Saturday, February 16, 2008

How much is your English?

One used to chart the market value of English—especially English learned to meet academic or work requirements—by the occupations that were attractive overseas.

So as domestic helpers, later teachers, then nurses, we are attractive “exports” because, we are told, we have the expertise and dispositions required for the work.

But most of all, we understand English and speak a version that is better than those other non-native speakers are capable of.

A few idiosyncrasies of our Filipino English have not dented our marketing edge abroad.

My sister, for instance, found a job easily enough despite initially confusing her New South Wales employer with a query about “filling up” the forms. With some concentration, I can remember to tell my students to “fill out” the blanks, but, more often than not, I always slip back to requesting a phone caller to wait “for a while,” instead of the more grammatical and clearer, “please wait.”

Though far from standard, Filipinisms add to the piquancy that sets apart the English we made into our own.

How will this be changed by call centers?

The country is ranked in the top 10 worldwide destinations for business process outsourcing. The Philippine government is eyeing to capture 50 percent of the total English-speaking global market in contact center services in 2008.

The rise of this sunshine industry, as well as the country’s vaulting ambitions, has made call centers the fastest, biggest employer of college graduates. Even many undergraduates have not been able to resist the high salary and other blandishments, settling for a lighter academic load or “resting” from their studies to fit in call center schedules.

The consequent resurgence of an interest in English leaves me with mixed feelings. As a journalism instructor and journalist called upon to edit mostly English compositions, I am relieved in the return of attention on grammar and other standards of English.

If mobile phone dependence singlehandedly twisted English beyond recognition in imperceptible but telling increments, emoticon by emoticon, the allure of call centers has made even the most reading-resistant coed read the newspapers to pick up some kind of English facility or American culture IQ.

But old-fashioned as I am, I wish that it had been literature or journalism that fuels this resurgence, not the cheapness of our labor (the bottomline raison d’etre behind the trend of relocating businesses to our Third World corner).

At the state university where I graduated and now teach, we once lost students during immersion: while doing community work or training at newspapers, interns decided that further academic work was superfluous and less meaningful than organizing communities at the grassroots or working as full-time reporters. One thesis advisee reappeared after months of silence to present a video documentary that had taken him beyond the radar of school and family. What was initially an academic prerequisite started him on a pilgrimage to the countryside and the far reaches of obsession.

Now, the casualties of chronic absenteeism in my 7:30 a.m. class are those working the graveyard shift or those too “amped” after timing out at the BPO enclaves to crawl into bed until just a few minutes before class starts.

Where is English in the sunshine economy?

On top of the homogenized US pop culture propagated by the mass media, call center culture rewards “Americanness,” from trainings to achieve a neutral-sounding accent familiar to North American clients to customer service orientations familiarizing workers in American history, culture and lifestyle.

Decades ago, Filipinos received a good tonic for colonial mentality when the imported goods they bought were “outed” by a tag or label that read “Made in the Philippines.”

In the future, the congenial and unaccented voice replying to a query may be too neutral to be identified for certain as belonging to a BPO worker in Cebu, India or Australia. That may bode well for the country’s employment and the gross national product.

But a future bereft of Filipinisms like “how much is your English?” seems vacuous and lifeless. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 17, 2008 issue

Saturday, February 09, 2008


LIKE my father, I am made inarticulate by emotion. But studying in a university that wrote down polemical arguments even on empty cardboard rolls left in comfort rooms, I was encouraged to gather my words and, wrapping these around my grief or anger, try to batter my way through the high, thick walls of my father’s disappointment or hurt.

Only the very young can be numbingly persistent. Though I spent whole nights composing the letters, which I left beside the cup I knew he would always overturn for his first sip of coffee at dawn, I never could spy on him to check if he opened my letters during that blue hour when he woke to read for class, as well as have his first smoke.

The letters were always gone, of course, by the time I sat down for breakfast. But my father never let on that my pleading left a chink in that wall of his. I had no certainty even that the paper I wrote on was ever unfolded and all those emotions, released.

In the end, I chose to retreat and lick my wounds with more words. Rather than escalate our hostilities, I did not take to the streets with comrades but stayed behind to write and rewrite another statement calling for the expulsion of foreign military bases from our shores. Rather than stay out with a boy I was besotted with, I wrote pallid poetry and incoherent treatises on the nature of intimacy.

My father knew better. He did not trust words. Yes, he loved to read. He sometimes enjoyed a rant or two, but this was often solely addressed to the radio transistor blaring out a diatribe that offended his logic or politics.

But when it came to other concerns—should his daughter volunteer for a task force probing human rights abuses, must a child of his prove that love’s purest expression is sex without the entrapment of commitment—my father did not turn to words.

He knew there was no help there. He sniffed at the false sanctuaries offered by words as an animal warily approaches some spoor or strange stirring in the air. He did not trust the door left open, expecting a trap.

I think that when his marriage floundered after he exchanged “I do” with my mother, my father realized that words could shift shape, be friend or foe, raise or betray you.

What might save words, though, was owning them: taking all that sharpness and embedding this in the naked yielding core of one’s desires— a writer’s ache to retrieve what slips away, a journalist’s hope to do some good, a daughter’s attempt to make up to a parent without losing her self-respect.

Recently discussing with fellow teachers how we can get our students to write more and to write better, I remember how my classroom and newsroom mentors have shaped me but no more than my father’s silences.

When he broke yet another round of hostilities by leaving again toothpaste on my toothbrush so I would discover this, his entire apology and only explanation, before I went to bed, I long ago learned how wordlessness can be a beloved’s way of startling words to take flight. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 10, 2008 issue

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Disappearing artist

THE girl took no notice of anyone in our jeepney, but I could not look away from her.

Walking back to the newsroom minutes later, I realized that I could not remember how she looked. Her skirt and blouse seemed to be of a certain high school, but, as her uniform was scrunched up and obscured by her school bag, envelopes and whatnot, I did not see enough details to determine where she studied.

She must have boarded our jeepney from a downtown stop. I only took notice of her when all I could see was the rumpled and wilted outline of her protruding from behind the towering Babel of her school things and the book that lay open on top of this.

When I got down at my jeepney stop, she still had not looked up. Wherever she was, it was certainly not at the washed-out pink upholstered spot of her jeepney seat.

Lost in her reading, this faceless, nameless girl shut us out.

If all of us in that jeepney ride were not just preoccupied with the stuff commuters fret and brood over during short trips—ponkan pits to spit out, phone messages to reply to, the stalled and agonizing rewriting I had to face—we should have resented her act of banishing us all.

Don’t read when you have company, was a peremptory reminder in high school etiquette class. Like keeping your mouth always stuffed in a party, reading a book makes people think you’re not interested in them.

Walking back to the newsroom, I could not easily shake off my curiosity, envy, and finally, regret.

I’ve often ranted that young people don’t read enough. Yet, in that ride, there was only the girl, reading, while the rest of us were content enough to pace around the worn grooves of life’s much despised but comforting treadmill: the husband’s relatives arriving unannounced, deadlines, an increase of pits in shrinking ponkans that are P1 more expensive than last year’s.

If only city dads commuted regularly, they might require operators to put, instead of a small token receptacle, a great machine to recycle the passengers’ trash and generate enough green energy to wean every jeepney from fossil fuels.

That’s an idea too odd to contemplate in real life. But in that girl’s world, not at all.

The nondescript school library property with curling brown leaves for pages and a maroon hard cover shedding off light pink spots like some scabrous burn victim: what did the girl see in it, other than perhaps recognize that, in some way, book and reader deserve each other, twins reflecting back the same mirror images?

That’s a question no one who has yet to open a book will ever find an answer to.

But should one waste a lot of time around books—not just to read and be edified but simply to smell, take the pages in hand, taste tentatively the first line and the next, rush headlong or succumb, wait or seek, like a certain Alice that went “down the rabbit-hole”—then one can master not only the trick of disappearing but even the more impossible feat of reappearing in a wonderland where drinking a bottle marked “drink me” can make one “shut up like a telescope,” and eating a small cake marked “eat me” restores one to the towering possibilities only to be imagined by a 12-year-old.

Where did the girl go? I wondered then and still wonder now. As the rest of the world settled for the light dying that day, this girl and her book took off.

It’s enough to make one gnash one’s teeth and seek comfort in, of all things, a cliché: I want to have my cake and eat it, too. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 3, 2008 issue