MANILA, Philippines -- I have a very strict father. He has one inflexible rule (which I think no teenager can follow): No boyfriend until graduation from college and even then, he must be earning at least a six-figure salary monthly.
His strictness has really affected my social life. I can't answer a phone call from a guy without being subjected to a 10-minute interrogation by him afterward. I cannot go out with my friends without a chaperon, or attend a party alone.
However, it didn't stop me from having a boyfriend -- until one day my sister found out and told my father about it.
Because of this forbidden love, I was sent all the way to Europe. I didn't want to go, I didn't want to leave my guy, but who do you think will win in a battle between a father and his 18-year-old daughter?
My first stop was Vienna, Austria, where three of my father's sisters live. I stayed with an aunt who was running an art gallery and she urged me to discover the world of artists. I enjoyed her company because she brought me to some places in Europe where her painters' works were being exhibited. We also went shopping for branded clothes at lower prices in different places like Brussels, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Austria. Because of the language barrier, I had a very hard time communicating with people in the malls, fast-food outlets or parks. Even my cousins could barely speak English.
In Manila, my dad let me drive a car and so I had no experience commuting. The first train ride I took was in Vienna. I felt physically and mentally comfortable riding on the train, knowing I was not in Manila. I told myself this was rich Europe, where there would be only a few snatchers, kidnappers, murderers or rapists.
I was wrong. On my very first trip on train, I was robbed. And I didn't notice it because I was wearing a very thick trench coat. I lost my perfume, my makeup kit and my wallet with my license, IDs, credit cards and pocket money. That led me to the conclusion that there could always be a bad man in every room in this world and it made me very cautious.
When my Schengen visa was about to expire, my aunts convinced me to stay on as a TNT, or "tago nang tago" (an illegal alien) and try to find and marry a very rich guy who was about to die. They didn't want me to go back to Manila because they were also my father's victims as regards this boyfriend thing. But I told them marriage was not yet in my vocabulary. I also wanted to stay in London for some months to ponder my future.
I won the battle this time. So off I went to London, but I was still under my father's shadow: I had to stay with another aunt and her diplomat-husband.
Their family was completely different from what I had thought a diplomat's family would be. With my uncle going to office every day and my aunt keeping house and raising their son who was in first grade. They didn't have any house help. Everyone helped with the everyday chores. And since I was living with them, I was assigned to do the dishes, the one thing I've always hated doing in our own house.
Since I was already in the city, my father insisted that I enroll in a short course in a college in Central London. So on weekends, my aunt and I toured around the country, and on weekdays I attended classes.
I got very depressed, perhaps because of the season or the different culture. All I wanted was to go home, but father wouldn't hear of it.
One night, as I was surfing the Net, I came across the website of a Filipino community in London. I learned that they had scheduled a gathering.
For the first time, I rode on a bus with another Filipina (Filipinos have a certain aura you can easily notice when they are abroad) and when we got off at the same station, I knew she was going to the same gathering.
When I arrived, all eyes were on me. Someone asked me to go on stage and introduce myself. Later I got to meet the heroes of our country, most of them nurses or house help. I learned that they would meet about twice a month just for "kumustahan" [saying hello]. They were like best friends, and they helped you all the way.
In one of our meetings, they found out that I sang rather well. They immediately asked me to help organize a choral group for teenagers so they would become more active in community affairs instead of drinking like their peers did. Although I am not a musician, I drew on my experience as a member of our church choir back home and shared with them everything I knew about music.
The months went so fast and before winter was over I had to decide whether to stay or go home. I began asking myself what was God's real purpose in putting me there. Once I glanced at the organ and looked at the choir and concluded that they were the reason. But I had finished the things I had to do, and it was time to go.
I booked a flight home without telling my family. I wanted my return to be a surprise. I told the travel agent not to tell anyone about my trip home.
But as soon as our plane landed, I heard my phone beeping (I had forgotten to turn it off). There was a text message from my sister welcoming me home. A cousin had told my sister I was going home? So much for a surprise homecoming.
When I got out of the airport, the first familiar face I saw was that of a guy with a great smile on his face, the love of my life. I thought he was taking me home, until I saw my sister.
Back in our house, I kissed and hugged my parents. My father tried to hold back his tears even as he held me close to him.
I had barely started opening my bags of "pasalubong" [arrival tokens] while recounting my experiences when I noticed that they were not even listening. They were watching their favorite "telenovela" [TV soap]. Hello! I had just arrived from abroad!
In this chapter of my life, I really hated my father. But I realize he only wanted the best for me, even if what he thought to be best for me cost him a lot of money as well as my long absence. Still my trip gave me the opportunity to experience a little more freedom, to meet real people and learn from their stories. I learned how to travel alone, deal with people of different cultures, appreciate nature, wash dishes and share the talent that was given to me. And for all that, I thank him.
Grace Ann Arce, 20, is a second year AB Mass Communication student at Our Lord's Grace Montessori School and Colleges.
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