Life and Lemons

“We’re going to build a two-storey house.”

Kudos to anyone who will actually read this until the end, other than my professor.

My father said this to me when I was in elementary school, a miniature me in my rumpled blue skirt and bleached white blouse, my bangs cropped short and uneven over my forehead. I stared at him in awe, sharing the dream. He would say this every time he comes home from Jeddha, in two-year intervals, and he would detail where the garage will be, and how my sisters and I will then finally have our own rooms. Despite my skepticism, I nod my head and find myself designing our two-storey house with him, the image in full color in our heads. My mother would stay in the background, grunting in reply when asked for her opinion. She keeps her attention on the vegetables she slices, chopped steadily and in measured pieces, the same way she organizes her life.

Household scenes like this make me realize, “how different my mother and father think from each other, their minds spinning like alien planets.”

My mother is a rock—strong and sturdy, and always constant. She has a sharp tongue. She does not swear but her words can hurt you, sometimes because her intentions are misunderstood, more often because she speaks the uncut truth. My sisters and I personally think she has a special way with words. The eldest in a brood of five, raised by a father with a gambling streak and a hard-working martyr of a mother, she was forged into an iron woman. My mother is the one who taught me A-Z and 1-10, the skill of waking up early in the morning (which I have not perfected), and the value of not turning on the TV on weekdays when I have homework to do. Having served decades of her life in a job with erratic schedules and promotions based on a master’s degree, my mother planned her children’s lives accordingly—all three will grow up to be professionals, work from 8-5, and get good steady pay.

My father is more of a dreamer, thus is what becomes of a boy whose idea of fun as a child was stealing mangoes from the neighbor’s tree. He was a farmer’s son, born somewhere in the middle of a large brood of ten. He, too like my mother, grew up to several meals of salt and rice. But he is unlike my mother in how she prefers a steady, sustainable life. Instead he sees the good things other people have and aspires to get them, not out of envy, but more for the betterment of his life, and when he had us, the betterment of ours too.

Thus the battle in our house—my father pushes us to try our luck abroad, mother argues for good jobs here in the Philippines. Father is in awe of the biggest, most robust speakers and the newest model laptops, while mother cherishes her small house, always purging it of junk, keen only for marble floors. Father dreams of his own business; mother scoffs at this, preferring her monthly income.

And so I grew up a mix breed. My iPod is my 5th limb, but I counted every penny when I bought it. I took up a business course so I can fit like a glove in the offices along Ayala. I am a brain that will not migrate, but I too am not satisfied with my corporate life and I plan for change. Common values emanate from both parents though. They sum it up well with their mantra, “we don’t have land to inherit to you, not a single penny to pass on, so do well in your studies, and as sisters, always help each other “.

These become the guiding principles of my life and (with much effort from my part to reinforce it) in the lives of my sisters. Different though all five of us are in the family, in shape and size, in minds and in personalities, we sail through every day with these general truths supporting us—that education and learning are the only things we have that will not expire, and at the end of the day, we always come home to our family.

But as life is not a vacuum, and days are not spent locked inside the house, I find myself also a product of things, people, and places that I encounter on a daily basis. Whenever asked to look back, I, the skeptic, always say, “at 25 years, what am I expected to have experienced?” But that’s just me putting the shields back on, and glossing over the things in the past that I do not want to remember, or do not want to dwell into.

At 20 years old, I was sadly but triumphantly leaving UP. I took with me my degree and my honors (grudgingly lower than my goal of a magna cum laude, but that was my fault). Even before graduation, I was already accepted into a management trainee position—the trendy and logical position my batch mates and I wanted. We were arrogant; we did not want to start at the bottom. We wanted to be managers in a span of months.

And so that’s what I did. After much unexpected hardship from the traineeship program, I came out a junior officer, with the fresh shiny title of Assistant Manager. That turned out to be the only shiny thing about the job. I was thrown into a big branch in the center of Makati, five people directly under me, at least five more also under my supervision with a workaholic boss that expects the same. I was forced to learn nearly everything along the way, since of course, as I should have been wiser to know, projector lectures and training materials can only teach you so much.

I would arrive home at 9pm every day an exhausted child. Work got easier to handle in due time; one gets used to routines and rules after a few months, more so after five years. And in that span of time, I picked up a couple of significant learnings—one, branch banking is not for me. I realized that whenever I am silently slumped over my reports and emails, and suddenly a client sits in front of me, disturbing my work. I tell myself I still have not internalized the whole point of customer service. But on hindsight, maybe I’m just not designed for it. I know now this is not the career path where I will flourish in, but still I smile at my clients every day, because I do not want to make the same mistake the 20-year-old me did. I am not jumping on the next big ship just for the sake of jumping. There are more important things to consider than good pay and a title. I have to not hate going to work, to be doing something I actually like for a living, and while I figure that out, I will be patient.

Work in the branch also taught me about people. The introvert that I am, even as a child I preferred the company of books to playmates, of a couple of close friends to a party-load of guests. But when flung in a sea of staff and customers, one is forced to adjust, and to adjust, also to learn. I developed my patience and my diplomacy. Such skills are required when a client is demanding an impossible transaction, or else nearly spitting at your face and you are not allowed to spit back. When the staffs start taking sides, gossiping and rumor-mongering, whether about their jobs or their personal lives, I as their officer, am obligated to stand in the middle and sort out the confusion. These kinds of episodes gave me a certain wariness over relationships. As much as I want to be the cool boss who is friends with the staff, there is a line to be drawn, and it is my choice how thin I will make it. These also taught me a good juggling act—balancing personalities unique from each other and so much different from my own, while maintaining good, if not even harmonious bonds.

I also learn more about myself and relationships outside of the office, in those treasured pockets of time between work and home. I am the type who once I make a commitment, I set it in stone. So naturally, I am the last person to know when something is wrong.

My first boyfriend was a classmate in senior high, and eventually (after he pulled some strings) my seatmate. In college, he was an Atenista and I was taga-UP, and thus we were only separated by Katipunan road. After I graduation, I was a bank officer while he lingered in school for an extra year. I should have noticed it by then. When he graduated, I was still a bank officer and he was heading one of their family businesses in Bataan. Quezon-City-Bataan can hardly be called long distance, scoffs my friends, but that is what we allowed it to be. I shouldn’t have been surprised with those two cold weeks, and then the text that followed, ending our seven-year relationship.

I was surprised I only cried for a month, and in short episodes too, not in long dragging days of depression and immobility. My sister would smirk and tell me, “You’re only pretending to be sad”. And I realized my logical way of dealing with it worked. In my head I kept rationalizing the clichés that were in his break-up speech—“we were growing apart”, “your life is heading in a different direction than mine”—and I agreed with them. On bitter days, I find myself thinking, “I should have broken up with him instead, and sooner.” But then it may be a good thing that it took me seven years and an imposed separation to see my co-dependency, the way I lived my life inside our bubble, devoid of close friends and much interests of my own. I am not discounting the things I learned from him though; we grew up together after all. I owe him my re-education in rock music, late nights in gigs, and a love for sweaters, among many others. But I came out of that relationship hungry for independence and for change, eager to build friendships and to feel new things, and aware that my life needs major reorganization. I am not jaded, nor will I allow myself to be cynical, but I will not fall for the next boy who sits next to me, at least until I have sorted out my own life.

Experiences such as these bring to the forefront the weaknesses that haunt me, and the strengths that balance it out. I had an epiphany recently. I was going on in awe for days at the Enneagram and how learning I was a ‘Thinker’ explained a lot of things, when I realized—I thought too much, and did little. I make decisions in my head, but they turned out to be only choice options, yet to be promoted to decisions, because I have not committed to them.

I was raised a shy person—a by-product of a disciplinarian mother, of not being allowed to play with friends as soon as the sun sets, of being told to choose books over TV and over people. Being an introvert I find that my advantages lie in my mind, like in how I like to read and how I excel in writing. I was one of the few who felt sad about leaving school, and I was labeled a geek (which I secretly liked). I also find that I observe very well. I daydream as a sport and like to watch people and situations, and I am surprised about the things I pick up from these. Given these, I find that I do not like an idle mind. I like to learn, whether from books or teachers, or from work or the TV. It does not have to be fundamental—my interests are hardly philosophical. But this good trait drives me to learn daily, and motivates me to attain better things and higher goals. This trait also helps me with people. Much as I do not revel in the company of a crowd, my observations give me social discernment, and equip me with tools to navigate around different kinds of people.

Then there is the corollary weakness that I was finally able to put into words recently—there is a disconnect between my brain and my mouth. There are times—too many instances—when I have things brewing inside my head that I cannot form into words, or explain in a way to make others understand. Often the statement comes out with lukewarm effect, the full meaning lost in translation and I get frustrated. I would tell the receiving party, “here, just read about what I mean,” or “let me write an email to explain.” This insecurity (there, I admit it) inhibits me from making a suggestion in a meeting, in raising a point in class, at times even in speaking out to a reckless taxi driver. Only recently, I decided to talk in class, and as I raised my small hand my heart was pounding painfully inside my chest, nervous at the small recitation. It is an issue of confidence, of fear of rejection and of being called out as wrong, and these are excuses to be weathered. I am forced out of my shell often by circumstances, by orders from the boss, the professor or the parents, armed only by blind courage and the desire to just finish the task. This is my Achilles’ heel, and the battle to arm it is ongoing.

I very rarely reflect on my life in such a comprehensive, organized way as this, and looking through it I can only conclude that I am a work in progress. I am under construction, and I think that is the best way to look at things. Even when I start to live my dreams and achieve holistic happiness, I do not think it’s prudent to think of it as work all done. There must always be efforts to change, to upgrade into better versions of myself. And ultimately, this is what my past quarter-life has prepared me for—the achievement of Angeline Tria, 4th Generation.

My 4G self will be a kinder daughter, who is more understanding of her mother’s temper and her father’s shoot-at-the-moon ideas. She will fight the Big C side by side with her mother, and be the rock she is expected to be, no matter this expectation remains unsaid. The 4G me will be a supportive sister, will hold in the primal instinct of indulging them out of fondness, and instead be the third parent that they need now that the first two ones are getting older. She will treasure her friends, as she is lucky to have stumbled upon real ones. She will be more honest with herself, and will let go off the delusion that she is fine with her job. She will be brave, aware of the value of each second, but will not fall into recklessness. She will not make excuses for her weaknesses, but will work to outgrow them, or if not, work around them. She will not overestimate her strengths, but will humbly improve them. Above all, the 4G me will no longer fear change.

It seems like a long way to go, and the road is never-ending. But these spikes and pitfalls of my short life have given me discernment over it, the skill (though still rough) to look at problems and situations and realize not only the silver lining, but the reasons behind them. This makes it easier to accept things to which I have no control over, and to move into the right decisions for things that I can control.

Thoughts of life and the future inexorably bring me back to my father. I know I do not particularly like two-storey houses. They have stairs which will almost certainly cripple a clumsy girl like me, and the two floors will be difficult to scrub. But when my father speaks of it that is his idealistic side talking, and he connects the big house to satisfaction and achievement in life, and happiness of the family living inside it. And so to revert to my discussions with my father, I too am now preparing to build a two-storey house.


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