Qwertyman No. 14: An Oppa for Pinoy Culture

Qwertyman for Monday, November 7, 2022

THE HON. Victor M. Dooley was in a quandary once again. He had struggled with his maiden speech, but thanks to the timely assistance of his rumored girlfriend and sometime girl Friday Yvonne Macahiya, he had delivered a brilliant address on “Culture and the Environment: Shared Survival through Values Education,” which the footnotes failed to say had been Yvonne’s term paper for her Political Science 104 class at the Western Aklan Institute of Technology. 

It didn’t matter that most of his esteemed colleagues were absent or nodding off when he gave his speech with all the passion he exuded back when he was “Mr. Disaster,” the TV-radio hero of the typhoon-flooded, the earthquake-shaken, and the fire-singed. When Yvonne’s press release came out, it was just like he had spoken before the UN General Assembly, the world’s grandest stage; never mind that some audiences there weren’t too hot, either. 

“We are the world’s most disaster-prone country not because we are weak,” he said, thumping his fist on the lectern before letting his gaze travel across the gallery to turn up the drama, “but because disasters visit other countries less. The Lord Almighty has brought these disasters upon us to test our faith, to strengthen our spirits, and to breed true champions of the desperate and the dispossessed!” Again he paused for dramatic effect, but all he heard was the snorting of a venerable gentleman from a northern province, dreaming of Lamborghinis landing in his Special Economic Zone.

Still, something from his speech must have registered in someone’s mind—the word “education”?—because Sen. Dooley found himself appointed to the Committee on Basic Education, Arts, and Culture, which to him sounded like the wimpiest assignment anyone could get. He had expected to be named chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change (that went to a real estate developer), or the one on Public Information and Mass Media (that went to a retired general), or to something that could have used his mestizo heritage, like the Committee on Foreign Relations (that went to a Chinoy movie producer). 

Basic education? Other than passing grade school, what did he know about classrooms and curricula? But then the committee also covered Arts and Culture, so, hmmm, maybe that was what they saw in him, his stellar career as a singer-dancer-TV show host, the way the ladies swooned when he winked at them at the end of his “Buchikik” song. Arts and Culture was entertainment, right? It was about keeping people happy, so they could smile through Covid, unemployment, EJKs, 60-1 peso-dollar rates, and P300/kilo pork. 

There wasn’t much he could do about those things—blame it on the pandemic, on Ukraine (he did have some important foreign-policy views: those darned Ukrainians should just have given over some potato fields to the Russians instead of endangering world peace with their silly resistance), and on troublemakers who even won Nobel prizes for having nothing good to say about hardworking despots.

But now, the Hon. Victor M. Dooley had to come up with a program that would leave his indelible mark on Philippine culture, and he convened an ad hoc committee composed of himself, his chief of staff Roy, the indispensable Yvonne, and a special guest who sashayed into the room and planted wet kisses on both of Vic’s cheeks, much to his embarrassment and to Yvonne’s utter surprise. 

“Ms. Terry! I never thought you would respond to my invitation!” 

“Why ever would I not? How long has it been, dearie? The last time  I saw you, you were still a struggling singer trying your best to hold your note—so I held it for you, hihihi.  And look at you now, an honorable Senator of the Republic!”

“And who, may I ask, might you be?” interjected Yvonne.

“Ah! Yvonne, this is Ms. Terry, who sponsored my entry into show business many years ago. I asked him—I mean her, ahaha, we better get our preferred pronouns right, especially after that gender-sensitivity workshop we all had to take—to come and help us devise a program for our country’s cultural revival.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Yvonne. “I could’ve called on some of my National Artist friends—”

“What’s a National Artist?” asked Vic.

“Never mind. Welcome aboard, Ms. Terry—oh, I get it now, mystery herself! I’m Yvonne, the congressman’s Chief Political Affairs Officer. Can we offer you some coffee?”

“If you have low-acid coffee with non-dairy creamer and gluten-free scones, I’d much appreciate it. But I’ll take what you have.”

“Our Chief of Staff here makes an excellent three-in-one and I’m sure he hasn’t finished all the Sky Flakes.” Yvonne cocked an eyebrow at Roy, who slunk away muttering. “Now let’s get down to business. The senator wants a new program with strong popular appeal that will raise our people’s spirits, promote national unity, and put Philippine culture on the global map. You said you have some ideas?”

“I do! Two, in fact. One, boy bands. We should undertake a nationwide search for cute mop-haired boys from the age of six up and train them in a camp for singing and dancing. Two, a cooking competition for girls, who don’t know how to cook anymore. We’ll have regional and then national contests for the best pinakbet, sinigang, and adobo. We can even have a Fil-Am edition, but let’s do it in West Covina so I can visit my cousin there. What do you think?”

“Nice, but I have an even more inspired idea!” said the senator. “To promote our own, let’s ban all Korean shows for a year. Tama na mga K-drama, P-drama naman. Nakakainis na, e!”

Yvonne groaned. “Are you crazy? Do you want to bring the wrath of the BTS Army down on you, not to mention my mama who’s in love with Hyun Bin?” Yvonne turned to their guest. “I like your ideas, Ate! I think you and I will make a great team—between you and me, we can make Vic Dooley the oppa of Philippine culture!”

“Thanks, but what’s an oppa?” asked the senator.

Penman No. 428: Wenchworld

Penman for Monday, November 22, 2021

OKAY, SO The X-Files assured us “The truth is out there,” CSI showered us with “epithelials” and impressed “blunt force trauma” into our noggins, Narcos made it cool to be a “patron,” and The Blacklist (or what I’ve seen of this nine-season, 178-episode epic so far) keeps sending us back to the “post office” or some other “black site.” K-drama, on the other hand, will forever be memorable to me for its wanton use of the word “wench.”

I’m not confessing that I’m a K-drama addict—for that, you can indict my wife Beng, who also happens to be my bedmate, which means that whatever she watches, so must I. Vicariously, therefore, I have learned that it is possible in the K-Universe to go back and forth between North and South Korea by parachute or tunnel, and even to go back and forth between Joseon and the present by holding on to a pretty girl and falling over; that a family’s most precious heirloom, on which everyone’s happiness depends, can be its secret kimchi recipe; that tall and tiny hats maketh the man; that Korean mafiosi travel with at least 300 OOTDs, to be worn just once—plus, of course, someone to keep them immaculately pressed; and that kissing in the rain is better than kissing under energy-saving light bulbs.

But most of all, the K-Universe is peopled by men (half of whom seem to be “unfilial sons”) and women (the younger half of whom are “saucy wenches”). It’s the “wench” part that gets me, because it’s a word I haven’t heard since I was slogging through my grad-school classes in Elizabethan Drama more than thirty years ago. 

Most famously, of course, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio woos the intemperate Katherine: “Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate!” From Love’s Labours Lost, we get “The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen / As is the razor’s edge invisible.” The word is all over English in the 1500s and 1600s, embedded in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; Christopher Marlowe, in The Jew of Malta, has his character Barabas trying to brush away his sinful past when he is accused of fornication: “But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.”)

While we’re in this sort-of-scholarly mode, let’s look up “wench” to see what it was supposed to mean then. Etymonline.com gives us this block of information: 

“Late 13c., wenche ’girl, young woman,’ especially if unmarried, also ‘female infant,’ shortened from wenchel ’child,’ also in Middle English ‘girl, maiden,’ from Old English wencel, probably related to wancol ’unsteady, fickle, weak,’ from Proto-Germanic *wankila- (source also of Old Norse vakr’child, weak person,’ Old High German wanchal ’fickle’), from PIE *weng- ’to bend, curve’…. The wenche is nat dead, but slepith. [Wyclif, Matthew ix.24, c. 1380]. In Middle English occasionally with disparaging suggestion, and secondary sense of ‘concubine, strumpet’ is attested by mid-14c. Also ‘serving-maid, bondwoman, young woman of a humble class’ (late 14c.), a sense retained in the 19c. U.S. South in reference to slave women of any age. In Shakespeare’s day a female flax-worker could be a flax-wenchflax-wife, or flax-woman.”

Perhaps more helpfully, vocabulary.com tells us that “Wench used to mean young girl, so if you find someone describing a lovely wench in Shakespeare, it means a lovely girl. Wench comes from Middle English, and was a common word for girl, child, or servant. Over time it came to mean mainly serving girls, as in a bar wench, who serves drinks at a tavern. Eventually it came to mean prostitute. If you find wench in a love poem from the 16th century, think of it as an informal version of maiden. But if someone called you a wench last week, you should be insulted.”

Now, in the K-Universe, the use of “wench” transcends centuries, being equally useful in the period of the Three Kingdoms as it was under the Joseon dynasty, under Japanese annexation, and after the Korean War. (At a certain point, when you’ve watched hundreds of hours of K-drama—only because your wife is watching, mind you—you become something of an expert on Korean history, politics, and culture. I’ve even developed a taste for japchae, which I like to think of as Korean sotanghon.) It’s entirely possible for a Gangnam goon to call a confederate on his Samsung phone to say “Get rid of that insufferable wench!”

All that is probably because the Official Association of K-Drama Translators, at a crucial conference in Jeju, sat down to take up the word nyeon (“a term that refers to a female person in a degrading/derogatory manner”), with partisans debating fiercely between “bitch” and “whore.” The argument entered its second day, with tempers flaring and steel chopsticks dangerously stabbing the air, until the revered Dr. Sung Hyun-Lee, a fruit grocer by day and Confucian scholar and acupuncturist by night, woke up from his soju-assisted meditation and proposed the word “wench.” He had come across the word while watching Pirates of the Caribbean, and thought it perfect to describe a passing ship in the night.

Since all K-drama heroines can be wenches (as long as they have doe eyes, porcelain skin, and wispy hair—but wait, doesn’t that sound like all K-boys as well?), “wench” seems to have lost its pay-for-play connotations on Netflix, and now simply means “any pretty and young Korean woman who attracts and then annoys a nasty man—a cruel Joseon prince, a North Korean general, or a Seoul crime boss.” Problem solved.

Penman No. 425: Red Light, Green Light

Penman for Monday, October 11, 2021

THOSE OF you who smiled when you read the title know what I’m talking about: none other than Squid Game, which is set to become the most viewed Netflix production of all time.

I’m still groggy from two nights of binge-watching, after making sure that my wife Beng was already asleep. She’s a Korea-novela fan—and I guess you can call me a reluctant convert, having little choice but to follow the travails of star-crossed lovers getting wet in the rain, slurping ramyeon, or running slow-motion into each other’s arms on a beach at sunset. But for some reason, Beng likes romance, not gore, and she steadfastly refused to reciprocate my constancy by watching Squid Game with me. 

She can’t understand it when I explain that violence relaxes me, releases the lion in my pussycat, exhausts my latent desire to pulverize my enemies and split a few skulls, and leaves me refreshed for another day of, well, typing. Beng’s favorite expression—which she uses several times a day, usually when watching the news or some TV drama, or when we’re driving past a mangy dog—is “Kawawa naman!” If she were a street in UP Village, it would be “Mahabagin.” 

That’s why, you see, she couldn’t possibly get through even one episode of Squid Game. The violence hadn’t even begun—Gi-Hun was just getting warmed up as the quintessential loser, trying to play good dad to his 10-year-old daughter—when I heard Beng mutter her first “Kawawa naman!” Rather than subject myself to a night-long litany of laments for pitiful souls, I agreed to switch channels and watch contestants try to outdo each other in applying hideous makeup onto hapless models. Beng couldn’t see me wincing in the dark, my tender aesthetics feeling the vicious assault of mascara wands and lipstick applicators.

But let’s get back to the show. After its release less than a month ago, Squid Game became a global sensation in no time at all, and it’s easy to see why. Even the venerable Washington Post intones that “Squid Game (is) much more than a gory dystopian thriller. It’s a haunting microcosm of real life, unpacking the many implications of inequality, which has in some way drawn each of the players to this battle for their lives.” 

Parents will be horrified to find that their kids can buy Squid Game soldier outfits online, complete with black masks and pink track suits, submachine guns optional. (When I clicked the link, I got a message saying “Sorry! This product is no longer available.” That can mean only one of two things: first, that the seller developed a conscience and pulled the item out, or second, that stocks were sold out—you win a prize of a trip to Busan if you guess the correct answer.)

So let’s get this clear, especially if you’re thinking of gathering the family around the TV for some quality time watching people’s shirts turn a splotchy red: Squid Game isn’t for kids, okay? The whole point of it is that it wants people to think they’ll be playing kids’ games—which is true, except that (this is hardly a spoiler now, after all the publicity), the losers die.

I’m not going to go into the kind of sociological soul-searching that will be the stuff of dissertations over the next five years, with titles like “Competition Theory: Neoliberalism, the State, and Squid Game in the Philippines, 2016-2022.” (If you want an honest-to-goodness, semi-academic chat about the show, the UP Korea Research Center will be hosting an online forum on Squid Game on Friday, October 15, at 3:30 pm.) 

I’m tempted more by the idea of staging our version of the game here, with life’s “winners” instead of losers as players, for a change. The reward will be—let’s see, what might the rich and powerful still want that they don’t already have? More money? Too easy; they have enough stashed away in the British Virgin Islands (legally, mind you—they did nothing wrong) to last three lifetimes. More happiness? Which means what—more likes on Instagram, more cover shots in the glossies, Ivy League placements for the kids, one mistress more, a new Lamborghini Huracan, another Patek Philippe, a new calling card saying “Senator of the Republic,” or something even loftier? Eternal life? Some families already have that—35 years after EDSA, you-know-who are still around.

How about this: the prize will be absolution for one’s sins, which technically will qualify one for entry into heaven, no matter what terrible things one may have done in life—stolen billions, murdered thousands, lied 90 percent of the time, cursed God and half the saints, you supply the rest. 

It could be voluntary, of course, because most of the players we’d like to nominate will never admit to sinning nor to needing forgiveness; they have willfully accepted damnation, and their choice must be respected. But I think it will be more fun if, in the 2022 elections, we took a special poll to vote for 456 politicians, public officials, generals, bigtime drug lords, profiteers, car-loving pharmaceutical executives, troll masters, and other crooks to constitute the players. 

How thrilling it would then be to put on a black mask, look over the track-suited multitude, appreciate the anxiety in their puzzled faces, and announce: “Green light!… Red light!” Boom. Boom. Boom. Sorry, Beng, hindi sila kawawa, and I could watch this all day.

Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

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Penman for Monday, March 16, 2020

 

I SHOULD have better things to do—and Lord knows I do—but I have to admit to splurging an inordinate amount of time and attention last week on a Korean confection strangely titled “Crash Landing on You.”

It was my wife Beng’s fault. I was snug in my La-Z-Boy, pecking away at my laptop on a book project, figuring out how best to explain how iron ore becomes high-grade steel, with the TV open to “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix. That’s how I often work, toggling between the job and entertainment, with one foot on the ground and another stepping on the gas, Walter Mitty-like, for Scuderia Ferrari. She came up to me and said, with the sweetest smile she could muster, “Can we watch ‘Crash Landing on You’ instead?”

“Can we watch what?”

She went on to explain that it was currently South Korea’s most popular telenovela, and as soon as I heard that, I knew that my Formula I viewing was done for, at least for the evening. For the past 46 years of our marriage, Beng has endeavored to get me to try things I passionately abhor—like cheese, artichokes, alugbate, and sappy movies—and while she’s gotten nowhere on the food front, now and then I relent on the entertainment, because it gives me a bargaining chip, and I can play poker all I want. Besides, International Women’s Day was coming up, and it seemed like a good present to mark the occasion.

That’s when I remembered that I could’ve scored more points by bringing it up myself, before she did. I was waiting last month for an important meeting with a high university official; on the sofa beside me sat a friend, the director of our Korean Studies Program, whom Beng had met before. We had all once been at a big party to celebrate Philippine-Korean relations, where Beng and I found ourselves seated at the same table with the very affable Korean ambassador and his wife. Beng struck up an instant friendship with the madame, upon discovering that they were both telenovela fans. My friend remembered that, and on the sofa whispered instructions to me that might as well have been a state secret: “Please tell your wife to watch this new show called ‘Crash Landing on You.’ Right now, it’s the biggest hit in Korea.” Of course, I promptly forgot about it—until Beng told me to hit the switch-channels button.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Crash Landing on You” is about—take a deep breath—a rich and stylish South Korean heiress who somehow accidentally lands in North Korea and who falls in love with her savior, a soldier who also happens to be (aside from a concert pianist) the son of a high-ranking government official, and who follows the heiress back to Seoul, trailed by an assassin and supported by a posse of faithful North Korean friends. Makes total sense, right?

As Beng settled into her show with a bag of chips, I continued working on my steel-industry epic while keeping one desultory eye on the unfolding TV drama. Soon I was sucked in by what I had gleefully expected—absurdity galore, silly coincidences, the ridiculousness of towing a piano dockside for an impromptu concert and of a girl (yes, another Korean on the same lake in Switzerland) on a boat gliding by and memorizing the melody at one pass, and so on.

By Episode 5 I was making snide remarks, like “Why do these Koreans always argue then kiss in the rain?” But alas, by Episode 8, I was laughing like crazy over the five North Korean operatives reconnoitering Seoul like country bumpkins, taking in the wonders of fried chicken, soft beds, and vending machines. Even worse, I got teary-eyed when Ri Jeong-Hyuk told Yoon Se-ri, “I want to see you with gray hair, and wrinkles…. I want to see you grow old.”

I began setting up post-dinner watch parties with Beng, and because we seniors doze off after an hour even if there’s a war or a volcano erupting outside, we’ve been able to hold off watching the two-hour finale for our quarantine treat.

Meanwhile, I had to chuckle when the BBC reported that the North Korean media went into overdrive denouncing “Crash Landing on You” as an attack on its cherished values:  “Recently, South Korean authorities and film producers have released anti-republic films and TV dramas that are deceptive, fabricated, absurd and impure, putting all their efforts into making strategic propaganda. The South Korean government and production houses will pay the price for making and distributing such movies and programs which are full of manipulation and fiction that insult the reality of the bright situation of the North.”

Even some South Koreans were equally unhappy, accusing the show of making North Korea look good: “tvN’s ‘Crash Landing on You’ has been accused of violating the National Security Act for glorifying North Korea. On January 22, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency revealed that they were reviewing an accusation made by the Christian Liberal Party against tvN on January 9. In a statement released on January 10, the Christian Liberal Party explained that ‘Following the National Security Act, one should not praise or follow any anti-national organizations that compromise the existence of South Korea.’”

Come on, guys, drop the missiles and watch the show! See each other grow old!

 

 

Penman No. 362: Writers in Progress

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Penman for Monday, July 15, 2019

 

I’M ALWAYS happy when people who were my students rise up in their careers and begin to find their own voice and footing—especially as writers, good ones among whom remain few and far between. Each year, the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing gathers the best of these young writing talents under one roof and around one table for the UP National Writers Workshop, the 58th iteration of which took place last week in its traditional venue in Baguio City.

Two of the 12 fellows—each of whom qualified for the advanced workshop by publishing at least one book—were Francis Quina and Sarah Fernando Lumba, both of whom had studied withme at one point or other, and whose thesis defenses I had sat at; both now teach at UP Diliman’s English department.This year’s batch was formidable, with some well-established names on the roster, but I kept an eye out for Francis and Sarah, to see how they were doing after all these years.

All workshop fellows were required to send in a short essay discussing their poetics (what, why, and how they write) along with short excerpts from their works in progress.

Francis said: “Recently, when my first short story collection was picked up by a publisher, the reader who had endorsed my manuscript to be published noted that I wrote about strong female and queer characters…. I’ve only known strong women in my life. And strong queer men and women, too. So I only write what I know. This also is true of the fallible male characters that I write about.

His project Window on the World brings two sisters together—each of them trapped and unhappy in their respective situations—on a plane for a holiday in Korea.

 “I’m scared,” Janine confessed, after they had stowed their bags in the overhead compartment and found their seats. She fumbled with the buckles of the safety belts. Maya knew what Janine meant. She had never been a good flyer, and perhaps because of what had happened to their mother, she never would be.

 “We’re going to be okay,” Maya said, feeling her heart beat faster as the plane began the pre-flight sequence. In front of them, two stewardsa man and a womandemonstrated how to deploy a life jacket in case of emergency landing at sea.

Maya fell asleep before the demonstration ended. She didn’t feel Janine take her hand and squeeze it nervously as the plane roared and slowly tilted upwards as they began their ascent. She didn’t feel the sensation of falling, as her mother did, the moment they left the ground and fate took hold of their future.

Somewhere between the 1,623 miles between Seoul and Manila, Janine nudged her sister awake and told her to look out the window just once, to see how endless the world was. Maya, groggy from her medication and nervousness, obliged and got up from her seat. With her sister, she finally looked at the world the way their mother used to.

Sarah, on the other hand, is working on a comic novel titled Twisted Sisters about martial law and revisionism (our dismaying tendency to forget history and repeat it all over again) set in her hometown of Marikina. “There are two main points that I wish to explore in this novel,” she says. “First, the reasons behind the significant support that Ferdinand Marcos continues to enjoy despite empirical data showing that much oppression had been committed by his regime; and second, the extent to which comic and humorous writing could help a people come to terms with—and even come together after—a collective trauma such as martial law.

She writes: “Metro Manila traffic is a hundred ways to die. You can get hit by a car as you cross the crosswalk. Be dragged to death by a motorcyclist careening through the sidewalk. Squished by two bullish buses. Knifed by a strangler as you wait for a jeep. Knifed inside a UV Express by a smartphone snatcher. Have a heart attack just by watching the taxi meter running continuously even if traffic hasn’t budged in the last thirty minutes. Drop dead just waiting for your Grab ride to arrive. Get choked by fumes inside your car because it’s summer and your AC’s busted and you kept your windows up just so you wouldn’t look poor. Get choked in your car by your husband who snaps because of, well, the traffic. Get choked by a druggie whom you meet in prison after you snap and kill your wife in the car because of, well, the traffic. Drown inside your car because flood levels in the streets rise faster than your speedometer. Get squashed by a derailed train coach overhead. Get assaulted with that mandatory lead pipe under the driver’s seat. Assaulted with an empty My Shaldan Lime canister. Shot by a policeman. By a car owner with a licensed gun. By a car owner with an unlicensed gun. Beaten to death by a pack of heat-stroked, smog-coated, PNP-wannabe MMDA enforcers. By a pedicab driver whose ride you scratched. By a congressman because, wala lang, he’s bored and has clout, and you’re there. Metro Manila traffic is death by asphyxiation. By exhaustion. By utter frustration. You can have an aneurysm just by staring at license plates or the sunburned napes of other passengers for two hours straight. You have become a human pipe bomb, a government imprimatur-ed minefield of nasty. One tiny fuse, one small misstep—ka-boom! Road rage. You are better off taking up smoking as your vice.”

Francis and Sarah, you’re well on your way to authorhood.

 

 

Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

TO FOLLOW through on my initial report last week on the 2ndAsian Literature Festival in Gwangju, South Korea from November 6 to 9, it was an exhilarating and enlightening experience to be among fellow Asian writers getting together to wield literature as a weapon of peace.

I’ve been to many international literary festivals and conferences, but inevitably these gatherings—even those held in Asia—have tended to focus on Western writers and their concerns. For a while back there, the Man Asian Literary Awards, which culminated in a gala ceremony in Hong Kong, drew some special attention to contemporary Asian writing, but that fledgling effort folded up too soon. The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which will be holding its annual conference in Australia a few weeks from now, is arguably the region’s largest and most active literary network, but with so many topics on offer and so many attendees, it’s hard to keep your eyes and minds on one thing at any one time.

The Gwangju meeting felt just right, bringing together 11 writers from outside Korea to meet and interact with about the same number of their Korean counterparts. I was privileged to be the first Filipino to be invited to this young festival, which was headlined last year by 1986 Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. This year, the prolific and immensely talented Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, led the delegates, who also included the Mongolian poet Damdinsuren Uriankhai, the first winner of the Asian Literature Award, which is given out at the festival.

Why Korea? Because—even as it globally exports kimchi, Koreanovelas, cellphones, and K-Pop—Korea (at least the southern part of it) is seeking to strengthen its cultural connections to the world at large, by exposing its people to cultural and literary movements from the outside, especially from beyond the Eurocentric zone. Among the key agents of this pivot is the publisher and editor Kim Jae-yong, a professor of modern Korean literature and world literature at Wonkwang University in Iksan, supported by the likes of Prof. Sohn Sukjoo from Dong-a University in Busan. Last year, it was also Prof. Kim and Prof. Sohn who brought another group of writers, including myself, to Jeju to discuss how our literatures were emerging out of the Western shadow.

The Gwangju event was less a conference than an intense but still festive sharing of experiences and responses to the many threats to peace, freedom, and justice around the world today, especially in Asia. As the festival chair Prof. Paik Nak-chung put it, “Particularly, 2018 is a special year when the journey towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula began as the leaders of the two Koreas met in Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The festival urges Asian writers to carry on the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula to sublimate Asia’s wounds through literature.”

Writers, of course, are neither politicians nor diplomats (despite Shelley’s generous attribution of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Much of what we write inevitably has political content and intent, but governments don’t listen to writers (and would, in fact, shut down the teaching of language and literature as superfluities, like our magistrates did last week). We agreed, therefore, that our approach has to be direct to our peoples and audiences, to resensitize them to their humanity; freedom and justice are prerequisites to any kind of real and lasting peace, and these in turn are premised on the worth of the individual, which literature can help establish.

It was a great honor to share the company of the likes of Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist who had fought the Americans during the war and had once found just himself and a comrade left alive in their platoon after a bloody encounter. His novel Sorrows of War is a poignant reflection on the fruitlessness of war, and the man’s quiet but fervent advocacy persuaded us (with me as one of the jurors) to award him the Asian Literature Award for this year. Another writer I got along very well with was the Taiwanese novelist Syaman Rapongan, a champion of his Tao tribe from Taiwan’s Orchid Island, who gave up a professorship in anthropology to pursue his true passions, writing and seafaring; “The ocean is a poem we cannot recite to the end,” one of his works memorably begins. The bestselling Korean novelist Sim Yungkyung, a molecular biologist by training, also became a good friend, and with our very capable guide Ms. Kim Hye Ji, my wife Beng and I saw the best of Korean culture and hospitality that week.

Not incidentally, the Asian Literature Festival was organized and sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s impressive Asian Culture Center (ACC), which should be a model for other countries to emulate. But the best service of festivals like this is to remind writers—especially writers of conscience—that as solitary and sometimes as disheartening as their work can be, they are not alone, and are appreciated.

Penman No. 327: More than Memorials

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Penman for Monday, 12 November 2018

 

I WAS in Gwangju, South Korea last week to participate in the 2nd Asian Literature Festival, a new, Korea-based gathering of writers from across the continent aimed specifically at promoting peace through literature, with dozens of delegates from as far as Palestine attending. Initiated and supported by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s Asia Culture Center (ACC), the festival draws its strength from Gwangju’s historic role in keeping Korean democracy alive.

I’ll share more impressions about the literary part of the festival next week, but as this was being written just as the festival opened, I’d like to dwell for a moment on our first formal activity there, which set the tone for the whole week.

Korea’s sixth largest city, Gwangju is about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, an hour and a half away by high-speed train. Known for its cuisine, Gwangju (the name means “city of light”) is also an important cultural center in Korea. It came to global prominence in May 1980, when the city’s people rebelled against the newly installed government of Chun Doo-hwan, who had led a military coup just months before, and who imposed nationwide martial law on May 17, closing down universities, muzzling the press, and arresting critics like future President Kim Dae-jung. (Does any of this sound familiar to us Filipinos?)

Among others in other regions, Gwangju’s citizens rose up against the strongman, as they did against the Japanese. In response, over nine days starting on May 18, the military undertook a brutal campaign of suppression against what came to be known as the Gwangju Uprising, leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians branded as communists by the government. In 1987, a memorial cemetery was set up to honor the city’s freedom martyrs, and subsequent governments have made amends to these victims and their families.

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Not surprisingly, therefore, and before anything else, the visiting writers were brought by their hosts to this cemetery, Mangwol-dong, for everyone to pay their respects not just to the dead, but also to the spirit of peace that their sacrifice engendered. The cemetery at Mangwol-dong is set in a poignantly serene landscape, resplendent in autumnal colors when we visited. A tall monument rises up to the sky, overlooking hundreds of graves, each marked when possible by a picture of the lost one—a poet here, a garbage collector there, a teacher, a student.

I’ve visited many war memorials in America and elsewhere, and have found them no less sad and moving. But almost invariably they honor the fallen soldiers, rather than the civilian casualties. Korea does it differently.

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Last year, I visited another memorial as well, on the island of Jeju, where thousands of civilians were massacred by government troops on April 3, 1948. Jeju’s memorial to those victims—with its harrowing exhibits but also its emphasis on finding peace and justice in our time—offers, like Gwangju’s, another model for our own martial law museum. While it will not have the same space and breadth of sky in its projected site in Diliman, our memorial should not only be able to provoke horror, but also hope amidst the sorrow, hope that can only materialize through sustained struggle. Beyond memorials, South Korea has ingrained democratic values in its citizens, regardless of their Presidents.

As Dr. Roslyn Russell, chair of the International Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, put it, “Unlike the piecemeal attempts to redress past histories of violence and crimes against humanity committed by the government that have been seen in South America and South Africa, the objectives of liquidation of the past—including ‘investigation,’ ‘punishment of those involved in the repression of the uprising,’ ‘recovery of honor,’ ‘compensation for the victims’ and ‘efforts to commemorate it’—were achieved in Gwangju. The May 18 Democratic Uprising played a key role in the democratization of Korea, and influenced the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy in East Asia…. Pro-democracy movements occurred in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and other countries following in Korea’s footsteps.”

The Koreans know how to jail their misbehaving Presidents—and to keep them there, instead of springing them free after a few years. They’ve also shown that economic progress doesn’t have to come at the cost of democracy and human rights, as many Filipinos enamored of strongman rule love to claim, albeit with little material benefit to show for the surrender of their souls and minds. Koreans value and enjoy their prosperity, but they also remain vigilant against corruption by their corporate giants and government leaders. In 2016-2017, Korea’s Candlelight Revolution mobilized 17 million candle-bearing citizens to peacefully depose another untenable regime.

A statement was flashed onscreen during one of our sessions: “What we must fear is not pain as such but allowing pain to close our mouths.” That’s courage I seem to remember we once had, and could yet recover.

Penman No. 321: That “K” Factor

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Penman for Monday, October 1, 2018

 

I WAS  in Bangkok last week among a delegation of Filipino academics to attend the 8th meeting of the Korean Studies Association of Southeast Asia (KOSASA), and it was a good opportunity to reflect on the history and growth of Philippine-Korean relations, which have seen a major boost over the past 20 years. While economically driven, much of that growth has been cultural—let’s call it the “K” factor—which accounts for both the proliferation of little Koreatowns and Korean restaurants in major Philippine cities and my wife Beng’s insatiable addiction to Koreanovelas like Boys Over Flowers.

Younger Filipinos enamored of K-Pop probably won’t be aware of this, but our diplomatic ties with Korea (I mean South Korea, of course) will mark their 70thanniversary next year. Those ties were barely a year old when the Korean War erupted, and as an American ally, we sent a contingent of almost 7,500 soldiers to join the fight—the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK), which famously included a young lieutenant by the name of Fidel V. Ramos. After the war, Filipinos also contributed to the economic rehabilitation of South Korea. For example, Filipino engineers helped build the Jangchung Gymnasium—Korea’s first domed sports arena—that opened in 1963.

Korea has since given much back to the Filipino people. In 2013, the Korean government readily sent troops and NGO workers to help in rehabilitation and recovery projects after the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda.

The Philippines has seen an influx of Korean tourists and migrants, who now make up 25 percent of total foreign arrivals, reaching more than 1.6 million in 2017. The Korean community in the Philippines is also flourishing, growing to over 93,000 residents as of 2017.

 For all these reasons, over the past decade, Korean studies in the Philippines have developed both in quantity and quality. With the Philippines hosting one of the largest expatriate Korean communities in the world, Filipino scholars are studying the Korean diaspora and interrelated phenomena in the Philippine context.

 The University of the Philippines leads in the study of Korean social sciences, humanities, and language in the country. Korean studies are lodged in four colleges in UP Diliman: the Asian Center, the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, the College of Arts and Letters, and the Center for International Studies.

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The Asian Center offers MA and PhD programs in Asian studies, which include Korean topics and concerns. Korean language courses were first offered by the UP Department of Linguistics in 1990 as an Asian language elective. Until recently, only four courses in Korean were offered in UP, but higher-level courses have just been added to the curriculum. The Center for International Studies also offers a Korea-related GE (General Education) course for undergraduates, now titled “Global Studies 197: From Kimchi to K-Pop.”

In 2016, UP launched the Korea Research Center (UP KRC) aiming to lead and harmonize Philipine-Korean research and link Korean academic institutions and Korean community organizations in the Philippines. It also publishes HanPil: Occasional Paper Series on the Philippines and Korea, which has now produced three issues. Bringing all of these resources together, the First Philippine Koreanist Congress was held on May 26, 2018.

UP’s engagement with Korean academic institutions is part of a broad and strong initiative on the part of UP to internationalize its offerings, its faculty and student body, and its academic and institutional network. While UP, in decades past, traditionally looked westward—particularly to the United States and Europe—for these connections, it has increasingly sought to strengthen its relations with Asian universities. Since 2012, we’ve sent 123 students and 14 faculty members from UP to South Korean universities for study. The 14 faculty members went there for their doctorates—again a marked departure from our old practice of sending our faculty to the West for their PhDs.

On a personal note, while I’m in no way a Korea expert, as a journalist and novelist I’ve maintained strong personal relationships with my Korean counterparts, and have participated in several literary conferences in Korea. (I’ll be returning there in November for a writers’ conference on Peace in Asia in Gwangju.) Time and again, in these meetings, I’ve realized how much we share with Koreans—in terms, for example, of our experience with martial law and our emergence from it. So what happened since, and what accounts for the palpable difference in our two economies? That’s what we need to learn from them.

Of course, we also have much to share with Korea. One of my best graduate students, Sandra Nicole Roldan, had one of her essays translated and published in the Korean literary journal ASIA a couple of years ago, where one of my short stories, “In the Garden,” was also published in Korean in 2015. They’re small starts, but hopefully this exchange will grow in the other direction. Right now, a visiting professor is teaching Filipino language courses at the Busan University of Foreign Studies (BUFS), laying the foundation for Philippine Studies there. Maybe Koreans will soon discover Sarah Geronimo and some of our best pop artists as well!

Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

I FLEW out to Jeju, South Korea two Sundays ago to represent the Philippines in a conference organized by the World Literature Forum on “New World Literature Beyond Eurocentrism.” I had invited there by my friend Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English in Dong-a University in Busan, to join a group of distinguished scholars and writers that included Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Flores from Rutgers University, Dr. Harry Garuba from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Miguel Rocha Vivas from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, and Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Calvo from the University of California, Merced.

That’s enough doctors to make up a literary hospital, although it’s doubtful that any or all of us could do much to save a patient. And while I have those three little letters to append to my name when I have to, I always feel a bit out of place in a roomful of literary critics and theorists, being more of a storyteller who strayed into academia. But then you really don’t need a PhD to figure out what happened to us and the way we write.

 I began by giving the background of our colonial history under Spain and the United States, and how colonialism shaped our education and literature in certain ways that are unique in Asia. Here’s the rest of what I said, and I beg your indulgence if you’ve seen or heard snippets of these remarks from previous presentations:

This historical background should explain why, unlike most of its neighbors in Asia, the Philippines has had a staunchly Eurocentric tradition in its literature, which proceeds from our Eurocentric and Christian orientation in education. By “Eurocentric” here I really mean “Anglo-American,” because our Spanish connections have been largely and perhaps sadly lost.

Today, young Filipino writers seeking broader audiences continue to write in English, and many do so online, on platforms such as Wattpad and Amazon, which are circumventing the traditional publishing routes and processes. Because of the Internet and its democratic access and global reach, there is renewed interest in writing in Filipino and the other major Philippine languages—we have more than 100 across our archipelago. But there remains a strong impetus to get published overseas, specifically the West, where Filipino authors such as Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco have made some breakthroughs. Literary agents are a new phenomenon in this wavelet of international publishing, and now every good Filipino author seems to need one.

Is this a good or a bad thing? It deserves to be emphasized that while our literary bridge to the world remains the English language, our material has long been local—our authors write about Filipino characters, problems, and conditions. Those conditions inescapably include our hybridity, which we have come to embrace with all of its contradictions. Indeed, when the late novelist NVM Gonzalez was asked what language he wrote in, he famously replied “I write in Filipino, using English.”

Postcolonial and hybrid literatures like ours provide support for the argument of the empire writing back. When I teach my undergraduate course in American literature, for example, I always remind my students that we are studying America and its culture not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos.

I believe, therefore, that the best way to deal with Eurocentrism or, to put it another way, the legacy of Western colonization is to employ and turn its tools, primarily its language, so the West can see us now as we would like to be seen—in our own image, not theirs. Whether originally written in English or in English translation, a new Filipino novel published in Trump’s America or today’s troubled Europe is an act of political engagement, not a submission to the old master.

Meanwhile the need remains to enlarge our own internal audiences, in our own languages, without need of validation from New York or London.

Among most writers I know in the Philippines, the issue of whether to write in English or Filipino or some other Philippine language has ceased to be the kind of issue that paralyzes the writing hand; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can’t and you don’t. A good number of us have gone bilingual, using whichever language seems more appropriate to the task.

And we feel much more relaxed about this than we did four decades ago, partly because we realize that Filipino writers in English and Filipino often come up against the same objective constraints (e.g., limited readerships in the age of video), and also because of what I’d call the de-Americanization of English.

Certainly English remains the language of the elite, and it’s still the language that everyone wants to learn. But I think we’ve come around to accepting that writing is always more than language, and always more than politics—it’s insight, it’s craft, it’s feeling. What the writer tries to convey is imaginative experience; language is but part of that experience. The language is part of the writing—a vital and inalienable part of it—but the writing is always larger and more complex than the language.

We are now more aware than ever of the fact that while we inherited English as a colonial tongue, we must now use it as 21st-century Filipinos still trying to define who we are and what we want to be.

As Salman Rushdie put it in Imaginary Homelands, “…We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

This, of course, is the whole burden of postcolonial writing, which, as Bill Ashcroft observes in The Empire Writes Back, “abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood.” English is no longer a colonial yoke but a liberative weapon. Achebe was sufficiently confident and hopeful that he could deal with this change: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Substitute “Filipino” for “African”, and there we are, and here we are.

 

 

Penman No.205: Sojourn in Seoul (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 27, 2016

 

HAVING PLANNED our trip to Seoul months in advance, I made a point of touching base with some local contacts for possible meetings—something I usually don’t do, wary of disturbing people with my unseasonable presence. But with a week to kill in one city and with some longstanding connections in place, I thought it would be even more ill-mannered if I didn’t at least tell them that I was going to be in town.

One of those connections was Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English at Dong-a University in Busan, Korea’s big industrial center four hours by train from Seoul. Sukjoo—a specialist in world literature—happens to be married to Catherine Rose Torres, one of our bright new young fictionists who now serves as First Secretary and Consul at our embassy in Berlin. I’d first met Catherine in 2011 when I attended the Singapore Writers Festival and she was with our embassy there, and I was later very happy to write a blurb for her first book, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories (UST, 2015).

It’s really these personal connections that make for global literary networking, the value of which I can’t overemphasize. In 2014, Sukjoo translated one of my stories for publication in Global World Literature, which is put out by some of Korea’s foremost literary scholars and critics in that area. Through Sukjoo, I was also able to contribute an article to the Korea-based journal Asia, in which I wrote about some of our most gifted and exciting younger writers. As a result of that article, one of our best young non-fictionists, Sandra Nicole Roldan, will be visiting Seoul this week to attend the 2016 Asia Literature Creative Workshop.

And so our connections continue and deepen. When they learned that I was visiting Korea, Sukjoo’s organization invited me to a special meeting, so I could tell them more about Philippine literature. That gathering took place at Seoul National University toward the end of our visit, and a very fruitful and engaging encounter it turned out to be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but their very first question had nothing to do with lyric poetry: “What do you think of your new President, Rodrigo Duterte?”

It will take more than this column to share my answer with you, but suffice it to say for now that we talked about our colonial history, our Catholic predisposition to suffering, the two Joses (not me) by which our literature is best known overseas, class as the key divisor in our literature and society, Korea’s and the Philippines’ shared experience of dictatorship, and the irony of having to deal with a resurgent Park and a resurgent Marcos, and our younger writers’ affinity with Gaiman, Murakami, and Wattpad.

We discussed my translated story, “In the Garden,” which I’d written in the 1980s about militarization in the countryside and the moral duty of a teacher caught in the crossfire. While the topics were unavoidably contentious, our meeting itself was thoroughly pleasant and mutually informative, capped by dinner, shop talk, and, yes, chatter about Lee Min-ho.

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The second highlight of our visit—away from the malls and the flea markets—was a meeting with the Filipino community in Seoul, which had also been pre-arranged by Catherine through her Seoul colleague, the very capable Third Secretary and Vice Consul Ella Mitra.

It was a Sunday—our last full day in Korea—and much to our surprise, the embassy was open and bustling with people, with a wedding taking place right in Ella’s office. (“We can officiate at weddings,” Ella told us, “as long as the two parties are both Filipino citizens. We’re open on Sundays because that’s when most of the community can come.”) There were over 40,000 Filipinos in Korea, Ella informed me, many employed as factory workers in jobs that the locals themselves prefer not to do.

I’d been asked by the embassy to give a reading for the community—something I love to do whenever I’m abroad, as it puts me in touch with ordinary Filipinos striving to do their best in often very challenging circumstances. The Filipino, I like to say whenever the opportunity arises, is the modern-day Ulysses, roaming recklessly to the farthest reaches of the globe, but imbued with an unfailing sense of home. Now here they were, a crowd that filled the room beyond our most generous expectations—professionals, teachers, graduate students, Filipino-Korean couples, even the Ambassador himself, the dapper and articulate Raul Hernandez.

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The embassy had calendared my reading as its second Sentro Rizal activity, and with June 12 coming up, it seemed a good time to remind ourselves of the things that both divided and united us, and of the need to hang together as Filipinos, at a time and in a region of revived nationalisms. Even so I chose to do a very light reading, one that made fun of my own social ineptitude in cross-cultural situations, and thankfully it went over well with the audience. More than the reading, it was the ensuing Q&A and freewheeling chat over pancit and puto that proved most gratifying. I could sense the community’s strength of spirit, its determination to master a new cultural terrain.

I was especially happy to see a former student, Tech Apognol, now doing an MA in International Relations and speaking Korean. She’s hardly alone; the association of Filipino grad students in Korea now numbers 500, I was told, and there were plenty of masteral and doctoral scholarships for those inclined. “We can take classes in English,” one student named Eve told me.

Another grad student named RJ solved a mystery that had been bugging me for 40 years. Back then, I told him, I was a young writer employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, and one of my tasks was to help edit the Five-Year Development Plan, which was thicker than an encyclopedia because of its bloated prose. On the other hand, I recalled, the South Korean development plan that I used as a reference was no bigger and fatter than a paperback novel—and look, I told RJ, where Korea was now. “Ah, that’s easy,” RJ said. “It’s because the Koreans value brevity, and memos are expected to be no more than a page. The higher up the ladder papers go, the more concise they’re expected to be.”

The shopping was fun—just the flea markets for us, please, not the high-end shops—and the streetcorner food delicious, but it was, ultimately, our encounters with the people that added the most value to our visit. Kamsahamnida, Sukjoo, Cathy, Ella, and Tech for these memorable exchanges.