Craving Community

At a young age, I was introduced to various customs by my mother, who had immigrated to the mainland of America from the Philippines when she was 20. I learned not to wear shoes inside the house, to refrain from speaking to my elders unless spoken to, and to treat my older siblings with respect. While the rules in our household sometimes felt stricter compared to those of my friends, I cherished the experience of living in an Asian household steeped in rich traditions and strong organization. 

I eagerly anticipated New Year’s celebrations, during which, in accordance with Filipino tradition, my family would visit numerous markets to gather 13 round fruits before January 1. We placed coins on every opening of the house, from windows to doors, symbolizing the welcoming of prosperity in the coming year. Among my most cherished traditions was the regular visit to my Tita’s (aunt’s) house, a gathering point for all my cousins. At my Tita’s, we were treated to a spread of authentic Filipino dishes, and our feasts would stretch for hours as we reconnected with one another while my uncles immersed themselves in sports, and aunts engaged in conversations with constant explosions of laughter. Being one of the youngest, I tended to eat my favorite food, pancit, which my Tita made specifically for me, while playing with my cousin’s dogs and babies. I started to associate pancit, a Filipino noodle dish, with family and a sense of home. 

 During my first visit to the Philippines with my mother at the age of  12, we spent our time in the province of Samar in a municipality called Calbiga. This is where my Lolo (grandpa) lives and where my mother spent much of her childhood. The lifestyle in Calbiga was vastly different from what I was accustomed to. It was a place where it seemed like everyone knew everyone else in town, and if not, they were eager to forge new friendships. In this close-knit community, people felt comfortable knocking on a neighbor’s door when they needed to borrow a cup of flour. If a child wanted to join a game of basketball, they merely headed to the basketball court, where they were welcomed by the other kids. The internet was considered a luxury here, resulting in most people rarely using their phones and in some cases, not even possessing one.

Yet, what left the most lasting impression on me during my stay was the transformation in my mother’s demeanor. In Calbiga, she radiated happiness and a profound sense of belonging. She would wake up early to go on her morning run, encountering numerous people she wanted to converse with, often causing her not to return home until late afternoon. To her, everyone in Calbiga felt like family, and she cherished every moment spent there. There was an absence of jealousy, and the atmosphere was one of genuineness, authenticity, and honesty. Being in an environment that didn’t revolve around materialistic pursuits was truly refreshing for me. 

I had always admired my mother for her selflessness and kindness, and this visit sparked within me a deep yearning for the connection she had with her hometown. While I appreciated my own hometown in California, I couldn’t help but notice the disparity in the sense of community I felt there compared to how she felt in Calbiga. It seemed to me that everywhere else I went in the US, competition was an underlying part of life. In the United States, people constantly chase after the newest clothes or technology. It appears that individuals often base their worth on the items they own and external accomplishments, such as the prestige of their college, rather than valuing their intrinsic qualities and principles. My visit to Calbiga was the first time I experienced a world beyond what I had grown up with. There are places that do not adhere to a 9 to 5 routine and where people’s lives do not solely revolve around work. I realized during my visit that not every location or individual was driven by the pursuit of wealth. Every time I return to Calbiga, my life goals become clearer. I desire to live a life that celebrates human connections.

Throughout my own life, I’ve often been directed toward what to do, what to study, and which career path to pursue. Initially, I believed this made life simpler. My own indecisiveness led me to accept these decisions made on my behalf, as they seemed to ease my confusion and inner turmoil. During middle school and high school, I struggled with the belief that happiness was unattainable, which made me impressionable and desperate. I thought that if others found happiness in specific pursuits, I could achieve happiness by following the same path. Consequently, I chose computer science as my major because my siblings had chosen it and seemed content with their choice, and my parents encouraged me to do the same. I constructed my own happiness checklist based on my family’s decisions: attend a reputable school, major in computer science, and secure a job in software engineering. These steps seemed like a straightforward route to financial stability and as a result, a lifetime of happiness. The concept of a pre-planned method felt more accessible than trying to figure out how to find happiness on my own after failing to do so  throughout middle school and high school. However,  I failed to realize at the time was there truly is no foolproof method. Each individual is unique and I couldn’t uncover my passions by solely relying on the choices of others.  

Over the past year, I’ve found myself struggling to finish my assignments and internship applications, and I came to the realization that I genuinely lack enthusiasm for the path I’ve been pursuing. When I sat down to fill out those applications, a troubling thought crossed my mind: I was inching closer to a goal I had once set for myself, yet I was nowhere closer to achieving happiness. Instead, I felt trapped in this cycle, pushing me further toward achievements I had never personally aspired to. My ultimate goal of achieving happiness remained frustratingly out of reach. I started feeling increasingly disconnected from myself, as I had never ventured away from computer science and the career plan I had made many years ago. It was during a conversation with my brother about his career in software that I reached a moment of clarity. I realized that I did not want the life he was leading, the life I had modeled mine after. I needed to break free from this existing cycle and begin finding happiness.

Following this realization, I started new activities I never considered myself capable of. I started doing dance, yoga, writing, and various forms of art. I ventured away from my initial notion of needing to become a software engineer and began exploring other opportunities within computer science that aligned with my artistic interests. I uncovered paths within computer science I had never originally considered such as product management, technology consulting, and UX/UI design. I fell in love with the uncertainty of life. In art, this was painting with no clear direction. In yoga and dance, it involved experimenting with different forms and styles. In computer science, it was looking at all the possibilities of careers within the field. While trying new things was a promising start, I still find myself struggling to fully embrace a mindset that disregards prior expectations, comparisons, or competition with others. 

Over the summer, on my trip to Prague with my grandma, I found it easier to adopt the mindset I longed for. My grandma’s family is from the Czech Republic and she wanted to show me the roots of my ancestors. When we reached Klatovy, where my great-grandfather had lived, I experienced a familiar feeling, similar to how I felt when I had gone to Calbiga. There was a profound sense of community, with people deeply connected to their town. I realized during this trip that I desired to live in a place with distinct customs and daily traditions, far removed from my current experiences. I dreamed of living outside the United States, a place where I could have a new journey, unburdened by preconceived expectations. My vision was not just to visit briefly or immerse myself temporarily; I aspired to live in a foreign land for several years, allowing me to embrace entirely new perspectives and ways of thinking.  

Before college, I had never considered the possibility of studying abroad. I believed it would hinder my academic growth and take away the chance to build my resume through computer science projects and classes. However, I now find myself brimming with excitement at the prospect of learning in Madrid and exploring a completely unfamiliar area. I made the decision to go for my own personal growth, despite many of my friends staying on campus. For me, studying abroad represents just one step toward my newfound goal centered on developing my passions, reshaping my previous convictions, and embracing a life free of expectations. I aspire to eventually discover a community where I can develop a sense of serenity and happiness similar to what my mother experiences in Calbiga. I hope to spread and build on the traditions I learned from my Tita’s house and cousins. I aim to establish new traditions, allowing me to recreate the sense of belonging I felt at my Tita’s home. I aspire to care for others the way my Tita does, like when she makes pancit specifically to make me feel welcome. Above all, I strive to value myself as I am, embarking on a journey of self-discovery without preconceived notions of who I should be.