Inspiring Readers on Opposite Sides of the Globe
by Ruby Bayan
It isn't just the 12-hour difference I have to deal with, sitting in Florida and writing both for the U.S. and Philippine markets. With traditions, languages, and cultures apart -- worlds apart -- I have to consciously shift my perspective between American and Asian to be able to effectively relay my message.
Why? Because I'm not writing news, fiction, or poetry. I'm writing inspirational articles that touch the hearts of my readers. Yes, I tap on universal truths and timeless wisdom, and the teachings of philosophers and scholars from all over the world. But for my encouragement and motivation to hit home, I need to put these teachings within the context of the lives of my readers. That is why mind- (or heart-) shifting is required.
I had been writing monthly columns for the leading advice magazine in the Philippines two years before I found myself trying to resell my articles to the North American market. At first glance, I knew the American magazine editors will not have anything to do with my obviously Filipino slant. I had to study not only each target magazine's style and format, but more importantly, how the American writers "speak" to their readers. There is still so much to learn.
If I had been an American writing for the Filipino market, I would have been faced with the same dilemma. Despite the fact that 90% of Filipinos speak English, only the well-traveled professional (about 5-10% of the population) will be able to grasp that mowing the lawn, color-coded trash cans, and vaccination schedules for house pets, are matters of consequence. I would have to, instead, inject insinuations on monogamous families, deep fried pig's knuckles, and bars of laundry soap.
And humor? Comedians and humor writers will agree that punch lines are not universal. American humor will fly over many Asian readers' heads. A few will appreciate the National Lampoon, or Mad, or even the Clinton-Lewinsky jokes that spiced up the U.S. media, but a majority of Filipinos will rather spend their entertainment pesos on Larry Alcala's local color cartoons, "Pugad Baboy", or the incumbent President's famous joke book. I couldn't blame a friend for asking, "Who's Eddie Murphy?"
American idioms -- not only will they be Greek, most Asian markets will say they're "for the birds". It's difficult enough to understand that "wise guy" doesn't exactly mean "wise man". Imagine how an Asian, whose English is a second language, will react to this "inspirational" advice: "Don't hold your horses when you go to bat for your friend. You may sometimes have to bend over backwards, pay through the nose, or even get the ax, but in the long run, your enduring friendship will make you feel like a million bucks and you'll have the world by the tail." Extreme, yes, but will the Filipino masses readily understand what a "rain check" is?
Euphemisms are another consideration. The politically correct "mentally challenged", "building custodian", and "previously-owned" terms are still "retarded", "janitor", and "used" in most Asian vocabularies. And, as with all foreign languages, deviations and jargon naturally evolve from common English expressions. Filipinos say "take home" instead of "to go", and tease with "Joke only!" rather than "Just kidding!" We'd prefer to be more American and politically correct, but on the whole, a writer's words are more acceptable when the reader can comfortably relate.
Still, the most serious concerns of international writers by far, more than the intricacies in the language, are the underlying nuances of specific regional cultures and ways of life. I have had to overhaul articles that I've written for the Filipino to cater to the North American reader (effectively, to the worldwide market), and vice versa.
And each time a new article is called for, I've had to wear the appropriate hat and remember the extreme differences in priorities between readers living in a world power society and those living in a third world country. I bear in mind that Filipinos are on the other side of the planet, that they don't celebrate Thanksgiving nor St. Patrick's Day, and that to them, White Christmas is just a song. I remember that Americans, on the other hand, spend a fortune on pets and carpet cleaning, are heavily penalized for drunken driving, and can divorce and remarry as often as they can afford to.
Writing inspiration and motivation for readers living in separate worlds will continue to be a challenge for me. For the most part, I will have to keep two hearts beating, in order to keep abreast with the trends and matters of consequence in both worlds -- if I want to remain an effective writer whom readers will want to believe and trust.
[First published in WorldwideFreelance.com, 1999]