The Drive to Achieve

The Drive to Achieve

By Mari-An C. Santos

Our family is not wealthy. My father is the eldest son among eight of a welder and a housewife who worked part time. Growing up, he worked many odd jobs, mostly selling odds and ends, waiting outside a different church every day, depending on whose Novena day it was, e.g. Quiapo, Baclaran, etc. My mother is the daughter of a district school
supervisor and public school principal in Mindanao. They would scrimp and save every last centavo until the next teachers’ salary came from the government, literally making ends meet for five children.

But both my parents value education. My father was a working student all his life and so, it was no wonder that he went into economics. My mother took up nursing at the advice of her grandparents and came to Manila to work. Later, they were both employed by a top multinational corporation, where they met.

My parents worked hard to send me and my sister to a school that they deemed would teach us not only the basic R’s, but also impart positive values that they too shared. We did not always have enough money to “keep up with the Joneses” at the school, but we did manage to have all the basic school supplies and participate in most relevant school activities like field trips and class projects. As a child, I did not fully appreciate why I could not afford to buy a Trapper Keeper or the latest pair of Keds or Reeboks.

It is in hindsight, of course, that everything makes sense. My father was very strict about maintaining good grades all through my grade school and high school years. He forbade watching TV on weekday nights—even going as far as locking up the TV case so that the time was devoted only to studying. When the time came after every quarter of the school year to claim the school cards, I trembled before seeing my grades. If I had a low grade or a lower grade than the previous quarter, my father would sit down with me and find out exactly what went wrong. He was tough, as most Filipino parents are, and put a great emphasis on high grades.

In grade school, I lived up to my potential and was part of what was called the “interdisciplinary classes” from fourth until sixth grade. In our school, we took an exam at the sixth grade to find out if we could go on to high school or stay one more year in grade school. I passed the exam.

In high school, I was placed in the “honors class” where we had to excel in the academic subjects. I dreaded the end of the schoolyear, as inevitably, some of our classmates were transferred to other classes. Thankfully, I graduated as part of the same class, and among the top of my batch.

In college, even though I lived near the university and enjoyed greater freedom, I found that I took with me the drive to excel in my studies. I was a college scholar every semester and I graduated cum laude. I was so proud to have my
parents on stage to award me on graduation day. It was, after all, due to their efforts that I received such an achievement.

Even when I was working, the drive that my parents instilled in me to excel was very strong. I made the most of every opportunity to learn and to be the best that I could be—whether it was as a production assistant or as a segment producer or as a scriptwriter.

When I began to pursue higher education, it was of my own initiative, not at the prodding of anyone else. I felt that I wanted to learn more and more every day. Although I had to abandon what I started when I moved from the capital city, I found more and other ways to learn from new experiences and new people I met in new places.

Now, that I am pursuing a degree with a scholarship, I value much more the good basic foundation that I have—thanks to my parents’ efforts and the education that they helped me achieve. Without such good foundation and records, how would I get a scholarship that would enrich me and fund my day-to-day expenses? That is why I strongly believe that good education is of primary importance in every person’s life, whether we can see it at present or not. The adage is true: a good education is something that can never be taken away from us.

Photo by Alex Samuels on Unsplash

A Student in a Foreign Land

A Student in a Foreign Land

By Mari-An Santos

I was sitting at a popular restaurant in Bucharest, having lunch with a Romanian friend, and taking in the beautiful surroundings. There were blondes. There were brunettes. There were so many foreigners—and then it dawned on me, I am the foreigner. With my brown skin, small eyes, and jet black hair, I stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of Caucasians.

I’ve lived in the Philippines all my life. And because I’ve only traveled to nearby Asian countries, “looking different” had never been an issue for me. Now that I’m living in a European city that is not quite cosmopolitan, I find myself “looking different.” There are only a handful of Asians at the student dormitory where I live. I’ve seen a couple of Chinese and Japanese citizens, but that’s about it. The Filipino population here, not counting me and my schoolmate, is a measly 11.

On any given day, it’s not unusual to be gawked at on the street. I’ll be walking down the street and get stared at by my fellow pedestrians. I’ll be riding my bike to class and be greeted by “Ni hao” or “Sayonara.”

The other day, I was asking a shop owner about their products when she tells me that some of the soaps she makes contain Chinese teas. I politely tell her that it’s nice to know and that I am not Chinese. She apologizes and asks where I’m from.

At first, I was appalled by such occurrences, especially after someone told me that we Asians look alike. I explained to him that I could actually tell the Koreans from the Japanese, the Chinese from the Filipino. But eventually, I began to see things his way. From where I’m standing, I wouldn’t be able  to tell the Europeans apart either.

And that’s perfectly fine.

Studying in a foreign land has not only opened my eyes to the reality that I am a citizen of the world, it has made me appreciate my being Filipino all the more. Even as I learn about other peoples, cultures, and places, I have learned to value home even more.

Photo by Kyle Gregory Devaras on Unsplash

Making the Grade in Romania

Making the Grade in Romania

By Mari-An Santos

I have always been a diligent student. Studying is something I take very seriously, and so I am accustomed to getting good grades in school. Every day, I remember, I would have homework in at least two of my classes and a quiz the next day. I would stay up until late in the night to turn in a more than satisfactory paper; putting in as much study time as I could for upcoming examinations. This work ethic paid off and I graduated cum laude from university.

It took me by surprise then how classes are conducted so differently in Europe. Since my colleagues in my Masteral classes are working people, we only meet on weekends. Professors are not very strict with attendance. In fact, I was surprised to learn that there were actually more than 20 students enrolled in our block; only ten attended classes regularly.

Here in Romania, teachers prefer free-flowing discussions. They encourage students to give their thoughts and opinions. There are no quizzes or midterm exams, only a final paper and the final examination. The burden of learning rests almost entirely on the students’ shoulders—how bizarre!

Because the classes are not conducted in English, I’ve had to work double time on my language skills. I need to pay attention in class in order understand and follow the discussions. Usually, the professor stops in the middle of the class to summarize for me in English what has already been discussed—and to ask for my input. He does the same at the end of the class. In this case, I am challenged to snap back from a bubble of very little understanding, to understand everything that’s been discussed, and to formulate an opinion. This also means I cannot be distracted during class nor can I say “pass” when asked a question.

What do I do on weekdays? I read the books recommended by my professors so that I can follow the class. But even in this area, I have the freedom to choose what I want to read; the professors aren’t strict about reading lists as well.

In many ways, it is an admirable system. Each student is responsible for his own performance—whether he comes to participate in class, reads appropriate books, and strives hard to write a good paper and perform well during the examination. In effect, the student is also able to formulate his own ideas based on what he learns from various sources. If he’s lazy, then he won’t learn anything.

Now, I have become more accustomed to being less pressured and frazzled about school. If I don’t do my readings, then I only have myself to blame for not performing well in class. It is also up to me to digest all these concepts and ideas, and decide what I think and feel about them.

And the papers? Well, we’ll see how I fare come examination week.

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Why give? / What gives?

By Mari-An Santos

I grew up believing that I should give as much as I can—whether it be in terms of money or kindness or time—whatever could be given, anytime, anywhere. It was only natural for us to give food to street children or old clothes to needy neighbors. Giving knew no timing. We did not need to wait until Christmas or our birthdays to find avenues and occasions to give.

There was nothing benevolent or arrogant about it, it was just something that we did. I never found it weird or out of the ordinary. What I did find bizarre, years later, was that other people did not have the same philosophy.

I was surprised at how people would jump at the opportunity to hold gift-giving parties around Christmastime at orphanages or hospitals. It was strange to see long lists of groups of people who were assigned times and dates when they could hold the said gatherings at an orphanage, making appointments for such exercises. It was also a revelation how individuals would organize groups of people to trek to the mountains to remote villages in order to donate school supplies before June.

I was happy to see all of these activities, don’t get me wrong. But it was all alien to me. Soon after I was settled in Baguio, I got acquainted with people who would call my attention to needy groups, schools, or villages. I and some friends would then mobilize help from others to bring books or old clothes and other things the community needed—even in the middle of the year.

When people admired how I could share with other groups all year round, I realized that I was at a very unique and advantageous place. I was not part of any big group that trekked to the mountains sponsored by big business to spend a day meeting people who needed and received help. I feel blessed that I can just go on a five-and-a-half hour bus ride to Sagada with boxes of books and school supplies, be welcomed into the homes of the teachers and principals there, and spend three days getting to know the children and their families who receive the donations from friends all over the world.

It is not something that every person gets to do. But we each do the most that we can with the resources we have been given. I am very thankful that I have been given the capacity to do so.

Taking Up the Cudgels from One Century to the Next

By Mari-An Santos

My maternal grandmother is 96 years old. She has led a very full life and is actually still very strong. More importantly, she is also very lucid.

She was a teacher all her life. At 19, she started teaching at a schoolhouse in a small town in Mindanao. Her job had her traveling for long distances to get to work every day to remote locations. She eventually became a public school principal and that’s how she met my grandfather, who was a Schools Division Supervisor.

She speaks and writes in Visayan, Chavacano, Spanish, English, and Tagalog. Even now, she’s a voracious reader. Hearing her recount details of her exciting life is like watching an exciting movie.

She tells of how some of her first pupils were older than she. Being farmers’ sons, they could not yet read or write very well even as teenagers. Then, they would also need to help their parents with soil preparation, planting, and eventually, harvesting the fields.

She narrates how she had to come to Manila to pursue higher education, traveling all the way from southern Philippines to the nation’s capital. It was a time so far removed from all the present-day conveniences of rapid travel and automobiles.

She even recounts how she aimed the barrel of a shotgun at my late grandfather one night when she had had enough and gave him an ultimatum: stop his philandering ways or say goodbye. He chose the former. He still survived years beyond that and saw his daughters grow up. But he passed away due to a heart attack not long after he retired from government service.

When I was a child and my grandmother would visit us from the province, she would busy herself with either making rosaries or translating the Bible into her native Chavacano. During breaks in her “work” she would go into the kitchen and make jams or cook snacks like empanada.

Later on, she would take on a project to compile a family tree, tracing from her roots of Spanish migrants to the present generation—with cousins dotting the globe. This is her life’s work that she has, thus far, not seen come into fruition. She has asked the help of some other relatives, but to date, the task is not yet completed.

I used to notice her, poring over her big manila papers, drawing and writing to complete the project. When I approached her to “mano”, she would look up and smile long enough to say “God bless you”, before resuming her work. I wondered at her perseverance then.

She recently had a minor accident in the bathroom. Because she had a slight fracture, she is now confined to a wheelchair. She finds it difficult to feed herself and does not talk much.

Somehow, this sudden change in her attitude has also changed us who are around her. Now, I have decided to take up where she has left off to complete even just a fraction of the family tree project she loved so much. I only hope that I can competently pick up from where she left off, and at last, present her with a project fulfilled just as she had envisioned.

All My Bags Are Packed

By Mari-An Santos

I am in the midst of packing my life.

A few weeks ago, I shared the news with all of you that I was awarded a scholarship grant to take up my Masters abroad, specifically in Europe under the Erasmus Mundus program. After receiving the happy news, I thought that the toughest task I would have to do was to pack my bags. I was wrong. The process of obtaining a student visa isn’t exactly easy—and I even had to fly to another country to get the process going. Don’t ask.

Fortunately, things ironed themselves out and now here I am, on the verge of moving.

I look around at my room now. On one side, bags and suitcases are stacked, huddled together like an army in the trenches; in one corner,  almost-empty bookshelves and cabinets; and strewn all around are CDs, books, notebooks, brochures, and leaflets that have yet to be organized and categorized. But how do you pack up more than half a decade of memories?

The task of giving away some of the books, magazines, CDs, and clothes that would have added more weight to my already burgeoning luggage was close to Herculean. Clothes had to be categorized under the “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” piles.

The books were the hardest to go through. After setting aside the books that I had borrowed, which were to be returned to their rightful owners, I couldn’t bring myself to give away or even sell any of the books I had before me. My mother always says, “If you’ve already read them, why can’t we give them away?” But with a heavy heart, I eventually bid goodbye to a handful.

I also had to decide which brochures, maps, old flight and bus tickets, and calling cards I could throw out. The memories from each and every trip triggered by a scrap of paper or a notation on a map, made me hesitate every time. Calling cards, though years old, may prove useful later on. In the end, I decided to scale down the pile of cards and to have my maps and travel guides adopted by friends.

Looking around my room, I am impressed at how I managed to fit so many items into less than a dozen bags. I am also amazed at how much the human brain can recall. Though I have given away many things, the memories they conjure are vast and unlimited.

Wish me luck!