Friday, June 25, 2010

The light bends untrue

When does a photograph stop being a photograph? The spread of Photoshop and other photo-editing software means that any photo can be tucked and tweaked into something the lens never saw. For me it’s really an issue of honesty and integrity – if a photo has been significantly manipulated, I believe the photographer should disclose that fact.

But the problem is that the issues of photo manipulation are often vague. “Post-processing” is a meaningless term in the context of digital photography, because every photo is post-processed internally by the camera. A black-and-white photo isn’t taken with a special kind of film, but only created by a computer. It’s unavoidable.

Obviously that’s a very narrow view. To my mind, a photo taken in black and white (as in, using a preset BW filter) is a real photograph. So are photos taken with a custom white balance to change the colors. These settings are really just mimicking the specialized film that photographers have had access to for decades. (Also, as with older film cameras, the viewfinders of digital cameras don’t reflect custom settings – that is, the viewfinder won’t show a BW scene when a BW setting is chosen. Newer SLR cameras have LCD live views that can replace the viewfinder and reflect these settings accurately, as with point-and-shoots. I disabled this option for my students and refused to teach them how to use it, because I think it’s a crutch for a new learner; using the viewfinder forces you to get closer to the action and focus on the composition of what you can actually see, rather than what you could edit into the picture. I certainly can see the value of the live view, but I want my kids to learn how to take pictures before they learn to play with editing. Unfortunately that’s often not an option for non-SLRs because the viewfinders are frequently blurry, poorly calibrated and feature built-in vignetting.)

Photographers have also always been able to post-process pictures through darkroom techniques – but in my head there’s a definite difference between physically altering a photograph with chemicals and specialized knowledge, and pressing a button to automatically fix color balance or sepia-ize a shot. One takes skill, the other does not.

Which is not to say that Photoshop requires no skill to use effectively, or that Photoshopped images are automatically trash. With a talented editor at the helm, Photoshop can produce beautiful and artistic pictures – but sometimes they’re really not photos anymore, but something else, and I think that difference should be acknowledged. Moreover, a basic level of photo manipulation these days truly takes no talent whatsoever. The following examples were edited with Picasa, Google’s photo-organizing software, which has basic editing features.

 IMG_1472IMG_1472 - 2

On the left is the unedited photo of a Filipino boy; on the right, the picture after spending maybe a minute pressing auto-fix buttons and moving sliders in Picasa. The rub is that, honestly, the photo on the right more accurately reflects the colors and lighting as I saw them when I took the photo. My sense of artistry wants to say that these edits are justifiable for that reason – that I’m bringing the photo back to the reality of the scene – but it still leaves me uneasy, especially since that claim is unverifiable for a viewer. If I made these edits on a photograph I posted on this blog, I would explicitly say so.

IMG_4879 IMG_4879 - 2

Adding or removing significant elements from a picture invalidates its claim to be a photograph. Even a small part of a photo – like the pole that breaks the horizon line in the Redondo Beach image on the left – is still emphatically part of the reality of the scene. I removed the pole by using Picasa’s “Retouch” feature, and it took perhaps two minutes. It’s a quick fix – in a bigger version of the photograph the artifacts from the editing are easily visible – but the same thing can be done better in Photoshop without spending much more time on it.

 IMG_5034 IMG_5034 - 2

I made three different edits to this 2008 photo of a Scientology protester in Philadelphia. First, I cropped it for purposes of focus. Cropping (and rotating) are edits that I’m comfortable with, because nothing in the photo is really being changed. (Ah, you say, but you’re removing elements of the original picture! Yes, but to my mind there is a difference between emulating a tighter zoom and actually hiding or inserting an element. Maybe I’m just trying to soothe my conscience, but I do sense a difference. Cropping and rotating are the only edits I’ve made to images I have posted on this blog, unless otherwise explicitly noted.)

Secondly, I BW’d it. In general I think images should be taken with a BW setting, just as film photographers must use BW film – they can’t take a colored photo and press a button to suck all the colors out. It’s rather too cheap and easy.

Last, I edited the contrast and lighting, again with those handy sliders. The result is a picture that – I think – looks much better and more striking than the original snapshotty photo. I just wish I had taken it like that in the first place.

The rise of digital editing has resulted in a thousand different opinions on photo manipulation. Fully half of my college photography course was dedicated to learning how to Photoshop images; printed photographs are almost certain to have been manipulated to some degree. There’s no kind of standard. Even National Geographic – whose photographs I revere – allows for some manipulation of submitted photos, though major edits are definitely bawal.

Adding to the issue is the unfortunate fact that photographic quality is lamentably linked to the quality of the equipment, which of course correlates directly to its cost. People (like me!) who can’t afford to upgrade to the newest lenses or camera bodies or flash units are, in some sense, limited. (That is certainly not to say beautiful photos can’t be taken with cheap equipment – as I stress to my kids, artistry and creativity are always more important than technology, and people do amazing things with Holgas and Lomos and other old cameras – but it does shut out some options.)

Perhaps at some point I’ll find standards I’m personally comfortable with, but for now it’s a constant worry. (Does that sound silly? It’s not if you actually take photography seriously as an interpretation of the world.) As a viewer, I hate looking at a photograph and wondering what has been changed, particularly of course if I like the picture. But photography as a discipline is not pure – and to be honest it never has been – and the issue will always be an issue. Best I can do is follow a personal sense of truth.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Slightly deadly and completely mad

Iloilo City

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is the new Philippine president, or at least he will be by the end of June. The final tally from May 10’s election has been confirmed and the losing candidates have sufficiently expressed their outrage at being cheated out of the position.

Elections in the Philippines are, from this foreigner’s point of view, wild. Campaigns are based on personality, not platform; name- and face-recognition are hugely important and issues are not. Fame trumps all: Aquino was not even considered a candidate for the election until his mother, former president Corazon Aquino, passed away last July. Her front-page death catapulted Noynoy to the forefront of the election despite widespread reservations about his lack of practical political experience.

Other leading candidates included former president and convicted criminal Joseph Estrada and super-rich businessman Manny Villar (the latter of which, apparently in a break from tradition, ceded to Aquino’s victory without any face-saving fuss). Government positions went to Imelda Marcos, the eccentric widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, to Imelda’s son Bongbong, and to ultra-famous boxer Manny Pacquiao. And to exiting president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), who has secured a House of Representatives seat in her home province of Pampanga.

This election has been hailed as the safest since 2007, which is a dubious endorsement. According to reports soon after Election Day, eighteen people had been killed in election violence. Five of these deaths occurred on my island, though none was in my province. My town itself was quiet as death (but in a good way), from what I saw, although there were rampant reports (including one from a coworker at my center) of attempts to buy votes.

The whole thing seems surreal. I’ve often seen the Philippines’ political system called a “vibrant democracy,” and perhaps that’s true by Southeast Asian standards – voter turnout is quite high, and citizens of the country have, after all, staged two successful movements (EDSA Revolutions I and II) in the past twenty-five years to oust bad leaders. (The first was Ferdinand Marcos, the long-term “strongman” who held the Philippines hostage via martial law. The second was… Joseph Estrada. Who ended up second in the latest presidential poll.) But those “People Power” movements, however justified, highlight just how unstable the Philippine system is. Filipinos can oust a president, but they can’t as easily scour clean a political machine that has been corroded by corruption for decades.

One of the agents of this corrosion is a lack of transparency. Right now there’s a fight going on in the legislative system over a Freedom of Information act that would make details of government transactions and decisions open to public scrutiny. Opposed legislators scuttled the act, at least for the time being, simply by absenting themselves: not enough officials showed up to work on the day of the vote to allow for its passage. With luck the bill will be passed in a future legislative session, but who really knows what will happen? And it’s clear from past evidence that the government is able to do what it wants without real accountability.

With all of that said… the presidential elections did in fact run smoother than in past years. Aquino was the clear winner; GMA has in fact already vacated MalacaƱang, the presidential palace, and the transfer of authority should be completed in just a couple weeks.

I have to say this, though: the international media reaction to Philippine elections has been disappointing at best. They’re portrayed as being big nationwide parties, filled with celebrities, glamour and frivolous festivities. But people die because of these elections. People are murdered for daring to run against a powerful candidate or for voting against the current political wisdom. It would be lovely for the outside world to actually try and understand the implications of the situation – here and in many other countries – and start to take it seriously. Because the bodies will keep stacking up.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bunggo ulo

There are many times when I’ve put in a full day at work and, at the end, felt like I’ve wasted my time and everybody else’s. My own deficiencies as a pretend social worker – inexperience in organizing, ignorance of local customs and regulations, and my preference for solitary work – exacerbates the often lax and unpressured workplace atmosphere, with the result being… nothing. I guess tedium feels the same wherever you are in the world.

A nifty quality of tedium, though, is that it’s pretty inherently forgettable. When I look over my shoulder, I don’t really see the mountain of hours I’ve spent doing nothing, or at least nothing worthwhile. One unproductive day mixes into all the others and the memories that bubble to the surface of this blend are the new, the unusual, and the downright bizarre. Peace Corps might not be a better choice than anything else, but it’s sure different.

Twenty months ago a Filipina prostitute asked me if she could have my nose. She giggled. Days before that, at the beginning of our street exposure in Cebu City, I had enjoyed what is still the best meal I’ve had in the Philippines – monggo beans and rice – eaten with bare hands filthy from playing with lice- and germ-ridden street children.

In Granada we had our own pseudo-street child, Pembrose, held in common by all the trainees. Daily she would appear in dirty, ripped clothing, hanging around the plaza, unemployed and unconcerned with all those formal aspects of life we take for granted – a young epicurean – materializing one day with a ridiculous great Siberian earflap hat perched on her tangled hair, shining gorgeous darkblack eyes blinking just below. Once, and only once, I saw her in a school uniform – the solitary evidence I have that she had a family, a routine, something beyond the sweet freedoms of childhood.


My time in the Philippines has been guided and marked by children like Pembrose and children nothing like Pembrose. In Siquijor, circa 2009, a local girl burst out into laughter at the sight of an overweight, pasty-white foreigner emerging onto the beach from his cottage: “Tambok,” she cried out delightedly, indicating his corpulence. She’s the one in the profile image of this blog, squatting on the sand, a westernized but still part-self image, not quite ready to yield the beach to the hordes of outsiders and thank god for that.

And I’m crammed into a van packed with youth from my center, spilling over onto one another, and for some reason a monstrous pocky langka rolls around on the floor as the vehicle rocks and jerks, slamming the jackfruit into my legs. Before the jackfruit we had picked up a load of coconuts – but maybe that was a separate trip – long rides flow together; was this the one where we stopped at Sampaguita Gardens, the bizarre Precious Moments-themed park incongruously carved into rural Aklan, complete with a tour of the brand creator’s house, opium lounge still in place? Or was this the trip during which I found myself farcically acting out a biblical tableau with several Filipino youth in a shrine etched into the side of a mountain?

When I look back, the way is lined with shadowy figures whose names and faces I’ve forgotten, but also those whose images I retain, sharp and probably sharper for memory’s caprice: the beautiful old woman, wrinkled like an elephant’s folds, big crooked brown nose and down a few teeth, who always called out a greeting to me on the hot Granada mornings. Another Granada figure: the bandana’d bearded Filipino, looking like a modern lost pirate, careening around the streets on a peaceful drunk. (“He’s a little crazy because he’s drinking,” one local girl explains to me.) There’s the crabby grandmother of my second host family, who watched the Filipino “Deal or No Deal” with something approaching spiritual zeal. She died two weeks ago.

At my first wake, I listened while friends of the deceased, a teenage girl killed in an auto accident, described her as “sexy.” Her rubbery body lay a few feet away, the thick layers of white makeup visible through the glass casket window making a last sad attempt to fool the world into thinking she was paler than the reality. And my first and only funeral – here or anywhere – where just before I snapped a final photo of the tomb niche being sealed, the dead woman’s brother turned to look directly into my lens.

Capiz funeral

On another gloomy day, this one in Manila, I looked out at the overcast bay, famous for its pollution-enhanced sunsets. A young Filipino engaged me in conversation, telling me he was from elsewhere but moved to Manila for work. I asked him what his work was. “I am a prostitute,” he said. Hard to escape reality in the metropolis.
Other times reality is easily pushed aside, as with my vivid warped chloroquine dreams of alien bodysnatchers, the whole scene laid out like a TV series with an episode guide floating in the corner of my consciousness (along with other volunteers, I had to travel to the aliens’ planet via biplane to defeat their warlord); and other dreams curiously like real life – or like life, anyway, since whatever Peace Corps may be, it’s not so much real. I swim upwards out of sleep…

… Break the surface and I’m treading water at Alubihod Beach on Guimaras, a pair of eyes looking at me from several feet and four hundred miles away. When I dive down again I’m immersed in the clear waters of Boracay, to which I had told myself I wouldn’t go again. But there over my shoulder is the still-sharp shade of my second trip to the island, smirking at my weakness but nodding in understanding nonetheless.

Boracay is a social island, a Peace Corps-gathering island, a place where you try to believe that you’re living that shared communal experience with other volunteers. That you can feel each other. That you’re all in it together. And you can share stories, and share food, and share apartments and beds, but worldviews are worldviews, and what you can’t share is another person’s eyes. Which is wonderful at times and sad at others.

I speak Ilonggo improperly anyway, so I’m okay with pushing aside scruples and appropriating a phrase now and then for my own purposes. Bunggo ulo: it’s the contradictory experiences, the pushes and pulls of a life teetering on the edge of a foreign culture and – too rarely – falling into it. Forgetting oneself, only to remember in time and marvel at the strange, rich misplaced interval. You feel it – bunggo ulo! – in the fierce vibrating tension between the sari-sari and the megamall, the chicken-intestine-on-a-stick and the chicken pesto pasta, between the rice fields and the choked highways.

And most of all you feel this bunggo ulo, this head-collision, in the uncertainty: of your presence, of the rightness of your self-appointed task. The collision makes you dizzy. Which isn’t bad: it should.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Summer fading

Sometimes I work. The recent past has been particularly busy, actually – in the previous six weeks I’ve done two camps and a Project Design and Management workshop, all youth projects in conjunction with other volunteers. 

(All the photos in this post were taken by someone else.)

The first activity was a life skills and leadership camp for youth girls aged 12-17. We had forty-odd participants from four Iloilo centers, mostly homes for abused girls, and eight Peace Corps volunteers from around the Visayas. We ran the same camp last year but it was something of a mess. This year’s camp ran much more smoothly, which I think can be attributed to two main factors: experience – we actually mostly knew what we were doing this year – and the inclusion of six junior facilitators, girls who had attended last year’s camp and returned to help us facilitate sessions. Our plans for the junior facilitators were fairly minor in the beginning, but quickly we saw that they could be (and wanted to be) given more leadership responsibilities. It was one of the most encouraging signs of youth initiative I’ve seen so far.

IMG_1302 Participants must remove their tsinellas without spilling the bucket of water. Any decent Philippine camp starts with and is liberally interspersed with icebreakers and team-building games.

IMG_1413 Not everything went smoothly. One night an unexpected downpour forced us to abandon our makeshift sleeping tent and ferry the girls inside. In the middle of evacuations, the power (of course) went out.

IMG_1529 For a self-esteem activity, we had the girls write down insults they’d received and then toss them in a bonfire.

Next was a camp for the youth beneficiaries of my center’s community outreach program. It was similar to our girls’ leadership camp, but included a mixed population of girls and boys. Two other volunteers and three of my coworkers helped with the activity, which we held at Bulabog Puti-an National Park in Dingle, Iloilo. I introduced the Pinoys to s’mores.

100_5599 Touring-touring around the caves in Bulabog.

100_5709 For a session on relationships and STIs we split the group by gender and had them list safe ways to show someone you love them. The boys’ list included Baklan ko sya madamo nga bulak (buying lots of flowers), Pamahawan ko sya (giving her pamahaw, snacks), and Txt2 ko sya pirme (texting her all the time).

The third activity, just concluded, was a Project Design and Management (PDM) workshop for around forty sangguniang kabataan (barangay youth board) members in another volunteer’s town. I had wanted to do this in my town last year, but our own youth leaders are so unorganized that the project didn’t turn out to be possible.

The workshop is a basically a run-through of all the steps required to plan, implement and maintain useful and successful local projects. As facilitators (there were two volunteers and each of us had a counterpart from our sites), our job was to guide them through the process, but the projects they designed were entirely their own responsibility. These youth have the opportunity to carry out projects because, as formal members of the barangay board of officials, they receive a yearly budget and have access to local resources.

The sangguniang kabataan has actually been a source of contention – mostly because they generally don’t do much. Lots of people want to abolish the institution and stop wasting the barangay budgets on projects that are either nonexistent or not particularly useful in terms of sustainable development. (The majority of SK money usually goes towards summer basketball tournaments or similar "projects.” I saw the budget breakdown for my town’s SKs once: for sports activities many thousands of pesos were allotted, while projects for educational services were given P200. That’s $4.)

I don’t know how many of the projects our SKs developed will actually be started, much less completed, but the workshop was encouraging. I personally didn’t think every project was particularly useful or feasible, but most of them were completely doable and seemed beneficial to their communities. And they know better than I do what their town needs, anyway. Considering my less-than-positive experience with my town’s SKs, I was impressed with the output of the workshop and I think it showed how the youth here are underestimated and, as a result, underutilized. Given decent support, they’re capable of developing their communities in progressive ways. And in the end, that’s much more useful, appropriate and respectful than Peace Corps volunteers or other outsiders coming in and imposing their own projects.

IMG_2192 In Helium Stick, the group must work together to lower the stick all the way to the ground. Much harder than it sounds.

IMG_2268 An SK presents her group’s output. The projects included building a well for water sustainability (the province’s water supply is undependable), community gardens to supplement food supply, expanding local capacity for health care, and stricter enforcement of the local youth curfew to reduce delinquency.

Summer might be just gearing up in the States, but here it’s already almost over. Classes will be starting soon, so work-wise it’ll be back mostly to tutorials, photography classes and office work. I hope I can fit in more projects in the last five months. My site seems to be getting more proactive about expanding their activities, particularly with the outside youth community, so hopefully I can get in on some of that action before I leave.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Doll City

A frequent ominous image in film and print is the demoniacal, slightly unhinged puppetmaster jerking his helpless actor hither and yon across a posed and plastic stage. The scene is unnerving for its imposition of authority: the stringed subject, lacking the liberty of limb to step his own samba, can only dance to his master’s music. Minus the metaphors, this lack of personal control is anathema to much of western society.

Freedom is a tough concept, because both the scientific and spiritual worlds seem to fight against it. In many religions, man is subject to someone or something all-knowing: some transcendent figure (or figures) that controls the world from on high – or at least foresees all that will ever be, which many would argue is the same concept with more modern and acceptable packaging. There is frequently a path to follow, like Buddhism’s Middle Way, and eternal rules laid out for the edification of humanity.

On the other hand, some godless scientists who preach the substantial origin (or essential nonexistence) of all the things that have classically been thought uniquely human and possibly trans-corporeal – love, hope, the workings of the mind – encase the human condition in no less of a constrictive box. (And to be sure, this box is shaped like nothing except what it must be shaped like.)

The major median between these two roads is: man is not free. We are the product and possibly plaything of something greater, or the current but still mutating collection of atoms that, thanks to some fragile strings of sugars, is classified as Homo sapiens. Thinking man.

But do we only think what our biological makeup allows us to think? The Rousseauian concept of humanity as claylike, malleable, is attractive because it denies the supremacy of our substance – we can become something, rather than develop in a mold. Unfortunately for independence, Rousseau lived before we knew proteins ran the show. Being aware that happiness and depression are caused by a shifting balance of natural chemicals has tended to shunt the tabula rasa enthusiasts to the back of the classroom.

Whatever the scientific explanations, I think we tend to reassure ourselves of our freedom by observing the natural diversity around us. Whether we’re free or not, humans are obviously not all the same, and that creates at least the illusion of individual independence. But really, different behaviors equals different personalities equals just… difference. Red hair is different from black hair, but it’s all ordained by those little nitrogenous bases; an introvert is different from an extravert, and what causes that discrepancy? Something transcendent… or those same bases?

Some would say that it doesn’t really matter; that the brain, however intricately tied to nerve fibers and awash in chemicals, is the only source of innovation, of rational thought and spiritual fervor, of sensory perception and of love. The line is conveniently fuzzy, at least for the time being: we can choose to view ourselves as slaves to biology, or accept that the brain is what it is and that – actually – it is a lot. I suppose many people would feel that it is important to make a distinction between, say, chemical “love” and abstract classical love. But that wouldn’t change the feelings we have – if we’re being honest with ourselves – but only the belief about the source of those feelings.

A lot of what I wrote above is a reaction to a book I just finished, Bill McKibben’s Enough. In it, McKibben (who is the founder of, one of my favorite environmental sites) denounces upcoming (and present) technologies that threaten to dehumanize our species, from germline genetic modification to nanotechnology. McKibben’s vision of the future is distinctly dystopian, and for good reason: he puts up a strong argument against allowing unrestrained technological “progress” in certain slippery-slope areas. The book title comes from what he sees as a genuinely distinct human trait, that of intentionally pulling back, of denying ourselves some possible and seductive future, of saying “enough.” He asserts that we’re beginning to flirt with changing the essence of humanity; and at the end of that flirtation is a long, brushed-steel marriage to a world without meaning. And not just for those who ask for implanted genes, or those who use their magic nano-assemblers to create tchotchkes from stray atoms. Rather: for everyone.

Because a society of stronger, smarter, more beautiful people can’t fail to marginalize those holdouts who see something worthwhile in staying natural and unmodified. “Humanity” would become an anachronism, and with it “freedom.”

Maybe programming, genetic or otherwise, is just as legitimate a foundation for life as the chaotic blends of chemicals that provide humans with the slow, irregular growth of a mammal that has given up many of the benefits of competitive nature – quick reflexes, sharp senses – for a measure of cleverness. But that cleverness is what marks us as human. Does more of it makes us more human, or something else entirely?

Some of the technologies are clearly anti-independence. Plugging in the specs for an upcoming baby only increases the probability that she acts the way the parents wish – just like overweening parents try to ensure anyway, except in this case they could imprint it in her very genes. But even here the edge is hazy, because genetic modification can also cure horrible diseases. Arguing that easing suffering is inherently different from “improving” humanity won’t get you far with someone who sees it all as sides of the same coin.

McKibben’s book is fascinating and somewhat terrifying. The technologies he elucidates are Jovian in their scope and sheer power, and he makes a good case against allowing some of them free rein to develop. Unfortunately, he frequently must rely on emotional arguments, which would probably only appeal to the people who are already on his side. Because emotion is, after all, human.

But I didn’t actually start this post with the intention of making it a review of Enough. The puppetmaster in the opening paragraph isn’t supposed to represent a forward-thinking scientist (or a religious traditionalist, for that matter). He is a conglomerate of all the repressive groups, and forces, and societies that tell people what to do and what to think. Where to step, what to believe, who to tick on a ballot. We’re already developing the spirit of homogenizing that McKibben fears, but we’re doing it with billboards and textbooks and rallies. Have you been to Doll City?

Like any mid-sized western metropolis, Doll City’s network of roadways is lined with modest skyscrapers, unsightly slums and modern shopping malls. People mill about the busy sidewalks, walking to work or returning home with groceries; kids play hopscotch and jacks. Doll City has its perks; maybe it has a really good municipal recycling program or beautifully planned urban parks. And of course it has its problems as well – corruption in local politics, perhaps a slightly higher crime rate than its neighbors. But to all appearances, it’s not substantially different from any other town: the buildings, the streets, the trees all look the same. And they exist. They are real. But the people of Doll City are not people at all.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at or speaking to them. They answer questions like real people; no matter how quickly you sneak a look, you’ll never catch them closing up their battery hatch.

So what are they? It’s hard to explain. You’ve seen diagrams of pig carcasses, with dashed lines indicating the different cuts of meat? On some visual level which humanity has yet to access, Doll City’s citizens have something like those dashed lines. But instead of “ham” it says “media.” And where the bacon should be, there is only a chunk marked “tradition.” Next to that is “politics.” And hovering above the head of every denizen of Doll City is an invisible label: “Society.”

These people are not real people, they’re just some kind of motley toy distilled from all the swirling eddies that we euphemistically call culture.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying culture is bad. Cultural traditions and practices can provide real meaning for a person, whether he lives in Kansas or Kinshasa. Culture can bestow a sense of place, a personal significance, and a supportive community. But culture is helpful only insofar as it urges a person to develop in line with her own beliefs, her own persona. (To be sure, culture plays a huge part in actually creating those beliefs and that persona, but it’s far from the only influence.) When it steps outside that track, and tells people “Well, maybe it would be better if you did this or became that way,” then it’s really just the gentler and subtler spiritual counterpart to genetic manipulation.

Although few Filipinos complain openly, I’ve met many who appear to be suffering under the mantle of their cultural norms. On some superficial level, I can empathize – I have worked hard to act culturally sensitive, but many small behaviors betray my foreignness (as if my entire appearance didn’t do it anyway). Things like the way I wash my dishes, the way I don’t mind walking in a light rainstorm without a payong, the way I never take a nap after lunch. These are personal things that I don’t feel like I have to change in order to operate in the Philippines, but they do stand out as unusual, and they do make people question me. (Yes, I’ve had people question the way I wash dishes – doesn’t matter to them that I have many years of experience.)

My very out-of-placeness means that I usually don’t really have to worry about these little things – the mere strangeness of my presence tends to overwhelm the importance of minor behaviors, and being set apart means that Filipinos sometimes don’t judge me as critically as they do their own – but for Filipinos who live here their entire lives, I think aberrant behaviors do draw a line between them and their fellows. I’m a curiosity at most, but Filipinos who push against certain cultural norms are walang hiya. They’re without shame. And living shamelessly is something of a disgrace, both on a local and national level.

Now, I’m completely aware that I’m a stranger in this place, and I don’t understand the culture and don’t really know what the people are thinking. When I talk about the Philippines, I’m talking about my own observations (which are of course filtered through my own cultural lens) and things I’ve gleaned from a limited time living here. It’s a tough place for me to live, but I’d never tell Filipinos they’d be better off somewhere else. How presumptuous and arrogant would that be?

Besides, my own culture (or whatever you want to call the halo-halo that is the US) has its own methods for covering up unsightly blemishes. I use this example often because it’s personal: extraversion versus introversion. The United States loves extraverts. We like loud, outwardly confident people who say what they mean, mean what they say, and frequently grace the front pages of the newspapers. Extraversion is almost inherently a good thing to be blessed with; success and happiness depend on your ability to make yourself visible and to know the right people.

Conversely, introverts are ill-adjusted, anti-social loners. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some iteration, said about myself or someone else, on this phrase: “He likes to be on his own. And that’s okay.” Absolution! It’s “okay” to be alone. Thank god. I may still be defective, but the kindly arbiters of social norms will accept me anyway.

Think about this: when was the last time you heard the word “leadership” in anything but a positive context? But leadership can frequently lead to disaster. (How many charismatic despots has the world suffered?) We all agree that some people are not born leaders, but the irresistible simplicity of duality leads us to conclude that everyone who isn’t must be a follower instead. There’s no third way.

But there is, of course. There are as many paths as there are humans on earth, but we’ve concreted them over to build just a few superhighways; some people have nice cars and ride along just fine, but the rest of us must trudge along like the legendary bundle-on-a-stick tramp, always wary of the badge of enforcement. The developed west preaches the gospel of personal autonomy, that is true, but favoritism is still a public institution.

People who are forced into roles, obliged to act in ways that are unnatural to them, are the ones who suffer. They are the “people” in Doll City, the ones whose joints are oiled with the slimy superiority of their fortunate peers and whose legs move at the call from the chosen. They are not free, and if they try to free themselves, they are marginalized. They’re unimportant. They’re only dolls.