Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

Becoming a man

“It might be serious,” my dad tells us. My parents called a family meeting in their room in the middle of the night because they are trying to figure ...

Dec 5, 2015

Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
“It might be serious,” my dad tells us. My parents called a family meeting in their room in the middle of the night because they are trying to figure out how to share the news with us. All six of us sit around the bed cross-legged, heads down, trying to comprehend the news. “It’s a fairly standard operation,” he continues. “An angiogram checks if there are blockages in the blood vessels. If the doctor detects a blockage, I would immediately undergo surgery.” My dad had put off the doctor’s appointment until a week ago, ironically, to keep working and pay the bills that have caused him so much stress in the first place. “It’s finally time,” he says.

My relationship with my father isn’t perfect. Like most children, there were times when we did not see eye to eye. He was away a lot, pressured to keep working in order to feed our family of six. My mom, too, was a busy woman, her time divided between managing two businesses she started from scratch. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the company of maids, whose turnover in our family was so quick that I barely remember their names. I was clothed and fed and loved, but left virtually to my own devices.
I turned to video games. I played. I played a lot: The Sims, Starcraft, Harvest Moon, Mortal Kombat, Final Fantasy, Dance Dance Revolution, Farmville, Dragonball, Ranch Town, Pokémon, Starcraft, now League of Legends and the occasional Hearthstone match. You name it, I’ve probably played it — except anything beyond the Playstation 2 era, since my family couldn’t afford one until we bought a secondhand unit last year, or horror games.
The videogame revolution was new to my dad, who grew up playing patintero and tumbang preso on Manila’s main streets back when they weren’t congested with cars. At his behest, I took basketball lessons with my brother during the summer to get my limbs moving. I had little interest in spending my afternoons on shooting drills when I knew it was Farmville's springtime harvest and my virtual turnip yield was particularly high. I persisted nonetheless, as children do, in order to make my father proud. However, I quickly felt uneasy on the court. Whenever I shot the ball, my right leg would reflexively kick back and my wrist would flick with a little too much flair for the other 8-year-old boys to tolerate.
They laughed every time I did it, and at first, I didn’t care. In fact, I enjoyed the attention, especially because I scored the baskets. I did care, however, when my dad looked at me with a frown, half-concerned and half-disappointed. “You need to work on your form,” he says. “It’s a little too girly.”
It didn’t end there. I don’t consider myself a victim of bullying, but what I felt growing up was something more pervasive, systemic. It seemed that the whole world was concerned with saving my masculinity. I crossed my legs too much. I tucked hair behind my ears instead of letting it creep inside them. My gesticulations were too expressive. My mom even scolded me once for wiping the sweat off my brow with my fingers because real men apparently wipe their sweat with the back of their hand. I grew up learning that I could only listen to the song "Fergalicious" with a perfunctory, “Meh,” and not with the rhapsodic spelling fest it deserves.
Finding self-authenticity is already a difficult process. Shaping yourself into an authenticity others approve of is worse. I felt so scrutinized at every turn that whenever I returned home, I stayed mostly in bed, afraid of revealing anything. I asked myself, “Why is everything wrong with me? Why the double standard?”
It wasn’t until I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi that I had the freedom to ask these questions. My liberal arts education opened my eyes to the idea that everything is gendered, colonial and problematic — as the rule goes: when in doubt, say it's problematic. That is why I identify strongly with intersectional causes; I witness the same discrimination dressed in different robes. Impoverished people live in a system that further stresses their limited resources, Muslims have to constantly prove that they are decent people who deserve the same level of dignity others enjoy. Perhaps that is why I always choose female characters in video games; I want to prove to the world that holding masculinity and femininity in unequal regard is not the answer. Brute strength alone does not a bountiful turnip yield, after all.
Armed with this newfound intellectualism, I felt prepared to respond to the world’s scrutiny. But I was not prepared to face criticism from those closest to me as well. Don’t get me wrong, I love some RuPaul’s Drag Race and long walks in the park, but that is not all there is to me. Whenever I listen to rap music, wear baggy clothes or spar in the kickboxing studio, my friends comment, “Are you trying to be butch?” The misunderstandings of gender are not limited to a discrimination against femininity. Discrimination against masculinity is problematic, too. These things may be said in jest, but it underscores the fact that we are still trapped in a gendered reality. In order to progress, we have to move beyond acknowledging how the world is indeed gendered, and instead recalibrate the ways in which we ascribe gender to our self-worth. When I procrastinate, sometimes I want to watch Vogue tutorials at, sometimes I want to beat the punching bag into a metaphoric pulp. Is one choice better than the other? No. Exasperating as this elaborate balance may be, a balance on which everyone seems to have an opinion, staying true to myself is the lesser trial.
It took me four years and traveling a thousand miles from home in order to get comfortable in my own skin. It happened one day, in a small Spanish restaurant in Manila, between bites of churros con chocolate with my dad. I accompanied him to the city to take some passport photos, and there was something about the banality of the situation that made the truth easier to express.
Standing up for yourself is so hard. It feels like an insurmountable obstacle, until you say the first few words, and then it isn’t. When I finally found the courage to talk to my dad, I could see his eyes open, too. He wasn’t aware of how all these microaggressions have collapsed onto the walls I built up around me, and it made him very sad. Sharing your honesty with others is a such a simple but liberating act.
I believe that my honesty liberated my dad, too. He is new to these conversations, but I appreciate his effort in meeting me halfway. His response to our conversation is something I will always treasure. His words are distorted by my memory, but positively so: “Being a man is to load all the luggage in the car so that your children don’t have to. It is about having the courage to say I love you without irony. It’s about remembering to hold the hands of elders to your forehead as a sign of respect every time you walk into their homes. If your lolo [grandfather] were here, he would be proud of you, of the man that you have become.”
My dad and I are now very close. He tells me if he’s having a tough day, something that he would never have admitted to me before. He still shakes his head when I tuck my hair behind my ear, but he has learned that I do it because it’s a fabulous expression of my agency, and who wouldn’t want that for their children? Despite my small victory, there is still so much work to be done. I am an able-bodied, cisgender man, and I think about how much harder it is for those who are discriminated against outside these privileged parameters.

My dad called me on Skype in the middle of last Sunday afternoon. “Everything is okay!” he exclaimed. The video resolution may have been grainy, but his smile was wide and certain. The angiogram found no blockages, and he was sent home the following day. He called me from Coco Hut, a popular restaurant in our neighborhood, where he was celebrating with our entire extended family after his hospital visit. They ate lasagne and drank sweet iced tea, and my brother and I scheduled our next League of Legends match. I miss them so dearly.
For me, identity is when my physical, emotional and mental self completely aligns with my values. It means understanding my place in the long line of people who come before me: farmers, poets, teachers, midwives, lawyers willing to sacrifice everything for their families. At the end of the day, what matters are the imprints of compassion we leave in the world for the next generation to inherit. No one really cares if you wipe the sweat off your brow with your fingers or with the back of your hand. As I reflected on these things after Skyping my dad, I went to Studio Y to get a haircut with EJ, the resident stylist. “It’s short for Elton John,” he sang, as he twirled with a wink. “What did my parents expect?”
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