Notes from the lockdowns: politics is a matter of life and death

The roadmap to recovery: 3 stages of easing social distancing restrictions across Western Australia as the state emerges from Covid-19 pandemic

We are starting Stage 2 of the Covid-19 roadmap on Monday, 18 May, which essentially means fewer restrictions on our movements and on the number of people who can gather for non-work activities in public. While hundreds of thousands of Australians are still out of jobs due to the lockdowns, people are still recovering from the virus or succumb to the disease, we fared considerably much better than a lot of other countries, thanks to a combination of luck and measures implemented early enough to prevent the uncontrollable spread of the coronavirus in Australia.

As an immigrant, it breaks my heart each time I read of how the current government has been mismanaging just about everything back in the Philippines, and it worries me the most when my family tells me of the many hurdles they have to go through just to stock up on basic supplies. Before the easing of restrictions started at least in the capital, Luzon island was in near complete lockdown and only select members of households are allowed to step out to purchase essential items on certain days of the week. In a developing country of 108 million people, doing anything quickly and efficiently is still a pipe dream, so one could only imagine the hours people spend waiting in long lines to purchase limited food items. That is, if people can afford to in the first place.

I count my family still lucky, but the millions who depend on daily wages to survive are the ones who have it unimaginably difficult: if they don’t work, they don’t eat; most live in cramped quarters in depressed communities where sanitation is rare if not unheard of. Unfortunately, the national government is more keen to jail “violators” of the lockdowns instead of focusing on softening the impact of the pandemic on the population. Worse still, local leaders who had the initiative to give provisions to their constituents and charitable work espoused by the vice-president to give much needed support to health workers were threatened with criminal probes or cases because they were “competing” with the national government.

Living in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet puts into focus just how privileged and absolutely lucky I have found myself, yet I also can’t help but shake my head in horror at the news of tens of thousands of infections and deaths happening in other parts of the world. As of this writing, there have only been 98 deaths in Australia, yet while it is 98 deaths too many, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the figures reported in Italy, Spain and the UK, or the 100 thousand deaths projected in the United States.

We cannot chalk up the early flattening of the curve and the much fewer deaths from Covid-19 to Australia’s wealth alone; geography has always been this country’s first line of defence whenever global threats occur. And while not everything is smooth sailing, social safety nets proved invaluable in the time of coronavirus. Thus, this country has one of the highest rates of Covid-19 testing in the world at no cost to the individual. Moreover, getting hospitalised for Covid-19 will not result in bankruptcy, thanks to publicly funded healthcare. I don’t think if the same can be said for the United States which is currently far and away copping the worst of the pandemic, for obvious reasons.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus in this country is due to leadership: Australian leaders banded across party lines to face the most pressing issues of the day and responded based on reliable information and expert advice. And the experts? They have been involved since the earliest stages of the pandemic to provide guidance to decision-makers; thus, social distancing measures, border closures, staggered rolling out of lockdowns, and daily national and state press briefings were implemented early. When the jobs losses began, the government extended much needed lifeline to qualified recipients and protections were put in place to shield renters from evictions. Being a permanent resident is one of the first qualifications I have to these safety nets and it’s hard to imagine now how difficult it would have been for me if the infections happened 3 or 4 years ago when I was on a temporary visa.

As people engaged in panic buying of tissue paper, food items, electronics, home office equipment, and other essentials, plans were made to ensure supplies reached the shops. And although law enforcers were given more authority to implement rules and fine individuals for non-compliance on the spot, the public also knew their rights and responsibilities. The messaging provided by the WA’s Premiere (equal to a governor in other countries) and his team are some of the best, definitive, and sometimes entertaining that I’ve ever seen. Leadership is not only a matter of doing what is right, it is also communicating it effectively.

This sits in stark contrast to the deranged ramblings coming from the old man in Malacanang, of accounts of hunger and hardships that emerged out of poorly planned public quarantines, and of human rights violations borne by a culture of corruption back home: you cannot expect people to stay home unless by fear of violence or death if they have nothing to eat. Petty tyranny flies in the face of hunger and a crumbling public health system that produces some of the lowest and slowest Covid-19 testing rates in the world, so slow test results for so many people arrive days after they have already died from the virus.

Tell me again how politics is not a matter of life and death. Whoever said “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” must have seen these days coming.

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Notes from the lockdown: “Touch Your Heart” is delightfully lighthearted

Lee Dong Wook and Yoo In-na as lawyer Kwon Jung Rok and his secretary Oh Jin Shim, respectively.

I have lost count of how many times I binged watched Touch Your Heart, which I discovered on Viki after watching Guardian: The Great and Lonely God (or Goblin for short). You know how it is when you’re searching for something else to watch whilst having withdrawals from the drama that you’ve just finished: either ask friends for recommendations or jump into the rabbit hole that is the list of all the works of the actors involved in the show.

While this will be an unpopular opinion amongst fans of Gong Yoo (he’s fabulous and will always be a favourite since Coffee Prince), I maintain that Lee Dong Wook whose portrayal of a Grim Reaper stole some of Yoo’s thunder from right under his feet. In the Goblin universe, there are quite a few of them, thus the indefinite article “a”. The guy strutted his way onto the screen as if straight from the pages of a fashion magazine (it turns out he endorses the Boy de Chanel line) as the hat-wearing Reaper, albeit one that’s compassionate and with a rather more interesting back story than Goblin’s main character.

As viewers of k-dramas know, most series from this genre also feature a “second couple”, a pair that supplements the romantic highs and lows that the lead characters provide and for the most part, serve as a plot device. In Goblin, the Grim Reaper is half of the second couple with Yoo In-Na’s Kim Sun. Together, Grim Reaper and Kin Sun provided a supplemental love story that, although heartbreakingly tragic, was more compelling than that of the first couple’s. It’s the only reason I didn’t give up on Goblin halfway through and explains the hype surrounding the show. More about Goblin in another post.

With viewer’s ratings of 98% on Google and 9.7 on Viki which thankfully did not geo-block the series, I decided to give Touch Your Heart a go, thinking if I could manage my way through to at least a quarter of episode 1, it should be okay. It was all fun and kilig from this point onwards.

Speaking of geoblocking, about three quarters of the shows I want to see on Viki are unavailable in Australia—is there another service that owns the rights to these shows Down Under? How do I subscribe?

Fans of the “pichi couple” were delighted by the announcement that they would be working together again, this time in a much more upbeat series and playing not-at-all tragic characters. The reunion features a strait laced star lawyer Kwon Jung Rok (Lee) and an actress down on her luck, Oh Jin Shim (Yoo; stage name: Oh Yoon Seo), whose career has suffered almost irreparably after getting implicated in a drugs scandal involving a well-connected heir to a chaebol. Think of it as a case of #metoo, but one in which the victim more harshly was judged more harshly by the public instead of the perp.

Casting projects and endorsements dry up in the years that follow Oh Jin Shim’s career downfall until she stumbles on a script meant for someone else. To convince the project’s creators that she can act and play the part of a lawyer–or just to have a whiff of a chance at getting cast for the role–she must get an experience at a law firm. Jin Shim ends up working as a secretary for the “prickly” Kwon Jung Rok at Always (LOL, the name!), a boutique law firm where the managing partner is a cousin of her agent and is a big fan of hers.

Her introduction to the handsome lawyer is not exactly meet-cute: Jung Rok shows no interest in her as a former A-list celebrity nor approves of her fashion choice, which he thinks is inappropriate in a corporate environment. Nor is he impressed by her turning up an hour late on her first day, by her apparent lack of any useful skills beyond acting and product endorsements, and the fact that the rest of the staff are fawning over her just for being the so-called Korea’s goddess (“my goddess, your goddess, the universe’s goddess”).

To prove that Jung Rok’s assumptions about her are wrong, Oh Jin Shim steps up to the challenge and learns the job of a lawyer’s Secretary (something short of a paralegal in the show’s context): report to work before the boss arrives, wear office-appropriate attire, manage to forward calls and operate the printer/copier, prepare coffee, organise files. There are missteps that follow that are not entirely of her making, but to her credit, Oh Jin Shim knows how to answer back to her superior and explain that although she is not highly skilled, she is driven and willing to learn.

Taken aback and realising he needs to show a little compassion somehow, Jung Rok eventually assigns a task that is relevant to the drama role that, unbeknownst to him, his secretary is secretly preparing for. Thus by successfully researching a set of legal precedents and proving that she has exceptionally good recall (something the scene implies actors are known for), Jin Shim manages to convince him that she is worthy of the job after all.

What follows is one of the most touching scenes that demonstrates the strength of Oh Jin Shim’s character, thanks to her experience as a public figure (i.e. a target of nasty online comments), and a reminder to always be kind, for others are fighting battles one does not know about. It’s a piece of clever writing that’s acted brilliantly by the two leads.

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Notes from the lockdown: rediscovering k-drama

It has been four weeks since the federal government recommended that residents limit their movements as much as possible: visit the shops only to purchase necessary items, such as food or medicine; go to work or school if telework is not feasible; stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people when you’re in public; and do social distancing-friendly exercise only, such as running or walking. “Stay at home, save lives” has been the mantra that guided our actions in the hopes of slowing down the spread of this dreaded disease that so far has claimed over 100 thousand lives and has made its presence at an alarming rate by infecting over 1 million people in over 90 countries as of this writing.

And so while there is not much to do other than what is necessary to slow down the progress of the worst catastrophe that the world has faced since World War II, humanity–at least those who can–has turned to technology to pass the time. There are some who spent time on pursuits that are not necessarily reliant on modern technology, but for the most part, we’ve sought solace from social networks and streaming services. Netflix, YouTube, Stan, and Amazon Prime Video are just some of the services that our household has subscribed to, but thanks to the popularity of the Korean drama (“k-drama”) Crash Landing on You (CLOY to many fans), I have had to add Viki to my list of subscriptions.   

Son Ye Jin as Yoon Se Ri and Hyun Bin as North Korean soldier Capt. Lee/Ri Jeung Hyoek in the massive hit, “Crash Landing On You

Prior to CLOY, the last k-drama that I watched was Big and the only reason I stuck with it was because it starred Gong Yoo (of Coffee Prince fame and at the time, Train to Busan). However, I still ended up scratching my head with its weird conclusion, something that was common amongst the k-dramas I watched by that point.

It had also been years before that since I last watched another k-drama, which must have been Coffee Prince itself, as I had often found that the genre’s storylines were silly, the male characters were stuck up, and most annoyingly, the females were either hopelessly ditzy or straight up mean. I wasn’t particularly happy watching grown up women acting like they were still in kindergarten, the series makers’ idea of cute.   

A few things have changed since, it seems. For one, CLOY’s Yoon Se-Ri is a firebrand who has built a business empire of her own; other series show women pursuing careers and taking it to the man; single mothers who raise well-rounded children; breadwinners; women who have more to offer despite appearances. Maybe the timing of this pandemic means the release of western films and series had to be pushed to later dates, which in turn means there just aren’t many interesting shows available just when we need more things to keep us entertained. But with so much buzz happening around new Asian productions, including the success of South Korea’s Parasite at the Oscars, quite a few of us have since started to revisit k-drama as an alternative to the boring western fare on TV and streaming services, starting with CLOY, followed by other shows that had been lingering for years waiting to be rediscovered.

Over the past four weeks, I have so far added Kingdom (Netflix), Guardian: the Great and Lonely God (“Goblin” in other countries), Hyena, and Touch Your Heart to the list of shows that I have binge watched and re-binge watched because one could not enjoy a good thing just once, especially if you missed some key elements of a story or a scene while reading subtitles. 

Lee Dong Wook as lawyer Kwon Jung Rok and Yoo In-na as an actress down on her luck, Oh Yoon Seoh/Oh Jin Sim in the delightful and lighthearted “Touch Your Heart”

There is a good reason why k-drama has become so popular the world over. One of the effects of South Korea’s democratisation in the 1980s was increased investment in culture and the arts, which in turn became the vessel for selling the idea of a modern, prosperous, and trendy country. The result is an industry that churns polished and well written TV and movie productions, and with the current popularity of k-pop (think of BTS and Gangnam Style), hallyu or Korean wave is bigger and better than ever.

Call it formulaic, but there is also something about these productions that just keeps the audience glued to the screen: maybe it’s the “kilig” factor, the water works, actors who look like they follow the 10-step beauty routine, the fashion, the laugh-out-loud sketches, the excellent cinematography, or characters making the most out of awkward situations. Most often it’s just all of these rolled into one. A combination of comedy, melodrama, and action sequences in one act rarely happens in western series, but this mix is a staple of k-drama. 

This video explains the start of hallyu, though it focuses mainly on the films that started the Korean wave. I believe that to appreciate hallyu‘s power, you need to be more familiar with the TV series that made it across Asia and other parts of the world, starting in the early 2000s.

Working from home, having space to oneself, and decent Internet connection are just some of the privileges that brought into focus the luck that I have been enjoying since moving to Australia. Amidst news of tens/hundreds of thousands of people being infected by the coronavirus, Perth, Western Australia, is undeniably one of the safest places on the planet. And while I do worry about family and friends who have every chance of catching the virus back in the Philippines, thanks to the Duterte government’s incompetence and callous disregard for human life, there is no other place I would rather be than Perth, my new home, whilst waiting for the crisis to end and things get to normal…if there is such a thing as normal when we emerge on the other side of this tragedy.

In the meantime, there are years’ worth of pan-Asian drama on top of the usual American and British fare on streaming services to escape to.

An office of one’s own

I could get used to having a few reasons to celebrate, which is what we have been doing in the past 5 weeks. There was the offer of a permanent job after a number of stints in contractual roles; then, the following day my Australian permanent residency was granted after years of waiting, spending roughly AU$10,000 in applications and professional fees, countless documents, anxiety, and keeping an eye on a Facebook group for tips and updates.

Life is starting to look up after years in limbo for both myself and my husband who himself was in the middle of a career shift when we got married.

It’s not the biggest office in the world, but it’s more than the confines of a cubicle.

Apart from the technical aspects of my new work, another perk is the literal corner office that I will be occupying which sits right at the end of the corridor and away from prying eyes of co-workers. It’s small, but it’s more than the confines of cubicles to which I had become very familiar over the years. I have my own lockers and the usual gadgets, two heaters, a fan, a view of the outside world, and I could close the door if I wanted to concentrate on a task.

I have been a week and half at the new job that not only requires me to manage documentation on operating procedures and policies, but also organise activities necessary to get/maintain an ISO accreditation. It’s a promising role and far less dead-end, to say the least, than the previous jobs I had held since moving to Perth. Of course, that is not to say that I am not thankful for every opportunity that came my way: a job is a job when you’re building a new life in another country and there are bills to pay.

After signing the employment offer with the new company, I submitted my resignation letter to my then-manager whom I wasn’t sure was happy or sad about having to find another person to fill my role. I couldn’t tell either if the timing was right, because the company had recently been acquired by a Japanese organisation. But as much as I loved the incredible work-life balance there that allowed me clock in at 11:00 every day, there was only so much I could do in that role, which was contractual in the first place, as organising online translations ate up too much of my time and did not allow me to do what I really wanted: technical documentation, creating learning content, things related to knowledge management and learning and development.

How my job evolved over the 11 months that I was there was a far cry from the expectations that we set at the start of my employment. I was still thankful for the opportunity, but we all knew that I was not allocated tasks that I wanted to accomplish and that also meant they were not getting good value out of my presence or the salary that they were paying me. If that was not enough to convince them that I needed to take the next opportunity that came my way, I didn’t know what would. I had the feeling my contract would be continued, but I didn’t want to be forever in limbo either.

I shall miss my powerful work gadgets, the assistance from some of the brainiest and friendliest people I’ve had the chance to work with, running around Herdsman, the shower rooms and lockers downstairs for when I needed to change into my running gear, and being comfortable, but I need to move on to new challenges.

My old work station

Here’s hoping that the new job will be a good one and that I would be able to meet the expectations laid out on my job description.

Fretting About Le Tour

I have been following cycling as a sport since last year, when I wasn’t working and had the “privilege” of staying late to watch the Tour de France.

My interest in Le Tour was initially all about enjoying the amazing vistas of the French countryside that the cyclists were passing through. Who wouldn’t enjoy those wide-angle shots of miles of vineyards, sunflower fields, or the random chateaus that dotted the race’s route?

However, my interest eventually evolved into what the Tour was really about – cycling – and all the excitement and drama that came with it. I eventually understood some of the “rules” of the tour; what the peloton was; the climbs on the Alps and the Pyrenees; the significance of the yellow jersey; the sheer dedication and effort to cycle thousands of kilometres across France (or its bordering countries) for 21 days.

Eventual winner, Geraint Thomas, on Stage 12 of the 2018 Tour de France.

In the 2018 edition, it was just amazing to watch Geraint Thomas win the Tour, especially because he’s always had the cycling pedigree and was one of the key figures behind Chris Froome’s Tour de France victory over the previous three or four years! The second guy, always the bridesmaid but never the bride. As the super domestique, his job has always been to support to the team leader during a race’s most critical periods. Although he had won a few races prior to Le Tour, no one truly expected him to surge to the top, given he was also prone to crash.

The first time I every followed a cycling race was such an enjoyable experience, because it was Number 2 who came out on top, and that was pretty damn relatable. And so when this year’s Tour started, I was quite excited.

To my consternation, Thomas is tracking second on the General Classification and at this stage in the race (13th), has crashed twice, and is behind 1 minute and 20-odd seconds behind the current leader Julianne Alaphilippe, last year’s “King of the Mountains”. Anyone who has joined any race in anything – running, cycling, swimming, etc — knows what mere seconds mean, and how much preparation it needed to be just that little bit faster than the next competitor.

The big climbs are not yet happening until the last week of the 2019 Le Tour, so I’m still crossing my fingers for Thomas to win. But to manage my expectations and to be realistic about the prospects of Thomas’s chances of defending the yellow jersey, I’m starting to accept the fact that more than halfway through the tour, Alaphilippe is still in yellow. And I’m not a big fan of the guy.

As much as I like July for all the sporting events that are available on TV and streaming services, it’s been quite disappointing this year: Serena and Roger lost spectacularly in their respective Wimbledon grand finals, Fremantle is off the top half of the AFL, and now Thomas is half-expected to lose his title defence of the the Tour de France.

Alaphilippe is alright, but I’m just not a big fan of anything or anyone that is flamboyant. It’s like Novak Djokovic being “desperate” (in the words of Nick Kyrgios) to win everyone’s approval. I may eventually warm up to him as a cyclist, but there’s still a part of me that holds out for an eventual title defence come the 28th of July in Paris.

Maybe I should watch Le Tour less and stop following my bets for fear of jinxing them. Yikes.