Is it fate? Is it a choice?

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Getting in touch with my grade school, high school and college friends made me more eager to go back home to the Philippines. We were setting up reunions since we had not seen each other in more than 30 years.

One of my close friends in college, Anne, was getting married for the first time. It happened to be around the time I had planned to visit my parents. Benjie had given me my round-trip plane tickets to Manila as a gift. I was thrilled because it was a sign that my brother’s business was doing well.

Most of my peers stayed in the Philippines, and those who left didn’t have the same immigration problems as my family did. I talked to three of my best friends from college, Anne, Chiquit and Caryn. We all graduated with a degree in psychology, guidance and counseling.

“What did you do after we graduated from college?” I asked.

Anne went first. Anne is a teacher at Assumption College, a prestigious private all-girls school in Manila. She is very conservative and soft-spoken, but always seems so sure of what she wants to accomplish.

“After college I went the normal route,” she said. “I got employed but only to realize that work was not what I thought it would be. After I resigned from my first job, an aunt invited me to teach preschool while waiting for my ideal job. What was supposed to be a short stint in a small preschool brought me to my life’s mission and ushered me into the world of teaching.

“This was solidified when I got accepted to a graduate program in education abroad,” Anne continued. “Those were five wonderful years of discovering myself and finding my niche in teaching. I studied, I taught, I made some good friends, and I wondered if this was the place for me. The answer came in one of my weekly encounters with my professor. Some months later, having finished my thesis and the graduate program, I came back to Manila.”

“I never thought of applying to the school system,” I thought. “I had this mindset of working in the corporate world. It had never crossed my mind.”

“Obviously, teaching has consumed my every waking moment ever since,” Anne said. “The classroom was my kingdom; the students were like my own children. Teaching, studying, reading, writing -- all of these updated me in my chosen field while the kids kept me on my toes. I found my niche and believed that I made a worthy contribution to those that mattered. Today my kingdom has extended outside the classroom as I find myself still consumed by anything related to education. I left the Philippines to discover what lies beyond my own shores. I came back five years later, certain that this was the place for me. And it is -- whether it is my work, my family life or my relationships. I continued to use and enhance the gifts given to me to make a difference, small as it might be. My old professor was right: Our place is where we can make a difference in our little corner of the sky.” 

Chiquit, my fun-loving friend, spoke next. Chiquit is a Montessori teacher for kids ages 3 to 6. She is married and has a 20-something son. She loves yoga and still continues to make me laugh!

“After college, I was obsessed with being a Makati working girl, but things were a bit slow with my applications in the industrial field,” she said. “I was desperate to land a job and saw this advertisement that offered Montessori teacher training in Montessori Pasay. I observed the 3- to 6-year-old class. I thought the children were so cute, and I kind of liked the idea of me as a grownup working with little-lees.

“After a year, I became a full-fledged Montessori teacher,” Chiquit continued. “Yes, I was working, but I had to make my contributions at home for rent, food and money for my mom. The contributions basically consumed most of my earnings. I felt earning in the Philippines was not getting me anywhere. There wasn't enough to save. I was so jealous of friends, like you, who landed jobs in the States -- the ultimate place! I decided to get more experience and I polished my curriculum vitae and then applied to Montessori schools mostly in the U.S.A. and in New Zealand, where my sister was already working. In 1990 I got the biggest break of my life, which was to start up a Montessori preschool in Wellington, New Zealand, as – take note – principal teacher! Woo-hoo! In 2005 the move to Perth, Western Australia, was brought about by my husband's work transfer. I had a break for a couple of years in between getting married and having my son, Alvin.”

“Wow, Chiquit, that’s great!” I said. “I left right after graduation. I never really got a chance to work in the Philippines. You did great!”

“I have a well-paying job in Australia that allows me to be a housewife for 12 weeks a year – of course with pay and benefits. What more can I ask for? Experiencing four seasons in a year is the bomb, compared to the wet or dry and hot or hotter Philippines,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my country and my countrymen, and yes, I keep coming back to them.”

“I love the four seasons, too,” I said. “Even though I get pretty cold in the winter time, the four seasons are just lovely! I don’t think leaving the Philippines meant we didn’t care. We needed to survive so we had to attend to our basic needs first.”

“Jen, had I not made the move to leave my beloved country and work elsewhere, I’d probably still be working as a Montessori teacher in Pasay, still paying rent, not being able to make home payments, and not being able to save,” Chiquit said. “I would not have been able to help my family financially as I have been able to since stepping onto foreign land.”

“Me, too,” I said. “That’s why I left. I needed to help my family financially – and of course be able to support myself.”

I then turned to my friend Caryn, who resides in Colorado. “What was your first job after college?” I asked.

“A few months after graduation, I don't exactly remember my title, but it was some sort of behavioral consultant for a fitness spa at the former Intercontinental Hotel,” Caryn said. “I lasted a few weeks. After my Pa saw me wearing leotards in the spa, designed for men and women, he made sure I quit immediately. I couldn't even give a day’s notice.”

“I would have loved to see you working in leotards,” I said, chuckling.

“My next job was as a personnel assistant for Grosby, a rubber shoe company,” she continued. But I quit after I was offered a job at Assumption as a high school guidance counselor. As you may recall, in 1986, I left a year later for the States.

“While earning my master’s in Illinois, I worked in one of the school’s cafeteria dorms, serving food,” she said. “I then moved to New York to work on my PhD and was fortunate enough to get consulting stints at the University Central Office -- which later led to a full-time job. I also taught some college courses and worked as a research assistant. I studied full time and worked full-time hours. That was exhausting!

“In 1995, after my first marriage failed, I moved to Michigan to work for Ford and then moved to Colorado to work for U.S. West, now Qwest,” she said. “I’ve been a full-time mom since having kids. And then I found out that being a full-time mom is a lot more challenging, especially when you have a husband who travels a lot for work! But that’s another story.”

“You have accomplished plenty, wow!” I said. “Why did you decide to come to the U.S.?”

“Call it a childhood dream,” she said. “I never thought I’d be able to accomplish those things, and I do believe that God was with me. I just had to try. I had to survive, so I worked hard. Growing up, I came across several older adults who lamented how their lives were not so good, but who never tried pursuing their dreams. Then they came around and discouraged younger people who wanted to pursue something. I decided to stay away from naysayers. Instead I asked myself, ‘What's the worst thing that can happen?’ and concluded that the worst thing that could happen was that nothing would happen. That has been my mantra. Call me a nonconformist.”

“I have always been proud of you,” I said. “Coming to the U.S. on a full scholarship, landing all those jobs, and now living the American dream! You’re lucky!”

“Now that I am a full-time mom, I have a lot more respect for other moms out there, especially single moms,” Caryn said. “None of my paid work has ever been as challenging. Moms – and parents in general – are truly unsung heroes. I try hard to be a good mom, but I do not see myself as a super wonderful mom.”

Hearing from my three friends made me wonder if each of us already had a set fate – a certain direction.

Is it destiny? Is it a choice?

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