Monday, August 3, 2015

Affirmation

I have had rare conversations with her. In the last three years, I only got to work with her thrice - in the same committee that convenes once every year. But when I recall confidence-building moments that I have had as a young worker in the Ateneo, she figured significantly in some of them. I recall that instance in my final year in college when she complimented our organization's paper, SwordBreaker, where I was the editor. In my first year as a worker in the University, at a meeting for the 'Autonomous' Celebration that she was presiding, she said these words when someone seemed to doubt me or the office's capacity to organize a certain activity - "If OSA is saying they can do it, then let's trust that they will do it." At another time, she called me just to commend the Ignatian theme of Dugong Atenista letter that I wrote. Finally, when I was discerning whether or not to leave the Ateneo three years ago (before taking my leave of absence for the Ship), she told me few words, but which spoke of sincere encouragement, and which I so needed at that personal crossroad. 


In between those moments and now, her presence, gestures and words on rare occasions in my life as a worker have helped in giving me confidence in doing formation work. She, along with mentors, colleagues and friends, has helped me embrace my formation work in the Ateneo, an example that has made me appreciate Ignatian Spirituality in my otherwise quite secular life. And much later on, when I get older (and more sentimental), I will remember those moments, because those were an experience and a gift of Ignatian Spirituality.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Fear (of Glenda and Reming)

The night of July 16 was a fearful one for our family. It brought to life the fear that supertyphoon Reming had so compellingly and deeply ingrained in our memory one night eight years ago.

Reming, 2006. The weather bureau's forecast underestimated the upcoming storm strength, so there was no cancellation of work and classes. We were so complacent, maybe thinking that we had become so ready to the experience of having typhoons in Bicol. When we arrived home, it had been already dark and the wind, strangely furious. Papa tried to reinforce our temporary roof with concrete balusters and  hollow blocks. But few seconds after he went off the roof, the wind - probably a whirlwind, pounded on our roof then violently blew it out - all of it and at once, and dropped it about thirty meters away from our house. Had Papa stayed longer on the roof, he could have been long gone now.

That horrific thought - the scene of our father on the roof, the rumbling sound, the shaking of our walls, lingered in our psyche as a dormant fear, occasionally remembered in stories and in news of upcoming typhoons, and given an uglier face by Yolanda's images of death and devastation. That fear stayed with us and waited for the next opportunity to strike. That opportunity happened eight years later - last night.

Glenda, This Year. Classes and work were already called off day before Glenda's expected landfall. Updates on the typhoon's track, strength and speed were available every after three hours, and disaster response guidelines circulated in different media to help prepare the people. Our house's roof, which had been restructured to be typhoon-resistant after Reming's wrecking, was thoroughly inspected. Papa reassured us that there was nothing to worry about, that everything was going to be alright. But in spite of these confidence-building preparations and reassuring words, fear was strong enough to manifest itself once again. Like rainwater seeping  through the ledge of the sliding window and wind discovering all gaps and holes in the house, fear forcibly found its way through our hearts. As the eye of the storm approached, fear grew bigger and stronger, overwhelming us, consuming us. It was a monster, both imagined and real, both visible and invisible. When the storm at its strongest finally was upon us, the monster was everywhere and making sure we felt it by its eerie howling and violent lashing. And we did feel it: our bodies were silent and at times almost motionless, but inside them were a surge of different emotions, inconvenient ones.

Faith was there, sure. But fear was also there, belittling our faith, pronouncing our human frailty. Fear succeeded because we knew that we did not have control of the situation: how intense the sudden outbursts would be, how long the storm would stay and try to batter our roof and walls and shake the foundation of our home and our hope. After all, we were facing an uncontrollable force of nature like Reming and, more recently, Yolanda. After all, we were mortals, capable of fearing, of doubting our father's words, of dying.

Hence, at the face of the storm which we could not fight with our words, our authority, our pride, and all defenses that we had conveniently used to confront our usual battles were nothing and useless. Neither could we ignore it, or fly from it, or just wake up from it as if it were just a bad dream. It was happening. It was here. 

The fear may not be as big as our other fears. But it certainly evoked our bigger fears, and forced us to think about them. This, I suspect, was where the fear was drawing its strength, legitimacy, and power over us. It knew what exactly would affect us. It knew what are important to us, who are dear to us.

Fear was there, no doubt. But faith was there too. It was wavering and little, but it was faith, after all. And at that time when we were most human and seemed helpless, faith was bigger than ever. We held on to it as tight as our grips were as we faced the wall of the storm. We prayed to God and the saints we knew for our family's safety. We tried to comfort each other with reassuring gestures. We waited with hope for Glenda's best shot so that the fear can already subside and we can finally sleep. 

The morning after Glenda's fury, the house was well. The roof was intact. There was no broken window. No member of the family was harmed. Fear was over, albeit only temporarily. 

Storms like Reming and Glenda will come and go, but our familiarity with them will never make us too familiar with the fear they bring to threaten our home and family, and to bring us face-to-face with the realities of our humanity and faith.

July 16, 2014

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Simplicia and German

My maternal grandmother Simplicia lived the last thirty-five years of her life without her husband, Lolo German. Two years ago, on Valentine’s Day, she passed away, leaving behind all her eight children, including my mother Rosita. During her simple funeral in a chapel at Abella, Naga City, I overheard my aunts describing how Lola met Lolo: She was a teenager taking a bath in a river when my Lolo saw a glimpse of her and was so smitten that he asked her parents for Lola's hand in marriage. I found my aunts’ story somewhat fictional as I recalled my little conversations with Lola.

Once, when Lola still managed to come with Aunt Estelita to our house in the weekends, I pried into her and Lolo’s love stories. I was not expecting her to engage in that kind of up-close and personal conversation for she was not the kind of grandparent who had a chest of old anecdotes. Rather, she was a very secretive woman. But one time, she suddenly started spilling stories about her old love affair. Even Mama, who was then hurriedly removing kalunggay leaves from the stalk, was slowed down to partake in Lola’s sudden generosity in sharing her private life, even as she never tried to interrupt or stop me from probing Lola’s life. She listened too attentively to Lola like she was hearing the story for the first time. Lola started opening up when I asked her whether Lolo was her first dance partner. She said no.

She explained that Lolo was not her first love. It was a certain Diego whom she revealed was the real father of her first two children. She never told Aunts Magdalena and Gloria about this important detail of their identities, though they already had an inkling because they both look so much alike but look different from their six other sisters. But Lola’s story with Diego was not a story of unfaithfulness to Lolo. On the contrary, Lola said that Diego abandoned her and their children for another woman. I believed her story. At her age, she had no reason to lie and nothing to gain from telling this story. Hence, a more realistic re-imagination of my grandparents’ first meeting could look like this: Lola, an abandoned wife and mother of two, was farming in Mataorok, Pili, Camarines Sur when Lolo German first saw her, got attracted to her, pursued her and assumed responsibility for the fathering of her children. Considering the ages of Aunts Gloria and Estelita, her third and my Lolo’s first biological child with her, Lola was most likely aged 23 when they lived together.

Lolo German, on the other hand, was already 52 years old that time he and Lola became a couple. But before this, his sixteenth and last relationship, he had already experienced the major historical periods and transitions in the country. He had lived through the last few decades of Spanish colonization, the American time, the Japanese occupation, the Independence, and the wars in between.

According to my aunts, Lolo had figured in 15 romances before Lola. He probably had some children before my aunts. This time, my aunts’ story seems believable. In fact, they know one of these women, named Gabriela. Apparently, Lolo’s relationship with her was not successful, but the couple had a daughter, Conchita, who married Mr. Miller, an American whom Lolo served in the 1930s. My aunts remember receiving a sack of shoes owned by Conchita when she died of cancer.

During the Japanese Occupation, Lolo joined the guerilla movement, but he was captured, imprisoned and tortured. Mama shared the war horrors that Lolo had told her about: for days, he was hanged upside down - his head facing a deep well, his stomach poked with a knife and burned with cigarettes. But Lolo managed to survive the war. A few years after the Second World War ended, most likely in 1946, my grandparents met and lived together and had many children. The church wedding came much later when Lolo was coming to terms with his mortality. In February 1976, he died at the age of 102.

To some people like me, the stories of my grandparents, especially those of their love life, may be so complicated to be interesting. But to many who are expecting stories of greatness or grandness, theirs may be too insignificant and ordinary.  

Truth is, they lived a simple life. They had neither luxurious properties nor political powers. The only time that they had a land of their own was when President Ramon Magsaysay introduced the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration (NARRA), which led them to be relocated from Pili to San Ramon, Tinambac, Camarines Sur.  Lolo farmed lands of lords. Lola was plain housewife for the longest time. At times, Lolo was paid to tell stories of his escapades or sing old verses like La Traviata to farmers. At other times, because he was a strong and fierce man, he became the companion of an alleged land grabber in Campo 6. When life for the family got more and more difficult, my Lola helped by hand-weaving banig which my Lolo peddled when he was not in the farm.

My grandparents were incapable of sustaining their children’s education. Lolo’s old age and Lola’s lack of literacy contributed to this incapability. Hence, their children had to depend on their own means for education. Most, however, dropped out as soon as they reached high school. With this sense of resignation, some married early and ended up depending on their husbands while others worked as house helpers in Naga and still others tried their luck outside Bicol. My mother, on the other hand pursued her dream. To do this, she had to be at the top of her class from elementary to college to maintain the scholarship.

Given my mother’s achievements in school, Lolo’s disposition was inclined to discourage my aunts from pursuing their studies and instead work so as to help Mama’s studies. Obviously, Lolo played favorites and heavily favored my mother. Lolo was the father who spoke to Rosita Spanish and Latin, spared her from doing household chores, and sang old verses as she slept. And even when my mother was already married, Lolo took care of her when she got seriously ill until she recuperated. Before Lolo died, he was somehow happy and fulfilled knowing that her favorite daughter finished college education (the only one among his children), even became a school principal in Tamban, Tinambac. When he died, his favorite daughter bathed him, arranged flowers at his funeral, and put a rosary in his hands.

Lolo was the typical macho and domineering husband, so I can understand why my mother and aunts talked little of Lola: She kept herself at Lolo’s background. Lola’s being so much younger than him and being plain housewife pronounced further my Lolo’s authority. But my kind and patient Lola had her ways when it was time to express herself. Once, she tried to leave Lolo after a major argument. She intended to go back to Pili but she unknowingly rode the Cuadlalader Gibson train carrying tablon going to Tandoc, Siruma. Lolo came after her and brought her back home. Despite my Lolo’s shortcomings as her husband and father to her children, she was faithful to him. She loved him.

When Lolo died, Lola stayed in the house of one daughter to another. She even stayed at our house for some time and had the chance of taking care of me as an infant. But when our family grew little by little and life for us got harder, Lola had to be in the care of Aunt Estelita who is childless.

My memory of Lola is limited to her weekend visit to our home and, when she was already bedridden, our occasional visit to her at Aunt Estelita's. In our last visit to her one day after Christmas in 2010, Mama, Papa and I brought her spaghetti and burger from Jollibee. I remember that I even assisted her to eat. That was my last act of kindness to Lola when she was still alive. At her funeral and burial, my aunts were not very emotional. Even Diego’s daughters never expressed any hatred towards her for maybe not honestly telling them a part of their identities and preferring to keep the secret till they were too old to feel pain. They did not feel any of these for, practically, they were Lolo's daughters. Devoid of material expectations, they felt loved by my grandparents. That love, no matter how imperfect it was, was enough for them.

My grandparents lacked formal education. They did not make notable names for themselves, gain wealth or leave any extraordinary legacies to their communities. Their hardwork did not suffice to provide my aunts and mother a comfortable life. They were not perfect couple, nor were they perfect parents.But they were good people, especially if seen today against the backdrop of grandoise lifestyle and worldly pursuits. Most importantly, they loved truly.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Letter from Fuji Maru (Parts 1 to 4)

       Fuji Maru on its final Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program's voyage.

Letter from Fuji Maru (PART 1)

December 13, 2012, 6:00 a.m. My phone’s alarm clock woke me up and reminded me of the ‘ceremonial act’ that I had planned to carry out at the end of this journey.The brown stationery, with neatly-written notes, lay on the top rail of the couch. The bottle of wine, with its lip on the carpeted floor and its heel leaning against the sofa’s arm for support, was emptied of whatever was left in it from last night. I hurriedly put on my black suit and grey scarf and went out of the cabin without a sound so as not to disturb my cabinmates who were still asleep.

As I reached the deck and promenaded towards the bow, what greeted me was the biting coldness of early December winter, which confirmed that MS Fuji Maru was already slicing through the waters of Japan. Not far from the ship was the contour of Yokohama and, behind it, the snow-capped Fujiyama that finally separated the sea from the sky after some days. I remember seeing the same picturesque scene when Fuji Maru left Yokohama in November to begin the SSEAYP cruise. As the sky became lighter and scattered a deep blue hue on the waters, I took some time to read again the letter that I had written. After doing so, I rolled the brown stationery, put it inside the bottle, and capped the bottle with its crown. Then, I said a little prayer, kissed the bottle, and carried out a final act: I set adrift a message ensconced in a bottle. My eyes followed the bottle as it plummeted into the waves, surfaced briefly, and then quickly vanished into the vastness of Tokyo Bay.

My thin suit could no longer protect me from the coldness, so I went up the right veranda covered by glass windows. From there, I embarked on a little trip around the ship and carefully examined every nook and detail of it as if simply taking photographs of it was not enough  – the vending machine area, the store, the Emerald Lounge, the elevator, the sun deck, the Sky Lounge, the sports deck, the starboard, the stern, the amidships, the laundry room, the Emerald Lounge, the saloon, the golden stairs, the theater, the Pacific Hall, and finally the dining area where I settled for breakfast. At 11 a.m., Fuji Maru berthed in Tokyo, culminating the 39th Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP). It was to be Fuji Maru’s last voyage for the SSEAYP. In June of 2013, it would already be sold to a Hongkong shipping company. Meanwhile, the Nippon Maru, SSEAYP’s old home which alumni often describe as a better-looking cruise ship than Fuji Maru, was said to be the host of the 40th delegation of the program.


Snapshots of the ceremonial act: I set adrift a message ensconced in a bottle. (Video taken by Meikko Jay Forones) 
  Fast forward to February 2013. I wonder where my message in a bottle may now be. From the map of currents which I found on a website, I imagine that the bottle may have been carried by Nihon Kairyu towards other currents going to California or Alaska, become trapped in the North Pacific Gyre not knowing where to go, or have easily settled on a Japanese shore. I am really ignorant of ocean physics, so I can only imagine. For all I know, it may have already been plucked by some fisherman’s net. But wherever it may be today, I hope that the message and the memories ensconced in my heart would sail with the winds and the tides of the world. And, like a journey back home, I hope that it will find me again one day soon.

Dear Sonny,

Tomorrow is the fifty-third and final day of your SSEAYP journey. This should give you some relief as you have often felt seasick while sailing non-stop for almost seven days from Muara, the cruise’s last port-of-call. At one point, when you had to stay in bed for one day because of seasickness, you even wished that this ship could fly to Tokyo instead. But here you are, fighting seasickness as you write this letter while getting ready to sleep one more last night in this cabin. Tomorrow, you will be sleepless as the day shall be filled with farewell ceremonies, parties, and after-parties. After exchanging souvenirs and making promises of seeing each other again very soon, it shall all be over. You shall be going home again after months of having been away from family and work.

It must be difficult for you to put closure to this most exciting episode in your life. Every day of the next few weeks will probably be spent reminiscing your SSEAYP life on board and during country programs while endlessly scanning  the close to 80 gigabytes of pictures and videos taken on your Nikon camera and browsing through photo albums and notes on Facebook on which you were tagged by your new friends from ASEAN and Japan. Each replay of memories that these evoke shall result into mixed emotions within you. It is fortunate that when you go home in Naga, it shall already be Christmas vacation time so you will be able to deal with the ‘hangover’ and the ‘SSEAYP-sickness’ without the intrusion of  the usual Christmas parties or the necessity of meeting your friends whom you are unsure can relate with your stories which, to you, are sacred.   

In solitude, you will begin your reflection. You will feel happy upon realizing that you have fulfilled your dream of being in this program and of representing your country. You had dreamed of joining SSEAYP since your college days. You applied for it after graduation but ended up frustrated. So you promised yourself that you would reapply before your 30th   birthday, which is the age limit to be accepted into this program. Had you not been selected this time around, you would have lost the opportunity of being part of this forever.  After all your personal preparations, however, there was no doubt that you deserved to be one of the Filipino delegates to this Japan-ASEAN diplomatic and cultural program. You will recall how you managed to jog at the Basilica grounds after office hours and maintain a “no-rice” diet so as to lose your unwanted pounds for four months; how your back suffered due to the “No Slouching Policy;” how you resisted the comfort of the swivel chair and slept while undergoing the pre-departure training because you just had 4 or 5 hours of sleep the night before. You did all these and more just to fit the profile of a true diplomatic and cultural ambassador of the country.

And now that Fuji Maru is almost finished and moving towards the final stretch of its route, you realize as you packed your things this morning that you had bought and received a lot of souvenirs to give and to keep and, because of this, you expect your luggage to exceed the 23-kilo allowance by as much as 20 kilos. From the notes you collected from the message board and the name cards you exchanged, it seems that you had gained new friends with whom you shared this journey. You feel heavy, partly because of the tiredness which you had accumulated over the past months but also because your memory is full of new experiences that you intend to keep for a lifetime.

You cannot describe what you are feeling right now. You do not understand why many of your fellow participants are crying and openly expressing sadness over the thought that the program is about to end while you are not -- at least, not yet.  Maybe, this disposition has something to do with your maturity in handling certain emotions or your immaturity for not recognizing as basic an emotion as sadness and your lack of spontaneity in expressing it when you do. Maybe, too, these experiences touched different layers and aspects of your life in a way that you still need to self-process across a period of time. Still maybe, you may be thinking that there were things that you could have done but did not do or things you did which you should not have done. All these might become clearer as you process your own experiences later on.

Whatever the reason for this lack of feeling at this point, deep inside you, you know that something in you is never the same again. You will draw certain parallelisms in this experience with one of your favorite films, “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Towards the end of the film, Frodo, upon his return to the Shire after his successful mission, realized that there is no way to really go back to the Shire. At first you might interpret this as referring to the literal departure from your old place or old work as you might the fact that Frodo decided to leave again the Shire, boarded a ship at The Grey Havens, left the Middle Earth, and never came back. After some thoughtful reflection, you might think of it instead as a recognition if the fact that it is actually you yourself who is never the same again. The experiences that you had had already changed you. Still maybe you would be convinced that both interpretations apply to you. But right now, you are not sure yet.

And as you reflect, you will go back to the experiences of SSEAYP. You will begin by recalling your motivations, how they had changed and found you unchanged at the same time, how they influenced and not influenced your participation and experiences in the program as well as your relationships with fellow participants.  You will then remember the many ‘beginnings’ of this journey – the moment you met the “Bugkos Lahi” [the Philippine delegation] and the first time you had a glimpse of Fuji Maru’s daunting presence in Yokohama, to name a few.

You will try to understand which of your experiences have had impact on you, which aspects of your self have been touched, and what values, perspectives and plans have been changed, affirmed, broadened or challenged. You will realize who have come to truly be your friends and who were just acquaintances, and with whom you would more likely develop a long-lasting friendship. Given these, how would you then draw the new self and distinguish it from your old self? Would you be able to see a more positive self-image and world-view?

After your reflection on the journey’s personal impact, you will then be challenged to continue reflecting on how such personal fruits and the program’s goals would challenge your personal mission-vision and your relationship with the world. After SSEAYP and all its personal benefits to you, what now, Sonny? With all the resources spent on you by the Philippine and Japanese governments, how would the world benefit from you? How would you transfer the technology and share in the challenge of nation-building as the National Youth Commission put it?

Big questions, are they not? But you knew from the start that this would happen.You knew the goals of this program and the desired return of investment (RoI).You will recall the big statements and commitments you made during the interview as well as in the small group discussions and debriefing sessions.You will reflect and even share the burden of contemplating on these questions with your friends and mentors.

Sonny, do you remember the first time that you dropped a message in the bottle into the sea? You set it adrift on Atulayan Bay on your boat ride back to Nato Port, Sagnay. Do you remember the message? It was a hope that someday, you would find your matter of great consequence - what you were created for, your purpose. And it has been a recurrent theme in your previous retreats at the Cenacle House, at the Sacred Heart Novitiate, in Jesuit Mirador Villa, and in many other venues of discernment. It will take you a long and arduous journey to be able to know it, but I hope that you will be patient and mindful of your interior movements and of the meanings behind the events that happen and the people you meet in your life.

Where are you now, Sonny? Where has Fuji Maru led you to be? And from there, where are you going?

I wish you well and I hope that you will find answers -

From

Your  Self


 Letter from Fuji Maru (PART 2)

Tomoko, my Japanese host-mother during the 39th Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP), sent me a message on Facebook asking me if I had received the package which she had mailed from Japan early February this year. The package carried the earthenware which I had made in a pottery house during my immersion in the Tochigi Prefecture in October last year. My host-father, Wataru had brought me there with another SSEAYP delegate Akimasa Kimoto, a Japanese and the family’s children Rie, Atsushi, and Takashi. He had wanted me to experience one of the family’s hobbies and an important part of the prefecture’s culture.

My host mother was worried when I said that the package had not yet been delivered to me. So she traced its status in their post office. In her second FB message, she said that the package had already reached the Naga City post office. This drove me to visit our post office, which was not my first time to do so this year. In my previous visit in January, I followed up on the post cards that had been sent to me from Fuji Maru and from a few port-of-calls in November and December last year. I discovered that they had sacks of letters still unsorted and undelivered at the post office. Despite the frustrating sight, the postmaster assured me that the letters, however delayed, would reach me.

 True to the postmaster’s promise, all my mail arrived together in March – two postcards featuring indigenous communities from my little host brothers, Zackie and Indera from Jakarta, a New Year greeting card from my host family from Ho Chi Minh City, and Fuji Maru postcards that contained kind words from my fellow youth ambassadors from across Southeast Asia.

The fact that these letters had reached me, however overdue, offered me hope. It sustained my excitement that the earthenware would find its way into my room’s newly fabricated kotatsu (Japanese table). I imagined myself there, sitting seiza-style, pouring green tea on the tea cup that I made myself, which would remind me of my SSEAYP journey and how it began in Japan.

On October 23, 2012, 2:10 p.m., Japanese Airline Flight 746 carried me and twenty-eight other Filipino delegates to Narita, Japan. Outside the airport, we were welcomed by a slight drizzle and cold breeze. The cold felt quite like Baguio weather. I had fancied that there would be snow at this time, albeit prematurely. This was, however, not so. But it was cold enough to numb the body pain and stress that I had accumulated from the month-long pre-departure activities I endured in Manila.

We boarded a bus that transported us to Hotel New Otani. A soft-spoken Japanese, who introduced himself as Jay, collected our passport, distributed to us a booklet, and gave us an initial orientation. My eyes, though, were fixed on the glass window speckled with dew drops that complemented the autumn feel of the place as if recording the first scenes of Japan as they quickly passed by. Amidst the cold and the soft chatter in the background, I felt some relief that I was there in Japan after almost four weeks of preparation and anticipation. I remembered the difficulty of practicing how to bamboo-clap in sync with the Singkil beat patterns, of  memorizing the “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” dance routine, and of helping to keep the delegation’s choral rendition in tune to showcase the best of the country’s culture and tradition. I remembered keeping the Secretariat team functional so that we may fulfill our tasks. I remembered the dress-up sessions for the courtesy visits in foreign embassies, the exercises, and the sleepless nights. I remembered my struggles during the adjustment period and the stormy times I had with my fellow delegates of different backgrounds, work orientation, levels of maturity, and perspectives which had to be worked on so that we could give justice to what we called ourselves – “Bugkos Lahi.” All these I endured courageously and happily so that I might contribute meaningfully to the group and represent my beloved Philippines well.

The sun was going down when we got to the hotel. We unloaded and carefully organized our personal suitcases and the delegation’s boxes of props and “what-nots.” Only when our hands and shoulders were freed from the luggage did we realize we had actually already arrived in Japan.

SSEAYP, without yet the speeches and "kampai," began finally. In a small quarter in the hotel, our delegation met for the first time outside the Philippines, where our National Leader Mabel Acosta reminded us for the nth time of our responsibilities as Filipino youth ambassadors, and gently yet emphatically warned us not to put the delegation or the name of the country in an embarrassing situation, or else – a premature going home to the Philippines! When we violated the rules, we would not be named by our last names, but by that of our country, she added.

We were then welcomed by our Japanese rapporteur Sachie, a nurse and again by Jay of the Cabinet Office who distributed to us our ear thermometer for daily checking of our body temperature, a bento box for our dinner, and a thousand yen for our lunch the next day. They were organized and keen on the details of our personal and contingent’s concerns, yet they seemed friendly and accommodating. They were, at least, not like the very serious looking ones that I had seen on our arrival. Before we adjourned, our national leader reiterated what she had always told us during our pre-departure training: Japanese time means being on time, reminding us to be mindful of our punctuality during assemblies.

In my room, I enjoyed the bento box, fascinated by how this container carefully kept several kinds of food apart from each other. Then I plunged into the tub’s warm water and, after an hour, went to bed. I was too tired to even remember the small chitchat I had with my roommate, Ron of Zamboanga City before dozing off.


Our first dinner in Japan in bento box.
The next day, before breakfast, our delegation was supposed to meet for our first photo shoot orientation. Less than half of us were able to make it there on time, however. So Raine and I decided to postpone it until after breakfast.

In the dining area, I met the first few foreign friends – Nicole, Wendy, Oo and Harry of Myanmar, I remember - who joined us at our table. In between enjoying our food and the awkwardness of our first meeting, we shared how well our trips went and what we were expecting to happen in Japan. 

After breakfast, Raine and I oriented the delegation on the different formations, poses, and smiles during group photos and in different situations. We rehearsed doing the formations in ten seconds, and made sure everyone had his or her window.

Our first breakfast and delegation photos at Hotel New Otani, Tokyo, Japan

We were given a free half-day.  So a few fellow Filipino delegates (Ry of Benguet, Bri of Cavite, Russ of Cebu City, Phil of Biliran, Meikko of General Santos City and Raine of Quezon City) and I had the chance to roam the hotel from the shopping arcade to the various restaurants to the impressive stone gardens and carp ponds, which I was not sure were part of the hotel’s four century-old traditional garden. Then we found ourselves outside the hotel premises, walking along a clean riverbank covered with fall foliage underneath the shade of red leaves which I imagined would turn into a tunnel of cherry blossoms in springtime.


Photo courtesy of Bri Ambulo



Our first feel of Japan
 Unguided and undeterred by the thought of getting lost, we explored the streets near the hotel, took our first photos of Japan and, more importantly, of ourselves. Apparently, the hotel that spans two buildings connected to each other was located in the quiet side of Tokyo, away from the city center which internet sources would describe as noisy and crowded.

There were not so many people on the sidewalks and the pedestrian lanes. Most of them were grey-haired, maybe in their late 50s or 60s. Many were alone, serious-looking, and walking fast; some were on their bikes. But really, they were old. I wondered where the young people were.

We took our lunch at a small ramen house. There the Japanese customers who were strangers to each other shared tables and finished their food without talking to each other. The only time that they got distracted was when we had our picture-taking, which was done not without some noise, excited as we were on our first lunch meal in Japan.

Outside the restaurant was a long queue of people waiting for seats to be vacated so they could also take their lunch. This prompted us to finish our noodles faster and go back to the hotel.
This was my first feel of Japan: clean, orderly, silent, ‘old’.


Letter from Fuji Maru (PART 3)

After ‘feeling’ Japan for the first time through the shades and fall foliage in the quiet spaces of Tokyo, I was back in Hotel New Otani for the Welcome Assembly of the 39th Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP). Everyone in the delegation was quite stiff as we wanted to make a first impression that we were united and disciplined. We all looked confident, although a bit tense maybe, in our green long sleeves. We were in uniform, from head to toe, except for me and Raine who were wearing the Press badge around our left arms and feeling the weight of our DSLR cameras.

From the hotel lobby, we entered the assembly room in two rows with the ladies’ arms locked into the gentlemen’s own (We call this position "ankla".). This scene fascinated the guests at the hotel, the foreign delegations and even the serious-looking Japanese officials and staff who were seated at the stage.

The emcee then requested each delegation to perform group cheers as a way to open the program. The Philippine delegation was unaware of that part of the program, so our orderly formation was disturbed in an instant. Well, maybe except for me, who began to assume my Press duties or, shall I say, found comfort in the task given to me because I owned a DSLR. This meant that I only had to document the presentation and not be part of it.

The contingent which gave the finale somehow pulled off a happy one by doing a “follow-the-leader” type of cheer where the delegation just had to follow the chant and actions of Bri. We all felt at that time that ours was not the best that we had wanted people to witness from us.

The Philippine delegation's first cheer.
The ship administrator, Mr. Toshio Kozuma, declared the SSEAYP officially opened. Then after some speeches and introduction of the Ship staff, we were ushered into a dining area. This time we added to our uniform the black coat, black slim tie for the gentlemen and silver fabric brooch for the ladies. Upon“kampai” or toast, the entire delegation shared a grand buffet of Asian cuisine with the Cabinet Office of Japan.

Toshio Kozuma, the ship administrator, declares the 39th SSEAYP officially open.
The Bugkos Lahi raise their glasses in the 39th SSEAYP's welcome dinner at Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, Japan.
Back in our rooms, I was relieved to be freed from the tightness of my suit as I changed into my bathrobe. I then finished reorganizing my small luggage for the next four days’ country program in Tochigi Prefecture. After this, since the night was still young, I did some room-hopping for a little noodle party despite the strict monitoring of our national leader. A few minutes after I had returned to my room, however, at around 11:30 p.m., the phone rang. It was our national leader! She was asking me if another delegate happened to be in our room as he was reported to be hopping from one room to another (as I had been doing but this, she did not know!). A bit worried, she appealed to me to help her monitor some delegates. After the phone call, I felt like, “Oh well, what can I say?  I just got lucky that I had not been caught.” Then suddenly, I also found myself challenged with a sense of responsibility. This seemed ironic. But I thought that the national leader must have considered my age and my work background in trusting me to help her.

On our Day 3 in Japan, Mae and I met our Solidarity Group (SG) mates for the first time. We were cliquish, sitting beside each other on the bus going to the Tokyo Station and on the Shingkansen going to Tochigi Prefecture. We talked with each other most of the time, mostly about our impressions about our SG mates, and helped each other as we tried to have our pictures taken in every interesting place we visited.

I met my first foreign roommate, Ong of Singapore. He invited me to join him and a few other delegates for a walk and some drinks. It could have been my first night out with non-Filipino delegates. But I politely refused the invitation and decided to just organize my luggage, take a long shower, and  write my first note in my new red journal, and rest after a long day. Later on, he would tell me in a postcard that he had felt bad about my having turned down his invitation.

 In the morning, Mae and I were early birds in the café. We took our breakfast together and visited the traditional garden outside.

One of the institutions we visited was the Utsunomiya University. There, we joined two English classes. The teacher, Dr. Barbara Morrison asked us to help her students improve their composition writing. Minh of Vietnam and I were paired with Aimi, who was quite shy in sharing her essay. She wrote about her junior high school teacher who inspired her to study hard and dream. In another class, I had conversations with an aspiring musician, Reika and an International Relations student, Natsuki in a small group with fellow SSEAYP delegate Aya of Indonesia.All of us were asked to write about our hopes for the youth of Fukushima. We were warned, though, to be sensitive about the Great East Japan Earthquake that triggered powerful tsunamis and meltdowns in Fukushima nuclear plants. They considered these tragedies to be their most difficult times after the Second World War.  These, along with the country’s economic recession, were said to have caused loneliness and triggered suicides among many of the Japanese. 

With Minh (left), Vietnamese delegate,  and Aimi (center), student of Utsunomiya University.
I met Georandel Gimenez Kato, the only Filipino studying in the University, who incidentally recognized me and Mae speaking in Filipino outside the school canteen. After our meeting, he immediately emailed me and Mae that he was glad to see a “kababayan” in the University.

Mae (first from the right) and I meet Georandel Gimenez Kato (second to the right), the only Filipino studying in Utsunomiya University.
It was already late afternoon when we went to a traditional Japanese tea house. We were all thrilled to be there, including the Japanese who, to my surprise, were just about to experience the traditional tea ceremony for the first time. We removed our shoes when we entered a furniture-free tatami-floored room. On one side of the room was an alcove decorated by two hanging scrolls that exhibited calligraphy. We were politely requested by ladies in kimono to be seated seiza-style in one row. Then in a ritual, the host ceremoniously prepared the thick tea in one corner. Thereafter bows were exchanged between the host and the delegates receiving the rice cake on a piece of Japanese paper and the tea. When it was my turn, following the example, I bowed to the host, raised the bowl in a gesture of respect to the host, took a sip and rotated the bowl to admire its design, then returned it to the host.

Tea ceremony
After the tea ceremony, in a banquet in a hotel, we were formally received in Tochigi by community leaders and our host families. There was a part in the program where Mae and I rendered a harana, with me singing Apo Hiking Society’s Ewan. Our performance ended with me giving Mae flower, an act which elicited giggles from the audience. When we came down the stage, a grey-haired Japanese in his kimono, whom I remember to be present during the tea ceremony, approached me and asked me to sing the classic Filipino love song Dahil Sa’yo for him. Right there and then, I sang few stanzas of the song with pride and joy upon realizing that he knew a Filipino song.

Mae and I perform a harana during the welcome activity in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. (Photos from Mae Ballena)



Letter from Fuji Maru (PART 4)

I met my Japanese host family, the Sakurai family, and my buddy for the immersion, Akimasa. When we introduced each other, I realized the first challenge for me: only the parents can speak English. Aki served as our translator, and reassured me that he will help me communicate with the family. He encouraged me, however, to try to relate with the children no matter how difficult it may be for me.

My Japanese host family
I first attempted at building rapport with them while on the car going to their home. I talked about happy things that I know about Japanese: Voltes V, Doraemon, Dragonball and Ghostfighter. They were so amazed that I knew these Japanese shows, so I explained to them how popular anime has been in the Philippines as far back as my childhood days in the 80s and 90s.

The Sakurai family has a semi-traditional house: wood and paper, with concrete exteriors, sloped ropes and a garden. That was the time that I tried to remember what were taught during our pre-departure orientation about Do’s and Don’t’s in Japan. Before entering the house, I removed my shoes at the house’s genkan (entrance) and turned them so that they faced the outside of the house. Tomoko offered me slippers for the tatami-covered floor.

We were ushered first to our room with wood and paper sliding screens as door, and unloaded our luggage. Except for the two mattresses on the floor, the room contained nothing else. Then we gathered at the round kotatsu, a low wooden table covered by what seemed a blanket. They placed their feet under the table, so I followed them and felt some warmth in there. For a while, my host parents and Aki were the ones speaking, in Japanese. Several times, Aki responded with “Arigato gozaimasu” which I understood to be words of gratitude. Wataru plotted a map of Tochigi on the table, and planned the places we were going the next two days. Among them, he said about a pottery house, and showed us some of the figurines and dishes that he made himself.

I woke up the next day at 6 a.m. Aki was still sound asleep, so I took the opportunity to use the only bathroom in the house. I remember Wataru telling me before we went to sleep that we can already use the ofuro (bath tub), that we did not have to follow the order that the eldest male in the house should use it first. If it were, the order would have been: Wataru first, then me, Aki, Atsushi, Takasi, Rie and Tomoko. Aki explained to me that I had to shower first before soaking myself into the tub, and I must never drain the tub as it will still be used by the other family members.

We had a traditional Japanese breakfast – rice, miso soup, pickles, vegetables in broth, and tea. Aki told me to say “Itadakimasu” or, literally, “I humbly receive it” with both hands together in front of my chest before eating to compliment the host for the food arrangement at the table. Wataru told us again our itinerary for he day. Tomoko, a nurse, could not join us, as she had to work at a school hospital. 

After breakfast, Wataru brought us to a river nearby to fish. He taught us first the procedures on how to cast net on land. Seeing Wataru’s demonstration, I thought that it was easy, but when it was my turn to practice, the edges of the net did not open to spread across the land. After some attempts, Wataru declared that Aki and I were ready for the river. We each caught three small fish after some awkward throwing of the net that did not fully spread out to the water. It was my first time to fish, which was weird as I had not tried it in my archipelago-country.


Day 1 activities of my homestay in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan
Wataru then drove us to a convenience store to buy some bread, then drove us further to a picnic place where we ate the bread as our lunch. In the car, Wataru played old Japanese songs. One them was Sukiyaki, which Aki and other Japanese delegates sang during the welcome dinner in Tochigi. I asked Aki to write down the lyrics for me, and tried to memorize the lyrics and hummed as Wataru and the children intently listened to me, amazed at my interest in the song.

Wataru brought us to an old house of mashikoyaki. It was not the first time for me to be in a traditional pottery house outside the Philippines. The first was in Hanoi, Vietnam, at a seven-century-old ceramics village, Ba Trang. But it was my first to be a potter.  Shaping dishes out of clay on a wheel by hand was not easy. It took me two failed attempts before I could form the soil into a small cup, with help from the real potter in the house. At the end of the session, I finished three dishes – a tea cup, tea mug and a bowl.  Wataru promised me that he will send them to me once they were dried and glazed with traditional patterns of my choice.

For the day’s final stop, we found ourselves in a train station, but we had no idea whether we would board the train or meet someone from there. Few minutes later, we heard a loud roar from a train. And as it approached and stopped at the station, we saw a C12-model steam locomotive, the first that I have seen in my life, which kind of resembled the Hogwart’s Express in the movie Harry Potter. After unloading and loading some passengers, I was uplifted to see the train’s smoke stack discharging huge cloud of white smoke and its wheels with connecting rods running along the Cotton Way.


Shaping dishes in an old house of mashikoyaki in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan.
A steam locomotive still running along the Cotton Way, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan.
We went home, tired yet I was happy for the firsts that I experienced that day.  Aki and the kids unreservedly lay on the floor as they watched Japanese anime. I scanned my camera to review the pictures of the day, but I realized that the card was already full, and the battery exhausted.  I tried to transfer my memory card photos to my laptop, and then deleted the files. But to my shock, the download had failed! That meant I would lose all my pictures from Day 1 in Japan. So I tried to research how to retrieve deleted files on memory card, and found out that there was hope. In the course of salvaging my photos, I lost about two hours of interaction with my host family.

Tomoko arrived in the house, and started preparing our dinner. She asked me to help her and Rie prepare the dumplings. An old gracious woman, whom Wataru introduced as her mother, came to the house and brought us fried fish, the ones that we actually netted from the river.  She lived near Wataru’s house. She could not speak English, so Aki was translating for us. She said that I was the first Filipino that she met in her life. 

After dinner, Wataru offered me and Aki canned Yebisu malt beer - my first taste of beer in Japan and SSEAYP. Wataru gave each of us a box neatly tied by a ribbon. When I opened the box, I was delighted to see two elephant figurines which he said he had bought from a store near the mashikoyaki house. I carefully inspected the intricate details of the figurines, and thanked Wataru for the gift. Aki and I each presented our gifts for our host family. I handed them a table runner, which I explained to them was made of abaca from Bicol. I opened my laptop, and showed them pictures of the tourist spots in the Philippines that I have been to – the terraces and caves of Sagada, the subterranean river of Puerto Princesa, the windmills of Ilocos Norte, and the beaches in Bicol, among others. I gave them a postcard featuring Mayon, which they said resembles the Fujiyama. The family shared that the they have a plan to go to the Philippines, and may take the Tokyo-Manila or Tokyo-Cebu as entry point to the country. They wanted to go to Boracay.


100% malt beer
Next morning, I woke up very early when everyone else seemed still asleep. I wrote a letter to our host family and planned to give it to the family before I bid them goodbye at noon. After writing, I silently went out of the house, and I felt it was colder than my first day in Japan. There was still no sign of snow,however. I followed a path walk of pebbles that led me to the backyard, where orange marigolds, pink daisies and red camellas thrived against the plain grey fence. On the left corner of the house was a hill-like formation covered with cosmos and further it a green house. I went inside a wooden structure that housed a pool of koi. Wataru was there, feeding the fish. “Ohayou gozaimasu,” I greeted him. He pointed at a white koi, and told me it was the biggest in his collection. He shared that while he farms, serves a community organization, does pottery, maintains his garden and does a lot more things, he still finds time for his koi. Interestingly, he said that koi are symbols of friendship in Japan and a homophone for the word love in Japanese. He led me back to the garden, where he shared his plan to construct a pond of koi around the house and place big rocks to complete his Japanese garden. He wanted a forest,mountains and sea in his garden.

 Wataru announced at breakfast that we will do apple-picking in the morning. I was surprised because I thought apple farms were only found in the Aomori Prefecture. It took us a fifteen-minute drive to get to the orchard. We were each given a basket where we placed the Fuji apples, which undoubtedly were the biggest I have seen in my life. The branches of the trees lay low, so the picking was easy. The apples were sweet and crispy, but I hardly finished one because of its size.


Apple picking in a Tochigi orchard
When we went home for the last time, I had to rearrange my luggage to make space for three kilos of apples. Wataru took our ‘family’ portrait outside the house,then drove us to a restaurant where we had early lunch. Inside the bento box on the kotatsu was unagi or freshwater eel on top of steamed rice. Unlike the eel cooked with vinegar, salt and spices that I had once tried in the Philippines,the unagi was filleted, deboned and glaze-grilled.  It tasted sweet and, oh, what better word can I describe it than oishi!
On our way to the Shinkansen station, nobody tried to speak as we listened or not listened to some J-Pop music from the car’s stereo, until I opened the Fiesta-themed stationery which I had bought from a souvenir shop in Intramuros. I announced that I have a letter to the host family, and I wanted to read it to them. Wataru immediately shut off the music. Aki offered to translate.

October 28, 2012

Dear Wataru, Tomoko, Aki, Atsushi, Takasi and Rie:

Thank you for welcoming me to your beautiful home, and treating me kindly as a member of your family. I feel so lucky to have you as my Japanese host, and to be here in Tochigi.

In two days that I spent with you, I experienced your hospitality and love. I enjoyed every moment of my homestay: the food, the fishing, the tougay, the koi watching, the conversations and many more. I only have meaningful and happy memories of your family and Tochigi to bring home and share in the Philippines.

I hope I can stay longer but I could not. But I promise to remember you always,and to connect with you for a long time.

Continue to love and take care of each other. I wish that Rie, Atsushi and Takashi will do well in school, achieve their dreams and become happy.

See you again. Arigatou! Salamat!

Sincerely,
Sonny

Family picture before leaving Tochigi Prefecture
Awkwardness ran though me after reading the letter, realizing how ‘corny’ the letter had probably sounded. Aki, in his usual comic way of making situations light,started humming the Sukiyaki which I filled with words as much as I remembered  "Ue o muite arukou/ Namida ga kobore naiyouni..."

Aki told me that the song is actually a sad goodbye song, yet even if they understood the lyrics and I did not, they sang it with the same glee as I did. "...Omoidasu, haru no hi / Hitoribotchi no yoru."

We said our sayonara. Wataru assured me again that he would send me and Aki the earthenware we crafted, to which we gratefully responded, “Domo arigatou gozaimasu”. From the car, I unloaded my luggage, three kilos heavier because of the apples. This and the weight that dangled from around my neck, I carried back to Tokyo. Both carried things which would remind me of take me back to the prefecture – the net fishing, the steam engine, the orchard, the unagi and Sakuyaki. But more than the souvenirs and the potential Facebook cover photos,my immersion in Tochigi gave me new, more meaningful perspective about the Japanese far better than my first impressions I had made in Tokyo. I gained such new eyes through the Wataru family. They made me experience a different kind of hospitality, one with depth, respect, and gentle sincerity. As a foreigner, they introduced me Japan beyond tourism and tokens. They were not very expressive and wordy as, in fact, they were typically silent, reserved and did know many English words to tell me, yet every part of their home  - the genkan, the kotatsu, the garden – and their lived traditions spoke to me. And they told me about how they love their country and family, how they work hard for their family, how they value peace, and how they pursue happiness.

(To be continued)

Thirty (Parts 1, 2 and Epilogue)

Some lazy afternoons back in high school, I used to visit the Naga City Public Library which at that time occupied the entire second floor of the building on the corner of Panganiban Avenue and Elias Angeles Street. During one of those times, I serendipitously pulled out a thin paperback from one of the shelves which was filled with children’s books. That year was 1999, I was sixteen then, and, in one sitting, I read “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The novella greatly influenced my self-image and worldview. With the pilot and the little prince, for instance, I shared this same opinion about grownups: They are strange, unhappy, and unappreciative of “the essential things that are invisible to the eye.” However, being sixteen and on the brink of college life, I understood that, like the pilot, I was about to face a more serious chapter and later become a grownup. So I imposed on myself this juvenile yet sacred goal: I will be a grown-up only when I reach the age of 30. Thus, I had fourteen years to ignore the strange “matters of consequence” of the grownups: getting married, raising kids, fulfilling responsibilities and obligations, and dealing with some serious issues that parents, like the grownups at home, would normally think, talk, quarrel or worry about. I had fourteen years to be young, carefree and happy.

Faithful to my goal, I decided after high school graduation to move far away from home and avail of a college diploma for myself in Manila. I was not so clear then about my motivation for this departure, whether it was for freedom or education or both, but I had a good excuse – I was young and ambitious; being impulsive was still forgivable. Fortunately or unfortunately, the grownups at home did not protest this decision and instead, consistent with their being grownups, believed that it was one that would land me a good-paying job and pave the way for a secure future.

My admission to the University of the Philippines-Diliman facilitated my sweet independence. There, people did not know or care about my achievements in high school. There, I was not a son of a first-rate teacher. There, I was an unfashionable probinsiyano. There, I was a beginner. There, I had to prove myself again. But I was determined and highly competitive. As an iskolar ng bayan, I strove to be an artist in my own right. I continued my passion for writing. I joined the UP Vocal Ensemble, a new choir. I was truly independent: cooked my food, washed my clothes, cleaned my room. I was exactly what and who I desired to be at seventeen, eighteen and nineteen.

At twenty, I was too proud of my small victories, still overwhelmed by my freedom, and consumed by my uncontainable youthful energies and creativity. Consciously or unconsciously, I turned into a doubter: too arrogant to believe in the supernatural, too strong to pray for anything that I could possibly not do, but afraid enough to dismiss my Catholic faith and guilt. I was a superman: I did what I wanted to do without pause for reflection, without weariness, without much regard for rightness or wrongness.

At twenty-one, I began to sense some meaninglessness in my vanity, my pride, my disconnectedness with the world. I felt some emotions which I was not comfortable with, like loneliness and purposelessness. I recalled the joys of a real long-lasting friendship – the rituals of “taming,” the beer sessions, the gimmicks, the kiss-and-tell talks.  I missed my memory of a first love - the love letters, the warmth of her hand on mine, the beautiful sunset in our eyes, the candlelight dinners, the walks under the stars, the talks about forever, the breakup, and the heartache. I was missing memories I never had!

So I tried. The letters, the rituals – I tried them. But the sunset looked the same; the stars twinkled as unexcitingly as they always did. The parting was a relief. The hurt was… There was no hurt. I knew from the start that it had only been an experiment on being in love. But in fact, I did not love. At twenty-one, I was not like any other guy of my age. I was not in love.

At twenty-one, I was out of school. I was jobless. I was wandering around day and night without purpose. I stopped singing. I forgot how to dream. I found it hard to sleep. The grown-ups did not know; I was ashamed to tell them what I was going through. If there was one thing I still had that time, it was pride. The rest was darkness, vagueness, senselessness. I forgot who I was and who I was supposed to be at twenty-one.

At twenty-two, everything was not lost. I came home to the familiar, to the grown-ups, to my family – to my old “matters of great consequence”. There, forgiveness was embracing; hope was waiting; love was promising to heal me. I was not sure if I deserved all the consolation and reassurance, but love was unconditionally given to me by my family, despite my angst and my flaws. 

At twenty-two, I knew that there was such a thing as a second chance in life. But I also realized that messing up had its consequences. I had to deal with the unfamiliar – with feelings of humiliation, of hurting, of being humbled. I was not the same person of my past: my self-image and world-image were not that of a seventeen-year-old anymore. It was the first time that I realized that I had evolved in five years. Still, my disposition was not yet that of a grown-up while my experiences were not those of a twenty-two year old either.

I virtually rebooted my life at twenty-two. I started with a clean slate, holding on to only a very few experiences that still needed closure. I did not know when or how these could be processed. But in the meantime, I clung to the comfort and reassurance of home. I hoped that time would eventually heal my wounds.

I soon after found myself in a school again – the Ateneo de Naga University --  but the circumstances were different this time around. There were too many rules for me to follow, but I consoled myself with the thought that I needed this after a long period of defiance. I was much older than my new mates and friends who seemed way too childish for me; I initially thought I was not with those whom I should be at twenty-two. But I was proven wrong again. These friends turned out to be the best people that I should meet at that point in my life. With them, I was happy and safe. Slowly, I loosened and opened up myself with others. And as I shared my humanity – even the ugly details of it - the pain gradually subsided.

At twenty-two, my sense of community broadened. I took up the challenge of leadership in an organization. At last, I sensed some purpose in my existence. I was not sure if I was ever a good student. My grades were just fine, but definitely not the best that I could come up with. I was not the obedient student that any teacher or prefect of discipline might wish for. In fact, I was once put on a disciplinary warning status for minor violations. But of this I am certain: I led and served my organization with all of my heart.

When it rained, it poured. I was fortunate to have earned many opportunities: the Ayala Young Leaders Congress formation, the National Youth Parliament linkages, among others. But more importantly, my leadership formation helped rebuild my self-confidence and worth. I was praying again. I was trusting again. I was dreaming again. I felt I was much stronger than I should be at twenty-three.

At twenty-three, I rode on a rollercoaster of emotions. I felt tough enough to handle any challenge – except maybe love, which came to me when I least expected it. I must admit that I felt happier and more human than I ever was. I was singing again. I was smiling again. But as much as it caused me deep joy, it also gave me moments of sadness, of longing. I had ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. I thought that it was too much of a risk to be weak again at a time when I was just regaining my momentum. Did I regret it? Painfully, no. But the ride was intense; thus, forgetting was long. Indeed, at twenty-three, I was less than a teenager when it came to issues of the ‘heart’.

At twenty-four, I knew it would take some time before I would ride a rollercoaster again. Meanwhile, like a consolation, I saw that the future looked bright again for me. At least, according to my Curriculum Vitae, I was very promising and competitive. But I appreciated myself a little too much. I was already twenty-four but had to start at the bottom like any other beginner. The only difference was that my Curriculum Vitae was longer this time.

Having believed that I was meant for something bigger than my hometown, I tried to leave again. I did not pay attention to the grown-ups. I hastily dismissed other possibilities. But all the ugly details of Manila -- the smoke, the traffic, the senseless rush, the insomnia --- caused me palpitation and hypertension.  Maybe I was unconsciously malingering, but my disposition seemed to tell me that I was not (or not yet) ready for the career path I was pursuing. This led me to journey back home again.

Being Happy at 30 (Part Two)

Like a gift, exactly on my 25th birthday, my formation as a worker in the vineyard of the Ateneo de Naga University began. I started at the Social Involvement Office, where I understood community outreach in a more enlightened perspective and received basic office work training. Soon enough – exactly six months after, I knew that I was not to stay for long in this first job as I was given an offer I could not refuse: to be a formator of student leaders and organizations at the Office of Student Affairs (OSA). At first, I found formation work too much for me to chew, but with the support of people and a lot of self-confidence, I took up the challenge. Being a former student leader myself, it was a fitting opportunity for me to help facilitate student leadership formation through concrete development programs. Amazingly, in a short span of time, positive evaluations, responses, and even awards affirmed my work. Overjoyed, I imagined myself working at the Ateneo de Naga for a long time.

But at twenty-six, I was just too fluid. What I thought quickly changed. At this time, I left OSA to work for no less than the President of the university. In my new niche, I met, talked and dined with prominent people – some of them, grownups, others, not --  listening to and being inspired by their” matters of consequence.” I worked with nice colleagues who, mostly, did not think like grownups, thankfully. With them, I was pushed to live out excellence, be it in writing, organizing, or even clerical work. True, I had a prestigious and convenient job. But I was looking for something more. It came to a point when I was so sure of leaving the Ateneo de Naga.

I realized that, at twenty-six, I was underpaid. I did not have my own house or my own car. I had no savings in the bank. I was dependent on the grown-ups. I felt underappreciated, unable to maximize my potentials and skills. But I kept myself busy at work and with extra-curricular activities when not at work to sustain my busyness and to evade the thought of leaving due to some frustrations. My desires to help my family and to have a stable future kept me hanging on when, at the end of each day, I was forced to confront issues at work. My reflections – in the silence of my retreats and in the noise of my daily struggles - always led me to stay and to be grateful for my gifts. They, however, also led me to be attentive to my internal movements and to the options that life presented me with. As apparent answer to my prayer, I found myself home at OSA again before the summer ended, this time with a new assignment. I then embarked on a new journey that has been challenging, not materially rewarding, but inspiring.

At twenty-seven and twenty-eight, I was a jetsetter, flying near and far, awe-inspired by the Byzantine and Ottoman landscape of Turkey, the skyscrapers and subway of Singapore, the motorbikes and conical hats of Vietnam, the chopsticks and “kimchi” of Korea, and the fun in the Philippines. More importantly, I met and interacted with many people of different races, backgrounds, and matters of consequence. My perspectives widened, my linkages, expanded. But underneath all this personal and professional development, I was still on another journey – this time, to depths within myself: chasing liberty again, but a more guided one this time; seeking deeper meanings in life; forming interpersonal relations; finding my true place under the sun; desiring to be a better person.

TODAY, at twenty-eight, I am still underpaid. I still feel underappreciated. I am still not romantically in love. I am still having questions of whether or not to leave my present work or the country.

But today, I recall having earned a Mayoral Award at a young age. I have traveled to many countries abroad in the last two years. I have gained 788 Facebook friends from 35 countries all over the world. I have true friends. I have found a new passion – photography -- that has resulted into the creating of 44 albums in eight months. My brother has just been promoted Associate Manager of Manila Water. My mother is in the peak of her career as a teacher and school administrator. My father is still the kindest and most hardworking father a son can ask for. My sister has been blessed with a child, Princess Reigne, who has made our home livelier and the grown-ups happier.

In the Ateneo de Naga University, I have been given opportunities which have allowed me to create a positive impact on the life of other people, especially the youth and the external community.

Today, God affirms His great love for me though the love of my family and other people and the many gifts I have received all these years. It would be too ungrateful and unjust of me if I ended up just ranting a lot. After all, I am not underpaid in the area of blessings.

Today, I remember myself at seventeen and my plan to be a grown-up at 30, and I laugh at my foolishness. Maybe, given that only a year stands between now and this self-imposed deadline, I will still not yet be ready for the matters of grown-ups when I do hit that age: settling down, getting married, having kids, fulfilling responsibilities and obligations, and confronting some serious stuff that my parents still think, talk, quarrel and worry about. Maybe I should give myself five more years instead -- or maybe more – to reach my goal . Maybe I should plan a bit less and let life surprise me a bit more. Maybe I should just live each day like it were the last.

Maybe I should learn from the past thirteen years of my life how I, in each year, tried to control my life, succeeded and failed; how I sought and found happiness and love, succeeded and failed; how I tried to make myself productive and relevant in my community, succeeded and failed. Maybe I have not reached my best form yet or uncovered my real purpose and vocation, but my journey has been towards something good. And I believe God will not protest if I claim that despite my inadequacies and excesses, I have been good. Not perfect. But good.

TOMORROW, on my 29th birthday, I will still be the little prince that I was at sixteen. I will still not be a grown-up. Rather, I will only be a year older than yesterday. However, with my hairline receding, I would be lying if I say that the thought of being a grown-up someday does not affect me in any way. Truth is, it does cause me some emotional stress to go through the normal transition from 20s to 30s and make some adjustments in my lifestyle. There just seems to be so much in youth that I have not outgrown yet. There is so much that I have not yet experienced. And these youth issues have surfaced of late. It is funny, but maybe I am just having either a premature midlife crisis or a late quarter-life crisis. Maybe I am just too anxious of the future. Maybe I am just overanalyzing things. Or maybe, I am just normally living. Maybe, I am growing up – without being a grown-up.

BE that as it may, tomorrow, when I turn twenty-nine, I will continue to grow up. Tomorrow, at twenty-nine, I will seize the chance to be stronger, wiser, more grateful, more forgiving, more loving than today. Tomorrow at twenty-nine, I will continue to search for deeper meanings and long-lasting happiness.

-September 5, 2011
***

Epilogue

The old musty smell or the rough feel of textured pages in books read during my teenage years no longer exists. In its stead now sits an iPad on my lap with its cold, weighty, and disengaging visual display. One day, I browsed through an e-copy of “The Little Prince,” which I had downloaded, once again. The emotional connection was still there. But I was reading the book with the eyes of a 29-year-old this time. In one chapter, the little prince says: “The people where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden... yet they don't find what they're looking for...” What fitting backdrop these words were as my long journey to self-awareness continued.

At twenty-nine, I had asked myself: What is my one matter of consequence - one that motivates me in all my endeavors, one that could sustain me. These are serious questions. Yet they are not questions of a grownup as they lead one to reflect on things beyond figures. With ‘being thirty’ lurking just around the corner, I felt a bit of pressure to engage in more serious discernment so as to, hopefully make bigger decisions when I turned thirty. Being thirty, I imagined, would be a turning point in my life, a time when I would get to have a clearer picture of how and where I would spend my life at least for the next ten years. I did not want to grow old regretting what I should have done today.

Now, finally, I am on the saddle of my thirtieth year. As I sit here today, a few hours before the year 2013, I find that this thirty-year-old still has no complete grasp of the future. So at some point, I ask myself, "What happened to my experience of retreats and other discernment activities? Meaning next year, should I expect to still feel the same feelings and confront the same questions about recurrent issues - such as my career, for instance?

More than frustration and impatience, however, what I feel while writing this is a sense of courage, openness, and excitement about life’s options. I believe that surprises await me as well as opportunities which shall be given to me as a consequence of my decisions and life’s inherent kindness. These positive energies are enough self-reassurance that things will turn out right.  For indeed, despite some personal struggles, my 30th year has been unfolding as one of the best years of my life. In 2012, I experienced some firsts, went to places near and far, and achieved dreams that have changed me forever. I met new people, strengthened old relations, and made fresh ones that I hope to nurture for good.

Being thirty today, I have so far made more conscious efforts to move towards my personal happiness. And yes, I'm happy to be happy. It is a new and strange feeling, but it is the feeling that, nonetheless, has settled within me after many years of pain. For all that I have done and accomplished in the last thirty years of my life, however modest they may seem to the world, I deserve to be happy.

The journey is far from over. But being thirty seems like a good place to be in.

-Few hours before December 31, 2012