Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If I Can Make It Here, I’ll Make It Anywhere

Last week, at an event called Pecha Kucha Night, I sat in the audience of about 300, listening to one amazing speaker after another share something about their work or personal project. Pecha Kucha, according to the organizers, is Japanese for “chit-chat.” There were fourteen speakers—“chit-chatters”--from diverse fields. There was a Jungian psychotherapist (my wonderful shrink, for whom I all but waved pom-poms at, heehee ☺) sharing her thoughts on Pinoy “woundology” or our collective victimhood psyche—our “Ph.D. on pain”, the captain of the historic balangay sailing expedition, the creator of the popular comic book Trese, a green architect, a green urban planner, an underwater photographer, a writer sharing his concept of “wasak” or “ang mga taong sumira ng buhay ko” (super loved that!). All Pinoys. All doing their own astig thing.

As I chomped on my popcorn, I thought, Mehhhn…I’m so glad I’m here. And I didn’t just mean in the Shangri-La mall theatre, where the event was taking place. I meant, in this 7,100-something-island Southeast Asian archipelago.

See, once upon a time, I was obsessed, like a lot of Filipinos, with leaving the Philippines. At 24, I wanted nothing more than to get out of here. Think Vietnamese boat people desperately scrambling out of war-torn Saigon.

My life was nowhere like I imagined it to be when I was a teenager looking forward to being in my 20’s. I didn’t harbor particularly ambitious dreams at that time; all I wanted in my 20’s was to be able to afford my own place and to travel at least twice a year. Westerners my age—those I met and those I saw in films—had those things that I wanted even when they held blue-collar jobs while my friends and I, college graduates from really good schools working in advertising, did not. I was convinced that this was due to our having been born in the wrong country. In a Third World country. (My sisters and I were watching The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 yesterday and we kept complaining loudly how easy it was for the American college girls in the story to travel to Greece. “Pucha, ano yan? Saan sila ng pera?”)

Unlike my friends, however, who seemed to not be losing sleep over our situation, the idea that I was getting the raw end of the deal was eating me up. I was desperate to leave the sinking ship of a country that I happen to have been born in—without my permission!--and get me to a First World one.

My adoptive land of choice was New Zealand. Long before Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson added a cooler dimension to the country’s more-sheep-than-people reputation, the land of Kiwis (the fruit, the bird, the people), Greenpeace, Neil Finn and Crowded House, and Jane Campion had already taken hold of me largely because of its strong environmental streak. And I just found the Kiwis—the people, that is--so cool.

After I spent three weeks in New Zealand, however, in 1998, as a sort of ocular inspection, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be completely content there, either, until I knew what I was going to do for work. By then, my infatuation with advertising had fizzled out, but I was staying on for lack of a better place to go. Now that I had found my dream country, I needed to find me my dream job next. I returned to Manila with a firmer resolve to figure that out.

When I finally faced the—scary--fact that I wanted to make films, I decided that the only place to learn to make them was in New York City—in particular, at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I had this fantasy of being an NYU alum like M. Night Shyamalan and Ang Lee, having my films reach an audience beyond the Metro Manila Film Festival…and having something to talk about with former NYU teacher Martin Scorsese when I would later bump into him at a party ☺. Spurred by that NYU alumni scenario in my head, I quit advertising to focus my efforts at getting myself into the school. Not once during that time did it occur to me to learn filmmaking here in the Philippines.

I was consumed by the notion that my real life—the life that I wanted to have—could only start there, at a place far from where I was. This was reinforced by the belief that where I was was not where I was supposed to be.

Filling up the NYU application form that first time was a revelation, a resounding whack on the head. I hadn’t realized until then how unremarkable my life was. Gaping at me was too much empty white space where a rundown of my “achievements” should have been. Shit…what had I been doing all that time? I was almost tempted to write down the spelling bee win in high school just to have something to put in there.

Without much ado—and here is where it pays to be obsessive--I went out and tried to get myself “awards”—the outer, tangible proof of the kind of achievements the world recognizes. This meant, for me, joining writing contests that I didn’t have the nerve to even consider before. And so the following year, the empty white spaces in the application form were, at least, half-filled. So what if I had to write down what little I had in big bold capital letters to achieve that? I thought, Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Two years and two rejection letters later, I was more than a little surprised that I had not yet penned my suicide note. At that point, trying to get into NYU film school was the hardest thing I had ever attempted. I had practically put my life on hold those two years and developed tunnel vision. My existence was defined by the pursuit of qualifying to the school, which I had seen as the beginning of all my filmmaking aspirations and, indeed, all my creative dreams. I felt stretched out to almost snapping point in every way--physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.

That is why it struck me as rather curious that I hadn’t spiraled into bottomless depression. I had failed, hadn’t I? Failed quite spectacularly, too. I was stuck here in the Philippines. And that, to me, had meant being stuck forever in mediocrity and regression and soap operaland and everything that made this a Third World country. Weren't depression and hopelessness the appropriate responses to that?

Of course, there were breakdowns and crying jags and days when I couldn’t get up from bed, gripped by a paralyzing fear that I would be forever chasing—and never getting—what I want. But these spells never lasted long enough for me to seriously worry. In fact, I was more worried that my real affliction was over-optimism or, ehem, delusion because of the way I seemed to bounce back with a vengeance. Before I knew it, I was excited again and raring to have another go at it. I felt like one of those inflatable mascots that, no matter how hard you punch them so that they kiss the ground, always float back up and never stay down for long. That was what I found more worrisome—a bit freaky, actually; that I didn’t seem to react normally to the tragedy of my failure.

It turned out that there was a solid reason why I couldn’t muster the supposed appropriate misery and it was this: In my single-minded pursuit of qualifying to NYU, I ended up doing things that I never had before. And because of that, I saw a part of me that I had never seen before, either.

I saw that I could wake up at 6:00 AM, sit at my desk and type away at a screenplay everyday for a month and submit it on time for a contest. I saw that I could gather talented, dedicated, supportive friends and family together to make a short film. I saw that I could learn to write a play that literary judges could appreciate. I saw that I could be thick-faced enough to borrow money from my parents and other relatives in order to fund my personal projects and workshops. I saw that I could pare down my lifestyle and not need a lot of material things so that I could afford the training that I needed. I saw that I could be disciplined, organized, resourceful, confident, courageous, tenacious, trusting in the unseen forces—if that’s what it took to do the work that I love, to make it exist.

All the things that I was hoping to see in myself--the traits I was hoping to develop--once I was in New York, the city whose operative word, as Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out, was “ACHIEVE”, I learned to see, learned to develop right here, in the place that I didn’t think could give me anything good or worthwhile.

I think maybe we’re born into our circumstances—our ethnicity, our family, our body, our gender and, yes, our country—in order to overcome it, to not ever be held back by it. It’s so easy to make ourselves believe that other people got their break because they were born rich, thin, tall, a man, a woman, good-looking, a child of a rich/famous/influential person, American, French, Brazilian…But I do think that’s just us making excuses for—and, thus, compromising--ourselves. As Art Valdez, expedition leader of the Filipino Mt. Everest team and of Team Balangay, said, “Everyone has their own Mt. Everest.” Everyone has their own seemingly insurmountable challenge. Kanya-kanyang hassle lang ‘yan. Nobody has it easy, even if it may seem that way. I’m pretty sure none of the 14 speakers at last week’s Pecha Kucha Night have it easy, even if some of them make it look that way—like Lourd de Veyra’s riffing on “wasak”. (Did I say I super loved that? ☺)

I do believe that our particular circumstances are designed specifically for us to develop the skills we need in crafting the lives we imagined for ourselves. Kind of like having our own personal Navy Seal training camp. It may seem like useless torture while we’re in it, but when we’re in the jungles of enemy territory, trying to do our job, all those killer push-ups and food and oxygen deprivation and Command Master Chief Viggo Mortensen-in-pekpek-shorts yelling at our faces suddenly make sense. You realize this is the scenario you’ve been priming your mind, your body and your spirit for. As Steve Jobs put it in his Stanford speech, “You can only connect the dots backwards.”

I firmly and truly believe that if we can make something worthwhile out of the things we were born with, we will have created the deepest, most unshakable, most solid foundation for our lives. And life will be a little less difficult and impossible. I mean, with what else are we going to construct our dream lives? What we have right now is our raw material. It is our starting point. We begin our work with the givens and for me, this is one of those givens: I was born Filipino. This is what I have for sure, among other things. And after those two years of trying to be anywhere but here, I’ve slowly learned to not only live with that fact, but to use it is a layer in the foundation of my life and my work and, quite surprisingly, for my happiness and peace of mind.

The Sundays perfectly captured this sentiment in the following lyrics: “When you’re searching your soul/ when you’re searching for pleasure/ how often pain is all you find/ When you’re coasting along/ and nobody’s trying too hard/ you can turn around and like where you are…”

I still think of New Zealand. I still dream of living there one day. And I’m still looking forward to making my first full-length film, even as the NYU dream has died. I figure I can always find another topic to discuss with Scorsese, anyway. “So, um, Marty—I was a former Catholic, too…”

However, that country and that Scorsese conversation will just have to wait. For now I’ve still got stuff to do. Right here, in my own personal Navy Seal training camp called the Philippines.

Please watch the speakers on the third Pecha Kucha Night in Manila—they’re all too astig to miss! Log on to pechakuchamanila.com. ☺