Saturday, October 29, 2016

English in transit

ONLY in the presence of The Other do we spare a thought about how we communicate.

On the way to Yogyakarta, the capital of the Yogyakarta Special Region in Java, Indonesia, we stayed overnight at Changi. The airport in Singapore seems more like a city than a gateway.

Its website claim of being connected to “more than 300 destinations in 60 countries” is no boast. Arriving near midnight, we emerged from a flight where at least two infants were babbling and being babbled to in languages or accents my ear was unaccustomed to, and found the airport in Singapore as busy as a hive.

In an anthill, an ant may not probably comment about his companions if they were also from the same anthill.

More arresting than the number of people passing through Changi is the diversity of faces, the Babel of voices. How does one navigate in this disorder?

Even in the age of information, with fingertip-ability to summon data as needed, people still turn to other people. Perhaps an atavistic urge compels us to seek clarity first from the human than from the automaton.

For Bel, my fellow teacher, and I, it was a lady with a clipboard.

The authority implied by a clipboard was easy to decode; her English brought me to the mouth of other language tributaries. Was our accent as mystifying, too, for her ears?

Fortunately, a clipboard stood for efficiency with this worker. She answered all our concerns, sent us on our way, and attended to the next group of befuddled transients.

English may still be the universal language. But in a polyglot world, English undergoes transformations. The spoken word is a far cry from its printed relative, cosseted by the rules of grammar.

At Changi, where the major preoccupation is to wait in between connections, the common medium is not language but purpose. Where is the toilet? How will I confirm my final terminal? What is the wifi username and password?

The wings for communication are clipped when a bridge is needed to cross cultures, penetrate the personal borders of experiences and insights. Can one be really assisted by any of the many Englishes available in our increasingly porous world?

Even Changi sleeps.

In the blue hours of dawn, the workers with their cleaning automatons emerge. We leave the frigid laptop station, where people have long ceased to surf, as if a sleeping spell was cast, catching and casting in stone each one in the act of holding a smartphone or cradling a laptop, gateways and getaways.

We espy a nook but there is another Filipino, garrulous and still eager to unload, while we feel we are nearly running on empty.

A group of workers warns us away from some coaches, which they are about to shampoo and vacuum. We think they are Filipinos; they turn out to be Malaysians. We wonder about the army of worker ants streaming in to replace the duty-free shoppers: Vietnamese? Indians? Sri Lankans? Middle Easterners?

What gives Filipinos the confidence to cross portals is the English we wear like an old but reliable coat.

But at 3 a.m. in Changi, my English is of no use. The roar of the cleaners’ machines overpowers the snores and susurrus of other tongues.

I take refuge in a bookstore, empty and waiting. I think of the billion words of English inside all those pages, shrink-wrapped, inviolate, remote from all contact.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 31, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 22, 2016


A VETERAN photojournalist said he was “sad” over the “dissolving” role of today’s journalists.

Last Oct. 19, visiting professor Mahdi Nazemroaya invited Pablo S. Quiza to address a class of Mass Communication students at the University of the Philippines Cebu.

Prior to living in Cebu City, Mr. Quiza was a freelance photographer who transferred to Singapore as a photojournalist and editor working with the international news agency Reuters.

In over 30 years, he has covered all subjects, from culture to politics and war, in many places, including his home, the Basque country straddling France and Spain, a region whose history of divisions prompted professor Nazemroaya to compare this with Mindanao in the Philippines.

All of the photos Mr. Quiza showed the class, except for one, featured conflict. The scenes varied in the elements posed as counterpoints: people versus people, people versus the machines of war, and people versus nature.

The images converged on one point: veracity.

Mr. Quiza said that the photojournalist has a commitment to witness all sides. Once refusing an assignment to cover Afghanistan as a photojournalist embedded with the U.S. military, he commented that immersing in one side curtails the journalist’s independence to tell the whole story.

Yet a photojournalist can never be truly objective because he or she is human. The trick is to find a balance, said Mr. Quiza.

As witnesses, photojournalists may be purveyors of ugliness but these images help “make the world a better place”. The photographers of the iconic images of the Vietnam War galvanized sectors of the American public to oppose the war and pressure the government to end it earlier, Mr. Quiza pointed out.

But truth’s greatest adversary may neither be governments nor corporations. Technology has brought changes, including the improved capacity to manipulate images, information and the balance of power.

While a trained eye is required to detect computer manipulation of photos, access to technology transforms any smartphone owner into an instant photojournalist.

His retirement from photojournalism stemmed from Mr. Quiza’s disillusionment with an industry and an audience increasingly inured to images. I was willing to risk my life to take photos but people prefer those that don’t ruin their breakfast, he mused.

A day later, I listened as my students discussed a TV footage showing a police van mowing into a crowd of protesters outside the U.S. Embassy. Thesis advisees studying how Netizens engage online, these young women are too harassed to be active in campus politics.

Yet, they cried each time the cop behind the van drove into, reversed, and drove again into the crowd of national minorities protesting their displacement by American companies and state interests.

When matter dissolves, doesn’t it change into other forms? What will journalists give way to?

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 23, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 15, 2016

“Matamata”: Tips from beasts*

SHARING lunch at the cooperative-run canteen, my students and I learned a few things.

Some of us cannot stand vegetables. So we scraped all our leftovers and went to the back of the canteen and near the dorm entrance.

This is a hangout of feral dogs and cats, aside from students taking an alfresco break or making their projects under the canopy of trees.

The day before, we shared our packed lunch with Puti. That day, it was Mal for “malnourished.”

Watching the yellow-coated pooch gobbling leftovers, we saw he had a bit more meat now on his bony frame. That’s how Mal came to be Mellow Yellow, or Mel for short.

Three years of studies at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines (UP) showed me how the “feral” tag only describes the animals’ lack of human owners, not their temperaments or proclivities.

At the College of Mass Communication (CMC), where the cats are as territorial about their niches as the tenured professors, some resident divas draw a following among students, faculty, and staff.

A TV network crew once interrupted my study in a CMC gazebo because they were looking for the cat that saved a night-duty guard when it jumped on his lap and broke his nap. He woke in time to prevent an intruder from hitting him with a plank.

For academics, who dwell in their own worlds, feral cats and dogs make the best listeners. They keep silent and appreciate everything from Alinsky to Zero Vector, specially if a bit of sandwich is tossed after.

Animals show us how to listen to each other’s discourse without interruption or eruption.

Marga, the pet of the chief of security, accompanies her chief everywhere in the Cebu campus. When he was in an inter-agency meeting, Marga sauntered in as I pushed open the conference door.

Used to long meetings, Marga made no fuss until the session extended beyond noon. Then she started a low-register whine, pacing back and forth to the closed door.

My fellow teacher sought to distract her with his packed lunch. Marga ignored him and kept her dignity.

Perhaps we should have dangled research funds. That would have appealed better to Marga’s academic soul.

Though we classify them as feral, stray animals teach humans about co-existence with other humans.

Even in UP Diliman, where our furred brothers and sisters have inspired a Facebook page devoted to the “Cats of UP Diliman” and a Geography student project charting the movement of campus cats that was uploaded on YouTube, there are other humans who think it’s uncool to have corridors smelling of cat piss or worse.

Stray animals are also campus risks because they may bite, spread rabies, or cost the government P7,000 to repair an engine damaged by fur left by cats huddling overnight for warmth.

However, the solution is never to go as draconian as “total eradication”. Twice—in July 2015 and again in July 2016—the UP Diliman community arrived, after consultations and dialogues, at “humane” solutions, such as “retraining” and neutering, to address all concerns, including the safety of humans and the welfare of animals.

Cloud Sarmiento’s post, shared by “Cats of UP Diliman” on Facebook, shows a cat sprawled out in sleep. Beside it is a cardboard sign, with this message: “Wag tularan pusha ako”.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 16, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, October 08, 2016

I am Leila

THE YOUNG woman was distraught. She had been looking forward to celebrating with her friends. Then her father fired several bristling questions: Why? When? Where? With whom?

To seal that disastrous day, she ran into a particular young man just when her eyes were puffy from crying.

She had not seen him in campus for days. Then they walked into each other just as the covered walk was deserted. There was not even a scrap of poster she could pretend to read as he passed her, oblivious.

Why do men bookend our disasters?

My student’s rollercoaster Friday channeled my thoughts to misogyny. A parent’s concern and young love’s throes hardly manifest the deep-seated, even unconscious, contempt against women.

Yet, men socialize women: fathers, brothers, playmates, classmates, lovers, spouse.

Not to mention the usual suspects: the construction worker, the president, the troll and their rape jokes.

The catcalling variety of misogyny may have lost much of its novelty. It has swaggered from the streets and dunghills to straddle MalacaƱang and the once hallowed hall of Senate.

The first 100 days of this administration has ushered the most maddening honeymoon between President Duterte and Filipinas, 28 million of whom comprised 52 percent of the 54.4 million voters who turned out in May 2016.

We bristled and seethed as the president and his men made a new twist of the old carrot-and-stick approach with Vice President (VP) Leni Robredo.

First, he shut her out of his Cabinet, saying he was “non-committal” about Robredo, elected by 14,418,817 voters, because he did not want to hurt the feelings of his good friend, defeated rival Sen. Bongbong Marcos.

Then, after he “courted” her into heading the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), we had to read his nauseating “compliments” to the “beauteous” vice-president.

“You won't listen to a female president, you will just stare at her because she's beautiful,” said the president, who has told journalists he often gazes at Robredo during Cabinet meetings.

President Duterte has defended that he was not patronizing Robredo, a vocal critic of extrajudicial killings and the president’s move to give the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial.

Misconceived as hatred of women, misogyny can be disguised as the idolatry of “women as divine creatures.”

“What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person,” wrote Dorothy L. Sayers in her essay, “Are Women Human?”

For other women, though, who don’t fit into the president’s mold of "lady-like and kind" paragons of femininity, the prince will readily turn himself into a frog.

In his brutal, relentless public destruction of Sen. Leila de Lima, the president has pulled out all the stops. He has even used standard English, for once eschewing his colonial curses.

An “immoral woman”. The greatest English monarch, Elizabeth I had been called “diseased,” “deformed,” a “man in disguise,” wrote Sayers.

From Elizabeth I to Leni and Leila, slut-shaming is not so much about women going out of control as the desire to control women by men, who are, if they would admit it, afraid of them.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 9, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, October 03, 2016

The nuns, father, and son

IT was a rare outing for a person who stepped down three months ago after six years in power.

If the front-page story published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer last Sept. 25 riveted, it was because I learned something new about my former mentors, the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM), who run St. Theresa’s College (STC) Cebu.

Last Sept. 23, former President Benigno Aquino III joined ICM nuns in a forum held at the STC in Quezon City to reflect on the lessons of martial law.

With my silver hair, spectacles and grandmotherly mien, I was often mistaken by students and staff as an ICM nun when I was a college lecturer in my alma mater until 2012.

The mistake tickled me pink but also challenged. The ICM sisters may look like whimsical members of a knitting sisterhood but they are fierce social gadflies, weaving solidarity with the poor, respect for human dignity and ecological awareness with our lessons in English, Math and Religion in the 1970s.

I knew from experience that the ICM sisters were active in the anti-martial law movement not just now but then, when the country was still in the stranglehold of the Marcoses, when being an activist was at its most dangerous.

However, from the article I learned that Sr. Iluminada Torres and Sr. Consuelo Varela smuggled out of his cell at Fort Bonifacio the letters of former senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. President Aquino’s father was one of the “dissidents” rounded up and jailed by President Ferdinand Marcos for destabilizing the nation, which was the pretext for putting the country under his dictatorship for nine years (1972-1981).

If you had studied with Sr. Consuy, as Sr. Consuelo is also known, you would never imagine her committing any wrongdoing. The ICM sisters are known for being sticklers of taking the high road, whether it be writing in English or conducting one’s life.

I can only surmise that the two nuns’ decision to act illegally stemmed from a belief that it was the morally right thing to do. Her parents aptly named Sr. Iluminada!

Listen to lines taken from a letter written by the father to his only son on the eve of his “moment of truth,” just before he faces the military proceedings that will try him for illegal possession of firearms, violation of the “Anti-Subversion Act,” and murder.

“It is a rare privilege for me to join the Motherland in the dark dungeon where she was led back by one of her own sons whom she lavished with love and glory…

“I have no doubt in the ultimate victory of right over wrong, of good over evil, in the awakening of the Filipino…

“Live with honor and follow your conscience…

“There is no greater nation on earth than our Motherland. No greater people than our own. Serve them with all your heart, with all your might and with all your strength.”

Reading and rereading the letter written on August 25, 1973 at 11:10 p.m., I am reminded of the scene in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy when the Lady Galadriel bequeaths farewell gifts to the members of the fellowship before they embark on their quest.

She reserves the gift of illumination for the one with the hardest task. To Frodo the Lady of the Wood gives a crystal phial that glitters with the light of EƤrendril’s star.

She tells the Ring-bearer: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 2, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”