Chapter 12: Struggling to Stand Out

I think the biggest perk of having a 3-year engagement–with 20 months to go–is I have more than enough time to make my wedding as unique as I want it to be.

However, the problem with stubborn bride-to-bes like myself is I don’t feel excited by say more than 50% of local suppliers. From a marketing point-of-view, sometimes I can’t figure out what makes them stand out. I picked up my first bridal magazine early in 2009 and upon looking through pages upon pages of the usual tiffany chairs, the typical white dress on a mannequin shot, the standard  gold wedding band sets, I felt creatively un-inspired. 

A mass wedding in Melbourne where one big day is shared among many. Photo credits: http://paul-in-thought.blogspot.com

 

Before further stressing myself out with suppliers and the nitty-gritty of planning, Mark and I decided on a theme that would serve as the nucleus for all our creative inputs and obsessions. We eventually decided on books and the central image of a  classic writer’s room came to mind. I dreamt of antique typewriters, coffee tables, hard-bound journals, bookmarks, library cards, shelves, quills and paper. I envisioned a romantic, vintage setting, a departure from the wired world of e-books and avatars. 

The vintage elements in this picture of actress, Kiera Knightley partly inspired the book theme idea.

 

With a concept in mind, I felt more focused. It was easier to choose suppliers from there. However, the Philippine Wedding Industry is a cookie-cutter business that caters mostly to one type of celebration: the traditional Pinoy wedding that begins with a Roman Catholic ceremony followed by a reception attended by hundreds of guests at a standard built-for-formal-functions venue, usually a hotel ballroom, tent, restaurant or events place (really anything that has the word “event” attached to its name). Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve attended a lot of weddings at these traditional venues and yes, they were fun, the food was great, I enjoyed the company and at the end of the day, what matters is the couple is happy and aching from all their satisfied grins. But when it comes to my own celebration, I want to throw a party that will truly stand out and be remembered. 

Hmm, sometimes I think that this is really just my ego talking, indirectly saying “I wanna outdo you all with the party of the century!”

Honestly, just as much as we would adore someone’s roast calf stand,  we also can’t help but criticize the color combinations (“It’s so 75th anniversary!”). Admit it, at one point or another we’ve panned someone’s wedding choices, thinking that if we could do it ourselves, we’d pair yellow with gunmetal (instead of gold) or choose a more central venue by contrast to that “ridiculously pricey resort.” Personally, I enjoy nitpicking dress styles that look like 80s pieces displaced in time and event photos that instigate some degree of embarrassment by simply looking at it. 

I am not exempted from such criticisms.As early as now, even without having started some real wedding planning and supplier booking, I’ve already heard a few criticisms about my preferences, from considering a back-up tent to favoring a buffet over a sit-down dinner. Someone will always believe that he or she could do things better and we ourselves are guilty.

But as much as we want to help our friends and relatives with their wedding choices, why do we likewise want to (subconsciously) outdo them when it comes to our own partis? Does wedding-planning bring out a natural competition wherein family members’ respective celebrations indirectly compete for the benchmark of kick-ass nuptials? Do weddings, as such personal expressions of the couple, pressure the bride and groom to assert their capacities in other words, nag-pa-pa-impress in the negative sense (trying hard to impress)?

You could argue that not all couples are all about flaunting their assets (or their gourmet taste) at their weddings. You are right; but the bottomline is this: we all want to impress our guests by giving them the best party possible. Naturally, our benchmark for the “best party possible” is other weddings we’ve been to. We compare and contrast, pick out the details we liked best (“I loved Jack and Jill’s green tea cake! Must ask them to recommend their baker!”) and isolate the ones that appalled us (Mental note: Don’t book that P100,000 venue with the awful ladies room).

The problem with wanting to impress is that sometimes it can bring out our personal insecurities. When insecurities are involved, the void left by one’s lack of self-esteem is filled with brand name wedding gowns, chichi registries, godparents in high places (sans the actual parent-like bonds) and a dozen chilled bottles of Dom Perignon 1992. 

Can an over-abundance of lace and frills make up for a severe lack of personality?

 

It would be dishonest for me to say that I have not used my wedding choices to make up for my own insecurities and weaknesses. I can’t dance up a storm like the cool party people so I’ll forego the traditional wedding dance for something edgier like a first song, wherein I will play the drums (an instrument I started learning at 14). I’ll also forego the after-dinner dancing to prevent making a fool of myself and revealing my un-coolness.

Now that I think about it, choosing a book theme with its artful, literary  motifs even reminds me of my own frustrations as a copywriter and as a student of creative writing. Working in the agency, I’ve had doubts about my ability to think of “award-winning concepts” so to speak. Although I always felt inclined towards creative endeavors back in school, upon entering the industry I discovered a lot of highly-talented individuals with international accolades under their belt to boot. On the other hand, I continue to be hunted by my lack of an identity and lack of literary knowledge as a student. I have been guilty of not having read the canon of local literature. I have been guilty of not being able to answer the question “What do you write?” when the answers are press releases and event scripts instead of the more respectable magical realism or speculative fiction. Still, I chose books because reading and writing have been meaningful to me in even more positive ways: books have helped me deal with my depression, inspired me to have entrepreneurial dreams and helped me get away from the stresses of my work life and step into imagined worlds of magic, luxury and even dystopia; writing has helped me deal with my complex emotions, allowed me think better and yes, it simply brings me joy whether I’m talking about my thoughts on marriage or a school paper for Rizal class–I really do love it even if I get criticized sometimes. And maybe this is the kind of attitude I need to bring into preparing not only for a wedding but for marriage itself; questions marks will be raised and not everyone will be pleased with our choices, but we’re doing this because despite all the difficulties of making that next big step in one’s life, the decision to marry brings satisfaction, assurance and an egotistical sense of feeling uhm wanted.

Reading and writing is a staple in both Mark's and my daily life.

 

One of the most interesting parts of a wedding magazine isn’t actually the page on modern party favors list or the article that showcases “50 bouquets you’ll love!” It’s the features on real-life couples and how their weddings have become personal reflections of their lives. 

Maybe, in spite of ourselves and the little green-eyed monsters that inhabit our less-than-perfect psyches, the challenge of planning a wedding that will stand out is to not lose ourselves in the celebration and to remind ourselves of the more positive bits. By this, I mean, how can we make guests identify the couple’s personal stamp on every element, from the food to the favors? If we were a brand, how do we keep the wedding in line with what we represent as a couple and as individuals?

I’m sure that we will continue to envision our weddings in relation to past gatherings. Whether we’re throwing a grand celebration for 700 or an intimate backyard barbecue for 30, the goal is to create an experience that will not lose the essence of who we are.

***

 

Here is my wish list of wedding elements! Some of these will forever remain wishes because their impossible prices will just kick off my married life in debt.

If anyone knows suppliers for some of the items here,  please leave a message. I would really appreciate it!

1. Wooden Chairs 

Tiffany chairs are  de rigueur for weddings. However, I would love to have something in wood or a combination of wood and metal. Unfortunately, I haven’t discovered (or I’m not looking hard enough?) a rental that offers something like the following:

 

Maid-of-honor, Cha suggested these lovely Thonet chairs--but where to get them?

 

Batibot chairs are commonly found in cafes. Being a cat-lover, I couldn't help but notice this quirky version with a furry feline printed on the seat. Photo credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thephilosopher

 

2. Tubogas Wedding Band

 

The Tubogas ring is characterized by its serpetine shape and exorbitant price tag.

 

I’ve always been in love with the Tubogas jewelry line, that almost every time I find myself at the Bvlgari counter I try on the watch version–a serpentine gem that costs at least P300,000 and has graced the wrist of Elizabeth Taylor. The wedding band is $6,000 for the set–that’s already more than the budget I have in mind for the entire wedding itself!

3. Courtyard at the Ayala Triangle Park 

Ever since this lovely park opened late in 2009, I started eyeing it as a potential wedding venue. When my first choice, the Filipinas Heritage Library, which is located at the perimeter in the park went out of the question because the nearby parking lot is closed on Sundays (and our date is on a Sunday), I immediately scoured the park and found this courtyard located behind Tower One.

The Courtyard of Ayala Triangle Park at 5pm. The park was formerly an unkempt urban forest before Ayala Land spruced up the unused lot. Today, the park is peopled with joggers and commuters.

 

However, I didn’t know if this area even allows weddings and if it did, it may possibly cost a lot given the size of the area. But you’ll never know until you ask so without further delay, I approached the security guards of Tower One, where the Ayala offices occupy the top floors. I was given a name and a number of the supposed park coordinator but after four days of calling, I got no reply. *sighs*

The park view facing Tower One.

 

4. Photography by MangoRed

MangoRed is a group of photographer brothers who are known for their unique documentation style. Every album they create is a like a narrative. They capture all the important details and unique nuances of the wedding setting. They showcase the guests and the couple in their element, laughing and playing rather than frozen in rehearsed smiles.

 

Weddings just seem more interesting and loose their cheese factor when viewed through the lens of MangoRed's photographers. Photo: http://www.mangored.com

 

However, I also find their prices pretty high too and booking them would bring my budget up by about 25%. Yet, I’m wary about getting the more traditional photographers who in my opinion, don’t bring something new to the (coffee) table and is an even bigger waste of money.

I love photography with a narrative quality. Anything else that is the equivalent of a cheesy romance novel will be dropped like a hot potato.

 

After discussing this with my maid-of-honor, we both agreed that I could lower my costs for other things (except food and alcohol!), and a parent even encouraged me to just go ahead and get them since the folks are pitching in. I started feeling giddy but likewise,  guilty and nervous about booking MangoRed because I can’t get that figure out of my head.

***

 

Finally, even with a theme, the sheer number of wedding options can be pretty overwhelming and once you start coming up with a wish list, it can get pretty frustrating especially when something is out of budget. While most wedding magazines aren’t really that helpful except for browsing dresses, the one and only publication that I recommend is Real Simple Weddings.

I always buy my magazines second hand. My copy of Real Simple Weddings 2009 was purchased for P250 at Just-In, a back issue stand in Promenade Mall, Greenhills.

 

Published annually, Real Simple Weddings is everything I’ve ever wanted in a magazine: very little ads (in fact the only ads in the 2009 edition were of Crate and Barrel), tasteful promotions, lots of features on every type of wedding (no discriminations between casual barbecues and traditional fetes), practical etiquette advice, and in-depth chapters on planning (not just Top 10 tips!) which is really helpful since not everybody does events for a living and it would be nice to save funds that would otherwise go to a professional coordinator’s fees. Besides, I think getting involved in the wedding planning is a great exercise in management for both bride and groom.

Chapter 11: When Families Tie the Knot

We all know that marriage is more than a contract between two individuals. When people marry, they likewise marry into each other’s family. I mentioned in a previous post that Mark and I plan to do a civil marriage only, but our plans have changed since his family officially met ours: we are now doing a Roman Catholic wedding. On a personal level, coming not that decision was not easy. The hours leading to our pamamanhikan was filled with arguments between the two of us about doing a traditional ceremony. His side would love to see or union being blessed “in the eyes of God” and while I was privy at first, those apprehensions had less to do with my not wanting to meet their requests as it was my own criticisms of a traditional Christian union.

You and me against the world: Over-romanticizing your union isolates the other family members who also play roles in a marriage.

 

To begin with, I admit that I am such a stubborn bride-to-be and much of that stubbornness stems from my deep-seated distrust in an institution that has subjected women to its patriarchal nature. From the traditional gender roles it espouses to the symbolism of the veil–its placement on the man’s shoulder and a woman’s head signifies how we are property of our husbands. From the adoption of the husband’s name (men never hyphen their names with their wives) to the giving away of the woman by her parents, which evolved from brides representing payment to another family. If the payment doesn’t happen to be pretty, there’s no refund or exchange policy!

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel anxious about having to consent with this tradition.In my head, initial images of walking down the aisle did not portray me as the smiling, blushing bride but of a grieving one, pulling at her hair at having to succumb to the Church’s prescriptions for an ideal marriage.

Should making peace with a traditional marriage result in a personal hell of inner conflict?

 

“But you’re not getting married to a traditional man!” replied Mark, to my anti-institution angst. My fiancee felt that getting married in the boundaries of Catholicism shouldn’t dictate the way we will live our lives afterwards.

“We can create our own rules, our own culture of marriage,” he assured me. 

Mark’s advice was the silver lining in this whole business of getting hitched. It also helped that his brother and sister-in-law informed us that it is possible to customize your Catholic church rites, thank God.

I know that in spite my feelings, at the end of the day, I would have to agree to it anyway for the sake of the family’s happiness and of course to show our respect for this union that we share with them. This willingness to integrate in peace is something that I’ve had to learn throughout the years; something that I had to initially struggle with. 

In this day and age, the emancipation of contemporary Filipino women has allowed us to embraced Individualism. Through the decades, we have earned more rights, we are better educated, we are beginning to earn more respect in society. I wouldn’t say we’ve completely made it but it would be wrong to not acknowledge that women are earning better places in the socio-economic and cultural spheres. As a result, we are marrying at a later age, usually developing our careers first before settling down. Some of us are even opting to keep our family names and becoming more active in supporting our families financially. 

I am a big fan of this individualist approach to womanhood but unfortunately, my Individualism has worked against me in the realm of relationships, not just with Mark but with his and my family. It even resulted to a two-year clinical depression coupled with various anxiety attacks, a problem that my psychiatrist and counsellor called “adjustment.” 

Depression placed me in a state of misunderstood isolation.

 

Because I refuse to be subjected to male-female double standards, I was bold enough to spend time alone in a room with Mark under the roofs of our parents’ homes. Because I have so much pride in myself and my achievements, I reeled in hysteria at being compared to my the fiancee’s ex (something that I would often instigate myself in order to assert my being, my individuality). Because of all my individualist ego-tripping, I failed to acknowledge the crucial connections that intertwined with our relationship; and with those connections came an entire cast of characters: family members each with a unique lens with which to perceive our bond. 

Months of counselling and several packs of Zoloft later, I slowly started to understand that being a relationship with someone presents the challenge of balancing your individualism and your ability to relate with the family of your significant other, especially among Pinoy families, wherein the links between parents, children and well into the first and second degree relatives can be so intimate. It really is an ongoing exercise in diplomacy. For Filipino couples, the challenge is to be able to appeal to the sensibilities of those who are crucial to our lives, from the young and liberal-minded to the more traditional seniors. 

That said, I recommend the following list of social tactics, inspired by my own observations of individuals from the PR and advertising industries, which have to deal with the daily social juggle of clients from all walks of life, corporate cultures and political beliefs. However, always combine these tactics with a genuine charm and natural interest in the family, because ass-kissing will eventually backfire on you.

#1 Give Gifts

The simplest way to please a crowd (or the media ) is to give gifts. It’s a simple gesture that needs little explaining–great for the socially-timid! Whenever I attend a press event, for as long as we have a small token and a well-stocked buffet awaiting us, we will feel taken cared of and even better, we won’t feel invisible. Family members need to feel acknowledged. During dinners or lunches, offer to bring dessert or wine. When overseas-based relatives come home, welcome them with a gift. You don’t have to spend much or flaunt your gourmet taste. As the old adage goes, it’s the thought that counts.

Marriage is an agreement to make peace not war.

 

#2 Acknowledge Achievement

Older family members have much to be proud of. At their age, they have achieved much professionally and personally like building businesses or raising excellent children. When agencies  pitch to clients, apart from presenting the creative concept and answering all their burning questions on marketing and budgets, we also inquire about the success of their enterprise, comment on the beautifully-designed offices and cite how their products/services has benefitted us somehow (“Oh, my six-year-old loves your Banana-Walnut Breakfast Cereal!”) . Likewise, ask your future in laws about their pursuits: that joint venture that your fiancee talked proudly about, the European tour they recently embarked on, the ongoing renovation of their living room. However, be mindful of forcing your own taste into these acknowledgements. Unless they ask for your opinion, there’s no need to say that you dislike the celadon paint with floral appliques in their kitchen.

#3 Project Likeability

You won’t always be in a good mood but when you’re constantly frowning, scowling and dead-paning. People will relegate you to the Emotional Vampire category. Again, agencies try their best to put on a smile even after pulling an all-nighter or amidst the mounting stress of a bug event. What’s that you say? It’s hard to pretend you’re in a good mood when you’re not?

Of course it is and no one is asking you to keep all that emotion in but expressing feels should be done at the right place and time. For example. you don’t need to express anger to an employee in full sight of everybody. Instead, you take that person aside, express your discontentment then offer solutions afterwards. You likewise don’t need to express your passionate stirrings in front of your parents. 

In social situations, Filipino families do take notice of a non-family member who looks like she/he would rather be somewhere else. Maybe you don’t but learn how to relate to them: say your hellos, ask them how they’re doing, share in the meal. If you want to go, ask permission to leave, thank the host then make a gracious getaway.  

Smile and mean it.

 

#4 Listen to Opinions

It has been popularly said that a lot of discontentment arises from the fact that we judge people’s opinions in relation to our own set of values.  Even more drama results when we begin arguments on politics and religion but we  can’t expect the family of our significant other to be either left, right or in between. Personally, this is the trickiest thing for me to deal with and once people  begin speaking their minds on such polarizing topics like sexual orientation, political parties and reproductive health, it’s easy to touch nerves. This is the very reason why I had to struggle with accepting a traditional wedding–it conflicted with my own feelings about the Roman Catholic rite.

The simplest way to deal with something I don’t agree with is to let it in one ear and out the other. Once an exchange in points of view is made, someone will somehow tell you you’re wrong. It’s easy to just shrug it off and say that that’s just the way you see things but try to keep the anger under control. Sometimes, it’s possible to engage in a debate but try to separate intellectual argument from raw emotion. Difficult of course but it’s a fact of life that not everybody will be on your side. What people believe in will always stem from deep-seated value that are hard to change.  Still, there will be individuals who will agree with you, now that’s the the proper venue to vent your disagreements with other ideas. 

Marrying into another family is a non-negotiable reality of wedded life. Through the complex web of characters that one will be dealing with, the goal is to not lose yourself.

Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 11:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Chapter 10: The Filipino Dream

It’s ironic that in the past, I would often complain to my fiancee, Mark, that his erratic work hours (as a sound engineer) will take its toll on his health when I myself agree to working in nearly the same set-up, as a copywriter and more recently,as an accounts person, on a retainer basis.

As freelancers, although we recognize the benefits, there’s also a downside to working on a first come first served basis: we can’t predict what our days and weeks will be like. Apart from that, we have lean months and we have more abundant seasons, and during the latter, the work can get pretty overwhelming and the deadlines, unforgiving. For me, this usually comes during the first and last quarters of the year.

Not Enough Time: Freelancers like Mark and I can't always set aside time for non-work related matters outside of our already flaky schedules.

 

Since December 2009  till April 2010, I have been taking on a number of projects that had me working even on weekends and well through the night until the early morning hours. 

The past few weeks were even more tiring. On top of work deadlines, there were a lot of family gatherings to attend, since Mark’s relatives from the US, including his mom, were in town for his brother’s wedding last April 10 as well as our pamamanhikan (a Filipino tradition wherein the man’s family formally asks for a woman’s hand in marriage) last April 13. During the pamamanhikan, I was already sick with what I believed to be a common cold but after 5 days of pill-popping and several doses of Vitamin C, I was nowhere close to getting better. As we urban-living folks usually are–reactive rather than proactive–I went to the doctor only when things got worse.

“You have pneumonitis,” explained Dr. Aquino, as he showed me my x-rays. Dr. Aquino is a chest diseases expert who like me, preferred to work at night with clinic hours beginning at 6pm. In other words, he was the perfect doctor for me.

“It’s starting pneumonia. Your chest x-rays show that you’re getting there,” he continued while pointing out to some ghostly white marks in the region of my chest: the result of months of toiling odd hours has come back to haunt me in the form of a looming disease.

“What causes it?” I asked. I never actually knew what pneumonia was, something that I would later discover as an inflammation of the lungs.

“It’s caused by overfatigue, dehydration and the heat wave. When you’re too tired, your body’s immunity goes down,” he replied as he drew up a long list of antibiotics, decongestants, antitussives, other un-pronounceable drugs on his notepad. Apart from the pneumonitis, Dr. Aquino also pointed out that I had mild asthma. I was sent home to stay there for an entire week,  forbidden to attend Spanish class, which I already missed for a total of 3 sessions, or do any work in the coming days.

It may be uncomfortable to be releasing phlegm all day but the doctor’s orders sounded like music to my ears. Now, all I have to do is stay in bed, read my books and take the drugs after every breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was as if disease was the ultimate savior from all the work that caused it in the first place.

I have overfatigue to thank for giving me the opportunity to rest from...overfatigue.

 

Ironically, I couldn’t get my to-do list out of my head and realized just how hard it is to disengage myself from the daily grind. I  must cancel my meeting for Monday morning. I must tell the web designer to get in touch directly with the clients regarding the images he need. I have to tell the studio that I will be indisposed for a week. I need to photocopy Spanish notes. I must. I must. I must!

While all this was happening, Mark and I also got into an argument about what we wanted out of our future professional lives. Having recognized the health risks of 24-hour, sometimes 48-hour, shooting days and after almost a decade of doing film-related work, Mark was getting emotionally, mentally and physically tired of his job and wanted to move into the 9-to-5 realm, away from the schizophrenic, flaky world of Philippine cinema–an option he had also discussed with his own shrink.

“I need  time to do the things I want to,” he told me. “Like going back to my music.”

It’s ironic. We always expect a freelance set-up to be more accommodating to non-work activities yet in some cases, its unpredictability leaves little flexibility for recreation. You never know when an instant deadline will knock off your plans to go to Batangas for the weekend.

Mark, who has always loved writing and performing folk music, has not done that for several years. Hence, he began entertaining a possible career shift, alongside being a weekend businessman, since the two of us plan to start an enterprise focused on production and marketing communications. Moreover, since he had all this equipment, not to mention contacts in the production industry, his gadgets would comprise additional capital for the company. 

This was the good news. I totally agreed with his brave plans to reinvent his professional life, but I got edgy when he mentioned this: “I’m thinking of going back to school again. Take up Library Science. You know, just in case I get an opportunity to work for the UN.”

Mark’s mom has been enjoying a satisfying career as a librarian at the UN headquarters in New York and this means, when she retires, Mark or his brother can possibly apply for the same position. It’s a fairly specialized job hence a library science degree would be especially helpful.

Now, it may sound like a great opportunity. I’m sure it is but what worried me wasn’t the nature of the work per se or the chance to work in New York City, the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” as Alicia Keys would sing. It was the prospect that this sort of move for my future husband would mean, we would have to relocate to the First World together or endure a long-distance relationship, which in my book, will never work out. 

The thought made me feel even sicker to my antibiotic-saturated stomach and the reason is this. I grew up in a culture that has a high regard for entrepreneurship and nation-building. I was influenced to treat employment as a time to build skills and a network, which I would later use for a personal venture. Immigration is one of those things I vowed never to do because quite honestly, I fear discrimination (yes, even in liberal New York).I  also feel disheartened by the thought of leaving a familiar place, where most of my family and best friends are. As a city with a high cost of living, moving to New York would mean my monthly overhead would cost much more than here in Manila. Sure, the wages are higher too, but to my mind, an ideal set-up is to earn well enough from a business and to have low overhead so that we can save more. Above all, I fear that I might have to go back to being an employee. 

A long-distance relationship challenges you to develop the skill of turning each other on with just your voice or YM chat.

 

These statements aren’t meant to put down people with dreams of going to their personal Canaan. My own best friend loves New York so much–her sister practices there as a doctor–and the thought of studying and working in the Big Apple did enter her mind. Mark and I have several friends and relatives who have started their lives all over again by migrating to the US. My own brother and his family is in the process of moving to Canada. I am merely saying that it is my personal choice to remain here because my dream is to have  an enterprise (or ideally, even a series of businesses) that will help me fulfill an economically-rewarding life while having the opportunity to provide work for other people. I still believe this country to be great in spite its shortcomings and failings; and the best part is, because the cost of living is low, I have better chances of saving my finances so I can travel more and hopefully, see the world, for another dream of mine is to become a seasoned tourist.

Yet in the meantime, this is not my reality–yet.

The truth is I have been overworked by several projects and because the economy is not performing as well as in past years, my usual rates have been cut down by clients more often than not. In this country, if you’re not a tycoon, a real-estate mogul or a trust fund baby, you better be able to multitask in order to earn fair enough to pay the monthly bills. However, sometimes what you give up in exchange is a healthy state of body and state of mind. 

Even if I do start a business, I will still be affected by other forms of uncertainty like economy and the socio-political atmosphere.

Knowing this, maybe it is better for me to just drop everything and yes, move to the first world, where I can build  a stable career at a stable institution, away from the corruption, pollution and the occupational hazards of the Third World. Yet, the other side of me says, No! Don’t give up yet on that dream! If all else fails, only then, will we move out of the contry.

It’s sad just thinking about all this: that your country is just Plan A or Plan B; to know that what our nation has failed to give us–a stable, peaceful and healthy life–has easily weakened its boundaries and made it easier, even more attractive, for us to move past those ragile borders and into the lands we clearly see in the horizon: the First World, flowing freely with milk and honey.

It’s even sadder to know that even though Filipinos may go to other countries, not all of them will have golden opportunities to work at the best companies in the world’s most flourishing nations. There is a sector of economically-disadvantaged individuals–mostly women–who are working as domestic helpers in places like Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.

According to the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, Filipino migration has a “female face.” In 2006, 1,083,538 documented Overseas Filipino Workers were deployed to more than 190 destinations. Of these, 60% were women. Several of these domestic helpers become victims of maltreatment, nonpayment, underpayment, contract substitution, long and unforgiving working hours and sexual abuse. The may also become the unfortunate targets of shady and illegal “placement firms” which they depended on in the first place to find work. How heartbreaking it must be to find out that you were not in trustworthy hands!

Famous cases include Sarah Balabagan, whose controversial life as a Domestic Helper in the United Arab Emirates involved the murder of an employer who allegedly raped her, Flor Contemplacion, who was sentenced to death by hanging in Singapore and more recently, the mysterious “Melissa” whose rape by her employer was captured on phone by a fellow OFW. 

The tragic story of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino domestic helper, was translated to the big screen in a biopic starring Nora Aunor.

 

In 2006, these overseas workers generated $10.7 billion in remittances to their families, boosting economy and earning them the title of “unsung heroes.” However, oftentimes the decision to work in a foreign land–with the well-meaning goal of providing for their own families–comes with the cost of their health, sanity, happiness and sometimes, their very lives.

In my own family, we have a relative who has experienced the isolating life of working as a domestic helper in a country that I will not disclose.

“I was lucky to have very nice employers,” she told me in Filipino, during one of our conversations, during her first few weeks back in the Philippines. “But it’s not typical for these people to feed their helpers. You have to buy your own food and food there is so expensive!” Filipinos being the way they are, love to eat and the Pinoy homeowner usually share their meals with the house helpers. 

She recounts days of intense hunger after working from sun up to way past sun down. She remembers several moments of homesickness yet finding solace in her fellow Filipinas. She is likewise grateful to have had “very nice” employers, by contrast to other unfortunate women she knew, who were thrown into jail for crimes that they have not been proven to have committed against their employers. 

When I hear stories like this, it makes me wonder, what is the Filipino Dream? If it is a dream at all, why does it tend to sound more like a nightmare.

Certainly, a lot of our hardest decisions are based on a desire and a need to support our families for we are a family-centered people; and our large weddings and full houses are just a few examples to support that. We are very dependent on each other, from parents to first degree cousins and beyond. What we are not is the independent American who leaves home at 18 to find a job; yet, we are willing to leave behind our homeland, to live amongst the fiercely independent Americans, Australians and Europeans out of sheer love for our spouses, sons, daughters, parents! That is why it isn’t easy. Being family-centered, once we stretch the physical spaces that bound us together, we are left with a large void that we try to fill with several long-distance calls and lengthy emails. Mark is one of those who saw this option as an attractive one, because in the long run, he wants to support me and our future children–if all else doesn’t work out.

For all its challenges, we are still willing to cut the umbilical cord that binds us to our motherland. Maybe we are becoming just like our Caucasian counterparts, independent and ready to say goodbye to one’s parents to seek a sovereign land of opportunity…but not entirely, because, sometimes, we choose to bring the entire family with us as we migrate. 

It's the ultimate migration-or-death story when Moses led the Israelites out of their difficult lives in Egypt. Once they reach the Promised Land though, they begin a sinful life of excess and idol-worship.

 

Having said all this, I wonder why am I so concerned. I’m not the most nationalistic person I know. I don’t read as much Filipino literature as I should, which is a shame because I enrolled myself in the state university five years ago to study writing. I don’t have the best Filipino vocabulary and often find myself the laughing stock of friends and family who marvel at questions like “What’s puntod?” said in my colegiala accent, a manner of speaking that is native to Catholic School girls who mix English with Tagalog so well that each language loses its identity. 

I believe that I could be an even prouder Filipino. I am not even a brave one, like my contemporaries who will go to such lengths as moving to other countries with entire families in tow, and beginning their own rewarding careers in the big cities of the world. Sometimes, I think I even envy them when I hear stories about how progressive and clean their country of migration is compared to poor, filthy, stinky Metro Manila and her many shanties, bumpy roads and street beggars.

Filipinos like me are probably the reason why we don’t have a clear sense of who we are as a people. We love the Western world so much with its movie stars, its luxuries and personally, its large network of Sephora make-up stores (What no Sephora in Manila? How backward!).

But maybe by contrast, that is what we are. We are defined by our hybrid quality as a bilingual people; our hybrid culture which combines Malay, Spanish and American influences, due of course to centuries of occupation, colonization and I’m sure a fascination will tall, white, sharp-nosed people; and finally our constant movement through the continents. 

Maybe that is why the Filipino dream can exist anywhere in this world. It is that physical, emotional and mental space where we build our careers, grow our families and fulfill our dreams–whether we choose to work in a big, busy mega city or run a quiet livelihood here in the country.

But this very mode of existence, as people of the world, presents an even greater challenge and that is the challenge to protect the Filipino well-being, wherever  the Filipino may be on the planet. Somehow, we have to be each other’s doctors, nurses, shrinks and counsellors, guarding the overall health and well-being of our fellow men and women–from the financial to the spiritual.

If we choose to become local entrepreneurs, let’s prioritize the needs of our employees such as health benefits, opportunities to grow, fair wages, a safe working environment and the occasional night out with lots of cold beer, hot gossip and sizzling sisig. Let us also find ways to put the Filipino name on the global map by producing local products and services that are world-class. There are already a number of businesspeople doing this. For starters, visit Greenbelt 5 in Makati and check out the designer row as well as the furniture places at the top floor. In particular, there is this one Pampanga-based enterprise that creates vintage-inspired, travel-themed furniture that is just too lovely to pass!

Arnel Papa, who has a store in Greenbelt 5, is one of my favorite local designers. For 20 years, he has been exporting his creations to the US and Europe, joining the ranks of other globally-recognized designers like Bea Valdes and Tina Maristela-Ocampo (of Celestina). I guess, getting featured in the pages of Vogue automatically counts as world recognition.

 

If we decide to be employees or freelancers, let’s do ourselves a favor and try, just try not to work exclusively for the money. Yes, it may be seen as a means to an end, and yes, good financial health is still something we ought to aim for (after all it is about making a living!) but I think it is also our duty to ourselves to find some degree of satisfaction in what we do, then from there, we will be motivated enough to be proactive and productive individuals who will be indispensable to our respective industries. Other than that, and this is something I’ve had to learn the hard way, let’s keep our health and well-being in check–the same goes for business owners! 

If we choose to migrate, I believe the same principles must apply. I may not be a migrant myself but if I were one, I think that if you’re going to live and work in another country, you better do something you will be passionate about. While in that country–whether temporarily or permanently–I think that we should also be accountable for the well-being of our fellow citizens (who can understand them better than we do) but at the same time, we should also learn to embrace the people in the country we have chosen. After all, they welcomed us, gave us jobs and a place in their society. Don’t you think that makes them worthy of our gratefulness, at the very least? Besides, integration is one thing that we Pinoys are so good at and that is one skill that would certainly help in making migration feel a little less strange and its foreign faces a little more familiar.

Life and work is hard enough. The question is: how do we create a sense of community through the highs and lows?

How do create a sense of community that will keep us strong during high times and low times?

Finally, wherever we are, let’s be aware of those spaces where the health and happiness of the Filipino worker is threatened. Everything begins by listening to their needs, no matter how close or far-flung they may be. No, I don’t think you even have to be a social worker or a radical to do this. The simple Pinoy can begin with his or her own sphere of influence. It’s as simple as taking an over-stressed co-worker to a relaxing day at a spa or volunteering a little of your time or resources to a cause or a charity you believe in–and there are so many of them out there! It is never to late to find one that is close to your heart, whether it’s something as universal as basic human rights or something more concentrated like education for special children, youth entrepreneurship or environmental awareness, cancer or cleft palate. No one cause is more important than the other. The truth is there are just too many issues to deal with, we may as well spread out our energies and do our part. The world is already a harsh place to live in. Let’s not make it even harder by creating a war of advocacies.

That is because everything we do is connected to each other and all our aspirations are interwoven into one big dream that is shared by every Filipino. Though we may not know the people beyond our 3rd degree of consanguinity, our family extends to those unfamiliar faces no matter how far. Every act of awareness as well as every choice to remain ignorant affects the health and happiness of a people.

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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Chapter 9: Stealing Beauty

“Your nose is too big for your face,” Dr. Fernandez commented after using a Mongol pencil to measure my nose in relation to the rest of my features. He was my parents’ skin doctor but was also a cosmetic surgeon whose clientele were mostly matronly women twice (or more) my age getting breast jobs, face and eye lift. “But the rest is in proportion,” he added. A breath of relief, I thought–at least there was still something positive to say about my God-given assets.

For the longest time, I had been known as “Ilong” to my closest friends from Assumption, who got a kick out of joking how my brains were located above my septum or how I had bad hearing because my sense of smell was too dominant, even though the constant ringing in my ears is due to drumming since I was 14. However, they were not the only ones who made a fuss of my big nose.

In the movie, Penelope, the title character (played by Christina Ricci) is cursed with a snout for a nose. In order to find a husband, her mother sets her up with high-society bachelors, who each converses with her behind a mirror, in the hope of finding a mate who will love Penelope for her intelligence and charm.

 

I was 21 years old when my mom suggested (for the nth time) that I consider getting it reduced. Being part-Spanish, my mom had a nicely-shaped nose and always attributed my “flaw” to my Dad’s side of the family. The Darios are known for their big noses and dark skin. But throughout the years, I declined the offer to get a rhinoplasty: my big nose had actually become my signature. Hey, Barbara Streisand didn’t get her own prominent nose fixed!

But when Dr. Fernandez explained that his style of sculpting noses was to make it a more ideal version of what the patient already has, then I felt more convinced. “People should be able to look at you and think you got a new haircut,” he explained. True enough, my schoolmates could not point out what had changed until I revealed that I had gone through a cosmetic procedure.

“Let me know if you want to push through with this,” he said. Less than one week later I was on the operating room table of the Makati Medical Center, getting my first surgery, fully-awake and scared as hell.

However, six years later, I wonder if going under the knife would have affected Mark’s initial attraction to me; so I asked him last week: “If I still had my big nose, would you still like me?” 

Di ko rin masasabi. [I wouldn’t know.]” He answered with a mischievous grin.

I wanted to slap him across his face and break his own nose. Yet somehow, this remark has managed to disturb me and make me wonder: did interfering with my looks affect my marriageability on a superficial level? Which leads to another question, “Do I deserve this or am I just  a big phony?”

Left: My ID picture pre-cosmetic surgery. This was taken around 2000. Right: My nose today. This is also how I look without make-up.

 

We all know that physical attraction plays a role in getting people together. Girls have it easier though. We slap on make-up, pluck our eye brows, get stylish haircuts and have more fashion options than the boys. How is plastic surgery supposed to be different from regularly applying shimmery peach blush to highlight your cheekbones?

Some people will argue by saying that we should never mess with what nature has given us; that when it comes to love, your mate should appreciate you for who you are; that our insecurities with our bodies are the result of media’s influence. Yada Yada yada.

Nowadays, who is truly 100% natural?

A few years ago, I read a book called Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Etcoff, a medical psychologist at Harvard. Etcoff debunks the entire media-as-dictator-of-beauty-standards and examines physical attraction from an evolutionary point-of-view. Men like fair skin, big hips and small waists because these are all signs of nubility. Even more intriguing, Etcoff conducted studies among isolated tribal peoples who have never been exposed to mass media and asked them to rate faces perceived as beautiful in western cultures–the results were consistent. In another study, mothers–although they will never admit if–tend to take better care of babies who are “more attractive” then their other siblings. It’s a refreshing and eye-opening examination of why we are drawn to individuals with chiseled faces and hot booties. Physical looks is not so much about culture as it is about the survival of the human race. 

"He looks just like my ex-husband," remarked one of the senior women in the home for the aged where Benjamin Button--born with a strange condition that makes him age backwards--was lovingly raised by his adoptive mom.

Defying the rules of evolution and beauty, Benjamin Button, who is born with a condition that makes him age backwards, is lovingly cared for by his adoptive mother.

 

So, maybe the act of agreeing to having my nose nipped, tucked and sewn for two hours an unconscious attempt to ensure the survival of my genes?

The life instinct has resulted to a billion-dollar industry dominated by fashion, beauty and cosmetic surgery. Nowadays, there’s nothing you can’t fix, whether temporarily through a lip-plumping gloss that coats your pucker in light acids, or permanently, such as “vaginal rejuvenation,” a type of surgery that essentially promises to return you to your virgin state, several babes later. Looking younger–pointed by Etcoff as another important factor in race survival, which encourages the caring instinct of individuals towards people with childlike features–is as easy as getting shots of Botox in between your eyebrows or having a Brazilian wax, revealing you pre-puberty self below that 20-year old forest of pubic hairs. There really is something behind that line that I’ve heard Mark say several times: “Parang masarap siyang alagaan [It would be nice to take care of her] .” What’s a couple of thousands, not to mention a little procedural pain, in the greater scheme of race survival? It’s not impossible to steal a little bit of that youthful glow in order to make ourselves remain attractive to the opposite sex.

I may not be 30 yet, but wrinkles are starting to become a problem as I begin noticing very small lines beneath the corners of my eyes. Lately, my beauty regimen has started to include products with the word “anti-ageing.”

That’s when I realized that I will not forever be the young, 21-year old girl, who Mark met in 2004. 

Remarking on the abundance of cosmetic options at our disposal, a family friend commented that in this day and age, if you're ugly, it's your fault.

 

“What would you do if you meet a cute 21-year old when I’m already wrinkled and full of stretch marks from having kids?” I asked Mark.

“I’ll just look,” he said, “but I won’t touch.” The good thing is, both of us have a clear understanding that it is in our nature to admire other people. For the past 5 years, we have been very open about acknowledging other people’s beauty to each other.

“You will always be that ‘young girl’ to me,” he added–and I believe in the sincerity of his words. Still, the reality stands: I will not be able to cling to my youth forever, nor will Mark. Both of us will grow old. Yet I still believe that with this commitment to each other–plus a little help from my bikini waxer and a bottle of Elizabeth Arden Prevage–our survival in this crazy world will be ensured.

– Punky

Chapter 8: A Reason to Believe

One of the best parts of going to college at my alma mater, Assumption, was I immensely enjoyed most, if not all, of my theology classes.

Being a sectoral school, all students, regardless of religion, were required to take up 8 classes of theology.

Now that condition sounds like indoctrination into a specific set of religious values but what interested me more was the historical approach that went into the teaching of Christianity. Our teachers showed us how to understand Biblical texts in the context of the culture in which it was written. Reading involved deconstruction. We begin by situating it in the sociological situation of the authors (e.g. what was their worldview? what did it mean to be a carpenter during the time of Christ?). Next, we try to understand what is written between the lines in order to extract a moral that fits well with the concept of  values that cut across race and religion. Moreover, my professors made the subject even more engaging by going beyond the usual Biblical films to illustrate the subject matter at hand. We watched movies like Babette’s Feast, which lends itself well to a theological reading, as well as Cinema Paradiso. The only Biblically-set movie I remember seeing presented an alternative depiction of Christ, as being more human than divine. 

In theology class, we were encouraged to rethink what we knew of the Christian Bible and reminded that the forbidden fruit wasn't necessarily an apple just because this was the popular representation in art.

 

After years of Christian Living Education, a requisite in the Catholic school curriculum, it was refreshing to study one of the most significant pieces of literature and to understand it from a theological perspective. 

But other than that, what I remember most fondly about my Theology teachers was how one of them gave us so much advice about marriage and family. She was a happily married mother of two, who gave such tips as maintaining a great sex life, which was indispensable to a blissful marriage and allowing your child to sleep on you naked (no diapers!) as to allow a more intimate skin-to-skin, almost primal experience between mother and child. 

This particular professor was also once a pink nun; and her husband a former priest. Before they entered a contemplative life, they had been together as a couple before parting ways to join their respective orders.

Her love story is an excellent example of being resolute in the decisions made about one’s life. As a pink nun, she regularly did flagellations and stayed indoors most of the time. Her order is also famous for accepting eggs from people who didn’t want rain to fall during their special day. Hence, a good number of about-to-be-weds approach them–as does advertising people who don’t want dark clouds hovering during their painstakingly-planned events, for which clients shelled out millions of pesos in funds.

However, time passed and both of them–although separate–decided that they wanted to devote themselves to a married life instead.

I remember our professor telling us about how her fellow nuns accepted her decision without question, gave their blessings and even arranged for her to meet with her former loved one. In the quiet recesses of the convent and with little words to express their mutual decision, nun and priest agreed that they would leave behind their religious lives to become husband and wife. It was an engagement like no other.

My professor’s post-convent life found her teaching, ironically, at a convent school, where the nuns appointed her as head of the Theology department during the time when I was a student.

Now you would probably think that as a theologian, she would promote a specific religion to students. By contrary, she suggested that we should try to give our future children the freedom to join a religion of their choice. 

In a traditional Catholic society wherein most children are baptized in their 1st month, choosing one's religion later in life is not a common scenario.

 

Nowadays, that sort of tip would have surely come from the Brangelina School of Family Values. However, it has always seemed as attractive an option to me now as it was then.

I admit that I’m not the most religious individual. I am not very good with the rituals involved during Holy Week. In fact, I probably should be ashamed of myself for not taking these traditions seriously.

It makes me wonder then, when I become a parent, how will I educate my children in matters of spirituality, particularly in our very Christian society? 

To begin with, Mark and I plan to start our married life with a civil union. Most people in my circle–whether Roman Catholic or Muslim–go through a religious ceremony. Most people are expected to have their newborns baptized. By contrast, and in agreement with my former professor’s advice, we want our future child to choose the religion that he or she feels the most in touch with.

But how do we do that, short of providing our kids with a library of all the world’s religious texts a la Brad and Angelina?

Moreover, will our family go through some sort of discrimination because we’re not “blessed” individuals, especially if we enroll our future kids in a Catholic school, which is the norm in this society because the most reputable academic institutions happen to be sectoral.

As in foregoing an infant baptism, skipping the Roman Catholic rites is among the non-traditional plans that Mark and I have.

 

Which leads me to my next question, what do we really mean by living a blessed life? What does it mean to be a good human being for others? 

My discomfort with religion has mostly been  due to the cold, repetitive rituals that come with it. On the other hand, I’d like to believe that there are people who truly take their devotion to specific saints with utmost seriousness. The late president Cory Aquino was even a devout Marian follower. Who are we to question their faith? Everybody needs to believe in something greater than themselves, especially amidst an uncertain, disastrous and painful world. Unfortunately, it’s not even religion all the time. It could be the next presidential candidate, in all his messianic glory and promises of a better life in a nation flowing with milk and honey; or the world record-breaking, home-grown athlete who went from rags to riches.

On the more extreme side, religious fundamentalism truly frightens me as much as terrorism does. I don’t see the logic behind going to the extent of discriminating or even ending the lives of other people because they are different–in terms of race, religion or sexual orientation. At the end of the day, I believe it’s all about caring for people for who they are–human beings with basic rights, including a right to be loved–and recognizing, encouraging the goodness that they are capable of.  

With every win (and the enormous paycheck that comes with it) Manny Pacquiao gives his Filipino fans faith in the possibility that even a simple man from the province of General Santos can rise to world fame.

 

I still believe that faith should encompass more than being a “Sunday Catholic.” Between the weekly masses, there is the rest of our lives to live and the question of how we live it.

How do we treat the people we work with? How do we teach our children not to bully the other kids? How do we show our appreciation for family–whether it’s through words, gestures or a humble gift? 

My alma mater’s founder, St. Marie Eugenie was known for inspiring the first Assumption students to be “Women of Faith, Women of Action.”

Faith becomes an empty shell when there’s nothing real to support it. But what I do know is this: I believe in the universal values that bind us as people and that alone gives me a reason for being.

– Punky

***

Eli (Denzel Washington) teaches Solara (Mila Kunis) to say a prayer of thanks for the evening meal.

 

As a final note, I recommend the movie Book of Eli for your Holy Week viewing (in addition to all the eye-opening, investigative and biblical-themed documentaries on National Geographic). The film is a great depiction of how the ambitious can abuse the power of religion for personal gain and how faith figures in  a post-apocalyptic world. There are a lot of Christian symbolisms in Book of Eli but most of all what I personally liked best was how it was not an in-your-face religious-themed film.

Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 7:36 pm  Comments (1)  
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Chapter 7: Life Behind Closed Bathroom Doors

“What is the meaning of life?” Mark asked last night.

“I don’t want to answer that question anymore.” I replied. 

“Why?”

“It’s so gasgas. [overused]. I think you have to be more original than that. It’s no different from asking ‘Nasaan ang CR’ [Where’s the bathroom].”

I actually think life could take a few cues from the bathroom.

Every time one steps into it, doing your business and  guilt-free relaxing is one and the same. 

Inside the bathroom, we rid ourselves of everything that is toxic; everything we can do without because it no longer has any good use for us. We come out feeling lighter; pleased by a smaller waistline and lesser baggage.

Emotions are welcome in the bathroom. You may not want to cry in public, but inside the shower, salty tears flow together with the sweet suds of your shea butter body wash. 

In the bathroom, everything is revealed: cellulite, glee, inner demons and a tight butt alongside an accurate measure of your vanity, quantified in rows of beauty creams and shampoo.

In the bathroom, you can be barefaced and naked, you can face the facts.

In the bathroom, you can get ready for a new day. 

– Punky

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 5:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Chapter 6: For Love and Money

I remember reading an article on Yahoo! a few years ago about the strong role that money plays in relationships as well as divorces. According to the writer, financial issues are a major cause for splits, whether it’s a case of the husband feeling insecure about his more successful wife or a lack of transparency when it comes to discussing family funds.

Dirty Money: During their very public divorce, Jon Gosselin accused ex-wife Kate of hiding their children's trust fund, while the latter accused her ex-husband of overspending on his new woman.

Dirty Money: During their very public divorce, Jon and Kate Gosselin fought hotly over hidden trust funds and excessive spending.

 

Even outside a marriage, money is not an easy topic to deal with. People have a difficult time accepting large amounts of money, usually accompanying the receipt of a check with a shy smile and a courteous “Ohh, I can’t accept this. You’re too generous. Thank you so much!” 

When I first started working, my superior informed me of my talent fee by writing it on a yellow post-it, which I accepted with a controlled grin. It was my first time to earn as a professional but I couldn’t show too much enthusiasm in a Starbucks branch full of people. Since then, there have been a few instances wherein a project manager placed bills in my palm as if we were secretly transacting drugs. Talent fees are discreetly distributed, especially when it’s given in cold cash, outside the safety of the accounting office.

As for money talks, these situations can easily result to agitation, nervousness and the occasional raised eyebrow as one awaits a delayed payment or browses through the bills, a proposed cost estimate (that is well outside budget) or even a wedding supplier’s unbelievable rates. The only people I know who are more comfortable and upfront about conversations on cash are finance officers, account executives and my mom. 

Devoid of restraint, sports agent, Jerry Maguire announces that he can show athlete, Rod Tidwell, the moneeeeeey!!

 

As an engaged person, money issues have begun to spring up–and it is not limited to wedding budgets.

I’m not the type of girlfriend who desires a boyfriend who constantly showers her with gifts of gold, beach vacations and expensive handbags. Even before getting together with Mark, I always felt that I should be liable for my own material vices; that women are not supposed to be dependent on their men for their hedonistic (read: fashion and beauty) cravings. 

However, after five years together, I feel a sudden surge of greed. While Mark has given me thoughtful birthday and Christmas gifts in the past including a slew of social science books–my preferred non-fiction reading–and even a Snare drum, I seem to have forgotten these gestures and started to demand for at least “one Balenciaga bag, pleeeeease!”

What happened to my independent woman ego? Is this the result of watching too much E! Forbes Top 100 Celebrity Cash Couples and marveling at the way Jay-Z bought Beyonce a large rock as an engagement ring? What resulted to this materialistic, if-you’re-a-man-shower-me-with-goodies thinking when it used to turn me off?

Save yourself for a rich man and you may never have to save another cent.

 

Money is a multifaceted, complex matter. In times of crisis, its arrival is a sweet sigh of relief. Too much cash harkens the green-eyed monster. Giving it away for free causes mass hysteria. Furthermore, it can make or break a relationship.

Money is instrumental in the power play among the sexes; and maybe a woman’s fantasies of receiving a souped-up Porsche Panamera (“It’s got four doors, hon. So it’s not just a useless sports car. We can drop off the kids with it!”) from her impossibly rich husband is a means of acquiring some of the other’s power. Maybe that’s why it’s so attractive. One may not earn as much as one’s spouse but she can still take advantage of his wealth in exchange for love and passion, which, if you’re the scheming, gold-digging type, can be easily feigned through fake orgasms and rehearsed sweet nothings. The bottom line is the barter.

Of course, a pre-nuptial agreement, joint bank account and other shared assets are other devices for guaranteeing some degree of power, now and in the future–especially if the future doesn’t look too rosy. Hmm, divorce can be good business in the technical sense. 

For some people, the marriage contract is not complete without the money talks that culminate in a pre-nuptial agreement. Photo credits: http://www.chicagomag.com

 

However the downside in this power play is the one who earns more is oftentimes awarded with the stronger voice. It’s easier to measure your authority with something tangible. The same goes for the the top tier of society, who is determined by their incomes. 

Moreover, you can’t doubt the ability of money to make people admire, envy or even suspect you. Monetary value may be the result of hard work, luck, a “trust fund baby” spouse, a generous dowry or the occasional shady business. However, net worth doesn’t always equate to having intelligence, charm, a very good soul or even, in the superficial sense, supermodel looks. These  characteristics do not co-exist all of the time, and when it does, consider yourself truly lucky. Thank God, there is justice in this world. 

However, because we are dignified individuals who are capable of seeing beyond hefty bank accounts and chiseled cheekbones, we choose partners with values that read like a grocery list of requirements for entering hitched heaven.

“My fiancee is not a rich man,” the enthusiastic bride may say. “But he’s an incredibly good guy! That ALONE is enough for me.” Phrases like these are in the same vein of “He’s not the hottest guy but he’s sweet and nice. And that’s what matters!”

Love or money? The late Anna Nicole Smith kisses her former husband, the late oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall, who was more than 60 years her senior.

 

But financial capability, either through a secure job or a trust fund is undoubtedly one of those things we also look for in a partner. Married life–like everything else–doesn’t come free. Hence, I’d like to think of money as something that need not compete with love. It’s never about love OR money. Love is the reason for being in a relationship. Money is a bare necessity.

Unfortunately, it’s always possible for the politics of money and the complexities of human sexuality to intertwine, complicating the social dynamic between husband and wife. However, this is the very challenge of a relationship. How do we deal with our finances without it affecting us emotionally? Maybe money is like casual sex in some way. It gives you an exhilarating feeling, like winning the coital lottery, but it’s only there to feed a primal need. 

I told Mark that our future financial health will not always be smooth-sailing. Almost every family I know has had to deal with an economic crunch at one time or the other–and it’s not exclusively based on social class. There are always factors outside the family unit that will affect its livelihood. When nature calls, large scale disaster affects the movement that makes an economy work. This was terribly illustrated by the Ondoy floods that hit the country last year. On a more global scale, we don’t even have to be finance majors to know that when the US economy crunches, the world follows. 

I believe that more than just a necessity for paying the bills and feeding the kids, money can be positively seen as a means of determining what our priorities in life are. 

Do you and your partner see face to face when it comes to your finances?

 

Are we content with a stable cash flow that will account for the usual payables–tuitions, mortgage, utilities? 

Do we utilize monetary power to help us voice out a genuine cause or a cunning scheme?

Can we live with ourselves, knowing our wealth is ill-gotten?

Do we desire a rich spouse to make us feel better about ourselves by taking advantage of his/her wealth to buy us some confidence?

Do we view excess funds as nice-to-haves rather than must-haves?

Yes, it would be nice if I could outdo my financial goals in life. However, my initial priority is to be comfortable and secure while my aspiration is to be strong enough for the cash-related challenges that will come our way. It pays to not only have a healthy bank account but to have a strong sense of principle; because principle will keep you grounded even amidst the worldly pleasures of life.

– Punky

Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 5:35 pm  Comments (2)  
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Chapter 5: Chicken Soup for the Soul

“Food is one of the most important things at a wedding,” my friend, Tammy told me the other day as we sipped coffee on an empty stomach. “But it also accounts for most of your budget.”

We sat down at an outdoor cafe, after a long afternoon of covering an event–a kick off for a multinational food company–while the clients feasted on a catered dinner. 

Throughout the affair, I had been eating free samples of strawberry-filled biscuits and sneakily took a vanilla cupcake from one of the guest tables, while Tammy and I took pictures of salespeople and marketing managers discussing their goals for 2010. My head hurt and temper rose as I felt devoid of something hot, salty and served with steamed rice, from one of the burners. Because I was working for free as an extra member of the production, I had to settle for buying my own food.

Mad Host: In Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter throws a rather strange tea party. On the other side of the rabbit hole, guests expect something more substantial than just tea and bread with butter.

 

A full and satisfied stomach at an event is more than just a necessity for both guests and suppliers; not merely a to-do of the party hosts. Great food leaves every one with something good to say about the party. Fail to feed your waiters and documenting team and they’ll surely scorn you. At every event I’ve done, the crew’s food was always top priority. 

A former client from the banking industry once shared that the reason why they spend over a million on the the 10-course meal served during their annual New Year’s party for top customers is because the quality of the food is the most popular feedback given during post-event evaluation. Guests remember how delicious the dishes were; how this grand dining experience is what makes them look forward to the invitation in the mail.

Earlier this evening, I randomly thought about wedding food. I don’t mind spending a little more on a great buffet or sit-down dinner. Hence, I feel that planning the meal should be given a little more thought than other details like say, floral centerpieces, which will wilt and die soon after we’ve toasted the last glasses of Chardonnay. 

It is so easy to call up a caterer and ask them to send you sample menus at different price points. But more than that, I envision food that ties up with the book theme that Mark and I want for the wedding. There are so many famous images of food in literature and I think it would be great to include some of these into the line-up of dishes that we plan to serve, without making the offering look like a bad mish-mash. 

I haven’t come up with an in-depth list, so beginning with this entry, I plan to write several food-themed entries focusing on one dish.

Today it’s chicken soup.

One of my earliest memories of hunger pangs resulting from reading a book was in the grade school library of Assumption College, my alma mater of 17 years.

While sitting at the illustrated books section on one of the many red and blue leather mats, I read Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice and suddenly, the thought of a steaming bowl of savory chicken soup with rice sounded deliciously appealing at the end of a long, tiring day at school. 

I told you once, I told you twice
All seasons of the year are nice
For eating chicken soup with rice 

In Maurice Sendak's book, the author describes Chicken Soup with Rice as a savory treat that one can enjoy all year round--the perfect description for comfort food.

 

I personally love soups, whether it’s a creamy chowder with fresh mussels and scallops, a simple garlic broth with threads of gently scrambled egg or instant Japanese beef ramen cooked in a microwave (my favorite midnight snack). Former officemates of mine once said that if ever I get pregnant, my baby will take advantage of a generous supply of milk because I eat so much soup. 

At weddings, I always start with a bowl of broth, bisque, chowder or borscht. The sight of a big steaming pot always excites me. Somehow I believe that a “warm-up” readies my stomach for the gastronomic treats that await at the carving table, buffet line and dessert counter. Besides, I believe in taking my time eating; and am quite the slow eater, easily consuming over an hour from the consommé to the chocolate fountain.

As for chicken soup, I love it because there’s something very comforting about that hot, golden broth that never fails to warm both body and soul.

Chicken Soup with Rice sounds like an interesting addition to the buffet table, but I think all those carbs might make it too heavy. The same can be said of a very similar and local version of Sendak’s dish: Arroz Caldo. While Sendak’s is “sip-able,” Arroz Caldo is not because of its thick, chunky texture. Served as a light meal or a snack, Arroz Caldo is a classic Filipino treat that boats of sticky rice, boiled chicken, lots of ginger for spice, freshly-chopped scallions and toasted garlic flakes for a slight crunch. It’s typically seasoned with calamansi juice, fish sauce (patis) and cracked black pepper. 

Arroz Caldo is popular as a complete meal on any given morning, noon or evening. Photo credits: http://www.philippinenische-kueche.com

 

After school, I would always ask my parents’ messenger to buy me take-out Arroz Caldo at the nearby lugawan (a food kiosk that sells Arroz Caldo and Goto, a rice porridge served with tripe instead of chicken). The messenger would always order from the Lugawan ni San Pedro located at the Greenbelt 1 mall. I remember how their Arroz Caldo was more watery than the pricier ones served at restaurants like the upscale Via Mare, which is known for its Lugaw with Toppings, a special porridge loaded with slices of salted egg, adobo (marinated beef) flakes, tofu and  tripe, fried wonton. Nevertheless, I have nothing but warm memories of enjoying San Pedro‘s lugaw at the small pantry of my parent’s office, with nary a worry about the three pages of Math homework I had not done and would postpone till late evening.

Another book-related (chicken) soup  favorite of mine is Tinola. In chapter 3 of Jose Rizal’s (the Filipino national hero, doctor and author) novel, Noli Me Tangere (“Touch me Not”), the main protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra, returns to the Philippines after spending several years studying in Europe. He is welcomed by fellow upper class society members with a dinner of the classic Filipino dish–which is traditionally made with chicken pieces boiled in broth with sweet green papaya,  sili leaves and ginger. Everybody is having an enjoyable time except for one dinner guest, the antagonist, Padre Damaso, who is irritated when he is left with the meager neck and wing parts, which lacks enough meat to feed the overweight and corrupt friar.

Unlike Damaso, I’d like my wedding guests to help themselves to several bowls of Tinola, prepared with smaller chunks of cubed chicken to make it ladle-friendly. The familiarity of this classic Pinoy favorite is a great alternative to the ubiquitous Cream of Mushroom and a livelier option to a clear broth with sediments of vegetables, settling sadly at the bottom of the pot.

Tinolang Manok...with Rice. Photo credits: http://tinybites.ca

 

Moreover, Tinola is my personal pick for the perfect comfort food. Like Arroz Caldo, it reminds me of my favorite moments at the dining table. But I’ve always been a fan of the former. I even like it more when it’s three days old and the soup has developed a spicier, gingery flavor. Whenever my mom cooks Tinola served with freshly-steamed rice and patis seasoned with a crushed green chili, the stresses of college papers and later, work deadlines, melts away with the pungent steam of this delectable dish. 

Nothing could be better than kicking off your first meal as husband and wife, in the company of friends and family, with something familiar, comforting and filling.

– Punky

Chapter 4: Immortal Beloved

For two young people getting married, their union is a celebration of a new life together, of beginning a journey that will see them through their youth, the arrival of kids, the domestic challenges, the family milestones, old age, golden anniversaries, the grandchildren, sickness and eventually–death.

It is the proverbial love story, starting with the sun rising on the wedding day and setting as we say the final goodbye. We all expect and desire a long, fulfilling life together. We are so immersed in our youth; so driven by the energy and optimism that allow us to dream big.

This stream of positivity begins with the wedding planning. The goal is to create the perfect party. It is perfect  because it captures the couple and their family at their very best: happy, healthy, hopeful.

That is why we all jump, clap and smile at the announcement of the engagement. As soon as the ring is presented, all visions of  a picture-perfect family life come to mind. We begin pooling our savings, making plans about where to live, choosing our entourage and thinking of honeymoon destinations.

At the engagement party, it is not expected to deadpan about the woes of one's future married life.

 

Here’s my vision:

When I look at Mark, I see a 35-year old man who will become successful in his sound engineering and film work. I will continue working in advertising. Eventually the marketing communications partnership I will form will grow stable. Our work pays the bills and allows us to enjoy the creature comforts of married life. He and I will live in a starting out place less than a hundred square meters, located in a comfortable and secure village  fifteen minutes away from the central business districts. A decade into our marriage, we have a daughter named Naima and a son named Josef/Yussef. They are beautiful, smart kids who inherit all the good genes in our families. Naima and Josef grow up, go to high school then college. They eventually graduate and take on their first jobs, which we advise them to choose based on their skills and passions. Mark and I decide to go into semi-retirement, pack our bags and see the world. We come back home with trinkets from Barcelona, pictures from South American fiestas and tan lines from the French Polynesia. Years later, we enter our 70s and 80s. Our children now have families of their own and it satisfies us to see our grandkids smother us with little kisses and humble gifts of half-eaten cupcakes. But with age, comes the natural deterioration of our physical bodies. Sooner or later, we are diagnosed with disease, and eventually, one of us dies. The other follows, months, years or a decade later. Our children bury us side by side in a family plot, but our legacy lives on in those whom we have left behind

I wonder, what could be wrong with this picture.

In real life, a fairy godmother won't always be there to magically solve your problems.

 

Youth and optimism inspires us to think long-term, literally. We feel so emboldened and confident that we can live the romantic life story we desire, as we visualize it in our heads.

But what’s a story without the conflict? 

There are so many grim moments that can happen in the life of two people, surprising you like a thief in the night and wielding a butcher’s knife that cuts into your very soul and self-esteem.

Serious disease before 50.

Tragic, sudden death.

Infertility.

A pregnant teen daughter.

Bankruptcy.

Anxiety and depression.

Foreclosure.

Separation and divorce.

Till Death Do Us Part: Former husband and wife, Dave Navarro and Carmen Electra in their infamous pre-nuptial picture.

 

These are not the things one would normally entertain during the months leading to the ceremony. In fact, it is something that nobody dares mention, at the risk of spoiling the high spirits of friends, family members, and the newlyweds-to-be.

However, these are the harsh realities and we are all aware of it because, in one way or the other, from failed marriages to fianancial lows, it does happen to our friends, family members and other newlyweds-to-be. 

I wonder, in the story of our lives, what challenges and tragedies await me and Mark. Will we be incapable of bearing children. Will one of us lose the other too soon? Will an affair break us apart?Will banks come knocking at our door, threatening to take our home? Will we lose our passion for life?

I know it may sound pessimistic, but sometimes, I think of marriage as both a celebration and a condemnation. I believe that it will bring me happiness and a sense of fulfillment. But I also believe that by attaching myself to another human being and his family, I am bound for a lifetime of more pain. I will have to witness people suffer and feel their sorrows. If a child of mine becomes the victim of illness or violence, I will have to watch him/her endure the trauma, the tedious medical treatments and the long recuperation. If a business fails, I will feel the pressures of making ends meet as Mark and I struggle to get back on foot. If brief moments of jealousy crop up, I will look for something to blame–like those stretch marks and other signs of advancing age and diminishing nubility.

Through good times and in bad : a couple in Barcelona cozies up in a street corner. Photo credits: http://www.sharnoffphotos.com

 

But conflicts can have a resolution. It is something that we have seen in other people’s stories.

The story of the mother who survives Breast cancer.

The tale of a divorced father finding love again.

The adventure of orphaned kids who succesfully make it on their own.

It is something I’ve seen in our own relationship before the engagement. For three years, Mark and I endured stalkers as I went through my own period of anxiety and depression–the darkest years of my twenties. The experience challenged my desire to stay with Mark as he entertained the same thought. Yet both of us saw these trying times as a test of resilience, a willingness to face difficulty together, weather it and come out stronger.

Love and marriage will not always be a fairy tale. We walk down the aisle looking like the king and queen of our own domain but down the road, there will be stumbling blocks. Problems will empty our pockets, weaken our bodies and bring us to tears. However, what is even stronger is how we will deal each challenge when we look it in the eye.

At the end of the wedding vow, the couple says “Till Death Do Us Part.”

We may not live forever, but I still believe that the love that two people have for each other is something that does not got away with the last breath.

It is a story that lives on to inspire others–the next generations of couples, families and their friends. It is retold to help them realize that no matter how cruel their world may be, a happy ending is still possible. Happy endings may not mirror the grandeur of fairy tales, but it all about real-life endurance and resilience, optimism and hope amidst dark times.

And that is the moral of the story.

– Punky

***

Anne Hathaway (Kym) snuggles up to her sister, Rachel and her new husband.

 

As an aside, I highly recommend Rachel Getting Married, which is probably the best wedding-themed movie in my book so far. While it’s not necessarily centered on the preparations for the wedding depicted in the film, it’s a great story about the troubles that can plague a family and break it apart and how compassion and forgiveness can bring them back together.

Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 7:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chapter 3: Fetishizing the White Dress

It sounds like the biggest cliche but most brides are assumed to have been dreaming about their wedding gowns since they were little girls.

Images of spritely 5-year olds in cream baby-doll dresses, carrying flowers haphazardly plucked from someone’s garden, come to mind.

This got me thinking, what kind of wedding dress did I dream of when I was younger; but I can’t remember if I ever had reveries of tulle and lace at that age.

However, I do have stronger memories of dreaming about the perfect prom dress. My excitement–and major anxiety– over picking one was heightened even more by the fact that my date was my high school crush. I ended up with a sweet number that would go on to become one of my favorite wardrobe pieces of all time: a sheer, white Betsey Johnson lace dress with lavender embroidery. It was knee-length and it had puff sleeves–a departure from the floor-sweeping, jewel-toned gowns that most girls wore. I had my hair styled in an updo, adorned with lots of funky butterfly clips, a trend back in the 90s. I barely had make-up too–just a little gold gloss and shell pink eyeshadow–which put me in pale contrast against the contoured faces of my schoolmates. While I never scored a kiss from my date, I still felt like a princess. 

Little girls can indulge in their bridal dreams by playing with this Barbie Doll, which comes with a light-up engagement ring that they can actually wear.

 

Between my high school prom and today, I’ve gotten over-excited so many times about getting dressed for parties and special occasions, mainly because I’ve always been so drawn to fashion. Before reaching 10, I was weaned over a steady diet of my mom’s Vogue magazines and was so inspired by it that I drew my own fictitious magazines on many a notebook. 

With such an obsession over clothes, it seems obvious that I would kill to impress people with my choice of a bridal gown. But the idea of a wild frenzy over one dress seems like such a conventional matter that a part of me wants to veer away from it; to pretend that I’m not that crazy about a gown–but I am. 

I believe this stems from my own fascination with the wedding dress. It has a reputation for being the most important piece that a woman will ever wear. It is the stuff that little girls’ dreams are made of. 

Or is it? 

Over the past year, I’ve been browsing through a slew of bridal magazines and it’s usually because I want to look at wedding wear. I’ve seen so many magazines that I can tell the brand and the season certain dresses were featured in; like the sweet pea tulle gown by Vera Wang  from her Fantasy Bride collection (also known as Spring/Summer 2009)  or the strapless mini with the giant bow from Amsale’s Little White Dress collection. The fact is, over 50% of these magazines are saturated with print ads of bridal fashion brands, which over time, discourages you from buying more of these publications.

The white dress is placed on such a high pedestal because firstly, it will be worn by the center of the attention, the bride. While a wedding is supposed to be about the couple, it is a feminized event. The use of the word “bridal” alone to describe anything wedding-related is an obvious testimony to this, not to mention the way brides (and mothers-in-law) tend to be on top of all the decision-making because it’s supposedly “girl stuff.”  Though it is  a celebration of two people tying the knot, it tends to be treated as the woman’s day, of her being given away to a man in marriage. Now that seems unfair to the groom (it’s his day too, right?) but we live in a culture that has turned marriage into the domain of the fairer sex.

White stands for purity and virginity. The low neckline and exposed cleavage stands for an unabashed sexuality. Finally, the single red rose becomes a phallic symbol cradled in the hands of the skimpily-dressed bride.

 

Secondly, the wedding gown, with all the hoopla that accompanies it, is very profitable. Prices can go extremely high, which means big bucks for suppliers who want to offer their top-of-the line Swarovski-studded, Chantilly lace numbers to customers with through-the-roof budgets. The value of a single outfit can cost as much as the party itself, especially if the gown in question is a $15,000 ballgown by Badgley Mischka or the £100,000 Marchesa, custom-made for British WAG (wives and girlfriends of high-profile football players), Coleen McLoughlin. To that point, a gown, just like an Hermes Birkin, tends to be treated as a status symbol. Whenever a celebrity gets engaged, one of the first things the tabloid media scrutinizes is the choice of wedding dress designer, apart from the 4-karat diamond platinum ring, crafted by the Neil Lanes and Cartiers of the world.

The white dress arrives with so much fanfare, so much anticipation. It is welcomed to the tune of “Here Comes the Bride” which makes the groom look like a supporting actor in the show. 

All this makes me wonder, is the wedding gown taking too much attention from the true spirit of marriage as a symbol of community, of two families becoming bound to each other? Or is it merely a fashion fetish that has enamored women for as long as weddings have been taking place?

The Bride wore Purple: During her wedding to then-husband Marilyn Manson, Dita Von Teese opted for a unique, eye-catching.dress.

 

I would like our wedding to be more focused on the two of us–figuratively and literally, because I am truly uncomfortable about walking down the aisle. As maid of honor at the wedding of an older brother, I speed-walked  the red carpet, all eyes on my seat at the front row of the church. Relatives found it strange and funny. But, at the same time, having a fetish for fashion myself, I want a dress that will make a unique statement, a standout piece that veers away from a traditional and simple strapless sheath. How do I marry my desire to balance the attention on both me and Mark, without drawing away too much because of a frilly dress?

By contrast to these concerns, I wonder, maybe I worry too much or am even a little too arrogant about having all eyes on me. After all, we want our party to be all about warmth and community, about enjoying great conversations with every guest, getting to know your new family members, losing yourself to the music, indulging in good food and endless glasses of red wine. No dress costing hundreds in thousands of pesos should top that.

So, I thought of the following solutions for creating the right balance of attention on me and Mark, rather than on a white dress alone. 

Walking down the aisle together. This is an ideal situation. A girl may dream of being given away on her big day, by contrast to my terror at the mere thought of it.  Moreover, I am uncomfortable with the fact that historically, this custom originally symbolized the father’s giving away of his daughter, as payment to a family he owes money to. Since this is all about both the groom and the bride, Mark and I would like to march together. I believe that walking down the aisle together represents our decision to take on the responsibility and challenges of life as a wedded couple; that taking a walk down marriage lane is a road that we must brave together, At this point, it is a plan that both our parents are not aware of and I’m honestly not sure about how they would react to it. Hopefully, our parents will support our decision.  

Playing an alternative to “Here Comes the Bride.” Instead of hearing “all dressed in white,” guests will be treated to a personal composition by Mark. The guitar piece was created sometime in 2009 and we decided to use it instead of that ubiquitous tune that places too much emphasis on one-half of the union.

Ditching the Veil and Train. The veil also has a grim background. It was used to cover the bride-as-payment’s face so that her recipient would have no choice but to take her even if she wasn’t good-looking. I understand that nowadays, the veil functions more as an aesthetic piece that spells the difference between a white dress and a wedding dress, but by opting to go without one, I can make the gown a little less showy. The same goes for the train. Although my reason is more practical. I tend to go to the comfort room a lot, so I don’t want a 5-foot piece of cloth getting in the way. 

Princess Diana's wedding dress came with bells and whistles fashioned out of taffeta and a 25-foot train.

 

Allowing the Bridesmaids to Shine. The tradition of dressing up the entourage in the same outfit as the bride was originally believed to trick evil spirits targeting the couple. Although, modern bridesmaids now wear frocks with a common theme and color palette instead of a replica of the bride’s, it reminds me too much of using different shaped cookie cutters on the same dough. Because I believe the bridesmaid’s dress must be a reflection of her own style and taste, I’d like to shop for an off the rack sheath for each one of them and making the mix more interesting by throwing in some prints with the solids. 

Matchmaking: Bridesmaids are usually draped in the same outfit.

 

I do look forward to the dress that I’ll eventually wear when I get hitched. I know that it will be another big fashion mission for me but whether I decide on a rare, vintage find or an out-of-the-box creation, one thing is for sure: the white dress may command attention but the real centerpiece of the wedding is the couple

– Punky