First heard the phrase "brain drain" back in the eighties, I think. A couple of months ago the Danish theater director Ms Ditte Maria Bjerg, with whom I had been emailing back and forth, introduced me to the phrase "care drain." As soon as she said it, I understood: I suddenly saw the Pinays flooding the streets of the Hong Kong Sunday again, most of them married, with children back in the Philippines. For almost every family abroad who gets a Pinay helper, a family back in the Phil loses a mother. Her children are raised by their grandparents. Ditte however, wanted to focus on the grandmothers, who, on top of losing the help of their daughters, had to shoulder the rearing of a second generation of children even as they got weaker with age. It's a state of affairs that could inspire any number of gritty, Brockaesque, award-winning, entirely and excruciatingly unwatchable social-realist films, so I liked that what Ditte was planning did NOT involve any plans to make any such film.
Denmark, along many other European countries, imports Pinays as "au pairs." "Au Pair is a French phrase that means "equal," as in "you are my equal." Same root as the phrase "on par with." Pair. Par. Equal. Basically an au pair is a young foreigner who is supposed to live with a host family and perform some basic domestic work in return for room, board and an allowance of some 200-280 Euro -- ie some 11 to 16 thousand pesos -- a month, according to www.aupair-world.net. The arrangement was first conceived to facilitate a kind of intra-European cultural exchange so that students could live with host families in other countries. So that (for example) a Swedish college student could sharpen her French by living in Paris with a family in exchange for doing some cooking, walking the kids to school, and so on. Because this was the function the arrangement was supposed to serve, the governments of various countries cooperated in setting up basic rules that more or less meant to uphold the idea that au pairs were essentially cultural students, and not to be seen as a cheap way to get the washing done. And so for example, most countries forbid that the au pairs wear a uniform, specify that they must eat at table with the host family, and set limits as to how many hours they can work in the home.
Of course the economy and and history of Europe has proceeded to develop a state of affairs where more and more Europeans disdain to perform domestic chores for other families. Naturally, an influx of Pinays have arrived to fill the demand for a cheap way to get the washing done. (Technically the au pair could be male or female, but in practice, the vast majority of au pairs are women for the same reason that most domestic helpers are women: they are generally less threatening to take into one's household.) So here we are in Denmark, with a steady influx of Pinay au pairs.
Ditte's idea was to exaggerate the conveniences that the Pinay au pairs afforded to the Danish populace by playing with the idea of "Paradise". A Paradise of no work, where your needs are attended to by ministering angels. Uniformed Pinays were to enact a kind of theater of paradise for the Danish audience in various coffeeshops around Copenhagen. It would be my job to create a soundscape for this idea, to envelop the audience in the sounds of a Tropical Paradise, and perhaps to break the spell when necessary. Of course, the art part of the idea, the artistic problem, was how to introduce the customers to the idea that somehow, somebody somewhere was paying for this service paradise even as they immersed themselves in it. To show them, to paraphrase Kerouac, the naked lunch on the end of their fork.
To this end, Ditte recruited the director Khavn de la Cruz and various stalwarts of the Manila independent scene to shoot footage of various Pinay grandmothers in their houses, going about their day, and even addressing their daughters through the camera, as they made video letters that Ditte would deliver to their daughters. Various bits of the footage will be displayed on video screens distributed about the cafe. We are currently in rehearsal, trying out various other bits to
reinforce that aspect of the piece that the videos stab at constructing. The complacence-poisoning, insidiously educational aspect of the piece. Stay tuned.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Went to the circus last night. Ditte tells me Cirque Trottola is an exponent of New Circus, which mostly uses human performers. Cirque du Soleil is new circus, but extremely high-budget and gorgeous. Cirque Trottola has a punk feel, a Violent-Femmes-on-the-sidewalk version of the circus. Minimal, lean, stripped down. A return to the roots of human spectacle. 5 performers in a tiny tent that seated maybe 300 people. One strong man, one juggler, and an androgynous female acrobat ( "voltigeuse" on the CD) who looked like a tiny Rod Stewart, performing in trio and various duets. Occasional solo pieces, including a really memorable one by the juggler, who animated a dress hung on a stand that he balanced on the end of his push-broom. Ghostly and forlorn, like something out of Magritte. All sounds done live by two brilliant multi-instrumentalists playing detuned electric guitar, found percussion, violin and keyboards. Nobody spoke or ever changed costume. All characters, costumes and fragmented narratives reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. Or is it that Waiting for Godot is based on the imagery of the low-budget circus? A revelation for me, anyway. Bought the CD from the guitarist/percussionist Thomas Barriere who was hawking it by the tent exit with the violinist/keyboardist Bastien Pelenc (more punk aesthetics)! Should have got the CD signed. No fanboy/collector instincts, me. Oh well.
Saturday, August 07, 2010
These days I'm in Denmark. Technically on Amager island --which is pronounced Ama island. Silent "ger" and more on this later. Think Mactan to Cebu where Cebu is Copenhagen. Except closer, as I could literally bike over the bridge to Copenhagen or, since I'm writing this on a computer and it's the god-damn millenium, København, as she is spelled here. First time I've formally used that weirdo vowel. Been here since August 1 to do sound design for Pinoy Cafe, a multimedia theater piece with synchronized video, performance, sound effects and maybe 2 chickens (!) to be staged at various coffeeshops around Copenhagen. Will be here till October. Nice to be on a job in Europe, (I'm not good at taking vacations in foreign countries. I get bored and antsy) --especially in a place where people religiously preserve time for themselves and families. No pito-pito work-24-hours-a-day-on-2-cups-of-rice-and-adobo-sauce-without-sleep-for-a-week shit here. People take the god-damn weekends off from Friday afternoon onwards and have barbecues in a family cabin in the mountains of Sweden, or play with their kids in a city without skyscrapers and work is walking distance from home. Had a couple of strange nights wondering whether this was all real or my plane crashed and this was a weird pre-death hallucination I was having as my torn-off head sank to the bottom of the sea. Everything is so...rational, sculpted to give people pleasant lives, as opposed to Manila or Tokyo, where (and it never occurred to me to think this before) it seems that people assume that life is something you have to buy from the world at whatever cost it demands. If it demands that you work 36 hours without protection spraying lead-based paint on a wall in a windowless room for 200 pesos a day, well, that's the cost of biological life on this ball of dirt and say thank you, you piece of shit, if you want to keep your god-damn life. Instead, here, people walk over to bring their daughter to kindergarten before biking off to work in the neighborhood, and go home at 5PM, after the daily swim at the beach. Lives tracked by light jazz. Or so it seems from the vantage of this project. Since I'm working in theater, this might not be an accurate impression. Maybe high-powered stockbrokers in Copenhagen central live the usual hyper-slave-to-the-grind life in the Millenium. Maybe. Or maybe it's just that it's high summer in a cold country and everybody's high on sunlight and in some kind of Garden of Eden mode because of summer's 17 hours of daylight per day. Or maybe it's just that they were extremely rich until a few years ago (welfare state) and this are the last wisps of the rich life that their welfare state bought them in the 60's. Certainly life in Alabang on a Sunday afternoon (millionnaire gated community in Manila) seems blessed and rational, compared to the weekday grind of the average Filipino film production. So maybe Denmark is just a country-sized Alabang?
Who knows! I'm completely at sea. Don't remember feeling this off-balanced even when I lived in Japan for the first time, where nobody spoke English, and (because this was back in '83) English signs were at a minimum. Dunno if it's because I was 19 or because I simply assumed nothing. Here, I find myself constantly being knocked back on my feet because I assumed something without even realizing I assumed it. For instance, people are passing around a box of grapes at the office. They look like grapes, they're colored green. I put them into my mouth, Bang! They're really sour, and I realize I had assumed I was going to taste a sweet musk grape flavor. I check out the faces of everybody around the table, but everybody seems to be enjoying the grapes. So they like sour grapes here? Or they assume there's a spectrum of acceptable grape taste that ranges from really sour to really sweet? Or take another example. I walk by a shop that looks like what Hollywood movies have assured me a butcher shop looks like. I see a sign saying "Bacon - 44.5dk 1/2 kg" standing next to a slab of dry red meat. So I congratulate myself on being so enlightened as to know that not all bacon comes in strips in greasy vacuum-packed packages in supermarket freezers labeled Swift's Honeycured. That bacon can actually be made by humans wielding salt, smoke, and slabs of pork hacked off an actual pig. So I buy a half kilo of this "bacon" that I also have the foresight to ask the butcher to slice, thinly. When I make breakfast this morning though, it seems that the bacon takes forever to crisp. It's like it doesn't want to crisp. So okay, I figure, not crispy for this breakfast. When I eat it though, I find it has a completely different taste from what I was expecting. It's...I don't know. Meaty. Meaty, like a pork chop. It is also strangely more salty that I thought it would be. But, in a way I can't put more accurately, somehow also less salty that I thought it would be. And it has a tough rind that I have to spit out (but which perhaps people just swallow here as something normal and bacony?), because the slab of meat it was cut off had skin, and the skin fries up tough, not crispy. I'm constantly bumping into things like that, hour to hour. It's endlessly fascinating, but it can get tiring. It can take a while to find a comfortable corner at the end of a long day.
Another place that is a constant area of mild irritation is the language. And when I say irritation, I don't mean that I get annoyed or angry. I mean that I am constantly aware of language, like a coat that is slightly too tight or a new shirt that is slightly scratchy all over. I don't know why I never experienced this in Thailand, Bali, Japan, or Hong Kong, but it's something completely new. Nearly everybody can speak English, but nearly every written sign is in Danish. And Danish has almost no etymological information I can use as a clue. In Hong Kong, I could read signs in English, or read Chinese characters that they shared with Japanese (I can speak/read Japanese). If I were in France or Spain, I could use the store of Latin root-words that abound in the Spanish words that tagalog has absorbed as clues as to what words mean. Here, I see the word Rådhuspladsen or something and I don't know what any of the pieces mean. Is 'Råd' red? or 'Root' as in the latin 'Radix?' Is 'pladsen' the same as "place?" or maybe it's "plaza"?. My mind is convinced there is information to be had and so is constantly in overdrive, constantly seeking clues, order and information in the signs. And of course the sounds are different. I cannot even guess how the sounds that people are saying to me are meant to be spelled. I hear a name that sounds like "Kostko" and find it's spelled Kjærsgård. Somebody tells me I should meet "Annas Elbole" and when I tell him to write this "Annas"'s name down, he prints "Anders Elberling." It's like they're constantly using 3x the number of letters necessary to notate the sounds I hear. For the first time in my life I have an insight of how English can appear to the Japanese. You hear the word "laughter" and imagine it's spelled "lafta" then find out there's this u and g and h in there that basically do nothing.
So that's what it's like, here on this side of the looking-glass. Will be meeting the Mad Hatter and Dormouse later. All for now.