my job in Korea, live on the mountain and take care of our three dogs. Chris moved in with his brother, Bill, and sister-in-law, Gina, while continuing with physical therapy at Sacred Heart Hospital near their home in Santa Rosa. He also began working with Jack Pranzarone with Hangar Prosthetics in Ft. Walton.

Why don’t you talk a little bit about his rehab?

Well, as fateor whateverwould have it, he got one of the best surgeons in the area, Dr. Jason Rocha, who was on call at the Baptist Hospital Trauma Center. After the hospital, he went to Brooks Rehabilitation where he also had the best physicians, like Dr. Howard Weiss — people who were used to treating soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. After two weeks at the Trauma Center, Chris was transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville because he was doing so well. In fact, many of his caregivers told him how amazing he was. They said they had young men who were depressed and didn’t have the drive that Chris had to walk on the prosthetics and to go back to teaching, scuba diving and martial arts. He had a tremendously positive attitude about his rehabilitation. After two weeks at Brooks they said he’d already mastered everything.

He was amputated above the knees, right?

Before the wedding

Yes, Chris has a bi-lateral amputation just above the knees, although his surgeon, Dr. Rocha, made a valiant effort to try and save his left knee with eight surgeries in two weeks. His X-3 prosthetic legs are made by Ottobock in Germany, and they are an amazing piece of technology, with a gyroscope in the “knees” using memory chips and Bluetooth to calibrate the correct alignment and pressure through the use of a computer. Chris continues to work with Jack Pranzarone at Hangar Prosthetics in Fort Walton, but he also received help from a wounded warrior who helped him to learn how to walk and manipulate his legs to go up and down stairs.

Then you got married.

We’d been engaged for years, but with the logistics of possible job transfers, military housing and other legal considerations, we decided it was time to get married. I called our friend Frank Tedesco in the Tampa Bay area, who said he’d be happy to take our dogs, and I shipped them to him before leaving for the U.S. myself. I arrived in Florida worn out from the stress of my job, our situation, and feeling totally jet-lagged. A lovely ladyand friend of the familyoffered us her home in Pensacola. The family came together, and we were married on December 27th. Chris was determined to walk on his new prosthetics at the wedding. His other goal was to return to Korea in April and teach the last quarter of his classes at Seoul American High School. After the wedding, I returned to Korea to continue working and to get things ready for his return.

Chris snokeling in Okinawa

In April, Chris made a few short flights by himself, as agreed, and I met him in Hawaii to escort him on the long flight back to South Korea. While in Hawaii, we decided to go scuba diving. We weren’t sure how we were going to do it, but we just showed up. A couple of military guys were on the same dive boat. (I’ve found that God just places angels everywhere you go.) Before we could even try to figure out how to get Chris and his wheelchair onto the boat, one of the dive masters picked Chris up, put him on his back and cat-walked Chris onto the boat, leaving the wheelchair at the dock. When we arrived at our dive site, Chris “spider-monkeyed” his way to the back of the boat, put on his gear and slipped into the water. Using just weights strapped to his thighs and webbed gloves on his hands, Chris descended the rope. But because his gloves were a bit large he accidentally hit both the air intake and release buttons at the same time while trying to get neutrally buoyant, and he flipped upside down. I saw him scrambling to hold onto the coral, and I quickly grabbed him and pulled him back. Then we released the air. He was finewe were both fine. It was a great dive. On Columbus Day we went diving again in Okinawa, and he did well, although at first he lost a fin and had to resurface to retrieve it. A deck hand had fished it out of the water.

The trip back to Korea was quite an ordeal, but we got him to the door of the plane. By that time he was able to use his canes to walk back to his assigned seat. We put his legs in the overhead compartment and checked his wheelchair. One day at a time we’re learning how to adapt to changing circumstances.

Seventy-two steps

In Korea our house was on the side of a mountain at a Zen temple, and we didn’t know how he was going to climb the 72 steps up to our front door. Our landlady had a train, but it was just a piece of junk and I was scared to run it by myself. One of our friends from the school was an Air Force mechanic who got the train running, but it still worked only twice. Chris has a lot of upper-body strength, so while I carried the wheelchair up and down the stairs, he hoisted himself along using the railing, and where there was no railing,he held onto ladders. It really was horrendous. He later developed a rash all over his body from poison ivy or some other foliage near the railing. One day, after two weeks of struggling up and down the hill, we came home from work in pouring rain. We couldn’t get the train to work, and Chris tried to go up the steps, but slipped and fell.

Chris with “sea legs”

It was at that point we surrendered, called a couple of friends who lived in UN Village, and they put us up in their extra bedroom. Earlier in the school year, we had applied for a transfer because the bitter Korean winters are very bad for amputees, and subsequently received a transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. So when we went to the school administrators, we were allowed to access temporary quarters on the base.

About a week before departing from Korea, we again experienced a divine intervention. We already had our plane tickets to see family in the US, to check on our house in Turkey, and to make Chris’ appointments with Hangar Prosthetics. Our household goods had been picked up and were on their way to Cuba. Then there was a call from Washington DC.

“We have a problem. There’s no wheelchair-accessible home for you. Could you wait while we build one? It will be six months to a year. In the meantime, all we can offer you is a second-floor apartment in a building without an elevator.”

“Sorry, no.”

After some deliberation they said, “Okay, we’re going to send you to Okinawa.”

Our orders arrived two days before we were supposed to get on the plane. It was a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty.

It sounds like your employers were very sympathetic.

Chris in China

Oh, they were wonderful. I can’t say enough for the SAHS administrators and the Superintendent’s Office in Seoul, the military as a whole, the teachers and staff support at SAHS, and particularly DODEA (the Department of Defense Education Activity), which hires teachers and runs the educational programs for the military dependents overseas. Chris has worked for DODEA for 32 years, and we have found wonderful supportive people everywhere we have gone, including his new Principal and Assistant Principals here at Kadena High School here in Okinawa. When we arrived here, we were told there were no wheelchair-accessible houses on the base. We had to shift again. Chris laughs about this being our unintended adventure. About a month ago we found a one-story house in the Yomitan-Son area of Okinawa. We have a beautiful view of the sea, the floors are completely tiled, and the bathrooms are totally wheelchair accessible. Divine intervention again.

Geri doing Aikido

When Chris lived in Okinawa before, he belonged to an Aikido martial arts group here. We heard our Grand Master was coming to Okinawa in September, so we joined the seminar training, where I received my Nidan. or second degree black belt. Although Chris is a Sandan, or third degree black belt in Aikido, we attended the seminar training with the idea that he was just going to watch. To our surprise and delight, Grand Master asked him to sit in the line training with the other martial artists, and he was able to join in. Currently, we are working on setting up another Aikido group here in Okinawa, as we did in Seoul. I think our mission has become to live without limitations: no matter how you might be handicapped, find a way to adapt and do what you want to do.

Where does he get all this strength and determination from? I can’t imagine myself being in that situation without getting enormously discouraged.

Yeah, me too. Friends who have known him for a long time say only Chris could have handled things as he has.I think in a difficult situation all of us can find strength we didn’t know we had. Chris has been a coach for 30 years and also has practiced several styles of martial arts for over 40 years. I think it has played a big part in his attitude and his ability to overcome adversity. He’s deeply spiritual, but not religious. Although we both were raised in the Methodist church, we have an eclectic form of spirituality and a regular spiritual practice which includes a morning devotion, meditation and prayer. Our committed relationship is part of it too, and we love traveling to different countries to visit temples, shrines, mosques and holy places together.

Were there times when you thought that supporting him under these circumstances would just be too much, that you couldn’t do it?

No—and I’m being honest about it. People say it’s amazing how I supported him. But what else would I do? I love this person. Looking back, I think it’s been a really tough year. I’m glad I couldn’t see into the future. In Seoul, when I was working as a counselor, I had a very supportive supervisor. In the morning he’d come into my office with a cup of coffee, sit down and ask, “How’re you doing? Anything I can do for you?” I can’t tell you how much that meant to have that constant emotional support.

I also journaled a lot. I have many journals filled with existential struggle and spiritual conversations with the angels. “What do I do now, how do I handle this? I need help with this.” I continue to journal regularly, asking questions, asking for help, trying to figure out what I am going to do next. I’m a caretaker and a counselor. That’s who I am. At one time I was married to an alcoholic, so now I’m an educated caretaker. I really work at trying to balance taking care of myself with taking care of others. I’m not a martyr.

You have to do that first, for yourself and the other person.

My goal in this house is to help Chris become as self-sufficient and independent as possible. I don’t know why, but I never thought I didn’t want to do this. I believe in karma and to a certain extent in predetermination. I think that Chris was built to do what he’s doing, and I was built to what I’m doing. This is who I am. I have a warrior spirit and I’m always looking to improve myself.

One of the aspects that initially attracted me to living in an Asian culture was the idea of the Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, but my experience is that Korea is very unsupportive of people with handicaps, and this shocked me when Chris got hurt.

In China thirty-two years ago, I learned immediately that there was no tolerance for anyone who was different. I think part of that was Confucianism—or agrarian collectivism—and part was the police state. Since university students were also reserve military, even having one leg an inch shorter than the other one would disqualify you as a university student. Disabled people were shut away. That’s also true now in the Philippines, which is based on a mixture of agrarian collectivism and Catholicism.

To date we’ve seen the most compassion among military people, who go out of their way to open doors, help with the wheelchair, or help Chris get out of the car. While in Korea, Chris had to get to the second floor of a building to get a military ID. There was no way he could get up there. So a couple of soldiers put him into a medical carry-hold and carried him up the stairs.

People come up and ask Chris if he was wounded in the war, and he’ll say he’s a vet, he was a medic, but that he got hurt in a car accident. The cutest thing is the kids, who are really blunt. They’ll say, “What happened to your legs?”

The parents are embarrassed, but Chris loves it. He’ll say,“Well, we think somebody was texting while she was driving and she wasn’t paying attention.”

Chris lived here for twelve years before he moved to Korea, so it’s like home, except he can’t do a lot of what he did here before. We’re both 64 now, but we feel pretty young. My goal is to improve our health, nutrition and lifestyle so that we can be healthy centenarians, like the Okinawans, many of whom live to be over a hundred. Okinawans are not Japanese, but Ryukyu, an island people, very relaxed and accommodating. Many live longer than anybody else on the planet, which has to do with what they eat and their easy tolerant lifestyle, but it also seems to be a very accepting and loving culture. This is what we’re all about on this unintended adventure!

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

by on Monday, November 21st, 2016

Book cover

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

Krys’s story

Krys Lee (thanks to Krys for photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read that the missionary set gangsters after you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krys signing “Drifting House” in Manila in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Japan to North America, Reverse Culture Shock

by on Monday, October 31st, 2016

Nik and the rice fields in 1994

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

Nik in 1995

Nik’s story

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

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

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

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

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

What drew you to the Japanese culture?

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

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

Nik and cherry blossoms in 1994

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

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

What about reverse culture shock?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the earthquakes?

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

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

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

How did you adjust to Japanese working environment?

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

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

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

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

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

How did you find moving back to a Western workplace?

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

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

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

Would you like to move back?

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

A reader writes:

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

Cindy Starts a Business in Japan

by on Thursday, October 13th, 2016

Lucinda Lohman-Oota and her husband Hiro

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

 Cindy’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t. I am my own introduction.

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

URL for Inscribe: http://www.inscribe-consulting.jp/index.php/welcome

Email: lucinda@inscribe-consulting.jp

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

 

Baihana’s First Album

by on Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

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

Mel’s story

Melinda Torre

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t we go through the list?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baihana at the Historia launch with Paolo Cortez on guitar

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

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

When are you anticipating that will happen?

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

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

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

Mel and Krina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, choreography is not a bad idea.

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

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

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

Paulo Cortez on guitar, Anna, Jesper Mercado on keys

How old are you?

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

So you could have another 40 years of singing.

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

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

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

Baguio concert September 24

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

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

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

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

The scales are different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To purchase the album, go to Baihana’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BaihanaGirls/shop?rid=317046090098&rt=9

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Photos of BASECO on Manila Bay

by on Sunday, August 28th, 2016

BASECO children on Manila Bay

A nun from Missionaries of Charity

Nicer housing we passed on the way

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

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

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

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

We make our way to the squatters’ village

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

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

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

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

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

We took a look at the church and said goodbye.

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

André

Bob and me