The Power of Choice

Ilo Ilo, Philippines

“We prepared pork satay for you two, all barbecued at the charcoal pit…
and we have Coke!” our host said to us in glee.

As she jostled around to keep us comfortable, I glanced around, taking in her living conditions and the numerous family photos framing the interior. There was also a small, blurry television at the corner, which I could barely see clearly from.

Our host, Mrs. Robles, had prepared a feast for me and Lee Meng: rice (plenty of it), egg, fish, soup, and pork satay. We sat in the living room, chatting about many things Filipino and Singaporean, and shared stories about the many things we knew about each other’s culture. Despite dining in the dim lights of the little wooden hut, we easily fell in love with the comfort and cosiness of our company.

Ilo Ilo Handmade Coffee

We greatly enjoyed our stay, and slept peacefully through the night (apart from a few cats running about at night)… As our team gathered back and shared about our homestay, I realised how drastically different our experiences were.


Helmi & Jia Yu’s Homestay 

Grasping on tightly to their bags, they rode speedily into the darkest corner of Ilo Ilo and arrived at a house that paled in comparison to Singapore’s HDBs. Secluded and dimly-lit, the hut also played host to holey roof-tops and soil as its flooring. Within a 20 minute drive, the couple had been forgotten by all things urban and familiar. 

This place was owned by a construction worker — one who was fully equipped with the skills to fix his house to perfection. He was shy, embarrassed and introverted, to a point where he had to drink to relax in front of his new companions. In his drunken stupor, he gradually opened up to reveal his biggest remorse:

“I am a construction worker, and I make everyone’s houses so much better to live in. But I don’t even have money to fix my own house…”

With that, he apologised profusely. For not giving them better, for not providing brighter lights, for having holes on his roof and more. With every sentence interjected by abashed sorry’s and apologetic smiles, Jia Yu and Helmi struggled to sleep that night, somber and heavy-hearted.


Clarence, Qin Yi & Wennie’s Homestay

The Captain is the man who cooks our meals daily, and is someone who has considerably better living conditions than many others in Ilo Ilo. Amazingly, he had a huge pig that was pregnant with 10 precious piglets! Each piglet could fetch up to 3,000 pesos (~SGD$86.96), which is a huge sum of money that could tide him through many rainy days.

However, he had two daughters in university, and their tuition loans accumulated up to 30,000 pesos… Thus, although he had the choice to keep these newborn piglets, he decided to sell all of them away to fund for his daughters’ education. Whether a worthy investment or not, it must have been extremely difficult to give up these golden nuggets for his daughter’s exorbitant school fees.


Valerie & Jefferson’s Homestay

Glancing at a photograph of her sister, their host smiled sadly, as if holding back a tinge of regret and loss. She had always dreamed of being a nurse, saving lives and being there for the sick and old. However, her dreams fell short due to a limited family income, and she eventually sacrificed her ambition to support her sister’s education of becoming an accountant. Since then, she has been in Ilo Ilo, supporting and raising her children single-handedly.

Her son then waved another photo at Valerie and Jefferson, which revealed to be a family photo, last taken in 2001. Even then, their father was not pictured in this image as he worked further off, and would rarely have the time to come back home to be with his family. That’s 15 years without a proper family photo together…

Was this his choice? Is this how he would have wanted to live his life? It’s easy to say that we’d rather be the parent that raises the child, than the one working 100,000 miles away, but there’s no real choices that can be made here when one’s family is in need of such support.


At Ginveer Bakery

We’d often head down to the bakery to visit Rose, who sold us countless types of bread every morning. With her big personality and colourful smile, we’re drawn to keep going back just to see her again. As we got to know her more, we found that she was only 21, working 5 days a week, and does not have plans to pursue anything bigger.

Ilo Ilo Rice Fields

Back in Singapore, 21 is the prime age, the beginning of another world, and the start of something new. We get to choose our education, friends, career choices and relationships. We get to decide our travel plans, what we want to do for Summer, and more. To us, it is only natural that we would get to choose what our future holds.

Yet, being able to choose is a privilege, one that’s oft taken for granted. Even I am victim to the first-world culture: I have become expectant of the things I deserve, and entitled to the feeling that I’m worthy of much more.

Being immersed in the daily lives of locals in Ilo Ilo, I was rudely awakened by the reality of how people really live their lives.

Many of them barely have the choice, but here we are,
complaining about the many choices we have. 

Many of them have little, and yet they gave us the only things they could afford.

  • One of the households didn’t have any fans, and only one mosquito net to share amongst the whole family. They also offered the only three pillows and two blankets they had for the three members of our team, which would otherwise have been used for themselves.
  • Another host gave each of the two team mates one entire sausage, while the host, the grandfather and a child shared one sausage on their own.

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Despite their limitations, they gave to us willingly, welcomingly, and wholeheartedly. This was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve been through, and I’ll gladly relive the moments to better appreciate the many things I have. We’ve all got our ups and downs, but we’ve also got the power of choice, to make life better or worse for ourselves.

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Experienced something similar? Share your stories down in the comments section below! 


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