‘Utang na loob’

By: Vincent Racoma - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | January 30,2022 - 09:01 AM

Due to the current surge, the start of our limited face-to-face classes has been postponed once more. This simply means that I will be staying here in the province with my family for a few more weeks. I will undoubtedly miss them once I return to Manila for my studies.

At the age of 23, I am expected to contribute to our household’s financial demands. However, during my senior year of college, almost everyone in my degree program applied for medical school. And I succumbed to peer pressure as a 20-year-old student unsure of what to do with his life. I also had the option of taking a gap year working first and earning some money to aid me with my education, but I chose to attend medical school immediately after graduating from college. Apart from my desire to serve my countrymen and the peer pressure, it has always been my parents’ ambition to have a son that will end his name with the initials M.D. I took on the challenge to realize that dream.

I am fortunate to come from a family that cultivates open conversations. We had the opportunity to enjoy one after our lunch last Sunday. My brother talked about parents treating their children as their investments and retirement plans. I admire his courage in opening the topic. I honestly believe my brother brought it up because he sees it in our parents in some manner, and I must admit, I also feel the same way. The decision to pursue medicine has automatically made me the most academically expensive son. In “utang na loob” culture, this equates to a higher expected return of investment. A big part of studying medicine is the emotional and mental struggle with self-doubts and insecurities. In my case, hearing my parents say “wala ka namang ambag” brings me to that same place of questioning my decision to pursue this route.

Two days later while I was preparing to run some errands, my mother started to cry in front of me. It was awkward. I wanted to get out of there right away, put the drama behind me, and go on with my plans for the day. I paused for a bit as she began to express her emotions.

My parents have become my best friends since the start of the pandemic. Staying at home has taught me to appreciate the slow-paced life. However, part of it is accepting and learning to cope with the sadness that comes with realizing and watching my parents grow older. It is one of those inevitable things in life, anyway. Two years into this pandemic, I have learned that they value my acts of service such as making new delicacies for them like japchae and giving them back massages at night. Every time I spend meaningful time with them, they appreciate it.

So, I stayed longer and canceled my plans. My mother expressed her sadness with what we talked about last Sunday. She felt my brother’s allusion to them. I listened. She did not intend to invalidate our feelings; she only wanted to clarify that they do not really expect much from us. She said that their greatest achievement would be seeing their children succeed in life. Just like every parent’s desire, they only want to see us accomplish our goals and dreams. I then had to reevaluate my assumptions.

“Pagtanaw ng utang na loob” seems like an elephant in the room. I am glad that we were able to confront it, thanks to my older brother’s courage and my mother’s vulnerability. I have been imagining putting my personal goals and ambitions aside in the future just to provide for my parents upon finishing school. I have been wallowing in self-pity that I would fail to meet their expectations, especially given the reality that first-generation doctors do not earn much in the early years of general practice. However, that embarrassing moment with my mother humbled me. First and foremost, no one compelled me to take this path; I am here out of my own free will. My parents want me to realize and accept that I am not obligated to give them a lavish life or, at the very least, to lift them out of the lower-middle income bracket.

Oh, yes, I am looking forward to that day that I can finally give back to (or spoil?) them. I will do it because I know that I am not unwilling, not because I am being forced to. For today, I just need to go to the market and pick up some ingredients for my version of japchae, my mother’s newfound comfort food. The postponement of classes may provide more chances to savor the present with them.

* * *

Vincent Racoma, 23, is a third-year medical student at the UP College of Medicine.

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