Mark Daniel Chan: Stuck in the Middle

This post was written by Mark Daniel Chan.

Life has been difficult ever since I accepted the Filipino Scholarship from the International School Manila when I was in the summer of my 5th grade going into the 6th.  First of all, let me clarify. I am forever grateful for that scholarship and all the people who played a part in it, particularly people like Mr. Jeffrey Hammett, Ms. Amelita M. Ramos and Ms. Victoria SyCip Herrera.  Being chosen as one of 2 students to receive a full ride from the 6th grade until the 12th at one of the best secondary schools in the region is something that has completely changed my life. I want to talk about the way in which this experience forced me to think about what it really means to be a Filipino.

I am extremely proud of the fact that my Dad gave up a Chinese citizenship when he was 18 years old to pledge allegiance to the Philippines. He was the son of a Chinese migrant who moved to Baguio City to start a new life. My Dad’s formative years were during the Martial Law era, and he also committed quite a bit of his time and energy into student activism, working with other student leaders to try and bring down the dictatorship. They like to refer to themselves as the FQS (First Quarter Storm) group, and I believe that this group had an impact on me. What I learned from them is that it is okay to fight for what is right. Sometimes, the chips may be stacked against you, but it just means that you have to push a little harder.  My Dad actually spent about 2 years in detention, and painfully, my grandfather actually passed away while my Dad was in political prison. I can imagine the agony of this experience but I can also assure you that my Father knew the sacrifice he was making. I don’t think he ever regretted what he did for our country.

When I was given a chance to go to ISM, I didn’t realize that this would give me the chance to continue my Dad’s fight for our freedom. It was very hard for me to be at ISM only because I became very Western in my thinking. In my opinion, this is not bad as long as it is balanced by a healthy love of country. I learned to let go of certain inhibitions (like I express myself and let people know of my opinions). Sometimes people take offense because I am too frank with them. I tell managers at fast food restaurants about how to improve their service and my comments, no matter how well meant, are always taken the wrong way. I also became quite a curious (In Tagalog, “makulit”) learner. I always wanted to find out what the reason was behind something—anything for that matter. The flipside of this is that I became more and more detached from the local setting. It was a little awkward whenever I hung out with kids from local schools. I had many painful experiences wherein I would be isolated because I would be labeled as “mayabang” (a braggart) just because of my funny half-accent (I say half because it’s not like, you know, a full Southern Drawl. It’s the ASEAN version of the American accent. Apparently these things are formed in your teens).

I mean, I had my main guys and my best friends who were from a local setting and I knew that they would never leave me isolated but in general, I felt quite detached from the local scene. I really wanted to fit in. But it was tough for me because I lived in Kamuning and the School Bus only went so far as Corinthian Gardens (sosyal!) in QC and I had to take a public bus from Megamall back to my area.  There were times when I had to change clothes because I could feel people staring at me as I got off the air-conditioned California Bus Liner and would switch to the Human Sardine Machines that ruled EDSA in the mid to late 90s.  Lord knows there were actually times when I would get robbed in those busses. I learned my lessons early. I would always keep my money in my socks so pickpockets couldn’t get to it and I would learn how to not dress to nice (or dress like an American kid, basically) so that the robbers wouldn’t fixate on me.  The sad thing was that I was always in this state of “being in the middle.” When I would dress badly, I would feel left out at school since everyone was rich (a generalization, but yeah, aside from the other scholars, everyone was pretty well off).  So I learned how to dress nice, but not too nice. I hung out with people from school but I had to honestly tell them when I didn’t have money.  As one fellow scholar jokes about it: “Yeah, my friends would all tell me they would go some place low key for the day…how about California Pizza Kitchen!”

I went to ISM for 7 years and it was amazing. I got to do so much, from Model U.N. to Sports to going on I.C.A.R.E. trips to Sagada.  I even got to play on the school Jazz Band (they would book us for gigs and pay us with pizza.  It was awesome. We were a full 25-piece ensemble that even produced a CD while we were in high school. I played the Soprano Sax, Bass and Drums in my 3 years in the Band.) When I graduated in the year 2000, I felt a sense of relief because it meant that I could finally move to a place where I didn’t feel like I had to adjust, where I wasn’t “stuck in the middle.”  True enough, I lived in Toronto, Canada and went to the University of Toronto and I felt more at home there than I did in Manila. Part of it was because I didn’t have to “half dress” anymore and I didn’t have to worry about being perceived as “mayabang.” Actually, the only time I really felt uncomfortable, sadly, was when I was around other Filipino families in Toronto. The hate I was accustomed to would start again, with people spreading rumors about “oh…who is this mayabang guy? How did he get into U of T directly from high school? You know, most Filipinos have to spend 2 years in Junior or community college before their first year of University” and so on.  I never really bore those people ill. I kind of understood it. The crab mentality was going to kick in. This made my heart grieve because I like to believe that we should be helping each other out as fellow Pinoys.

After graduating from U of T, I was fairly comfortable in my life in Canada. I actually had a chance to stay there permanently but something bothered me deep inside. I knew I had to come back and serve my country.  I knew that I wouldn’t be a political activist like my Dad but I knew that I would have to make an impact somehow.  In August of 2005, I made a decision to come back home. From 2000 to 2005, I had never left Canada because I didn’t feel the need to come home. I was so comfortable in a world where I wasn’t “in the middle.” Going back to live in Manila would open up old wounds and would have me confront some issues that I had.

But you know what, looking back at that decision that was made 10 years ago, I am glad I chose to come back. Truth is, I didn’t want to be one of those Pinoys that left and then never even thought about the country ever again. Sometimes, I see these people on facebook and they post stuff about how “uggh, I am glad to be out of the Philippines because you guys are so messed up with your traffic problems and terrible politicians, blah, blah blah.” The sad thing is that these comments all come from accounts with Filipino last names. I assume they were part of the diaspora that never sought to come back.  I don’t judge them but I just didn’t want that to be me.

So I put my pride aside and I came back. I came back to stay. Yeah, there were hurdles, like being assigned to work in different countries for months at a time like the U.S., India, and Australia, but in general, I would come back home to learn what it was about to truly be Filipino.  And then I got it.  This was something that would not be broken by any amount of “mayabang” comments or any raised eyebrows that I would get for having an American “twang” when I talked (Haha, “twang,” that’s a funny word).  Being Filipino meant loving your country enough to want to make a difference in it in your own way.  I stopped looking at the things that needed to be fixed and just tried to help being a part of something great.

I don’t think I have it all figured out at all (trust me, I don’t). Some days, it is still hard. I have a lot of ISM friends because we all bond over the fact that we are still considered “outsiders,” even if most of us have Filipino blood.  We all became too “Western” for people’s likings. But that’s okay with us. What is important is that we are able to serve the Filipino nation. Over the past 10 years, I’ve volunteered my time to things like education, social enterprise and the empowerment of people without a voice.  I can’t say I’m solving all the problems in the country but I am thankful that I am doing my part to solve some.  So yeah, people can judge me all they want. They can laugh at the fact that I had to actually research what #Aldub was (because I am not in Eat Bulaga’s target demographic).  They can still gossip about me in Filipino homes both here and abroad. I’ve had painful experiences with that but they don’t bother me anymore. What matters is that I’ve been able to share my time, talent and treasure with people who benefitted from it. I spent years being a lecturer at Arellano University, wherein I got to meet Pinoys who are underprivileged but very hardworking. I love the satisfaction I get when I participate in activities like that.  I get to help people like Cherrie Atilano and former Taguig Mayor Freddie Tinga out in some of the Social Enterprise projects they do, and that’s what matters to me. I meet great like-minded people who want to make a difference.  And at the end of the day, I believe that that’s what being Filipino is all about.  It doesn’t matter if I wear “sosyal” clothes or sound like a Martian when I talk.  The only thing that matters is if our hearts bleed blue, white, red and yellow.  The end of “Lupang Hinirang” says “Ang mamatay ng dahil sa ‘yo” (to die for you).  I find that I don’t necessarily have to die for the country first (although I can readily do that if called upon).  I can serve it while I am still living. And that is what matters in being truly Filipino.

Mark with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Miranda.


Mark Daniel Chan was a Filipino Scholar at ISM from 1993-2000. He finished with an Honors B.A. In English at the University of Toronto in 2004 and later went on to complete his MBA with Distinction at the Asian Institute of Management from 2007-2008, with a brief exchange stint with the UCLA Anderson School of Business that same year, where he was a Dean’s Lister. Mark has worked for companies like the multinational Johnson & Johnson and has also served as the Program Director for the MBA program at AIM. He currently works at The Princeton Review Philippines, a company set up to help aspiring High School students to do their best in exams such as the SAT and ACT. He lives in Manila with the two loves of his life, his wife Anna and his daughter Miranda.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Stella B. Evangelista says:

    It was our pleasure to have spent some time with you in Toronto. I still remember, in one of our practices, we wanted you to play the sax and the drums, teach us a Rommel Guevarra song, order pizza for dinner, and bless the food before we ate. I told you then I would be very please if Chris turned out like you. . . Did he? . . I’ll let you too argue about that. May the Lord continue to bless the works of your hands. To Him be all glory. . . tita st


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