Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chapter 4 - Love from Manila! (The Chronicles of Paranoia, New York Edition)

Hello dears!

I need to improve on my subject lines, I know.

I spent the past weekends catching up with people I hadn’t seen in almost two years. It was a bit tiring having to tell “my story” over and over again. What happened to you? (I left the bench.) Your skin is so clear! (It’s called a facial.) You really don’t eat meat? (No.) How’s your love life? (I almost had one. So close, man. Hey, I tried.) What is WYA? (Please see Would you like to sign the Charter? Here is our brochure. I made that. Would you like me to do yours? Big smile.). I felt like I should have prepared a Powerpoint presentation to show at the beginning of every meeting. Geez. Repetition wipes me out.

I had dinner with my writing mentor one night. She told me later that she was watching me closely, seeing how much I’ve changed. Most of me is still the same; I’m still really sarcastic and free-spirited and I still have the same physical habits, like clapping my hands when I’m happy and skipping when I walk. She also said that there’s a certain hardness to me now. Thank God. With my hyperactivity and happiness, I would die young if the past couple of years didn’t toughen me up or made me just a wee bit cynical.

I’ve been getting minor separation anxiety from my old life. There are things I wish I did, from the material (like stock up on Luna bars and hardbound Utrecht sketchbooks and Rives BFK paper and CMYK magazines and a list of art supplies and literature that goes on and on), to the more substantial (spent more time with friends I will likely not see again for years and years). On the bright side, it’s not as bad as when I first arrived at New York from halfway around the world. (Back then, I was pining for fresh mangoes and this particular brand of pen you can only get in Asia. Desperate, I once rehydrated dried mangoes by soaking them in water overnight. It sort of worked.) I like to think I’m getting better at this whole nomad thing, since I think it will be my lifestyle for years to come. At least I know what I usually miss: comfort food and art supplies.

I’ve learned a lot from having to change paths over and over again. Here in Manila, I try to discover something new every day, not unlike what I was doing in New York. It’s fun getting to know your home city again, and I am so happy at how it has changed since I last saw it. The art and design culture has taken off (yippee!), making me feel optimistic at meeting creative people and catching up on the art education I should have had. I am determined to find time to go on one of Carlos Celdran’s now-famous old Manila tours and perhaps discover new avenues of inspiration, since a recent bout of insomnia and listlessness has given me a creative slump the past two weeks. (I don’t know what’s up with me, but something’s not right for the past few days. Maybe it’s the heat?)

I also feel very happy at seeing young people who are determined to make the country better; despite me wanting to hop around the world and friends betting that I will likely end up in Europe (I think so, too), I still want to spend a good slice of my adult years here. Sun! Sand! Happy people! Cheap massages! You become more loyal to what you’ve left once you return to them.

One thing though – I am glad I spent time in the US that was substantial enough for me to realize that I don’t want to stay there. To be brutally honest, when you’re Asian, or in a developing country, or both, it’s somehow ingrained in your culture that America is an end in itself, a destination, the goal to shoot for. And I do see why; the respect for individualism, the education, and the potential for financial growth are among the best things I’ve seen in it. I’ve noticed this motivation in a lot of foreigners from all over the world – they would take a lot of rubbish for the sake of American citizenship, which I respect and all that. But I feel very relieved that it doesn’t fall into my list of goals.

But there is a certain sense of incompleteness I’ve always felt, living in Asia for so long. I love the continent – the reverence for nature, the respect for people and relationships, and the almost instinctive sense to care for others are things I’ve always been grateful for, more so now that I’ve been a bit more worldly and aware of how people who were not raised with these values can end up as. I think it’s having to be raised in a bi-cultural context, with my Filipino side arguably the “less Asian” than the Chinese side, in the never-ending debate on racial and cultural fractions. No side really adopts you as its own; it’s the blessing and the curse of being mixed and being distinctly so.

Asians are, on the whole, way more repressed than what I’ve experienced on the other side of the world. I’ve noticed that we have a lot of hidden anger, in contrast to my New York experiences where people would scream hysterically into their cellphones in public. I’ve often felt that we were contained in a box, being molded into something that society expected of us, which explains why we’re obsessed with getting degrees in medicine, business and law, regardless of whether we’re even passionate about the field. To rock the boat is just unspeakable, and to fall short should be something that warranted shame.

Being Filipino though, is sometimes a whole other matter altogether. If my family’s general bi-polar reactions to my career change are any indication, Filipinos will always be happy with anything I do. Thank God I’m mixed, yo! Whee! We just love having fun. It explains why, despite poverty and political turmoil, Pinoys will always rank spectacularly high on any Happiness Index. I’ve sometimes felt that it was why we kept getting colonized in the first place; we’re just way too nice and accommodating. It has its ups and downs just like anything else.

I feel so much happier being here now than I was three years ago, when I was doing grad school applications like crazy. I feel like I can finally enjoy Asian living without the societal pressure. It’s like I finally have a shot at succeeding personally, now that I don’t feel like there’s something fundamental lacking and now that no one is on my ass, knowing exactly what I will do next. I’d rather be anonymous. The only thing my friends know is that I don’t want to do anything that rides a lot on standardized tests anymore. Screw the GREs. I’m finally free! Whee! Oh happy day!

But I really miss my taekwondo class. It’s just not the same, yo. And yes, I miss you all! Sniff.

Lots of love,


Monday, March 24, 2008

The Chronicles of Paranoia, New York Edition, Chapter 3

Hello dears!

I finally talked to my parents about me defecting from academia! Yay!

First thing, though. A big thank you to Patrick Birde for making me see the light last year and forcing me to come clean to my parents on the phone last November. I think that's one reason my folks seemed completely fine when I came back; it had enough time to sink in.

My mother was understanding, not just because she's my mom and I came out of her uterus. She was a genetics professor for 30 years, so she understood it from a genetics perspective – her side of the family had a lot of artists. Go genetics! So really, Mom, I reasoned. It's not me, it's my genome. Your half of my chromosomes made me not want to be a scientist anymore.

(That defense seemed a lot less pathetic than what I told her last November: "I'm sorry that I disappointed you and that I'm still single.")

I began with the easiest reason: I just didn't fit in. I tried, but some things are just not possible. I'm way too free-spirited and happy to be there. I think only WYA had the charity to take me in and condone my crazy ways. I paraphrased one of my art teachers at The League, too: Arrogance is for the weak and the confused, which have no place in my castle.

(Whee! Can you imagine my castle? It will be pink with balloons, goldfish in the moat, and baby Carebears instead of gargoyles. And every single knight will have a black belt in taekwondo. But I digress.)

Most of us, I feel, fail at or question our first enterprise because of the naivete of youth, or feeling that going through the stress of university makes us sufficiently equipped with going through life. In your early twenties, I think it is critical to be struggling in a new environment with hostile people. It forces you to grow up much quicker, allowing you to figure out what you really want to do and makes you so fed up with your current state that you will want to follow your bliss immediately. I've seen people who've been with the same people and environment for so long; they act as though they are still riding on training wheels. I told my mom that I didn't want to be pushing 30 and feeling like I was coasting along, with nothing much to show for what was supposed to be the most exciting time of one's life.

Being treated like dirt also forces you to seek solace elsewhere, potentially in things you never thought you would do, and become passionate about it. I think that was one reason I really wanted to be out of Manila – I'm way too spoiled here. I need to have every single breakdown imaginable now, so I won't have to deal with them later on. In New York, I was abused, rejected, disrespected, discriminated against, but I ended up trying out things I never thought I would do. Struggle is as important to me as success.

I'm trying to look at the bright side and think that all of the people I've admired (nice scientists included!) initially failed or left their first attempt at something. I'm thinking that failure gave these people motivation and drive when they finally found what they loved to do and pursued it despite societal pressure; no one wants them to be right.

My friends used to chide me that I should learn how to stand up for myself more. They still do; I think they want me to show some fangs every now and then. That will take work; I try, but I keep cracking up. It's just not in my character. But deep down, I'm sure I can be a gossipy manipulative pretentious bitch, yo! I'm sure it just takes a little imagination.

I'm really happy I found taekwondo, though. I think it gives you a certain sense of dignity, and allows you to carry yourself in a way that no one will think of taking advantage of you. I'm not particularly good at it and I guess I'm never going to be great at it; no one starts a sport at 22 and expects to compete in the Olympics. I just love it because as a writer, it's an excellent metaphor, and made me look at my life in a different light. I guess looking back during my lab rat days, I vowed to myself that I will never let any guy treat me like that again. I'll break him in half first.

But it's really useful for me here. In this country, when you're a few shades lighter and/or a couple of inches taller than the majority, you might as well tattoo your forehead with the words "Kidnap Me." This is what I didn't love about Manila – I was driven everywhere. At least my parents never hired a bodyguard. I would have likely made his life a living hell.

You have no idea how martial arts have simplified my life, yo. I walk around the city with my arnis/kali sticks, and no one harasses me anymore. Whenever I leave the house, or wear something that does not pass my dad's Chastity Control, I can tell him, "It's ok, Daddy, I can kill people now." It's amazing! I should have done this before. Maybe everyone will make way for me when I start carrying my sai. I may never have to wait in line ever again.

Lots of love,

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Chronicles of Paranoia, New York Edition

Chapter 2: Hugs from Manila!

Hello dears,

So it seems I'll be in Manila longer than I thought. I hate to admit it, but as much as I love to be home, it's hard to be back after so long. When you come back a different person in the same environment you left, it's very unsettling. Time stopped for me in New York; I didn't care about anything and anyone except exploring new things.

It's hard to feel like an outsider in your own motherland.

As far as reconnecting with my country, though, it's not so bad. I've had three massages since I got here. At $7, it's pretty expensive – apparently it could go as low as 5. I've been duped, yo. But my masseuse comes to my house so she can work on me while I'm working on brochures, so it's fine by me. I've discovered coconut yogurt, and have been drinking mango shakes wherever I go. I've also made plans to go to the beach. I have to; I'm whiter than Mary and Phil, you guys. How on earth can I be paler than a blonde Canadian who loves the snow, and a Brit? I'm from the tropics, for the love of God.

Barely a week in the Philippines and I already sprained my foot in a taekwondo class. The next few weeks for me include graphic design classes, taekwondo, arnis, and potentially hip hop. Keeping busy is the one thing that makes the sensation of newness less apparent to me. Just like the initial retreat from academia, I am hell-bent on establishing a semblance of normalcy wherever I go. At least Bikram yoga is the same all over the world.

I have had a lot of social faux pas since I got back; think hugging complete strangers, among other things. I partially blame it on being in the lab (no people, only mice), and partly on being in NYC (I can go for days without talking to human beings). I think I should keep to myself for a while and save myself from further embarrassment.

(No more crying outburts, though. Apparently my weepy breakdowns when I left were due to a horrible case of PMS. Oops. Sorry guys. False alarm.)

Food-wise, I'm surviving here. Filipino cuisine can be a vegetarian's nightmare. My mother has given up trying to feed me, and just like in New York, I am a handicap to group lunches. Since my vow not to eat anything that walks, swims, flies and crawls, I've only nearly caved twice – once with schnitzel, and another time with sisig. It is a constant ordeal here, without Caramel Nut Brownie Luna bars to keep me happy. I suspect some of my friends are taking bets on how soon I'll go down.

I've been relatively less bouncy here because I am in a place where everything affects me. I can't shut out politics as I did back in New York. When I left Manila, they were trying to impeach our president; I'm back and they're still trying to do the same thing. In an odd way, I feel a bit sorry for her – it must be sad to be hated by so many people, knowing that you can't do anything else with your life because of how famous you are. It must be what those Enron people feel.

I think the main thing that's bothering me now is the fact that I am finally facing the consequences of my actions. It's agonizing to go through the same spiel of "I don't want to be in the academe anymore" every time I have coffee with someone I haven't seen for so long. It's humiliating, too; science was all I ever wanted not so long ago, and to come back with a completely different perspective makes me feel so irresponsible.

Not everything has been great. Some of my friends are quite disappointed with my sudden career change. That sucks. But you can't have it all. I think the most important thing I earned last year was, after all this time, a backbone. I'm from Asia; if you did well in school, you had to be a doctor or a lawyer. I often felt that it was a crime against the people who really wanted to heal people or to uphold justice. Plus, any idiot can do well in school, follow the rules, get the grades, be at the top of the class. It just takes a little effort. The best thing I've realized is that you should bring something of yourself the way no one else can. I think my biggest nightmare now isn't to fail, but to be following what everyone else does all the time, competing against them because I had nothing original to give. Mediocrity terrifies me.

But just like what I endured last year, I'm taking everything one day at a time. I had dinner with one of my mentors last night, and instead of a lecture, she said that she's totally supportive of what I do now. It also turns out that she's good friends with one of our board members; they go to the same salon. Her words to me: "You're glowing and you're thinner. I approve." Hahaha. Manila is a big city with a small town feel – we run in very tiny circles, which, I guess, makes it quite similar to New York City.

So I'm trapped in paradise, but at least I'm not schlepping in it. Tomorrow, I'm off to – of all things – a slumber party. I hope no one expects cupcakes, because they're not getting any!

Lots of love,


Monday, March 10, 2008

My Babies!

Voila, after weeks of learning Adobe Illustrator by myself and feeling like an idiot, my children are born! Yay! Farewell to pipettes forever, yo! I can create! Whee! Watch out for these in the blogs, coloring books, comic strips, etc.


Monday, March 3, 2008

The Chronicles of Paranoia, New York Edition

Chapter 1: Aloha in Manila!

Hello dears!

This trip home has been the most traumatic one of my life. I was ill-prepared and was packing until the last minute. I didn't sleep after the party that WYA threw for me, which meant I had a few hours to kill. I ended up taking out the trash and loading the dishwasher because I didn't know what to do with myself. When I'm really stressed out, I clean.

Mary's friend, Eduardo, unwittingly came to my rescue during the pre-flight ordeal. He reminded me of airport security's policy on bringing liquids on the plane, which of course meant I had to repack my skin care products. I had half an hour before I had to go, and still wasn't done with my luggage. It was 4 in the morning, and I was hysterical and in tears and needed to talk to a human being; he was the only one in the house who was still awake. The poor guy (and now my favorite person in my Adopted Latino Family), nearly collapsed under the weight of one of my suitcases. (I had baggage overload; I shelled out $160. This is why Filipinos applaud after a plane has landed; our suitcases alone threaten airline safety.) He stayed with me throughout the entire ordeal, partly because it was during the crack of dawn, and partly because he didn't want me to have a heart attack.**

**Mary and Tom, if you can please take this guy out to dinner, I would appreciate it. I will pay you back.

I was crying uncontrollably when I left the house, and this spell continued during the cab ride (the stupid Super Shuttle was late, leaving me no choice but to do this the expensive way. And while we're at it, I want my money back! ) and while checking in. The airport personnel were asking me what was wrong and were very sympathetic, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out why I was so emotional right then. I silently sat in a corner, transferring excess baggage into a box. It is sad, but this wasn't the first time I've waded through my underwear in public.

I wanted so badly to be home, but not like this, I guess. I'm still at the stage where I couldn't face my parents and mentors who were shocked at this sudden career change. My life has been changing repeatedly for a while now, perhaps out of habit. But I think I am at the point where these life changes aren't quaint little methods of personal discovery and self-actualization anymore, but are starting to seriously piss me off.

My last flight to Manila took 24 hours due to additional security checks; that was about two years ago and now, things are bit speedier. But I have never had a flight where the entertainment system worked for me. For both flights to Hong Kong and then to Manila, my monitor refused to work after a time. I am starting to think that my fingertips are shooting invisible gamma rays of happiness, frying the TV's circuits and leaving me quite bored for a few hours.

I remember the last time I was here and was shocked by how my parents had "memorialized" me. When your family misses you, they are going to frame everything you have ever won and done. I remember being horrified by a completely unflattering and unrecognizable portrait they had made of me. This time was no different. There are more pictures and medals on the walls, and not one, but two hideously executed portraits of myself. I felt like I died.

Ever since my breakup with academia, I have had many friends who have offered jobs, alternative paths, and collaborations. And so, barely 24 hours into the country, one of my friends already presented me with an aggressive job offer. It's incredible. It's like life is hell bent on making me productive after a year of just sitting on my scientific ass, watching cells grow.

I just got in Sunday night, but I've been so pampered and taken care of that the jet lag is completely irrelevant. Manila is so much fun; kind of like New York but with more space and less of the rush. I didn't realize how much I missed these things:

  1. Cheap massages
  2. Warm and happy people
  3. A toilet with a bidet. Don't ask.
  4. Relaxing shopping and dining experiences
  5. Freshly made everything
  6. A chauffeur
  7. The tropical sunshine
  8. The beach
  9. Yummy food in non-ginormous portions
  10. The metric system

But I still miss you guys!

Lots of love,