At the end of April, 2011, I interviewed Tweet Sering, author of Astigirl: A Grown Girl Living on her Own Terms. The word astig (meaning “confident” or “go-getting”) is a colloquial Tagalog term coined from tigas, meaning “tough,” “resolute,” “having a moral backbone.” Astigirl is an elegantly written, thoughtful, often funny memoir which grew out of Tweet’s blog. She is also the author of a novel, Wander Girl, a weekly columnist for the Philippine Star, a writing coach/teacher and a filmmaker. She is currently working on another book and two websites, (Link) and (link).
Among the topics in Astigirl are Tweet’s relationship to her writing, the break-up of her only codependent romantic relationship and her decision, when she was in her thirties, to move back to her parents’ house temporarily—paradoxically allowing her to be more independent. Her sense of herself as an individual was central in all of these. I began the interview by mentioning the film The Dead Poets Society as a teaching tool. I had used it in Korea to teach my students about individualism, and Tweet is using it in Manila for her journal writing class.
I don’t think individualism begins and ends with the individual. If that’s all it is, then you’re only doing something for yourself. When you do what you love, it begins with you so it can overflow to others, so you can actually contribute more effectively wherever you are.
The Filipino culture I grew up in teaches us that everything you do is for your family. I call it the Sacrificial Lamb Syndrome. You take a particular course in college—information technology or nursing—even if you have no inclination or even inherent talent for it, because it’s going to get you a job when you graduate. Then you can go abroad to work and send dollars back to your family. That sort of thinking is not just for the very poor. It’s actually very middle-class. When you move up, the increased status is for your family. So really, you have no boundaries whatsoever. It’s as if you were created for the group and whatever gifts you were born with can just fly out the window. Instead of really being able to contribute by bringing what you have to the table, you’re a robot. I found it very troubling because the books and movies that resonated with me and the people I gravitated toward were the complete opposite. There I found a much more joyful, much more meaningful life. So I wanted to explore that.
The Philippines is very Westernized in the sense of exposure to American pop culture. My friends and I grew up watching Sesame Street. We speak American slang. It’s Hollywood, right? English is a second language here. Our laws are written in English. A lot of people aspire to go to the States. Every family has a Balikbayan member [expat Filipino], and they work mostly in the U.S., but they’re also all over the world now. On the surface it’s Western, but it’s not Western in the sense of cultivating strong individuals.
The Philippines was once described as a nation with a Latin soul and a California accent. My friends and I agreed, but I decided later that the writer must have been exposed only to middle-class Filipinos. People in the lower classes do have Latin souls. They can break into dance and song, they can be incredibly expressive and emotional, but their English is not the language you learn in school. [It’s something of a mixed language.] I grew up in the provinces—in Surigao, which is at the northern tip of Mindanao. We spoke English at home. I thought it was what my classmates spoke, but when I was maybe eleven years old it dawned on me that it was different. When I was thirteen, my family moved to Manila, where I went to a private school and most of my classmates spoke the kind of English I did.
I went through different kinds of transformations: as a daughter, as a writer, and as an individual. I had an idea of how I wanted to live. When I failed or when I felt things I didn’t want to feel, I learned to look inward instead of trying to fix things on the outside. The outside involved other people, and I didn’t have control over them. It felt so much saner and healthier to look at fixing myself, which I had learned to do at an early age. I’m kind of prayerful—and grateful to my parents for that. They’re very Catholic, so we were told to ask God for whatever we wanted.
I’m the eldest granddaughter, and I daresay I was the favorite. I always felt my family’s protection and love. They all had dreams for me and set notions about how I was going to be. For a while it was nice to see myself through their eyes. But when I started making choices that felt real to me and that I was happy with, I couldn’t understand why they weren’t happy for me. For example, my choices of boyfriends made sense to me and my friends. My family would say, “Oh, why him?” There was always a reason, but it felt as if no one would ever be good enough.
I always felt pulled in different directions, toward the person I was choosing to be with and toward my parents—when I say “my parents,” that means my aunts and my uncles because they are all so tied together. So I could be with the family but not bring my boyfriend or be with my boyfriend but not go to the reunion. I was in my thirties before I finally put my foot down and said, “No, we will have one birthday celebration.” Before that there were two, one on my birthday with the family and another, secondary one afterwards with my friends. I was trying to make everybody happy. I didn’t want to go on like that, so I said, “No, we’re either going to have one celebration, here in my apartment, or nothing.” My friends and my boyfriend were there. They’re very cooperative. My mom showed up, but my dad didn’t.
When I decided to quit my job in advertising, my parents didn’t understand giving up a stable career. Afterwards I was freelancing, trying to be a writer, and I’d get comments like, “Hey, why don’t you apply at this airline?” or “Why don’t you take the law aptitude exam? You can still be a lawyer.” At thirty! I guess it’s natural for parents to worry. At the time I wasn’t making much money, and writing seemed like a hobby to them. “Yes, but you can work at the airline company and write on the side.” “Really? You want to try that and see if it works?” It used to hurt me so much that they didn’t think my work was real. So instead of just trying to do my own thing I was always trying to prove them wrong, and I think that was causing me so much stress. I decided to stop trying to get them behind me. I’d go my way and if I looked behind me and they were there, wonderful. If they weren’t, that was fine too.
Another thing was that I’d wanted to be a parent since I was in my twenties, but the nearer I got to thirty, the clearer it was that it wasn’t happening. Of course at the times when I thought I was pregnant I would panic. I wasn’t stable financially, or even emotionally, because I felt I wasn’t seeing results from all my hard work. It could barely sustain myself. I had to take on other jobs to support my writing and filmmaking. So I doubted that I could be a good mom. Again, this developed over the course of several years. I decided I would really feel prepared when I was completely okay with my family. Otherwise I would just keep dragging this unresolved shit around with me at forty.
I had thought the fear of being a mom was just financial, but when I was worried about being pregnant I’d have nightmares imagining how my parents would treat my kid. Would I be able to protect my child from their expectations? Or bring my kid up the way I’d have liked to have been brought up, really supported all the way? There came a point when I couldn’t see blaming my parents anymore. If I wanted to be a grownup, I should be able to see my parents not just as parents, but as people.
I thought maybe I didn’t feel grownup because I skipped my teens. I was always the responsible one. I got good grades. I was never in trouble. When they told me I couldn’t have a boyfriend until I was eighteen, I agreed and kept my part of the deal. I graduated on time. I did all the right things. I tried to be a good soldier so I could leave. Then I spent my thirties running away, not knowing I was being held back by a tight leash.
I kept saying I that I just really needed time [to write] and somebody to take care of me, to be my mom, to be my dad, or just to cook for me so that I didn’t feel so stressed and so alone and disconnected in my apartment. I was living alone and working alone. I didn’t live in New York, but I knew how it felt to die alone in a New York apartment with only the cat to smell you. Why did that feel so real to me? I thought, okay, my writing is so solitary. Maybe I should surround myself with people. I should be in a community again. So I moved back with my parents, temporarily.
I wanted to go back there on my own terms, which meant living by their rules instead of trying to argue my way out of them. “Okay, yes, I’m moving back to your house, I respect that this is your house, and this room is not really my room, it’s the room that you are so generously lending to me, and thank you for doing this for me.” I tried to have an attitude of gratitude, not entitlement. When my mom said, “Oh, no, don’t use this plate.” — “Okay, sure.” I followed their rules, and not grudgingly, because that’s how I would want anyone to behave in my house. No matter what someone’s relationship was to me, I would want them to respect my place. It felt right.
At that time I was writing my blog, and then I was made a columnist for the Philippine Star. By then I had things to write about on a regular basis. I had dreamed of having my own column, but I knew it would only come when I knew what to say. Every week I had a different way of saying something or approaching it, so I could hammer the thing out. I think I found what I was looking for.
Some time before I moved back to my parents’ house, I was in a relationship that really scared me. All my previous boyfriends had been old friends. We would be hanging out, and one of us would say, “How come we aren’t together?” “Yeah? Maybe we should be.” But this person seemed to have come out of nowhere. I’m probably giving her too much credit, but around the time I ran into my former boss, and she asked if I was seeing someone. I said, “Yeah, I met this guy, but I think it will be years before we’ll be together.” “Why?” “Because I want us to be really good friends first. That’s my requirement. Friendship is very important to me.” She said, “Funny. I never pegged you as a safe player.”
Then I asked myself if I had been playing it safe. Could that be why I wasn’t making progress in my writing career? I decided my feelings for this person were real. It wasn’t some kind of test. So I decided to give it everything I had. I lived with him for eight months. I was really unhappy, and I felt suffocated. I thought maybe I just needed my own room. That wasn’t enough distance. So I said, “I need to start paying my own rent again and not relying on you because I feel like your fricking wife.” Left at home, lonely, sad, nobody to talk to. When he came home I’d be like this panting little dog, eager for attention. It was so pathetic, so uncool. He came from all these exciting things, and I was feeling apart from myself. When he had an idea at 3:00, he’d wake me up, all excited, and I’d say, “Oh, that’s so wonderful, honey.” Groggy and all. He was like a kid. Maybe I became his mother.
I was afraid of ending up a cliché: the wife that you cheat on, the wife who looks well preserved but is dying inside, who is soul-less already and really taking the blows. He had all these habits that were so different from what I thought my ideal was. So it was one disappointment after the other. My heart kept breaking. The ground had given way under my feet. If he remembered me that day and was sweet and attentive, I was happy. If he was away being his workaholic self, I was miserable. It was very sobering to see myself as just like the women I had severely judged in the past. I never thought I had the qualities of someone like that, but I do. I just have to keep them in check.
Oh, yes, there are a lot of men who cheat in this culture—but not just here. It’s a macho country. I didn’t want to be the kind of woman who would just accept it. So I guess my real issue was with my gender. It felt like I was always looking for role models because most of what I saw alarmed me. I guess I needed to be friends with my boyfriends so they wouldn’t treat me as “the girlfriend,” but see me as a person. Men cheat on their wives, on their girlfriends, on all these women they have labels for. With my friends I was an equal. We told each other everything. We were mutually respectful. With them I hadn’t worried about cheating. But with this particular guy, I was so scared. Because I thought, what is this? Am I the prize? Am I the catch? I think it becomes easy to think of that person as an acquisition, and then you can do whatever you want with it.
The misery accumulates. There are all those moments when you’re brushing your teeth, crying without knowing why. Or you’re washing your underwear. One Sunday I was brisk-walking around the oval at UP [University of the Philippines] with tears streaming down my face, thinking, When will this end? When will I find the clarity and the strength to leave? I kept praying for it.
It really came to a head when I saw that the things I really loved about him were the things I wished he would change. I thought, Hmm, I don’t think that’s his fault anymore. I think he’s just really being himself. Maybe I should stop focusing on him and trying to mold him into something to my liking. So that’s what I did. I put this space between us in order to work on myself, and it got better. Instead of seeing his flaws, I again saw everything l loved. But that didn’t mean that I had to be around him. I had outgrown the relationship. My parents’ house was some distance away from his, and it made the break-up easier. I haven’t seen him since February, 2008. There’s no bitterness and no blame. It’s so freeing. I feel so grateful.