In the Philippines, in sociology class and values class, we learn about marriage and its Filipino idiosyncrasies. The fact that there is no divorce is drilled into our heads, as are the cultural views on divorce, having children while not married, and the shame of being a biological product of an affair. We also talk about abortion, teenage delinquency, the sanctity of the family, and various other topics of concern. And while our teacher says she doesn’t agree with all of the espoused viewpoints, she doesn’t necessarily claim that they’re wrong either. It is what it is. You can’t change the culture. Bahala na.
By default, I have become the ambassador to all things American, and when these points are brought up, my starkly-contrasting opinions are thought of as American ideals. The fact that I’m pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and pro-sex are believed to be symptoms of my citizenship, and not necessarily indicative of my own personality. And when I say that there are many Americans who have differing ideals than my own, I’m relegated to the role of the “New Yorker”, that ever-controversial breed of political liberal. For all intents and purposes, I am not a person, but a place. I am not just a foreigner, but a foreign land, a country whose borders flirt with all of the possibilities of morality run amok.
I tell my anecdote about the last time I blacked out due to alcohol consumption; I mention the last abortion that I had; I wistfully reminisce about the gay wedding I attended, and I can’t help but see hope in the eyes of my predominantly teenage female audience. Is it my imagination? Or have they cast me in the role of savior? Am I telling them about a way of life that they hope for, aspire to, and wish to realize?
Behind the controversial aspects of my memories is a lot of love, a lot of trust, and a lot of humanity. I hope that my classmates – most of them fifteen to twenty years old, and one nun, too – acknowledge the throbbing, pulsating, quickening heart behind all of my actions and misadventures. I talk about how I hold on to the optimism that comes with every hard decision, how I am inspired to be grateful for my many opportunities at a life fulfilled. I warn against taking any decision too lightly. And somewhere between the first time I make a socially-conservative Catholic crack a smile, and the time I make them laugh, I become a poster child for all things provocative and beyond the norm.
And then, after class, in the hallways, at Jollibee, on the street, and at the mall, they approach me. I am mobbed by teenage girls as if it were 1999 and I were a Backstreet Boy.
“Hi, Ate,” they greet me, using the word used to denote respect to a woman. They giggle nervously and rush to me, an anxious smile plastered on their lips as if they’ve waited a long time to corner me with a question. Then they bashfully ask about tips for drinking and dating and sex. They shyly ask about what it’s like in New York. They hurriedly ask about birth control and wonder about abortion. Is it really okay for girls to drink and smoke in the States? Do abortions hurt? Are they affordable? Do you regret having one?
I tell them my experiences, every gory detail. I explain as best I can the ins and outs of every misstep on my road to Today. And I remind them that this is only my experience, and my experience is by no means the universal experience. I’ve fucked up a lot, and I’m living a charmed life, but that’s not a given. One does not necessarily follow the other. I am lucky. I am blessed.
Then they walk away, their curiosity satiated, but their knowledge still punctured with large gaps and huge holes. They have no doubt made up some picture in their heads, some idea of how things are and how they should be, some notion of how these many life choices fit into their lives and the way they ought to live.
And I have helped them make these conceptions.
Through the gauze of cultural- and language-barriers, I watch them walk away to their next decision. And I am left to wonder if everyone would be better off if I kept my big mouth shut.