How should a person be?

After three months of being away, I’m going back to Manila at the end of the week. I’d say something about real life as opposed to the vacation, but I don’t even know what it is I do for a living anymore. I don’t have a job to come home to and my stuff is still in boxes at my dad’s house. I predict a nervous breakdown.

But I’m also enrolling in my final semester for graduate school. The thing about G school is it came as part of a package. When I was interviewed for a teaching post at the University of the Philippines, they asked what it was that I found most attractive about the job, given the massive pay cut, the brutal politics, and the inevitable delays in promotions, all of which just flew over my head, because my answer was “10 library books that I get to keep for a month.”

“Well,” one of my future co-workers began, “It’s more like 5 from our library and 3 from everywhere else,” but to hell with the particulars. I was too thrilled by the idea of getting paid to read shit. I was in love with the opportunity to work at a school.

All my life, I’d been set up for a strange relationship with education. While I had good relationships with my teachers, I just didn’t feel it was that important to impress them and often let my bloated ego and sense of self-importance get in the way. This is both a blessing and a curse of people who go to small schools: there just aren’t enough of you to go around for one thing, and it was easy to see what happened to the bad ones – which was absolutely nothing. No matter how much you sucked at everything, no one–especially not your teachers–was going to give up on you.

I knew it was wrong, but I was quick to exploit that fact by only working hard where it counted. To me. Early on, I refused to spend any extra time on things that I felt were pointless or just plain unworthy of my already very scant attention. It wasn’t even ADD, it was the “Fuck Everything” rule; and it would bite me in the ass over and over again in college, when I would only exert the bare minimum for shit that I deemed unworthy of my energy – like Algebra or Statistics or the 9 units of Engineering courses, aka the slow death of my dream to work in the fashion industry because of the soul-crushing definition of the very word “industry”.

I can’t remember when I really started writing. I guess I just consistently did it all throughout, first as an outlet then as a job. No other job has better taught me to prioritize myself, and while this explains the stereotype of writers as neurotic and narcissistic introverts, it doesn’t give enough credit to the fact that living in your head full-time means checking yourself for a living. Plus, aside from the cost of doing research (or “research”), it is way cheaper than painting. While it wasn’t a conscious decision, it has remained something I’m proud of being able to do, because nothing else in my life has granted me the kind of flexibility that allows me to stay calm when faced with a clean slate, or a blank page if you want to be cheesy about it.

It’s not really a blank page though when the only thing you’re both returning to and taking with you into the next chapter is a proposal for your MA thesis. If there’s one thing I’m sure of when it comes to working in cultural production or development (aside from learning to be wary of its well-intentioned but no less evil agenda) is that there is and always will be work to do. It won’t always be the same as finding employment though.

So back to this thing about teaching: the only way I could afford a Master’s degree (or rather a MA that I could call the shots on) was if I taught. My boss actually didn’t approve of the course I’d chosen, she thought I should take something that could better be applied to the industry aspect of Clothing Technology, like a MS in Technology Management. I just wanted to learn something new, without venturing too far from familiar territory, hence the MA in Museum Studies.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be a curator. I don’t know if that’s a title I will want to hold on to. I don’t even know if I still want to have a specific title, even if it means making myself easier to introduce at parties. I just want to finish what I started. I don’t even know if I’m returning to real life, because this long vacation was very much and will always be a part of my reality.

My friend Marie texted me one day about her friend Bia filming a documentary about twenty-somethings, asking if I was available for an interview. One of the questions was “As a child, what did you want to be when you grow up?”

I never know anymore how to answer these questions, but the simplest way would be to go back to my more vivid recollections of when it was first asked. When I was six, I wrote “artist” to answer one of those surveys that kids are given in grade school. My mom had a lot of materials and plates leftover from her college days, and I had gotten used to the smell of oil paint and pastel dust on everything. I thought “What do you want to be?” was really just a question of what you wanted to do based on what you were good at and enjoyed. I was running with the logic of familiarity rather than practicality. I could only enjoy things I was exposed to, and thankfully I was inundated with a lot of very good things.

I changed my answer to astronaut in that same homeroom period because my classmate saw my paper and decided he wanted to do the same thing. Maybe I was just being nasty, but it felt good to be able to change my mind and commit to it, knowing I still had the luxury of changing it again. Or just doing both.

Having these choices is a luxury though, and after years of chasing a career, or convincing myself I actually wanted one, I’m learning to milk the gift of living from one adventure to the next. There are real risks involved, especially when the adventures include hip-checking women on quad skates, but what I was most afraid of was not being to say I defied the stereotype of people who say they want to be artists as children, and settled into a fulfilling and promising academic career. I was afraid of having to say that I didn’t “have it all figured out” or that I wasn’t ready to settle down and probably never will be. There’s just so much work to do.

3 thoughts on “How should a person be?

  1. Hey, Alice! Is the title…a reference to/loosely based on the Sheila Heti novel of the same name from two years ago? Have you read it? Or “wala lang” siya? Heh heh. Belated happy birthday, by the way!

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