It was a one way ticket. I never booked a return flight.
I can still remember when the plane took off from the JFK airport that evening in April 2015. I remember wondering what my life was going to be like when it landed… Where was the Philippines? What did it look like? What would the company be like? Where would I live? When would I go home again?
All these questions loomed over me like a cloud plump with the anticipation of rain. Just a few weeks before, I received a life-changing email from Ballet Manila’s artistic director, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. After sending her my resume and audition video, she offered me a unique opportunity to perform principal and soloist roles on my first year with the company. My gut told me it was the right path to take and exactly where I needed to be on my first year as a professional ballerina. My brain, however, was not so convinced. It was risky, definitely unconventional… I mean, forget comfort zone — this move wasn’t even in my comfort universe!
But there was an undeniable force that led me to just say “yes”!
It wasn’t a “normal” decision. I could have just as well joined a studio company in the United States and be closer to my family. But I was being given a rare opportunity — the chance to perform roles I could never even dream of performing within the next decade, had I taken a more typical route. So I left home for the first time, armed with four suitcases, a promising email, and absolutely no idea what was going to happen next.
If I asked that 18 year-old girl who stepped off the plane in Manila three years ago, if she had ever imagined being where she is today, she would have probably laughed (then cried, because she was always crying, LOL).
I can clearly recall the drive from the airport to the Ballet Manila compound, my new home. I remember seeing so many people on the streets going about their everyday business, children running on the streets without clothes, stray dogs wandering about freely, and honking jeepneys and hordes of motorcycles zooming in and out of traffic. It was a scene I had only ever witnessed in some documentary video or read about in a textbook — safe in the comfort of a classroom somewhere in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. But no. This time, it was REAL. This was actually happening. And I was about to LIVE here! I had no return ticket.
My little self grew up very quickly. During the first few months, I jumped head first into learning pas de deuxs from Don Quixote and Sleeping Beauty, and debuted in the full-length Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, I also had to learn where to buy drinking water and not to walk on the streets alone, especially at night. I learned how to flag down a taxi and where to buy a phone card. I moved into a dorm with five other girls. I learned to do laundry by hand and hang it to dry. I learned how to take a “pedicab” and buy groceries at a local market (no, Katherine, they don’t
have almond butter and yes, you will get food poisoning). Life got really hard, really fast. I struggled and learned most lessons the hard way, like getting lost in unfamiliar streets or being stranded in the rain. I failed and fell and messed up and cried and spent too many lonely Sundays wondering why I even came here in the first place.
Well, I can only answer these questions now in retrospect. I came to Manila because my soul needed to grow. Manila became a cocoon, a nest where I could grow and transform quietly and unapologetically. Where I could shed some skin and rewrite the definition of who I thought I was and who people wanted me to become. It was where I was loved — unconditionally and in all my imperfection — by so many.
Manila is where I was nurtured and cared for ,and taught the most incredible life lessons.
And now, as I prepare to say goodbye to what has become my second home, I would like to share with you the 10 best life lessons I learned from living in the Philippines:
1. Bring your umbrella. I learned this in a literal sense because it is always raining unexpectedly in Manila and forgetting an umbrella in a downpour was not going to be pleasant. There is, however, a deeper meaning to this. Life isn’t always going to be sunny. It could rain when you least expect it but if you remember to bring along the right tools, you can walk through any storm without fear.
2. Prepare for traffic. Have you ever spent two hours in a car only to go one kilometer? Manila traffic is brutal but inevitable. This taught me to let go of problems I couldn’t control. I couldn’t always control how fast or smoothly my life would flow. But I could control my reaction. Patience, young Jedi warrior! There’s was no use fighting the flow of traffic. I took it as a chance to quiet down and sit patiently. There were certain holidays in Manila when traffic was so bad, it was practically impossible to go out. This taught me to “go in.” When life wasn’t moving or I was at a standstill, the first and most powerful thing to do was to journey inward. By going deeper within myself, I became more calm and stable, ready to handle the longer and more intense journeys outside.
3. Learn a new language. I was fortunate enough to immerse myself in the culture of the Filipino people and start picking up little bits of Tagalog, which was commonly spoken in Manila (the country has over 180 languages and dialects!)… It taught me the deep importance of communication and how sometimes, just a change of tone or words can change a whole thought. WORDS HAVE POWER. Especially the words we speak in the quiet of our own mind. I learned to speak a new language both to myself and to others. I learned to choose my words wisely and speak to uplift and spread positivity.
4. Slow wifi Is not bad wifi. Internet connection was something I took for granted in America. It was unfailing, easy, and instantaneous. Manila taught me that sometimes, connections would fail or take hours to load. So just be grateful when things were clear and patient when connection was faulty. I learned to surrender to the unseen forces in life and instead of worrying about problems, simply find creative solutions. Think outside the box.
5. Get lost. I got lost a lot my first year in Manila. Literally and figuratively. Getting lost was the best thing I ever experienced. Not knowing where I was in my life allowed me to do two things: To open my mind and discover something new, and to realize that I had the power to figure out another way home. I was never as lost as I felt I was. I was always exactly where I
was meant to be when I just accepted it. I learned there was no going back when I got lost in a new scary place. I just had to walk forward. This is where fearlessness took charge. No matter how afraid I was, my faith had eventually gotten stronger than my fear of making a wrong move. I learned to trust my gut and act without overthinking.
6. Travel light. I used to overpack on trips, worried that I would need something or forget an important item. There was always a fear of not having the familiar stuff with me. Until I realized it was too much of the familiar that was weighing me down. Manila gave me a chance to lighten my baggage. There were things that I kept around that made me feel safe but in reality, everything I needed to conquer new pathways was already inside me. There was nothing I could carry that I did not already possess within.
7. Be alone, not lonely. Being in a new country with new people and having my family 8,000 miles away, I felt very much alone. I spent a lot of time alone. It was a wise friend and mentor who taught me that “alone” and “lonely” were two very different things. I learned how to spend time with myself, to be comfortable sitting in the silence of my own company. I slowly discovered what I really liked doing and what made me happy without the pressure or influence of society. I learned to become friends with myself. I stopped being lonely when I was alone. I chose to spend time with people whom I considered positive forces and who only added to my happiness. I was whole and I was full. Quiet introspection was the key to discovering who I really was and it taught me integrity — doing the right thing and being your genuine self without the need for approval or affirmation from others.
8. Fall with grace. It was Act 3 of my debut as Kitri in Don Quixote and I was simply walking to the corner during the Grand Pas — when all of a sudden, I was on the floor! My feet just slipped right out from underneath me. Everyone gasped but I stood back up and continued like nothing happened. I finished with gusto and chose not to let that one slip ruin a whole performance. I learned that it was my choice how to respond to slipping and falling, onstage and off. Falling is a gift. Because it teaches the beauty and humility of recognizing your own strength to stand up again. Falling was a reality check for me. I used to base my success on perfection. Now I base my level of success on service. Ballet is not about me. It is bigger than just me. Another precious gift I learned from living in Manila was uncovering my true purpose — to use ballet as an instrument not for serving my own ego, but for serving others. And I decided that pursuing excellence was the best way I could serve others. To bring audiences magic, joy, delight, and inspiration onstage and off. To become my best self. And if that added a little more sunshine to the lives around me, then that is purpose enough.
9. Poverty is a mindset. I learned to see poverty differently in Manila. I learned from the people here that poverty has very little to do with possessions and everything to do with perspective. Manila changed my mind first, and my life followed. I used to judge everything as good and bad, rich and poor, big and small… I used to view people and situations as such, until the day I saw a child take a bath under a gutter in the rain — smiling. He was happy. It was I who was poor for complaining about the weak water pressure in my building. From then on, I smiled differently, I thought differently, I looked at things differently. There was no more judgment of circumstances. There was just the simple choice of the lens I chose to view life from day to day. I chose a lens of gratitude and everything became clearer. I had the experience of performing in big theaters, as well as in non-traditional venues in less privileged communities. One time, I performed an excerpt from Le Corsaire on a basketball court! But there was so much fulfillment as I watched the faces of schoolchildren light up with joy! Many of them have never watched the ballet before. From then on, I never judged an audience or venue as big or small, rich or poor. People were just people — a soul is a soul is a soul, no different from myself. Every audience deserves my best effort. The pursuit of excellence in my art form did not depend on external circumstances. It became a state of mind.
10. Mahal kita. It means “I love you” in Tagalog. Manila taught me how to love — deeply, fully, wholly. I arrived here so scared and anxious about life in general. Taking everything so seriously, so personally. Feeling I had to live to please everyone. To be perfect and meet expectations. But love changed that. Not love in a romantic way, but love in an unconditional way. Love from my mentors and colleagues, from audiences and friends, students, healers, even strangers! It could come in the form of a thoughtful message or words of encouragement, a simple hug, a precious conversation. The people who showed up for me on good days and bad days and all the days in between. Audiences who cheered me on, no matter what. Teachers who believed in me even when I didn’t. Partners who pushed me to achieve what I deemed impossible. Those who encouraged me to be fearless in my pursuit of what I loved. It all boiled down to LOVE. Manila gave me that. A place where I could drop all my labels and just be ME. The most beautiful thing about love is that it is utterly contagious. The love that I received in Manila is now the love I joyfully bring with me into the world.
11. Open your heart to the unexpected! So, yes, there are only supposed to be 10 lessons here, but that was the final lesson Manila taught me. Allow life to surprise you! Break all convention and to live spontaneously! I never expected I would be so in love with a place that caused me so much hardship… But isn’t it funny how life surprises us? When we just take a second to keep our mind open and our heart generous, our destiny might just meet us halfway!