The sun was beaming down on me. The coolness of the wind created a balance with the heat from the sun . It was as perfect of a day as there could be. The Tim Ferris Show podcast was playing from my phone as I was navigating my way through the back roads of Southern New Jersey, with the windows down of course. Samin Nosrat was his guest. She is an accomplished writer, chef, and teacher who has been recognized for her books and shows. The conversation touched on many topics such as her love for food, her early beginnings, her successes, her failures, her transition from a chef into being a writer and then a tv producer, etc. One specific point during their conversation resonated with me. It was early in the talk when Samin alluded to an instagram post she recently saw and expressed her need to share it. It was a quote by Marco Pierre White. I had no idea who this man was. She refered to him as a bad boy, celebrity chef with a tortured soul. Somewhat similar to the recently deceased Anthony Bourdain. Marco is known as one of the most famous chefs in history. The quote on the instagram post read,
“I believe there’s really two species of human beings. The first species is the most common, there’s more of them. They are individuals, who like we all, are born into a certain world and they become a product of that world. They absorb that environment they are born into, they become an extension of it, they become part of it… The rarer species, in my opinion, is the individual who has been damaged as a child. They have suffered misfortune and great tragedy. This doesn’t mean that they are better people, it just means they have suffered… And very few individuals suffer that tragedy. But what happens…is an invisible shell covers you. It protects you, so you don’t absorb the world you’re brought into, you don’t become part of that world… you observe that world”.
– Marco Pierre White
In the pause after she finished reading, I felt something. It felt like somebody ripped the emotion I have been feeling for years out of me, translated it, and molded it into a clear, simple statement that made it easier for others to understand. Flashback memories of my teenage years and early adulthood quickly made me nostalgic. These memories always bring a mix of joy and sadness. Joy because I am grateful to even have these experiences to reminisce on. Many are stupid, immature, and reckless but still fun regardless. Sadness because I know I was not completely myself during those years.
As far back as I can remember, I have seen myself more as an observer to life instead of a participator. I was not aware of it then of course. I was young. After years of deep reflection and analysis, I have realized two factors that contributed to this. First was the way in which I was raised. I was born in Baguio City, Philippines on August 25, 1993. My family and I moved to New Jersey when I was about ten years old. If you could not guess, the Filipino culture is completely different from American culture. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum. American children are raised to express themselves. They are encouraged to form their own opinion, to be outgoing, to be expressive, to be fearless. On the other hand, Filipino children are expected to follow their parent’s beliefs – throughout childhood, the teen years, and even adulthood. We are not taught to form our own opinions. We are taught to only speak when we are spoken to. We are expected to uphold our parent’s images to the highest standards. We were not encouraged to be fearless. We were conditioned to play it safe. Do not take any risks. Follow your parent’s lead – do what they do, say what they say, act the way they act. Do that so you can please your parents and everything will be fine. These societal accepted values combined with a Catholic school, authoritarian educational environment did not provide the social skills necessary to make a seemless adjustment into American society.
Migrating to this new country (the second factor) flipped my world upside down. The feeling of confusion hit me as soon as I stepped off the airplane. I looked around and everything was brand new. The airport floor was so clean and shiny (I landed in the Newark, NJ airport so that is saying a lot). It seemed like there was an unlimited number of food and other items for sale. The bustle of people all around me was intimidating. The fast paced American lifestyle devoured me within twenty minutes of being on U.S. soil. My first day of fourth grade was even worse. How my parents got me to leave their side, walk onto the bus, sit through the ride to school, and make it into the classroom without breaking down into a full-blown panic attack is unexplainable now. I cannot even fathom how I managed to make it through. Lost and scared are the only words that come to mind when I think about my first few days, weeks, and months here. There were times when I would lay in bed late at night, crying because the thought of going to school the next day terrified me. I do need to mention, the feeling of fear was not caused by the other kids at school. Everyone was actually kind to me. They would attempt to include me in activities and conversations. Luckily, language was not a barrier and I was even able to find some kids to hang around with. However, the search for an identity quickly began. It would take numerous years before I could feel comfortable in my own skin.
I have never suffered great tragedy in my life. However, personal experiences caused me to form a protective shell around myself. There were times when a glimpse of my true self would peak out but those were rare occasions. A majority of my adolescent days were spent following the crowd. At the time, it felt like I was doing what I wanted to do but it was not the case. I looked for people who I thought were “cool” and “popular”. I would attach myself to them. Then, infiltrate their friend group, copy the things they were doing, and hope I would be viewed as one of them. Even when I was able to enter their friend group, I would have nothing to offer. There were days when I would be surrounded by other kids and I would struggle to formulate sentences. There were too many instances when I would sit in somebody’s house after school, with friends, and just listen to everyone else’s conversations. In my head, I was having fun because I was just happy to be included. I was the friend who was nice and not too weird….enough to be able to hang around the group.
One specific memory is ingrained in my head. There was a girl who lived down the block from my house. She had long, dark hair and her eyes were ocean blue. Whenever I looked at her lips, I would imagine how they would feel against mine. She was beautiful. But I never took the chance to tell her. I had a friend who was good-looking, intelligent, and well-known around school. There was a streak of months when he would come over my house after school. He would ride his bike over and convince me to go to this girl’s house. The three of us spent those days inside her garage. I would be on my bike while the two of them made out with each other. Yup…..I sat there watching and hanging around until their mouths were too tired to continue. Again, just satisfied to be included.
I often felt like I was never fully present in most of my adolescent days. My body was in the room but my mind was focused on other things. I would observe my friends and others. Taking notes on their mannerisms. Maybe if I say the same joke or laugh the same way, I would also be liked. Maybe I will just hang around here because being part of the group is good enough for me. I was living inside of my head. Too worried to say something that will make people question me. Too concerned about doing something that would cause myself embarrassment. Too scared to fail in front of other people. The anxiousness halted my opinions from leaving the tip of my tongue. If you had asked me to describe my personality, I would have no idea where to begin. My personality and self-image were dependent on the people I was surrounded by. This continued on throughout high school and early parts of college.
Today, I feel comfortable in my own skin. I am confident in myself and in my abilities. No longer scared to sound stupid. No longer too worried about embarrassing myself. Failure? I am still working on that. But I am much much better at letting things go. It took years to get to this point in my life. A lot of self-reflection was needed. Numerous miles have been walked at Island Heights, my favorite place by the water near home. Hours and hours of podcasts and interviews have been listened to (if anyone would like any podcasts recommendations, I got you). Yoga and meditation have immensely improved all aspects of my life. Other than feeling physically great, the inner peace I feel today is undoubtedly a direct effect of my mindfulness practice. I have also surrounded myself with good people. The community I have built helps me feel comfortable. I can be myself around them. It is a constant process to maintain my community. I am always making sure that I spend time and energy with people who are good for me. Always keeping a distance from anybody who does not offer anything to help me become the best version of myself. I would rather be by myself than be with anybody who will jeopardize my inner peace.
Most importantly, I have been kinder to myself. My parents are extremely loving and caring. I cannot be any more grateful for being blessed with them. As a child in the Philippines, their love and affection was overt and direct. Growing up in the U.S., their expression of love and care was shown mostly through indirect ways. Hugs and kisses came by less often. The times I heard “good job” and “I’m proud of you” decreased. Those turned into “make sure you do better”, “why didn’t you get an A?”, or “look at what his son or her daughter is doing”. I did not directly hear “I love you” often at home. It was difficult to adjust to a new lifestyle, while growing up as a teenager, without receiving emotional support at home. But I do not blame my parents. They have worked so hard to provide for me. I did not have everything I wanted but I had everything I needed. My parents worked and did their best to provide. They were busy trying to keep the family afloat. I was too immature to process my emotions and convey exactly what I needed. They are just like me, learning and adjusting as we go through life. However, I became my harshest critic due to the lack of emotional interaction between my parents and I. You could not say anything fucked up about me that I had not already thought about. Those thoughts became beliefs. A monumental amount of pressure was placed on my shoulders. Years later, I no longer carry that pressure at twenty-five years old. I am still my worst critic but I am also my best supporter. I always expect the best out of myself but I have a clear understanding that I am human. I will not be perfect. But I can work to be the best version of myself everyday. If the effort is there, I am happy. My effort is the only thing I can control.
The transition to becoming a participant in life is not easy to say the least. But it is worth the agony, the loneliness, and the time. It allows you to be present in the moment. You do not have to always think about the future. Gratitude for the present enhances every experience you have. Simply feeling the cold breeze brush against your face can provide an extreme amount of joy. It can help you feel at home. There is always going to be another house, another city, another country we can live in. Being a participant opens you up to the environment you are currently in. All of a sudden, there are more places to visit in your town. There are more people to spend quality time with. You suddenly have a few favorite spots you constantly return to. The town you reside in now feels like a true home. It brings more appreciation for life, especially for the smaller things. The things that get lost within the rush of daily life. Being a participant enables you to completely absorb the words you are hearing from the person in front of you. You are better able to be empathetic. With the ability to listen and to understand others, you can have an enlightening conversation without the need to say much at all. The inner peace it brings helps you feel comfortable being your true self. Regardless if you are surrounded by family, friends, or strangers. The fear that you are missing out on something else is not there because you are fully engaged with the world in front of you. The world that is happening right now.
Life is an experience – nothing more and nothing less. We tend to over complicate it. Instead, we just need to participate and live it.
image courtesy of www.instagram.com/__nitch/