personal reflections

Sounds Like

Mine is a visual memory.

Key events, dates, conversations I recollect through outfits worn, accessories chosen. Maybe that’s why I tend to overdress: not to be remembered, but so that looking back I would have something to remember.

A tulle-and-lace ballerina dress, after all, is harder to forget than jeans and a nice top.

My brain, I imagine, is a lot like a photo album, a collection of shapes and colors and patterns, of visual elements, the right combination of which unlocks the corresponding memory.

Max Factor lip gloss, an orange bohemian top, capri jeans, and red paisley headband equals my first high school party, where we had mock-tails at a now-closed resto-bar in Greenbelt and watched the late screening of the film Jumper.

Bad perm, tinted Nivea lip balm, and off-white mini-dress with a green lace-up neckline and puffed sleeves (trimmed with green chiffon ribbon embroidered with white and pink tulle flowers) equals the day I met my now- best friend. It was in Friday Youth Service. I was sketching instead of listening to the sermon. My now-best friend wore a black tank top and bell-bottom jeans.

Blue, long-sleeved shirt and black jeans (second hand), with gold leather ballet flats that were falling apart and stage makeup from Arabian Nights by David Ives equals the night I admitted to that boy from college that I had a crush on him. We sat on the stairs near Telengtan Auditorium. I cried the entire time. He kissed me on the cheek and thanked me and said he was sorry that we could never work out.

(He walked me to my car. In the dark, in front of Li Seng Giap, he grabbed my arm and asked to kiss me on the cheek again. It felt like goodbye. It wasn’t. I would be in love with him for three more years.)

When most people see my mother and I together, they’re always quick to say I look just like her. Never mind that I’m shorter than she is by an inch. Never mind that I’m of stockier, less curvy, more boyish build. Never mind, even, that most of them have never seen my father, or else haven’t seen him long enough to recognize, in my face, his strong, square jaw and slightly menacing smile.

(There is a reason why I use my eyes, not my mouth, to smile.)

Despite all that, most people aren’t wrong: I do resemble my mother, the same way that a married couple tends to resemble each other after years together. We have the same expressions, the same twitch of the mouth and scrunch of the nose. We favour similar styles of hair (except mine is usually a crazy color). We share shoes and clothes and bags.

In short, we’ve been constantly together long enough that we’ve learned to mirror each other. Or, rather, as a daughter, I’ve learned to mirror my mother. And this goes beyond appearances: we share the same workaholism, the same obsessive devotion to our jobs, the same tendency to cram every waking hour with something to do until we inevitably crash and spend a whole day in bed eating junk food.

Even if our personalities appear different at first blush, they are rooted in the same tendencies. I am my mother’s louder, more brightly-colored copy, but in a lot of ways I am still a copy.

Except for one thing.

Mine is a visual memory. Except when it isn’t.

The song Fly Me To The Moon. A loud baritone with a rough rasp. A man shouting. These do not equal specific memories, but they do bring to mind specific years with a specific person.

I remember growing up with my father like a CB radio shifting between stations. He left our house sometime between me being three and four, and I don’t have many visual memories of those years except for what I can reconstruct from photographs. But I remember the sounds of him: his baritone crackling of static from when we would talk on the phone. The edge of irritation in his voice when I would disagree with him. The sound of his roar, which could render me from hyperactive child to deer in headlights.

With age comes visual memory. Now, I remember Dad with Baclaran plaid shirt and blue wool jacket (lunch date), with coral Bench long-line shirt and white peasant skirt (big argument at fifteen; he refused to speak to me for what felt like a year), with different green dresses when things started getting good again (first good Christmas, second good Christmas, college graduation).

But those early memories, through the fog of childhood and repression, are all audio. They don’t exactly trigger anything so much as fill me with a sense of resignation. By now, I am used to them. Because I hear them every day.

I hear them in the sound of my own voice.

One of my friends has a mother who sings. I listened to her on Facebook Live recently.

My friend claims little resemblance to her mother. Most days, I would agree. If you squint, you can see the outlines of the daughter in the face of the mother: the shape of the eyes, the turn of the mouth. But it is nothing like the carbon copy-paste of my mother into me.

My friend admits that she more closely resembles her father. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen her father, but my friend is mostly honest, so I’ll take her at her word.

In music, we learn that there are tones and there are overtones. Tones are the sounds you intend to play, the notes on the sheet music, the clear do re mi fa. Tones you can hear.

Overtones, though, are different. They are the notes under the notes, the ghost of a harmony. You don’t hear overtones so much as feel them, bubbling up the longer a note is held in the air. They’re the reason why some combinations of notes go together and others, instinctively, make you wince and send a shudder up your spine.

You could say that tones make the melody, but overtones make the music.

When my friend’s mother sings, I hear the daughter in her overtones. I hear my friend cracking her bad dad jokes in our weekly work calls. Or the way she siren-wails “Whaat’s happeniiiiiing?” when our brains both turn to mush in sync.

In the mother’s calm post-set spieling I hear the rapid-fire, nervous patter of the daughter’s MANCOM reports. The mother’s advice to “Wash your hands, wear your mask,” delivered in sing-song, becomes the daughter’s frequent use of musical puns.

The more I hear my friend’s mother’s voice, the more I think her daughter looks like her. It’s as if the subtle overtone ringing in my ears clears my vision, so that I can see more than just the ghost of a resemblance: the same nervous smile, the same self-conscious laugh-lines, the same way of both looking and not looking at you when they speak.

My mother and I have the same accent. For some reason, our English sounds trans-Pacific, somewhere between Hong Kong British and Singlish and Australian. My mother met my father in Australia, when she lived there for six months. When we visited, last year, her friend drove us up to North Head, where they would go on group dates, sitting in their cars overlooking the ocean, drinking and acting like American teenagers in those old movies.

I was only in Australia for six days. My accent is more heavily Filipino-flavored, unless I focus on clipping my consonants and rounding the vowels, or unless I am really nervous, when apparently I turn British.

I look like my mother, then, but I don’t sound like her. The more I hear myself, the more I see my resemblance to my father: the same raspy baritone, the same loud and boisterous laugh, the same blood-freezing roar.

My mother and I are both mezzo-sopranos, though her range goes higher than mine and mine stretches wider than hers. If I focus, though, I can mimic her singing voice, but only just.

People have mistaken me for her on the phone, but perhaps that is because the crackle of phone static disguises that which is patently obvious to me: our overtones are too different. Mine aren’t hers.

After all these years, my dad’s voice still fills any room he’s in. Even if he doesn’t talk as much as before, by the end of any day spent with him my ears ring with the familiar echo. Even if I out- and over-talk him.

Perhaps, it’s because I out- and over-talk him.

A final confession: my resemblance to my mother is not accidental. The clothes I grew up watching her wear to work eventually found clones in my closet. I followed in her literal footsteps, first borrowing her heels then eventually buying my own, so that even the sway of my hips would match hers. I wore red lipstick to meetings because that was what I remembered from her makeup bag.

For years, we even parted our hair on the same side.

I’ve taken great pains to look like my mother, and even more to act like her. When I face her old colleagues, it is a point of pride that they say, “Oh my goodness, she reminds me exactly of you, Melanie.”

That is, until I speak.

No matter what I do, close your eyes and you’ll hear someone else’s overtones.

I look like my mother. But, I guess, I will always sound like my dad.

Birthday Wishlist – Turning 24

Is it a sign of “growing up” that you begin to feel dread about an impending birthday, instead of excitement? That’s where I am right now. Twenty-three felt optimistic, but twenty-four feels like a rubicon that I have no choice but to cross.

The only “good” thing about aging up a year, perhaps, is that I want fewer tangible things. I used to do birthday wishlists every year–long and comprehensive lists of “demands”–but now that I’m able to buy my own stuff…I find myself wanting to want less stuff (please, save me from consumerism and online makeup shopping). Of course, this doesn’t mean I want less–I think wanting is part of human nature–just that the things I do want aren’t necessarily things you can get in a store.

It’s midnight, though, and I’m too sleepy to continue waxing poetic. The following list is a mix of those tangible and intangible wants for my twenty-fourth year. Some can be bought. Some, I suppose, I’ll have to work for.

In no particular order, my birthday wishlist:

  1. To get over my fear of driving. (I’m going to inquire about enrolling at Honda Driving School on March 11th. You all hold me to that.)
  2. To learn to stick to a budget. (No, I don’t actually need that new lipstick/dress/book.)
  3. Anti-Marcos Social Club/Never Again Shirt (Don’t know where you can get the former, but the latter is available from
  4. “Chubs” green crop box tee. (Can’t remember what online store had this, but it’s an online store. Also, yes, this is Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo fan merch.)
  5. To sit in on a roundtable discussion/mentoring session with a veteran producer and veteran songwriter. (To see what I mean, please see this Buzzfeed video.)
  6. An out-of-town gig. (One for Ellie and The Elephant would be cool, but one for The Elinor Project (w/ Marvs Fabular and Dean Carayag) would be awesome also. Or one for Stories Told, of course.)
  7. To go up to Baguio with Dani, especially when it would be cold.
  8. Pop piano lessons. (As far as I know, The Music School of Ryan Cayabyab offers this. I just need to make time.)
  9. Coco Cabana swimsuit. (Most likely a high-waisted, bra-type bikini set, or else a one-piece. Ideally in black or navy blue.)
  10. Formal guitar lessons.
  11. A Zoom portable recorder (I can’t kidnap AJ’s stuff forever.).
  12. An editorial-style photoshoot. (This one’s frankly self-indulgent, but it was the only thing I wanted for my debut, and I never got a debut…so yeah. Shameless vanity. As if I don’t hold unofficial versions of this every time I figure out a new K-Beauty/J-Beauty trick.)
  13. A Samson condenser mic (or whatever brand Jian/Marvs/Dean would recommend that’s within my budget; the Apogee is okay but it’s not as crisp as I’d like it to be).
  14. To figure out how to use a loop pedal. Or loops in general.
  15. Not to be so scared of growing up.


Searching for “Wow.”

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My Facebook page has become one long trigger warning for a quarter-life existential crisis. My college schoolmates are speaking at TEDx or traveling the world. My high school batchmates/schoolmates are setting up businesses, becoming bloggers, getting engaged, and/or auditioning for reality TV shows.

I amsick. With yet another cough and cold.

A few days ago, I started learning guitar again. The last time I picked up Elinor for any extended stretch of time, I was in college, hefting her on my back from class to class, stealing practice time between reviewing for finals and crunching out the beginnings of my thesis.  I would play and sing everywhere, puzzling over tabs and timing, discovering a world of music made outside of my body, a method that physically challenged my idea of control.  It was exciting, then–every new song was a small victory against a nagging feeling of being “lost” that I’d had since leaving my college theater org.

Now, I’m only just re-learning what it means to be excited, what it feels like to have a world of music that’s really only mine (or, well, as “only mine” as you can get when you’re born with the urge to constantly be documenting things for posterity).  See, that feeling I had back in college–of being lost, set adrift, having to start over–is back and in full force, tugging away at the last constant I have: my music.  Or, specifically, my dreams of music.

It’s taken me a while to admit this, because it feels like a character flaw, but I am a natural performer. I like to “wow.” On that stage, in front of a crowd, you are both able to connect with so many, and remain at a safe distance, where none of those people can hurt you, like friendship without the risk of familiarity (and, ergo, contempt).  That moment of approval feels so much like being liked, the amazement and/or curiosity silencing self-doubt, even for a moment.  For a girl with a lot of very loud self-doubt, those moments can be intoxicating, and the constant quest for them all-consuming, because isn’t it elemental human instinct to run for safety?

That “wow”–and the things I’ve done to get it–have been my safety for years, to the point that I’ve come to define myself as what–or, rather, the very many whats–I do.  Except, now, things are changing. It’s harder to juggle all the hats I’ve chosen to wear. Music, arguably my “number one life priority,” has now become my biggest struggle: it’s hard enough to steal time from your thesis, but reaching for guitar after work, when your body is screaming for mindless TV and sleep? Nigh-impossible. I’ve had to watch my slow stagnation, standing still in stark contrast to my bandmates who improve in leaps and bounds, threatening to render me obsolete. They have side-lines and gigs and a future.  I have…Keynote.  That, and a nagging sense that my chance at “wow” is getting farther and farther away, possibly too far away to ever reach.

It all came to a head when I lost my voice.  Jian–bandmate, remember? I mention him a lot, so you should.–is probably going to kill me for admitting this, but I got extremely sick recently and had to be forced into vocal rest. I say forced because I only called time after pushing through with a gig I had no capacity to sing, my bullheaded determination to “be professional” and not back out at the last minute causing a vocal catastrophe.  We took a break for two weeks, which became a month, and now, six weeks after my vocapocollapse (see what I did there?) my bandmates are back refreshed, ready, brimming with ideas and new experiences…while I am struggling to find my footing, afraid I’m being left behind.

For the first time, at twenty-three, I am having to look in the eye the chance that this glittering dream of a music career may dissolve in the murky reality that is a corporate nine-to-five, with its “adulting” and financial responsibilities and reality checks.  I never saw myself becoming just another working millennial, but ironically the truth is I might have to trade security of identity for security of a more terrestrial, pragmatic kind.

A girl has bills to pay.

Am I scared? Very. Watching the highlights reel that is my newsfeed, with everyone on it doing something new and big and different, it’s hard not to start fearing obscurity. The promise of having a stage and leaving a mark have become such constants in my life that having to face the very real possibility of those things never happening again has left me more than a little shaken. What do you do when the destiny you spent all this time preparing yourself for turns out to not be your destiny at all?  How do you start over, take back the years you feel you wasted building a dream that was made to fall apart anyway?

If there are easy answers for these questions, I don’t have them. But I have my guitar. And my iPhone camera. A few days ago, when I decided–or, rather, was half-encouraged, half-coerced–to try learning guitar again, I turned on Facebook Live and started recording a video of what it looked like to start from zero–a throwback to the first days of Elinor and I, those private video diaries that showed me fumbling with painful steel strings and dreaded chord shifts. I took a while to ramble, talking about my bandmates’ advice and my new guitar set-up and the song I was about to do. Then, I started to play.

The first time, I screwed up, and had to start over. That happened again a second time. And a third. Over and over, I missed notes or hit wrong ones, laughing nervously as I noticed the numbers of live audience rise and fall.

Frustrated, I stopped looking at the screen and instead stared at my fingers, picking slowly through the pattern until…I got it.  And again. And again. The notes were clean and sharp in a way they hadn’t been in ages.  I tried to sing along, but the timing failed me, and my playing fell apart again, so I kept quiet and watched as my fingers plucked at the strings faster and faster until the tempo nearly matched the original.

When I looked up, no one was watching. But, oddly enough, that didn’t matter. I’d done something I thought I couldn’t, and that was exciting. That was new, and different, and doing it felt like something slotting back into place, an anchor finding its mooring. Perhaps no one would ever know what I could do, but I did.  I did, and the “wow” that resulted from discovering that perhaps it was still possible to grow and reach and try and be myself–a self that I liked–without those big dreams to propel me…

…in that moment, it was enough.

~a Roaming Tsinay~

LINER NOTES: I wrote this as part of an assignment for an office writing workshop where we were asked to write a short essay based on a random word we’d drawn from a hat. For the curious, my word was, well, “wow.”

Also, this post is partially inspired by the work of a fellow MGC New Life alum. If you’re recovering from dreams of athletic (versus musical) stardom, I recommend you check out this blog by Johansen Aguilar.  

…I can’t believe I just plugged an HS classmate. What is the world coming to?