SHIFTING THE SPOTLIGHT

In what I believe is the first photograph of me that exists, there is a woman standing behind me who is neither my mother nor my lola (with whom I lived with for the first year of my life). Instead it was a woman casually referred to as the “maid.” In my visits to the Philippines over the years, I had noticed many such “maids.” These women were all but invisible. I was told that these were the poorest of the poor, those from far-flung provinces who had so little that they moved to the cities to clean, cook, launder, and care for the slightly less poor for the sake of survival, for the sake of sending something back to their families so that their children might have more someday.

I had completely forgotten about the woman in that photograph until Tuesday morning when a number of Filipino friends sent me Alex Tizon’s article “My Family’s Slave” published online by the Atlantic on May 16.  When I had the chance to read it, I had to fight back tears so I wasn’t crying in front of my colleagues and students. It struck me as beautifully written, not because of flowery language, but because of its brutal honesty. I found it nuanced and unflinching. It read to me like a confession, a balancing act of hatred for the worst parts of self/family /culture/immigration and love for the best parts of Lola Eudocia, as noted by @sarahjeong. Throughout it all, I felt the author acknowledged how fucked up the entire situation was, especially his own complicity.

But the most important thing about the article, in my opinion, was that it called out the arrangement for what it was—slavery. I ended that article empathizing with Lola Eudocia’s tragic life and a number of questions haunted me throughout the day: How complicit am I in such a system? Were/are my family’s domestic “helpers” paid fairly, or were/are they enslaved? Did they choose that arrangement, or were they “given” to someone like Lola Eudocia? Should I ask my family? How widespread is such a situation in the Philippines and among Filipinos abroad today? What can we do for her family? What can we do about it globally? What else am I complicit in perpetuating?

Without Lola Eudocia’s story, I wouldn’t have been asking these questions of myself yesterday. I hoped to find others’ responses to them around social media when I logged on after work. Instead, I was confronted with a much simpler one: Is Alex Tizon a villain?

My Twitter feed was filled with threads that clearly and carefully laid out the reasons they believed he was, each one delivered in 140 characters or less. Generally, the tweets I read criticized the article as a well-written attempt to trick readers into sympathizing with a slaveholder. They equated it to the American South’s attempts to justify slavery. They called out Alex Tizon for doing nothing about it once he became an adult. They mourned the erasure of Eudocia Tomas Polido’s identity and voice. They decried the lack of statistical context. One made an argument founded on a blatantly inaccurate reading of part of the article (and was, disturbingly, retweeted and favorited by hundreds). For these reasons, the overall conclusion seemed to be that Alex Tizon and his family should burn in hell and we should all cheer for that.

These responses baffled me. I know that we all bring our own specific biases into anything we approach, yet it was like we had read two completely different articles. When I got to the end, I didn’t feel as though Tizon had denied or excused himself or his family from their sins. He named it as slavery. He confessed to his family’s cruel treatment of Lola Eudocia in great detail. He claimed his complicity and recounted his own feeble attempts to fix a situation he didn’t know how to fix. He acknowledged the shittiness of not returning her ashes in an urn. And, finally, he tried to tell Lola Eudocia’s story with the information he was able to glean from her and her family. Ultimately, I didn’t get to the end of the article and feel like he was trying to exonerate himself. I felt for Lola Eudocia, not Alex Tizon, and I thought that was a result of the text having achieved its purpose.

Of course, Alex Tizon was not perfect and neither is the article. Why didn’t he try to do more in his young adulthood? Why did he word certain things in certain ways? Why didn’t he include interviews with her surviving family members? Did he ever offer her family any kind of reparations? Do they want reparations? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and, unfortunately, Tizon is no longer alive to tell us.

But perhaps a lot of these answers are rooted in the same reasons all of us fail to do what is right in a thousand small ways every day. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re reading this on a smartphone, and I’m guessing in the last few years you’ve probably come across a number of reports about the poor working conditions in the Chinese smartphone factories or about the Congolese who mine the rare earth metals that power those phones. Knowing this is all unspeakably unjust, what have you done? I’m not pointing this out to let Tizon off the hook or to put you on trial, but rather to suggest that asking why he wasn’t better at doing what was right every step of the way isn’t the most fruitful line of discussion. We are all complicit in a number of evils. We all perpetuate oppression throughout our daily lives. (Granted, some more than others.) This is not a reason to give up all efforts to reduce the extent to which we do so, but it is a reason not to spend all of our time cataloging an individual’s sins.

I think it’s also important to note that those defending Tizon are mostly Filipino, while those whose immediate response was overwhelming criticism are mostly not. Many are justifiably upset when men coopt conversations about women’s rights, or when white people try to take over Black Lives Matter issues. Yet, that is what is happening here. Many people are calling out a foreign culture with unabashed confidence that their assessment of the situation is an objective truth. As @RinChupeco questions, do they know the history of the Philippines and its hundreds of years suffering at the hands of imperialism? Are they familiar with its customs and values? Do they know what it feels like to call someone “lola”? I’m not asking any of these questions to imply that outsiders should never voice their opinions on the matter, but rather to wonder if they first listened to those who are part of the community.

I haven’t looked through the entire Twitter history of everyone who criticized Tizon’s article, but my guess would be that if I did, I wouldn’t see a whole lot of previous attention paid to the Philippines on many of their accounts—and I’m guessing I won’t see many  more after this story stops trending . Ultimately, the anger I feel regarding the pushback isn’t because the criticism itself is invalid, but because the critics—for whom this topic might just be the Controversy of the Day—hijacked the conversation away from my community, just as @luiinthesky and @nicasiosilang lamented. This article was poised to spark a necessary and difficult conversation for Filipinos in the Philippines and abroad, and I’m not sure it will anymore. The spotlight has shifted, and it seems too heavy to move back. Here we all are, writing think-pieces and Twitter threads back and forth trying to measure the villainy of the deceased author and his family instead of confronting these issues and exploring how we can dismantle the widespread, systemic horrors of the modern-day slavery that allow Lola Eudocia’s story to resonate with so many of us in the first place.

Related reading (s/o to @JiaTolentino for compiling many of these links in her thread):

“The Cost of Caring” 

“Below Deck” 

“Israel’s Invisible Filipino Work Force”  

Damayan

WELCOME HOME COVER REVEAL

Welcome Home cover

Today, YA Books Central is hosting the cover reveal and a giveaway for WELCOME HOME, the adoption-themed anthology edited by Eric Smith in which I have a story! The other contributors include Adi Alsaid, Nic Stone, Dave Connis, Helene Dunbar, Libby Cudmore, Lauren Gibaldi, Matthew Quinn Martin, Mindy McGinnis, Sammy Nickalls, Shannon M. Parker, Karen Akins, Erica M. Chapman, Julie Eshbaugh, Shannon Gibney, Jenny Kaczorowski, Julie Leung, Sangu Mandanna, Lauren Morrill, Tameka Mullins, C.J. Redwine, William Ritter, Courtney C. Stevens, Kate Watson, Stephanie Scott, Natasha Sinel, and Tristina Wright. Add it to your Goodreads shelf, and pick it up in September!

 

ISRAEL RECAP

IMG_20170222_062500 - Copy

I’ve been home for a few days now, and I think I’ve just about recovered from the 17-day trip with our school’s junior class to Israel. Since returning, a lot of people have asked me, “How was the trip?” I usually say something like, “It was really good!” and then scuttle away like a crab because conversation is hard. So this is my attempt to genuinely answer that question in some detail for those who might be interested. I’ll briefly recap what we did, and then I’ll give you my take-aways.

First, we spent a couple of days in the Judean and Negev deserts. We hiked Masada at sunrise, ate lunch at a kibbutz called Yeroham, hiked a makhtesh, swam in the Dead Sea, and rode camels.

From there, we headed into Jersualem where we spent five days exploring the city. We walked around the City of David, shopped in the Mehane Yehuda Market, welcomed Shabbat at the Western Wall,  went to services at a synagogue where the resistance hid weapons during the War for Independence in 1948, checked out the wall/fence at the border of East Jersualem and Bethlehem, walked around the old city and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected), went to Yad Vashem  (the national Holocaust museum) and Mt. Hertzel (Israeli military cemetery).

We then headed to the north for a few days where we learned about the Ethiopian Jews, hiked the Arbel Cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, went to the Lebanon border, spoke with soldiers at an IDF base, made chocolate in the Golan Heights, walked around Tzfat (the home of Kabbalah), learned about the Arab Christian community in Nazareth, and learned about the Druze community on Mt. Carmel. Next, we traveled to Haifa where we checked out the Ba’hai Gardens, walked around Akko, and conversed with Iraeli-Arab students.

Finally, we spent the last few days of our trip in Tel Aviv. There, we shopped at the Carmel Market, biked along the coast, explored Old Jaffa, enjoyed our second Shabbat of the trip, heard from a LGBTQ activist, relaxed on the beach, hung out with kids at a home for Save a Child’s Heart, experienced Dialogue in the Dark, and went to Independence Hall.

Besides all of that, we had amazing guides through an organization called Keshet. We ate a lot of shawarma, falafel, and kababs. We saw many, many stray cats. Overall, this was an amazing trip for me. I had never been to Israel before, and I didn’t think I’d ever end up visiting. (Of course, it was extremely exhausting to wear my teacher-hat for seventeen straight days.)

I’m still processing a lot of what I learned and experienced, but below are some of my take-aways as of right now. Not all are incredibly insightful or deep, but sometimes it’s helpful to re-realize things.

  1. This shit is complex. By “this” I mean pretty much the whole geopolitical situation in that region. Going into the trip, I knew next to nothing about any of it. I knew Israel was a country. I knew Palestine was something. I knew there were problems between those two entities. After learning some of the history and talking to some of the people, I now understand a bit more of the details, but mostly I’m walking away with an appreciation of how little I know about the situation. It’s complex, and I’m not sure there’s any comparable situation in the world. This made me think about how often I feel the need to form an opinion on topics about which I know next to nothing.
  2. Conversation is powerful. One of the things I really appreciated about Keshet’s tour is that they made an effort to expose our students to the diversity of Israel, setting up programs with speakers representing several minority groups in the country (most of which I mentioned in my recap above). It was powerful to hear their perspectives and  to have the chance to ask questions. While it’s certainly not going to resolve all the problems in the world, it’s a first step toward breaking down some of the barriers that perpetuate misunderstanding, fear, and conflict.
  3. We need to learn other languages. In order for the  kind of conversations I mentioned above to occur and to be more than just one-way, short-lived spectacles, we (Americans, mostly) can’t just rely on others to know English. Language is important. We must learn other languages and have the ability to have these conversations not just in English if we truly hope for transformation.
  4. Maybe mandatory service is a good idea. One of the things that I kept thinking about while  on this trip was Israel’s requirement that all Jewish and Druze citizens are required to serve in the military (2 years for women, 3 years for men), with some exceptions. As a pacifist (in theory), this rubbed me the wrong way. But the more I learned about it and thought about it, the more I saw the potential benefits of such a requirement. First, students entering college are 21 or so instead of 18 and bring “real life” experience. They might have more maturity and a better sense of what they want to study than students who are just pushed straight into college after high school because it’s what they’re supposed to do. Second, politicians (and citizens, in general) who have served in the military themselves might consider more carefully the costs of entering war–especially if they have children who might lose their lives as a result. Finally, for some segments of the population, there’s the ability to serve in another capacity such as working in a community service capacity instead of combat, which can affect people in many positive ways. Of course, there are many negatives I can think of as well, so I’m still thinking on this one.
  5. Getting to know students outside of the classroom is good for a teacher’s soul. I was in a unique position going into this trip–I knew only a handful of the students, who were all juniors. I just started teaching at the school, and I have sophomore and senior classes. This initially struck me as a negative, but it was actually refreshing to get to know students outside of the context of the classroom. I could just have conversations with them about their lives, Star Wars, their reactions to different parts of the trip, etc. I didn’t have preconceived notions of who they were based on how well they could write essays or how often they completed homework, and I knew I didn’t have to grade them on anything when we returned.
  6. I need Shabbat. I know Judaism is not the only religion that commands followers to take a Sabbath once a week, but one of the most amazing things about this trip was seeing the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem completely shut down from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. Stores closed. The roads were filled with people instead of cars. People powered down cell phones and electronics. In such a hyper-connected world, it was almost magical to see this happen and to conceptualize the fact that it happens weekly. You don’t even need to be religious to see and sense the value in carving out and protecting a time to rest and be present with one another.

 

 

WHERE’S RANDY?

wheres-randy

Greetings, friends. I know I haven’t been blogging much lately, so I wanted to give you a quick update on what I’ve been up to in order to reassure you I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth…

  • I finished revisions and edits on After the Shot Drops! This took a couple rounds and a few months, but (hopefully) the book is much better now. From here, I’ll need to do copy edits (proofreading the actual pages, basically), then I should see a draft of the cover. In a couple months, the ARCs (advance review copies) should start going out to reviewers, and then it will hit shelves in spring 2018!
  • I felt like writing something new, so I put The Goblin & The Whale on the back burner (it needs some heavy revisions before it’s ready to start shopping to publishers). I’ve written about 6,000 words this new secret project, and it’s much more personal than my other books. My goal is to finish the first draft by summer.
  • I’ve picked up the habit of reading a bit of poetry every night. With my own writing, I started with poetry, but then I kind of stopped reading it/writing it as I began to write fiction. However, there’s a power in imagery and musicality of language that I feel like my writing’s been lacking, so I’m hoping dipping back into poetry can revive those skills. I’ve since read Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn  Antediluvian and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and now I’m making my way through Sarah Kay’s No Matter the Wreckage and Jason Bayani’s Amulet.
  • I’ve consumed a ridiculous number of articles about the state of our country. I’ve attended protests and readings, I’ve had countless conversations with people about what’s going on. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do beyond writing fiction and teaching in a way that fosters empathy. No answers, yet.
  • For some self-care, I’ve been playing video games (Uncharted 4, The Last of Us, and FFXV), reading comics (Jonesy,Black PantherThe Arrival, Through the Woods, Love is Love), watching TV (Blackish, Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, This is Us, Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall), and hiking (we went to Yosemite for the first time a couple of weeks ago!).
  • I’m still teaching high school English full time, and I’ve been prepping for a 17-day trip to Israel that leaves today. I’m going as a chaperone for our school’s junior class trip.

See–I have been doing stuff!*

 

*I’m speaking more to myself here than to any of you.

Why did I like this so much?: MOONLIGHT

This is part of a (planned) new series of posts called Why did I like this so much? in which I try to analyze my enjoyment with an eye toward learning from great artists to inform my own work. 

moonlight-poster-cut1-750x400

Last night I saw MOONLIGHT, directed by Barry Jenkins, and it was beautiful in a devastating yet hopeful kind of way. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s the story of Chiron, a boy from a Miami housing project, told in three stages of his life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. After continuing to think about it since then, here are the reasons why I think I liked it so much, sans specific spoilers:
1. Effective minimalism.

moonlight

There’s so little dialogue in this film that I kept imagining the script as only twenty or thirty pages long. Yet, there’s an incredible amount of emotional depth to it–far more than a vast majority of movies. Like the image for the film I often saw used in PR materials (above), the story is carried by what’s simmering underneath, what’s unspoken. And what, exactly, is underneath? History (societal, familial, personal) and emotion (resentment, hatred, love, hope). Instead of being revealed through dialogue, this history and emotion is conveyed in small ways: body language, everyday actions, small but meaningful decisions. Then, when something is finally voiced, it feels that much more powerful because we fully understand and appreciate the history and emotion that led to it.

2. Simple goal, hard-fought for.

moonlight-2

At the core of the film is a simple, universal desire: Chiron’s search for love and acceptance. Arguably, I’d say this is the core of most of our individual stories, but Chiron’s search is much more difficult than it is for many. Because of this, we want him to find that love and acceptance so badly. Jenkins, however, wrenches our hearts by not making it easy. The film–at so many times painful to watch–tests the resiliency of our own hope in a way that seems rough to us but incomparable to Chiron’s own experience.

3. #OwnVoices perspective.

moonlight 3.jpg

Throughout the entire film I kept thinking about the authenticity of the setting and dialogue. The film is bathed in details that were unfamiliar to me yet felt familiar because of the care in which they were constructed. Jenkins own childhood mirrors Chiron’s to an extent, which he has openly discussed. In an outsider’s hands, though, this same premise would have likely become something steeped in sympathy and negative portrayals of poverty, which likely would have felt offensive. Jenkins, however, understands–and is therefore able to convey–that alongside the ugliness coexist value, beauty, and love.

There you have it: why I liked MOONLIGHT so much, from a writer’s perspective. If you’ve seen it and would like to add some of your own reasons, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

FIL-AM HISTORY MONTH

In case you didn’t know, October is officially Filipino American History Month! As a Filipino American, I’m usually like, “Woo!” and that’s about it. This year, I decided to  tweet a mini-story a day on topics related to the Fil-Am history. I’m not doing this as an expert, but rather as a way to force myself to learn more about my heritage. As the month progresses, I’ll be collecting the starting points for each daily thread right here. So if you’re interested, check it out, and keep coming back if you happen to miss any of the days on Twitter.

OCT 1: The first recorded Filipinos in North America

OCT 2: The shipwreck of the San Agustin

OCT 3: St. Malo, the first recorded permanent Filipino settlement in the US

OCT 4: The Filipino who helped settled Los Angeles

OCT 5: How the Philippines became part of the US

OCT 6: The Philippine-American War

OCT 7: The Godmother of the Philippine Revolution

OCT 8: The Pensionados of 1903

OCT 9: The Sakadas of Hawaii

OCT 10: The Alaskeros of Alaska

OCT 11: The Manong Generation

OCT 12: America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

OCT 13: Fe del Mundo, the first female student at Harvard Med School

OCT 14: Antimiscegenation laws

OCT 15: How the Philippines went from territory to commonwealth

OCT 16: The first Filipino-led union in the United States

OCT 17: The Philippine Village at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition

OCT 18: The Japanese Invasion

OCT 19: The Japanese Occupation

OCT 20: Philippine Independence (Round 2)

OCT 21: Peter Aduja, the first Filipino American elected to a major public office

OCT 22: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

OCT 23: The 1965 Delano Grape Strike

OCT 24: The Anti-Martial Law Movement

OCT 25: The Assassination of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes

OCT 26: The People Power Revolution

OCT 27: The “Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana” Mural

OCT 28: The Cordovas, a Fil-Am history power couple

OCT 29: The FANHS Museum in Stockton, CA

OCT 30: Filipino American Artists

OCT 31: My Flu-Addled Mind Reflecting on All of This