The Same Difference
Coconut Girl

Santos Headshot_sketchMy story has always been one of contrasts. I’m obsessed with oxymorons, the concept where apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction. My time in the Philippines has been an oxymoron in itself — a study in blacks, whites and everything in between. I love the contradictions of Manila: the character, the people, the complex aura of the city. From posh to gritty, introspective to outward-looking, fast to slow, conventional to fringe, my experiences in this archipelago have been a dichotomy that somehow all fit together. The challenge has been crafting a sense of harmony from all the dualities.

It’s so easy to pick out differences and incongruities. That’s something I’ve learned too well this summer. In my past columns, I’ve explored the endless range of contrasts I’ve encountered here: rich versus poor, urban versus rural, East versus West. It’s easy to point at the things that don’t agree, but it’s not so straightforward figuring out what to do with them.

In his 2013 commencement address for Wesleyan University, Joss Whedon addresses the issue of duality with regards to identity. He says, “You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key — not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something you are constantly earning.”

Although his speech addresses individual dualities rather than shared ones, I believe his philosophy for dealing with contrasts works for all levels. In my interpretation, it’s about finding yin and yang and learning to grow from contradictions. Whenever I juxtapose two things, comparing the good and bad from each perspective, it helps me see both sides more clearly. The essence of the yin yang lies in finding wholeness and unity from two opposing halves, however dynamic that unity is.

My two months in Manila have made me look at my hometown in a way I never have before. As I prepare to go back, I can’t wait to savor all the little things I used to take for granted, starting with the air I breathe. I forgot what it’s like to have clean air, free from smog. I’m itching to drive for miles through the small towns and farmlands of Pennsylvania. I’m dreaming of Chipotle burrito bowls, spacious sidewalks, fast Wi-Fi and my miniature schnauzer. I miss the amazing friends and family I left behind. It shocks me how I never really appreciated all this before. But it isn’t just rosy homesickness that colors my expectations of the United States.

I’ve seen things in the Philippines that made me question mindsets I’d never thought twice about before. Coming into the fellowship, I thought American individualism was somehow superior to Filipino kapwa, or “togetherness.” It’s a different story now that I’ve witnessed firsthand the warmth and strength of Filipino solidarity. Surprisingly, solidarity and independence dovetail in ways that add depth to both approaches.

Kapwa isn’t about timid conformity, like I once assumed. Rather, its value lies in the idea of shared humanity. There’s nothing quite like breaking bread family-style with friends and strangers from all walks of life. At work, it’s hard to tell if I’m talking to someone as a personal friend or a professional colleague. Although disorienting at first, it’s a dynamic that brings trust and empathy. While I’ve sized up the Philippines against an American backdrop, I’ve always tried looking for the complements between both places.

My question has always been about reconciling multiple pieces and perspectives. This summer, I’ve learned to see paradoxes as opportunities to find harmony. I’ve come to accept and grow from duality, both in myself and in others. It’s an outlook I’m so glad to have gained, and I hope others learn to do the same if they haven’t already. People shouldn’t need a two-month trip halfway around the globe to embrace contradiction and complexity. After all — as the idiom goes — we’re all the same in our differences.


Sarah Santos is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. This is the final appearance of Coconut Girl.

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