Dear younger self,
Four years ago, you made the decision that altered the trajectory of your life. A month after turning eighteen, you moved to the United States from the Philippines to pursue a dream that seemed much larger than your frail body. You have always been interested in politics, and you wanted to incite change on an international scale.
You knew what you were getting yourself into. Moving whole countries meant starting anew. The baseline was zero, and you were faced with an undeniable truth; the world you leave will still move on without you.
But that did not stop a woman like you. You were passion personified. And although the risk was high and the future did not guarantee the reward, you bet your life in pursuit of a dream. Although the numerous voices surrounding you stood as an anchor that repeatedly hindered your ship from sailing, the current of determination and devotion was strong enough to break the chains.
I recall the day you stepped foot on San Francisco’s concrete floors. The first wave of wind gushed your skin as you stepped into the cool, crisp air. Your skin was rising as it came into contact with the cold, an awakening from the hot, humid air of the Philippines. It did not hit you until the first night you crept into the bed; you looked at the ceiling and were met with a flat beige surface, a foreign sight. You took a deep inhale, and as you drifted off to slumber, your voice creaked what your heart sang, “you have made it.”
That was just the beginning. The months following consisted of tears stained pillows and peculiar emotions. For the first time in your life, you felt “alone”... because you were. Timezones were an international student’s enemy. Everyone back home went to sleep when you awakened, leaving you with your only companion: your thoughts. As you entered college, you began to notice how you were different, how things as simple as how you enunciated a word labeled you as “different.” Every time you spoke, the voices inside you begged your accent to be unnoticeable. You desired to achieve a high score on the TOEFL to prove that you were worthy of being there. Even if English was not your first language, every word you typed on the electronic TOEFL exam felt like a desperate plea. You thought, "if I could not prove my proficiency in English, how can I change the world?” However, taking an English exam was an experience only international students go through; it further reminded you of your “otherness.”
I’ve always been afraid of things I can’t control. Afraid of not knowing what will happen. Afraid of taking a leap of faith and trusting that it will all be okay. I rarely appreciate the good things because there’s always a voice in the back of my mind saying that it’s all temporary. A voice that’s saying something bad’s going to happen when something good does.
And maybe that really is how life works. Maybe sometimes, there are uncertainties in life and you lose every good thing you know. Maybe sometimes, you lose your way and you lose yourself. And maybe sometimes, it’ll just suck. It’s hard to let go of the fact that I don’t know how things will go. It’s hard to accept that everything could be alright and in just a moment’s time, I lose what I love. But maybe that’s what makes everything worthwhile. It makes you cherish the things you have right now because you never know what tomorrow holds. It makes you live a life without regrets.
This isn’t me telling you to hope that everything will be okay. Sometimes, hope isn’t what we need. Sometimes what we need is acceptance. It’s peace in knowing that not everything will be ok. Peace in knowing that sometimes, there’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent it.
Regardless of how things are, I made it to a new year. We all did. Despite the uncertainties and adversities, we made it. And I know there will be a lot of ups and downs this year. A lot of sleepless nights watching Brooklyn 99 while crying and eating ice cream. That’s a certainty. But maybe we’ll be okay. Maybe we’ll still be able to meet the next year. And the years after that. I know things will suck, but I also know we’re not alone.
I’m really glad you’re here. Thank you for living.
Haven Pua is a 16 year old living in San Mateo, Philippines. Aside from writing, her other passions include digital art, dancing, and clay sculpting. You can find her at @journalofhaji on Instagram.
"They started beating with him a stick. My brother died on the spot. We could not retrieve a body. The military burned down my house." (Arnold)
Despite its appearance, this quote reflects more than one account of the Rohingya refugee crisis. It demonstrates the decades-long, brutal repression that continues to shape the reality of countless Rohingya. Persecution by Myanmar’s militaristic regime and chauvinist citizens has led to the displacement of over 1.7 million Rohingya refugees into camps in neighboring Bangladesh (OCHA). Thousands more have been forcibly relocated into camps throughout South Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues in the long-term.
To say Rohingya camps were merely "poor" before the pandemic is wildly inaccurate. They lacked privacy and secure shelter, offered a scarce variety of foods (Hussam, 10:15), and unjustly denied basic human rights. And yet, as drastic as these issues were, they have been magnified a thousand fold as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where there was formerly a lack of privacy, there is now invasive overcrowding. Where there was formerly a lack of comfort, there is now acute destitution. And most importantly, where there were formerly three meals a day, there is now a struggle for two.
Studies from the GAGE program report that inadequate food intake affects two out of three Rohingya households, and 40% of Rohingya adolescents are in need of food in comparison to 20% of Burmese adolescents. This is especially significant because malnutrition during such a key era has been shown to have long-term effects on not only growth and development, but also physical and mental health.
So, what can we do to help?
In a speech given this year, Harvard professor Reshmaan Hussam asked Rohingya women the same question. After much prodding, each woman timidly asked for two items: fish and vegetables (Hussam, 9:50). It almost seems ironic that these refugees have endured brutal persecution, have had their homes taken away from them, and have literally escaped death –– but their only request is for fish and vegetables. Not a house, and not money, but fish and vegetables. An ordinary request for such extraordinary circumstances.
Their request for a suitable meal highlights a fundamental unit missing from recent global efforts—humanity. In their quest to provide relief, global efforts have overlooked the basic right to decent food, depriving the Rohingya of natural human dignity. After all, isn't it a basic human right to eat food with taste?
Providing nutritious food for consumption is necessary for the survival of the Rohingya. However, doing so alone provides only a transitory solution. It is crucial for global efforts to also provide the means by which refugees can live purposeful lives. Simply put, Rohingya adolescents also need food for thought. Education is critical for “young Rohingya to one day voluntarily return…to Myanmar with the safety…they deserve'' (UNICEF). In Jordan, where many refugees fleeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently reside, education has recently been embraced as a means for self-sufficiency. One method for increasing self-reliance includes The Resilient Youth, Socially and Economically Empowered Project, a Jordinian educational initiative that has enabled almost 25,000 refugees to achieve economic independence and stable livelihoods through employment (Mercy Corps). Rohingya refugees could perform similarly if given these opportunities. Self-reliance, gained through education, may be the key to the establishment of a lasting Rohingya community built on human dignity.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, global efforts are doing what they can. However, “what they can” is not enough. The fact of the matter remains that the Rohingya are a forgotten people, chained by Myanmar but kept there by the rest of the world. In order for true change to occur, there must be a paradigm shift in public opinion for the Rohingya Refugee crisis, as there was for crises like the Russo-Ukrainian War. Ultimately, it is up to the media––from news channels to social media posts to online essay competitions––to make change a reality.
Where I live, turning 16 is almost synonymous with a Sweet 16 – a glamorous event involving a venue, candles, and a dad-daughter dance. The party is meant to celebrate the space between adolescence and adulthood, the final leap into womanhood, and if you’re a guest, the night is full of sweet toasts and blanked out dancing. For the birthday girl (me), it’s a struggle between feeling old and feeling young.
In a New York Times article, Jane Coaston writes that her childhood struggle was the hurried push to not be a kid, but I disagree. My struggle, like so many others’, is feeling a perpetual limbo between childhood and adulthood. My generation is childlike in many ways, as the Minion craze displayed, but we are also thoughtful and mature. We are increasingly aware of climate change, gun violence, and the dangers of polarization, and we voice our thoughts when Congress dithers. Our acute awareness is a direct result of the digital and political age we live in, but if that’s the case, where do we fit in?
In the end, I figure I’m just 16. I’m part of a newer generation that has begun to flow, not yet an adult but not quite a child, living in between rules and spontaneity. Also, my Sweet 16 is tomorrow.
“Ox!” my mom exclaimed, carefully putting down the “O” and “X” square tiles in her conquest of the Scrabble board. My sister and I shot an exasperated glance at each other, somehow already sensing the mountain of points that those two letters held inside them. As expected, my mom earned a considerable 27 points, smiling broadly at her simple, yet effective use of the triple-word score tile.
My mother's influence on me is best summed up in these "Scrabble" moments. In a world where words are thrown around arbitrarily, she shows me the value of words and the power that they wield. Ironically enough, my mom’s first language wasn’t even English. My mom is an immigrant from Tuguegarao, Philippines, a rural town far from the crowded New York City. She pronounces “cop” like “cup,” “war” like “ware,” “picture” like “pitcher”; if you’re lucky enough, you might find her "opening the tv" instead of turning it on, or "closing the lights" instead of turning them off. But where my mom lacks in pronunciation, she compensates for with purposeful language. Where she misunderstands in meaning, she makes up for in care. I notice the depth behind her phrases, the compassion in her words, the kindness that belies even the simplest of sentences. She might say “What’s your name?” to a foreign person on the street and her words magically become “I see you. I understand.” She might ask me, “Want boba?” and however silly it may sound, I’ll know that she understands my need for comfort. These small incidents have shaped my perception of words, teaching me to listen rather than hear, and to admire rather than judge.
More than that, however, she has been my lifelong teacher, mentor, and best friend. Be it by bringing me with her to the Philippines, enrolling me in preschool Chinese classes, or speaking to me in Spanish, she has taught me the beauty of culture and language. Be it by listening to my Original Oratory speeches, reading stories to me, and singing with me in carpool karaoke, she has taught me the beauty of speech. And be it through Scrabble, Words with Friends, or even the New York Times Spelling Bee, she has taught me the beauty of simple, yet effective communication.
Thank you, mom.