kwento (n.): a story, a tale, a narrative.
When my friends come to me screaming, "I have kwento!" in the most Taglish accents they can muster, I always feel a jolt of excitement run through me. I approach them, eyes wide, ears open, ready to listen to their story. Whether it's a brief kilig moment with their crush, a rant they need to let out, a deep conversation with a friend or a quick update about their day, I always enjoy hearing what they have to say. No matter what they're itching to tell, the words are etched in their histories, the past gives way to the present, and the stories they share shape a part of who they are.
Everyone has a story to tell, each one unique from any other. Let me tell you mine.
Away but never too far
Unlike most of the other KayaCo fellows, I lived in the land of dried mangoes and colorfully designed vehicles all my life. I had only experienced living away in the past year to go to college abroad, but even so, I always tried to find my way back home. I couldn't detach myself from the unexplainable beauty my country had to offer.
In my motherland, I am able to swim among various creatures in a sea known for its rich marine biodiversity, hop on to the most psychedelic transportation vehicles I've ever set my eyes on, and taste the sweetness of halo-halo, the sourness of sinigang and the savory flavor of adobo all in one meal. I am able to express myself with the words daw, nako, kase, basta, and all the other mysterious expressions from the Filipino language, experience the power of kinship within my strong web of families, set foot on the shores of some of the best beaches in the world and surround myself around individuals I share a part of who I am with.
Being so far away only brought me closer. I started to appreciate all the small things I used to take for granted in my country. But it also allowed me to understand how much more we needed to grow.
In this same country, there are people who call houses made of aluminum sheets their homes, cities that have drowned in stories deep of floodwater, and thousands of homes and shelters lost annually after several devastating typhoons. We have a number of schools lacking resources and facilities for proper teaching, hospitals dazed by a flux of patients, and a government obscured in a mask of corruption. We have mothers with huge potentials but with no way to unlock them, farmers who receive unjust compensation for their hard work, children who aren't able to claim their rights to education, and several other problems that overwhelm the nation.
Uncovering those hidden nooks
I thought that as a scholar from a public high school with faculty, staff and students from all types of socioeconomic backgrounds and a campus, which fronted a village of slum dwellers, I was able to keep my privilege in check. I thought that I already knew what it was like to be a Filipino and understood enough about the people to move forward in effecting change. But just in this past year, I discovered the crevices in my culture and a whole new way of looking at my country. I probably still have more to learn.
KayaCo stepped in at the right time. I knew that I wanted to engage my Filipino community in America, come back to the Philippines, get involved in social work and do something to give back to my country. KayaCo made me more wary of my privilege, helped me realize how much more I had to discover, and paved the way for a deeper understanding of my culture, in many unexpected ways. Ways that sometimes involved my daily commutes.
Realizations on a train
I think my many MRT rides to the internship and fellowship offices served an important purpose. I stood there in my own small and tight space thinking about how I figured out how to ride the transportation system that most of my fellow Filipinos rode everyday only after 19 years of living there. I enjoyed those commutes despite the long waits and the cramped space because it humbled me.
My daily rides did not give me immediate epiphanies about transnational engagement. But it did give me insight about how else I needed to grow. In our fellowship meetings, we learned about human-centered design, the design process in which the end users are given extensive attention throughout each stage. Because of the heavy conversations we had about diaspora engagement and the things we learned from our human-centered design workshops, I was brought a step closer to what it meant to give back to the country that has given everything to me.
Riding the ride
It's no doubt the Philippines has a plethora of troubles beyond the already stressful adventures of the daily commute. Change is needed and change is sought. But what we sometimes fail to realize is that change is not resting on the shoulders of an individual alone and it is not an effort that starts with just the privileged. It starts with the vendors selling taho at the side of the road or the driver of that jeepney you rode on your way to school. It starts with the farmers hard at work in our fields or the fishermen swimming in our seas.
It begins with the communities deep in our culture, the ethnic tribes in our mountain provinces and the people we take for granted who work hard everyday to bring food to their families. It stems from a collaborative effort with the communities that know most about the change they are working towards. Those seeking change must first understand that they must ride the ride themselves before they enact change for those on it.
These stories are woven together to form the foundations for the Philippines' transformation. We approach these people, eyes wide, ears open, ready to listen their stories. Whether it's a moment in the farm, a rant about an angry passenger, their long walk to school, or a tiring day at work, these are stories the global Filipino community must hear out. No matter what they have to say, their words speak strong and clear messages, their perspectives are important for our development, and the stories they share shape a part of what are our country was, is and will become.
Everyone has a story to tell, each one unique from any other. Let them tell you theirs.