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Published October 23, 2022, 5:00 AM
by AA Patawaran
Photos by the author
I used to think I’d end up in New York.
Paris was wishful thinking. Still, fanciful as I considered it, I prepared for the possibility that I might someday find myself living in France, learning French phrases in my tweens—“Comment allez-vous? Bonjour! Mon ami!—from my hardbound Britannica seven-language dictionary, taking up six units of French in college, and reaching up to niveau cinq at Alliance Francaise in my early years working as a copywriter in an advertising agency.
But New York, that was my destiny. Or so I thought. My heart would skip a beat at any glimpse of the Statue of Liberty in a movie or any mention of it in a book, but the one symbol of New York that was set in stone for me was the Flatiron, the wedge-shaped building that sits on a triangular island-block formed by Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and East 22nd Street. I don’t remember the ’80s TV series I used to like when I was a kid—was it Cover Up? But it was about models who were always hanging around a magazine office housed at the Flatiron that struck me so much I walked into it when I was in New York for the first time, looking around for any magazine that held office there. Thank God I didn’t see any, at least not in the floor directory that hung in the lobby, or I would have walked in there and applied for a job as a proofreader, even if, young as I was and only starting out in media after four years in advertising, I was already editor-in-chief of one of very few magazines in mid-’90s Manila. Who knows where I would be right now if I took that chance? First of all, would I have been accepted? I was there on a tourist visa, so that was a problem.
My only regret was that I didn’t consider it enough, not because it was illegal, but because I was a spoiled brat, already living the life in Manila, wining and dining with the powers-that-be, from technocrats to senators, as well as the Asian dragons, the likes of gambling magnate Stanley Ho and Tung Chee-Hwa, the first chief executive of Hong Kong after the 1997 Handover from the UK to China, who would grace the cover of Taipan, my magazine on the affluent Asian man. It wasn’t only because I had a great job in Manila, a dream come true. I was also too comfortable. I didn’t have to worry about washing or ironing my clothes or washing my car or cleaning the house.
Walking down Wall Street, while I was still convinced New York would someday be my life, I watched a young Asian migrant worker cleaning windows at a deli. It wasn’t the work that bothered me as I imagined the move to New York. It was the idea that the young migrant, as I judged him without knowing much about him, must be living in a shoebox with nothing in it but a bed, a small portable TV, and maybe a table just big enough for a solitary meal. I figured I would be sad coming home to a place like that, not so much because it was small, not so much because it didn’t have the backyard teeming with mango trees that I had at my mother’s house then, not so much because I’d be alone there without family or a helper to welcome me home at the end of each day, but because it would be dark. I didn’t like to come home at the end of the day to a dark place, in which the first thing to do was to switch on the light. I felt sad just thinking about it.
It bothered me a bit that I didn’t dream of New York hard enough to make it a reality. When a college friend came home on holiday from the US and made a tactless remark about us who didn’t venture out and who in our late 20s were already holding such lofty titles as editor-in-chief, vice president, or country manager, implying that we had it easy here or easier. I took offense, of course—I worked hard heart and soul for every little thing I had achieved. But in a way I agree. Whereas our friends in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, or Singapore had to worry about laundry or the upkeep of their homes, we had every means to focus on our career goals.
Manila is a tough place, competitive as hell, especially now, but you don’t need that much money to live like a prince or a princess here with people you can pay to make a career out of taking care of you, cleaning up after you or driving you around or even carrying your Birkin at a cocktail party. OK, maybe the last example doesn’t count because you need a lot of money to have a Birkin (A finance adviser told me that the rule of thumb for financial wisdom was to buy such a luxury as a Birkin only if you could buy 20 of them and not feel a pinch).
But I digress: I do salute all the Filipinos out there in the world chasing their dreams, particularly if their dream is as noble as their children’s education or their elderly’s medication/hospitalization. It’s a hard life and some of them have given up many things, sometimes even their college degrees, to get a slot in the work pool, whether as a caregiver in Brugge or a housekeeper in Hong Kong.
There’s all this talk about brain drain and brawn drain and I know they have valid points but I think, whether only propelled by desperation or ambition, there is wanderlust that has been raging in our genes since we were hunting and gathering for survival and adaptation.
Is that gene still alive in me? Do I still dream of New York? I’ve made my life choices, though maybe not as consciously as I should have. Be that as it may, now that my hair has turned to gray, I’m on to other dreams outside of the dream capitals. I must find out more about Angoulême in the Poitou-Charentes region of southwestern France. I could spend all day writing fiction on a bench overlooking the Ramparts and I have no doubt it’ll be a perfect life. And unlike New York, which is now driven by success that no longer appeals to me the way it did when I was young, I am neither too old nor too late for that.
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