Lessons Learned: A Family Road Trip

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Earlier this month a few of my extended family from the Philippines visited the U.S. for the first time. As the first members of my mom’s side of the family to be approved for a visitor visa, we were ecstatic to host them and to show them our life here. We took them on a mini tour of the East Coast from Washington, DC to New York City to Ontario, Canada. It was a packed 12 days filled with lots of driving, lots of eating, lots of laughing, and lots of photos.

Traveling with family in enclosed spaces for a long period of time can test one’s patience (among other things). Here’s a few things I learned along the way about myself and traveling in general:

I walk fast.

Or is it that everyone else walks very slowly?

My family is terrible at this communication thing.

I already knew this before we went on our numerous road trips, but it was further highlighted throughout our trip. At times it was funny though, like when I got mad that no one told me I was supposed to drop off my aunt at her apartment instead of going back to the hotel.

They told me when I was about to turn into the hotel.

It was nearly midnight.

(Funny and maddening).

As the driver, you can miss out on some things.

I like driving. I do. Maybe just not parking gigantic full-size SUVs that are a foot taller than I am. Climbing into that monster of a vehicle was its own training exercise.

By the time we were on our last road trip to DC, and I had driven yet another rental car (this time a van), my right leg started cramping and I was struggling to walk down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s also a lot of responsibility, and it’s hard to have meaningful conversations with your relatives when you’re unfamiliar with the car and your surroundings. I may have wanted to engage with them more, but I was mostly focused on the road and staying awake and alert. In a way, I felt like I missed out on connecting with them. I also often take on the responsibility of entertaining my family and making them laugh; I’ve done it ever since I was a little girl. So I felt bad that I wasn’t able to keep everyone entertained and that there were long lulls in the car. Then I realized that those periods of silence weren’t because people were bored. It was because they were all sleeping.

I can be moody, but it goes away quickly.

This a truth about myself that I had to confront during and after our trip. Have I always been this way, or is it a recent development? Have friends been trying to tell me this but I wasn’t ready to hear it? Does family bring out the worst in you sometimes? How could I have handled situations better instead of just snapping?

I’m sure we’d all like to think we can control our emotions all or most of the time. Before their arrival, I was mentally and emotionally preparing myself to be on my “best” behavior. In Filipino cultural terms, that means being polite, respectful, and not shaming your parents in any way. But when my family arrived, something switched and subconsciously, I decided to come exactly as I am–moods and Americanness and all.

So when I was upset about something, I expressed it. Not in the best way sometimes, but I didn’t want to silence myself. I was finally on a family trip where I could be all of me. Where I didn’t feel like I couldn’t say something for fear of shame or rejection or misunderstanding. Other family trips have usually been to the Philippines when I don’t feel like I can be exactly as I am–loud, outspoken, strong and sweet. It was important to me to be real, even if it’s not deemed to be “good” behavior.

However, I recognize that being true to oneself doesn’t allow me to be disrespectful or disregard others. Are there moments I wish I approached differently? Yes. Will I still snap if I’m hungry, sick, or when people are being unreasonable? Probably. But maybe not as often.

On leaving a place

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A little over a week ago I closed the chapter on a job I’ve had for eight years. It was a decision that’s been a long time coming, and despite how terrifying it is to not have a major source of income at this time, it was the best decision.

I spent the first week of “freedom” just being. I didn’t have specific plans. Just a list of things I wanted to do. Like start a bullet journal. Write more. Watch World Cup games. Read fiction books for a change. I actually thought I’d miss the routine of the job. The emails, the application checklists, the processes I created over the years. I thought I’d go through some kind of withdrawal. I did spend eight years of my life there, after all. But instead it struck me how easily one can leave a place–at least physically and logistically.  It only took me an hour or so to clean out my desk, file away some papers, respond to that last email. And the next day my email and phone were disabled. One day you’re there, and the next it’s like you were never there.

I was fortunate enough to work with some pretty amazing people many of whom became true friends. When big decisions were made that fundamentally altered our jobs, we stuck with it and did it well even though at times it felt like the office was going to fall apart. We shared a lot of laughs, some tears, and lots of beer. As proud as I am of the work I accomplished, it’s the relationships I built with colleagues and students that I will always treasure and treasure more. I think I lost sight of that in the past few months. I was so immersed in my own issues and thoughts, I wasn’t sure whether I was a good colleague, friend, or even a good person anymore. (Sometimes when you are that unhappy it affects everything else).

On my last day a mixture of colleagues, their families, and current and former students celebrated with me at a local restaurant. It felt like my birthday! But even better. Because by showing up they told me that I matter, and not because I happened to be born on that day. I matter on an ordinary day. I mattered to them. And they matter to me.

In the end, I could have left two, three even five years ago, but I think I was meant to leave now.

Finding a way to happy

 

A few weeks ago I started reading Rachel Hollis’ book, Girl, Wash Your Face. I kept seeing it at Target and loved the title because: mood. I’ve been trying to read books mostly by women of color, but decided to give this one a chance after seeing a designer and business owner I follow on Instagram share a story about it. In the end, while the stories and advice may not always present an intersectional perspective, I can still get something out of it.

The book dissects each lie we’ve been taught as women. Lies that we tell ourselves everyday. Something else will make me happy. I’m not good enough. I should be further along by now. I’m only a few chapters in, so while this post may be a bit premature not having finished the book yet, I had to share some thoughts on the first chapter, “The Lie: Something Else Will Make Me Happy.”

“Moving doesn’t change who you are. It only changes the view outside your window.”

Throughout high school, I was obsessed with the idea of moving to a city and becoming a completely different person. I wanted to leave everything behind and begin a new life and be whoever I wanted to be. Looking back, it was heavily influenced by graphic novels I was reading at the time (Ghostworld and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve series) and the desire to determine my own fate beyond the reach of family. But it was also rooted in the idea that my happiness was determined by location (and a whole lot of insecurity, a bit of self-hate, and depression). That trading the suburbs for city life where I could leave behind my baggage and history was the key to “living my best life.”

Reading this chapter brought back those thoughts, and when I outgrew them (if ever). In a way, leaving home and going to college was the first attempt at becoming a different person. I do credit those four years for laying the foundation for the woman I am today. After I graduated I lived and worked in Ohio for a few years. I was so lonely the first few months I even found myself driving down some road in the dark in the middle of corn fields in tears. Then I moved back home and tried to set myself up to move to DC. When the life in DC didn’t pan out, I resolved to make it work here in northeastern MD. I reframed my thinking and started to believe that I could be happy in my hometown. And for a while it worked. Until recently. Now it feels like I need to leave again to grow and be happy.

Maybe moving is the answer in this case. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s both. I agree that moving to a new place doesn’t necessarily change who you are. But getting away for a while can help you figure out what you want. It can test you. You can learn what you’re made of. But you have to choose to do those things. And whether I move or not, or make a big change like get a new job, I fully understand now that there isn’t a singular answer to being happy. So I’m going to fight the urge to run away and instead of looking elsewhere for answers, examine what I allow in my life as the book suggests. And then, maybe little by little, find my way to being happy.

Turning point

Five years ago, around this time (my birthday weekend), I made the decision to step down from the arts organization I co-founded. At the time it might have seemed like a rash decision—made shortly after an email exchange/meeting when I realized that I was basically fighting with my own team. But behind closed doors, I was already building up to the decision, and that moment made it clearer that I needed to let go. And so I did. As much as I wanted the organization to move towards my vision, it already had a life of its own and I didn’t want to be in its way.

For better or for worse, I will always carry the memories, the challenges, and the lessons I learned from that experience. During this period in my life I like to think I had mettle. That I was brave and bold and fair when facing tough situations and decisions. Even though I had plenty of doubts which often kept me up at night, I still continued to believe in myself, my instincts, and my leadership. I feel like I lost that somewhere along the way.

So now here I am, the weekend before my birthday, at a similar moment after a turbulent month at work. Do I stay or do I go?

I already know the answer. I’ve been saying for a few years now that I need to move on and find employment elsewhere because I was stunting my own growth. But that was just my brain talking; my heart was in it still, if I want to be honest with myself. But not now. Not anymore. I’ve lost faith. Even my body knows it.

I want to be that Jenny who five years ago was brave and bold and believed in herself and made a decision even if it hurt to let go.

It’s August which means it’s the start of the school year and the time for new beginnings?

I was supposed to write a post about the story behind my family’s objects on display as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s newest exhibit, Many Voices, One Nation (will write it up, I promise), but instead I felt compelled to write about my job. I used to refer to it as my “day job” (now it’s the only job). Without giving too many specifics, I work at a college and review international student applications. I fell into the work and it kind of stuck. Well, I got stuck.

But there are days that are brighter than most.

All summer I’ve been feeling pretty low. It was a daily struggle to get up in the morning, respond to that email, review that application. I started to not care. Not care about the students. Not care if I did well or not. I don’t like not caring. Feels like you lose a bit of yourself every time it happens.

Today I met a new student from Australia and his family. I walked them around campus a bit. We talked about the county, the museums they visited in Washington, DC, America and its refusal to use the metric system (really, we should convert to metric—it makes so much more sense). Maybe it was because they asked questions about me (this rarely happens, international students and their parents being genuinely interested in me as a person). Or maybe it was their family dynamic–how they trusted their child and the school, how they believed he would have a good experience. I suddenly found myself, without realizing it, hoping the same for him.

I’m not saying this student renewed my faith in my job. There’s a lot more there I have to unpack and work through. But it was a nice reminder that I wasn’t as cold and unfeeling as I thought I had become.

Camp Artscape

On Saturday I dragged my sister to Artscape in Baltimore. This is the third year in a row I’ve gone to Artscape. The first was in 2015 when I volunteered for a few shifts. Now it’s slowly becoming a summer tradition.

Like last year, I was looking forward to the artist market. I love walking from booth to booth, admiring the art, and buying artwork when I come across something I love (and within my budget, of course). Last year I bought a screen print of the English alphabet and numbers in highlighter pink from Baltimore Print Studios. It’s on display at my work desk and served as the inspiration for the rest of that particular wall of my cubicle.

I didn’t walk away with artwork this time, but I did buy a ring made from traditional Japanese textiles by Tigerlilly Shop. It’s so pretty I want to wear it every day! (no pic, unfortunately).

Shortly after I bought the ring, it started to drizzle. Neither of us checked the weather before we left the house. (I swear it was only supposed to rain on Sunday!) But we continued to walk through the streets keeping our fingers crossed that the summer storm would hold back, even just a little.

No such luck.

At least we were able to get food right when the wind picked up. We walked through the rain, clutching our bowls of bibimbap until we found a building with an overhang.

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Our view as we ate with our backs to the wall of some building.

I actually love summer rain storms. (Don’t let this post fool you). Running through the rain, not caring about my clothes getting drenched. There’s a sense of freedom somehow in letting the rain wash over you while others hide from it like it’s the proper thing, or the only thing to do. But I digress. This post is about Artscape, not rain storms.

After eating lunch we went in search of ice cream and caught a few musical acts along the way. On the way back to the car I spotted the cutest little sunglasses. There it was, just chillin on the bricks.

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And that, my friends, was our time at Artscape 2017. Seriously, aren’t the sunglasses just the cutest thing?

(I’m still getting used to writing recaps so forgive the lack of focus of this post).

grandfather

Earlier this week I went to the funeral of a dear family friend. Growing up in a tight Filipino American community, my generation called him “Lolo” (as we do with all elders of a certain generation). It means “grandfather.”

I was holding back tears throughout the day and I couldn’t help but think back to six years ago, July, when my own maternal grandfather died weeks before my parents were set to travel to the Philippines to see him. He was the only grandfather I knew. My dad’s father died decades before I was born. Yet I probably spent more time with Lolo than I did with my actual grandfather (whom I called Itay which means “father”). It’s not his fault–or anybody’s, really. That’s the nature of a transnational family. People get left behind. Decades pass until you see each other in person. Technology may advance and be readily available but not in every corner of the world.

My fondest memory of my grandfather was in 2006. I had just graduated from college and the family went on a long-awaited trip to the homeland before I had to start my first professional job. By this time, his health had already deteriorated and he was mostly blind. We really couldn’t understand each other. He was a Waray speaker through and through. Me: English. Maybe a little Tagalog.

I was sitting on a bench outside of his house when a stray cat jumped on the table and I screamed in fright. He was sitting across the table and immediately turned towards me and began to ask where the cat was, waving his arm from side to side to dissuade it from returning. This gesture of protection was one of the rare times I felt so loved by a grandparent. Here was this person who didn’t know me that well and could barely see but none of that mattered. I was scared and he was by my side.

Thanks, Itay.