Arts and Culture

TEDxDiliman: A doctor, graphic novelist, and chef on beating the odds in their paths less travelled

Arnold Arre delivers a talk titled “From Panels to Pages” at TEDxDiliman, October 11, 2015. Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

Arnold Arre delivers a talk titled “From Panels to Pages” at TEDxDiliman, October 11, 2015. Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

An endocrinologist wading through the uncharted waters of social media, a graphic novelist who wrote about Filipino folklore instead of spandex-wearing superheroes, and a chef who opened a school and restaurant for people with special needs were among the speakers at TEDxDiliman, a conference on “Paths Less Travelled” held at the School of Economics of the University of the Philippines Diliman on Sunday, October 11, 2015.

Dr. Iris Isip Tan delivers a talk titled "A Doctor on Facebook". Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

Dr. Iris Isip Tan discusses the importance of social media in health care during her talk titled “A Doctor on Facebook” at TEDxDiliman, October 11, 2015. Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

Dr. Iris Isip Tan: “A Doctor on Facebook”
Endocrinologist Iris Isip Tan specializes in the treatment of diabetes, thyroid, adrenal, and pituitary disorders, as well as other hormonal disorders. She maintains a blog, as well as a Facebook page initially called “The Endocrine Witch,” the “witch” coming from the nickname her professors had because they were such terrors.

The blog was spurred by the problem of health literacy in the country. Many people did not get the care they needed, or got the care they did not need, because they did not have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.

In December 2012, Grumpy Cat became an Internet sensation. It was a lightbulb moment for Tan, who wondered if photos with health messages could go viral, as well. She opened “The Endocrine Witch” on Facebook and posted photos about how much sugar was in regular soda and about how an itch in one’s private parts might be an indication that one had diabetes.

After 100 photos and over 2,000 likes, she decided to stop. The comments were encouraging, but did anyone really take action after her posts?

“Did I save someone’s toe this time? I didn’t know. What do shares and likes actually mean?” Tan said.

But Mark Zuckerberg launched, making Facebook freely available to more Filipinos. She took that as a sign to begin anew.

Tan decided to stop calling herself the Endocrine Witch and asked people to call her Dok Bru. Her page now had a disclaimer: the information it contained was for the general public and was not personalized. It was not meant to replace a consultation with the followers’ doctors, and reading the page did not make them her patient.

She also began writing short, explanatory essays in Filipino to accompany her posts. She used “hugot” lines (those about love and heartbreak) to explain the dire consequences of not taking one’s medicine as prescribed, as well.

Then Dr. Willie Ong of the program “Salamat Dok” shared one of her posts, reaching 3.4 million people. The following day, she woke up to thousands of comments on her Facebook wall.

She struggled to answer them all. People posted photos of their laboratory results, asking for a diagnosis. Someone took a photo of a lump on his or her neck and asked, “Dok, could this be goiter?”

“So when does a request for information become a consultation? I thought it would be clear but it wasn’t,” Tan said.

For a doctor to make a diagnosis, he or she had to look at the patient’s history, do a physical exam, and interpret lab results, which she could not do online. But what would happen to her followers? She then directed them to her blog, where she wrote more extensively on the matter, and asked them to consult a doctor.

Tan was still uncertain about whether that was the correct course of action.

Then she made it clear that her Facebook page was not a consultation platform, so people asked where her clinic was.

“I felt uncomfortable giving that information because the page was not meant to advertise my services,” she said.

They then asked if she refused to give her clinic address because she was in hiding, while others told her that if they Googled her, they would get data charges, while Facebook was free.

So, Tan gave in.

Her Facebook wall became a community, with over 30,000 likes. But the endocrinologist found it hard to police the comments, as her page attracted salesmen of herbs, food supplements, and even herbal sanitary napkins which would “reverse” infertility.

“By attempting to raise health literacy, I have now assembled an audience that is being exploited by others to advertise their dubious products,” she said.

A follower even disclosed graphic details about his sexual partners. Tan deleted the post.

Some also complained about their doctors and the care they received. How was she to respond? What were the rules of engagement for doctors and patients online?

“Doctors can no longer ignore social media and the role it can play in healthcare,” she stressed. “And I think research has to be done to determine what health outcomes can accrue when we empower patients on social media.”

Though she might still have questions, Tan vowed to continue providing patient education and support in Filipino.

Arnold Arre delivers a talk titled “From Panels to Pages” at TEDxDiliman, October 11, 2015. Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

Arnold Arre shares how he reclaims his childhood happiness by making comics in his talk, “From Panels to Pages,” at TEDxDiliman on October 11, 2015. Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

Arnold Arre: “From Panels to Pages”
As a kid in the 1970s, graphic novelist Arnold Arre would go with his family to the theater The Quad (now Glorietta). Behind that was a park where several Filipino-themed bronze statues were.

There was one of a carabao, another of a tamaraw, and a third of two people dancing the tinikling. But one really caught the child’s attention: that of a man struggling with a tikbalang, pulling its hair while on its back.

The statue was called Taming the Tikbalang. Fascinated, Arre researched about the creature and was amazed to learn that it was part of Philippine mythology. He was excited that, just like the Greeks, his country had its own folklore too.

But he quickly forgot about it because Star Wars came out in 1978. “It was the hottest thing,” Arre recalled. Voltes V and Mazinger Z were all the rage, too.

Like any other kid, he became obsessed with drawing spaceships and outer space. He forgot about Philippine mythology, and put on paper what his high-tech vision of the year 1996 was. There would be flying cars and spaceships, people would all live in outer space, and they would have robot servants. Everyone would be happy and content.

But the real 1996 rolled around, and Arre had none of that. What he did have was severe depression. He had a nervous breakdown because he didn’t have money, he hated his job, and he was lonely without a girlfriend. Neither did he know where his life was going.

He thought that there must be a way to go back and reclaim the childhood happiness he had lost.

“And that happiness was making comics,” Arre said. He had been making them since he was five or six years old. It was his way of escaping reality, entertaining himself when bored, and telling the stories he wanted to tell.

He decided to make comic books and turn it into a career. Arre remembered the bronze statue with newfound respect. He knew he wanted to make a graphic novel about Philippine mythology.

The first image that popped into his head was a tikbalang facing a girl whose hands were outstretched towards it. It became the first page of his book, and the entire story grew from this scene.

He had been out of college for two years then and missed it.

“You feel like you can’t wait to show the world what you can do. And that there’s this atmosphere of optimism. And I missed that. I also missed my friends,” Arre narrated.

So he based the characters on the people he knew in UP Diliman, where he took up Fine Arts. The story became about a group of college kids who met time travelers and helped them capture enkantos—tikbalang, kapre, and manananggal.

He put everything he knew about Philippine mythology in the book: diwata, anito, Bathala. But he wanted it to be contemporary so young readers would want to find out about the folklore.

He was also drawn to the idea of a man from the past falling in love with a girl from a high-tech future, the idea of magic meeting technology. It became one of the book’s themes.

“I felt like I was possessed because I finished the book in less than four months, all 350 pages of it,” Arre said.

But he had two problems. He had quit his job and had no money to fund its publication, so he had to work freelance “drawing silly mascots and the occasional forgettable ads.”

It was also 1997, a time when artists were doing comic books about superheroes.

“I was even told, ‘Arnold, who is going to read something like this when everyone else has fallen in love with superheroes?’ I said, ‘I don’t care. This is the book that I want to release. This is the story that I wanna share, and I’m gonna do it my own way,’” he said.

Like his characters, he tried to overcome the obstacles to survive and succeed.

The Mythology Class was released in May 1999. It won the National Book Awards in 2000, the first comic book to win in that category. Two other editions had been published since then.

“Mythology Class changed my life. It made me happy again, and I knew then that the only story I wanted to tell were stories about us, about our culture. And I have not stopped making comic books since then, because there are still more stories to tell,” Arre said.

He created his own superhero in Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat in 2006. Andong Agimat wore no spandex. He simply had “pure Manila Pinoy attitude.”

Then Trip to Tagaytay came out, followed by Martial Law Babies in 2008, his commentary on Filipino society as well as the story of his generation. Arre said it was him telling Millennials that they were very lucky to have “a lot of opportunities.”

He then studied on his own and learned to do animation, creating a Lupang Hinirang video to depict Philippine history like a storybook.

He released Halina Filipina in early October, a graphic novel about a Filipino-American New Yorker who goes to the Philippines to trace her roots. A full-length feature film of The Mythology Class is also in the works.

Arre remembered being nervous and scared to embark on his first book. But he said, “When you are so focused on doing that one thing that makes you happy, the risk doesn’t matter. It disappears. And I’m glad that I took that first step.”

Writers and artists might be influenced by American books, European comics, and Japanese manga. That was okay, he said, but “It wouldn’t hurt to promote us, to promote our culture, to tell stories about us.”

The Philippines had such a rich culture and so many stories waiting to be told.

“Who else is gonna do it for us?” Arre asked.

Chef Waya Araos encourages society to offer more opportunities for people with special needs. Chef Araos delivered her talk titled “A Chef’s Life Made Special" at TEDxDiliman, October 11, 2015. Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

Chef Waya Araos encourages society to offer more opportunities for people with special needs. Chef Araos delivered her talk titled “A Chef’s Life Made Special” at TEDxDiliman, October 11, 2015. Photo by Tricia Morente for TEDxDiliman.

Chef Waya Araos: “A Chef’s Life Made Special”
Eight years ago, Chef Waya Araos was running the restaurant Kiss the Cook, while giving cooking lessons to kids in the summer.

Once, a mother asked her if she could teach the former’s autistic child. Araos said yes, and teacher and pupil had fun.

The mother asked again if Araos could hold the lessons year-round, and again she said yes. Within a few months, teens and young adults with special needs and developmental disabilities were enrolled in her cooking classes.

Among them was Ibarra, who had autism, as well as a difficulty with social skills, understanding complex skills and processes, and managing emotions and impulses. He had a fantastic memory though, and knew the whole map of Metro Manila, as well as all the members of the PBA and the NBA, including their jersey numbers and statistics, Araos said.

Mabel had Asperger’s Syndrome. She also problems with her social skills, was rigid in her thinking and habits, and found it hard to get sarcasm and jokes. She had a tough time controlling emotions, and had a traumatic experience with flooding, so whenever there was a weather disturbance in the Philippine Area of Responsibility, she would get extremely upset, Araos observed.

Zero had dyslexia and dyscalculia, could barely read and do math, and was bullied in school. Short-tempered, impulsive, and always in trouble, he had a difficult relationship with his mother and peers, Araos noted.

Paolo had severe ADHD, which led to obnoxious social attitudes, poor academic skills, and inappropriate behavior. He very headstrong and used to getting his own way, Araos said.

“Teaching them was such a challenge,” she recalled. She had to learn how to manage people with special needs, and to understand their behaviors and abilities. But she also saw how cooking changed their lives, as through these lessons they learned vocabulary, math, teamwork, social skills, and communication, too. They became more confident and independent.

Unfortunately, these cooking lessons could not get them a job. “I wanted them to be hired not out of pity, or as a token action from some company to do some CSR. I wanted them to be hired because they were capable,” Araos said.

So in 2011, she co-founded Open Hand School for Applied Arts, a vocational school for young adults with special needs, as well as a laboratory where they could practice their skills in a real-world and real-time setting.

Cooking was a major part of the program. Here, students took turns cooking lunch for the whole school every day—50 plates in all—with a rotating menu for a month so they learned all the recipes and processes. They also served this restaurant-style to get used to a professional level of service.

The school also ran a small café, so the students could cook and sell food.

They also learned to make regular sales reports, reconciling order slips with sales, managing the inventory, and computing for profit and loss.

“It’s a great way to teach accounting without ever having to sit in a classroom or give a lecture,” Araos noted.

There was also a business skills laboratory, where they learned office processes like encoding, writing vouchers and checks, and paying the bills. They would also do the banking for the school and café.

The school also had a housekeeping laboratory set up like a small hotel room, where students learned how to clean and organize a room according to industry standards. They washed and ironed their clothes in a small laundry area, also to industry standards, Araos said.

Gardening was also part of the program so they know where food came from, as well as add another life skill and employment opportunity.

With a line of food gifts, students engaged in small-scale food processing, production, and packaging. The school would also host bazaars twice a year so they got experience in retail and marketing.

Students also planned, marketed, cooked, and served three-course dinners every Valentine’s Day, exposing them to fine dining, Araos recounted.

The students also learned their responsibility to society by getting involved in relief efforts. In the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda in 2013, the school was packing and sending one ton of food a day for a week.

“But we made sure they had fun, because we understood that a good life is a balance of work and play, vocation and recreation,” Araos stressed.

“We were relentless. We were unafraid. We stopped at nothing. If something didn’t work, we tried new strategies until it did,” she added.

Araos acknowledged that it was an expensive program to run.

“But we persevered because we realized our product was not a school or a degree. Our product was hope,” she said.

Their first batch of students graduated in 2014. To demonstrate that their skills could work in a real-world setting, Araos opened Gourmet Gypsy Art Café where the graduates worked in the dining room, kitchen, bakery, and front of house.

Today, Ibarra was a prep cook who did a cooking demonstration early this year at the Madrid Fusion Manila.

Mabel was an administrative assistant who went to the bank daily to make deposits.

Zero was the barista and server who prepared coffee, juices, and desserts.

“He treated his mother to dinner at Gourmet Gypsy with his first paycheck,” Araos said.

Paolo was the host and greeter who would give guests menus. He was also starting to take orders and serve food.

“We never have a dull day at Gourmet Gypsy,” Araos said. “A surprise benefit, we found ourselves in a kinder workplace. It never feels dog-eat-dog at Gourmet Gypsy. There is no competition; only support.”

She dreamed of making their advocacy mainstream one day. “Work has the power to transform,” she stressed. “Work is a human right. It’s the force that gives dignity and allows for full integration of people with special needs in their communities.”

The first step was for people to watch their language.

“We need to stop using autistic, retarded, abnormal as insults and hate words, period,” Araos declared.

Second, people should accommodate and not merely tolerate people with special needs.

“We need to actively acknowledge and recognize and engage their presence and value,” she explained.

Finally, people should create access for them.

“We need to look at our systems and environments and see how it can be friendlier for people with special needs,” Araos said. Imagining one’s workplace populated by people with special needs was a place to start. She explained that IT, hospitality, retail, and manufacturing were industries where people with special needs fit.

“The most important thing we had to do to get here was to imagine it could be done,” she said. For the Philippines to progress, this demographic must not be left behind.