Image by Aamir Mohd Khan from Pixabay
We work to buy the privileges of youth that we missed, one job at a time
In his song, “Old AF,” Alex Aiono says it’s difficult to feel young when you’re burdened by responsibilities.
“Being young is pretty easy to forget, when you’re 16; paying mom and dad’s rent.”
I remember when I was 9 or 10 years old, a charity volunteer who visited my village was amazed when she learned that I hand-washed my clothes and did the all-around chores at home.
She said I was so grown up and independent. She said she wished her kids could be as responsible as I was. I didn’t tell her that I occasionally earned money too, by carrying hollow blocks for construction sites or collecting recyclable scraps for junk shops.
Growing up, I always envied kids who could afford to be immature. I wanted to rebel and hang out at malls and go to beaches and trips. But a fully-lived youth isn’t free. And not all people can afford it.
My parents did their best to provide for me and my siblings. But I had to find the money for the other things I wanted.
At 14, I sneaked into job fairs and sent out resumes. I got my first official job at the city’s garbage dumpsite. Not fancy work, but it paid. And I could finally afford one of my biggest childhood luxuries: A Big Mac.
For the following decade, my life followed that pattern: I worked to afford the privileges of youth that I missed, one job at a time.
Growing up, I always envied kids who could afford to be immature. I wanted to rebel and hang out at malls and go to beaches or trips or whatever. But a fully-lived youth isn’t free. It requires resources that not everyone could afford.
It started with a Big Mac. Followed by a portable DVD player. Then a camera (for school), a laptop, and my first set of brand-name clothes.
At 22, I moved out of my rural hometown and rented a place in the metro. It was great to finally live on my own. At 24, I had my first overseas trip.
A lesson on unfair advantage
I met a guy in Saigon; a friendly chef from Eugene, Oregon, who taught me about an important word.
The chef was traveling the world and he stayed a month in each city he visited.
I told him I wished I could do that too. My country’s passport is one of the weakest in the world. I need visas to cross most borders. And getting a visa in the Philippines, when you’re not well-off, well-connected, and well-informed, can be a tiring and lengthy process.
Pre-COVID, I’m amazed by the ease that first-world citizens “backpack” around the world. I envy all those college kids who write about spending their gap year in Thailand or Indonesia because “it’s sooo cheap!” Or all those “broke” people who vacation in Europe on a “budget” that surpasses an average Filipino’s monthly pay.
They can travel internationally without dealing with the bureaucracies and fees that I have to stress over.
In my experience, people don’t stay poor because of money; People stay poor because their world and options are too limited.
Travelling (when done right) exposes you to different cultures, perspectives, and — most importantly — opportunities that you couldn’t have imagined. It’s an experience that expands your world, your vision, and your options.
Passports aren’t just documents; they’re doors of opportunity. And these doors are more abundant and accessible for others, depending on who they are and where they’re from.
The chef smiled gently at me and said, “It’s called ‘Privilege’.”
The recipe of youth
I learned from books and movies that youth, or the feeling of youth, has a recipe. That recipe is generally made up of three things: Romantic Love, Passionate Dreams, and Adventures.
This is why most coming-of-age stories (Great Expectations, The Alchemist, The Breakfast Club, etc.) always have protagonists who journey through mishaps and shenanigans to chase a dream. And they always meet a romantic partner along the way.
Those three things eluded me for most of my teenage and childhood years.
It’s hard to feel confident when you’re wearing thrift store rejects from the late 80s. It’s even harder to go on dates when you don’t know your way around malls, or you’re unfamiliar with Starbucks drinks because you could barely afford them.
The second thing that being poor teaches you, after hunger, is shame.
It’s difficult to “chase your dreams” when your career options are limited to outsourced jobs for westerners because your country’s salary rate is barely enough to live on.
And adventures are left to books, movies, and imagination because staying at home is the cheapest way to unwind.
But when I pursued writing full-time a year ago, everything changed.
I’ve created work that I’m happy with; Work that is mine.
Sure, I’m constantly broke and often rejected by publications. And the most that I’ve earned in a month on Medium so far is just around $16. But I’m finally chasing a dream, living an adventure.
I’m also exploring my “relationship orientation.” I’ve recently written about my Polyamorous romance and I really appreciate the support that readers have sent me. I’ve also come to better terms with the end of my long-term relationship.
After decades of survival-based, toil-filled, experience-limited existence, I’m finally living a youthful life.
I feel like a 19-year old, going after his passion, jumping into uncertain but highly exciting worlds, and popping his cherry several times with multiple partners.
I’m “earning” my youth back. I’m on top of the world.
If you’re poor as a kid, but you’re still broke AF as an adult
I’m still mostly broke. I can afford a big mac now and then, but I still need a few hundred more dollars a month to reach middle-class status. Obviously, my story won’t qualify for a clickbait rags-to-riches story. (It’s more like rags-to-patched-up rags. And happier).
But I do want to use my example as a testament to all the broke, grown-ass people out there who have a similar background.
See, when you’re born and raised in poverty, you’re often not equipped with the financial and social management skills and mindset that middle-to-upper-middle class people grew up learning naturally.
Like, I didn’t know about insurance until I was 19. And I was largely ignorant of how poor people can apply for government or corporate aid so they wouldn’t have to rely on loan sharks.
And the “black tax” that Trevor Noah mentioned in his book, Born A Crime, is real. It applies not just to black people:
“Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.”
If you lived this way for decades, it becomes an ingrained habit that’s difficult to outgrow or disuse. The cycle of broke-hood is an easy trap to fall into.
The only way to break out of it is to live larger, younger; To think of our careers, lives, and relationships beyond the requirements of existence.
We can’t let ourselves be too shackled by responsibility, unfair consequences, and all that old people shit.
This could mean making concrete plans to travel for a wider worldview. Or exploring the dating pool more, if you’ve missed out on youthful romances. Or simply getting off the hamster wheel of dull work to unwind and reflect.
Sure, it’s harder to do all that with the pandemic still around. But we have to find ways. We can’t let ourselves be too shackled by responsibility, unfair consequences, and all that old people shit.
If we want to try out things we can’t afford in the past — now is the time. It’s always a trap when we say, “I’ll do it later when I’ve got more money or when my siblings have graduated or my parents are comfortable…”
You don’t need to do all the things you want at once. But you do need to put those plans on your calendar (or wherever you list down your priorities).
Whoever you are, whatever you look like, and wherever you’re from: Go get the youth you missed. You deserve it.