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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Morality By Way Of Reality (TV)

We've been bombarded with a deluge of "reality shows" by now, so I thought I'd compile what I've, er, learned from them. After all, this is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I have a feeling that future social scientists will study our (by then) primitive habits and look back at this era with a mixture of pity and revulsion. And probably laughter.


Jeff Probst (the host) takes us on various island settings, along with about 16 (or so) contestants, who, by virtue of their surroundings, have to be in various states of undress the whole time. They are fighting over a million US dollars, and they have to perform various physical and mental challenges to determine the winner. In underwear. While the concept of starvation (contestants have to look for their own food and prepare them) and physical exhaustion are serious red flags to contend with, I think the show is mostly anchored on two things humans are endlessly fascinated with: bitch fights and wannabe underwear models.

Alliances are formed within "tribes" in order to eliminate the competition or threats. If you're too strong or too smart, the others have to find a way to kick you out (the elimination process called "tribal council"), where people have to explain why they don't like you in gory detail. (Recipe for bitch fighting assured.) And again, they still have to be in underwear mode.

In effect, this isn't a "case study of human evolution" (as I saw in one blog's comments before, on how to describe the show). This is a celebration of mediocrity. In underwear.

Big Brother

A group of "housemates" are recruited and "forced" to live together in one house. Similar to Survivor, contestants have to perform various "tasks". The show becomes interactive (and lucrative) due to the "voting" aspect: while contestants themselves determine 2-4 members who they deem "unworthy" of continuing the "journey", TV viewers get to text their preferences on who to "save".

Having seen both versions (US and Philippines), I can say that the most important quality one has to get into the show is a better than average physical make-up (either by face or by body). If you don't have those qualities, you are either typecast as the joker, the brooder or the anomaly ("what the heck is s/he doing there?!?"), the better to have more drama with.

Locally, I read through a comment in a newspaper, praising the first winner of Pinoy Big Brother as a "hero". Unless we've redefined that word, I really don't see how tryng to gain people's votes and sympathies with a sob story and panning for the camera for a month - 2, tops - in the hopes of getting 15 more minutes of fame and a cash prize can be considered "heroic".

The Simple Life

Paris Hilton. Nicole Richie. Cow Dung.

No, that wasn't a mean equation (adding the first 2 producing the last one). It's where they expected the two, uhm, actresses (by actress, we mean "someone in a TV show, period") to dig their stillettos in.

The show follows the two socialites in their (mis)adventures in rural life, trying to buy groceries, milking a cow, and other activities regular people don't make a big fuss about, because - I don't know, there isn't any need to make a big deal about activities of daily living?!? The plus side of this show is that both "actresses" know they are in for the silly factor and have no pretensions to "greatness", just media mileage. In a strange way, that somehow makes them a little more likeable than the other pretenders in this genre.

And the poster girls for this generation's obsession with fame for its' own sake.

America's Next Top Model

Tyra Banks, having seen "better days" as a model (read: she is now deemed "fat" by the industry that spawned her), parlays her experience into running a successful reality show, where wannabes (I know this is gramatically incorrect, as my English teacher Ms. Liwanag would always remind us, but given the topic, this is totally appropriate) show up to be judged on their "modeling ability", requiring them to pose with scorpions, on top of a glacier, etc.

While I do not presume to know the "travails" of a professional model, what I've learned from the show is that models get to sit around all day waiting for their "moment" while make up artists scurry about them, gossiping till kingdom come, and no one needs to exercise, since everyone seems to be genetically emaciated. Yes, Tyra made an effort to put in plus-size models, but that lasted for all of 1 (or is it 2?) seasons. And since this show is up to something like 15 seasons (or even more), that pretty much says that "only sticks need apply".

And the judging process is a phenomenon by itself. A small 2 degree tilt of the head would have made a world of difference. Or showing one less tooth in the smile would have made it a "cover". If ever there was an argument against the tyranny of beauty, this would be it.

The Bachelor/Bachelorette

More than a dozen women or men applying to be your "soul mate". On international TV. For "true love".

Do I really need to dignify the absurdity of this concept? Practically all of the "winners" (the lovers who find themselves in each other's arms after the show's run) are "broken up" (some even going so far as breaking wedding engagements - the thing that surprised me when I heard of this was the fact that they even considered marriage when they should have treated it as their vehicle for a little more fame, nothing more) so that says it all about the show's "goal". And really, this is how you want "true love" to blossom?

And, it goes without saying, everyone here is above average in the beauty department. Again.

These 5 shows are a sampling of what constitutes "reality TV", and strangely, serve as a commentary of what we now value and consider as "what-to-do". I know some of you will say "the environment is totally artificial!" - true, on the surface. But what about these lessons that we learn?

1. Fame is all-important. Everything you do must be in service of this goal. Good and bad publicity, go for it. Take it.
2. If you act silly, make sure you look cute doing it, and you will get away with it.
3. If you have a nice body, strip as much clothing as you can/dare, and you will also get away with anything.
4. If you have a nice face and a nice body, you won't need anything else to be an "actor", "model", etc.
5. If you can't be the "nice one", then be the "nasty one". People will rally around both, anyway. At least you are assured a fan base. Plus, it's fun to lord it over everyone else.
6. Backstabbing is a part of life, and anyone who doesn't do it is just "weak".
7. Backstabbing saves you from elimination, so it must be a positive thing.
8. Before one gets eliminated, make sure to crap over everyone else. You want to leave your mark, however odious it may manifest itself.
9. You can marry the competition to multiply your fame. (Think Rob and Amber from Survivor where they were competitors, they went on to The Amazing Race as a couple, and eventually had their own reality show where they got married.)
10. If you are too smart, too athletic, etc., you are a threat to everyone else. Think small. Be smaller. Or suffer the elimination.

Do you still believe this is something removed from our actual lives? Think again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How 100 Pesos And A Tire Change Give Me Hope

Many of my friends have noticed the apparent "slant" in my views about how things are run in my country, and some have asked me the question: Why don't you just leave if you find it really THIS bad in the Philippines? (And they always couch this with "It's not that I want you to leave...", which I find strangely hilarious, that they need to have a disclaimer.)

A fair question, to be sure. I am one of those who advocate leaving a situation when things become too stressful, too bleak, too bothersome to be worth my time. Or anyone else's time. If the cost is too great vis-a-vis the rewards, then there really is no point in continually getting stuck in an unpleasant situation, is there? Especially if one has a choice.

A case in point happens in my very own class that I teach. There is this one woman who is quite vocal (behind my back, that is) about how she is SO bored with my class, and proceeds to tell other people (who enjoy my class) that she knows someone "better". And yet, every week, like clockwork, she shows up without fail, and even though she does look more bored than a box of chalks sitting in a pre-war classroom, she makes the effort to be in my class week after week. Many times, I have had to stifle the urge to tell her, "If you're so unhappy in my class, I'm certainly not going to beg for you to stay. The door is wide open, the question is, why do you linger?" This is a person who makes the choice to be miserable. And she does this of her own volition. (I can only conclude that she is a closet masochist, and doesn't know this yet.)

While some people may see what I write about as parallel to the case I just described, there is one big difference: I had no choice being born in this country.

It is a country that has nurtured me, sustained me and is now giving me so many opportunities. And despite what may commonly (even though incorrectly) be gleaned from my statements, I appreciate this country deeply, and with all my heart. I love this country, long after the choice was no longer mine to make. My parents are to share in the blame for this, to be sure, and this is something for which I am eternally grateful. They have instilled nationalism in me, from a very young age. They rallied against Marcos long before Ninoy's assassination, and brought us children (my sister and I) at the weekend marches leading up to Cory declaring her candidacy to challenge Marcos himself.

One particular memory that sticks out - for sheer terror alone - was when we were camped around the old Channel 4 (which is currently where ABS-CBN holds their offices), pouting as usual for being dragged through another "rally", having a sandwich my mom and our helpers prepared. (They used to volunteer for the "food brigade", and they made hundreds of sandwiches to give to anyone needing them during our marches.) While I was eating on the lawn outside the station, a bird flew over me and crapped on my pants, narrowly missing the sandwich in my hands. (It would be after this incident died down that I would think of the bird as symbolically telling me "something is about to hit the fan".)

Out of nowhere, gunshots were fired. And then some more.

You could see everyone looking at each other in stunned silence, for the briefest of seconds. And in the next instance, the realization of what was happening sinking in, panic and pandemonium came next.

My mom got me by my arm and was practically carrying my sister in her other arm (we were around 9 and 11, so this was no small feat), and joined the panicking mob.

"Si Marcos, nagpadala ng sundalo! Inutos daw nyang pagbarilin ang mga tao sa channel 4!", we could hear someone shouting.

My mom got us to crouch behind a utility vehicle (if I remember correctly, one of the cars of the TV station) and my sister and I looked at our mom, and I asked her, "Why are we even doing this?!? Now we're going to be shot!"

I will never forget her answer to me: "We are making sure that evil does not triumph. We are here because we have to, this is our country and our home."

In that singular instance, I knew what was really at stake here. All thoughts of "silly marching" (I was a child then) flew out the window. With both her actions and her words, my mom taught me what it meant to love one's country, that she could not sit idly by and watch the country go to hell (or at least, somewhere in that vicinity), not while she had something to say and do in the matter.

And that is exactly why I am not leaving this country.

I still give a flying fig what happens to the place I was born in and have lived in all my life.

It is exactly for this reason that I continue harping on what I perceive as the ills that have befallen this country. When I see something very wrong, I don't act docile, pretend it never happened, and look away, hoping it was just a bad dream. I say something and I make it known. I take pains to follow our own laws, because I still have enough respect for this country and its' people to do so. It is also why I expect everyone to do the same - I am not anyone "special", and I can do it, so why can't everybody else?

One saying I have come across some years back is something I remember whenever I get asked about my not leaving: The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. Yes, I hate the inefficiencies, the boorishness, the small-mindedness, the lack of self-discipline, but make no mistake, I say this because I care what happens to this country. Just like comics who have gone through heart-wrenching experiences to make them brilliant at what they do, it is because I am still an optimist at heart, hoping - some say against all hope - that this country will see better days, despite all the negative things I have seen and observed.

Two recent incidents have kept this fire of hope burning.

As I was going somewhere along Makati Avenue, I blew out my front tire passing over a small hole in the road which should have been covered. After the usual pleasantries (read: cursing indiscriminately for this unfortunate incident), I began taking out the jack from the trunk of the car. Almost immediately, two policemen came over and decided to help: One of them directed the traffic behind me to take other lanes, the other one tried to find an object to help prop the car with. And not a minute had passed, a motorist in a white van stopped in front of my car, got his (infinitely better) jack, and proceeded to help me change my tire. After we finished, I asked him what prompted him to stop and do what he did: "I saw you needed help. Yun lang. (That's all)."

And the other day, as I was paying for coffee, I failed to notice that a 100 pesos bill fell out of my pocket. After a minute from leaving the coffee shop, I noticed the man behind me in line at the coffee shop panting and running after me, to give me back the 100 pesos bill.

In both instances, they did not want anything in return, even though I thanked them profusely and offered them something for their inconvenience. Neither did any one of them have a long, drawn-out narrative about their actions. They helped because they did what needed to be done. I am not a Pollyanna, anyone who knows me would never equate that description with who I am. But these seemingly small acts are what fills my heart with hope, that we will rise above the pettiness and the apathy. The capacity for being great is there, and has been there all along. We just need to draw it out.

Let me repeat, for those who find this a disarming and unexpected post from me: I am not yet ready to give up on this country.

Not just yet.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Day Pinoy Pride Was Given A Beating

Are we embarrassed to be us?

This question certainly came to mind when I remembered an incident that happened in the not too distant past.

My dad was engaged in business talks with some Koreans, and as part of their reconnaissance (to see if their business venture would be viable in the Philippines) they had to take several trips to our country. On one such visit, my dad invited me to have lunch with them so I could get acquainted with his (future) business partners.

We met at a Chinese restaurant in Greenhills, the name escapes me now, but the entrance was shaped like a tube (circular and long). I'm sure people who frequent Chinese restaurants in that area would know instantly the name of that establishment. (Let's chalk that up as a guessing game. No prize.) As is customary in such settings, we had a rather large round table (if I remember correctly, around 10 to 12 people), with a lazy Susan to serve the dishes.

My dad sat me down beside one of the businessmen, let's call him Mr. Cheung. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, and as I am not too keen on lugging around a big bag in these situations, I just brought my phone and car keys with me by hand. (Anyone who knows me knows that I often have a utility bag in tow - much like Batman has a utility belt.) He immediately glanced at my phone, a glance that I caught, albeit made surreptitiously. I didn't have to find a way to work it in the conversation, because, as it turned out, he would make a huge commentary about it later in the meal.

When the cold cuts came out (the "standard" appetizer in Chinese lauriats), he asked where I studied.

"I've studied in the Philippines all my life."

"Even for university?"

"Yes. I studied in UP, the University of the Philippines."

"That's odd."


"Well...I know some Filipinos in Korea. Some of them are professionals, some of them are domestic helpers. Most of them do not have the fluency with which you command the English language."

"Thank you...I guess. Although, in general, most Filipinos would have more than a basic grasp of English."

"I didn't mean to offend you. You see, Koreans also have difficulty with English. In fact, we are hiring many, many teachers into our country to teach us. Many of us are also going abroad to get further studies in the English language."

"No offense taken. Can I then assume that you also went abroad to study?"

"You are correct. I studied in an Ivy League school in the United States."

"That's great. You know, I remember when I was still in university, I had many, many classmates who were from Korea. They said that aside from getting great English training, education costs here are peanuts compared to how much they cost in Korea."

"Quite true. Education is one of the biggest expenses a family has, especially if the children are in university level. Sometimes the cost of living abroad and studying can be cheaper than studying at home."

More dishes came out. We made rudimentary talk about the business venture they planned to set up. After he finished his noodles, he then turned to me and asked me about my phone, and what brand it was.

"Oh, this is a Nokia phone."

"From Finland, yes? Hmm."

I looked at him and smiled. "Okay, now you have to tell me what's on your mind. This is the second time your attention has been diverted to my phone."

He laughs gingerly. "This is something I have observed here, in the trips we have made. Foreign brands are huge in this country. I mean, you are carrying a foreign phone. So is your dad." We both glanced at my dad's phones on the table - both of them were Nokias. (He was engaged with the other businessmen at the time.)

"Please continue."

"It is odd, especially where I come from. I noticed that the biggest cellular brands here are Nokia and Sony Ericsson. You know, in Korea, they are having a hard time selling those brands. The local market dominates the cellular market. We have Samsung and LG, and these brands are all the rage. Whenever a new model comes out, Koreans troop to the stores and they sell out in our own country. If there's one thing I can say, it's that Koreans are fiercely loyal about patronizing the local or national brands."

"Does this hold true for all goods in Korea?"

"Yes! Take appliances and cars. As you know, Samsung and LG also have appliances, and these are the top brands in our country. I have been to several homes, and we all sport the same brands. Even if it isn't these 2, it would still be another Korean brand. Washing machines, microwave ovens, televisions - we love our own brands. When you drive down the road, all you will see are different models of Hyundai and Kia. And in fact, some Hollywood stars are sporting Korean cars. I know, I know, there's probably only a handful - for now. But we're getting the word out."

"Mr. Cheung, you have made an accurate assessment. It is the reason that foreign brands should be loving us. There is a national predisposition to equate anything imported as "better". Whether in clothing, cars, appliances, softdrinks, phones...when we go to the stores, there is a mentality that automatically comes to Pinoys, and that mentality is that "foreign brands are superior, local brands are somehow inferior". It doesn't help that there are very few homegrown brands that we can support at all, two that stick out in my mind right now are Jollibee and Condura. But in terms of global competitiveness, I have yet to see the day when Filipino brands are touted as "world class". We have that label covered in terms of our artists - but not in our goods and products."

He mulls my words, then looks at me with a rather questionable expression.

"That is so sad, honestly. Who else should support a brand the most, than the local populace? Don't people here trust your own manufacturers? Isn't quality control one of the pillars of your industries? If a product is good, it will sell itself, regardless of origin. But people should make an effort to support their own - it is a duty each citizen has, or should have."

"Ah, Mr. Cheung, again, you have hit another nail. People here have observed that when something is "made in the Philippines", it doesn't tend to have a long shelf life. If it's clothing, it gets faded right away, or shrinks after 2 washes. If it's gold, it turns out to be impure, and mixed with other things. Whatever product you can think of, chances are, it's been given more than just "a try", and quality has been lacking. It's a rarity to see a product Filipinos are proud of that is purely home grown."

He shakes his head. "This is wrong. Filipinos should buy Filipino first. Not last."

"Look at the bright side, Mr. Cheung. If your business should push through here, your chances of success are automatically a step up, since you are a foreign brand."

I'm not one of those Filipinos who will sugarcoat things just so we can appear "good" to foreigners. Things suck in this country, and we all know it. We just aren't - excuse the mysogynistic expression - man enough to own up to it, and admit it.

And I'm not saying these things on a whim. These observations are borne out from my own personal experience. I bought a pair of shoes from a very well known local clothing and apparel store, a pair of espadrilles. (Perfect for summer walking.) I haven't used them much, but with each use, I noticed that the soles kept "erasing", as if with every foot strike on the ground, a little piece of its' "soul" (sole) was being fused with the asphalt I walked on. True enough, after 6 months of infrequent use, I couldn't use the pair anymore because they were uneven at the bottom. And this is from a well-known and celebrated local brand! (Clue? They certainly have a lot of money for hiring big-name celebrity endorsers.)

Why are standards not higher for the things we manufacture ourselves? Is this all tied in with out cultural and national psyche? We have all heard of the expressions "bahala na" (let's leave it to chance") and "pwede na yan" (we can accept that). Have we ingrained this thinking so much that this is how it translates in the quality of our work? That because we have this pervading notion that we can get away with it, we automatically stop past a certain level of effort and exertion, because "that's the way things have been done"? And even if autonomous steps can be made for quality control, what about people in government who allow shoddy items to be be allowed for sale in the marketplace?

I ask these questions, not in an effort to make anyone embarrased - well, not the only reason, anyway - but because I have lived for more than three decades and I still don't have any answers to these questions.

Why do we have such low standards for ourselves?

How did we get to this point?

Is our self respect as a nation and as a people ultimately tied to this level of work?

Is this kind of thinking also responsible for why we demand so little of our national and local leaders? Why we settle for anything else, and not the best?

Is poverty the main culprit for all the shortcuts we take in our lives, as a nation?

Why we deface and debase our own country, and have little to no discipline, and have a general disregard for following the law? You see this everyday, people parked in "No Parking" spaces, going against a one-way flow - just the other day, I saw a Makati police car doing exactly that, using the car's siren, when all they needed to do was get to a gas station, and not because they were in some emergency - or people crossing on "No Crossing" signs.

It really begs the question: Are we just embarrassed to

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Saigon, Will Enjoy

I was mistaken! Sort of.

My good friend Cristie told me "I have pictures of the rice paper dish!", the one I said I would have to contend with reliving from memory from my last post. (

From here, it was like an assembly line - the fun part. (1) Get a sheet of rice paper (plate farthest from the camera). (2) Dip in water to soften the sheet (plate with red border that looks empty, that's because it's filled with water only). (3) Fill up with assorted veggies and meats of your choosing. (The 2 leftmost plates). (4) Use assorted condiments to taste. (There was nuoc nam - fish sauce, some sweet sauce, a spicy one which is the rightmost dish in the picture. I'm pretty sure there were other condiments and sauces not included in the picture.)

Think of it as Lego for food, building it up one "block" at a time. Great tasting food that's fun to make - what's not to like?

We stopped by the Ben Thanh Market - a rite of passage being the crossing from the rotonda, as you navigate through zigzagging motorcycles and cars that can give Manila a run for the "worst Asian driver" category - and we ended up picking up the infamous banh mi sandwich as well as some cashews.

And the ubiquitous fruit juices. Natural, of course.

Banh Mi - a legacy of the French when they, uh, stayed in Vietnam (stayed forcibly, that is), which explains why all their breads and pastries were excellent. (I even saw Anthony Bourdain in his "A Cook's Tour" saying the baguette in Vietnam is some of the best he's ever tasted.) Filled with pate, assorted hams and meats, vegetables and your choice of condiments, it's a delectable explosion of flavors that's on-the-go, convenient and cheap: I remember these being only 20 to 25 pesos when they were converted to Philippine currency, and these sandwiches were comparable to those I get from our local Oliver's. (Which, I last checked, would cost around 250 to 300 pesos, if I tried to duplicate the same type of ingredients in the banh mi!) Cashews taste pretty much the same whether it's from California, HCMC or Manila, but the price factor was too good to pass up as well (I remember that entire bag pictured above being less than 150 pesos).

Always remember, when ordering in HCMC, expect them to push veggies into your system. (I say this with love to all hard-core carnivores: Be warned.) If you need proof, here are pictures of us ordering seafood or pork ONLY.

If you think you can't take any more veggies, then I suggest washing it down with cafe suada.

You may take it hot or cold (cold in the picture above, left and rightmost glasses), although after eating, it would probably be best to take it hot. The drinks we had above were at the neighborhood store near the hotel, and after a hot day of walking, it was nice to be refreshed with drinks like these. Cafe suada is a concoction of coffee and condensed milk - yes, a thick drink, but one sip and you're all perked up. Hold on to those energy powders I see people mixing in their drinks, you won't need it here.

And you'll notice in the foreground, tea is also a common drink in HCMC (it was a hot day, so we took it cold again). I'm not sure if this is the Chinese influence, but I have to say I like having tea around, and wish that we as Filipinos could also imbibe the same habit (instead we associate all family gatherings with Coke).

Another thing that struck me as unique about Vietnam was that they had their own home grown religion called Cao Daism. Upon researching it, I found out that the headquarters was located near HCMC. So I insisted that our party go and see it, which was said to be a...well, an eyeful.

We were not disappointed. Pink stucco - that's brave.

Apparently, Cao Daism is like a hodge-podge of religions, that include "elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native Vietnamese spiritualism, Christianity and Islam" (from my Lonely Planet: Vietnam guidebook). I asked the guide, is that why it seems like the temple design is a clash of ideas that try to live harmoniously? He lead me to a section of the temple for his enigmatic answer.

I will let the picture speak, as it does so a thousand times more eloquently. (And you may draw whatever conclusions you wish to on your own.)

Back in the city, we decided to stroll and see famous lanmarks, like the Saigon Opera House.

Unfortunately, it was closed (being a Sunday). So we strolled past their much celebrated Post Office,

And onto a couple getting ready for their wedding album.

I have to say, I am digging their national costume, though it must be incredibly stifling in the heat and not too comfortable, especially if you had to work all day, like these two:

Apart from the food, HCMC had little to offer by way of their sights. The War Remnants Museum is a must-see for every visitor, as it chronicles the atrocities of the US-Vietnam war and its effect on the country. However, providing pictures about this would run counter to the blog's heading, war and death being generally acknowledged as depressing subjects. (But if you are in HCMC, do find time to go to the Museum. It will open you up to a different perspective from the one that is commonly told by the West.)

But the people...they were lovely. I have been to Thailand, and I must say, the people in HCMC are way more hospitable and friendlier than their counterparts in Bangkok. The biggest plus was their earnestness in using the English language (making the language barrier almost non existent), and the mistakes they made with it only served to endear their people more to me. I had a daily reminder of this in our hotel bathroom.

Vietnam, we will be back.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Vietnamese Plate Is Always Green

If you've ever wanted to try being a vegetarian but don't want to make a full time commitment just yet, then a trip to Vietnam by way of HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) would be a good way to sample life as one.

Talk about getting your daily vegetable requirement.

We took a trip late 2009 (I was with my beloved and a very good friend of ours) and owing to our busy schedules, we opted to take a very short trip (4 days) and decided to just stay in one place (HCMC). It turned out to be a food feast - and thus far, my knowledge of Vietnamese food had been relegated to an occasional visit to the local Pho Hoa in Manila (either in Greenbelt or Galleria).

I did read up on Vietnamese cuisine (as you can see from the above picture, I brought my Lonely Planet: Vietnam guide with me) and they all describe Vietnamese cuisine as omnivorous - if it flies, crawls, slithers, they'll eat it. In short, nothing was off-limits. I have to say I wasn't too sure how to take that bit of information - I am not the most adventurous eater, as my beloved would attest. Luckily, in the hotel that we stayed in, there was a set breakfast of either pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, the signature national dish) or French baguette. So I only had to worry about lunch and dinner.

It turned out that I worried for nothing. (In my mind, I could see honey covered beetles being forced down my throat.)

Vietnamese cuisine, from my experience, is light, flavorful, and fun. It did not have the strong, distinct oomph that characterizes Thai cuisine, but then, Thai cuisine isn't for everyone. The one constant I saw in all the dishes we had was the abundance of vegetables - every dish came with some kind of vegetable variation and it's safe to say most of their diet consisted of pho and vegetables (I understand that pho is largely a breakfast meal for the Vietnamese, although they do eat it at all times of the day as well. This might also explain why we were hard pressed to find an full-figured local in our time there.)

Now, take the banh xeo as an example.

An egg "pancake" filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken or pork and other local vegetables (I noticed that different restaurants/eateries would have different vegetables inside their version of the banh xeo), and if I had to estimate, bean sprouts comprised 60% of the filling, 20% for the other vegetables, and 20% for the rest of the ingredients. On top of that, basil, mint other leaves also adorned the outside of the dish, so really, there's no escaping the green.

(The few times I was in Pho Hoa, I would only order chicken pho. So the trip to Vietnam proved to be an eye-opener, a delicious gustatory trip to be precise.)

Vietnamese cuisine is also known for their seafood, so we tried the dish above - no formal name, really, as it said "Mixed Seafoods and Vegetables" in the menu. Again, another pleasant surprise, as the variety of seafood was good - squid, shrimp, fish - and of course, the ever-present vegetables, which in this dish seemed like an even 50-50 split between the seafoods and the vegetables.

Of course, we could not leave Vietnam without sampling THE dish it is known for.

As well as a dish that I also order at Pho Hoa, fresh spring rolls.

The surprise in both dishes is how fresh and clean everything tasted, without you feeling like you just plopped your mouth in your outside garden. The amount and variety of vegetables in both these staples of Vietnamese cuisine reshaped my earlier conceptions of Vietnamese food. Talk about jazzing up a classic - or more accurately, "this is how it should be done". Don't get me wrong, our local Pho Hoa serves more than passable Vietnamese food, but seeing and tasting it in Vietnam is an experience that will stay with you for a long time.

We even stopped by the side of the road for our lunch from a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the lady in what looks to be their version of our sari-sari store served us a plate of dried flat rice pancakes which were stiff, then a plate of water in which to dip and soften the sheet, and fill it up with the vegetables she was growing in her backyard - talk about eating locally! (Unfortunately, we ran out of battery for the camera and have to contend with reliving this experience only by memory.)

If you ever had any doubt that vegetables are a staple in their cuisine, check out this last picture, which I am sure every Pinoy will recognize.

Yes, that is a Jollibee ChickenJoy 1 piece meal in Vietnam (of course, we just had to see what Jollibee tasted like in other countries). True to form, a third of the meal was green, and if you look at the Champ burger, all you can think of is, "What burger? It's all veggies!"

Like all good things, our trip ended. But not before I was reminded of what their "light" (read: normal, everyday) traffic looked like:

But that is for another time, another post.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wisteria Lane, Philippines.

Anyone who follows the American TV show "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, knows that it is not really set in the "sleepy suburban town of Fairview". No, no, no. Wisteria Lane is really a street in the Philippines.

How can anyone miss this basic fact?

Yes, yes, the show is supposed to take place in the "Eagle State". But let me walk you through scenes and situations that, really, can only happen on a Pinoy kalye (Philippine street).

1. Gossiping is THE thing to do.
Need we say more? In Wisteria Lane, every day and every moment is spent gossiping - why did Mary Alice Young shoot her brains out? Who really ran over Mrs. Solis? How did Carlos get so wealthy? What the heck was Felicia Tillman thinking when she cut off 2 of her fingers?

And we go one step further. When we see a murdered corpse here, people find a stick to poke the body with. (You never know if there's cash lying around.) CNN reports a hostage shootout in Manila, we go to the site the next day to take pictures - and we're all smiles because we've transformed it into a local attraction.

2. You're Not Made If You Don't Have A Nice Car.
In "Desperate Housewives", the social strata is clearly delineated by the type of car that each of the lead character drives. Lynette Scavo, always seen as the "poorer one", goes around town with the family friendly option, the mini-van. Bree Van De Kamp, the doctor's wife, drives around in what can best be described as "high-end models" (think along the lines of an Audi). The pricier your car is, the better to rub in people's faces that you are worry-free financially. In one of their scenes together, Lynette can be seen hating the fact the Bree just purchased a brand new car on a whim, and in fact, verbalizes this to her.

A cursory glance of the cars coming out of villages like Forbes Park makes it apparent that the rich, er, showcase their status with their cars - of course, once they leave their glitzy enclave, the irony is that the teeming masses are in buses, jeepneys, and even on foot - most people here will never be able to even own a car, any car.

3. Marriage Vows Are Immaterial.
Gabrielle Solis makes a big show of being Catholic. Bree Van De Kamp proudly claims to be Presbyterian. And yet, these 2 characters - giving the illusion of "happy marriages" - have huge storylines concerning their infidelities: Gabby with her teenage gardener, Bree with her divorce lawyer - before her divorce. Yes, they resolved these loose ends - resolving them in classic Pinoy melodrama fashion - but the damage has already been done.

Everyone in this country knows someone who is born out of wedlock (in local parlance, "anak sa labas"). Mistresses parade around town with nary a care. Even presidential candidates are excused their "macho" proclivities. Gabby, Bree, welcome home.

4. Children Are There To Fill Our Labor Needs.
Tom and Lynette Scavo tell their kids they have no choice but to be the waiters, servers and everything else in their failing pizzeria. Julie Mayer has to balance her mom's checkbook, do the laundry as well as the grocery shopping. If there's work to be done, just call on the kids. In Wisteria Lane, they are indentured servants...until they turn 18.

We need to inform Marc Cherry (executive producer of "Desperate Housewives") that in our lovely islands, children are bound for LIFE. Owing to strong familial duty as well as encompassing Catholic guilt, we are told time and time again that "anak ka lang!" ("you are merely an offspring!") and so parents here have every conceivable right to demand that they be served hand and foot either until death (of either party) or when they decide to "set you free" - which incidentally amount to the same thing. If you refuse to do any of their biddings, watch as parents re-enact a mini telenovela right before your eyes: "Alam mo bang muntik akong mamatay nung ipinanganak kita?!? Alam mo bang nabaon kami sa utang para lang makapag-aral ka?!? Ang bawat hininga mo, ako ang nagbigay sayo nyan!!!" ("Do you know I almost died giving birth to you?!? That we became mired in debt just so you could go to school?!? I own every breath you take!!!")

5. Backstabbing Must Be Done With A Smile. Or A Pie.
One of the most pervasive ongoing themes in the show is how everyone uses whatever means they can employ to get what they want - of course, without the target knowing what has really transpired. In the guise of having a good time (read: getting stinking drunk), Lynette jeopardizes Tom's entrance exam so that he won't get into college for a second time. Bree needs a contractor to fix her house, and proceeds to fix him a spectacular dinner and offers her own son for a date. Gabby performs her marital duties so that Carlos won't go on a humanitarian mission with a nun she sees as a threat to her marriage. Susan kidnaps her new neighbors' dog in order to get them to be indebted to her.

This is the perfect country for them to continue filming the next season. No matter how much we hate someone, we never show it. It is considered bad form to be "honest", an affront to our cultural upbringing. Yes, we can dunk someone's steak in the toilet bowl before serving it to them. What's important is that all is well on the surface - and to Pinoys, that's what REALLY counts. We can't risk an ugly Kodak moment. Saving face is the all-too-important consideration, even as we are relishing twisting the knife in someone's back.

"Wisteria Lane, Philippines" shirts, anyone?

Monday, July 18, 2011

An Alien In The Garden Of Filipino Cultural Delights

Having been accused many, many times of being "so NOT Pinoy", I have attempted to decipher why it is I have been labeled as such. To be clear, I was born in the Philippines, and have been raised here, educated here and lived here all my life. Unfortunately, I seem to have been wired differently, and most of the things accepted as a "given" on a daily basis cause great strain and distress on my part. (Recipe for stress-related conditions, which deserves another post on its' own.)

With that said, I will attempt to enumerate some of the cultural idiosyncracies that have endeared me to most people in this country. (For the irony-challenged: Yes, that was sarcasm.) I can also call this list "Things An Extraterrestrial Being MUST Take Note Of When In The Philippines."

1. Throw out your watch. You won't need it.

Back when I was in sales, I would set up tons of meetings with potential clients. We would set a time and place to meet, and being the diligent person that I am (how's that for self-propping), I would arrive AT LEAST 15 minutes earlier than the appointed time (usually I give it a half hour's allowance). I'd settle in and have my usual coffee (black) and pass away the time either reading magazines, or accessing the web (if wi-fi is available). It would then occur to me that I have either read through half the magazine or gone through all my notifications on social media when I would notice that it's already close to an hour after the appointed time. And when I follow up clients by asking what time they would arrive, they would either:

a.) Ignore your text message.
b.) Hang up your call. (Way to go, obvious oblivious.)
c.) Say "I'll be there...didn't we agree to meet at X+1 hour?" (X being the appointed time.)

So treat timepieces as decorative accessories. That's what they are here.

2. Endure greetings of "You've gotten SO fat." Lots of it.

Apparently, this is a form of "endearment" in Philippine culture, one that shows that you are "close enough", and proof of which is that they can freely comment on one's weight. Did I say "close"? I meant to say "most anyone can do it", even people you've just met or casual acquaintances.

This is a complete mystery to me. Is there NOTHING else to talk about? Are we so devoid of conversation skills or topics to pick at that this is what we automatically resign ourselves to as a proper greeting? I could ask about one's job, or what interests a person has (that maybe I can help with or find common ground with), or even what they are in town for. Instead, we are rountinely subjected to idiots who think that talking about physical appearance passes as "witty banter".

Not to mention that if a person is indeed fat (by whatever standard/s), don't you think that person already knows that "fact"? (And we can all attest: Our worst critics are ourselves.) Chances are, that person has enrolled in a gym, or is dieting like crazy, because, heaven forbid, you won't land your "dream date" or an entire business could go bankrupt if you don't have an hourglass figure or biceps the size of Sequoia trunks.

Plain and simple: Saying "You're SO taba na!" ("You're SO fat already!") is just bastos (rude/uncouth).

3. Lines don't mean anything. Unless you want to be ostracized.

I was in line for coffee the other day, when an older woman (take note, I said older, not old) started pushing ahead, all while saying "Mas matanda ako, paraan!" ("I'm older, give way to me!") Most everyone gave way to her - even though she wasn't carrying a respirator, neither did I see a tattoo saying "Cancer Patient In View" - and when she got to me, I pointed to her the big sign that says "Please Line Up Properly". She suddenly blurted out "Swapang!" ("Arrogant!") then physically pushed her way to the front of the line (in my mind, I can still see those people being thrown in the air) ask where the bathroom was.


Being a man in this country means you will be served last. You're a woman? Ladies first. Elderly? Let's help you along with your arthritis. Children? Best to let the screamers get ahead. It's enforced everywhere, right down to the MRT (Mass Railway Transit), where an entire car is "Ladies Only". And here I thought we were supposed to be "equals". What this tells me is that women want men to hold the door for them, and at the same time, be the CEO. We have to take the crap with the perks, and that means taking your place in the line, fair and square. I mean, how far back do women want to go? Do women still want to vote? If equality is to be truly enforced, no special treatment should be given on the basis of genitals, or age, or any other demographic factor that is being used to get ahead of the line.

4. Public Urination? Trash Thrown At Your Door? That's Life.

Well, life in the Philippines, that is.

It doesn't matter that the trash can is just 12 inches away. People go out of their way to MISS the receptacle for disposables. And when confronted, they say "Bakit?!? Ginagawa naman ng lahat, diba?!?" ("Why?!? Everyone does it, right?!?") So, set yourself up for noxious fumes from every which direction, as the joys of urinary dispersal and food decomposition pleasantly assail you.

On a side note, I actually witnessed a lady taking a crap along a flight of stairs in SM Megamall. Seriously.

5. When Confronted With Items 1-4, Smile And Suck It Up.

And the most confounding thing of  all, you have to accept the insults, the inequities and the urine with gratefulness and with the biggest smile you can muster. You don't want to be labeled a sourpuss who doesn't "get" Philippine culture, do you?

Oh, wait. They already did that to me.

The Eternal National Amnesia

I've made no secret about my admiration for Singapore.

It has steadily transformed itself into one of the most stable economies in the world. As a result, the people enjoy a standard of living so unlike our own - that is to say, well, well above ours.

The country cannot claim to boast the many "natural wonders" that our islands seem to just be so blessed with, a "fact" that has been drilled into student in every Social Studies class of every classroom in our country. (Could it be this knowledge that has spurned and emboldened some of our citizens to wantonly debase the very things we are supposed to be known for?) Yet, they have clean water, (relatively) clean air,  lots of green spaces.

Public transportation is a dream. And for someone who knows the dark side of this particular topic (think of the intoxicating fumes from dilapidated jeepneys that should have been discarded 2 decades ago, the bus drivers who think EDSA is a giant race track that they can swerve from first to last lane at will, or delivery motorcycles who see nothing wrong banging the side mirrors of cars because they want to get ahead), I do not say that statement lightly at all. In fact, their government makes it very difficult (read: expensive) to own cars so as to encourage almost everyone to take the (economically and ecologically efficient) public transport system in place.

The environment of stability has been very conducive in attracting both capital and talent from other countries, making it a true "mixing pot" of cultures.

Ah, culture.

Merriam-Webster defines culture (one of many, but the one relevant to this post) as "the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time <popular culture> <southern culture>". (

I bring this up because Lee Kwan Yew, past Prime Minister of Singapore (and generally acknowledged as the alchemist responsible for transforming Singapore into the modern day miracle that it is today) has pinpointed our "soft, forgiving culture" as one of, if not the, biggest stumbling block to our development as a nation. He expounds on this in his book "From Third World To First". Here is the particular excerpt of interest:

"The difference lies in the culture of the Filipino people. It is a soft, forgiving culture. Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics. They supported the winning presidential and congressional candidates with their considerable resources and reappeared in the political and social limelight after the 1998 election that returned President Joseph Estrada. General Fabian Ver, Marcos’s commander-in-chief who had been in charge of security when Aquino was assassinated, had fled the Philippines together with Marcos in 1986. When he died in Bangkok, the Estrada government gave the general military honors at his burial. One Filipino newspaper, Today, wrote on 22 November 1998, “Ver, Marcos and the rest of the official family plunged the country into two decades of lies, torture, and plunder. Over the next decade, Marcos’s cronies and immediate family would tiptoe back into the country, one by one – always to the public’s revulsion and disgust, though they showed that there was nothing that hidden money and thick hides could not withstand.” Some Filipinos write and speak with passion. If they could get their elite to share their sentiments and act, what could they not have achieved?"

Stinging words, yes, but as someone who isn't mired in our system, our culture of "OK na yan" (that's passable), "pagbigyan naman natin ang iba" (let's give a chance to others), "haven't they suffered enough?", "even if we don't forgive, we must forget", and all those other "wonderful" adages that make me want to reach for a barf bag, as well as leading by both words and actions, and dealing with our nation and national leaders for decades, he is in a more objective position to tell us what's "wrong".

When this came out, some people called Lee's statements as vile, damaging, one even accused it of being "out of touch with Philippine reality", and that he is pompous enough to say it only because Singapore is a First World country now.

Did I miss something? Since when did honesty become synonymous with pompousness?

Lee Kwan Yew hit the bullseye with his statement. We ARE a nation that prides itself on being happy, and while there is very little wrong with that per se, corollary to our "happiness" is our unwillingness to admit an ugly truth. And so we continue piling up one ugly truth after another. And another. And another. Until all we are left with is the stench and stink of denial.

Public money was stolen? "That's the way it is."

Bribes needed to process government documents? "It will never get done if we don't."

Politicians with their faces plastered over public projects? "Nagpapapogi, eh." (They're trying to look good.)

And so, in order to cope, we forget. Let's skip the forgiveness part and just go straight to forgetting what just happened. What is still happening. What is going to happen. We just want to forget. We block the hideous, the audacious transgressions, the irreplaceable millions - no, billions - stolen from our nation's coffers, the mock piousness and the nose bleeding morality of those whom we know are responsible for the systematic dismantling of our public moral compass.

One of the most haunting statements I have ever come across is one that we should be reminding ourselves on a daily basis: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana)

And just like any 12 step program, the first step is admitting we have a problem.

I suppose the next question is, which problem to admit and tackle first.

Here is a handy reference for THAT particular question.

Go. Read. NOW.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Prom That Never Was

Do you remember your prom?

 I don't. That's because I never had one. Not that I was sick or injured, but because our school didn't have one. Instead we had the "JS Fellowship" (JS=Junior/Senior) Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I went to a conservative Christian co-ed school, so this was their "version" of the prom, a way for them to say "Look, we gave you SOMETHING like a prom, so stop calling us dinosaurs, OK?"

Everyone dressed to the hilt? Check. Dinner and a theme? Check. Co-ed pairings? Nuh-uh.

As I recall from our "memo", boys and girls should maintain "some distance" to avoid "'suspicious behavior". Tables were arranged in big groups (around 10 people to a table) to further discourage "secret couplings" from doing whatever it is couples at that age were expected to be doing. The event started with a Kumbaya type song, standing at our tables with hands get the picture. Somehow I think from this point, it really veered sharply away from what everyone expected a "prom" to be. The only part that I think was universally accepted was the passing of the key from the senior class to the junior class. The night got lost in a mix of Bible quotations, some adminstrators' speeches, and the long queue for the food. Getting intoxicated without alcohol - how sad does that sound?

Dance? What dance? That would violate the "no couples" rule.

I wonder now, though: If we had a chance to actually re-do the prom, and we got to choose a person to bring for a date, who would each and everyone bring?

No, I'm not drunk while writing this. High school can be a terrifying time, and particularly brutal and lethal for a few. When I hear now of kids going berserk in schools, gunning down their classmates and teachers, or of teachers who got just a little too close to their students, I reflect back on that time in my life where the word "innocent" actually meant not knowing certain things and how the world works.

It is an innocence that we can no longer reclaim. Nor can we afford at this time. The world has changed so much in so short a time that I wonder for my classmates who have children now what a frightening prospect it must be when parents don't always know all the answers anymore. I fear for the new world we are now entering, where the possibilities are so myriad, things that were once the stuff of fiction are already becoming obsolete.

Yes, it is an uncertain time. But I keep my hope up that our shared humanity - in this time of great social upheaval - will see us through. Whatever creed, belief, morality or religion we cling to, I am hopeful that we will remain respectful of each other. It is the one thing I am counting on humanity to uphold as a species - that despte the differences, we will not only co-exist, but thrive.

After all, we shouldn't deny anyone their night at the prom. No matter the version.