A Poem For Friday: “Uncommon Denominators”

This week’s poem is dedicated to my fellow Filipinos in the sciences, and to everyone involved in building The Mind Museum:

“Uncommon Denominators” by Patrick Rosal*

I add up the times I’ve fantasized about
women I’ve seen but never spoken to
and divide that by the hours
I drive past cemeteries and add again
the weight of breath in your mouth
measured in the ancient Tagalog word for yes
—but the number always comes out the same

So I subtract the moon
and the smell of incense on Good Friday
trying to connect Planck’s Constant
to the quantum moment between
a candlelit flick and the back of your neck
setting aside my 7 dreams of having sex once
with Tyra Banks who tells me God
You Filipino guys know
how to make love to a woman
and even if I tally the 10,069
channels launched by satellites
which have an asymptotic relationship
to the count of stones cast
from a sinner’s fist raised
to the power of eight million punch-clock
stiffs heading home late
still the number comes out the same
and when a beggar pirouettes
along an expressway’s center lane
swearing this won’t be his last
cigarette (smoke rising from
the rust in his moustache ) I suddenly know
the acceleration of a falling body
has little to do with slipping
a mother into the ground or
a whole greater than the sum of its parts

And if you ask what I’m doing
with 7 loaves and 4 fish multiplied
by the root of a dried tamarind tree
or the coefficient of friction
of a bullet on the brink of a rib
or the number of clips emptied
into an unarmed Guinean man
on a dark Bronx stoop I’ll tell you
I’m looking for the exact
coordinates of falling in love plus or minus
the width of a single finger
lost along the axis of your lips

(Taken from: “Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive”, the poet’s debut collection, and winner of the 2003 Members’ Choice Award of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.)

The Mind Museum at Taguig is a project of the Bonifacio Art Foundation, Inc. and is curated by Maribel Garcia.** Already 30 percent complete and scheduled to open in the last quarter of 2011, the country’s first world-class science museum is invitingly at hand. If you can, please help make (and keep) this vision a reality.

(*Patrick Rosal is a New Jersey native, the son of immigrants from the Ilocos region of the Philippines. His latest book, “My American Kundiman” was published in 2006.)

(**Maribel Garcia is also one of National Geographic’s “Live Curious” campaign ambassadors. You can find her weekly science column, “De Rerum Natura”, in the Philippine STAR.)

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Pinay Observer: Companion Book List

As a reader and (now) blogger, I keep a keen eye out for works by Filipino and Filipino-American writers. They truly deserve more attention.

To do my part, I have created an open and interactive companion book list for this blog. If you are looking for a good read, or simply want to familiarize yourself with Filipino authors, please check it out here— better yet, leave a bookmark, I promise to add more books as I discover them.

For a peek into what I am currently reading, check out my Reading List. Happy reading!

“Chaos Given Order”: Link by link

In my previous post, the first (of many) on Miguel Syjuco’s wise novel “Ilustrado”, the protagonist (also named Miguel Syjuco) wonders if his mentor, accomplished Filipino author Crispin Salvador, had “grown too soft for a city [Manila] such as this, a place possessed by a very different balance.” It continues:

Wholly different from the zeitgeist lining the Western world, with its own chaos given order by multitudes of films and television shows, explained into our communal understanding by op-ed pieces and panel discussions and the neatness of stories linked infinitely to each other online.

(Emphasis mine.) Miguel wonders whether this has kept Salvador from going back.

This is my favorite passage from the book. It put into words what I implicitly know, what I have slowly and deeply internalized over my years of living in the West. For me, it got right to the heart of the question: “To return or not to return?” It assured me that I was not alone in that respect.

I work as a scientist.* But more than that, I engage the world as one. I observe, organize, ask, and analyze. I need to give order to the chaos. Even if— deep down I understand— it is an exercise in vain. Hence, this blog: making sense of being Filipino, of who I am and who I can be– book by book, link by link.

I humbly invite you to follow along…


(*Yes, this observer is also an astronomical one.)


Dear Reader: I am eager to hear from you— care to share your precious thoughts?

“The Line Between Good and Bad”: Corruption in the Philippines

Miguel Syjuco’s novel “Ilustrado won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize as an unpublished manuscript. Published in 2010, it garnered much-deserved international attention and acclaim.* A bricolage, it builds the character of Filipino author Crispin Salvador through excerpts from his impressive body of work (including a 2,572-page memoir, short stories, novels, essays, even interviews).**

The novel, like many good ones, is a voyage of discovery. The protagonist, also named Miguel Syjuco (and whose life trajectory closely parallels the author’s), returns to the Philippines to investigate Crispin’s untimely death (was it suicide or murder?). On his way from New York to Manila, Miguel wonders what has kept Crispin from returning home:

Could it be that he had just grown too soft for a city such as this, a place possessed by a very different balance? Here, need blurs the line between good and bad, and a constant promise of random violence sticks like humidity down your back.

(Emphases mine.) I confess, I often wonder the same about myself.

Indeed, in our impoverished country, need blurs the line between good and bad. I have resigned myself to this sad reality. I have used it to rationalize our “damaged culture.” But now, I am beginning to change my mind. Yes, need can turn good people into bad, but greed does that too. Perhaps the right question to ask is: how much can we attribute to need (environmental), and how much to greed (personal)?

The shameless greed and corruption of our politicians are universally and endlessly lamented over. But corruption in our country lurks in almost every place you (dare to) look. Journalist Maria Ressa nails it: “Corruption is endemic. It infiltrates so many aspects of our lives.” Addressing 500 medical sales representatives of the global pharmaceutical company MSD (known as Merck in the U.S.), she asks them to look in the mirror: “it’s not easy to be both successful and ethical in our country today” but “I KNOW you can do it.”

I urge you to listen to the full speech, “How Good People Turn Evil: Corruption in the Philippines” (the full manuscript is here). A tour de force, I guarantee it is worth your time today. By clearly and boldly naming the unnamed, she renders it un-ignorable. She trumpets a call to action, within it a transformative message: in each of us lies the power to say NO.

(*Recent awards include New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Amazon.ca’s Books in Canada First Novel Award.)

(**Apparently, many readers were fooled into thinking that he [Crispin Salvador] was a real person, warranting his own Wikipedia entry (which has since been revised). I’m not sure how much of this should be credited to Ilustrado‘s verisimilitude, and how much to the gullibility of some readers. Surely, it takes both.)

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A Poem for Friday: “Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?” by Alex Cena, Gowri Koneswaran, and Jenny C. Lares (collectively, Sulu DC)

Where are you from?

Where are you really from?

Where am I from?
Your question makes me flinch
Makes me narrow my eyes
At your narrow ways of defining me
Suspecting me of being foreign
‘Cause this phenotype doesn’t match yours
And my answer’s not what you were expecting

I live down the block, across the state, past the river
Inhaled American air in my first breath
I speak English in my dreams, out loud
Lies in the depth of my parents’ arms
Outstretched to their history
And the one we share in this country

So tell me where are YOU from?
Where are you REALLY from?

Asked by strangers, I used to say “the Philippines”, now I simply say “Jersey.” I was unaware such a simple question (when asked one too many times) can cause offense.

Now I know, thanks to an eye-opening talk by Fil-Am psychology professor Kevin Nadal.* And now I have a word for it: racial microaggression, covert or subtle racist behavior that causes psychological confusion (“Did that really just happen?”). I realized instantly that I have been on both ends of the deal. The question lingers, what do I do about it? What would you?

(Full poem here via Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian American Poetry.)

(*Prof. Kevin Nadal teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY, and is the author of the research handbook “Filipino American Psychology“– the first of its kind.)


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Americanized? Look again.

I am wildly enjoying Pacific Rims, Rafe Bartholomew‘s account of his immersion into Philippine basketball, and inevitably, Philippine society and culture. Early in the book, he lays down a spot-on observation of the difference between what the Philippines appears to be (in foreign eyes) and what lies beneath:

On my way home I looked out the window at the steady procession of McDonald’s franchises, KFCs, and 7-Elevens. Many foreign visitors to the Philippines saw Manila’s ubiquitous chain restaurants as a sign of the country’s extreme Americanization, but there was another side to the city. For every American restaurant, there were a dozen roadside barbecue stalls selling grilled skewers of isaw (pork intestines), helmet (chicken heads), and betamax (cubes of coagulated pork blood that resemble the ancient video format’s tapes). The hard wooden benches of buses were crammed with breast-feding mothers and construction workers who had washcloths tucked into the backs of their shirts to soak up sweat. This wasn’t a country where one foreign culture simply dominated its native counterpart, but a place where Spanish and American colonial influences mixed with the imprints of Chinese and Malay merchants who had been trading in the Philippines since before the archipelago even existed in the eyes of the West. A dizzying array of ingredients made up the Philippines’ cultural brew, and they blended over time to form something uniquely Filipino.

On the flip side, when I first moved to “America” (five years ago), what struck me most was how familiar everything seemed to be, yet how different everything was. The dissonance remains.


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Reading list: March edition

I love to read. I like to balance a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I enjoy finding “random” books in cheap book sales (courtesy of the local library) and my online book club.

Today, I start a reading list page on this blog (see tab on upper-right hand corner), which I will update regularly. This is the March edition: a current snapshot of books in my past/present/future:

Currently reading:

  • Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, by Rafe Bartholomew (2010)
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

Plan to read:

  • White House Doctor: My Patients were Presidents, by Dr. Connie Mariano (2010)
  • Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, by Neil Postman (1999)
  • The Year of Pleasures, by Elizabeth Berg

Recently read:

  • the last time i saw you, by Elizabeth Berg [3 stars]
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman (1985) [5 stars]

Lastly, some thick books to plow through:

  • The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself, by Daniel J. Boorstin (1985)
  • In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, by Stanley Karnow (1990)