The first 18 years of my life in the Philippines had been stained with such unpleasant memories, that for years after, I was willing to fight to the death just to avoid returning to it.
Being a weird, quirky, ADHD-ridden, and awkward teen, I struggled to fit into any social circle there was in my high school. International School Manila was known to have one of the best educations in South East Asia but was also one of the most expensive. So, the unfortunate side-effect was that the number of spoiled, pretentious rich kids flooded the hallways each day.
I grew up in ISM, switching from one social circle to the next from grades K-12, and after 13 years in that school, never felt liked I “belonged.” I was too nerdy, too nice, too weird, too quirky, too hyper, too obnoxious, too quiet, too inexperienced, too vocal, too submissive, not submissive enough, dressed funny, too tomboyish, too insecure, too honest… You name it, I got it. The only place I felt normal at, was in the theatre or in the guidance office.
Avoided, ostracized, bullied, threatened… No matter what went on during school hours, I had spent 6 years in the Fine Arts Theater of International School Manila, and that was my one home base. It was there that I took on another character, another role, ones that were scripted for me, so any of my actions and inactions could be blamed only on the character. Nobody else. I guess it makes sense that I’ve been determined to pursue a career in acting. It was the only thing I could trust to love.
The day our H.S. graduation pictures were taken, my mother let out a shriek of fury when she couldn’t find me in the Class of 2002 photo she had purchased.
“I’m not in it,” I said blandly.
“Why not?” she responded, oblivious to my disconnect from any ISM spirit.
“Because I didn’t care to be.”
High School was finally over. I didn’t want to prolong it any more by standing in a group of people who never accepted me, just to have the memory printed out to last in an oak wood picture frame for the rest of my life.
I enrolled in an east coast school in the U.S. The furthest I could possibly get from the Philippines, and every summer, dreaded my obligation to return to that life, forcing conversations with people I didn’t know to live up to the expectations my mother had created for me. A bitter young adult, I was constantly angry about the conditions of the country, waste filling the streets, the air, and the rivers, which often smelled so potently of sewage, you could drive by with your eyes closed and know which part of Manila you were in. The blind faith and ignorance that led people to settle for inheriting the family business, or just choosing to live the path that was easiest. The corruption. The lack of drive. The crowds of people. The thick smog. Every bit of this was like a whip to my mind when I would involuntarily return to the Philippines. Hate spewed out of my mouth. To the point that I managed to offend every family member, and the few friends I actually did have.
Until about 2 years ago. Hit by a gust of revelation… All of it changed.
I returned to the Philippines with a friend who was born and raised in a small town in Massachusetts. Kara, my roommate, as white as one could possibly be, she joked that she was sometimes see-through. Being in the Philippines with a tourist helped me changed my perspective. I was now forced to look back at what I’d learned in my past, and sieve through it to find what I was most proud of. Despite my resentment, I knew that the country in itself wasn’t awful… It was just my personal experiences that left such a putrid taste in my mouth and I wanted my guest to appreciate my country in the way I failed to.
Together we toured the city. Watching her marvel at the differences in culture taught me to re-live my own fascination. I began to re-educate myself on the country so as to educate her. The way the Spanish influence continued to linger on in the architecture and food made me see beyond modern day Philippines into the heart of the culture. The strong passion for family was one aspect I realized I had taken for granted. The joy that lives in the eyes of the impoverished, despite their struggles.
My perspective was changing… I was no longer viewing the Philippines from the eyes of a formerly outcasted teen… But as a tourist. Fascinated by the culture.
2 years had passed since that life changing trip and now, I’m back in Manila, again without the bitterness that once consumed me. Although I still felt anxious pre-arrival in Manila, I was curious about what my experience would be like knowing that I’ve changed considerably in the past couple of years. Having defined myself more this year, matured more, developed my career more, and grown a larger set of balls, I found myself anticipating and surprisingly excited to face my demons in Manila.
This year, however, I wasn’t returning as a resentful kid or tourist… I was intent on returning as an amateur journalist.
The past year and a half has had me undertaking many activities that I have even the slightest interest in… All in the attempt to discover what it is I really want to do with my life. Having a successful acting career continues to hold the #1 spot, but I was surprised to find journalism coming at a close 2nd. The 6 months leading up to the launch of PGP sent me on a frenzy. While I wasn’t acting, I was reading up on world-wide humanitarian issues, registering for every humanitarian, environmental and animal rights organizations I could come across, and volunteering wherever I was needed.
I noticed that when reading news headlines, I was drawn most to the humanitarian and environmental concerns: Unfair or possibly inaccurate trials of those convicted of murder, child abuse, pollution and waste, disaster relief, and genocide plaguing much of the 3rd world.
As the holidays approached, I knew my trip to Manila was coming up, and saw it as the perfect opportunity to document life in a 3rd world country.
At the airport, I spoke on the phone with Viki. She expressed that she planned on volunteering during the winter break, and I told her that my mom and I planned to do the same. She mentioned that she had recently watched a documentary on North Korea, which sparked a discussion about journalists Laura and Lisa Ling. Viki said the documentary on North Korea was so thought provoking and within 30 minutes I had downloaded the Kindle App for my iPhone and bought the Ling sisters’ “Somewhere Inside.”
Since my arrival in Manlia, I have not been able to put this book down. Learning about how the sisters came to develop a passion in journalism was just as intriguing to me as Laura’s experience in North Korea. The courage that it takes for a journalist to risk their lives to be able to report on issues that others hesitate to touch upon really inspires me.
It’s near impossible to take a break from reading this book and not see the world in a completely different perspective. Every time I raise my eyes off the page and gaze out of my window into the smog infested skies, and stained, rusty buildings, all I see is hope.
Amongst the millions living their lives, blissfully ignorant of the harsh realities and struggles of many others… There are few willing to step out of their comfort zone and fight for those afraid to speak up. The beautiful thing about it… Is that anyone has the ability to be one of these people. You don’t need a degree in journalism, or a news casting background, or even connections with major public figures… All you need is a voice. Or… Something to write with. And of course… A passion to bring honest awareness to the world in the hopes that we will one day finally understand each other.
So, on that note… Here I am in the Philippines with my laptop and camera, hoping to find some answers and create some awareness. For my self and hopefully for others.
Signing out for the day,