Why We Work

In mid-August, I became one of the four million and counting individuals who transitioned out of their job during a period described as the Great Resignation. This concept, first coined by professor Anthony C. Klotz, refers to the phenomenon in which people are re-evaluating their time to live in greater alignment with their values. 

I chose to use my savings (and a dramatically smaller budget) to give myself a career break: I wanted to intentionally reflect on my first full-time role, life in the United States more generally, and my growth goals in this next phase.

At the same time as my departure, my dad–a metallurgical engineer by practice–was also re-exploring career possibilities. He has been a stay-at-home dad since our family relocated again nearly seven years ago. My dad’s last professional role was as a care assistant while living in the United Kingdom from 2001 to 2014. As I advance in my career, it’s not lost on me that my ability to focus on individual growth has been afforded by my parents’ sacrifices.

At our family home in the UK (circa 2003)

Since moving to Baltimore in 2017, I have also learned to appreciate the subtle yet deeply impactful ways my dad expressed love and masculinity in defiance of gender norms. He primarily cared for our home affairs. My dad’s timeliness, driving his children to and from school, mirrored military discipline. And still, to this day, he provides much-needed comfort by cooking my favorite Filipino foods whenever I return home. 

My dad’s decisions have fostered my own capacity, as a young woman in a patriarchal society, to see myself beyond my empathetic nature; as someone both highly capable and equally deserving as my male counterparts of realizing my dreams.

The following is an adaptation of a conversation with my dad on his early life and later choices related to the concept of work. My hope is that this discussion, in addition to ongoing societal shifts, can inspire us to explore how contemporary aspirations for self-actualization at work builds upon generations of love, sacrifice, and risk.

Early Life in the Philippines

Dad (lower left) outside of Antipolo Church (circa 1960s)

To ease us in, could you describe yourself in a few words?

I am a reserved person. I don’t have many friends, only a few, and I don’t mix with a lot of people. I enjoy my private life more and only mix with people when I get invitations or sometimes to get out with your mom. 

I am thoughtful. When I have something to share, even if it’s just food, I think it’s Filipino culture to share whatever you have. Even if you only have half of lunch, and you’re sitting with somebody, it’s the nature of Filipinos to share. 

I am also a parent and value education. Setting up an example for my children and to fulfill the wishes of my parents [to study] as well. They didn’t have the opportunities and financial means to study in their time. It’s Filipino culture to sell properties or something for their children to finish their education, sometimes borrowing money and then paying it back. 

Borrowing money from where?

Before, people tilled someone else’s farm, rented land or borrowed money from a landlord. But that didn’t happen with us, because ama was working and ina had her little business, doing her pastime of cooking and selling in her sari-sari store

You said your parents didn’t have the financial means to study. Do you remember what grade levels they completed? I can’t remember. 

Ina finished high school, maybe at seventeen or eighteen. 

How about ama?

Ama didn’t [finish high school], I think just grade school. But he likes to study. If he saw something like a newspaper, it was his pastime to read or watch television. He liked discussions on different topics, and he liked to talk. I didn’t get his ability to talk (laughs).

You are the first person on your side of our family to relocate abroad. Can you describe what life was like growing up in Hagonoy, Bulacan?

During my elementary years, we used to volunteer by cleaning and draining the canal in the barangay. We would decorate at night time in preparation for the fiestas.

I [also] used to go with my siblings, cousins, and grandparents on ina’s side to the farm in Bulacan, especially during harvest time. Because it’s really tiring to go to the farm, sometimes when we go past a small stall there, they would buy us halo-halo as a treat, or pick guava from the trees alongside the road as well.  

It sounds like you did a lot of community and family stuff growing up. 

Yeah. With my friends, we biked in the barangay and into the next one as well. When there was a flood, we borrowed our grandparent’s bangka, just like a small boat. Me and my friends would ride on that in the river. We didn’t think of the danger, we just went along with the current. That’s how we would enjoy the summer. 

Every summer, we also used to go to Antipolo Church because my grandparents on ina’s side were religious. And the good part there is when we would buy delicacies, like suman and cashew nuts, because Antipolo is known for that. We’d bring packed lunches and sit where you can see the falls–they call it Hinulugang Taktak–and eat what we brought from home, like fried chicken, shrimp, just like that. We’d also buy souvenir t-shirts with the colors of the church. So, that’s also happening during summer with my grandfather.

This is the grandfather that you said inspired you to go to church, right? It’s the same one? 

Yes, to honor the legacy of my grandfather and ina. To show respect and be thankful for what you have. Even my aunties and uncles, that’s why they were doing it. 

Thanks dad, for sharing.

Expanding Horizons: Work as a Means for Exploration

Dad (far right) and his coworkers in Malaysia (1995)

So, even though you’re the only sibling to live abroad, moving to the United Kingdom wasn’t your first time traveling. Can you share what places you traveled to and why?

The first place I went to was Ethiopia because there was an opportunity to travel. You know, being young and adventurous, you want some challenges in life and in your career, so I took it. 

How did you find it?

It was not easy because I worked in the mines. With life in the mines, you’re isolated, you’re mostly in the remote areas, and you have to be there because that’s where the plant operations are situated. It wasn’t easy being far away from your family as well. It was my first time traveling. It was a good experience, but you feel homesick. That’s why I was finding it hard. 

The other time was in Malaysia. A friend of mine contacted me saying they needed a process engineer, and they asked me if I was interested. I said okay because I wasn’t doing anything at that time. 

I noticed that every travel experience you had before immigrating was for work.

Yeah, work-related opportunities. And actually, when I went back home, the manager said he would leave the position open and that I could come back. But at that time, the reserve was going down in Malaysia. I think the next year, they shut down the operations. 

Leaving Home: “Everyday is a Transition”

At dad’s family home in Hagonoy, Bulacan (2001)

Switching gears a little bit. How did your family react to your decision to move abroad?

I think they’re happy to see you progress and go somewhere. Maybe they’re proud to see you abroad, experiencing things they haven’t really done. But then again, maybe a part of them was sad because, you know, there’s only three of us siblings. 

They don’t know the life and difficulties of going away. You have to sacrifice a lot, even your culture. You have to learn about other countries’ cultures. That’s why, sometimes, when you go home and bring food back, even stinky ones like tuyo or pusit, I think that’s how Filipinos bring themselves back home–through those kinds of foods. 

It reminds you of memories at home, eating the same types of food with your family. That’s why when you visit family [in the Philippines], they tell you to bring it back. It could be stinky to the neighborhood [here], but they don’t understand.

Mmm, like the food has comforting qualities. How about you? What were some of your thoughts on moving? 

Well, the objective there was to give a good education for our children. It wasn’t for us [parents]. We already had you and Carlo at that time, and because life is difficult in the Philippines, we wanted you to experience [differently] and have the best education the world could offer. 

That’s what Filipino parents do. If they don’t have the opportunity to go abroad for their children to have good studies, they’ll make it a point to find good opportunities in the Philippines, as much as they can. 

Moving from the United Kingdom to America is another thing because there was a good opportunity for you too. Not for me, but for your mom as well, because she wanted to move to the US before the UK. The UK was a starting point. They welcomed us with open arms and even gave us citizenship. 

What was the first year in the UK like for you? How did you maintain a sense of connectedness back home? You already mentioned food earlier.

If you’re moving to another location, initially the first year is difficult. Especially if you have children that are very young, because you were only four years old and Carlo was three. There’s a big transition, as well as cultural learning, starting from their accents and understanding their languages. It doesn’t happen in a year. 

Everyday is a transition. Even at the time we moved out, we were still learning a lot.

It’s difficult as well to be away from your family. You have to sacrifice that. We didn’t have Facebook Messenger at the time, so we bought phone cards and used our landline. We called the family, maybe as much as twice a month. But if there’s an emergency or things happening, we would call more often.

That’s it, it’s really about learning the culture. Getting used to their transportation system too, but thankfully the transportation system in the UK is very good. You could go around on buses. That’s another reason why we wanted this opportunity for you because before, especially in Manila, sometimes you have to wait many hours before you move through traffic.

I experienced walking from school while it flooded. I reached a point where jeepneys could travel, and then I had to walk from there. We didn’t want you to experience that while you’re studying. 

You were young too, right?

Yeah, in college. I got home at maybe midnight soaking wet. So that happened during the rainy seasons in Manila, especially for those who didn’t have their own transportation. Not many people did at that time. Maybe only families who had money. 

Contrasting Careers: Nurturing People and Processes

You worked as a care assistant for people with learning difficulties the whole time we lived in the United Kingdom. 

Yes, I had to do other things because it worked for our family’s schedule. It worked with mom’s night shifts and I had to drop you off at school.

So you already spoke about your motivation. What did you think about your job?

At first I found it difficult and challenging because I hadn’t done it in the past. It was a big transition for me. It’s challenging because I was working with people with learning difficulties, and not many people can do that. But the employers provided training, and we researched and met other professionals. You learn how to be more understanding with them. 

Did you enjoy your job? If so, what aspects did you most enjoy? 

Yeah, I enjoyed it, because if not, I wouldn’t have continued doing it for fourteen years. I started doing it when we got there until we moved out. 

I enjoyed it because I had colleagues and managers who supported me, as well as the clients. You enjoy working with them. Although it’s difficult sometimes, it’s rewarding to offer something that will make your clients happy. We took them on trips, doctor appointments, and walks around the block. Just like helping with their well-being because they haven’t got anybody except those who work with them.

In the UK and US, it’s not the same as in the Philippines where they will look after children with learning difficulties. For me, it’s not about the financial reward, but really more about what you can provide to integrate them into the community. 

Can you see any similarities and/or differences between caretaking and engineering?

You have to collaborate with other professionals like dentists, doctors, and other groups of experts, and work with their feedback. In engineering, you collaborate with professionals on the maintenance, mechanical, and electronic sides to make sure the plant operations run smoothly. My job there was on the processing side, where I looked after the controls and the chemicals. Stuff like that. 

That’s interesting dad, the language you used. You said “looking after the controls,” like “looking after people.” You were taking care of operations in your early role, then people in your next. 

Moving Again: “Balance What You Win and Lose”

You spoke a little about this earlier, but how did you feel about moving again to the US? How did that compare to moving to the UK?

Moving again was a very difficult decision, but because your mom waited for this opportunity, for me, it was about supporting her. As well as for you, I thought that maybe America could offer you much more to harness your education and develop your skills. The school you went to is one of the best in the world, so that’s one of the compliments I would say of moving here. 

Professionally, I lost time where I could have worked. But I don’t regret that because I made sure my children were safe and that they don’t have problems going to school. You have to really balance what you win and lose.

Could you say more on what you had to give up personally?

I had to give up my career because I was doing other jobs, even if it wasn’t on the financial side. When you have a family, you have to do something that will work best. You might have to give up your job in the meantime. Not all families have the same circumstances, and not all have the same perceptions about leaving their children. Sometimes they leave their children to be able to work. It’s not the same with every family situation. 

In the last seven or six years though, sometimes I miss working because if I do something, I become more focused. It’s difficult for me when I’m not really learning personally. 

Yeah, like learning for yourself and not working purely for family-related reasons.

Yeah. But on the other side, you’re making sure things are going smoothly at home which balances the situation.

What Follows an Empty Nest

Dad, Carlo, and I before leaving the Philippines (2001)

Okay, we’re nearly at the end. In what ways have things shifted for you since all three of us are mostly out of the home?

Right now, I’m thinking about what type of job I can do because I stopped working, and even with my other career, engineering, I am probably obsolete. And studying costs a lot here. I’ll still try to apply to something close to engineering, but not in the mines. I’ll see how Ciara settles into college first. 

Knowing everything you know now, what is some advice you would give to your younger self before moving? 

You have to be mentally and emotionally prepared. It’s good to move for the sake of your children, to give them better opportunities and living conditions. But you have to sacrifice a lot of things. 

You have to sacrifice being away from your family. [With my parents, I felt better because] I’m thinking that if I leave them, they will still be okay.  We have more members of our family there and not all the siblings are leaving. You’re not leaving them behind knowing there’s no one to look after them. Their brothers and sisters only live in the barangay, and they are very much connected with each other.

Instead, you worry more about yourself and how you will face moving away. To be in another country and culture, to learn about how life is abroad. But if you are prepared to do it, then go for it. 

Nice, that’s it dad! How do you feel? What did you think of our conversation?

I feel hungry (both laugh). I have to cook food. The conversation was fine. I’m also trying to reflect on memories of my childhood, so it gave me an opportunity to do that and share with you what we were doing.

Alright, well, I want to make sure you eat. Thank you dad for your time. I appreciate you and love you.

Love you too, thank you. Okay, bye (hangs up).


Boredom recently prompted a semi-dramatic announcement to my hairstylist that I needed a new look. I attempted to describe my vision for a long bob, scouring my phone for photos when words failed me. His grand reveal diverged from my expectations and instead barely passed the nape of my neck–a good seven inches off my previously long hair. 

My initial shock quickly transformed into a paradoxical sense of novelty and nostalgia. Novel because my stylist has since inspired an obsession with short hair; nostalgic because I haven’t had it this length since I was five or six years old. And in many ways, adopting this look again feels like a refreshing return to my younger self. 

This return also feels timely as I turn 24 years old today (♈️). In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I’ve been reading a lot about the body, body autonomy, and female sexuality. These topics reflect a blooming desire to re-examine my relationship with my body with more intention and care.  

Besides my own re-examination, I’ve increasingly observed how mainstream media is often saturated with headlines around violence towards bodies that deviate from the white male standard. In March alone, these stories included Sarah Everard’s death, Meghan Markle’s race, and attacks against Asian American bodies. They highlight the heavy yet real truth that white supremacy not only lives on in our minds, but also in how we understand our own existence and treat other bodies. 

“Body terrorism is a hideous tower whose primary support beam is the belief that there is a hierarchy of bodies. We uphold the system by internalizing this hierarchy and using it to situate our own value and worth in the world.”

Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love

Shifts in my inner and outer worlds have at times made me want to hide or escape my body. But when those feelings arise, my new hair takes me back to when I wanted nothing more than to be active in it. 

I was a tomboyish kid. Quality time for Dad and I looked like cheering on WWE superstars from the sofa and picking out new LEGO kits to engineer. Other times, you could find me in the back garden with my younger brother, reimagining our blue and rusted orange climbing frame as if it were a military training course. I hold these happy memories close. They gently remind me that my body is mine, a sacred vessel that enables me to learn about my surroundings.

They also remind me that being in the moment wasn’t always something we had to practice, but rather our intrinsic way of existing. We aren’t born as wrapped up in our appearances as our adult selves become. Instead, it’s a state we grow into as we increasingly absorb expectations from our family and culture; one that gradually leads us to become apologetic about our bodies and to internalize the belief that their primary function is to please others. 

“Making peace with your body is your mighty act of revolution. It is your contribution to a changed planet where we might all live unapologetically in the bodies we have.”

Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love

These days, I’m exploring how to tap into the more carefree mindset that guided how my younger self moved. The one that found joy in weaving through overgrown grass until candied skies prompted her to sprint back indoors. I know this version is still very much alive, because a seemingly minor change sparked a certain sense of excitement I haven’t felt in a while. 

One key lesson this season is teaching me is to focus less on what to do and more on how I want to feel. And given recent national events, I’ve also been thinking about how reclaiming the magic of our bodies will aid us in seeing it more clearly in others and inflicting less harm, too. 

Reconnecting with my inner child will, of course, entail more complex work than haircuts. The same goes for moving towards a world without body hierarchy. But for now, prioritizing what reverberates bliss in my being still feels like a fruitful and life-giving first step.

Lessons From “All About Love”

With incredible momentum right now around nurturing a more just and loving world, I recently found myself revisiting All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks.

Gloria Watkins, aka bell hooks (image source)

In All About Love, hooks explores how a desire for love has entangled with an obsession for power in the mainstream imagination. Its form is so diverse that it permeates multiple aspects of American society, from fear-provoking mass media to our exploitative capitalist economy. To this central point, she writes on the importance of reimagining our understanding of love and fully committing to its daily practice. Under these conditions, we can then fully harness love’s transformative power in our lives and communities. 

I first read All About Love in early January, which marked roughly six months into a new chapter where significant events seemed to rapidly unfold. After graduating from college, I went from teaching design thinking to high schoolers to frequently being the youngest voice in Baltimore’s social entrepreneurship ecosystem. Whether new or existing, relationships that grew during this time felt notably fresh and restorative. And I, too, was changing. As the foundations of healthier bonds were forming in my professional and personal life, I became more curious about how relationships inevitably transform our identities and worldviews.

More recently, I’ve been wondering how this dynamic relates to the renewed emphasis on community-driven solutions as an antidote to social injustices in the United States: How can we reimagine outdated ideas to shift our realities? How can we each commit to radical transformation, and therefore enhance our capacity to relate authentically to one another? And how do we heal together to work towards a kinder world for future generations? My immediate thoughts remind me that love inherently drives these acts of courage.

The following is a window into the rest of my processing, inspired and guided by the ingenuity of bell hooks:

  1. We possess the power to redirect how love takes shape in our lives 

“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will–namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” – M. Scott Peck

Primarily drawing from the work of M. Scott Peck and Erich Fromm, hooks builds on the importance of defining love as a verb versus a noun. Understanding love as a verb demands a level of accountability that love defined as a noun doesn’t. To say one falls in love, for example, suggests that love is a danger zone; something we cannot opt-out of when we recognize a given relationship or situation is unhealthy for us. 

Yet in making this small shift in our perception, we can reclaim self-agency over our lives. I felt especially enlightened after reading this because therapy helped me notice a tendency to self-victimize in my past. That version of me developed a sense of helplessness, failing to recognize that in believing that confusion was just how love manifests, I stripped myself of my power to change my reality.

I now reexamine my relationship history with a renewed understanding of love as a concrete manifestation of actions. In doing so, I’ve gotten better at objectively seeing how I contributed to relationships where I felt unhappy, which ultimately reinforced negative internalized beliefs. Although it’s always challenging to admit our roles in our past–especially within more painful memories–in many ways, I now feel empowered, knowing that I can choose a different set of actions in the future. 

There’s reassurance in knowing it’s my responsibility, and mine only, to form healthier and more loving relationships in my life if that’s what I wish to see. And there’s hope in knowing that when we own our roles in perpetuating harmful systems in society, we can reclaim our power to contribute to social change.

  1. We heal our ancestral wounds when we face our shadows and choose authenticity 

One Sunday last November, I spontaneously got two tattoos after getting brunch with Clarissa, a dear friend of mine. I decided that I’d do it if the tattoo shop was taking walk-ins that day, and luckily for me, they were. 

On my left inner wrist is the number four in roman numerals–my lucky number and a marker of my April 4 birthday. The other reads, “Veritas,” which is Latin for “truth.” This phrase comprises the motto of my primary school in Birmingham, England, and my college alma mater. Although a subtle coincidence, it still connects the locations of two formative environments in my life, a gentle reminder of the divine continuity that continues to underlie everything I experience.  

This particular tattoo also represents my guiding principle in life: always seek authenticity and choose myself first. The day I got these tattoos was one where I felt very me–I allowed my impulsive nature to shine, unbound by what my conservative parents might think. And most importantly, I got to experience the joy this moment brought with Clarissa, someone I deeply admire and share countless fond memories with. 

I mention this story because there were many times in my upbringing where I didn’t honor my truth in order to feel loved by others. Hooks frequently cites how we learn to lie in childhood–both to others and ourselves–to avoid conflict and/or disappoint our parents. I find that in my writing and self-introspection, the suppression of my artistic nature to meet my immigrant mother’s ideas around success speaks directly to this notion. This internal struggle was further compounded by the fact that in my household, we didn’t talk openly about our emotions, never mind discuss how to process them.  

On a car ride with Kelsey, another one of my closest friends, we recently spoke about how this dynamic manifests as mutual discomfort around expressing our emotions as young adults. We both mentioned how at best, any conversation in our home about our feelings instead encouraged us to dismiss them: we learned to power through negative emotions, or better yet, pretend that they didn’t exist.

I’m sure that the heavy emphasis placed on pushing one’s feelings aside didn’t begin with my parents. And I say this to acknowledge that our ancestors–enduring centuries of colonialism and imperialism–created a false self in more grave ways to survive. They took on last names, religions and more that weren’t ours. The consequences of not doing so were too big of a risk. For me, this mirrors our inner child’s nature. Hooks writes that as children, we’ll do what it takes to receive love from our parents because our well-being depends on it. Even if that means internalizing the pain of lying to ourselves and pretending to be someone we aren’t.

I see the practice of authenticity as an act of liberation that not only honors my being, but also those that came before me. Allowing our true selves to take up space–irrespective of others’ opinions and reactions–is to live in a way that also grants justice and peace to our predecessors; those whose sacrifices gifted us with the opportunity for self-actualization.

  1. We can disrupt the status quo and create a new world by embracing a love ethic 

Healing doesn’t occur in a vacuum–we’re in a moment that demands everyone participate for real societal transformation.

Over the past few months there have been days where I’ve felt overwhelmed, anxious, confused, stuck, depressed—the whole spectrum of more challenging emotions that I’d conditioned myself to run away from. Yet as the global pandemic necessitated that we stay put for our collective well-being, I’ve been able to sit intimately with my emotions and show greater self-compassion to the more tender sides of myself. The parts of me that learned from a young age to marry my sense of self-worth with my productivity. That shamed myself for my sensitive nature, and that grew emotionally unavailable in my pursuit of relationships and material success that I believed would solve my troubles.

In my eyes, the personal revolution happening within us is a microcosm of what’s happening in society at-large. Not only is going about business as usual unsustainable, but this conditioning also continues to grant the so-called American Dream on a discriminatory basis. 

Hooks attributes our societal inability to embrace a love ethic to the long history of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy in the United States–systems that were founded on oppositional values of fear, greed, and domination. Built on these principles, its design inherently favors production over peoplehood, equates femininity with weakness, and encourages separateness on the basis of biology. She also emphasizes that “to love fully and deeply puts us at risk.” And it’s precisely because love prompts us to explore our darkness–a skill many of us were not always taught–that choosing love can feel daunting.

Some days these past few months have been challenging. At the same time, I find that they’ve also made me feel the most alive. They’ve gifted me opportunities to practice tending to my heart and embracing the unknown. They’ve given me experiences to share with those I love to exercise vulnerability, compassion, and active listening. I’m now more grateful for each time I share my truth, and someone trusts me enough to learn about theirs.

Hooks says that “there is no better place to learn the art of loving than community.” And with each day in our evolving world, I’m reminded that this is the ultimate truth–the one that’ll grant us the liberation we all seek and deserve.

My well-read and shared copy of All About Love (Jul 2020)

Reading All About Love provided me a language to articulate how a need for power in society has hindered the way we relate to one another. As a result, misunderstandings about love and unhealthy relationship models manifest through American society in multiple ways. Yet hooks’ writing also reminded me that love and community will always be core human needs. They’re critical elements that underlie social movements we see today, and ones that aren’t as out of reach as we were once taught to believe.

And when we commit to unlearning and dismantling such harmful beliefs, we move closer to our vision of a more loving world, and ultimately return to our most authentic selves. 

Decolonizing My Mind

Baltimore in 2020 | Photo by Rob Ferrell of Organizing Black

After thirty-something hours, I was completely tapped out when my family finally landed in Greensboro, North Carolina. But as we rode down the highway to make the last leg to our destination, my tired eyes were met with an American flag at the roadside–the largest I’d ever seen–consuming the night’s sky. My mind instantly activated. 

I became unsettled as I watched this huge flag envelope the stars, and as three more came into my view by the time we got out the car.  This moment was my first vivid memory of American patriotism in action; a concept that’s still so foreign to me as a Filipino native, British citizen, and U.S. permanent resident who has historically struggled with a real sense of belonging, much less national pride. 

My family’s relocation in 2014 also prompted me to look at race and otherness through a more critical lens. After six months of living in the U.S., I saw news channels become flooded with the story of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, a 25-year-old African American man who died from a sustained spinal injury while subjected to police recklessness. Media outlets emphasized the color of Gray’s skin in communicating his death, but at the time, I didn’t fully understand why.

Since then, I’ve learned that the case of Freddie Gray builds on a long history of oppressive systems against African Americans that preceded my family’s arrival. Police brutality is just one such example. 

Other known cases including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and more have since ignited demonstrations denouncing police brutality and systemic racism worldwide. They’ve even happened in cities like Birmingham, England, a place that I affectionately called home for thirteen years. During that time, I can only recall one instance–the death of Mark Duggan in 2011–that sparked major protests comparable to the ones we’re seeing today.

As a young adult, it’s been important for me to unpack my identities as both a first-generation immigrant and third-culture kid. This desire intensified when I reached five years in the U.S. last October. PBS recently released Asian Americans, a simply-titled docuseries that attempts to encapsulate the complex history of Asian immigration to the U.S. I saw my own roots reflected in the stories of families coming from all corners of continental Asia. They too had their eyes set on the land of opportunity, hoping to one day manifest the American Dream. 

I realize with age that this promise is incredibly deceptive. Take Baltimore, Maryland, my home of nearly three years. In 2011, the average household income in Roland Park–where many of the city’s White and wealthy reside–was approximately 6.5 times greater than that in Upton/Druid Heights, a neighborhood with predominantly African American residents. A more recent study found that relative to their White counterparts, the unemployment rate is three times greater for African American households, and one-third also have zero net worth. In a place like Baltimore with 63 percent African American residents, such inequalities and inequities drastically hurt the city’s overall wellbeing. 

Narratives and realities like these make me question if I’ll ever say I’m proud to be American.

Portraits of José Rizal, Filipino national hero (May 2016)

Colonial mentality: a form of internalized oppression among Filipinos and Filipino Americans

Something that’s been central to my mental processing–and has certainly amplified during this time–is how the American Dream is essentially coded language for the desire to achieve the White standard. When we as Filipino immigrants say we want to live the American Dream, what we really mean is we want to be and live like a White person. 

The Philippines was subjected to Spanish colonialism for 333 years and American imperialism for another 47 beginning with the turn of the last century. In the past year, I learned of the term colonial mentality, a form of internalized oppression among native and diasporic Filipinos alike. Some indicators of colonial mentality include feelings of inferiority for being Filipino; the desire for European physical features such as a bridged nose and lighter skin; as well as discrimination of “fresh-off-the-boat” Filipinos among others. 

I see my younger self reflected in these findings. Growing up in the United Kingdom, I internalized deep shame around my own otherness: I actively avoided other Filipinos at school and rarely invited my White friends to my family home. I claimed I didn’t find Filipino guys attractive, although I’m the spitting image of my dad. Perhaps the only thing I accepted was my brown skin, but honestly, that was only because my White peers fake-tanned to make their complexion appear darker. 

Previously cited examples demonstrate how I subconsciously accepted westernized social norms and beauty standards in my youth. But as I think to the present moment, I can also see how colonial mentality underlies the way in which we seek to fulfill the American Dream. 

Fixated on this pursuit, we can embody an orientation toward individualism and personal gain, as though our achievements are truly our own. And like White people, we thus buy into the idea of having pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps. We’re just as bad as our colonizers in this sense: we perpetuate the model minority myth that continues to be used as a “racial wedge” between the Asian and African American community. If it weren’t for the turmoil and radical leadership of African American and indigenous peoples, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to live and thrive in the U.S. in the first place. 

The decolonization of our minds and anti-racism work go hand-in-hand. The latter necessitates the critical process of unpacking our colonized psyches and internalized beliefs. As nonblack people of color, Filipino Americans and diaspora can’t fully step into our roles as allies without radical self-exploration into how we’ve sought Whiteness at the expense of our own truth. In internalizing our oppression, we thus fail to take action against injustices that impact our African American peers, coworkers, and loved ones everyday. 

I still can’t vote because of my being a U.S. permanent resident, but that doesn’t mean I can’t effect social change. So for now, I’ll offer what I love and strive to practice daily in my own life: storytelling and deep self-reflection for societal transformation. I have faith that we can collectively bring forth the more just world we’re seeking–we just have to trust our experiences matter and speak up.

Words for My Mama

On the evening before Mother’s Day, I found my mind flashing back to two years ago. I had surprised my mom, who lives in North Carolina, with a mixed bouquet of roses and lilies. She found the second choice of flowers to be humorous, commenting that lilies are typically seen at funerals (oops), but she was nonetheless deeply grateful. “Simple gestures like this mean so much to me” her text read, alongside a photo of her proudly lifting the vase as though a trophy. 

This instance reminded me that small acts of self-compassion are not second nature to immigrant mothers like mine. My mom’s idea of love, and the one that I first inherited, is instead intrinsically intertwined with self-sacrifice. She felt good about herself if she was well-rested after an overnight shift, but she felt even better if her family was taken care of. 

I often think back to the last time I visited my family in the Philippines, alone in 2016, while in the midst of taking an online class. “You’re just like your mom,” my titas and titos would say as they saw my books sprawled around me. “Studious and independent.”

My parents at my mom’s college graduation (circa early 1990s)

Her intellect was often a topic of discussion when we reminisced and shared stories about our tight-knit family. Given their high praises, I have no doubt that she could have easily furthered her academic career if she wanted to. However, she became pregnant with me at 23 years old, and ultimately chose to leave her masters degree in nursing unfinished. When my brother was born the following year, my parents decided to shape their existence around making our childhood comparatively brighter than theirs. 

My mom was the first in her family of nine to move away from home. She recently shared that at first, my grandparents were anxious about her decision to leave because they did not have any friends in the UK, much less relatives. Yet my mom was determined and in the early 2000s, the UK was experiencing a deficit of nurses. The destination was the less favorable option for natives seeking to migrate relative to the United States–its former colonizer of 48 years. However, moving to the UK would at the very least serve as a first step, while ensuring my siblings and I were still exposed to better educational and economic opportunities. 

My mom’s expression of love was fundamentally grounded in a desire to protect her children from the prospect of the economic insecurities she had known so intimately in her own, largely unspoken upbringing. Yet as bold as her move was, she raised us to value security and stability, among other principles synonymous with predictability. This was challenging for my younger self to process: why was she–my brave and resilient mom–seemingly discouraging us from becoming trailblazers in our own lives and quests for purpose?

The role of higher education in determining one’s socioeconomic mobility was frequently discussed in our household, even before I could truly comprehend it. My mom’s undergraduate degree in nursing enabled her to move abroad and fare better than her counterparts working in our homeland, so she hoped for my education to similarly ensure my success. However, my mom’s dream for me also meant her conceptualization of meaningful careers was narrowed down to legal or STEM-related fields. Both of which I did not personally care for.

Instead, my younger self daydreamed about being a full-time creative. I was especially passionate about working in the visual arts as a teen. Although my mom encouraged me to develop my talents, she also often urged me to keep my creative interests as a hobby. In her eyes, the intersection of work and passion was a privilege only a few could afford, and our family was not a part of that group. My mom, like many immigrant parents, saw artistic careers as abstract and unstable–a threat to the foundation of stability that takes years to build.

Our thresholds of stability and what we were willing to trade off in its pursuit were often at the core of our interpersonal conflict. In my eyes, what good would it do to pursue a career where one is financially secure but emotionally unfulfilled?

Nonetheless, a big part of me also wanted to make my mom proud. Not only was I hyper-aware of her sacrifices, but as time passed, I also became more fearful of her disappointment if I was unable to meet her definition of success. As a result, my early understanding of love–coupled with a wealth of internalized guilt–prompted me to sacrifice parts of myself in order to actualize ideals around success in a westernized nation.

Hopkins graduation (May 2019)

Part of my process ultimately led me to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend Johns Hopkins University for undergrad. There’s no doubt that I was infinitely proud of myself for being accepted into a globally-renowned institution. But deep down, it was the idea of my looming independence that excited me the most. I deceived myself into thinking that the transition would be easy. As far as academic rigor was concerned, I finished community college with a 4.0 GPA and had received multiple statewide awards to supposedly validate my intelligence. In my mind, relocating would be an even greater breeze, because after all–I’m a first-generation immigrant. 

I prepared for large upheavals my whole life. 

Nonetheless, I constantly questioned if I truly knew myself and my capabilities during my first semester. My intelligence was no longer a key differentiator and I couldn’t seem to grasp theories as effortlessly as I did at community college. My former, heavily extroverted self also grew uncomfortable with the fact that I wasn’t making friends as easily, nor was I as embedded in multiple social circles. There was clearly a disconnect, but that version of me couldn’t quite tell you why. 

My initial vitality and excitement around starting afresh gradually started transmuting into daily numbness, a desire for the days to pass as quickly as they began. It was during moments staring at my bedroom ceiling, overwhelmed with disheartenment, where I would find myself imagining my mom’s earliest days in the UK. My state-to-state move was only a microcosm of my mom’s global migration, yet I was feeling at loss and terribly unequipped to process my emotions. I often asked, how might my mom have felt?

I realized that I did not know the answer. I knew little beyond, “of course it was hard.” This realization prompted me to wonder if there were other hidden sides to my mom that I was unaware of. A lack of discussion around mental health is not uncommon in immigrant households, and mine was no exception. No family member to my knowledge had a mental illness, so I grew up believing that it meant I could assume our family was “normal.” Yet what lacked in verbal conversations was nonetheless communicated through the body. In my mom’s case, it was evident in her chronic fatigue and omnipresent anxiety about money, despite now living in the “land of the free.”

Getting curious about my own mental health has helped me become better at befriending my emotions in all its forms. Episodes of disorientation akin to my early experience at Hopkins are met with more kindness and sensitivity. Self-introspection and copious therapy sessions have also endowed me with the ability to see my mom’s humanity through a more compassionate lens. 

What appeared to my angsty teen self as unresolved conflicts and value misalignment was, in reality, a mutual cry for someone to remind us that things will be okay. We both sought reassurance that our respective struggles around identity and immigration were not innate shortcomings, but rather gentle reminders of what it means to feel and be human.

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset
My little sister and I (likely laughing at a bad joke) (Aug 2016)

On that note, I would like to wish my mom a belated Happy Mother’s Day. 

Some of the qualities I admire most about myself–my spirited independence, strong determination, and deep empathy–certainly did not start with me. No amount of flowers or words could ever truly express the level of gratitude I feel towards you for your unwavering love and support.

And the more I learn about myself, the clearer I see you too. My appreciation for you grows knowing that you had your own internal battles to face, but you often chose to set them aside to be the best possible mom, sister, aunt, and role model etc. you could be. 

Whether you intended to or not, your example still taught me–and continues to teach me–much about family and community, taking risks, choosing love over fear, and more. Your sacrifices may have afforded me the privilege of learning at a prestigious institution, but you will always be my greatest teacher.

Which Memories Are Mine?

Thu Oct 31, 2019 at 16:17

After writing my previous post, I sent a screenshot to my mom of my atypically public display of vulnerability on social media. More than an hour passed before my phone screen lit up again, at which point my anxiety concerning her response was already high.

Thu Oct 31, 2019 at 17:27

Touching and very well said. Correction though: Tatay & Nanay looked after u in Balatoc when I gave birth to Carlo. Dad, Carlo and I lived in Baguio (Aurora Hill, Bayan Park Circle) and we visited u on my days off. Then we moved to Bulacan b4 I left for the UK.

My heart clenched as the voice of my inner critic grew louder and my self-doubt surpassed what I already thought reached its maximum level. “If you change what you wrote,” the voice started, “Everyone will notice the amount of times you’ve edited your story. Can you even claim a connection to the Philippines when you can’t correctly recall your own childhood there?”

Of course, no one pays that much attention, but I convinced myself that they did. I’ll admit that it felt risky to detail my upbringing without first fact-checking my reconstructed timeline of events with my parents. Yet for once in my life, I felt an urge to share my ruminations beyond my inner world in spite of potential inaccuracies.

Unless I never spoke, it was almost impossible for me to avoid explaining the juxtaposition of my Filipino appearance against my strong British accent while living in a quaint, southern state like North Carolina. Outlining my global upbringing to strangers consequently became as second nature to me as eating: “I was born in the Philippines, mostly grew up in England, and now live in America.”

That said, if the past five years on American soil have highlighted anything about myself, it’s that I often take an oversimplified, black and white approach to sharing the outward-facing version of my story. And starting therapy this year helped me realize that this was almost my subconscious way of leveling the curiosity of others to the very surface.

In the same way I developed a digestible formula to summarize my background, I created another to predict how people would respond to me as well. Give or take, it usually begins with “I love your accent” followed by “Your mom is so brave for moving,” and ending with “I’ve never heard a story like yours. It must be cool to have traveled so much.” Don’t get me wrong, I highly appreciate when others are kind enough to remind me how far my family and I have come because sometimes, even I don’t give us enough credit.

However repetitive, most of the time I was okay with reproducing the same conversation because I knew what to expect and most importantly–it felt safe. Some days I didn’t even have the energy to endure this small talk, but it still ultimately felt better than running the risk of delving into not-so comfortable directions.

I could simply respond with “thank you” and continue hiding the struggles that underlie my resilience, like how my British accent was one of the few aspects of myself that I truly felt I had in common with my predominantly White peers. How sometimes I’d barely see my mom past a couple hours because she was either working multiple overnight shifts or catching up on rest. How I often wished that I wasn’t the oldest child so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the pressure of my parents’ expectations.

I persuaded myself that in navigating a conversation this way, there would be no need to discuss the darker side of being a first-generation immigrant because others wouldn’t even know it was an issue. Yet this only meant that my inner struggles with self-acceptance, identity, and belonging–which were most intense during my adolescence–often floated in gray and inconclusive spaces.

For instance, I couldn’t quite pinpoint answers as to how far I should deny my artistic nature to work in law or some medical field, just so that I could finally feel accepted by my mom. To reassure her that her sacrifices were ultimately worth it and that we’d be collectively rewarded by the financial security of an industry I knew deep down, I would never pursue as it wasn’t true to who I am. These thoughts are so highly sensitive and deeply personal to me that I still find it difficult to talk about them, even with my closest circle.

So, on my family’s fifth-year anniversary in America this year, my mini social media crisis resurfaced another complex subject my mind wanders to: the way in which I feel a deep sense of nostalgia for a country whose culture was hyper-present in my upbringing, yet didn’t set the scene for any lived experiences beyond my early childhood and several month-long trips back home. This longing for connectedness is grounded in the way I was raised.

When we first moved to the United Kingdom, my parents brought the Philippines with them. They spoke Tagalog to one another, so my siblings and I grew up with an almost perfect comprehension of our native tongue, but broken proficiency levels of spoken communication. We went to church every Sunday to uphold our Roman Catholic roots and prepared small plates of food as offerings to the Santo Niño statue that oversaw our home’s landing. We loaded our global SIM cards to call our grandparents at least once a month until the credit ran out. Thankfully Facebook Messenger exists now, but that’s besides the point–family and faith were central to the Bantigue household.

For me, our family photo albums somewhat helped me reconcile this dissonance. Every house we’ve lived in has at least one closet or drawer dedicated to these albums. My easily-bored, younger self frequently rummaged through them, curious as to why this vast wealth of fond memories was tucked away here, as if to say they carried equal significance to the clothes folded beside them.

I remember that my favorite part of my research was lifting the negative film strips up to the light, then seeing the tiny figures gradually compress in each take until the photographer (most likely my mom) achieved the perfect shot that’d ultimately make it into our albums. Unsurprisingly, me and my brother were almost always side by side in every picture. My imagination ran wild as I’d attempt to reconstruct our childhood, filling in the gaps with my parents’ memories when necessary.

This practice only strengthened after I moved to Baltimore to finish my undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University. Still with my childlike curiosity, I found myself spending at least a couple hours revisiting these albums whenever I returned to North Carolina over semester breaks.

There’s no doubt I’m eternally grateful that my parents emphasized the importance of honoring our Filipino roots during my youth. I no longer harbor as heavy anger or blame towards my parents as I once did because they too were only trying to maintain their own sense of connectedness back home. The ideal alternative would’ve been annual month-long family trips, but that of course would’ve absorbed valuable time and money that we couldn’t afford.

Knowing this, molding our home to mirror the culture they grew up in was the best option available. At least then they could balance this tension while ensuring my siblings and I wouldn’t become too westernized. Now as a young adult, the following truth has become increasingly salient in my life: my connection to my homeland is still valid despite my lack of real lived experiences and inability to speak my native tongue, among other cultural markers that constantly made me question my Filipino identity.

If anything, they’ve fueled a personal pursuit for knowledge and made the way I move through the world much more intentional. While the combination of strong Filipino values, photo albums, and my parents’ narratives initially helped to inform my own cultural connectedness, I’m no longer served by sole reliance on these parts alone in understanding my story.

I now strongly value autonomy in creating one’s narrative too and after a lot of reflection, I’ve realized that this life philosophy has been heavily influenced by the way in which choice was scarce in the Philippines my parents grew up in. Political and economic circumstances beyond their control prompted them–alongside countless other immigrants worldwide–to leave behind everything they knew to expose their children to better life prospects. While this motive unites us all, it’s complicated by the nuances of our families’ cultural contexts. Judging by how often my mom alone speaks to her side of the family via Facebook, I know for sure this wasn’t an easy decision.

Before I end, I’d like to share a personal development goal of mine: I’m striving to find a better balance between reality and my imagination, because if you know me personally, then you know that I have the tendency to daydream a lot. (I’m working on it though.)

While I’m still trying to figure out what this harmony looks like, it helps to remind myself in the process that my emphasis on personal agency is at the very least, a small step in the right direction. That perhaps my parents’ sacrifices weren’t necessarily so that I can become the big-time CEO with a six-figure salary (I’ll leave that to my incredibly smart brother), but instead so that I can exercise greater ownership over what my life path looks like.

And that one day when I become a homeowner, the photo albums stored in my closet will contain moments and memories that I know with full certainty are my own.

Reflections on Five Years

Today marks my family’s fifth anniversary living in America.

Nanay and Tatay’s home in Virac, Itogon, Benguet (June 2016)

⁣⁣With every year away from the Philippines, I’m increasingly compelled to understand who I was before growing up on three continents centered my story. That means unpacking my identity as a first-generation immigrant; developing answers that my younger self couldn’t articulate; and connecting the ways in which each community I’ve been fortunate to call home has shaped who I am and how I see the world.

Weaved through this short post are personal photos from Itogon, Benguet; a small municipality outside of Baguio City, my hometown. My Nanay and Tatay raised me here while my parents and newly-born brother lived in the heart of the city. Mom shared that our small family would reunite again when her work schedule allowed it. In anticipation of our relocation to the United Kingdom, we then moved to my dad’s birthplace of Hagonoy, Bulucan, just before mom went abroad first in 2000. We’d go a whole year before finally living together as a family again, this time somewhere that had yet been considered home by anyone on both sides of my family.

Truthfully, it wasn’t until I returned to the Philippines alone in 2016 and relocated to Baltimore in 2017 that I began to explore the significance of these thousand-something miles apart during my earliest years.

Pre-sunset fogs engulfing the horizon (June 2016)

⁣When times get tough, imagining myself back in Baguio City gives me a sense of peace. ⁣⁣The meaning of home is still evolving for me and so is the process of creating it on my own terms. I still currently live in Baltimore, Maryland—I love being here and continually feel inspired by those around me. I’m not sure what the next five years entails, but if the journey is anything like my twenty-two years of existence so far, I’m ready for it.

“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”

The sixth-form trip to Poland could not have been more perfectly timed. With the relocation progressing at an even faster pace this month, the days only get more and more restless. For me, this trip was an opportunity to escape the madness and immerse in a different culture. Admittedly, I had little extensive knowledge of Poland’s history beyond the trip being centralized around our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, I’m glad I didn’t as it meant with every day spent in Kraków, there was something new I could learn. I knew that this trip was going to be memorable, but looking back, I most definitely underestimated how rewarding visiting Poland could really be.

Gates leading to Auschwitz concentration camp: sign reads "Work makes (you) free"
Gates leading to Auschwitz concentration camp: sign reads “Work makes (you) free”
View from inside Auschwitz-Birkenau II – the extermination camp
Electric fences cover the perimeter of Auschwitz I

Besides its rich history, Krakow’s city life and architecture were other aspects I was left in awe of on a regular basis. Ask anybody, I wouldn’t stop taking pictures! Not to mention, with five zlotys to the pound, everything is ridiculously cheap, i.e. it’s amazing for shopping and a few too many desperados. Below are some of my favourite pictures of the Main Square, taken by me of course:

Rynek Główny at night
Rynek Główny at night

I know for sure I’ll be visiting the city of Krakow again in the future but until then, thanks for the memories.