Sunday, March 21, 2010

Girl

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For privacy reasons, I don’t post identifiable pictures of the kids who live at my center. I like to think the above photo presents a pretty accurate portrait, though.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kapayapaan

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As a volunteer, I’m supposed to stay out of Philippine politics; and as this is a public blog, I’ll refrain from getting too deeply into the specifics of the current political situation in the country.

That said, it’s impossible to live here and not feel affected (or afflicted) by the state of affairs in Philippine politics. My center receives two national newspapers, the Manila Bulletin and the Philippine Daily Inquirer. (I prefer the latter, although the former gets points for including a weekly photography insert.) The presidential election, along with many lesser elections, is scheduled for May 10, less than two months away, and every day the front pages of these newspapers are plastered with articles on the latest antics of the candidates, worries about election scandals, and updates on political violence. According to an article yesterday, over ninety people have already been killed in connection with politics since the November Maguindanao massacre.

Iloilo province is not a political hotbed.Peace Corps keeps a list of provinces that may be risky for volunteers during the election season, and Iloilo isn’t on it. (Nearby Antique province is.) Aside from the sporadic politicking of candidates in Iloilo City – just a couple weeks ago I caught a glimpse of vice-presidential hopeful Loren Legarda in Jaro – things have been pretty quiet.

So why I am even writing about politics? Because it’s important to know how things are here. Before I came, I couldn’t have written the first word about the political scene in the Philippines. I couldn’t have named a single president or political figure – not Corazon Aquino, Jose Rizal, even Ferdinand (or Imelda) Marcos. I had no idea. Even after living here over a year and a half, I’m still discovering new things. And to be blunt, most of these things aren’t good.

Revolutions and uprisings always grab the public’s ear. Last year it was Honduras and Sri Lanka; for the past seven years there have been daily stories about Iraq. Violence in African nations and especially the Middle East is regular fodder.

But it seems – and this is only my view – that the Philippines keeps a lower profile on the world politics stage. That doesn’t mean the Philippines has fewer political problems; what it perhaps does mean is that these problems are more embedded. More insitutitionalized. The state of affairs might not be always changing or publicized, but that doesn’t mean the state of affairs is solid.

I encourage everyone to read up on the Philippine elections – and for that matter, the politics that have steered this country for the past thirty-five years. Read about the current candidates, their reasons for running, their platforms (if you can find them). This is a decent short overview of the country, and there should be an increasing number of Philippines-related articles here in the lead-up to the election. I don’t expect most people to be deeply affected by the presidential election in a small Asian archipelago, but the reading should raise some global Big Questions: about democracy, international relations and accountability, and that most vital and urgent ideal, kapayapaan.

There’s a popular Filipino song that one of my kids helped me translate from the Tagalog. It runs roughly thus:

Maghawak-hawak ng kamay (Hold hands)
Isigaw ng sabay-sabay (Altogether shout)
"Kapayapaan, kapayapaan." ("Peace, peace.")

Monday, March 15, 2010

International Night at the Iloilo Theater

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Last week we had visitors from the Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. About sixteen students aged around seventeen and representing several different countries (Nepal, Ethiopia, Czech Republic, Vietnam and mainland China, aside from Hong Kong itself) stayed at my center for a weeklong exposure.

They had to endure the tedious courtesy calls, the long sweaty car rides, the frequent communication breakdowns and gaps in planning that have characterized my last nineteen months. To some extent I had forgotten just how much these things have become part of my daily routine – I long ago stopped letting them make me anxious, save in exceptional circumstances, but this week I actually found my anxiety building on the behalf of our visitors because their presence triggered memories of my own first few months here and I could understand quite clearly what discomfort they had to get through.

I personally benefited greatly from the special food my center prepared for the visitors. I didn’t eat gulay or cold fried fishda for an entire week. Fresh mangoes were presented at so many meals that I almost forgot they’re normally a luxury.

As usual I was the documentarian for their activities, although whenever my photography students were free I handed the responsibility over to them. And they handled the charge with aplomb and some excess of enthusiasm – by the end of one week we had accumulated very nearly 3000 photos with our two center cameras. Most of them depict mundane meetings with municipal officials and the myriad acts of cultural performance committed over the course of their visit, but I managed to sneak in a few of my own shots during work hours.

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This candle is in Jaro Cathedral, one of the most well-known churches in a province whose primary cultural attraction is, well, its churches. One day my center scheduled us to visit four churches scattered around the city and outside – in Jaro, Molo, Miag-ao and Tigbauan. We ended up skipping Molo and Tigbauan for the sake of time, and the Miag-ao church was locked and we hadn’t scheduled our visit so they wouldn’t open it for us. So we completed one-fourth of our objectives. This is normal in the Philippines.

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We took the students to Nagarao Island, off the east coast of Guimaras. Total travel time, including of course meeting the mayor of the municipality, edged probably toward four hours. The island was pretty, though rocky; on our bangka ride back to the mainland we stopped by another island whose sandy beach was actually a lot nicer. But the time we had on the island was a welcome break.

Here I also ran into the second species of stereotypical Caucasian man. The first one, the Creepy Old White Guy, needs no explanation. The second kind is the White Guy Who Loves Showing Off How Much He Knows About the Philippines. He was from Canada and had been traveling around with his Filipina wife. He managed to mispronounce the names of an impressive number of locations, and as usual with this kind of creature, his zeal for expressing his expertise just emphasized his ignorance all the more.

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On the last day of their visit, the students had a community outreach activity in one of the outlying barangays. They helped cook food and worked with the children in the local daycare, then in small groups visited various homes in the community. I went along with one of the small groups and with my typical clumsiness managed to break one of the bamboo floor slats, which is perhaps a slightly bigger deal than it sounds since the house was suspended on tall stilts.

After the home visit, the community put on a welcome show for the visitors. No surprises there. The locals were as gracious and friendly as always.

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The week went generally as I expected, with lots of pitfalls and a generous dose of cultural awkwardness, but also with a fantastic dynamic between the students and the kids at my center. My kids love getting visitors, even the kind that just duck in for a quick song-and-dance program (we get a good number of those), and having these students actually stay in their family houses for a week meant a lot to them. For their part, the students seemed to integrate with the children really quickly; and although I always worry about my kids’ idealization of foreigners (including myself), I think the positive effects of the students more than counterbalanced it.

It’s simple, really: every person who comes into my kids’ lives and shows them love and respect is helping fill a gap in their lives that should never have existed. Although their new kuyas and ates could only stay for a week, their friendship is something my kids won’t forget.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Unya, mamaya, karon

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In Cebuano, the word for “later” is unya. Unya means things will have to wait. Projects can’t proceed, work will be in stasis, the next step might happen in an hour, or a day, or a month. Unya signifies that shift so frequent in Philippine culture when everything else becomes more important than progress: food, dance competitions, chikka-chikka. It means that person whose approval you need for a project won’t be around until tomorrow – and tomorrow may not be tomorrow, it may be the day after or next Thursday – and, depending on the context, you may or may not be able to even bring up the issue when you finally do meet. Unya means a lot of exasperation.

In Tagalog, the word for “later” is mamaya. Mamaya means relax, there’s no rush. There are more important things than work: savoring life, enjoying the earth and your family and friends. Mamaya exhibits a gentle, amused scorn for the workaholic attitude, the idea that the world is inherently served by every horsepower expended, every keystroke logged, every check cashed. Mamaya prefers nature’s breezes to the scrubbed wind of an air conditioner, and worships the sun over all of man’s artificial fluorescence. It is loud, brazen and understanding, and counts neither minutes nor pesos. Mamaya slows the world’s spin and enjoys every extra instant.

In Ilonggo, the word for “later” is karon. Karon understands the possibilities of time, for in the Cebuano dialect, karon means “now”: a single word encompassing the present and future, postulating the unity of what is and what will be. Karon means just because something is unfinished doesn’t mean it’s incomplete, and because something is completed doesn’t mean it’s finished. It skips ahead, doubles back, then claims to have never moved. Karon says the sun will rise tomorrow, but that’s no reason to hurry through the moon tonight.

Unya, mamaya, karon: later, later, later.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Blind Side: Even Black People Can Succeed… with Help

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I’ve been using Peace Corps to catch up with my movies. When you live in a tiny town and you’re constantly enervated by unwanted attention and unwavering heat, sometimes remaining inside and using your downtime to stay prone watching something – anything – can be the best way to go. Although I’ve only seen a very few movies in theaters since I arrived a year and a half ago, my netbook has been working hard to provide me with entertainment of dubious quality.

Actually, I’ve been able to watch a lot of good movies I missed (or am missing) in the States. Sometime I’ll make a list of the best, but this post isn’t about the best. It’s about the worst.

I didn’t know much about The Blind Side before I watched it. I knew it’s a true story about a football player. I know it got generally good reviews and was nominated for something or other. Aside from those things, I was clueless when I started watching it; and now that I’ve finished, I wish I had known a little more so I could have avoided it entirely.

The Blind Side is perhaps the most patronizing, denigrating white-fantasy nonsense I’ve ever seen. I don’t say this in reference to the story, which depicts a young black man, Michael Oher, with academic troubles and a mushy heart transcending his disadvantaged past to unlock his potential as an athlete. Although I don’t know for certain how true-to-life the film adaptation is, I’m fully willing to accept the story arc as legitimate.

No, what I find infuriating and disturbing is the relentless reinforcement of the film’s basic message: if you’re black, you’d better be sure there’s a rich white person selflessly working for your welfare… because you can’t do it alone, bucko.

Maybe it’s just that other similar films manage to package that same message in a more artistically subtle way, while The Blind Side has no qualms about walloping you over the head with it. Or maybe the movie simply is that ethically bankrupt, that it manages to stand out even among the impressively varied slagheap of WASPish self-love monuments. Every moment seems carefully constructed to fill your ears with screaming propaganda and scrape stereotypes across your eyes.

Sandra Bullock, an actress against whom I have no particular grievances, is ghastly as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a glaringly pale and blond southern socialite, wife to a fast-food maven whose head seems as empty as his restaurants’ calories. In Bullock’s hands, Leigh Anne fairly oozes duplicity; every line is as insincere as her Botoxed brow. It isn’t helped by a total lack of character development – apparently too much of the budget was spent on Bullock’s purses to allow for incidentals like depth.

Among the other paper-thin caricatures are Miss Sue, Michael’s tiresome-within-ten-seconds tutor, played by an astonishingly blase Kathy Bates; SJ Tuohy, Michael’s white bro, whose obnoxious precociousness becomes unbearable as soon as it becomes clear that his presence is essentially pointless except as a foil to Michael’s oft-emphasized dimness; and Leigh Anne’s husband, whose name I don’t remember. He is played by a painted-smile Tim McGraw and his moment in the sun is reciting, with the dynamism of a coconut, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” There’s a Tuohy daughter involved as well, but she’s only there so a yuppie friend of Leigh Anne can make a prediction of rape when Michael moves into the house.

Michael’s character is played with equal shallowness – I don’t recognize the actor – but this is appropriate, since the film is really about Leigh Anne and the myriad white gods and goddesses who populate his magical world. Michael doesn’t do things, and things don’t happen to him; rather, other people do things to him. He is so obviously an object, a project for the whites, that a big stuffed bear could easily be substituted onscreen and the feel of the film would be perfectly preserved.

A typical scene: at Thanksgiving, Michael separates himself from his football-watching “family” to eat alone in the dining room; sensing an opportunity, Leigh Anne harangues her husband and children into having a more traditional Thanksgiving by joining Michael at the dinner table. And Leigh Anne’s caked makeup suddenly smells like family values!

Leigh Anne buys Michael a truck, a gift after he receives his driver’s license. It is happily sacrificed so that Leigh Anne can show her forgiveness in the aftermath of a crash. And her drippy mascara grows even thicker with slimy compassion!

And she needs lots of that compassion, because man is Michael dumb! He’s having trouble at football practice, can’t seem to muster that protective instinct to guard his quarterback. Luckily Leigh Anne knows that all it takes is a two-bit metaphor comparing his teammates to his adoptive family and the lightbulb, all ten watts of it, flashes on above his head. This kid’s so slow that it takes Mr. Tuohy’s moronic comparison to a football match – because of course at this point Michael can’t comprehend anything so well as a game centered around violence – to get him to understand Tennyson’s poem.

Speaking of violence, there is of course one scene in which Michael acts for himself. (Okay, actually there is a second one later in the film – but that time only happens because he is manipulated by the Mad Black NAACP [oops, that's NCAA] Woman into believing he was tricked by his white family. Which he was. But he comes around to their point of view in the end.) This scene is his big rejection of the life of destitution in which his unenlightened black fellows live. And his method of rejection is… violence, of course. Docile as a rabbit, Michael is, so long as he’s on the right side of town. Get him back in the sticks and his “darker” nature is revealed.

That docility extends even to the imitation of his white saviors. Michael has few lines in the movie – that would ruin its appeal, of course – and none are memorable, but the writers did try to work in a couple that go beyond monosyllabic grunts: “Don’t you dare lie to me” and “I need a proper hug.” These are obviously far too complicated for Michael to have invented on his own; they’re actually lines stolen from earlier utterances by Leigh Anne herself.

I could go on. The film is a two-hour Rorschach test: study the inkblots and tell what picture the white spots make, and what the black. It’s so comically over-the-top and perversely self-assured that I don’t even know if it’s worth getting worked up over. Perhaps my emotion comes more from embarrassment than offense, but it is truly galling to watch what could have been a humanizing, inspiring story turned into a disgustingly smug ode to the pure white heart.