Look Where We Are Now


Every time I’ve played 2 Truths and 1 Lie with new people – like with my new class last year or when I was an OGL – I’ve always used the same few statements. First, my poop once smelled like laundry detergent. Second, I have four siblings. Third, I got lost in Paris when I was six.

I’ve never been to Paris.

Most people are surprised whenever I reveal that I have four siblings. I find their reactions amusing, especially after telling them more about where my family is. Like how the eldest, my soon-to-be 23-year-old sister is working at some bank in Metro Manila. My 21-year-old brother stays with our dad’s side of the family in the province, studying to become a paramedic. My 17-year-old brother is in senior high school searching for universities, staying in Quezon City with our 10-year-old sister who still hasn’t had the chance to return to regular, face-to-face school since the pandemic started. Our mum stays with them, working as a property manager. And I stay in Singapore with our dad.

It wasn’t always that way. We used to all live together in Singapore – except for my two eldest siblings, who stayed with our paternal grandparents in the province – until my 17-year-old brother left for the Philippines after he finished his PSLE in 2017.

Growing up, I always had mixed feelings about him. He was my best friend – I remember helping with filming his bespectacled, lean, and tall self when his life goal was to become a YouTuber. We used to play pretend together, inspired by our then-favourite show, Ninjago. Eventually, that evolved into building actual LEGO Ninjago sets together after months of begging our parents for them. And when we learned there was a world of LEGO outside of Ninjago, we’d film short, 1- to 2-minute videos like those stop-motion animations on YouTube. Except that we didn’t know how stop-motion worked, and you’d always see our stubby fingers holding onto the little figurines.

Outside of all the good, he was a source of my insecurities. Naturally, I had countless catfights with him over things like the TV remote, and how annoying I found him whenever he hogged the family computer. But his explosive temper always got the best of him, and he didn’t know how to let his anger out apart from taking it out on me through violence.

Because of his unpredictability, I always walked on eggshells around him and had to learn to protect myself from getting hurt. Gradually, I began to emotionally distance myself from him – if I cared about him less, I’d feel less pain when he hurt me. After he finally moved away, the new physical divide, together with our pre-existing cold relationship, made it easier for me to be unaffected by his departure. We never had any contact unless we were visiting each other for the holidays.

He lived in Quezon City with our mum and other siblings until the pandemic. Amidst the online classes and lockdown measures, our mother chose to move to our grandparents’ home in Taguig – another city in Metro Manila, about an hour’s drive away from where he normally lived – so they could be close to our maternal relatives. And they are… a lot. My mum has eight siblings. Only half of them stayed with my family, but that was enough to create a chaotic enough environment for my brother to jump at any opportunity to escape it.

So, when our dad visited the Philippines in 2021 on business, my brother came along when he returned to Singapore.

I didn’t know how to face him. What if he was the same impatient and ill-tempered person he was three years ago? I was cautious those first few weeks with him, never letting our relationship go beyond awkward silence over dinner. Because we didn’t share a room like we did before he moved, it was easy for me to stay out of his way, avoiding any outbursts.

For a while, I wanted to maintain that emotional distance I was so used to. It would’ve been simpler staying that way – I’d save myself so much pain if it turned out that he hadn’t changed at all. Even if he did, it seemed easier seeing him as I always had. I could just endure living with him for another year, knowing that he was a bad person, and cast him out of my life when he’d leave for the Philippines again. If he was always capable of growing into a better person, how could I forgive him for not changing earlier? For the torment he subjected me to growing up? 

Still, I gave him a chance. I remember what made me decide that – I can’t recall what I had done to piss him off, but I did, and I braced myself for his reaction. What was he going to do? Threaten to hit me? Grab me, and drag me out of his room?

I remember flinching as he swung his arm, shouting some vulgarity, ready to land a blow. But he stopped himself before he could do it. His hands fell to his sides, and after taking a moment to compose himself, he uttered four words I never thought I’d hear from him.

“I’m sorry for yelling.”

I had never felt so relieved. I realised that maybe – just maybe – he wasn’t so bad after all. After those years apart, trying to forget how fractured our relationship was, I got to know him again. He was still short-tempered, but he was trying to get better. How could I not at least try to love him for that?

Since then, we’ve grown close. Before he flew back to the Philippines for the return of face-to-face classes, we’d hang out together – which never would’ve happened years ago without either of us coming home upset. Now, we frequently check in with each other over FaceTime calls about anything and everything – whether it’s the latest gossip at either of our schools or how he’s been worried about turning 18 and moving on to university. 

As much as I try to keep in contact with my family in the Philippines, I can’t help but feel afraid of what I’ve been missing out on. Of course, some aspects are easier to go without – like my little sister’s snoring, and how my brother forgets to watch his volume when he’s on a call with his friends. But there are also my family’s birthday parties – where it’s mandatory for our Titas to cook pancit bihon, to sing karaoke until the dead of the night, and play games with our cousins. Visiting our grandparents’ house over the weekends, and the occasional weekend getaways to Tagaytay – a city about three hours away by bus to escape Metro Manila’s 30ºC heat. But above all? Watching my little sister grow up.

She was born in Singapore, but unlike the rest of the family, she hadn’t been granted a Re-Entry Permit from the government – she wasn’t a PR. Which meant that, because she was a foreigner, her school fees were twice as expensive as they would’ve been if she was a PR. This, tied with my brother’s departure months prior, led to my parents’ decision to send her home to the Philippines when she was only 6 years old.

I remember how it happened. It was our June holiday in 2018, and though I’m not entirely sure if she knew that she wouldn’t be returning for the next school term, I still find myself feeling sick just thinking about it.

My mother, sister and I had flown home to the Philippines together. Though my father stayed behind in Singapore since he was busy with work, it was one of the few times every year that most of the family was reunited. Nearly all of us – all four of my siblings, myself, and our mother – cramped in that small 24m2 studio apartment. 

At the end of it, we were all gathered outside the condominium building to bid our goodbyes. As the taxi came, my older siblings helped to pile my mother’s and my luggage into the trunk as I boarded. Like she always did, my little sister tried to follow suit. There was this huge smile on her face – she was ready to come back home, but didn’t realise she was already at her new one.

When it finally dawned on her, she couldn’t stop crying. She was begging us not to go without her, not to leave her behind. She clung to our mother so hard that our older siblings had to pry her off. When we finally managed to shut the taxi doors, I fixed my gaze on my beat-up shoes on the car’s floor. I always hated seeing her cry – her typical 6-year-old tantrums were irritating to sit through. But then, as the taxi drove off, I couldn’t stand to look back and wave goodbye at my siblings one last time if it meant seeing my sister cry.

I always tried to convince myself I didn’t care that much about my siblings – because if I didn’t care, then I wouldn’t be so sad about them leaving. I’d tell myself, “Oh, you’re just too busy with PSLE, DSA applications, and portfolios. You’re too busy to be sad.” But still, even as I tried to channel all my energy into my schoolwork, I’d find myself feeling both empty and heavy – like there was a constant weight on my chest forcing the air out of my lungs, and any feelings out of myself. As much as I tried to distract myself from this numbness, it eventually came to the point where I just wanted to do nothing.

I didn’t understand it at all until, as I stared at the ceiling while drowning in the darkness of my room, the silence of my room punctuated by the absence of random late-night talks with my brother, I realised – this is what loneliness feels like.

Whether I liked it or not, my family was – and still is – a huge part of me. And even though it’s been 6 years since my brother moved, 5 since my sister, and 3 since my mom did, the sadness of being without them hasn’t gone away. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out how to rid myself of it – all it ever does is grow. I wish I could say that in these years without them I’ve figured out how to stop being sad about it – but I am only 16, and the wisest thing I can say about things like this is that sometimes, you just have to suck it up and deal with it. Even though I’ve always missed them, I’ve always just ignored and suppressed that sadness. But since the last time I saw them in December 2022, I’ve found myself crying over how much I missed them more than I ever had prior.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my mum decided to move back to the Philippines, so that my siblings would have at least one parent there with them. With all the border closures and lockdowns, it wasn’t until December 2022 that most of us were under one roof again.

I say most because, at the end of 2020, my two eldest siblings had a falling out with my parents. For further context, my older brother, younger sister and I are half-siblings with them – we all have the same dad, but different mums. At the time, my mum was running a little food stall at one of the commercial spaces she and my dad built when they renovated my grandparents’ house into a four-floor apartment complex. Like all businesses – especially start-ups born out of the pandemic – it came with challenges that could only be solved with more manpower than my mum could get.

She tried the best she could, given the circumstances. Though I don’t have the full picture, from what I’ve heard from my mum and older brother, I know that my two eldest siblings were upset with her for the way she was treating them – from being enlisted to help out with her business, to being denied allowances for online shopping. They said that she didn’t love them as much as she did me, my older brother and little sister. They called her a bad mother. In the heat of it, they packed up their bags and left for their own mother’s family.

It’s been three years since then. While my elder brother has come back into contact with us – he brought his girlfriend around to meet the rest of the family back in December 2022 – none of us have met my elder sister since then, despite our attempts to talk to her. Each time we’ve tried to contact her over Facebook Messenger, it’s never gone past small talk and birthday wishes. None of us were even there when she graduated from university last June.

To be incredibly honest, it is very difficult for me to try not to antagonise her when I think about it – but after having spent 16 years with this family, I’ve had to accept that everything has a reason. It is the most difficult thing in the world to see the good in, and understand the people who’ve treated you the worst. Sometimes it’s just the result of horrible circumstances. Sometimes it’s just a genuine show of horrible character. But when you know you’ve been dealt the same horrible hand, the most you can do is hope they’ll figure out that even if life sucks, it gets a little less sucky when you try to make it better for everyone around you.

Alex (Class of 2025) likes to experiment with a plethora of mediums to tell stories. As a photographer, Alex loves exploring how visuals can convey messages that words cannot.