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Life imitates art imitates life

/ 06:12 AM June 28, 2011

I love reading. Even in the noisiest places, I can pretend there’s just me and my book, and easily lose myself in a good read. My heart breaks with every loss, my soul rejoices with every happy ending. The stories stay with me long after I have turned the last page, in the end shaping my own story.

I discovered my love for reading in a small library at my grandparents’ house. Every summer up until I was 13, my cousins and I would stay with our grandparents. In their house, we followed strict rules: a nap in the afternoon, bedtime at eight, praying together. In our free time though, my cousins and I always found something to do, and I looked forward to every summer spent at my Lolo and Lola’s house.

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What I spent most of my time doing was browsing books in my Lolo and Lola’s small library. There were hundreds of books and magazines on the shelves, on the floor, in boxes, all gathering dust. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. There were books on history, food, places and people. In fact, I learned about the world from those books more than I learned in school. At 11, I knew what “incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial” evidence were, thanks to the Perry Mason series of courtroom novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner. I liked Perry Mason’s unconventional methods of getting innocent clients off a guilty verdict, but I was more impressed with his passion for helping people through his law practice.

I was about to go to college in 1998 when my grandparents passed away not more than a year apart, and their old house, together with the old books, was sold. I said goodbye to them at the same time that I said goodbye to my childhood.

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Perry Mason’s passion, however, was never lost on me; I brought it to my college life and to my first job. At 16, with instructions on a piece of paper and a bus ticket, I braved the dangerous city of Manila to study at a university. In school, I excelled in my studies, made friends, and learned to be independent. After graduation, I took up a job in an accounting firm where I competed to get selected for the difficult jobs. I vowed to become a partner within a record number of years.

At the same time, my book fixation evolved from Perry Mason to Stephen King thrillers and finally to novels about cultures different from ours, including my personal favorites “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, “The Elegance of a Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery, and “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai. These stories sparked a desire in me to see the world.

When I was offered a job at an accounting firm in Tokyo, I grabbed the opportunity. I thought it was time for something different—a rebirth, if you will. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez said in “Love in the Time of Cholera”: “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

Living and working in a foreign country opened a lot of doors for me and made me realize a lot of things about myself. I could send money to my family back home, giving me a level of maturity and a sense of responsibility I never had when I was still in Manila. I also adapted to the new culture: I have learned to walk fast even when I am in no particular hurry, to do business the Japanese way, to appreciate Japanese novels, and to snowboard in winter. The first time I saw snow, I rolled on the ground, like a dog after a bath, until my hands froze, and a friend had to drag me from the parking lot.

I see change in environment as refreshing, and I love sharing life stories with peoples from around the world, which is why I have traveled to 20-odd countries since then.

The fact is that, just like the books I have read, my experiences enriched me with different perspectives and ways to approach challenges. In 2008, when the financial crisis struck, I saw it as another opportunity for rebirth and rethought my life-goals. I came to the conclusion that with the fleetingness of things in life—money, jobs, life itself—what is really important is how I can make an impact on the people around me. I started reading relevant books, such as “The End of Poverty” by Jeffrey Sachs, “Banker to the Poor” by Muhammad Yunus, and “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier. I also learned about organizations like Ashoka and Endeavor that help launch and sustain high-impact enterprises.

What I learned sparked a great interest in me, and I wanted to learn more. In 2009, I left Tokyo to pursue an MBA degree in London. But going to classes was only a small part of it. Alexandre Dumas said it perfectly in “The Count of Monte Cristo”: “To learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other.”

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In the past two years, I have spent a year in London, a semester in New York, a week in Africa, and a summer in Hong Kong. I have met different people, observed other cultures, researched on what does and doesn’t work in other countries, and came up with numerous business and social ideas. Now, I am right where I want to be: I’m setting up an innovative non-profit organization in the Philippines called MySkolar which aims to help underprivileged high school students get a college education (www.myskolar.org). It has been stressful and challenging so far, but such is only a minor contribution that I can make at this point, and I am aiming for much bigger things in the future.

Of course, a career in non-profit organization will not be as financially rewarding as my previous one in the finance industry, but then again, one cannot really put a price tag on self-fulfillment. True, finding it is such a tall order for us humans, but it is a journey worth taking, for what is life without a mission? What is a book without a story? Milan Kundera hurls this challenges in his novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: “The heaviest of burdens is … simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air … and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

My books have taught me well: I choose weight.

Jenny Galang, 27, is doing her MBA at London Business School. She will be graduating in July.

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TAGS: books, library, love for reading, overseas Filipino worker, Reading, studying abroad
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