Just Help Me

After days and days of spotty internet, I finally decided to waddle my giant behind down to the telecom store and buy a new SIM card.  I didn’t know if it was actually going to solve my problem, but waiting for a solution to fall into my lap wasn’t helping either.  I told my cousin, I can’t afford to solve this spotty internet problem with time anymore, I’m going to try with money!  

So I was expecting the telecom company to want my money and to offer me a product.  My assumptions were sorely mistaken.  Instead, you go down to the telecom store and you take a number and you wait for who knows how long before they even talk to you.  So basically, I had walked into a Chinese bank.  

I took my number, and then waited for a seat on the bench.  It was a half-butt seat at first, but it turned into a whole-butt seat soon enough.  But then I looked at my number and realized it was a number that took me straight to the cashier.  Don’t I have to talk to a sales rep first?  Also, I was 20 numbers away, and no sign of movement.  So I began to despair.  

I thought about going straight to the cashier and imagined that she would tell me I had the wrong kind of number, that I needed sales first, so I went to one of the number girls and said, yo, is this right?  Yes, sir, yes po.  

Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly English dude make a move.  He starts working his “what, I’m a foreigner!” routine on Francis, the number master, captiain of the number girls.  So Sir Nigel is starts listing off what he needs to Francis, and Francis is nodding and saying, yes, we can do all of those things, we just have to wait our turn.  

Then Sir Nigel drops the bomb, asking, “Can’t we just do this now, here? Just help me!”

I got up and stood right next to Sir Nigel.  At the opportune moment, I said to Francis, in a big American accent, “I would like the same as this gentleman, please.”  

Francis… MADE IT HAPPEN.  He took our money and sent a number girl to the back and five minutes later she came back with our new SIM cards and some change.  

So to be clear, we got special treatment, we hurdled clear over the heads of the dozen or so people that had been waiting in line with computer generated numbers.  And we got special treatment, because Sir Nigel asked for it.  

My cousin told me later that it was foreiner priviledge, that it probably wasn’t pity for playing dumb.  That’s just how it played out.  

I like it here, I’m glad to be here.  Today I latched on to someone’s priviledge and made it my own.  I wonder if Francis started making it happen for others after us.

The Secret Ingredient to Language Learning

Yesterday my teacher said that my way of learning grammar was unique.  She even did an impression of me;  quietly reading an grammar explanation, frowning, nodding… and then producing well-formed sentences.  Most people are not like that, she said.  

Well, I’m glad to be able to do that.  I’ve been studying grammar all my life and I know my way around some verbs.  Romance languages taught me about grammatical agreement, tense, voice, and mood.  Chinese has taught me about shifting focus away from the actor of a sentence using grammar; putting it instead on an object. So the places where Tagalog is “difficult” reminds me a lot of work that I have done before.  I can read a grammatical explanation off the page and then start producing.  

Here’s the deal though; grammatical analysis is NOT the language learning superpower.  It’s handy, absolutley, and it’s impressive to bystanders, but it’s not the secret ingredient.  

The secret ingredient is practice.  Even though I can produce well-formed sentences from a first reading of an explanation, I still have to practice the forms in real conversation.  I still have to make mistakes and work thorugh doubts and get confused.  Does everybody hear this?  I’m going to make mistakes.  That’s how I’ll get to fluency, just like everyone else.  

I can know the mechanics and physics of how a bicycle works; I can do all the math and analyse the process, but I won’t know how to ride a bike until I physically put myself on the bike and pedal.  The process necessarily involves wobbling and falling.  

I do have very high expectations for myself this summer; I expect to learn a lot about Tagalog, academically.  Whether or not I become a proficient speaker, though, will depend on my willingness to practice and make mistakes.  Just like everybody else.  From a proficiency standpoint, I’m in the same position as someone who can’t tell an adjective from an adverb.  Practice is still everything.  

I keep rememebering back when I finished my study abroad in France, and I left disappointed in my level of French.  But then a year later after 9 months back in Seattle, I realized I had a new command of vowels and an ease with complex structures that I had gained without any intentional effort on my part.  

People like to believe that they have direct control over their learning, that working hard will produce a direct improvement over time.  But we have to remember, we’re not filing langauge into our brains; we’re giving langauge to our brains to file.  The good news is that it’s instinctual, and it goes faster than we think.  The bad news that we’re not really in control of the schedule, and we do like to feel in-control.

The best we can do is practice our faces off with real communication, as much as possible, on a daily basis.  Get plenty of sleep, hand have healthy blood circulation so the brain can install the new language.  And to try to be joyful about language learning, as our memories hold on to emotion.  

Reading grammar off the page?  It’s not the secret ingredient.  It’s still a pretty cool trick, though.  

Before and After

About a week ago I was chucking my possessions into a POD back in Columiba City, Seattle, and my sister had the brilliant idea of making a “before” video, so I could record my level of Tagalog.  The premise, of course, is that in August when I return we would make an “after” video and I could see for myself the kind of progress I made.  

I say that the idea was briliant in that it was, indeed, brilliant, I’m not being facetious.  However my stress level kind of exploded at the thought of stopping what I was doing (i.e., getting the hell out of Seattle) to make a video of me speaking poorly.   

Anyway, it didn’t happen.  I got on the plane without having made a “before” video.  No problem, said my sister, just make the video once you arrive in Manila.  

When I arrived in Manila six days ago, i was too tired to make a freaking “before” video, are you kidding me?  Also, by then my Tagalog had already improved slightly, just by being around family.  They were already speaking to me in Tagalog, just to casually test my level.  I myself was tentativley offering simple questions and descriptive sentences in Tagalog.  And of course they–and by “they” I mean my nieces–were speaking to each other at the speed of teenagers.  My nieces are absolutely beautiful and sweet and also terrifying.  I’m not terrified of them, of course, but if I were a teenage boy having to deal with them, I would burst into tears if they looked at me.  

On Monday, 3 days after I was wheels down at the airport, I had my first lesson.  My tutor Ate B is very slick.  It started off at first in English as a getting-to-know-you session and she transitioned the conversation somehow into a level-diagnostic, overview of the curriculum, and target language conversation all at once.  

I don’t have a video of it, but since it’s my profession I can tell you pretty precisely what my level was.  I knew plenty of content words, mostly nouns, and I could make sentences with exactly one noun; descriptive sentences, existence sentences, sentences without grammatical objects.  Piece of cake.  Ate B placed me at ACTFL Intermediate Low, which is what I would have guessed for myself.  My goal for the day was a piece-of-cake review of actor-focus mag- and- um- verbs.  

After Lesson number two on Tuesday, I had those mag- and -um- verbs pretty buttoned up, and I was already making sentences with direct objects.  The next topic was object-focus i-, -in/-hin, and -an/han verbs.  So just two days into my tutoring, I have now surpassed the level I had reached at SEASSI 2002 Tagalog Intensive, where the teachers just plain didn’t teach us any focus constructions.  Looking back now, SEASSI was a waste of time and money.  

I do not have the object focus verbs buttoned down yet.  However, I do have the concept, and it’s easier than I thought it would be to make my mouth do it.  The hardest part is when my mouth doesn’t believe what my brain is telling it to say.  Then Ate B tells me the answer and my brain chastizes my mouth for getting rattled.  

By day three I had actor-focused ma- verbs, which are a lot of feelings and senses, and an introduction to actor-focused abilitative verbs with maka- and makapag-.  That threw me for a loop but I’m getting the hang of it.  I’m still reviewing it.  

Today’s lesson was object-focus abilitative verbs with ma-.  So this is the first time I thought, “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?”  but I know I’ll be ok.  

This seems to be a lot of grammar really fast, and there’s no way I can practice this stuff in the wild and have it buttoned down on the following day.  However, a lot of conjunctions and structures are creeping into my still-halting speech.  Ate B has pronounced that I am expressing myself at the ACTFL Advanced-Low level.  Hypotheticals, conditionals, complex subordinate clauses, advanced conjunction structures.  It seems to be an unlikely rate of improvement (ACTFL Intermediate Low to Advanced Low in FOUR DAYS?) but I can hear it coming out of my mouth for myself.  Who am I to argue.  

Needless to say, the “before” video I promised my sister is now a horse that has long ago left the barn.  The most I can promise her now is “Before causatives, gerunds, and instrument focus” vs. “After causatives, gerunds, and instrument focus,” but I’m afraid of what kind of damage such a video would do to YouTube.  Is the world prepared for a before-and-after intermediate proficiency video?  Do I risk shattering the internet to pieces?  

It’s dinner time now, so I’m going go downstairs for some grilled chicken.  Nothing else is planned tonight except for studying grammar.  The weekend will be all about talking my face off; maybe there will be time for video then.  

What Have We Learned, Volume I

What have I learned so far, in this, my Learn Tagalog Summer of 2015?  I have learned quite a lot, my dear friends, quite a lot.  

I have learned that the l’il chubby bananas are delicious.  I found a bunch where some were ripe and some were still green.  Thank you, banana tree, for planning ahead for me.  

I have learned never to buy plastic bidet attachments, as I have lived thorugh the explosion of one.  

I have learned that using an induction burner in a tiny condo for frying rice and eggs and soupy things is a-ok.  Thumbs up all around.  I have also learned that putting a nice hard sear on your protein in a tiny condo is a smokey-and-the-bandit experience, and thank goodness the sprinklers didn’t kick on.  

I have learned that a walk through the Makati business district is a nice, quiet walk.  Oh, the streets are jammed with cars, but is jammed to a stand still.  So it’s actually quite lovely.  

I’ve learned that Filipinos give commands, even polite ones, in the most irritating choice of grammatical voice possible.  For example, today I was told “The upstairs dining area is closed” when I could see with my freaking eyes that it was clearly not closed… what they should have said was “We are not serving the upstairs dining area,” which would be understandable since the stairs are steep and treacherous.  Later a guard told me “Please go straight” instead of “the path is closed.”  He was trying to be nice, but I was like, “I have no intention of freaking going straight, dicknose, what is wrong with you?”  

I also realized that this preference for making very grating grammatical choices, I’ve known this since I was a little kid.  Filipino kids are constantly being told “you get away there,” and “you get down there now.”  and as a native speaker of American English I always thought, “What in the hell is wrong with you, why does a simple request have to be so demeaning?”  Guh, culture clash.  

I have learned that meals here in Manila are around $3.50 USD or less, and sometimes the priciest thing on the menu can be north of $6 USD.  

I’ve learned that restaurant rice is usually turned out of a caffeteria coffee cup, and the rice is just sticky enough to maintain that curvy ziggurat shape.  It’s not a pile of rice anymore, or even a mound from a rice bowl; it’s now a stack, a stack of rice:

It is now 7pm.  I have to make myself stay up until 10:30 pm, at which point I will take a Melatonin suppliment to try to reset my circadian clock.  Wish me luck.  

The Great Flood of 10S

Ok, so I’m so lucky to be staying in a condo in Makati during this 2015 Summer of Learning Tagalog Independently.  

Later I’ll write about my tutoring sessions.  Or I’ll write about the fried peanut cart that I saw on Gil Puyat Boulevard, the peanuts looked spectacular.  

I’ll write later about the sale of my townhouse (St. Joseph, pray for us!).

But first, I will have to write about how I heard an explosion in the middle of the night.  Boom!  It’s kind of a noisy spot; there’s a night club downstairs, and there’s neighbors with company in the hallway, whatever.  I heard the Boom!  and went back to sleep.  

Later I woke up to check on the sound of jets, which was coming from inside the bathroom.  Pray earnestly, dear brothers and sisters, that you might never hear the sound of jets in the bathroom. 

Before I even stepped into the bathroom, I noticed that my feet were wet and cold.  I turned on the light and went inside.  The bathroom was flooded, I’d say, up to my armpits, and the gushing was coming from a headless bidet hose.  The spray head had exploded under the pressure, busted through the plastic.  The rubber gasket lay to the side, useless and despondent.  

Who knows how long the water had been gushing.  Gushing, by the way; future scholars will discover the sediment deposit patterns and measure the pressure in units of Niagras.  

I reach down and turn the valve. Nothing.  I turn the valve the other way, nothing again.  I tried turning the valve 70 more times and then finally gave up.   By the way, by this time I’m fully underwater and remoras are cleaning my scales.   It was bad.  


Finally I put the gushing hose in a bucket and texted my cousin, who should not be awake at 5am.  Shut off the valve she said, and call maintenance.  

So… I kinked up the hose and tied it in a knot.  And took a photo.  Oh yes. 

The kinky knot I tied in the hose slowed the gush down to a drip, and I walked wet clothes and all down to the doorman, who was sleeping.  I woke him up and told him my bidet exploded, and he said he would call maintenance, shall we schedule it for 6am?  I was like, um no, the water has to be shut off now.  He got on the radio and I went back upstairs.  

Then I noticed my cousin had texted me.  There are TWO valves under the toilet, once controls the bidet.  I looked down and saw a valve and another joint, which seemed to be just a capped off y-joint.  Nope, the cap twisted:  it was indeed a valve.  So I twisted the valve shut and went downstairs to tell the doorman to stand down.   
I mopped up what remained of the deluge, took a shower, and hung the wet rags.  I’m too awake to go back to sleep now.  Maybe.  

Made it!  Quezón City, Philippines


Last summer, I had just returned from Taipei and I was all set to spent summer break 2015 in Manila.  When I planned it as a summer break activity, it made a lot of sense.  

Things have changed!  Now I’m here in the Philippines, this time as a citizen of the Republic of the Philippines.  I still have my return ticket, but I no longer have my own home to return to, and my work situation has changed drastically.  Over the last week, I’ve wrapped up my duties as a teacher, chucked all of my earthly belongings into storage, and made arrangments to have my townhouse sold while I’m gone.  I know it sounds straightforward, but it’s actually rather crazy pants.  

I buried a statue of St. Joseph in front of my townhouse, as they say you’re supposed to, hope it brings some holy intervention to my home sale.  I didn’t do the prayer on the card though, because it was all about torturing the St. Joseph statue until the actual saint in heaven prevails upon God to make the sale happen.  Gross.  When I was a teenager Fr. Ryan used his homily to tell us that God doesn’t need coersion to act, burying the statue seemed a little blasphemous.  I mean, I buried the statue, but I didn’t do the prayer.  Guh.  

I really hate moving, especially since I have to confront junk boxes that I created the last time I moved and hated it.  You know, you start off packing and organizing, but near the end you start packing all-purpose boxes, and those all-purpose of random necessecities ends up turning into boxes of junk. It’s not a good situation.  

So usually what I do when I get to the stage where I’m dealing with junk boxes is that I dispair and then sit down and pout and then don’t make anymore progress.  Luckily this time I had my sister and friends there to keep me on task.  Thank God for them, H and my friend B, for solving problems for me, and also for K who lent his expertise in lifting and keeping the storage unit tight.  

When the day came to leave, it wasn’t a panic.  In fact there was time  for a box of croissants.  B came and took some stuff away in his van, I locked up the storage, and my sister dropped me off at the airport.  

It’s a 10 hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, and Korean Air has big Boeing 777s with high ceilings.  Their service is super attentive and considerate and the food is good.  Good as in, how can I get my lunchbox reheated rice to taste as good as their sealed packages for individual use?  Can I just buy those?  Also, can I buy that just-add-hot-water seaweed soup for my lunches?  I got bibimbap a couple of times, and a beef stew on rice.  

The first flight attendent that served me bibimbap asked me if I had ever had it before, I was like, come on.  The second one that served it to me started with a long, complicated explanation of bibimbap for ignorant gringos.  “It’s a korean style beef with mixed vegetables, with the sesame oil, and the hot pepper paste”  and I think that they designed that explanation to steer non-koreans toward the pasta option.  Sorry, I think the pasta option is always a mistake on an airplane.  

I have a policy of alwasys ordering the native food on the plane.  So if I’m flying an Asian airline, I choose the Asian option over the “western” option.  Back in 2000 my friends gasped when they heard me order the Chinese breakfast on a China Air flight.  They gasped again when they saw their “western” breakfast was greasy sad limp eggs, greasy sad limp sausage links, and a roll.  They asked me, how did you know to order the Chinese breakfast?  I told them that I had figured that Chinese people were better at making Chinese breakfasts, which consisted of 粥 congee and fun stuff to put in it.  

By the way, it’s bullshit to call things “western.”  “Western” is just a euphamism for “other people’s bullshit stereotypes of Americans.”  They will say that it’s NOT about Americans, but get real; it’s not a Mexican Breakfast or a German Breakfast or a French or British or any other country of the “Western” world.  

So when they offer you a “western breakfast” it’s really “their bullshit stereotype of American breakfast.”  Same with other “western food” or “western toilet” or whatever.  It’s bullshit and I got no time for it.  

Anyway, the flight from Seattle to Seoul was 10+ hours.  I watched a couple movies (Wreck It Ralph, Nosotros los Nobles) and started a couple more but then got bored in the middle.  

When I got to Seoul I found a mool naeng myun, because I am an addict.  It was the worst, cheapest, sorriest mool naeng myun I ever ate; (no beef, thin veggies, barely cold broth), which is to say that it was still pretty good.  

I have never seen more surgical masks in public than when I went to Seoul this time, probably due to the MERS scare.  People put them on as soon as the plane landed, and I heard some Chinese girls behind me comparing the social higherarchy of different kinds of surgical masks.  

When I boarded my flight to Manila I was battling to stay awake.  Apparently I passed out and when I woke up again 40 minutes later, they were apologizing for the long wait on the runway and saying that they now finally had the green light to take off.  

Two hours later I was on the ground in Manila.  T-Mobile messaged me saying that I had free unlimited text and internet (not high speed, though).  I spent kind of a long time in line to turn in the yellow form that says something like “I don’t have MERS” and then breezed through Immigration with my NEW PHILIPPINE PASSPORT.  I had to stay cool though, didn’t want to draw too much attention.  

I got my checked bag off the conveyor belt and then waltzed out of customs and found my Cowsin D and Kuya G waiting for me.  There was some traffic and a stop at McDonald’s (I got a diet coke) and then back to the family compound on Lunas St.  

What’s next?  Tagalog lessons and quality time with relatives; discovering my ancestral/new homeland for six more weeks.  When I go “home” to Seattle, it won’t be home, but there will be a party and a road trip and another moving adventure, so there’s that.  

By the way, there will be plenty more blogging now that I’m not teaching.  

Another New Beginning’s End

Ladies and Gentlemen, last night I graded my last stack of finals.  Today I stopped for pastries at the Columbia City Bakery before going in to work.  At work, I put my grades to bed, collected my personal belongings in a box… turned in my keys and key card… and drove away.

In many ways it was the dream job, the job I had always wanted for a long time.  I had a parking space, my own cool classroom with a million dollar view, a nice office shared with a great department, a key to the faculty washroom, a decent lunch only a couple of floors below.

When they told me I would be teaching five preps, I choked on my tongue a little, but signed the contract, as I had no other alternative. Well, folks, I’m happy to say I have fulfilled and survived the five prep club!  And I have another gig lined up for the fall.

My students and coworkers have been so gracious in these last few weeks, although there have been some attempted guilt trips, which I find entertaining.  There are a few gift cards, which I think I will attempt to spend tonight, since… since I have no papers to grade.

A week from now I’ll be in Seoul; the following day I’ll be in Manila.  I can’t wait to start writing more posts.  Stay tuned!

In The Past Three Weeks

The last time I posted on this blog, I was in Hawaii, attending my Cowsin L’s wedding.  I wish I had had more time to blog, because there’s be a lot since then.  

Kauai was amazing, and the best part of it was meeting local people and eating local food.  My sister feels island anxiety there, disconnected from the world.  Me, I have no anxiety there.  I imagine myself living there and eating hot rice and poke with kimchi-style cucumbers every day for the rest of my life.  As an Asian American who grew up in the Lower 48, the Local Hawaiian culture is very seductive.  Even though I know I’m an outsider, I felt like we were getting local treatment. I loved it there.  Also, I have always loved Hawaiian Pidgin English.

Back in Seattle now, and the big news is that I’ve accepted a job offer at a company in Los Angeles, and I’ll be moving there later this year.  It’s an exciting opportunity and I be more forthcoming about the details when I get there.  There’s still a lot of time and space between now and the start of my new job.  

Moving to LA means leaving Seattle, and leaving my teaching job.  Last night was my last graduation ceremony as a faculty member.  It was also my last graduation party and after-party faculty karaoke apocalypse.  I will definitely miss that tradition; I hope they carry it on without me this time around!  Since I’m saying my goodbyes to my colleagues, the yearbook moderator was kind enough to find me a copy of the yearbook, and I’ve been having people sign it.  So far people have been writing very heartfelt and moving messages; for some reason, I had expected more clowning!  

There are 10 days left in the school year, so there are grades and exams and final projects and all manner of professional responsibilities still to fulfill.  Since it’s my last school year there, I’ll have a desk to clean out, and my classroom… I have a lot of funn stuff in there to consider; maybe I shall leave that stuff to the next Chinese/Spanish teacher.  

Today I met with my real estate agent, to plan Operation Move The Heck Out.  I hope my townhouse sells fast!  After that, it will be summer break–my last summer break!  and there will be big adventures in Manila before starting my new career in LA.  

Recent vocabulary:  畢業典禮,在年鑑裡留言,鵬程萬里。

I’m in Hawaii


So my sister and I are on Kaua’i for Cowsin L’s wedding.  It’s my first time in the 50th State and I’m quite impressed with the Garden Island.  We’re staying in Waipouli, which is a beachy village halfway between Lihu’e and Kapaa. 

There will be another post later, with more photos, but for now, just the facts:  

  • I did, in fact, bring a stack of Spanish 1 exams with me, and graded some last night on a picnic table while everyone else was at the bar.  
  • My sister and I have, indeed, eaten double our combined body weight in poke, the seafood salads that locals eat.  So far I’ve eaten ahi, spicy ahi, hamachi, salmon, lomi salmon, hamachi, crab, prawns, and mussles.  Also some ono ceviche from the Mexican place.  
  • Meeting locals is the funnest part of Hawaii.  

More later.  

The Life I Want To Lead

I live in a smallish, high rise apartment in downtown Seattle.  It has an amazing view.  That’s the main thing about this apartment; the view.  There’s also the sunlight bathroom and the kitchen that always stays clean somehow.

Sometimes I stay home and work, since I’m a famous author.  Other times I take my work to the coffee shop, or the public library.  Have you seen this place? It’s kind of spectacular.

When I’m feeling dramatic, I walk down to Coleman Dock and take a ferry round-trip, working on the boat..

All I need for work is in a messenger bag that I carry; my iPad, my keyboard, a stylus.  My grocery bag folds up really small, so I always have it in my bag… I’ll have to stop at the Market later for vegetables.  The vendors all know me.  I walk, by the way, because I lead a car-free life.  It’s an easy walk to the ID.  It’s a train to Coumbia City, Broadway, and the UDistrict.  It’s a train to the airport.

I imagine my publisher is in New York or Boston somewhere, so I’m flying there every so often.  Occasionally I plan extended trips to other towns, where I can keep working but keep my language skills sharp.  A couple months in Taipei during the fall, somewhere in Western Europe in the spring.  Summers in Seattle, Christmas in the Philippines.

I like to write. I see that I’m not particulary great at it, and my research habits still feel middle school at times, but I enjoy it.  On a typical day, I write, and work on writing, for four to five hours.  After that, I have time to do other things, other things that are not work.  Things like playing my ukulele, taking a language class, volunteering at Matt Talbot or Operation Sack Lunch.  Writing music and practicing with my band.  I wonder what it would be like to volunteer to teach ESL with Casa Latina or the Archdiocese of Seattle.  I wonder what it would be like to be a volunteer multilingual tour guide at the Seattle Aquarium.

Back to reality for a second:  I like the place I’m working now.  I have a nice office in a particulary competent and professional department, a modern classroom with a million dollar view and a covered parking space.  The workload is a hardship, and I haven’t had much of a personal life this year.  Solving that might be tricky.  Fingers crossed, and I’ll hope for the best.