Penman No. 150: Looking Eastward in Toronto

IMG_7573 (1)Penman for Monday, May 25, 2015

I FLEW?out to Toronto in Canada a little over a week ago to take part in that city’s Festival of Literary Arts, possibly the first Filipino author to join that long-running festival, now on its 15th year. Previously, the festival had focused on South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), but has recently opened itself up to more representation from East Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, thus my inclusion in this year’s roster of invited writers and speakers.

Over a weekend, from Friday to Sunday (May 15-17), several dozen representatives from these regions and from Canada met in various venues on the scenic campus of the University of Toronto and its environs to tackle issues and problems besetting writers and publishers from outside the global centers. How does a writer from the periphery break through to the center? Or is that “periphery” its own legitimate center? Is yearning for publication and validation in the West a vestige of the colonial mindset, an experience shared by all the countries represented in Toronto?

Aside from these seminal discussions, of course, the meeting was first and foremost a festival, a sharing of the artists’ finest work, and I felt privileged to be introduced to authors and creations I would otherwise have totally missed or blithely ignored. With many of the authors coming from expatriate and postcolonial backgrounds, the offerings were rich and deeply nuanced, the talents outstanding.

Among others, I discovered a major international writer in the festival director, the novelist M. G. Vassanji, who had been born in Tanzania in East Africa, and whose account of his pilgrimage to his ancestral roots across the ocean (A Place Within: Rediscovering India) is a modern classic of creative nonfiction—a sympathetic but unsentimental and often searingly critical chronicle of his encounter with the sprawling reality of India today.

The visit also allowed me to reconnect with some old Filipino friends who had migrated to Toronto and had built new lives there. I was very graciously taken out to a scrumptious dimsum lunch in Toronto’s fabled Chinatown by Patty Rivera and her husband Joe. Patty and I worked together 40 years ago as writers and editors at the National Economic and Development Authority (an unlikely Camelot for young writers and artists under the patronage and protection of then-Sec. Gerry Sicat).

Though trained and still active as an editor and journalist, Patty has since developed into an accomplished and prizewinning poet, with three volumes to her name. Her first collection, Puti/White, was shortlisted for the 2006 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Patty’s husband Joe, a former Ford executive who also wrote plays in the Philippines, became a lawyer in Canada and then, upon his recent retirement, turned to painting, an avocation in which he demonstrates a most unlawyerly exuberance. I also met and was happy to engage with some Alpha Sigma fraternity brothers led by Amiel “Bavie” de la Cruz, who now runs his own accounting firm in Toronto. IMG_7597 (1) Patty and Joe arranged a reading for me with a large and lively group of Toronto-based Pinoys (including Hermie and Mila Garcia, the moving spirits behind Canada’s longest-running Filipino newspaper, the Philippine Reporter, and expat poet Naya Valdellon); this was held in the very stylish apartment of writer-artist Socky Pitargue, and a great time was had by all as we threshed out the travails of Philippine literature and politics, two deathless topics that occupy me on every one of these overseas sorties. DALISAY_HMG_8056-300x168 Yet another meaningful encounter I had, thanks to the festival organizers, was with two classes of high school students at the Mother Teresa Catholic School in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb with a high concentration of Asian students, including Filipinos. These teenagers had very likely never met a living writer before, let alone a Filipino one, and I was glad to try and show them that we do exist, and that we have something to say. I, too, learned something from their teacher Kathy Katarzyna, who ended our session with a terrific quote from the Canadian poet Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything…. That’s how the light gets in.”

Many thanks to the Sri Lankan poet Aparna Halpe for taking me to the school. Of course, my thanks wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the help and support of my sister Elaine Sudeikis and her husband Eddie, who flew in from Washington, DC to join me at the festival and to show me Toronto and a bit of Ontario (most notably Niagara Falls—we walked over to the US side as well for my shortest visit to the US, ever). Ed’s dad Al—all of 92 but still feisty—also gave me a little taste of Lithuania in Toronto.

And the visit would never have happened for me without the recommendation of Prof. Chelva Kanagayakam, an eminent scholar and festival founder whom I’d met in Manila, who tragically died of a heart attack a few months before the festival, on the very day he was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada. I found Toronto itself to be a highly livable and largely safe city (guns are under strict control in Canada), with a vibrant ethnic mix.

One out of every two Torontonians comes from somewhere else, and Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Puerto Rican restaurants stand cheek-by-jowl beside each other, not to mention a Chinatown noted to be among North America’s best culinary havens. (A Pinoy food store aptly named “Butchokoy” stood a block away from my lovely B&B—a three-storey house from 1853—on Dunn Street.) Victorian structures still in use by the university and the city government contrast sharply with ultramodern architecture in an eclectically energetic skyline. Seekers of the funky and the quirky can have their fill in the city’s counterculture-inspired Kensington Market. IMG_7691 (1) For someone schooled in Americana, this exposure to things Canadian was an interesting re-education—to think, for example, in terms of “Tim Hortons” instead of Starbucks or Seattle’s Best; of “Roots” instead of Gap; of “Hudson Bay” instead of Sears or JC Penney, etc.

But the most useful re-orientation took place for me at the festival itself, in reminding me that we have a lot to learn from South Asia as far as developing readerships in local languages is concerned, among other issues. We Filipinos think we’re well traveled and globally savvy, but we actually don’t get around enough in terms of mixing with our fellow Asians, let alone Africans. We seek out Western—specifically American—tutelage and patronage, often to our own deep disappointment.

It seems ironic that I had to learn this in Toronto—a true cosmopolis like New York—but sometimes you have to stand in the West for a better view eastward.

[Group photo from philippinereporter.com]

Penman No. 149: Advice to Freshmen

Penman for Monday, May 18, 2015

AFTER LAST?week’s piece on “Why I’m not on Facebook,” I thought I should add or clarify that I’m not entirely off the grid, Web-wise. I do choose the websites or forums I frequent (and in case you’re wondering, I’ll explain the difference between forums and fora one of these days), to make sure that I deal only with things and people I’m truly interested in. For over a decade now, I’ve moderated the Philippine Macintosh Users Group (www.philmug.ph), and more recently the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); now and then you’ll also find me at the Philippine Watch Club (www.philippinewatchclub.org). I keep a blog at www.www.dashufa.cn, and send out an occasional tweet, usually about my poker fortunes and misfortunes, from @penmanila.

It was on one of these sites—Philmug, which has grown to become one of the world’s most active Apple user groups—that I came across a thread I’m tapping for my topic today. While Philmug is the place to talk about anything and everything Apple, it’s also a community that can spark very lively discussions about such motley topics as Manny Pacquiao, Manila traffic, where to stay in Hanoi, and what SIM cards to get in Europe. One such “offline” thread that perked my interest last week was one titled “College freshman tips,” started by a young member about to enter college. Was there anything, he asked, that his elders could tell him about college life?

It’s a thread that’s grown to ten pages long the last time I looked, and predictably, many Muggers (as Philmug members call themselves) recited that age-old mantra that all college freshmen know by heart (and sophomores even better): “Party hard, study harder!”

Other suggestions were more specific:

  1. Join student organizations and socialize, but choose which ones you’ll be joining wisely. These “orgs” could become networks for life, for both friendships and professional contacts.
  2. Avoid fraternities and such groups that employ physical initiation and advocate violence. You’re in college to study—not to maim or be maimed by other people.
  3. Get out of your comfort zone, and be a little more adventurous. Make friends with people who may be totally unlike you. That’s where a lot of learning happens—in knowing about how other people live and think.
  4. Manage your resources well—your budget and time, most especially. Learn how to take care of yourself, and consider taking a student job, both to earn and to learn some professional working habits.
  5. Master the freshman basics: the campus map, how to take notes, who the best (not necessarily the easiest) teachers are.
  6. Don’t confuse a college diploma with education. A lot of learning takes place outside the classroom.
  7. Don’t believe everything you hear, even from your professors. Learn how to argue, and argue well.
  8. Never plagiarize. It’ll never be worth it.
  9. Don’t be afraid to fail. Go ask a girl out if you really like her. Failure is part of learning.
  10. Don’t try to do everything in your freshman year. You’ll find yourself being pulled in so many directions that it’s easy to lose focus. Map out a clear and unimpeded path to your sophomore year.

Some other suggestions were a bit more unusual, although no less practical. “Always sit beside a female classmate and you will never regret college life, because they are lifesavers (and your immediate supply of pens, paper, books, assignments, and exams),” proposed one member (who now just happens to be one of our smartest cops in the PNP). “They smell better than boys,” another member, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, agreed.

And what did I say? Quite a bit, but among them was, “Don’t bother playing mind games with your professor (as in ‘I’m smarter than this guy, and I’m going to prove it’). You will lose; even if you are smarter than your prof, you will lose… Learn how to argue and come across as being smart without being snarky. I’m a very gentle prof myself, but nothing makes me happier some days than to give some smartypants a dose of his own medicine.”

Now, of course, like many 16- and 17-year-olds, I didn’t follow all this sound and sage advice I’m giving and hearing.

In my freshman year in UP in 1970-71, I (1) joined a frat and got beaten black and blue; (2) joined a militant student organization and went to dozens of rallies, many of them violent; (3) joined the staff of the Philippine Collegian, the student newspaper; (3) met (and lost) my first girlfriend, and did what boys and girls do; (4) got a 1.0 in English and a 5.0 in Math (for absenteeism—I was a Philippine Science high grad and arrogantly thought that Math 17 was beneath me); (5) shifted courses, from Industrial Engineering to Journalism, I think; and (6) went up to the mountains of Quezon and Bulacan to do “mass work.” It was, to say the least, an interesting year.

Within another year or so, I would drop out and divide my time between my activism and a job as a newspaper reporter (I may have been the youngest regularly-employed newspaper reporter of my time, at 18); also at 18, I was in martial law prison; by my 20th birthday, I was married, and became a father before I turned 21.

Not surprisingly, it took me forever to get back to school and finish. I resumed my undergrad studies at age 27, and graduated with my AB in English, cum laude (you could still get honors then even with a failing mark if it wasn’t in your major—I had shifted to English by then—and if your GWA could sustain it) at age 30. I made up for lost time by finishing my Master’s by 34, and my PhD by 37. Some of us like to hurry… and then to take our time… and then to hurry again.

I suppose my ultimate advice to freshmen is just to hang in there and don’t do anything stupid like get killed before turning 20, unless you’re doing it for God and country. But don’t stay too safe, either, because the best things you’ll be learning from will be your most grievous mistakes. One of the wisest things I ever heard came from a friend, now departed, spoken over beer and stale cigarettes at 2 in the morning: “Everyone should be entitled to one big mistake.” Or, as my professor in German once put it, “Ein Fehler ist kein Fehler”—one mistake is no mistake.

We made a few, and have survived and maybe even prospered despite and because of them. For a Thursday throwback, I posted a picture in that thread of myself as a lanky freshman, beside activist leader and fellow PSHSer Rey Vea (now president of Mapua University), on a boat to a CEGP convention in Dumaguete ca. 1970. My only question was, where did all that hair and leanness go?

1971

Penman No. 148: Why I’m Not on Facebook

Penman for Monday, May 11, 2015

FOR THE?umpteenth time, last week, another person asked me, with profound astonishment, why I wasn’t on Facebook. I told him that, in my seniorhood, I wanted to lead a quiet and peaceful life, and that Facebook was antithetical to that ambition.

From what I hear, Facebook is this century’s Colosseum, and that a fracas on Facebook can be far more entertaining than the event in real life. I knew that it had been a busy week, to say the least, on that website (or, I should say, in those millions of websites). There was that “literary tempest” that my fellow STAR columnist Scott Garceau adverted to in a recent piece, the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, and the Save-Mary-Jane-Veloso movement, among other contentious causes.

I learned about these things not because I’m on Facebook, but because my wife Beng is. She’s up in bed before me every morning, pecking away at her iPhone in the gathering light, responding to the planetary call for “likes” and “tags” and “status updates” and whatever else goes on in the FB universe. When she senses me stirring awake, she gives me the lowdown on the state of the world, leaving the less interesting and less important matters to CNN and the BBC.

That world would be much happier and more peaceful if more of humanity were like my bedmate, but it’s not. “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, for they are vexatious to the spirit,” counsels the albeit apocryphally attributed Desiderata—which is as good as saying, avoid Facebook, for it is the Republic of Vexation, the domain of loud and aggressive persons who would like nothing better than to get a rise out of you and spoil your day.

Of course I’m told it also exists for friendship and global harmony—the spirit in which Beng and some of her friends upload quotations from the Dalai Lama and such peaceable people—but I’m convinced that they’re in the distinct minority, for which a separate Facebook might as well exist. While we’re at it, let’s do a bit of taxonomy and map out the possible sub-Facebook realms out there, the establishment of which could lead to a more tolerable era of co-existence all around.

Facebook Lambs (or should that be Facebook Koi, for a more Asian touch?) could include everyone like Beng—the tree-huggers, the lifesavers, the Kumbaya singers, the people who will find goodness in the worst of places. Easy to please, they’re also easy to hurt, and when they hurt, they bleed.

Facebook Monkeys do what monkeys do: screech and thump their chests a lot, to say: “Look at me and at what I’m doing! Am having XXX brand of cornflakes and YYY brand of yogurt for breakfast, folks, and here’s five pics to prove it! Isn’t that interesting???”

Facebook Vipers do what vipers do: strike and bite at anything that moves, especially anything that gets within a whisker of their precious scales. Some days I imagine Facebook brimming with reptilian malice, filling me as well with illiquid emotions, until Beng pulls me over to show a child singing a heavenly carol on her FB page.

So why do I shun FB? (I’ve been told, by the way, that there’s a “Butch Dalisay” FB page, but I have nothing to do with it, and have no idea what it contains.) I’ve been asked this question many times before, and my serious and rather ironic answer has always been that I can’t abide using the word “friend” for people who really aren’t that. I do believe that one of the worst things that Facebook has done to language and to human relationships has been to cheapen the meaning of “friend” and, corollarily, introducing the notion of “unfriending” someone with a keypress, just like that.

I still prefer to make my friends over coffee, on a bus or a boat trip, laughing at the same silly movie, pulling for the same desperate cause, arguing the merits and demerits of some poem or passage of prose. And when you stop being my friend, I won’t even waste a sliver of bandwidth on it; a cosmic silence is all you’ll get (although my deepest friendships can endure years of stasis).

I said “ironic,” because it’s a bit odd that I find myself arguing for more human contact when, at this stage of my life, I actually want and seek less of it for myself. I’m not misanthropic, but I feel happy to keep company with just a very few people I can trust and relax with, mainly family. I hardly attend parties or big social events unless required to do so by work or inescapable obligation. I dread making and taking phone calls, especially any call beyond three minutes. (You’ll best get a response from me by email.)

But never mind me; I do recognize Facebook’s matchless utility for most people. I know that serendipitous connections can be made online that would have been impossible otherwise, and if you’re tracking down that crush you last saw in the 1970s—or 50 pounds in the blissful past—there’s nothing like FB to make that happen. Like a loaded gun, Facebook all by itself isn’t evil; it’s people who are, or can be, and FB is just another enabler of the dark side, as well as of its sunnier converse.

So it’s not even the malice I’m evading, because you’ll find that elsewhere anyway, or perhaps I should say, it’ll find you. It’s more likely the way Facebook—in all its goodness and badness, for better or for worse—can take over people’s lives, basically by engrossing them in the issues of the day (as in this hour, this minute) rather than troubling them with historical hindsight and such corn. (And who needs a lengthy editorial and well-considered opinion when you can offer up your precious gut feelings, along with your barangay’s, as a workable and certainly more credible substitute?)

There’s a facebookhaters.com, but I don’t see myself signing up with those folks. Facebookhaters.com is completely serious but unironic—I can just see it devising and promoting a 12-step withdrawal program—which isn’t the way to grapple with a hyper-sophisticated Hydra like FB.

I can’t and don’t actively hate Facebook, knowing how vital it is to the lives of millions; what would I do with Beng all those hours she won’t be on FB? As it is, I can play poker all night, knowing she’ll never be alone and idle, as long as she has her phone (a tip for spouses—get your mate an unlimited data connection, and you’ll never have to babysit them again). That’s one thing to thank FB for.

Penman No. 147: On Southern Seas

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Penman for Monday, May 4, 2015

“ON A CLEAR day, you can see Malaysia,” they said. And we did, from the waters off Balabac, on the southernmost tip of Palawan. At that point, approaching the lighthouse at Cape Melville, our guide pointed to a gray mass on the far horizon across the strait, and said, “That’s part of Sabah.”

We had arrived in Balabac the day before, after a six-hour ride by van from downtown Puerto Princesa to the station at Rio Tuba, and then another three- to four-hour trip by motorized boat to Balabac’s poblacion. It was an unlikely adventure for Beng and me, being the only seniors in our party that included our favorite traveling companions—my niece Susie, her husband Toto, my cousin Edith, and our good friends the Puerto-based expat innkeeper Herwig and his wife the chef and baker Theresa. We’ve been to Palawan pretty often—staying when possible with Herwig and Theresa, who run the very aptly named Amazing Villa in Aborlan just outside of Puerto—but had never been down to Balabac. An invitation from a Balabac native, Theresa’s lawyer Atty. Regidor Tulale, proved compelling enough to make us pack our bags and head out to our southern frontier.

I’ve always wondered why our tourists—both foreign and local—seem so fixated on Boracay when Palawan offers beaches just as spectacular, in contexts far more interesting than D’Mall, without the crush of tricycles and tourist vans depositing hordes on fellow visitors on the same crowded stretch of white sand. Puerto Princesa alone and the islands on Honda Bay offer enough pleasures and treasures for the urban straggler, but, as we would discover, the farther out you go, the closer you get to tropical nirvana.

There are buses that ply the 240-kilometer route from Puerto to Rio Tuba, the nickel-mining barangay in the town of Bataraza past Brooke’s Point, but it’s a trip best taken in an air-conditioned van, given the summer heat and the need—especially for the elderly—to stop at a gas station now and then for some private relief. It’s a long but pretty ride, not unlike the run up to Baguio from Manila in the distance and scenery, on a road flanked by views of cloud-topped mountains, and golden showers blooming riotously.

Rio Tuba itself seems as rough as mining towns tend to be, an impression little helped by a recent fire that gutted the area around the pier, the transit point for boats venturing on to Balabac. Nevertheless, there was a plucky, pick-me-up cheerfulness to the locals (the fire, they said, had started accidentally in one of the big stores in the neighborhood, and everyone was busy rebuilding what they had lost), and the pier at the end of a huddle of houses on the water bustled with traffic.

The boats they use in these waters are large motorized outriggers that can easily take 30 passengers, seated four or five to a row on wooden planks; they can theoretically reach Sabah in a few hours, but, we were told, these boats were prohibited from docking in Malaysian ports because their breadth took up too much berthing space; the sleeker and faster kumpit would be the vessel of choice for that voyage. There was clearly a lot of trade going on between Palawan and Sabah, judging from the stockpiles of Malaysian goods and groceries in Rio Tuba, and one had to wonder how much of that went through customs and other legal encumbrances, but we opted, I think wisely, not to ask too many questions.

The three-hour ride to Balabac itself, with one or two stopovers on the way, was smooth and pleasant. “Balabac” is the central island and town in the area, but it also broadly refers to a cluster of more than 30 islands, and you’re never too far from one of these. (“That’s owned by Senator XXX and by former President YYY,” our guide would tell us as we passed by one paradaisical isle after another.) The glassine sea challenged the poet to come up with all variables of blue and green, and with some luck—not that day—dolphins were known to swim alongside the boats.

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Balabac’s town proper was small and compact, with one main street along which shops selling clothes and groceries huddled; the largest and most impressive building in town, aside from the municipio, was the Coast Guard quarters, a sign of how important patrolling these waters was. The local tribe, the Molbog, are said to have migrated from North Borneo and have their own dialect, but what surprised me throughout this visit was how widely Tagalog (or, more accurately in a national context, Filipino) was spoken, even by the locals among themselves.

You won’t have any problems choosing a place to stay, because there’s only one public lodging house in Balabac, above and adjacent to the Sing and Swing Karaoke Bar. Maybe not the best prescription for a good night’s sleep, as some of my companions would discover, but for P300 per room a night with shared toilets and baths (P100 per extra person), you can’t complain.

What to do in Balabac, aside from shopping for Malaysian chocolates and biscuits? Why, island-hopping, of course, and dining on the plentiful fish, which we did the next day, taking a boat out to Candaraman Island and dipping into the cool clear water beside the small seaweed farms cultivated by the people for their livelihood. Unfortunately, the low tide prevented us from docking and marching up to the century-old lighthouse on Cape Melville, but we did get that glimpse of Malaysia along the way, in a day that culminated in one of the most stunning sunsets I’d ever seen.

As the darkness deepened around us, we sat quietly along the dock, watching the southern summer sky. Above us blazed Venus, a solitary sparkle; down to its left, as if a genie had conjured it up with a wave of his hand, emerged a crescent moon. It was a long way from home, but a sight well worth the journey.