Friday, January 31, 2014

My High School Yearbook Threw Me Into A Mid-Life Crisis

Next year, my high school batch (or class, as most Americans call it) will be celebrating our silver jubilee.  Yes, it's been 25 years since I graduated from high school and frankly, it shocks me.  When I was younger, I've always felt like the silver jubilarians were ancient women. (We are an all-girls Catholic school).  But now I clearly, and conveniently, know better!

As silver jubilarians, our batch is now the one in charge of hosting next year's alumni homecoming and so everyone has been particularly active on Facebook trying to get in touch with one another.  Recently, a batchmate of mine posted another person's yearbook write-up, and this naturally prompted me to pull out my copy of our yearbook and review what was written about me.

I had honestly forgotten about the write-up.  Nothing. No memory of it at all whatsoever.  I wanted to build up some suspense and so I checked out the others' write-ups first before reading mine.

Generally, a lot of the other ladies had some sort of description of their personalities and then linking those to some predicted future career. Some were predicted to be doctors, while others were to be physical therapists or nurses. Some were sure to end up in theater, and a number were dead set on pursuing a career in business or finance.

When I finally got to mine, there was nothing;  no clue as to what I might be good at some day in terms of a career, or which direction my future might go. Nothing specific, and this somewhat disappointed me, for I was hoping to find a clue that might lead to a gift or skill I've always had that could help me determine what to do next with my life.  I don't resent the person who wrote this about me because they were all pleasant things.  But as you can see, it's all about my personal traits and tendencies at the time.

The hairstyle, body size/weight, as well as the spelling of my 'second' name are all dead giveaways that this was pulled out from a different lifetime. (And I'm sure they meant 'Scorpio', not scorpion)

If anything, I'm actually more disappointed in myself now than if I had just found out that I didn't end up in a career that was predicted for me more than two decades ago.  It's one thing to see that you didn't end up as a doctor or a Nobel prize winner.  It's another to ask yourself where that person went, that person being described in that relic from 24 years ago.

What happened to her?  The Scorpio-ness is still very much alive.  But what about that part that has so much zest for life?  Corny jokes and the smiles, yes, sure, occasionally.  But the girl overflowing with positive thoughts?  I wonder.  This write-up makes me imagine a girl, all sunshine and energy.  But I don't see that girl anymore.

Yes, I still smile, maybe more than others.  But I don't think of myself as particularly positive and definitely won't claim to be a ball of energy and light. I've grown jaded, much less enthusiastic, and definitely more skeptical.  Do life and aging generally do this to people?  The older one gets, the more challenges one naturally encounters.  And though we find ourselves triumphant most times, finding solace in the fact that we haven't gotten completely plowed down by life's hardships or heartbreaks and other soul-draining encounters, we also can't deny that such things transform and harden us.  Certain spots get strengthened, while others are weakened.  It's all part of living and aging.  

I could mourn the 'death' of that teenager filled with optimism and zest for life. Or I could celebrate the fact that at least once I was that person.  And maybe part of her is still around, although hopefully balanced with a more solid sense of reality.  At the time that picture was taken, that person hasn't fallen in love; hasn't had her heart broken; has not struggled with a job she knew she was wrong for; has not had the chance to expose herself to the wider world where real poverty and political injustice breathe; has not had the chance to have intelligent discourses with some of the best in the academe; has not traveled outside the country; has not experienced uprooting herself from her country of origin to start a new life and learn new norms and grapple with new taken-for-granted realities; has not had a child, nor lost a child. That girl in the picture has not had the privilege of getting acquainted with real pain, and so didn't have yet the untiring intransigence to hold on to love, real friendships and joy.

She didn't know it all and she still doesn't.  But I'd like to believe that we are allowed to know enough at any point in our journeys to just keep us going; enough to convince us that there is more ahead to look forward to, smile for, be positive about and have corny jokes for.  We have all that we need at every moment.  I hope we can all find peace in that knowledge.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I Was Once A "90-Day Fiancee"

There's a new show on TLC called 90 Day Fiance and it follows the lives of four engaged couples, where the women are all coming from overseas.  The women enter the United States on a K-1 visa (Fiance Visa) and they must marry their American fiances within 90 days upon entry.  If the couple fails to do this, then the woman/ fiancee would have no other choice but to go back to her home country.  (If you haven't seen the show, the four women are from Colombia, Brazil, Russia, and yes, you guessed it, the Philippines!)

Only two episodes have aired so far but weeks prior to the airing of the show's pilot episode, I had already made sure that my dvr was all set to record the series.  Why?  Well, it's not as simple as just being curious and playing a voyeuristic role (as is true for most of us who watch reality television).  It's probably more because I knew deep down that there's a part of me that could relate to these women and the need to compare my experience with theirs is just too strong to resist.  

A Fiancee Twice

Yes, I was once (somewhat of) a 90 day fiancee and am definitely no stranger to international dating. The (amusing) fact is, I've only had two boyfriends in my entire life (and that includes my husband), and both of them are 'foreign'. I guess I should also admit that I got engaged to both.  

My first boyfriend is British and we accidentally met on ICQ.  (I probably made myself sound so ancient by mentioning that and if you are not familiar with that computer program, you can knock yourself out and just Google it.  This was back in 2001).  He popped up on my screen asking for some information about Asia, particularly Thailand, because he was considering a vacation at that time.  We talked; I answered some questions and clarifications and I guess he found me interesting. Actually, it was easy for us to hit it off almost instantly because we are both extremely cerebral.  Suffice to say that we fell deeply in love very quickly, got engaged, filed our papers at the British Embassy office in Manila so I can join him in the UK on a fiance visa, but obviously, things didn't end up as planned. It wasn't that the fiancee visa application was denied.  We parted ways as a couple way before my interview date at the embassy got scheduled and it's for reasons much too private and complicated to discuss. 

Fast forward to late 2002 when I first met my husband as he visited family in the Philippines.  Yes he is Filipino by ethnicity, born in the Philippines, but he migrated to the United States by age 7.  He's what you'd call a Filipino-American (Fil-Am) and though he's tried to retain as much 'Filipino-ness' in him, by virtue of his basic socialization experiences, he's actually quite American. The beauty of it is that he has a good balance of both cultures.  He knows enough Tagalog to survive basic conversations; he definitely loves Filipino cuisine; we have similar family values; and though we came from somewhat different worlds, we weren't complete 'strangers' in the sense that we had somebody in common in our lives who actually introduced us (one of my good friends, who happens to be married to a cousin of his).

So, unlike the women in the TLC show, I didn't have as much of a struggle migrating and starting a new life here in the U.S. given that my husband and I share the same ethnicity.  I didn't have any difficulty either with the language and as I've repeatedly written on this blog site, the Philippines is very well-exposed to American culture so the culture shock for me was kept to a bearable level.  I suppose it also helped a lot that I knew my parents had a visa so they can come and visit me if I really needed it. The year I migrated was also not my first time in the U.S. since I'd visited three years before as a tourist.  

That said, all these positive points that might have made it a bit easier on us when we first got married, still didn't make the whole experience a walk in the park.  I entered the US as a tourist in April 2004 with no plans of marrying. But love happened and by July we were married.  So, yes, it did feel like I was a 90-day fiancee even though I entered with a tourist visa, and the difficulties of adjusting went on for years after my date of entry in the U.S. Just like one of the women in the t.v. show, self-scan at the grocery store was totally new to me.  I didn't know either how to gas up on my own because in the Philippines, gas station employees do that for you.  Driving around still causes me anxiety especially when it means going to unfamiliar places or driving through freeways.  I still get overwhelmed with the serving size of dishes at restaurants, and I do get particularly shocked at the drink sizes.  If memory serves me right, the small soda here in the U.S. when we go to fast food places is the equivalent of a large one in the Philippines (at least when I last visited around 6 years ago).  Don't even get me started with even more serious things such as filling out your tax forms, buying a home, etc.  I still struggle so much with a lot of the financial side of things and it's embarrassing.  Not only did I not have to do much of that by myself when I was in the Philippines, the government and financial systems are of course also quite different.  Different societies, different norms.  It's just a fact of life and one that any migrant has to seriously deal with.

The Foreigner and the Significant Others

Another point that draws me to the TLC show is that I think it makes me wonder how different it would have been for me had I ended up in Britain. Would I have found it even harder to fit in and be accepted by my ex's family and friends because I'm of a different race?  Would they have also assumed that I only married for money or a visa, a 'better' life abroad because it was a stereotype and maybe even labeled me a mail-order bride?  These are the same things that the women on the show are dealing with.  

I find it so offensive that most of the families and friends of the men featured on the show just easily give in to their fears that the marriage would be a sham; that the foreign women are only in it for a chance to live in the United States.  I know these fears are rooted in reality.  Yes, they do happen.  But I suppose there's an element of race inequality that I find so strongly implied in their protestations.  Some of the women struggle with the language.  Most, if not all of them, appear to be economically disadvantaged compared with the men they are engaged to.  Though all these factors (and others) probably come into play, what I feel as the strongest influence to the stigma directed at these brides-to-be is the fact that they are foreign, they are 'different' and therefore the unknowns are further multiplied.

Any marriage is a coming together of strangers, if you think about it.  But it's even further complicated when it involves two strangers from two different races and cultures.  I think it would be interesting if the t.v. show featured the women's families' side of the story, or how the women dealt with their families and friends after they revealed their future plans.  I bet they are just as apprehensive as the men's families and I know this because I lived through it, especially with my ex.

He's not Filipino, and what made it 'worse' was that we met online.  It was bad enough that they (my family and friends) didn't know who he was; they also questioned the authenticity of our relationship.  When they finally met him, somehow it alleviated some of their apprehension.  At least then they knew he wasn't some kind of Mr. Snuffleupagus, either a figment of my imagination or someone fake.  But the sadness over my leaving the country and anxieties over how my life would be like abroad, alone and alienated from everything familiar, was still there.  A lot of people who knew about my engagement also wondered if it would or could work out given the cultural differences.  At the time, I spent an insane amount of energy trying to defend my relationship to others, trying to justify my choices and assure them that I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.  Though this person and I didn't end up together, in a way our redeeming truth is that we've managed to remain very good friends.  And though much of our relationship is/ was virtual (we only spent almost 5 days together physically / face-to-face), our friendship remains one of the most real and lasting ones I have to this day.

From Someone Who's Been There and Still Here

I don't know how the series 90 Day Fiance would end.  I don't know if some of the couples would end up parting ways and realize that the differences are insurmountable.  But I know that I'm rooting for love, being the hopeless romantic that I am.  I know better than to say that the challenges these couples are facing are easy or can just go away over time. However, I will say and hope that they believe enough in love and commitment and how those two need to go together.  It's not just a feeling.  It's constant and never-ending effort. The men on the show need to be supportive and patient like they've never been before or thought possible.  The women are giving up so much, practically their entire lives, and they deserve someone who is willing to ease them through the transition and make it as painless as possible. Most of all, it has to be clear that they are a team and will always be on the same side of the fence. Other people will always have things to say, doubts to spew.  But living through all that is more bearable as long as you are certain that you are in this together and no hand shall be let go no matter what. This, I do know.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Embracing Life As a Mother of an Only Child

I'm a mother of an only child (MOC).  Being such, I know that a lot of women in a similar situation are plagued with guilt, just as I am.  Guilt for not having more children.  Guilt for not being able to bear more children.  And probably most of all, guilt for being okay with just having one child.

To be honest, the way I feel about this situation sits on sand, always shifting, trying to balance and find firm footing. There are days when I'm perfectly at peace with where and how we are, and there are days when I still wonder and hear the faint echoes of a desire I can't fully entertain, that of having another child.  For the longest time, I've been perfectly fine with our situation, arguing that I'm definitely not in the minority group.  I saw that I was surrounded by families with only one child, and some of them even have children older than my son.

Then all of a sudden, I noticed that these same mothers started abandoning ship.  They were all getting pregnant again!  I thought to myself, 'What traitors!'  Though I wish them well and am happy for them, I won't deny that they make me wonder and question my resolve to living the rest of my life as a MOC.

It's true that self-knowledge is a double-edged sword.  It's good to know what you want and what you are capable of, but it also gives you knowledge of what your limitations are and what you can be rationally afraid of.

I know I am not the most relaxed person there is.  I am a worrier and am highly-strung.  I tend to fixate and obsess over things.  I am intense and have tendencies toward perfectionism.    If I already get so stressed out with one child getting sick or getting hurt, what more with two?  And I know I've been told by others numerous times that one tends to be more relaxed with baby number two. I respect that this might be true for others but you can't possibly expect it to be automatically true for me. Like I said, I know myself.  I know it will not be any less intense with a second child and I do wonder how much more intensity I can handle before I break.  It's a risk I consider way too high to make me change my mind.  It's a hypothetical not worth betting all my chips on.  I'm not adventurous that way (nor in most ways, really) and I would trust my self-knowledge on this.  

In a way I can justify my situation because I know I've tried.  In 2010 I chose to give IVF another shot and try for baby number two.  I was pregnant for a while until I lost her at 7 weeks.  I was devastated and vowed that I was done.  She would've been 2 1/2 years old now (my Emily) if she had made it and admittedly, I do wonder about the life that could have been.  But we did find out that she had trisomy 22, a chromosomal disorder which caused her early demise.  Again with this knowledge, can you blame me for my fear of trying to conceive again?  I am also now 40 years old, have always been reproductively challenged and have aging joints, eyes and other health issues I'm sure.  All these factors decrease my chances for another (successful) pregnancy and, might I add, a sane family life ahead.  I also still remember the grief I went through when I lost my daughter and I don't think I can handle ever going through that again.

Sometimes, I imagine a life with two children. Most of all, I wonder how different my son's life would have been if he had a sibling.   They say that the choice to have a child (your first one) is for you.  But the choice to have another is one you make for your existing child/ren.  My son doesn't ask for a sibling.  As a matter of fact, he's always been vocal about loving his situation as an only child, with 'no babies around the house to mess with my Legos and topple the towers I build', he argues.  I'm pretty sure he's just glad that he has a monopoly of all the hugs going around in this household.  

But I'm also aware of the gifts of having siblings, having two myself, and sometimes I do wonder about the life I'm depriving my son of.  Whether it's by choice or not is a moot point.  The fact is that he will never know how it's like and that he just has to find a way to navigate this world without the kind of love, support and bond that only real siblings share.  This is why I always pray that he be blessed with souls around him who will let him experience a similar kind of love and deep connection, in spite of not sharing similar life histories or genetic makeup.  Maybe he'll experience it with his cousins, or maybe even with real friends.  What brings me comfort is that I know it is possible. What my womb cannot give him, I am almost certain another womb can or already has.  It's only a matter of time.

You can chastise me all you want and call me selfish, afraid or ignorant. But again, it's about trusting my knowledge of who I am and what I deem important.  Some parents can handle a lot of children. Some parents can honestly say they love equally.  I am not so sure of myself.  I know I'm the type who needs to know I'm giving it all.  It's just who I am. And with having another child, would I be able to love the same, give it my ALL in the same level my son now is receiving from me?  I know I am incapable of being happy if I'm not giving my all to someone I love, so do I really want to disturb this status quo?  Would it be fair to the next child or to my son now if things changed?  

Some parents can embrace child illnesses and disabilities with strength, calm and positivity.  I know I can never be that parent.  And I have to respect that. Yes, you can say that I'm afraid but fear is sometimes a gift too.  It's like not wanting to walk into a dark alley not knowing what's on the other side or what lurks in the darkness.  I would rather stay on this lit end.  It doesn't matter if you tell me that I could be missing out on something or depriving my son of a different kind of life and future.  I simply don't have it in me to wager everything I have now for an unknown life I'm not quite sure we'd all survive.  

I don't know what's in store for me or our family.  Maybe fate and nature would intervene and bless me with another child naturally, without any need for hormone shots and a million other medications and tests.  (I'm definitely too old and too tired to use that route again).  Or maybe this is it: One child, a son, who has such a wonderful soul that his father and I could never imagine life without him and feel helpless when it comes to loving him and showering him with all the hugs and kisses we have in us.  My heart overflows with gratitude for this beautiful boy for whom I only wish true happiness, health and safety.  I really can't ask for more.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Social Media and Competitiveness

The start of this week was brutal.  Most of us here in North America suffered through the wrath of the polar vortex, which slowly started with the deep freeze last weekend, and then gave us its worst on Monday, the 6th. But now it's officially over and things are starting to warm up a bit again most everywhere.  

And I'm glad.  

Very glad and relieved, as a matter of fact.  Not because I'm sick of the cold. And not because I'm sick of being afraid our pipes would burst, as they did for a number of households in our neighborhood these past two days.  Sure, I'm relieved for all the above reasons but truthfully, here's the main thing.  

I'm sick of the competition on social media.

I don't know about you, but I've observed that the weather seems to have this magical (yet admittedly diabolical) power of triggering a heightened sense of competition among people on social media, particularly on Facebook, to which I've been glued.  It's competition on steroids, really.  How else can one explain people trying to one-up each other over their respective weather temperature readings?

One posts, "Brrrr....Our high today is 20 deg!"

And another immediately responds with "Bah....We have -15 here!!"

Then the competition goes on and on as other people post what they have, trying to top and invalidate the other. The funny thing is that the first person posting was probably not even trying to compete but simply stating what is. It's sad, and frankly, pathetic.  Have we become this bored and more alarmingly, insecure, that one-upping has become second nature?

Social media has truly expanded our worlds.  If you are active in it, you become inevitably exposed to a larger number of people.  Furthermore, the pool of people against which you compare your life has now become infinitely larger.  You show them (snapshots of) your life as they show you theirs.  That said, it becomes a natural consequence that it becomes tempting to compare what you have or what you are to how others are doing.  

But comparing does not necessarily lead to insecurity and one-upping behavior.  You can compare yourself to others and still be gracious about it.  

And don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that it's social media's sole fault that people have become insecure. I think that anyone who loves to one-up already has some unchecked insecurity to begin with.  Why else would anyone find the need to explicitly state what one knows or possesses in the absence of justified necessity?  When you one-up, you are saying or doing something that aims to make the other person smaller, or steal the spotlight from another. Whatever it is, the motivation is the same.  You want the spotlight on you.  You want to feel smarter, better, bigger, tougher...or simply, 'more'.

The key here is to check your intentions.  I am a firm believer in that.

Image courtesy of  Marcus74id /
If you respond to someone's Facebook or Twitter status for the sole purpose of elevating your self, and in the process invalidating the other person to some degree, then you are a one-upper and need to ask yourself what you are so insecure about that you have to resort to such behavior.  (And yes, I say this with much love).  

If you insist that you're not insecure about anything in spite of such behavior, then now you're just being a liar and a first-class a**h*le.  (And yes, I say this with much pity).

Responding to a FB or Twitter status in order to share knowledge is acceptable, given that you are not being condescending of course. So is responding in order to empathize. Trust me that the above good intentions can easily be differentiated from intentions to diminish the other or to elevate oneself.  

This is why it will do all of us some good to go back to our parents' advice: "If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all".  And I think the word 'good' in that saying includes intentions.  I choose to see it that way.  A slight pause will do us all some good, instead of just letting our fingers type away.  It gives us the opportunity to check our intentions and perhaps reconsider the manner in which we will phrase our responses.  So many times, I've been tempted to respond to someone's status in a way that may be misconstrued as one-upping.  But with a long pause I was able to ask myself, "What for?  Will this information be of help to her/him?  Do I really need to make my input or is this unnecessary?"  I believe such pauses have saved me numerous times and I highly recommend it. 

I'm not claiming to be perfect and immune to giving in to 'a**h*liness'.  I'm sure I slip too sometimes.  But recognizing this helps and makes me take longer pauses.  It's refreshing to be reminded that you don't always have to be the best in everything, be the star everywhere and steal the light from everybody else.  You know you're human.  I'm pretty sure everybody around you and in your network know you are human too, and it's all okay.  Unless of course you've managed to cross over to the dark side and have become a god in One-Upper Land.  In which case, good luck.  Friends tend to die over there and it becomes just a lonely, lonely world.