Staying Put in One Place

I just back from Israel two days ago, and while there’s still so much to unpack in terms of luggages, gifts, emotions, I thought I’d write a post to think about my experience as I get back to my daily routine here in Chicago. The last post I write was about post-travel blues, which I felt right after I got back from Argentina, and it continued on until I hopped on a plane to Israel. When I returned home from Israel, I didn’t feel the same loneliness. I wonder why. While in Israel, I was in a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The history and current situation is heartbreaking, and at the same time, there was so much to marvel at about those people, about that land. It is a land of dreams, resilience, exile, reclamation and miracle. I was touched spiritually, as it is the very land where the foundation of my faith stood. The southernmost countries in South America is a bit farther than Israel and being in the Southern Hemisphere, the climate is reverse of what we have here in North America. The climate in Israel is very much like Southern California, so in a way, I felt like I’ve been there before. I characterize my travel to these two places as a sort of going home. In South America, I was reminded of my old self, the one who was passionate about literature, language, culture, arts, dance and music. In Israel, on many occasions, I felt like I’ve been there– perhaps spiritually, if not physically. Israel was also very rich in culture, and their history, art and the stories of its people are complex; the experience of being in Israel is like an archaeological dig, every corner you turn, it’s as if you uncover another pieces of information, another learning, another perspective of the place. It is perhaps one of the most unique places I’ve ever been to in my life. I’m also very much in awe of the arts and literature that has been produced and continues to exist in this place. (It reinforces my thought about how my own people – Filipinos – need to organize its canon of arts and literature, and how we need to produce art and stories about our culture. This perhaps requires a separate essay, which I will write when I find more time.) I still have to reflect on my experiences in these places. I learned so much in these places, some of them the same, but many are different. More to come on these stories. If I can summarize my experiences in the past three months right now, all I can say is, travel enriches my life so much, it gives me joy, and I am willing to create a life around traveling and exploring the many parts, cultures and stories of this world.

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In between travels

As I’ve alluded to recently, 2014 is turning out to be the year where travel reached a new level in my life. I describe every year as the year of travel ever since college, and it seems like each year surpasses the previous one in terms of the number of times I travel and my relationship with it. From traveling to conferences in college, to sightseeing tours domestically, and then, when I was able to scrap enough money together and straightened out my citizenship, traveling internationally had been a priority. Of all the things I enjoy, travel tops the list.

My relationship with travel has transformed from the simple excitement of being on vacation, to the palpable exhilaration of seeing new places, to a deeper commitment to understand different cultures and people, and now, to a greater identification with a larger world. The way we move in this world has an effect on people: directly, on the people around us, and indirectly, on others that people we’ve influenced would encounter.

Travel has always been a part of my life, ever since my parents uprooted the whole family to live in a new country. I didn’t know it was in my future to live in the United States when I was younger, and when we braved the challenges and came face-to-face with the realities of migrating, I knew that I was changed forever. I lamented the comforts of growing up in one place since I didn’t have that experience; as my life was shaken, my peers in Manila and Los Angeles continued to develop with people they grew up with in their own little neighborhoods. As a teenager, I wanted that more than anything else. Over time, I’ve learned to come to terms with my own unique experiences. And embraced it, I did. I identify fully with the idea of being a global citizen, that I am not only of one place or another, but a product of living in multiple places and being exposed to differentiating experiences, and it is with this identity that I feel most at home.

Right now, I’m sitting at a coffee shop in Chicago drinking a pepper fig latte, and listening to songs on queue in a playlist that seems to comprise songs I replayed in college: those of Corrinne Bailey Rae, Jack Johnson, The Shins, Coldplay, etc. These songs remind me of the great experiences I had in school back then, as I was introduced to some of the very best things in life: education, people, ideas, livelihood, lifestyle. My time at UCLA acquainted me to the possibilities of what I could become in life. I understood then that whether I like it or not, I am being propelled toward success by a strong current of forces all around me. There was hesitation, of course, and doubt because I didn’t believe that I had it in me to succeed. But my education, travel, mentors, support, helped me overcome the fear to succeed. A great responsibility is placed on someone successful, and perhaps I didn’t know then that I can do it, and I shared this sentiment with many of my peers.

Since that time, I’ve grown so much. The growth I experienced mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually from the beginning of my twenties to today (and I’m not even 30 yet), is something that would be hard to surpass. Of course, I don’t know yet what the future has in store for me, but I am proud of what I’ve become, and I am confident I have it in me to handle anything that is thrown my way with the support of everyone around me. The songs I’m listening to now reminds me of myself several years ago, and while it transports me back to that old self and compels me to feel and re-live all the positive and negative experience that happened then, there is satisfaction in knowing that I’ve grown, and I’m progressing.

I’m writing this on the weekend prior to my trip to San Francisco for work, and my trip to Chile and Argentina with my sister to celebrate her birthday. Three weeks after my trip to Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Edinburgh, I will be on the road again. In those three weeks, I couldn’t erase from my mind the idea of living in another country, and upon returning back from Europe, I’ve contacted people I know in other parts of the world, seeking to get their perspective on living where they are currently based. As much as I didn’t know that moving to the United States was inevitable, now I know for certain that living abroad is in my future.

The question is: in which place? This question has an existential underpinning, but to answer this simply, I would acknowledge that I am uncertain of the location. When I was in Asia for summer study abroad last year, I felt I could live there. When I was in Europe this past summer, I knew I was going to come back. I was entertaining the idea of moving to either place, with my career as the basis and anchor for a potential move, but then I came across my list of goals and it hit me: one of my most simple, but long-standing goals, was to live in a Spanish-speaking country. I’ve had this desire since college, when I planned to study abroad in Argentina but because it wasn’t a match academically for the courses I needed to take to complete my degree, along with the complication of securing a visa, it never came to fruition. In the years that have passed since then, I’ve taken Spanish classes, attempted to read Spanish literature again, but I’ve accepted the fact that living in a Spanish speaking country is a pipe dream that will not happen.

10 years since the dream of studying abroad in Argentina, I’m now about to embark on South America. Preparing for this trip has rekindled the spark of that simple dream. Maybe it is something that can happen if I will it. I recently took a Spanish placement test and I scored at the intermediate level, three sessions away from receiving a certificate of fluency. It will take some time to complete these sessions, but I know I can do it of I commit to it.

I’ve been doing some research about the best place in Latin America to learn Spanish, and right now, I’m settled on Colombia as a potential location since I heard they speak excellent Spanish there and they have a great intellectual culture. We’ll see what I find in Chile and Argentina – I might change my mind after the trip. Of course, there’s a lot of questions in my head (and a slight dose of fear) as I think about a move abroad, but I think out of any time in my life, now is the best time to do it. It will be a calculated risk on my end, and if it doesn’t work out, I can still come back to the States and direct myself toward success here. We shall see.

Developing Weaknesses into Strengths

Yesterday, I came across the Pantene commercial portraying the differences between women and men in business settings. This commercial, which ran in Southeast Asia last year, illustrated how the strong qualities in men (ie. directness, assertiveness, workaholic nature, etc) are perceived as weaknesses when women possess those same qualities (ie. aggressiveness, defensiveness, and selfishness). It’s a relevant commercial that received much acclaim and shared widely in social media.

As I think about the feedback I’ve gotten from people around me over the last few years– from friends, coworkers, managers, etc– I see the differences in how they perceive me. My friends and family see assertive actions as strengths, and modest actions as examples of humility, while my manager would see both types of actions as weaknesses. I’ve been told that I’m too defensive and have a strong personality that people don’t know how to handle, and that I need to develop more confidence at work– in the same meeting no less. When asked for examples, my manager cannot give one on the spot.

When you get feedback like this, do you dial down assertiveness, or do you further demonstrate it? Should I speak up more for to be “perceived” as having more confidence, or should I be more accommodating to be perceived as having a gentler personality?

I think there are situations that calls for being assertive, and I try to play that role when the situation arise, and there are also times when I may seem more modest depending on the context in which I’m placed. All of us are like this, because we balance multiple sides of ourselves on an on-going basis. Where we’re caught in the middle is when we’re given such conflicting feedback, where there is a direct attack on our traits, rather than being mentored to better understand the situations that require the demonstration of a given trait.

Ultimately, I think it is up to us to choose how to act in a given situation. People around us may tell us to tuck in our weaknesses and show more strength, but when our strengths are construed as weaknesses, we must stand our ground and further demonstrate that the weaknesses others see in us are actually are greatest assets. First, we must learn to be honest with ourselves and determine if our traits that others perceive as negative are harming others, and if they do, we must transform them into more positive ones. Second, we must weigh if the feedback is coming from someone who has our best interest at heart, or if criticism is being used as an attempt to place us in a position that will garner them political gains. Lastly, we must show the world everyday how our perceived weaknesses can be judged as a strength that is in line with the shared direction of the relationship, whether it be with our employers, coworkers or friends and families.

People around us will always tell us what to do, but in the end it is up to us to take their feedback or do a better job to illustrate that their criticism of us is misinformed. I’ve been blessed to be self-aware and reflective enough to know how others are perceiving me, and everyday I try my best to transform my weaknesses into demonstrable strengths. There have been many times when I’ve failed, but it is an iterative process, and I try again everyday, and I can say that this same process has contributed to my successes, my professional growth, and has extended to personal development in my own life.

Character study

I’m fascinated with people, and always have been. I loved every single minute I spent as an English major at UCLA trying to analyze characters, situations and themes based on circular story lines and denouements driven by forces that pushes a story toward conclusion. In my working life, I ended up in market research and consumer insights, studying data and drawing insights based on research conclusions.

When people learn about my academic background and try to reconcile it with the work that I do now, they are curious about what led to my decision to work in media and consumer insights. Among a work environment filled with people who majored in business administration and advertising, I’m the one with a different background. And sometimes I wonder about this myself; why aren’t there a lot of people who share the same background as me? I’ve never wondered why I am now in marketing after a rigorous humanities education. I followed my interests and it led me to where I am now.

In my current job, I seek to understand people. Why do they do what they do, buy what they buy, drawn to the interests they have. Most of the factors that explain certain phenomena are latent, and it is only through the depth of interpretation do we reach a conclusion.

As I think back about my early curiosities, I’ve only recently started becoming interested in groups of people, in populations. I was first drawn to individuals. To specific human beings. Most, if not all, of the people I encounter that go beyond the first hello leave an impression on me. I remember certain qualities: the color of their hair, how their smile bends to one side, how their eyebrows move, the ruddy color of their cheeks. It sounds creepy, but I am very observant. Beyond merely observing, I perceive. I see the physical expression and the spirit inside of them, calm or nervous or rushed. I see how their hair falls gently on the side of their faces and I touch my temples to see if my hair has fallen the same, and wonder if they notice on me the things I notice on them.

All of these things I see sometimes distract me. It could be my greatest curse or my greatest gift, but I see detail. And this orientation goes beyond noticing the surface. I feel the energy given out by those I meet. I’m an empath; I feel what they feel, relate to how they think. Sometimes, I get an energy that borders negative, which sometimes affect me. I’ve gotten better at managing mine and others’ emotions over the years, and have turned this skill in more productive use, that helps me delegate tasks to others if sense they are looking for work or further clarify a point if I see they are slightly confused. But, still, I notice.

The past few months have been an exercise about caring less. I’ve led myself to believe that if only I cared less, life would be easier. I wouldn’t have to be concerned why a total stranger seemed distracted with something, or if a coworker sounded bothered by a project. Who cares, right? And I won’t deny that from my experience so far, it is easier. I don’t assume their emotions because I’ve trained myself to disengage at that level and only relate to them at the intellectual level. Did someone I come across look cold? Who cares if he or she is having a bad day? I’ll only ask for updates on my projects, then off I go without asking what could be bothering her. Is someone looking disoriented? Who cares if the new person on the team can’t find her way, HR will surely let her know soon enough.

But this exercise takes something in me too. While I enjoy the benefits of more efficient hours and single-minded focus on things, I leave out a lot of things on the table to. I am able to relate less. I don’t see the rich humanity of the people I meet, anymore. I am caught by surprise when someone leaves the team because I don’t notice telltale signs of discontent. I feel that something is missing in the world. And areas within me seemed to have dimmed. I know that it is about balancing empathy with objectivity, and while I think I have a handle on both and most of the time I’m somewhere around the center, finessing this is more of a practice than a downright inherent skill.

For me, a way to master it is to continue noticing the details in people and documenting them through writing. I build characters based on those that I encounter through glances, in passing, conversations, hearing, or mere presence; characters that could be part of a story I’ll write in the future, an activity I plan on doing more of soon before I age any further, and all of this will be inspired by the most mundane, every day existence that the majority don’t notice but consume a sizeable portion of my time and emotions. A never ending stream that fuels a spark in me that nothing I’ve come across has successfully extinguished.

And thus, I continue to write.

Remarkable Experiences of 2013

The year started off filled with building excitement for travel and marveling at art. I went to a travel expo where I not only sampled foods from all over the world, but also experienced cultural shows in the form of dance (Mexico) and music (Ireland).

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Chicago’s Chinatown and walking around in search of mooncakes (my fave!), rose tea and almond cookies. It’s also a year of baking when I can. I don’t do it much, but when I do, it’s always a delight. Making homemade biscotti in February with my aunt in Rogers Park was exciting, as making chocolate chip cookies and lemon cupcakes in December.

The beginning of the year was about anticipating the Art Institute’s Picasso exhibit. When I finally saw the exhibit, I understood the genius behind his work, which I once upon a time resisted. I was skeptical of his many works that carried the theme of a “woman’s profile,” because I did not see how elemental lines put together in a seeming disorder can depict the women he featured in his work, among other creatures. I saw the light on my first visit, and I returned 4 times more. I was amazed at the breadth of work this artist had created over the course of his life. And it compelled me to pay more attention to his public art installations all over the city of Chicago. I love understanding art, despite the struggle, especially comprehending what the artists is communicating through his work. Beyond Picasso, this year was also marked with multiple trips to this art museum, where I basked in Chagall’s windows many times over and drunk copious amounts of hot chocolate.

Studying on the go was one of the main activities in 2013. I read textbooks on the bus, highlighted academic papers while sipping coffee, studied presentations while eating lunch. In the bleakness of the winter, it was hard to do any other activity. It was a struggle to find joy, especially when your plate is packed with work, school and the minutiae of everyday life… and your environment is devoid of sunshine. Being someone who thrived in the sun, there were times in the winter when I couldn’t recognize myself. Nonetheless, I searched for beauty and found it.

In between the winter and spring quarters, I flew to Texas to lead a team in a social media competition, and we won second place!

Aside from museum trips, I also made sure to party like they do in advertising!

Friends and I celebrated July 4th this year with a delicious barbecue. Celebrating holidays and friendships more deliberately seemed like a recurring theme in the mid-year. I flew to San Francisco to find adventures in the city with my bestfriend Aiza and good friend Tracy.

And I was invited to speak at Stanford GSB to share my career journey and inspire college students!

When I got back to Chicago from SF, I visited my family in the suburbs for our family clan reunion, to meet with family who flew in from the East and West coasts (and Texas)!

And again, parties cannot be avoided when you work in advertising, and I made it to a Lollapalooza pre-bash with Rolling Stone magazine at Paris Club. Oh, and I also saw Janelle Monae (who always puts on a great show!) at The Vic in Lakeview.

2013 Collage 1

2013 has been good for my traveling spirit. I was one of the organizers of a class trip to bring 25 master’s students and 2 professors to Asia. We went around Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo, met with top companies and their marketing executives, and connected with alumni in the region. I stayed in Asia for a week more and went to Singapore and Manila, where I networked with new acquaintances and spent time with family and friends. Perhaps one of the biggest gifts this trip brought me was helping me find, challenged me to redefine and learn how to assert my multifaceted identity (Asian, Southeast Asian, Filipino, American).

A huge thing I did this year was to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to Singapore. It was a grueling process and my application is now in review- a lengthy time period and I’m sure other applications are biting their nails anxiously for the decision as we speak. I’m still keeping ALL my fingers crossed for a positive outcome for this one. My research topic of focus is how media influences identity and how this identity can be turned into power, in the Southeast Asian context.

We welcomed fall 2013 with a homecoming party in Evanston to show our Wildcat school spirit. Also, I played tennis this year, and I wished I went to the gym more but I just couldn’t find the time and energy. I will change this in 2014.

2013 Collage 2

In addition to connect with art through museums, I was invited to go to an art charity event which the Chicago advertising/creative community sponsored. I can say that I have been spoiled by the art gods in 2013. One of the best books I’ve read is Milan Kundera’s identity, which was apropos especially since this topic was a key one to me in 2013.

I had my fair share of networking events, and some of the notable ones include: Emerging Markets Summit at Chicago Booth, Chicago Ideas Week, Design Research Conference, IMC TalentQ event.

I spent the holidays in L.A. with the family and we spent time in Palm Springs, as well as the beaches and Hollywood. I love being at home. My sister and I are currently making plans for 2014, which we’re gonna make sure will even be more spectacular than this year!

Very much looking forward to ringing in the new year! 2014, here I come!

Identity

It is known that identity is a recurring theme in my writing– ask the professors who’ve mentored me, my friends who’ve been the audience of my thoughts around this, my blog readers who have read posts after posts about this topic. I never get tired of it especially since it explains so many things in life: people’s attitudes, behaviors, and connections revolve around this topic.

There were many points raised this past week that prompted me to think about it more deeply. This year, really, has been a key period in my life where I’ve reached a new level of understanding of identity at a personal level. Before then, most of my ideas revolving around identity lived in the realms of the intellectual, academic and literary. Now, I pick up elements from everyday life that adds to my perspective on it. It is a continuous, evolving, indefinite learning.

Typhoon Haiyan

News about Typhoon Haiyan this past week inadvertently led me to think about identity further. The typhoon caused major damage in Tacloban, a town in the island of Leyte, as well as the areas surrounding it. People lost many of the important things in their lives, both material and immaterial: their houses, cars, businesses, their children, spouses, relatives. For some, they lost entire families. How do you deal with the aftermath? I cannot begin to fathom, from emotional, geopolitical, societal, economic and logistical standpoints. I don’t have family there, and I don’t know what those that do are going through.

It was all over major news outlets around the world. Headlines, articles, videos, social media posts…. it was everywhere. It broke people’s hearts. Many of those who paid close attention to the news scrambled and organized their own fundraisers to accumulate funds they could send. For them, any small thing helps. I am truly grateful for these people, especially those who have no previous relations to this country, yet had been so vocal and active in their support. Thank you.

As the news coverage was going on, and people around me consumed news on their devices, my friends reached out to me with concern in their voices and messages. Our company CEO pledged to donate money and sent out internal communications encouraging others to donate as well. Our Manila office is putting together major efforts to help.

Beyond those who I knew personally, I also got attention from those who I didn’t know. I felt that people acknowledged me more on the streets. They smiled at me more, they offered more niceties, they looked at me more and wondered if I was Filipino. They must have wondered if I had family in that area, if I knew anyone from there, and if I’ve heard from them. People asked where to donate. I did not know where to direct them, but something is better than nothing, so my usual response would be to point them to an international organization. But I have to say, when I do that, in the back of my mind, I really wish they can help through another means because I don’t know how much impact their dollars will have. And I want their donation to have that impact.

Honestly, the extent of my relation to the disaster is limited to the fact that it plagued my fellow Filipinos, and shook the country as a whole. I didn’t know anyone from there. My family is from areas north of the calamity. I want to help, but I don’t know if donating money to international relief organization is the best way to help, given the inefficiencies and bureaucracies with these organizations. That is a whole other issue that I will tackle at a different time. But I know there is a better way somewhere that allows those who want to help can help. A more efficient system to get donations, monetary and in kind. I know it won’t be through aid organizations. It will be a disruption of that system… to better serve people. I have a feeling it will revolve around mobile devices and community. I hope we will see that innovation soon.

These are the readings that sparked my pondering about identity this week:

Human Nature is Inherently Political

My disillusionment comes from the fact that real life is a real pageant. When we were kids, there were distinct things that we know is good or evil. You don’t hurt others deliberately for personal gain. You work in harmony and look after each other. These are the values that I was taught to live by.

I understand now why my mother is the way she is. She built an ideal foundation in which we all thrived, where reality was purely good and there are clear repercussions for deviating away from that which is good. There are standards, and my parents held us to a high level. There are things that matter: work ethic, high grades, great work. They both continue to live these virtues.

I feel like Ryan Gosling’s character in the Ides of March.

As I said, it wasn’t like I didn’t know there was evil in the world. I know there is. I visit the CNN website and I see horrible things happening everywhere, everyday. The realization I have about group dynamics and office politics lately stems from the fact that this nasty game is in close proximity. I enter a vessel everyday that is mired. This situation is not unique to my company, but in fact, it is the system that exists everywhere. When there are humans in a group, this is what happens. The variables (prize, roles, activities involved) just differ by situation.

What is surprising to me is the things that we consider bad behaviors as kids are condoned in the real world. Bad behavior is justified to the point that it is not bad behavior anymore. It is transformed and redefined into good, or that which is prized. No one makes noise about bad activities, because everyone has bought into the idea. Everything accepts it as the reality. In fact, they jump right into it and play in the mud themselves.

I knew politics existed. I knew people talk about other people, gossip about things, create their own realities. I used to think that I wouldn’t get involved. I surrounded myself with great friends who are inherently nice, loyal, smart and positive. What I am learning is that I need to keep an ear to the ground and on the world as large. This game is something that is not beneath me. I need to join the game. This is a really pivotal point.

A keen strategy is needed. This is a complex game with a lot of players and a lot of deceiving elements.

But that doesn’t mean I throw away the values that I hold dear. In fact, I need to cling to them more strongly. In order to keep my true self. In order to protect what is most valuable. That I can only truly, openly give as a gift to those worthy in my personal life. I need a totem, a reminder of what is real.