Gawad Kalinga

UniPro Presents "Education For All In the Philippines"


There is a vicious cycle of poverty plaguing the Philippines, and education (or lack thereof) is considered to be one of its main drivers. In an effort to explore this idea and promote dialogue, UniPro hosted an event titled “ Education For All In the Philippines,” which featured representatives of organizations doing their part to end the cycle. Panelists included Cherrie Atilano from Gawad Kalinga, Jay Jaboneta from The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, Jerry Topitzer from Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK), and Paul Grimsland from Hope for Change International.

The night began with a brief overview on the current state of education in the Philippines: an already alarming rate of students not going to school was worsened even more by the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan, which displaced thousands of people and diminished schools. Before the panel discussion commenced, the audience was reminded that “education is a basic human right,” according to UNESCO. This set the tone for the dialogue and it became clear that this wasn’t going to be just like any other forum about education; it was going to be so much more.


Young children in the Philippines are trapped in a box of illiteracy - the same exact box that their parents and grandparents were born into. The solution, it seems, is to literally think outside the box, and as the panelists expounded on the work of their organizations, the common thread emerged: they were not necessarily the ones providing the education, but instead they were providing the access to education.

Education is very much alive in the Philippines. It exists. There are nursery rhymes to be sung, math problems to be solved, and essays to be written. There are teachers. There are students. The real problem, however, is that education is not physically accessible to every single child.

In reality, “Bueller...? Bueller...?” was “Boyet...? Buboy...? Not because Boyet and Buboy wanted to play hooky and sing in a street parade in awesome 80s clothing, but because the Boyets and the Buboys had to work to put food on their table that night; because they couldn’t afford textbooks and notebooks; because they had to swim across the river to get to the nearest school; because they lived in a community that did not even have a school.

All these root causes are what ARK, Hope for Change International, The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, and Gawad Kalinga are tackling in order to rewrite the script. Granted, simply providing physical access to education will not solve the overarching issue of poverty, but it is certainly a start.

The true challenge to tackling poverty lies in the intangible concepts required to actually keep children in school: building confidence, establishing self-esteem, developing accountability, inspiring them to dream, and perhaps the hardest one of them all -- getting each one of them to believe that there is actually a way out of the boxes they have been trapped in and that they are in control of their destiny. These are all concepts that need to embraced today in order to truly move the needle on the issue of poverty when tomorrow comes.


In his closing keynote, Jay Jaboneta shared his reason for starting The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation.

“You always hear stories of kids skipping school to go swimming, but here we had kids who go swimming to go to school.”

Today the organization is the vehicle (both literally and figuratively) for thousands of children being given the chance to go to school in the Philippines. Things won’t change overnight, but through the efforts of Jay Jaboneta and his counterparts in other organizations, the provision of access to education for “some” will someday lead to education for “all.”


About Gawad Kalinga


‘Gawad Kalinga,' translated in English means to 'give care,' is a Philippine-based movement that aims to end poverty by first restoring the dignity of the poor. GK began with a simple desire to give care and leave no one behind, and our mission is to end poverty for 5 million families by 2024. We do this by employing an integrated and holistic approach to empowerment with values-formation and leadership development at its core.

About Hope for Change International

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Hope For Change is a non-profit humanitarian organization dedicated to eradicating the effects of hunger, illiteracy, and disease ravishing impoverished communities throughout the world. We believe the time is now for an unprecedented humanitarian initiative, pairing communities in East Africa, the Philippines and Indo-Asia who need aid with individuals who can supply aid. Those who receive aid will have their lives transformed from despair to hope. And those who provide aid will experience the transforming power of giving and the enduring satisfaction of having fostered HOPE FOR CHANGE.

About Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK)


ARK is focused on improving education and health of school age children (pre-K, elementary and high school) living in impoverished rural communities in developing countries. By focusing on education and collaborating with an empowered community, we hope to provide the critical tools that will enable every child to dream, carve new paths, seize new opportunities and create a promising future devoid of poverty.  We strive for 100% literacy; drive rural investment and economic vitality; cherish traditions; keep community and family members together; and give farmers, fisherfolks, store owners and other rural residents a chance to lift themselves out of subsistence with dignity and pride.

About The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation


The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation was formerly referred to as the Philippine Funds for Little Kids. The Philippine Funds for Little Kids started as a national movement to help children who used to swim to school in the mangrove village of Layag-Layag, Zamboanga City. The idea behind it is to pool our own individual little funds to help these children get to school safe and dry. We are more popularly known as the Yellow Boat Project. Initially, we thought we would just give them the yellow school boats but by now we've since move on to helping support them through provision of other school supplies, medical/dental missions to their communities, scholarships and even through livelihood programs.

Photo credits: Jorelie Anne Photographyyellowboat.tumblr, Knights of Columbus, Hope for Change, Advancement for Rural Kids and Smart


Balikbayan Bayanis: Brian Morales


In my travels, I've been lucky to run into fellow Pilipinos born and/or raised overseas who return to the nation of their heritage in hopes of contributing positively towards various causes. In this series, I hope to give the spotlight to these amazing balikbayans. We are well into Bayani Challenge 2013. I’m taking one of my many breaks during the build. As I attempt to cope with the humidity and try to finish the syrupy sweet concoction that makes up a bottle of Sting energy drink, my eyes slowly lock on to Captain Canada. He’s once again with Alvin and John Vincent, children of kapitbahayan, the beneficiaries of Gawad Kalinga (GK) homes. The duo enjoyed Captain Canada’s company to the point where it seemed like they were inseparable throughout a good portion of the day. I couldn’t help but let my imagination run loose and picture that -- despite the likes of a language barrier -- how much of an impact he was making to those two, just as they would make an impact for him.

I’ve been participating in the Bayani Challenge (BC) for four years and this was the first time that I worked alongside a team from Canada. The team itself was led by Brian Morales, an airport ramp agent residing in Calgary and the man behind the super-heroic nickname. While Brian endlessly advocated in getting as many Fil-Can GK advocates to join him, the team itself was small but was nonetheless impressive: to be able to encourage a handful of his friends to dedicate at least a week of their time and resources to trek as far away as childhood home of Montreal and join us in this build is something enviable. Who knows how much larger our team would be if all of us managed to have successfully done the same!

As recently as a couple years ago, the Philippines was a distant land for Brian, himself having visited just twice in his twenty eight years. That soon changed, thanks to a three-pronged encounter that started with a visit six years ago and inspired him to bring that distant land closer to his heart. His first encounter was in a benefit concert for Gawad Kalinga, where he was reminded of his nieces and nephews as he watched a video of kids from a GK village. He left the concert with a resolve to bring a brighter future just he and those close to him have been given. The second event was on a Cebu Pacific flight into the country as he picked up a seat-back copy of the inflight magazine. It had an article on the biodiversity of the Philippines and how it was being tragically lost in the name of progress. The final piece that completed the trifecta occurred during that same trip, where he witnessed the Pilipino hospitality and family bond that his relatives shared with him despite two decades of separation. By then he was determined to return more often and to make every visit one where he would a difference.

On a grand scale, Brian is a supporter of the objectives that Gawad Kalinga has set for the year 2014, especially the goal of lifting five million families from poverty. It certainly is an ambitious target but he is a believer. Through his interactions with Amir Billones, the gentleman whom he owes a lot of his involvement in, and Tony Meloto, the founder of Gawad Kalinga, Brian has passionately advocated the GK mission throughout Canada. On a more personal level, he’s encouraging fellow Fil-Cans and Fil-Ams on the awareness on the fragile conditions of natural beauty in the PI.

Whenever he can, he’s busy doing just that. He’s constantly looking for Fil-Cans and fellow overseas Pilipinos to join him at the annual Bayani Challenge. The event has now been extended for a span of two months (a major upgrade from the Holy Week stint that we’re normally accustomed to and provides flexibility for participants) in which we can spend a few days working together with teams representing diverse backgrounds and in locations across the nation with an emphasis on the typhoon-hit regions. He also encourages individuals to visit a hub of several socially conscious enterprises in Bulacan known as the Enchanted Farm, a place whose members have left him with confidence that poverty in the Philippines can be eliminated.

His last piece of advice? No matter what cause you’re in:

“... Share the stories. Take the photos. Use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr what have you... you'll be surprised at the reach that you will provide that can contribute to the good in this world. Tell the stories!”

He is truly a man that walks the walk. On our last day at the Bayani Challenge build site, I noticed the final encounter Brian had with Alvin and John Vincent. This time he had two inspirational books to give them, each with a note scribbled on the inner cover. He hopes that one day, both boys will pick up these books, look at the notes, and will be inspired even more.

As I type this, I’m sure Brian is out there in the Albertan winter towing a Boeing 767 out of its gate. As those CF6 engines roar to life and kick up some snow, he’s wearing those noise protection headsets… but under them are a pair of ears who are eager to hear the stories of those contributing to the good in this world.

Being Thankful: Witnessing typhoon relief operations during Thanksgiving


It was something that I was torn with for days after Yolanda: Should I reschedule my trip to Johannesburg, and instead, return to the Philippines, or stick with the original plans? Reason #2 of HowStuffWorks' "Ten Worst Things to Donate After a Disaster" echoed deeply. I reminded myself that I didn't have any skills, and that it would be wiser to use the money I'd spend on airfare and give it to a non-profit (with skilled workers and volunteers already in place, who are much more familiar with the situation on the ground). My parents hail from the parts of Iloilo province that weren't greatly affected by Yolanda, so there was no substantial reason for me to check up on them. But then I received a message from my mother a week after the typhoon. My lola had passed away. At this point I had no choice. Mom needed me to be in Miag-ao for the funeral. And so I returned to the Philippines. While I was primarily there to attend the funeral, I did spend a couple days shadowing the Iloilo chapter of Gawad Kalinga. I was introduced to Merveen Ortega, the brother of a friend and fellow GK advocate. When we first met just a couple hours after I touched down, it turned out that GK Iloilo didn't have any relief operations planned for the weekend. So, I spent much of the day discussing long-term plans in the reconstruction effort, as well as touring around several GK villages and meeting kapitbahayan - the beneficiaries of the homes.

As we hopped from one site to another, I noticed Kuya Merveen's cell phone was constantly ringing. There were requests for relief packs from five barangays in the far-flung municipalities that took the brunt of the damage in the province. Following up the request was a coincidental call from his companions from the neighboring island at GK Negros Occidental; they had assembled relief packs that were available for distribution. I was finally going to witness where donations go and get a glimpse of an another overlooked part of the Visayas affected by the typhoon.

We departed from the staging area at the GK Peco village, trekked to urban Iloilo City, then on to municipalities whose names I've heard my parents discuss with other Fil-Ams hailing from the same province - names like Leganes, Barotac Nuevo, Anilao, Banate, and Barotac Viejo. One thing that was unique about witnessing the aftermath of the typhoon in Iloilo province is that you saw it gradually in the scenery. Slowly you'd notice that the trees that provided the lush greenery were starting to taper with tree branches holding less leaves, then you'd noticed forests of trees who were bare of anything green, and finally, seeing those trees uprooted, or toppled over homes.

Much of the highway had since been cleared for traffic, but the scars were quite visible. Remnants of power and telephone lines were hanging. There were houses without roofs. There were children along the road, with their arms out in hope of receiving relief from passersby. But one thing that struck me even more was a van that we passed. A family had pulled over and were conducting their own relief operations by distributing goods to residents of a barangay by the highway.

A common sight along the highways: children reaching their hands out for help.

After passing soldiers from the Canadian Force's Disaster Action Response Team (DART)  and tackling downed telephone lines in dirt roads, we arrived at our first stop: barangay Odiongan of the municipality of San Dionisio. The barangay itself is in the east coast of the province, and was one of the first in Panay island to be struck by Yolanda. Once we pulled up to the barangay square, I knew that witnessing the damage from storm surge would be hard to avoid. Wreckage, clothing, and trash littered the coastline.

The coastline where Iloilo province first met Haiyan.

The distribution of goods was done in cooperation with the barangay captains, who were each armed with a checklist to ensure that all families received a relief pack. Children surrounded the square, and several tried to make their way to me and my camera. Some would approach me and giggle whenever they heard my American English, which is something I was accustomed to due to past trips. Admittedly, laughter was comforting to hear this time around. One thing that was sincerely inspiring was to see how many of the residents were in relatively good spirits. I saw this even more as we proceeded to other barangays.


Once the distribution in Odiongan was complete, we crossed into the neighboring Batad where we met with councilman Ernesto Balida, who guided us as we distributed relief goods at four barangays within the municipality. We passed homes with white camping tents alongside them, probably distributed by the Canadian Forces or one of several NGOs. The locations of barangays that requested relief packs seemed relatively distant from the highway, and required a fair amount of time traversing through more dirt roads and downed lines. One of them was Alapasco, a remote barangay deep within the mountains that sat next to a reservoir of the same name.

Taking a break while surveying the remaining foliage around Alapasco Reservoir.

Alapasco was the epitome of a village that could easily be forgotten in the initial rush of relief distribution. Getting there required us to leave our supply truck, and transfer packs earmarked for that barangay into a smaller truck that was otherwise used as an open-air ambulance to transport patients from these distant quarters of Batad. The trees that covered the mountains leading to and surrounding Alapasco were no more, leaving behind a barren terrain of fallen limbs and bare branches.

It was in Alapasco that a quote from Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, seemed to resonate with me:

"We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."

Throughout the trip, the cynic in me was prepared to see the worst of humanity, but instead I saw the best of it. We often hear of the likes of Pilipino hospitality, but I never knew of its resilience before this trip. The residents of the barangays that we helped seemed to have a justification to succumb to despair, and seek self-loathing; instead, they greeted us with the sort of friendliness that puzzled even US Marines when they participated in relief operations for Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) a few years ago.

The trademark resilience of the Pilipino smile, courtesy of the residents of Barangay Bulak Sur, Batad, Iloilo province.

I made it back in Miag-ao in time for my lola's funeral. With little time to mourn and reminisce, I walked into the room where her casket rested and greeted Lola with the same backpack that I lugged around during the relief operations, just hours prior. But after weeks of running to fundraisers across Oahu, catching up with classes, and then finding out of my lola's passing, it finally hit me: I had just spent Thanksgiving weekend in the Philippines.

Distributing the last batch at Batad Viejo. (Photo courtesy of Merveen Ortega)

My family hasn't celebrated this particular holiday since my brother's passing, and I've since used the extended weekend to travel to some far-off land. If anything, I certainly am thankful for the ability to travel as much as I can. But hearing of the things that we should be thankful for while saying grace before digging into that Thanksgiving dinner—things like the warm, fresh food we have, the roof over our heads, our good health—never echoed so much until I tagged along with GK Iloilo during this relief operation.

Witnessing situations such as how organized and patient the residents of affected the barangays were, while they waited until we distributed relief goods, really placed things in perspective for me. Meanwhile, images of Black Friday shoppers flooding stores back home played in the back of my mind. My experiences witnessing this relief operation really did bring being thankful to a whole different level, a level that I wouldn't have imagined from the comforts of indulging in a turkey dinner.


Walang Iwanan: A decade of growing up with Gawad Kalinga

Tito Tony with a GK community. October 5, 2013 marked the first decade of existence for a non-profit that I grew to become involved in over the years. Just a month later, that same non-profit is on the move again in providing relief efforts in Typhoon Haiyan, showing much it has evolved beyond the perception in its younger years that it just builds homes for the homeless. Indeed, these past ten years have been quite an experience for this organization that has not only built homes, but have also provided so many programs for those that otherwise couldn’t afford to have. And as they implement their latest example of Operation Walang Iwanan amidst their 10th anniversary, I want to reflect on the experiences with this non-profit that aims for a better nation.

We've witnessed it whenever we visit the Philippines: the disparity between the haves and have-nots that can be seen from the towering condos and slums within a stone's throw away from each other to the children begging for change after exiting an air-conditioned mall. Originally, visits to the Philippines as a teen seemed more like literal guilt-trips for me. It certainly was a reminder of how lucky I am to have the comfortable lifestyle I have  back in the US, but it also brought upon something else: an urge to do more in combating the likes of poverty. But where do I go to help out? What do I do? What CAN I do?

I first heard of GK back in 2004 from my endless browsing of the SkyscraperCity Philippines forums. The discussion board itself became more than just a place to chat about buildings but about Philippine-related issues ranging from the economy to Pilipino literature. One thread was about a group in the Philippines that started off as an outreach program for a Couples for Christ, Catholic lay group, and eventually grew to become a large anti-poverty effort led by Tony Meloto, fondly known by many of us as Tito Tony. And honestly, it took me a while to correctly pronounce "Gawad Kalinga" (Tagalog for "to give care"... you should see me try to pronounce "Gawad Kalasugan", the community healthcare arm).

A lot of folks remember at the time remembered them as a Habitat for Humanity-esque program as donors could help provide a house for a homeless family for as low as $1,200. However as I dug through the thread, I began noticing that they provided so much more than just homes: community, youth development, food self-sufficiency, environmental awareness within those communities that they built. In a nutshell, it looked like they were in it for the long run! They didn’t provide just roofs over their recipients but also a chance at a life beyond poverty.

And as much as I wanted to help out more, the mobility of a fourteen year old combined with supportive but busy parents proved it to be hard to participate in events. It took me a couple more years before I participated in my first ever group fundraiser, which, out of all places, was during my study abroad experience in Japan! I ended up dancing the Maglalatik in a dinner fundraiser hosted by Tita Susan, where the proceeds would go to GK. I never did get involved with the Pilipino clubs in my early years of high school in the US but I still couldn’t escape the rite of passage of having to do at least one Pilipino dance as a teen.

Returning to the US, I would make an effort to attend the GK’s summits up and down California and would donate here and there, but I never did become more involved. That all changed during a fateful encounter that occurred in a snowstorm that shut down roads between LA and my hometown. The only way to get in and out was by train and that ended up being as packed as a Tokyo subway. As uncomfortable as it was, I somehow ended up sandwiched next to a Fil-Am family who turned out to be GK advocates. Through that bit of coincidence, I ended up being linked to Ate Josie, who was coordinating an awareness event at UCLA. And through that I ran into Jonathan, an advocate from Chicago. A few weeks later, I ended up tagging along with him to Zamboanga, and what an experience that was!

Each year, GK hosts a five day event called the Bayani Challenge where teams from all walks of life and all around the world come together to a GK site and build homes alongside interacting with beneficiary families, working with local groups, and create relationships with fellow compassionate souls. While admittedly it would’ve been more efficient to have just donated the money that would’ve otherwise been spent on the airfare, the ability to be on the ground ourselves and see the results of our donated dollars was rewarding in its own right. It helped remind us of why we advocate, and that GK goes beyond just building homes, figuratively and literally. I was eager to join the first one in 2006 as a response to the mudslide that struck in Southern Leyte. Unfortunately though, solo visits to the Philippines were a no-go for my family back then. It took me three more years until I could finally set foot on a BC build site.

I first attended the Bayani Challenge with students and alumni from Ateneo de Manila then eventually with GK USA’s own team and the experiences I had in those builds were nothing short of memorable. The sort of teamwork seen and is something that still resonates. I always remember folks ranging from little kids to Marines jumping in to create a human chain in bringing cement to a totally different team’s house. And let's not forget the other international teams we've worked with. I'd have friendly jabs with our Pilipino-Australian friends from Team Southern Cross a couple times while in our most recent BC we had back-up from our Pil-Can buddies! Admittedly though there are trying times as well as I’ve had my fair share which is then further exacerbated by the tropical climes that would have both tempers and temperatures rise as the days go by.

The hardest was in 2010, when I was with the Ateneo team in Palawan. I had lost my brother just a few months before and was still admittedly a grieving mess. I was in no position to emotionally be there yet I committed to it, and with much difficulty. However, the patience and kindheartedness of my teammates stood out despite my constant outbursts. I believe I held the group back, but they didn’t make it seem that way. Instead, they took time to help me out. Looking back, the same kindheartedness I received while on the ground on that specific BC is a constant reminder how much more compassion I can share as an individual, that I can do more in helping comfort others beyond just an “I’m sorry,” and a reminder of how simple things, ranging from a simple greeting to taking time to touch base, can help make or break someone’s day.

But what's most touching is meeting the people that benefit from all this. A few days after attending Bayani Challenge 2011 at Bantayan Island (which ended up being in the crosshairs of Haiayan's path a couple years later), I joined Team GK USA in visiting the Hope Village at Bagong Silang, Caloocan City. Bagong Silang is home to the largest slum in the Philippines, and happens to be the location of the first ever home built by what was to eventually evolve into GK. There, we met a gentleman by the name of Raffy Saberonio who was the president of the homeowner association, and the tour guide of the Hope Village and the slum butting alongside it. On one side we saw the makeshift homes, while on the other side the bright colored GK homes; truly the epitome of night and day. He himself has been waiting 14 years for a permanent home, after being relocated by the government. I can't forget the tears he shared, but how thankful he was to have us visit a place that progress seemed to forget--until GK came in. As what teammate Frederick Aguinaldo commented after the visit:

"It is one thing to hear the background of Bagong Silang, it is a totally different experience when actually visiting  ground zero."

And as I see GK utilize their resources once again in disaster response via Operation Walang Iwanan (no one left behind), I'm reminded of the legacy they've made in the past decade and the people that made it possible. The tens of thousands of volunteers worldwide, the generous donors, the celebrities that put their reputation behind this cause, all united under one goal: bringing millions out of poverty. Unfortunately there will always be challenges to reaching that milestone, with the most recent reminder being Typhoon Haiyan. Yet GK's efforts seem to be the embodiment of the Japanese adage "fall down seven times, stand up eight." We see it through the actions of their immediate response via Operation Walang Iwanan, and long term by the planning going on towards providing housing for those displaced.

Indeed my experience with watching GK grow this past decade has been exciting and has me looking forward to what's to come in the next ten years with hopefully more fellow Fil-Ams joining us in events such as the Bayani Challenge, Bayani Tour, and many other programs!

If you want to become more involved in GK's efforts, check out the GK USA website for more info!

Photo credit: Gawad Kalinga

Fil-Am in Japan: Experiencing a Identity Crisis while Lost in Translation

Hanami (flower viewing): best part of a Japanese spring!

We might've come across this at least in one point in our lives, you know, that crossroads of "Am I Pilipino or American?" Now imagine throwing a third element at that crossroads something like, say... living abroad where The Namesake meets Lost in Translation? Heaven knows that there are fellow Fil-Ams who can relate: interestingly enough, I became more aware of UniPro thanks to our editor's entry about experiences with her Fil-Am identity as she taught in northwestern Thailand. Reading Ryann's bit had me recall a pivotal event in my life: my senior year of high school in Japan.

In a nutshell, I chose to make the most out of my final year of high school by choosing study abroad. While my parents would've loved to have me study in the Philippines, I wanted to go outside familiarity and to be able to experience a different country, culture, and lifestyle that wasn't completely related to my ethnicity nor my nationality. And so I spent senior year at Hokkaido International School (HIS) in Sapporo. And it was within a few weeks into my time at HIS came that particular revelation from a Pinay friend and classmate, when she gave me a certain revelation:

"You're not Filipino."

While I've struggled with this identity crisis before, I've never had it so bluntly laid out in front of me that night, more so in Japan and not in the US or in the Philippines as what Ryan Songalia experienced! I vividly remember the confusion I had as I walked down the cold winter streets of Sapporo in tears, the Kanji of the signs that I passed seemed just as incomprehensible as the emotions and thoughts I had. Until then I thought I embraced my heritage, I believed that I could proudly call myself a Pilipino. However, I didn't realize it immediately that night but I eventually grew to appreciate such an epiphany.

During the weekends, I would hang out with Pilipino friends who were scholars in the graduate programs at Hokkaido University or Hokudai for short. Admittedly, it was a challenge at times when they would speak in Tagalog but it allowed me to immerse myself in a language that I typically would only hear whenever TFC was on at home or at Fil-Am potlucks. One of my Hokudai kuyas used to joke that when I returned home from Japan, I'd be more fluent in Tagalog than Japanese! Alongside picking up some Tagalog, I learned of terms that I wasn't typically exposed to in my sheltered life in suburban Southern California, words ranging from Japayuki to TNT.

During my experience I watched the scholars create Hokkaido Association of Filipino Students (HAFS) with the first meeting coinciding with the birthday party they hosted for me and fellow scholars. Can't forget enjoying apritada and birthday cake while using chopsticks! I remember how we'd have informal initiations where the newcomer has to do at least one song at the karaoke bar. I managed to hold out until my final weeks where I ended up giving a rendition of With or Without You. But one thing I loved about those karaoke trips was that some bars actually had Filipino songs! I began missing my vain attempt at Bono when I disgraced Carol Banawa's Iingatan Ka. And alongside HAFS, I grew acquainted with some engineers who worked with local technology firms and Pilipina housewives who joined their Japanese husbands in Hokkaido.

The most prominent of the housewives was Tita Susan, a wonderful lady whose goal was to bring a more positive image of the local Pilipino community; that image was one that went beyond the stereotypes of young Pilipinas working in bars and clubs with some entering prostitution. It's certainly a tough image to shake off (I'll never forget a Japanese friend joking about having me bring back a stripper when I come back from my spring break trip to the Philippines) but Tita Susan would do her best to help fight such stereotypes. She would always lend a hand in coordinating Pilipino cultural events, link Pilipinos across across the island through the Samahang Pilipino ng Hokkaido organization, and even offer her home for us to practice folk dance which we'd then perform in local festivals. Looking back, my first ever physical involvement with Gawad Kalinga was through a fundraiser that Tita Susan where I ended up strapping myself with coconuts to dance the Maglalatik!

As I grew more involved with the Pilipino community of Sapporo, I realized that there was more than just my lack of fluency in Tagalog that had me lost in translation. Admittedly one of my favorite examples was the idea of "courting" in relationships seems to be a hot topic of debate as I watch Fil-Am friends and family go at it on every other trip back to Iloilo!  Bit by bit, the revelation that my Pilipina friend at HIS started to make more sense. I mentioned that I started to appreciate it--not in the sense that I was glad to not be identified as a Filipino but instead as someone who has benefited from living through two different sets of perspectives and values.

And I can't help emphasize that out of all places and times that I would come to appreciate this outlook, it was during the study abroad experience in Japan. This experience helped me realize that my identity was further magnified by how I was perceived not by just Pilipinos or Americans, but instead by the local Japanese and my friends and classmates. They comprised of 30+ nationalities at HIS, and many could relate with identity crises as Third Culture Kids or as haafu, children of Japanese and international blood but aren't considered by local society as Japanese at all, due to their diverse heritage in a ethnically homogenous society.

Involvement with the Hokkaido Association of Filipino Students.

Hokkaido International School's Class of 2006.

For the longest time I thought Mister Donut was just a Filipino thing!

Philippine Independence Day celebrations hosted by Samahang Pilipino ng Hokkaido.

Sapporo's Odori Park,

A couple years ago, David Casuco shared an eloquent solution to his college-bound son's own experience with the Fil-Am identity crisis:

"Imagine a person who is a beneficiary of two great cultures. If he is smart enough to pick the best of both worlds, it is definitely a great thing."

I feel that my time in Sapporo allowed me to more strongly draw from both worlds, while being exposed to a third foreign one. My experiences there helped me appreciate more of how much I've taken for granted as a Fil-Am, and how such tight-knit Filipino communities overseas go beyond just potlucks. It certainly was an experience that has helped me in being more content with my disposition. And through that, I want to emphasize to fellow Fil-Ams to interact with the local overseas Pilipino communities when going abroad. Who knows, maybe alongside learning the identities that make up the overseas Pilipino communities that you might find something that helps shape your own.