Growing up I thought traveling overseas every year for summer vacation, buying a new car when an upgrade comes in, having a brand new set of school clothes and supplies for every quarter, traveling to Manila on weekends for when we want to watch movies, and having a personal hairdresser, masseuse, gardener, cook, laundry staff, cleaning staff, drivers, and personal assistants were all normal. I thought they were all part of growing up.
My classmates back in elementary and high school used to tell me that I was lucky. I had very supportive parents and a comfortable life, they said. Raised with the idea that I should be earning for what I deserve, I never thought I could have everything. And I was content just eating foods I like, reading books I love, studying, and playing with my friends. So I always brushed the statements aside because after all, it didn’t matter to me.
I never realized how privileged I was growing up until I went to a public university.
I could still remember my first day. As usual the first hour was for getting to know my classmates. When it was my turn, my classmates asked me how I am adapting to Manila knowing I lived in the province all my life. How do I get by going to school, and where did I find a place to live? It felt awkward for me when there was a momentous silence, and gawking, when I told them I have a personal driver and that my mom bought me a condo unit just 10 minutes away from school. I didn’t know how to feel but I knew something wasn’t right with the truth that I just said.
I think that was the beginning of me being “shy” of where I come from. From being oblivious of the life I was in, it appeared to me head on with the truth that indeed, the life I grew up in wasn’t normal at all for many Filipinos.
The public university environment exposed me to the struggles of many Filipinos. With the national average wage of PHP 15,000 (300 USD) a month, it was almost impossible to be paying for food, water and rent, more so for a child’s education and the family’s health, even for a family of three. I had classmates who struggled to pay our PHP 5,000 (150 USD) a semester tuition fee, which at that time I thought was ridiculously cheap. I didn’t realize that while it was the cheapest tuition fee in the Philippines being government subsidized, it didn’t erase the fact that living in Manila, especially for those who had to relocate, was ridiculously expensive. Across the school is the country’s biggest public hospital and every day when I get dropped of, I see jeepney after jeepney loaded with so many stick-thin patients who then fall in line to be checked for free by the country’s best doctors. It was a desolate sight, but I took in the consolation that they were being seen by the country’s best. It was a bit odd though, that for a hospital needing so much staff, their College of Medicine has the stringiest and most competitive of all admissions with less than 100 students admitted every year.
From then on, I refused to share much about my life except to a select few who knew me growing up, or who understood from what situation I was coming from. When I’m asked of my weekend plans, I downplay them saying I’ll just be spending time at home when in reality my cousins and I booked for a members’ only resort getaway. When I’m asked how I get to school, I say I’m dropped off by a family friend when in reality, I had a driver waiting for me no matter how late my classes end. Not wanting to have an 18th birthday debut party, I was asked what my parents gave me instead for my birthday. We had a get together at home, which was true, but my parents also bought concert tickets for me to see my favorite singer in the world, Josh Groban, and they had to switch network companies, and sign up for a 5-year platinum account, because it was the only way to purchase a 700 USD front seat ticket for a show that went for 1.5 hours.
While in university I refused to dip into this reality, and applied for a part-time job at the College of Arts and Letters library. I thoroughly enjoyed my job there, shelving books, helping students find books they need, and having access to books that are rarely available because they are always borrowed. I had the chance to read them during quiet hours. I earned PHP 80 (1.65 USD) an hour, which I never really used for anything else except for buying my favorite desserts after shift. It was far off from the generous allowance I was receiving from my parents, who also paid for all my living expenses. I was replaced, and basically fired, in summer because I filed for a one-month leave for my family’s annual summer vacation. The chief librarian said, “We’ll never hire a rich student ever again.” Those were her last words, and they still make me cringe in a fairly uncomfortable way up until today.
Check out Why I’m Proud of My Parents: Part 2, which shall answer the question.