Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box


Scene in the City: Elections

In honor of the coming Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections this Monday, October 29, today I give you not just one, not even two, but three short videos I took last weekend, of campaign activities going on while I was doing field work in the metro. They aren’t fabulous quality or anything (two were taken with my digital camera, while one was taken with my cell phone), but they do the job.

This first video features just one minute out of a five minute parade of cars that passed in front of our site, all of whom sported posters and balloons, while supporters wore pink T-shirts to promote their favorite candidate.

This second video is a another, more flamboyant parade that happened some time after the first video, featuring loud sirens and high school students playing the drums to attract the attention of potential voters.

The third video (obviously the one taken with my cell phone) shows a candidate appropriating a Britney Spears song to tell voters why she is the right person for the job. Her first name is Baby, which may explain the song choice.

Scenes like these have been going on all over the city and the country, including my own neighborhood, in anticipation of Monday’s elections. In addition to the entourages and the loud music, there are also posters and banners lining the walls, phone lines, and, soon, the bins, gutters, and burning piles of trash in every street all over the Philippines.

While all of this fanfare was going on, I couldn’t help but wonder: What would make me choose any of these candidates? Each parade had several candidates trailing one another, all featuring the same pink balloons, the same pink T-shirts, and the same smiling, waving, hard-hat sporting candidate hoisted at the back of the same pick-up truck. You have to possess basic reading skills to be able to tell each candidate apart. As far as I could tell, there was nothing that made a candidate stand out. This is exacerbated by the fact that I have no recollection of any running candidate taking the time to talk to voters about the issues. I haven’t been employed that long, so I would have been around in case someone came by or announced a forum to discuss barangay issues. Even my mom, who is currently not employed and little more knowledgeable about what goes on around here, has no idea who any of the candidates are and does not intend to vote on Monday. It is a little disappointing and frustrating to be faced with the responsibility to vote for someone when you have no idea what they can do for you.

I also find it disingenuous how candidates seem to think that making noise, wasting paper, and covering pop songs somehow makes them worthier of my vote. That doesn’t really tell me anything, except maybe who you are friends with and how creative you can get by inserting your name into a Top 40 hit. It is also insulting to voters, who deserve to know what they are getting into, instead of being manipulated by people who are supposed to serve them.

Then again, what do I know. I have not had the chance to participate in Philippine politics since turning 18, due to the fact that I was away and living far from the nearest embassy. Perhaps I just don’t know enough to understand that this is how it works here, or that I’m still so out of the loop that I’m missing some of the different ways that voters are getting their information. In a way, I still feel like a foreigner here, still trying to learn even the most basic aspects of life in the Philippines. I am sincerely asking anyone out there to enlighten me on the mechanics of the upcoming elections, if you find my thoughts too uninformed or offending.

This is what I do know, though. I was also the foreigner when I was living in the U.S., but for someone who couldn’t vote, I was still fairly informed about U.S. political affairs. My social circles ran the full spectrum, from deeply involved activists and people employed by presidential campaigns, to the uninformed or otherwise apathetic. All of these people have at least heard of candidates running for office (local, state, or national), and even friends who would be considered members of the so-called Sex and the City demographic can give brief talking points or soundbites given by candidates after simply talking to friends or tuning in to the evening news for a few minutes. Basically, I thought that it was not hard to be informed about politics there, as the media does a decent job of reporting what is going on and sticking to the issues. On the other hand, I am hard-pressed to say anything truly insightful about Philippine politics, besides the occasional quip about how “corrupt” it is or maybe a comment on the usefulness of the phrase “legal gobbledygook”.

This is not meant to be biting political or social commentary, but just my reaction to some things I have seen and am truly baffled about. All I am saying is that, as a citizen and someone who does make an effort to stay informed, I don’t feel like I know enough, and I think that future and current politicians and the media in the Philippines aren’t doing a good job of informing all people about what is really going on and why they should care about it. All the rhetoric about being patriotic and doing things to uplift the fellow Filipino doesn’t mean a damn thing until people — who, by the way, are supposed to be part of this “democracy” — are properly informed and educated about the issues. Until things change, unfortunately, there is nothing all the Britney Spears songs in the world can do to help us become a more engaged and politically functional community.

I Am Employed!

I apologize for not updating for a whole week, but I have recently been gainfully employed!  I am working as part of the research team of a health NGO in Makati.  My background in Anthropology actually helped, because they needed someone familiar with ethnographic research methods.  So, Anthropology haters can suck it!

I will resume my regular updating this week.

Scene in the City: Open 25 Hours

25 HoursApparently, it pays to defy logic.

Since I came back to the Philippines, I’ve seen more than a handful of restaurants around and outside the city that claim to be “Open 25 Hours.” While it appears to be GoodAh!!!‘s motto, I have seen it on mom ‘n’ pop type carinderias along the way to the provinces as well.

I don’t get it. Does this mean to say that they are open 25 hours a day? While obviously breaking the laws of science, I also fail to see how this can work with people. Most people are quite aware that there are only 24 hours in a day, especially those of us who have had to live with deadlines or lack a decent night’s sleep. So, how does one successfully get away with advertising something so blatantly false and contrary from common knowledge?

It reminds me of how, just this morning, I was reading the side of my Langers Cranberry Grape juice bottle (as you do), and found myself won over by the charming tale of how the owners of the company grew up drinking and tasting fresh juice squeezed from “firm, juicy cranberries” by their dad, the “head juicer”, while the owners were his “official tasters”. When I switched to the other side of the juice bottle, I was very disappointed to find out that my delicious and “fresh” Cranberry Grape juice was only 27% juice and contained high fructose corn syrup. I continued to feel disappointed as I gulped down the rest of my glass and poured myself another to drink with my brand new pile of lady pills. I mean, really, if they were going to lie — badly, at that — they should have just completed the circle and sold me a crappy product. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt as bad for adding to my already chemical-ridden body.

I guess this goes to show that it doesn’t really matter what you say in your advertising, as long as it gets people to buy your product. This is no longer about how good your product is, but how well you are able to spin it nicely enough to catch people’s attention. After all, we are living in a time where a series of insurance commercials featuring cavemen can be turned into a TV sitcom. It looks like counter-intuitiveness is the way to go.

Perhaps NGOs could pick up a few lessons from the private sector. No more need to air commercials with images of rail-thin, disease-ridden, starving children in far away countries. We can stop pretending people care when they attend worldwide concerts centered around giving aid to Africa. Instead, I propose they utilize new, sexy slogans that have absolutely nothing to do with their causes, but, at the same time, promote them with their paradoxical catchiness. I already have a few ideas of my own: “I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie — Join National Action Against Obesity!” or “Open 25 Hours! — The Minuteman Project.”

A Petition to Bring “The Colbert Report” to the Philippines

Stephen ColbertAdmit it, nation. You are hot for Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. You love the way he pokes fun at TV pundits with his deadpan comedic delivery. You think there is absolutely nothing wrong with introducing a guest by watching shots of Stephen prance about on stage from several different camera angles. You may even think he could be the right father for your future children after watching him adopt a baby eagle. And, of course, watching him do tumbles and outsing Barry Manilow totally makes you want to touch yourself. (Don’t hate, I know some of you have at least thought about it.)

What’s that? Don’t know what I’m talking about, you say? Of course, you wouldn’t. Because, horror of horrors, The Colbert Report is not shown in the Philippines.

For the uninitiated: The Colbert Report is a U.S. satirical news program in the same vein as The Daily Show, from which it is a spin-off and counterpart. Like TDS, TCR discusses and critiques current events and the media using satire, parody, and caricature. Unlike TDS, TCR is character-driven, focusing on Colbert’s fictional character, Stephen Colbert, and parodying personality-focused pundit programs, most notably, The O’Reilly Factor. Since its debut in October 2005, it has become one of the highest-rated shows on Comedy Central and has managed to influence U.S. popular and political culture.

I obviously don’t need to tell you that this is one of my favorite shows. I will tell you, though, that it was definitely heartbreaking to come back here to the Philippines and find out that I would not be able to catch it on TV. Currently, you can catch clips from the show on iFilm, but I maintain that it does not compare to seeing the whole show in one go and logically following TDS.

So, if you live in the Philippines and are a fan of The Daily Show, or simply want to know what all the fuss is about, here are my top 5 reasons why Philippine TV must bring The Colbert Report this side of the Pacific.

  1. We can finally know who that Stephen dude at the end of The Daily Show is. Does it bother you that Jon Stewart sets you up for another 30 minutes of comedic bliss by having a hilarious conversation with one of his former correspondents, only to be disappointed when you see the opening credits for David Letterman (no disrespect to Letterman, of course)? It bothers me, too. If we had The Colbert Report here, we will finally understand what the hell is going on and stop being cheated by the cableNazis. I’m looking at you, JackTV.
  2. Stephen Colbert wants more Filipino friends. Fans of the show know about Stephen’s ongoing quest for a new Black friend. In Episode 123, Stephen reveals that, according to his Friends Exchange Rate, “one Black friend equals two Filipino friends.” He wants your friendship, nation! Get The Colbert Report here and give him some love!
  3. Stephen Colbert is a go-getter. What Stephen wants, the Colbert Nation gives. Stephen has managed to give his name to a Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream flavor, a junior ice hockey team in Michigan, and a bridge in Hungary, with the votes of the Colbert Nation. Stephen has also convinced his fans to vandalize Wikipedia entries and create YouTube videos with his image for the Green Screen Challenge. He has also just released his new book, I Am America (And So Can You!). The Colbert Report has managed to penetrate U.S. popular culture by engaging and utilizing people and their mass power to influence the show with technology. Kind of like our own People Power here in the Philippines. Coincidence? I think not.
  4. WikialityStephen Colbert is changing the English language. Anyone who can get millions of people to mispronounce “report” has got to be legit. One of the most popular segments on TCR is “The Wørd”, where Stephen discusses an issue using a key term or phrase. Often, Stephen will feature a neologism that ends up being used in everyday language. The words truthiness and Wikiality are two such words and, according to Wikipedia, have both been honored as the top television buzzwords of 2006 by the Global Language Monitor. Call center agents in the Philippines, take heed! You never know when these new words can come in handy when handling an irate customer, especially one that tells you to “Learn some damn English!”
  5. Stephen Colbert has guts. Perhaps one of the most defining moments for Stephen Colbert, the actor and the fictional character, was his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where, in the presence of celebrities, politicians, members of the White House Press Corps, and President George W. Bush himself, he (as Stephen Colbert the character) gave a biting satirical performance and indictment of President Bush’s administration and the media. To be able to do what he does every night in front of the big man himself takes a lot of balls and talent. Watch the entire thing here. Perhaps the Philippines can pick up a hint or two for how to address our own political troubles?
  6. Stephen Colbert is a fox. Yes, I know 6 is one more than 5. But let the record show that Stephen is not at all hard to look at. Jane Fonda and even feminist Gloria Steinem will agree with me here. Stephen Colbert can tip his hat and wag his finger for me anytime. Of course, it’s a little hard to do this when he is not being shown in the Philippines.

There you have it, nation. I encourage you to check out some clips and see if you are as rabid for The Colbert Report as I am. I also call on you to join me in my petition for more Stephen on our TVs. Whether by sending letters to our cable channels or getting the Catholic Church to intervene, if we can overthrow two presidents by coming together and blocking major roadways, we can definitely bring in a TV show that is more Filipino-friendly than Desperate Housewives.

Until then . . . Philippine TV, you are ON NOTICE.

I am a Third Culture Kid: Being “The Foreigner”

I love being the foreigner. There is something very exciting about being outside of your comfort zone and being forced into a position where all you can do is learn and adapt. There is also something very reassuring and even liberating about knowing that you can be exempt from the rules, that your social faux pas or bumbling awkwardness in new situations are excused, because you are the foreigner. Anyone who has ever been a tourist or visitor may understand how this feels.

Having lived in different places, TCKs are used to being the foreigner. Living in a new town or country means having to learn and adopt an entirely new set of social and cultural norms, often much deeper and more nuanced than the more immediate and superficial needs of tourists and visitors. More mobile TCKs undergo this process more frequently, many times developing high adaptability skills, while other times developing a resistance to adapting. Either way, a constant state of foreign-ness contributes to the TCK’s cultural identity. Some of my friends and I have talked about how our love for travel and move to other countries is in part related to our desire to, once again, be the foreigner.

Ticket Office for ForeignerHowever, in this particular area, I think that the biggest challenge for TCKs is figuring out when they are the “foreigner” and when they are the “native”. How does one gauge whether he/she has learned enough of the local culture or lived long enough in one place to say that he/she feels like an insider? Is it even OK for a “foreigner” to say they are “native” to a place, even if they were not born or grew up there, or possess the corresponding passport? This all goes back to the root question, “Where are you from?” Because there are so many assumptions that come with one’s ethnic or national background, it becomes hard for a TCK to answer how one feels about any place he or she has lived in.

The tension between being the foreigner and being the native is just as pronounced whether someone is in “at home” or “away”. As a repatriated TCK, I can safely say that I sometimes struggle with figuring out how I feel in my passport country. I have lived here a total of 11 years (and then some), albeit non-consecutively. Most of my family is here, some of my friends are still here, I speak Tagalog well enough to get by, and I care about what happens here. I don’t have any problem with saying I feel at home here.

I recognize that my experience growing up here is not a “typical” experience shared by the majority of Filipinos. I attended an international school for seven years. My teachers were expats, and my friends included Tagalog-speaking Australians and non Tagalog-speaking Filipinos. We spoke a different form of English that was somewhere between American and Filipino, with a smattering of swear words from every language imaginable. Instead of reading Florante at Laura and Noli Me Tangere, I read The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Instead of taking Filipino, I took French. Instead of going to college at the age of 16 or 17, I graduated high school at 18, after taking two years of IB. While the school was in the Philippines, it existed within its own, very atypical bubble. Even my friends who had grown up attending only that skill and never left the Philippines felt very different from their university classmates. How different is their experience from a TCK who grew up someplace where they were foreigners by citizenship? Since the school was in the Philippines, could we still be natives?

There have been quite a few people who tried to question whether I am truly Filipino or not. I have had Americans ask me why I don’t speak English with my “real accent”, and I have had Filipinos tell me that I must not really be Filipino because of my opinions. One of my most memorable incidents happened in college, after about three years of living in the U.S. One of my jobs was to call alumni to update our campus records and ask for donations. The wife of one of my assigned contacts picked up the phone and struck up a brief conversation with me before handing the phone to her husband (the actual alum).

“So, Erin, where are you from?” she asked.

“Oh, I am from the Philippines,” was my brief answer.

“Oh, really? Where in the Philippines?”

“Oh, my family lives in [city name]. It’s a part of the Greater Manila area, which is the capital.”

” . . . I see. Hold on while I get my husband.”

Thinking she had the phone muffled, she went ahead and called for her husband.

“She says she’s calling from [college name]. And she says she’s from the Philippines, but she doesn’t have an accent. I don’t think she’s really from the Philippines.”

I was very irritated to hear her say that, though I can kind of understand her doubt. As I have said before, the question “Where are you from?” raises expectations and assumptions about your behavior. Since I told her that I was an international student, a foreigner, living in the United States, she expected me to sound foreign, with “an accent”. When the sound of my voice shattered her expectations, thereby making myself unfit for any of the categories in her head, she instead resorted to doubt. Apparently, people seem to think you can only be completely foreign or completely native, leaving no room for fitting anywhere in between.

Ways To Relate

David Pollock and Ruth van Reken, who wrote the book Third Culture Kids, created this chart to illustrate different ways to relate to one’s host culture (credit to Mr. Atkins for the chart). Each framework is characterized by the individual’s mental and physical similarity to the host culture. As we can see, increasing adjustment difficulty increases as there becomes more dissonance between the two characteristics and that of the host culture, particularly with thinking. Perhaps this may explain why my American accent juxtaposed with my Filipino heritage appears to confuse the American on the phone, or why my inability to get outraged about a couple of TV shows brings Filipinos to question the degree with which I belong to my heritage.

In one of my Anthropology seminars in college, we read an article called, When Anthropology is Home: The Different Contexts of a Single Discipline, by Mariza Peirano. In her article, Peirano discusses the recontextualizing of how we look at people by blurring the lines between traditional dichotomies, such as home vs. abroad, insider vs. outsider, and native vs. foreigner. By doing so, we avoid using a framework of Other-ness, or seeing people as fitting neatly into either native or foreigner categories. Furthermore, she argues that each person must assume multiple roles or identities — both insider and outsider, both native and foreigner — to garner as close a representation of a place as possible, for “‘others’ are both ourselves and those relatively different from us, whom we see as part of the same collectivity.” Basically, to have a better understanding of a place, you must study it from all perspectives.

I completely agree. I have been around and heard from too many people who have preconceived notions or stereotypes about a place they have never been to or only experienced briefly. I have also had enough of people who have hyper-inflated opinions about where they live and do not have experience with seeing it from an outsider’s point of view. It is because of people like this that there continue to be rigid notions of who is a native and who is a foreigner (“either you are with us or against us”). Because TCKs have lived in different places, often away from and moving between “hometowns” or passport countries, they have experienced being the foreigner and the native. As a result, while there is tension and personal difficulties with adjustment and fitting in, there is also the potential for a unique and expanded worldview that may offer unconventional insights into many different issues.

I hope this will encourage TCKs to speak out and be involved in activities or organizations that can make a difference. Your experience and personal insight may be what is needed to help create change.

(to be continued)

Read I am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction

Overrated or Underrated: Slut Slur on “The Daily Show”

. . . annnnnd, hot on the heels of the Desperate Housewives controversy comes more outrage regarding a skit on the popular satirical news show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This time, the Filipino community is angered over a Daily Show skit called “Is America Ready for A Woman President?” During one of Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee’s monologues, a photo of former Philippine president Cory Aquino is inscribed with the word “Slut!”

The skit in its entirety can be seen here:

While the response has not been as large as the one that met Desperate Housewives, many Filipino bloggers have expressed anger about having its first female president be labeled with such a sexist and untrue label. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has put in a request to the Department of Foreign Affairs to forward a complaint to the creators of TDS. Feminist NGO Gabriela has spoken out and condemned the use of comedy that demeans all women. I have read in a few places that Jon Stewart has issued a statement, but have yet to find a reliable news source to link to.

Unlike Desperate Housewives, I am a huge fan of TDS. When I was still living in the U.S., I watched it very religiously almost every night, along with its partner show, The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert. I watch the delayed telecast here in the Philippines (at least until Jack TV changed the broadcast schedule unannounced), as well as sometimes catching the condensed Global Edition on CNN International. As a result, I am very familiar with its style and sense of humor, and I usually find it side-splitting hilarious.

I would encourage the Filipino community to please view the skit in its entirety, rather than focus on the three seconds it takes to show the photo in question and thereby stripping it of any context whatsoever. First, even if you are a first-time viewer of TDS, I think it’s quite plain that Samantha Bee doesn’t mean to take herself seriously. The whole segment is a parody of Sex and the City, for crying out loud. Samantha Bee gets splashed with a bucket of water while wearing a TUTU, and we see her trying to sip the remnants of her spilled Cosmo off of her laptop. The scene with President Aquino’s photo has Samantha Bee at the gynecologist’s office, with her legs spread open. Come on. If that doesn’t scream exaggeration or comedy to you, then I don’t know what will. Second, the gynecologist’s scene had photos of leaders other than President Aquino, including a “photo” of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a panty-less shot very much in the style of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Both photos were also a parody of popular gossip blog Perez Hilton, who is popular for defacing paparazzi photos with crudely drawn penises and sarcastic comments. Ultimately, parody does not reflect any malicious intent, but instead has a purpose or statement. In this case, like many TDS skits, many people’s irrational fears and beliefs are skewered and even debunked. By mentioninPerez Hiltong Cory Aquino and saying that she “faced down dictators” as one of the world’s first “girl leaders”, TDS is paying the Philippines a compliment by saying that we are actually more progressive than the U.S. because we have had female leaders while many Americans still have a problem even thinking about electing one. I believe that thinking critically about this skit is actually much more revealing than paying attention to one line that was delivered with irony.

I will add, however, that there is something to be said about differences in context. I will concede that the greater Filipino community has a much more logical basis for complaining about this skit, simply because there is no way that all Filipinos are going to pick up the references in what would otherwise be an obscure TV show.

For one, in the Philippines, TDS is only shown on cable TV channels, already limiting the viewership to a privileged handul. Furthermore, within the demographic of cable TV subscribers, those who don’t have Jack TV will have to catch the heavily edited, weekly TDS Global Edition on CNN International, which only shows highlights of the week’s shows and edits out any profanity or otherwise controversial segments and skits. That already dilutes the TDS style and can understandably cause confusion for those who may have been stunned by the nature of the Samantha Bee skit. This is just in the Philippines alone. I can’t even speak for the rest of the global Filipino community, who may not have even heard of the show or have access to channels that show it. All I know is that the show does not have the kind of impact on the larger community the way that, say, the movie A Walk To Remember did. Already, we have a community who, as a whole, would not understand where Jon Stewart and the rest of TDS are coming from. This is also exacerbated by the numerous U.S. pop culture-specific references, such as Sex and the City (also a cable show) and Perez Hilton’s blog, that would also fly over the heads of those who have never been exposed to it. So, it makes sense that many people would not get the humor and would consequently react with outrage.

In the movie Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks’ character asks [paraphrased], “Can’t we find anything that we can all laugh about?” Personally, I don’t know if there is an answer to that. What I do know is that there are some things that some people will find funny, while others will not. That is a social fact. Context can be summed up by saying, “You had to have been there to get it.” It can be as small as an inside joke between two friends, to a TV show that sets up a joke that only their devoted audience will understand, while casual listeners may not. The greater Filipino community may get outraged by a couple of U.S. TV shows, but has it ever thought about how its own comedic works are affecting other groups of people? Why does no one feel any anger or outrage towards Michael V.’s song “DJ Bumbay“, whose video is of a hyper-cartoonish Indian merchant?

If the same people who condemn Jon Stewart are the same ones who patronize these videos, then it would be safe to say that the outrage over TDS is self-serving and hypocritical. I think it is also safe to say that some comedy is not meant to be understood by everyone, and that part of what makes it so funny is because it is a reflection of contexts that only insiders may understand. The only time it should matter is if there are concrete repercussions to comedic performances, such as Blackface and the exclusion and ostracization of Blacks and Black performers in the U.S. And I highly doubt that the majority of Americans are suddenly going to go around believing that Filipino leaders and, by extension, all Filipinos are slutty just because some comedy skit said so.

In the wake of the Desperate Housewives controversy, it is getting more ridiculous and, quite frankly, embarrassing how much the Filipino community is ready to go to battle over a few TV shows. Again, I wish we would re-focus our priorities and show the same kind of anger and proactive-ness towards helping the poor, the unemployed, or the exploited find justice in an increasingly unstable environment. If we are going to continue nitpicking overseas entertainment for every mention of the Philippines or Filipinos, we are never going to be satisfied. So, we might as well focus our energies towards something that can actually be productive.

Final verdict: OVERRATED

From The Archives: 11 Year Old Erin Writes About Traveling

When I was going to elementary school in Grenada, our teachers had us write in journals about pretty much whatever we wanted. After a particularly eventful summer in the U.S. and Europe, I decided to write about traveling, airports, and U.S. immigration policy.

Oct. 5, 1994

I really like travelling [sic]. In fact, I travel so much, I know my way around the airport. I also know abbreviations like GND means Grenada and LGW means London Gatwick. I also like looking at those T.V. screens and trying to find our gate number. But the best part is being on the plane. I love being on planes because I think it is fun. It gets me excited about arriving at my destination. The bad part about being on a plane, though, is writing immigration cards. I have to write my own. Why do those people have to know where I was born anyway? It’s not like they are going to my birthday party or something. Anyway, another part I don’t like is if you are a transfer or someone on vacation in the U.S. I don’t hate the U.S., but I don’t like the white card, green card, and blue card thing. They are really strict about it. If you are a U.S. citizen, do you have to write in one of those cards? If not, you’re lucky. Well, on to the positive side. I like some plane foods. But for some reason, I’m never hungry on the plane. I also like watching those movies. Over the summer, I saw “Four Weddings and a Funeral” twice, and “Beverly Hills Cop 3” once. They were funny. Gotta go.