A Starter Life: My time in Manila

2017, Manila- I had eleven boxes when I first moved into my space. It was a room in an old duplex. Spacious, with wooden floors, tall windows, and a balcony overlooking one of the main arteries of the village.

Life in the neighbourhood

The village itself was a hub for food and entertainment, close to universities. My street was lined up with restaurants, an independent cinema, bookstores, and cafes.

There were only four of us, each to a room with two shared bathrooms. I didn’t interact much with my housemates, everyone had different schedules. We were polite with each other but never went beyond the small chitchat, I preferred it that way. Work culture in the Philippines could be invasive, I wanted my home life to be as peaceful as I could have it.

What I loved about the house I lived in was the people it housed- from painters to filmmakers and producers. I thought of it as my cocoon as well. My brother once remarked that my room looked like that of a struggling artist before they made it big. I held on to that. And in that space, I tried to blossom.

I also loved my landlady, she did gardening, made her own cheese, studied beekeeping, and cocoa farming, and did Zumba on Sundays. When I was struggling with my few remaining plants, she invited me to visit the park in our city to shop for plants and go Zumba dancing. I did decline the offer at the time, it felt too much like I had succumbed to the neighborhood auntie lifestyle.

She was also environmentally conscious and introduced me to recycling my plastics, and placing them in bottle containers. We’d fill up the bottles with all our used plastic packaging, and these would be picked up by an organization that used them to make houses. My landlady had two dogs and a cat. I was the only tenant the dogs warmed up to. Probably because I always made time to greet and pet them every day.

Most of my friends lived in the village or surrounding neighbourhoods. We would go to a run-of-the-mill jazz bar where musicians played freely. We watched plays, made short films, and staged gigs.

Some of my favourite memories include doing archery at our friend’s front yard at 2 am, learning how to pick locks, and peeling ripe mangoes that had fallen on the ground. We would have tattoo parties until 4 in the morning. When I had gotten too busy at work, I would drop by their pop-up flea market to touch base.

Working as a creative

I loved the first few months of my starter life. I was working as a digital content producer. I enjoyed the work I was doing, it was something I was familiar with, and had enough creative freedom. But reality came tumbling down a few months later.

My take-home pay could only cover my rent, utilities, transportation, and groceries. There was not enough to spare for emergencies or savings. One time I ripped my jeans and realized I could not even afford a new pair. I’d have to wait on my second paycheck.

On top of that, we were experiencing increased workloads with the departure of my senior, a position that was very crucial in brand strategy. I started to feel the stress pile up, my mental space slowly being eaten up by the anxieties at work. The demands were increasing but we had outdated equipment and less manpower. And when you’re unappreciated you start to feel that it’s on you, that you’re not enough. The life I was building was becoming less and less ideal.

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Escaping the madness of urban living

The weekends became a crucial part of my recovery. I slowly carved out what my weekends would look like.

I immediately enrolled in an art class after I received my bi-annual bonus. I took art classes in the basement of an art museum every Saturday morning. I would then have lunch with my aunt at noon and walk my cousin’s dog in the mid-afternoon, sometimes with my nephew tagging along.

After the afternoon excursion, I would come home to rest and clean up, maybe have dinner with a friend or two. In the late evening, I would then spend an hour at the gym.

On Sundays, I would wake up late and make myself a meal. I usually take two or three hours to cook because this is when I take my time making things from scratch. I’ve made dumplings, a failed Hainanese chicken, and other soups from vegetables I’ve pureed. I also do the groceries and catch up on the laundry.

Moving away, closer to uncertainty

A year has gone by since I moved in. I have slowly been going through my things- de-cluttering and disposing of items I don’t need.

For some time I only had one wish, that I could have a place of my own to house my books and shoes. The wishes soon grew, a place where I could house a dog I wanted to adopt so badly, a washing machine, an oven, and an updated bathroom.

To the outside world, there were bigger goals to attain – a car, a marriage, a house, and lovely kids. My progress was painfully slow but having these little attainable wishes made life so much more fun and exciting! At best, my direction in life became clearer. I knew the lifestyle I wanted, what I was looking for in a workplace, and what my career trajectory would be.

In that house, I felt a myriad of emotions – optimism, confidence, self-doubt, crippling anxiety, and hopelessness.

While I toiled in the garden or made tomato soup, I started figuring out what I wanted out of life. And so in my little house, I cultivated my starter life. I decided to resign from my work, go back to Canada for the holidays, and earn enough money to support myself for a few months while I worked on my thesis film. I planned for the next six months but at the same time giving enough room to ride the waves and roll with the punches.

After all, my original plan was to work in a broadcast station and that didn’t pan out.

My plans and dreams evolved, and I only realized recently that there was nothing wrong with that.

For the new year, I know I’ll be starting over again. I’m 28 now yet I feel so much more secure even with looming uncertainties.

Maybe this is why I think it’s so important to carve out a space be it a physical or mental one. A space where we can slow down. It’s so much easier to recognize what our inner selves are trying to tell us without the clutter and noise from the outside world.


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