Two of my closest friends have explicitly stated their desires to not remain in the country. This should not have been a surprise to me anymore.

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***

One of them is a good friend from high school. In our juvenile years, I’d always figured she was rich but she was so incredibly simple and humble that what she owned – or what her family owned – had never affected her values. She deeply cared about people – always joining outreach programs and the like, thought a lot of things were cute – seemingly naïve but maybe she just had that wide-eyed wander I might have lost during my angst-ridden years, she was pretty but never arrogantly flaunted it, and she liked Slam Dunk. What was there not to love?

Apparently my knowledge of her and our high school friendship didn’t develop juxtaposed each other. After some years apart, we met again and distance had apparently taken some toll.

She dreamt of being a diplomat, to dabble in the foreign or social affairs of the country, and took up a course in that field in De La Salle College of Saint Benilde. I, on the other hand, wanted to study in the most prestigious university in the country consciously ignoring the general anti-government sentiments of its people. The younger me simply wanted to get quality education, survey what’s out there for me, vicariously be in what most people label as the microcosm of the country. I just wanted to be in UP, “I won’t change,” I had told koibito-san. In less than four years, I practically learned to build my newfound life around the “always try to be the devil’s advocate” attitude and the “your religious background has oppressed you” thoughts I got from the university. (Both, possibly, just misconceptions of my college self, amplifying the angst of adolescence.)  I got a good education, saw a lot of things I never thought was out there, lived in a small republic, and changed.

Under the writing program of the university, I thought I could create fiction that was set wherever and involved different versions of me, but instead the university taught me to write about the country. What is Filipino? What makes this a uniquely Filipino story? Angels in Philippine fiction is ridiculous. What makes this publishable for the Filipino market? Most of the time, people told me the errors of my work, grammatical lapses, plot holes, and generally bad ideas for stories. But I stayed and tried to complete my studies and earn a degree from what my high school persona believed was the most prestigious university in the country. I endured. And I felt that it was all worth it.

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Meanwhile, when my friend graduated, she sought work immediately. She was employed by a local government agency, got underpaid, and set off for Singapore without much burden and hesitation (I assume). Then, her boyfriend was a Filipino seaman and I imagined – or did she tell me this as a truth? – they met somewhere abroad for a date. They had been childhood friends and I thought they were going to last forever. We exchanged very few messages from Manila to Singapore and vice versa, mostly containing questions of when was she coming back to the country, and some about her breakup with her then boyfriend. Eventually, I kept seeing pictures of her with a chinky-eyed guy.

After almost three years, she came back to Manila and we met again. She said she was heading off to Mindoro, her hometown, to do some outreach program for children. I smiled. “Are you staying in Singapore longer?” Holding her nephew’s hand and evading my gaze, she said, “I don’t like it here.” I questioned her about life abroad and if she was planning to be a permanent citizen of Singapore. She admitted that the people there complained too much, that she didn’t want to learn their language, and that she would rather live in Australia permanently than Singapore. Her monthly salary was equivalent to my earnings for 1.5 years. In my mind, she’s already a millionaire after just a year’s worth of work abroad.

It made me question what was I doing with my life. Or at least, life here.

***

Koibito-san, my partner, has also admitted giving up on the country several times. He has told me of the many absurd decisions the country has made to protect secrets and pride like the potential energy the country could get from the nuclear power plant built from Marcos’ time that the administration won’t touch just ‘cause. He’s an engineering graduate from Don Bosco whose technical skills would pass the board exam with flying colors but lacks the training and proficiency to write his ideas down in a proper scientific paper. I think he’s brilliant, but the 2013 local Mechanical Engineering board exam didn’t think so.

“So what do you think about the cheating incident in the last ME board exam?”

It happened recently and it has happened before as well, he told me. Leakage and money in exchange for a locally issued mechanical engineering license are common ways to pass the board. “Abroad, you receive training and referral from your employer to become a licensed engineer. I think that’s more accurate if not practical.”

***

What am I doing here?

“If I go abroad, come with me,” he prompted.

I feel like I’m going to decline this question many times. Still.

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***

It has possibly been a year since my friend from college came back from California. When we graduated from the university, he went with his family to the States. He worked there and surprised us when he came back to the country. He had told us before that he really would come back here to study and take a Master’s degree in UP, so we shouldn’t have been surprised. He had said he has earned enough to send himself to graduate school. With the amount he gave, I figured – according to my mind’s calculation – that, like my friend who works in Singapore, he also came back to the country a millionaire after just a year. But he didn’t get a round trip ticket from and to California. He had quit his job there to study here.

There must be something in the State University that makes people want to stay in the country. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. But we haven’t given up.

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