Month: April 2015

The Massachusetts Moment

by O. Langer

The ferry to Cebu is late.

Every seat in the large waiting room is taken. Those not sat are stood either against the back wall or in the aisles. There’s a white noise of chatter. Behind microphones, by the doorway the tourists will pass through to embark, are acoustic guitars, a mandolin, a tambourine and a drum. In front is a donation box. Few will put in. The hum of talk won’t abate when the performance starts.

I first get a glimpse of the blind band in amongst the throng, trudging through it, each member with an arm locked in a helper’s for guidance. All are dressed in the ferry company uniform of yellow polo and red shorts, and wearing sunglasses. Though one is a young man, the songs he’ll sing this evening are hits from long before he was born. Massachusetts, by the Bee Gees, is one.

Massachusetts was conceived in 1967 during the Summer of Love, as an antithesis to flower power anthems Let’s Go to San Francisco and San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), in that the protagonist had been to San Francisco to join the hippies but was now homesick. An idea of the lights having gone out in Massachusetts (the refrain) was to suggest that everyone had gone to San Francisco. It’s a strikingly tender, fragile and pensive lament.

And the lights all went out in Massachusetts
And Massachusetts is one place I have seen

Back to Bohol, and as the young man sings, I notice a coincidence. Read back the lyric above, as applied to the musicians having lost their sight.

You see? Bohol is their Massachusetts.

It’s a powerful moment. Suddenly, the song is elevated: it’s now all the more heartbreaking. Here they are, blind in paradise.

*

Rewind four years, and I’m in the interview for the job in PR I’ll quit to go to Korea, with the Director of Corporate Affairs. He asks me: “What is your biggest weakness?”

My first thought is how absurd it is to have to state why I shouldn’t get the job. I could name a thousand reasons I’m not the perfect candidate. Here’s one: I resent having to work. I can’t say that. I can’t declare Excel’s all Greek to me. He doesn’t want full disclosure. No, with this flaw, I’ll have illustrated I’m self-aware and demonstrated deference – important in the workplace. It’s a game. If I’m clever, it won’t even really be a failing.

I think hard. What might he deem an asset?

He sees I’m drawing a blank, and tries to help: “For me, it’s that I struggle to see any option as 100% the way to go. I’m wary with all decisions.”

Clever. He could have said he’s indecisive, but instead he sold it as a leadership quality: tyranny is the removal of nuance – and he’s no tyrant.

He decides to move on. But it’s at that moment I finally answer: “I’m cynical.”

Am I? Even if not, feigning so was a cynical move.

He smiles, and says: “It’s not a weakness.” He’s impressed. I’ll fit in well.

I don’t. Eventually – coincidentally at the time of the Arab Spring – I overthrow my life. It’s time to live abroad.

*

It’s months after Bohol that it hits me: had I been duped? What were the band hiding behind the shades? Blindness, … or sight? It dawns on me that it’s probably a scam. I’d seen the light: I was had!

At Cebu airport, a year later, I catch sight of another blind band through the opening from a door left ajar, sat around waiting to be ushered to stage. Once again, I’m an audience of one. Only, this time, I’m not observing the band perform. They think they’re safely alone, free to use all their faculties. But are they blind or not? Had my Massachusetts moment been an illusion? Was I wise to have been cynical? Clever, yes; but wise?

Is cynicism a strength or weakness?

I study them from afar, and I get my answer.

-END-


Hidden among the 85 million people and the 7,100 islands of the Philippines are an estimated half a million people who are blind, and many more who are visually impaired to a lesser degree.

By far, the leading cause of blindness among adults in the Philippines is cataract, accounting for around 400,000 cases. The treatment for cataract is simple and effective but is not readily available or affordable for those living in the rural areas.

Perhaps up to one hundred children lose their sight every week in the Philippines. Almost half of these cases are either treatable or preventable. Poor nutrition, measles, and premature birth are among the leading causes of preventable blindness in children. Early detection and treatment are the keys to saving the sight of these children.

Resources for the Blind Inc.


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Missionary Imposition

1910107_506533641047_2726_n The first Koreans I met were in Xi’an, China. They were missionaries and so was I. We had bubble tea on a university street on a hot evening and talked about miracles. Mean little homeless cats stalked across the Lazy Susan on the café table. The Koreans, a young couple, were mildly concerned about the state of my salvation because I wasn’t Catholic, like they were. The police deported them the next day for proselytizing, which is officially illegal in the country. I forget their names now.

This was summer 2007. It was my first trip to Asia and I’d flown over with eleven other bible college students. White saviors, there to do the Lord’s work. To witness to the locals and show them the signpost to salvation. After seven weeks of laying groundwork we’d leave, pushing them off on their own like kids on a bike, reinforcing them from the other hemisphere with the power of prayer. Hoping they’d start a church or something and that the conversion rate would grow exponentially in our wake.

To get visa approval we had to go “undercover” as university students enrolled in a Mandarin speaking course. We were coached by our school’s Student Missionary Union to stay off Facebook in the country, because that would expose our links to the church. And not to use the words “Jesus” or “missionary” in public, in case the local police overheard us. All of this was enough to allow myself to indulge in daydreams of espionage, of being an international renegade infiltrating a secular Communist bloc. I remember the rush of wrapping my Bible up in T-shirt and burying it deep in my suitcase like I was smuggling a 9mm Beretta through immigration. I was James Bond, if James Bond were a nineteen year-old American Christian who had never kissed a girl and didn’t know what beer tasted like.

So it was a vice-free excursion. No alcohol or nightlife. But that was fine; at that point I didn’t know what I was missing. Lights out at 10:30, after prayer meetings and four-chord worship songs strummed by our team leader. During the day we’d entrap college students by hosting huge ultimate Frisbee games on the quad. The goal was to make friends, invite them to coffee, then slowly sneak in our message during conversation, which we’d direct toward the topics of passions and dreams. 1910233_506663695417_7316_n I didn’t really bother with any of that. I was happier sticking with the leisurely perks of a summer abroad; tearing into a plate of dumplings on the street and posing in front of pagodas wearing aviators. I didn’t consciously acknowledge it until years later, when I got a little separation from it all, but I was a fraud that whole summer, as I had been from the jump. A wholly insincere Christian, only really enlisting as part of the flock because it was all I knew. Evangelism wasn’t a priority. I just went on the trip to impress girls from church and to compile a Facebook album.

I was less of a human being than I was a wellspring of arrogance, this being courtesy of a stilted worldview and a perception narrowed to the width of a sniper scope. Mine was an untested, unchallenged childhood spent behind a shield. Comfortably inside the middle-class Baptist bubble. I look at American soldiers in Seoul and trust-fund backpackers in the Philippines and many of them regard the planet with same superior smirk that I used to. Seeing each country as some quaint destination that exists for our amusement. Or yet another place populated by natives in need of our ideology.

I was the rebel of the team, because I’d vault the campus fence at midnight and go on six or seven-mile runs through Xi’an. Past the Drum Tower inside the old city wall or through the alleys in the Muslim quarter. Or through the red light district, where the girls carrying trays in dive bars wore shorts that showed their ass cheeks. A new sight, for me. The filth in the underworld was almost impressive: the decades of grime packed into the grooves of the sidewalks, the rolling hills of trash and the grease slicked all over the steel walkways twisting overhead. Old women in shapeless clothes just squatted and shit wherever they happened to be walking. night-time-below-drum-tower-xian-china Every run was another spin of the kaleidoscope. Sweaty taxi drivers on break tipping back flasks of baijiu, one of whom casually vomited in his cupholder as I went past, as if this was standard operating procedure. I spent a lot of nights out there, pounding through the city. My curiosity impelled me; I’d come all this way, I wanted to see something real.

And I did. There was the night a guy had his girlfriend pinned in front of a bar with her arm corkscrewed behind her back. He was knocking her head sideways with open-hand slaps as I came around the corner. The other drinkers all sat nearby and sipped. I’d never been in a fight; I don’t even think I’d ever seen someone get hit. He yelled at me to go away and I did. I still think about that moment.

Xi’an in the country’s old capital. Like any Chinese metropolis, it’s the real deal and makes Western cities look adorable. Its towers spawn out into infinity. Some people look at a city like this and regard it with urgency, because they see eight million people who are damned unless they can reach them all. I was wondering who could reasonably expect us to do such a thing.

I got lost in the sprawl some nights and the humidity would force to me to a stop. If you ever slowed down, then groups of kids on canes came up to ask for money. Most of them had been maimed by local bosses or whoever organized the begging racket. There were little girls whose legs had been broken and reset so they healed backward. Slumdog Millionaire schemes. If Jesus loved them, he had a strange way of showing it. On Wednesdays we went to an orphanage and took the disabled kids with swollen heads swimming. They liked to be held weightless on the surface of the water. Doing this made me feel helpless. Against ugliness, against all this cold chaos I kept witnessing. All these vignettes were adding up to something. They put deep cracks in my foundation and forced me to a point of honesty.

It’s been eight years since then and now I drink. Now I don’t believe in Heaven or a guy who decides if you get to go there. Billions still do, but I don’t necessarily begrudge them that. Someone has to go to the orphanage. What has kept surprising me is that, despite all the warnings of the emptiness that tortures the lost souls on the other side of the fence, I’m more fulfilled now. south-korean-church-crosses Now I’m back in Asia. There’s a stretch of road near my villa here in Korea that I’ve learned to avoid because it’s a missionary hunting ground. Enter the zone between the golf driving range and that glassy new hospital and you’re straying into the confluence of three churches. Right in the middle of overlapping fields of fire. You can feel the neon crosses tracking you like target reticles. The Christians always dress smartly and they’re quite clever; they’ll stop you to ask for help with “Englishee homework” before quick-drawing a Bible and beckoning you inside the church to hear the “Secret of the Passover.” My fellow expats will relate. Sometimes blond Mormons from Utah will come up and I’ll shoot the shit with them just to enjoy a rare sober conversation with a foreigner. Twice, cars have shuddered to a stop next to me and their drivers have rushed up with leaflets. I empathize with their urgency. They care about my salvation. I guess in a way it’s kind of nice that someone does.

Expat, Immigrant, or None of the Above?

What do you call someone who moves abroad for “a year or two” and never goes home?

By John Bocskay


 

An anonymous wag once observed that a farmer who has sex with a sheep is a pervert, but an aristocrat who does the same thing is an “eccentric”. I’ve always loved this joke for the humorous (if slightly crass) way it bares a fundamental truth: social class and privilege profoundly affect our perceptions of people, and these biases are reflected in the language we use to describe them.

A case in point is the recent flurry of pieces discussing whether we who live overseas are more appropriately labeled immigrants, expats, or something else.

Some have argued that factors like social class, economic status, and country of origin are the more relevant determinants of who gets to be an “expat” and who gets saddled with a less glamorous label. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, editor of SiliconAfrica.com, has argued that the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are primarily racial distinctions. Writing for The Guardian, Mr. Koutonin notes that “expat” is an example of a “hierarchical” word “created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else.”

Hemingway in his Paris apartment

Hemingway in his Paris apartment

When it first appeared in English as a noun in the early 19th century, expatriate referred to a person who has been banished from his country (it comes to us via the French verb expatrier, meaning “to banish”). In its current usage, it more often refers to people who have chosen to live abroad, but it still carries the old sense of exile, whether voluntary and romantic (think Hemingway)  or involuntary and sad. Expatriate still has negative connotations among stateside Americans (some of whom mistakenly parse it as “ex-patriot” and draw the inevitable conclusion) because as any avid reader of American bumper stickers well knows, you can “love it or leave it” but apparently can’t do both.

While a word derived from Latin “ex” (outside) and “patria” (fatherland) should ostensibly apply to anyone who resides abroad, Koutonin claims that “that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.”

I can’t speak to the truth of this in Europe, though I think right away of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, celebrated African-American writers whose “expatriate” label has never been challenged. Whatever the case, it doesn’t completely square

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

with the situation here in Korea, where “expat” is the general term that white-collar professionals use to describe themselves, regardless of color.

This is not to say that people of color don’t experience discrimination in Korea – they do, and it’s unfortunately not very hard to find recent examples of that – but merely to suggest that the “expat or immigrant” question, at least in Korea, is moot. Foreigners here are free to call themselves whatever they please, but the Korean language lumps us all under the term waegukin (literally, “outside country people”), which, as far as Korea is concerned, is the most salient fact about us: we’re all from somewhere else.

Koutonin’s call to deconstruct these terms is well-taken, but it’s hard to get on board with his remedy. Rather than extend the “expat” label to anyone residing overseas regardless of race, color, or class – a suggestion which would have the virtue of being both egalitarian and linguistically precise – he encourages readers to “deny [white expats] these privileges” and to “call them immigrants like everyone else.”

It’s not clear exactly what type of ‘expats’ he’s referring to but it’s important to recall that immigrant means (from Merriam Webster) “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.” Expats then are a free-wheeling, mobile bunch, while the immigrant plants his stake and settles in for the long haul.

“Immigrant” also raises the question of intention. I’ve talked to a lot of Western expats over the years about why they came to Korea, and I have yet to meet even one who has said, Yeah, you know, I figured I’d go to Korea and spend the next forty years there. I mean, why not?

I have however met many expats who have no plans to return to their home country, and to be fair to Mr. Koutonin, a lot of us do end up not going back. One more year leads to one more year until you reach a point where you understand that the effort required to pick up start over far exceeds the effort required to stay where you are. For better or worse, this has become your life.

A substitute teacher lives the dream

A substitute teacher lives the dream

Many expats will say that they remain open to the hypothetical cushy job that could lure them back (but which never comes looking for them); others give repatriation a go and come scurrying back when they get tired of substitute teaching or suburban monotony; still others stick it out in Asia and resign themselves to being blown in the winds of a global economy that requires more of us to migrate to where the jobs are and doesn’t always enable us to end up back where we started. To the extent that it is predicated on choice, calling oneself an “expat” may turn out to be a privilege after all, and the uncomfortable truth is that after so many years abroad the path leading back to the West for some of us is radically narrowed or effectively closed.

Does this then make me an immigrant, if only with the benefit of hindsight? Or can I claim to be an expat as long as I occasionally entertain idle thoughts of moving on? Other phrases like ‘international migrant’ and ‘global nomad’ strive to capture both this uncertainty and the willingness (or necessity) to flee to more promising shores.

As I quietly figure out where my life is headed or not headed, I find myself not concerned with labeling that experience. I realize that this stance may itself be another form of privilege – that of not caring – but it’s also part attitude, which may best be summed up by paraphrasing another old joke:

Call me an expat or call me an immigrant; just don’t call me late for dinner.

 

* Are you an expat? An immigrant? Late for dinner? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

**This piece originally appeared in Haps Magazine

The (not so) Good Earth

Heron trash

by Eli Toast

So I’m sleeping in fifth gear and lurch awake as if I’ve accidentally down-shifted into first. I run to my kitchen which stinks like hot batteries. The electric stove is glowing orange, the refrigerator door is open, and the shelves are collapsed inside. As my panic ebbs, I await the inevitable emotional tidal wave of jagged flotsam to surge over the levee and dump a bunch of bush-league angst into my so-called soul. I look out my window and life outside is a blazing shithole of consumer goods.

There are warm coins stuck to my body because I slept naked, which is rare because I usually pass out fully clothed, but last night I called multiple people retards and engaged in a vehement argument about whether or not a bear can beat up a lion; which it can.

As I shower, more coins fall from my body and clang in the tub. Beneath the hot water I engage in a, flat, red-eyed, vaguely suicidal shower-thought about eating a heaping spoonful of the entire periodic table of elements and washing it down with a tall glass of the fluid that leaks out of air conditioning units.

Shower finished, I pose in my post shower glisten and behold my grossly flatulent apartment in ruin. I notice the heat from the stove has dissipated and left the room cold. Before dressing I check the news hoping that a family of rich people have sunk their yacht into a shoal of hungry barracuda.

Last night I tried to chop a hamburger in half with my hand. I honestly can’t believe that I have any friends at all. I’m convinced this is the worst hangover of all time, and maybe it is. Well… It probably isn’t the worst, because my first year in college I got so drunk I almost died.

I need to eat and I’ve got wicked heartburn, but whatever, so I use the end of a dirty spoon to apply I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to some stale whole wheat bread I grabbed out of the cupboard. Then I remember that when I got home earlier this morning I ate three boiled hot dogs smothered in mustard, accompanied with several rugged chunks of cheese that I pried free from a one pound brick of Kirkland sharp cheddar with a fork. I also ate around fifteen kalamata olives and remember dropping several pits on the floor and defiantly leaving them there. Hot dogs, bread, and shorn  hunks of cheese with fiteen or so olives? Sure. I remember that. It was a swarthy and reckless eating session and I’m a steaming pile of shit.

Every single dish I own I leave in the sink, partially submerged in tepid bilge.

Everything will collapse and anarchy will be loosed; roving mobs of murderers will riot with impunity; the seas, lakes, and rivers are so choked with toxic slime and plastic, nothing but poisonous heaps of garbage will be left to our mutated babies when they inherit our newly slag-pitted earth; the banks will burn and the oily smoke will twist into the radioactive sky. Wholesale murder is already rewarded with fist bumps in corporate genocidal fraternities. This is where my head is as I step out the door, dressed, on my way to work.

Outside the sun’s muted rays slant at a cruel angle through the winter haze. A dirty, feral cat roots around a ubiquitous pile of Asian garbage and quickly regards me with near poultry-level skittishness that has been bred into it from a lifetime of matter-of-fact cruelty. On the way to work I walk past a river full of sewage where off in the distance a gray heron stands at the bank and I think about these poor birds forced to live next to this stinking river…but then again, I live next to this stinking river, and so does everyone else.

I turn from the river into an alley and there is an ageless woman bent in half, wearing a puffy nylon jacket, parachute pants, and rubber shoes, pushing an old two-wheeled cart full of cardboard. She’s prowling for more cardboard so she can sell it to a cardboard buyer in some infinitely straightforward cardboard transaction. She is obviously alone and poor, because why else would she be collecting cardboard at her age and condition on such a horrible morning? We pass each other in complete silence.

Then an old Korean gentleman waiting at the bus stop asks me where I’m from.

“The States,” I say.

“I’m a minister,” He says, “Are you a Christian?”.

“No, I’m not religious.”

“I lived in the US for 11 years, in Pennsylvania. I’ve met Eisenhower. Are you familiar with Eisenhower?”

“Yes,” I said, “somewhat.”

“How about Pearl Buck?” He asked.

“Sure, I know,” I said, lying.

“She was a friend of mine.”

“Wow, that’s amazing.”

“I hope that someday you find God,” were his parting words.

A headache as evil and big as Monsanto hunkers down behind my eyes as I think to myself: “Pearl Buck? Huh… That was weird.”

Crossing campus I encounter a handful of errant goofballs who’ve strayed from the student body pack; they greet me with unrefined, though hardly pure, glee. I get to my office and thankfully no one is there. I look around and can’t believe any of it’s true. I haven’t earned any of this, but I’m also starting to give up on all that “woe-is-me” bullshit. I find eye drops and gum in my desk drawer and apply both. I take off my jacket and lay it over the back of my chair. I gather my things and wonder if I can summon the cowardice to cancel the day.

I exit the office and wade down the hall until I arrive at my classroom. I take a big breath, walk in and say:

“Good morning everyone. Are you ready?”

And they are.