Sunday, December 28, 2008


"The Filipino people," she said, shaking her head. Stopping herself short. "They do not value life."

We stood in the kitchen of her modest stone house, as her daughter-in-law puttered around the kitchen, preparing food for her two small children. (This was in a village in Ifugao, a northern mountain province of the Philippines. If it could be called a village. What do you call houses snaked along the edge of an endless highway?)

The night before, on Christmas day, a cousin of a cousin, a relative of a relative of a relative, had drunkenly stumbled along and been hit by a truck just a little bit down the road from this house (The van I had been traveling in had stopped so the driver could say hello to this same man only a few minutes or hours before he was killed.)

Nobody was sure who had hit him. The driver hadn't stopped. It had happened late at night, along a winding, mountain highway road that was completely dark by dusk. No street lights for miles and miles, not this far up.

"They found his insides on the road," she said. "And his tongue, too."

She was worried about her son. He had been drinking rice wine all day the day before, since early morning, had eaten nothing, collapsed at some point during the night, and was now too sick and ashamed to come downstairs. She feared that someday he would wander along this same road. Get hit by a truck in the dark. Dead before dawn.

I thought about she had said.

That the Filipino people do not value life.

I knew what she meant. Everything is closer to the ground here. People ride on tops of vans that careen down spiralling country roads. Seatbelts are optional. Kids play basketball on the side of the highway. Drivers are reckless, if not completely insane. Dust and diesel perfume the air. There is the sense that the future is already here, and, in its present state, at least, it does not seem offer much, so why bother?

But life is not only about planning and precaution, and its value does not stem solely from how we try to bandage ourselves against time's inevitable assault.

I think of another person I met that Christmas night, a clerk for the local election office. Upon meeting me he sheepishly said that he hoped that I was able to adjust to the Philippines. He knew that it was a third-world country, and that it might be difficult for me.

Apologizing, essentially, for the poverty.

And that is another aspect of life here, a certain decency, a desire to put other people at ease. A welcoming.

In the west we insulate ourselves, cocooned within our houses and cars, our finely-tuned budgets and carefully worded blogs.

Here, people are on top of each other. A dozen or more to a house. Cities teeming with chickens and cows and orphans and executives jostling for the same simple space.

There's nowhere to go, so you learn to inhabit the realm of others more easily.

This is not to say that such proximity doesn't breed avarice and selfishness, greed and resentment. One only has to glance at the headlines of The Philippines Inquirer each and every day to recognize that blunt reality. Poverty is not pretty, and the kindness and generosity of the poor sometimes seems like a conscious way to keep pushing against the darkness that stains the streets.

And yet, how strong the bonds of family are here! How readily people are able to accept one another's faults and imperfections. They may not have much of a future, but they do have each other.

I keep thinking of that winding mountain road. A drunk man hit by a car on a dark Christmas night. A worried mother looking out the window at the pavement, wondering if her oldest child would someday meet the same fate.

Anxious, yes, but there was a guest in the house, and she made sure that a bowl of cookies and crackers was kept full throughout the afternoon.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


A few weeks ago, myself and nine of my Japanese co-workers took a test designed for non-native speakers of English who wanted to teach English as a second language. My company offered the course to the Japanese university students enrolled in its program, but only one student signed up for the course, and a minimum of ten people were mandatory in order for anybody to take the test, so myself and some of the other Japanese office staff were recruited just for the hell of it.

The test itself wasn't all that difficult for a native speaker of English, as it was mostly designed to test common-sense ESL teaching competency, of which I, admittedly, have little, so I was thrown by a few questions here and there. What threw me even more, however, was the checklist at the beginning of the test, where you were supposed to put a checkmark in the little box next to your native tongue.

I realized I am, and will forever be, hopelessly illiterate.

And ignorant regarding most of the world's languages.

Below, in alphabetical order, are the languages that I had never even heard of. (Please feel free to play along at home and raise your hand or ring the bell whenever you come across a language that sounds even vaguely familiar. Two points for each language, and no cheating.)

Amharic. Assamese. Aymara. Baluchi. Bambara. Bemba. Bihan. Efik. Ewe. Eaeroese. Fulani. Ga. Gilbertese. Gujarati. Hausa. Ibo/Igbo. Igala. Kannada. Luba. Luo. Luxemburgish. Malagasy. Malinka. Malayalam. Marathi. Marshallese. Malinka. Malayalam. Oriya. Ponapean. Quechua. Rajasthani. Riff. Shona. Sindhi. Swiss German. Tatar. Telugu. Tigrinya. Trukese. Tulu. TupilGuarani. Ulithian. Wolof. Yoruba. Yao. Yapese.


How did you do?

Four points? Eight?

Me, I knew that people spoke German in Switzerland -- but I didn't know that 'Swiss German' could actually be considered one's native language, and that it was different enough from German German to be thought of as something else altogether. I knew of Luxemburg -- but I didn't know the people there spoke their own language. All the other languages simply sound vaguely African, or Asian, or just plain foreign.

And even though I've lived in Asia for close to ten years, I'm still thrown by my own ignorance.

After all, those languages were all listed at the front of the test because people actually speaking those languages wanted to teach English. And here I am, already an English teacher, and not even aware that these languages existed.

A similar thought was pounded home for me a week or so ago when I was reading an article in the New York Times about a new biography of McGeorge Bundy, one of JFK's confidantes and collaborator in the Vietnam fiasco. At one point Kennedy's bipartisianship was pointed out by this quote of his: "I don't care if the man is a Democrat or an Igorot."

This phrase stopped me cold because I've been living in a house with a bunch of Igorots in the Philippines in between my jaunts in Tokyo for the past few years. I knew that word. I understood that word, and the people it represents. It had an emotional connection for me, whereas only three years ago I had never even heard of an Igorot. (Igorots being one of the tribal peoples of the northern Philippines.)

I doubt you could find many North Americans today, let alone political leaders, who could tell you where the Igorot people live. That Kennedy was able to throw such a quote out in casual conversation, and expect it to be understood, made me think that we've (or maybe just I've) lost something in the intervening forty years of development, civilization, progress.

A knowledge about the wider world, perhaps.

A desire to know its peoples.

Another example:

Last year I was teaching at a university in Saitama in Japan, and in one of my classes were a handful of friendly, vaguely Turkish-looking people who were decidedly not of Japanese origin, and they told me that they were Uighurs, and I smiled, and nodded, and eventually had to admit that I had never heard of their people, at all, and it turns out they were Chinese citizens who occupied a western corner of that massive, impenetrable country, had an autonomous government, were spread across the world, and incidentally occupied a considerable portion of Toronto, where I went to university.

And I had never heard of them.

Taking this test, and reading through the vast names of languages I did not know, had never before considered, would never learn, reminded me of the Uighurs I had met. About how ignorant I felt, confessing that an entire peoples' -- their peoples' -- history and culture was a blank slate in my brain.

I understand that it's a big world, and I am only one, and they are vast and many.

But still.

Language after language, unknowable. Illiterate in all of them. (As are, most likely, you.) We only have so much time, and capacity, and distance is a detriment we cannot cross.

And so many of their speakers desperate to teach English.

I lay awake the other night wondering what it would be like if everybody, everywhere, spoke everyone's language. Every word of every tongue. No strange vocabulary. All concepts complete. Almost intimate. A perfect grounds for communication.

I tried to imagine a person for each language I had read on that meangingless test. Were they black, white, brown, yellow? Could a speaker of Tulu and a speaker of Yapese somehow be able to chill out with a beer and a smoke and solve the world's problems?

If we all knew what everybody was saying, would anything change?

Probably not.

Still, confronted by a vast sea of languages that remained insufferably foreign, I wondered if it would be worth it to try and learn them all. To put a dent in the distance that lies between us, however hollow it might prove to be. It would take a lifetime, perhaps two, possibly three, to achieve such a feat of linguistic power, but who is to say it could not be done?

What a thrill that would be! The one human on earth who could speak to any other person on the planet, no matter their age, race, sex, location, language, whatever.

Everyone an ally. Noone impenetrable.

Not possible, I know.

Yet in those drifting minutes before sleep, listening to the sound of a distant train rumble along the rickety tracks, I could almost hear that medley of languages melding together, and I thought, if I listened close enough, and tried hard enough, a single meaning could be found. A single voice might be heard, one similar, if not identical, to my own.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Roger Ebert recently commented on one of my comments on his journal over at, saying that he's read this blog, liked it, and bookmarked it, which I mention a) because it was incredibly nice of him to even take the time to read this humble little assemblage of words and b) because it meant a lot to me. More than I expected.

His words, I mean.

The words he wrote about this blog, the words he writes now, and the words he wrote years and years ago, in the annual collection of his movie columns from the Chicago-Sun Times that I used to receive for Christmas each and every year all through adolescence.

I had always loved movies, and I had always loved writing, but it was Roger Ebert's writing about movies that opened up a new way of thinking and feeling about both subjects.

And I use those words deliberately.

Thinking. Feeling.

My household only received the local paper, The St.Catharines Standard (delivered just before supper each and every night, ready to read right after school and just before dinner), and it had a decent-enough movie reviewer, the local film-prof from the local university, but it was Ebert's books that showed me that one could think about, write about, and feel about movies in a whole new way, one that was not about academic analysis or snide, sarcastic one-liners, but something deeper, that 'deeper' thing that all teenagers yearn for and look for and hope to find sometime soon. You could use films, Ebert was hinting, to learn about life. About yourself. About your friends, and family, and the world around you. If you watched them carefully enough, you could even access parts of yourself that had otherwise remained humble and hidden. He altered something for me, in other words. Helped me arrange a new alignment within myself.

(At first I read only his reviews about movies I had actually seen. Then I soon realized that I was interested not so much in Ebert's opinion itself, but in the way that he wrote, the simple cadence and rhythm that I quickly realized was not so simple at all, and so I started to read the reviews of films that I hadn't seen, too, just to listen to the workingclass music of his words. Ebert himself is fond of saying: "A movie is not what it's about, but how it's about it." His writing helped me unearth another truth: "A piece of writing is not what it's about, but how it's about it.")

He's been on Letterman and Leno, Oprah and Conan, but it was always his writing that stuck to me. It was spare and accesible and emotional. I liked that part the most -- the emotional part. Siskel once said that he was the reporter and Ebert was the columnist. I admired them both, but behind Ebert's words you could somehow sense its heart, and hear it beat.

I met Mr.Ebert a few times in Toronto about ten, eleven years ago, once at a book signing at Theatrebooks, and another time during the Toronto Film Festival, where I ambushed him at the Varsity Cinemas as my friends and I waited to watch Emilio Estevez's film The War At Home, asking if he had any advice for a young writer.

I used to lay sprawled across my bed on lazy, snowy Sunday afternoons on gray December days and slowly, methodically flip through his books, re-reading the reviews a dozen times and more, checking with a blue pen all the movies I had seen in the indexes at the back, and now knowing that my writing in this little space has been read by this same man, who taught me a lot about movies and writing and life...


It feels like an odd little circle has been completed, one that began at the age of ten or eleven and continues in its erratic arc and orbit to this very day.

Roger Ebert helped teach me: that linguistics aside, aesthetics aside, perception aside, opinion aside, even skill aside, in the end all good writing is simply about heart. If you can't hear its steady, persistent beat behind the words, then your original intent will flatline fast.

If it ain't got heart, it ain't got anything.

Oh, and that advice he gave me, at the Varsity Cinemas?

"Keep writing."

I have.

And so has he.