On leaving the islands

June 1987. Sitting on a bamboo bench on the beach in Bauang, I watched the sun begin its slow descent into the South China Sea. A couple of young kids worked on their stumpy sand castle near the surf. Otherwise, the beach was practically deserted now that the school year had begun.

I didn’t plan on having a free hour before sunset. The afternoon sales training session that I was conducting was cut short by a company executive who wanted to confront his agents about their underwhelming sales production. I didn’t have to be a part of that. I was about to leave the company in two months. Instead, I was preoccupied with the challenges of studying in the United States.

A stroll along the beach didn’t alleviate my anxiety. One hundred and sixty miles away from the bustle of daily life in Manila should have given me the space I needed to work things out. With the skyscrapers of the business district looming outside my office window, it was often tough to get a long-term perspective in the big city. By staring off into the horizon by the seashore, I was hoping to get more clarity.

Most emigrants looked toward their destinations with boundless optimism. These rose-colored glasses didn’t exactly fit my outlook. I knew that failure was as likely as success. The company I worked for was in the process of spinning off new businesses that needed young executive talent like me. I was awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Asian Institute of Management. I could expect lucrative offers from the best companies in the country with a graduate degree from there. Was I foolish to give up these privileges?

My eyes drifted down to the dark sands of Bauang, my mind deep in thought. I tried to weave together the reasons for making this move. Staying put limited my horizons within established roles and traditions. I would simply do what my ancestors did before me. Life could be as pleasant as lolling around on a tropical beach. Be a “beach bum”? That thought scared me more than giving it all up. I was the type who broke the mold, not conformed to it.

I was leaving on my own terms. I was going because I wanted to, and not because I had to. And if I failed? “Making mistakes is the privilege of youth,” I reassured myself. But if I succeeded, I would prove to myself that tradition and status did not play a role in it. Adoptive countries are not known for handing these out freely to emigrants.

It was a flimsy rope, these threads of reasons I strung together on that palm-fringed beach. But it held tough for two months and was strong enough to pull me away from the alluring hold of those islands.

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