People say that family is the most important thing in the world. I disagree. It is not an important thing, it is everything.Contest chair, ladies and gentlemen, I hold here a photo of my family. You cannot clearly see it from where you are seated, I know. Every member wears a smile, and by the number of heads you can tell I have a large family. What you cannot see or even suspect is that behind those smiles is the story of the aches of abandonment, the bitter wounds of rejection, and the deep holes of depression.
Being different and, in my father’s eyes, an un-acceptable unique person, I became the target of his manly ego and the apple of his furious temper. I felt I was his favorite son to do the chores of my sisters, to run to the store and buy him his pack of cigarettes and his favorite brand of whiskey. I tried to please him in every way. I was a model student. But for my smallest mistake, his impulsive fist tore my fragile body, his dehumanizing words shredded my innocent mind, until my smoldering rebellion could no longer be kept imprisoned in the cage of silence.
I found new friends in school among the behaviorally-challenged students. They taught me how to release my anger with cigarettes and drown all my sorrows in alcohol. I became fearless. I no longer cared about my studies. From being a consistent honor model student, I became a consistent visitor in the Guidance Office.
My mother decided to deport me away from the hustle and bustle of the city to the staid serenity of the province. I became my grandmother’s worrisome ward in the deafening silence of a rural town, helpless, lifeless, spending each night staring at the moon asking why my family abandoned me.
For a long time I wallowed in self-pity, bitterness & depression. Then on one of my favorite moonless nights my eyes caught the brightness of a star. As I reveled at its serene beauty I heard myself saying: “No! I cannot be like this forever! I am going to finish my studies, get a job, make a life for myself & they will never hear from me again!"
With renewed ambition and vigor, I finished high school with honors, attended university as a scholar, passed my licensure exam as a teacher and landed a job in the state university. I lived my life indulging in satisfying my wants, buying everything I fancied, ate in my favorite restaurants & travelled whenever and wherever I wanted. I was living the life I dreamt of. Yet at the end of the day, I felt an emptiness in my heart.
One day, as I was walking home from work I met a young boy seemingly lost and distraught. "Is anything wrong and can I be of help?" I ventured to say. The boy looked at me and there in his teary eyes was a reflection of myself, young, innocent & with so much love to give. He reminded me of my family: the laughter we shared at the dining table, the opening of gifts on Christmas & the tender loving care of my mother. The boy answered with the saddest voice I ever heard: “My father just passed away,” and went his way leaving me transfixed on the ground.
His words opened a long forgotten garden in my heart. I suddenly thought of my own father. How was he? How was my mother? Did my siblings finish their studies?
I decided to dial the phone and called home. After long 7 years, I heard the familiar voice of my mother, still soft but frailty. “Joseph, Joseph, my son, is that you?” I could not to utter a word. The tears did the talking that words could not explain. The tears washed away the bitterness & pain in my heart. Like an epiphany everything seemed to make sense to me again. My father hurt me only to become stronger. I rebelled against them only to become better. They abandoned me only to love them deeper. “At the end of the day, a loving family should find everything forgivable,” so I remember Mark Olsen said.
If there is anything I learned from that experience is that there is no such thing as a perfect family. To borrow the words of Frederick Buechner we might put miles between you and your family “but you carry them always with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world, but a world lives in you.” In the ultimate analysis of life, family is indeed important because the family is everything.
(My winning speech in DTAC 2016, Abu Dhabi)