“What’s life like abroad?” That’s the second most-frequently asked question I hear after returning from living in Barcelona for over three years.
The most frequently asked question? “Why did you come back?”
That’s the subject for another blog post.
What life is like abroad is what I will be writing about for now, and the answer is not so simple.
I thought to try to answer the question with words, but instead, I’ve chosen to answer it with pictures, beginning with one I captured during my first week in Barcelona:
That photo was taken just a few weeks after this one:
And seeing the similarity in appearance, if not in circumstance, brought to mind Juxtapozitions, a photo project which will be the first (of four) creative projects I plan to launch this year.
As the title suggests, Juxtapozitions visually juxtaposes life in the Philippines and Europe. (If you’re curious as to why I misspell the word, it’s merely for social media purposes. If you check the hashtag #juxtapozitions, majority of it will be my images. For whatever that’s worth.) Mostly from Barcelona, of course, because that’s where I livedmost of the time, but also other Spanish cities including Granada, Girona, andLa Palma. I also traveled to the Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, Prague, and Toulon a couple of times.
Taken over a period of around three years, most of these were photos weren’t taken with this photo project in mind. But after going over my visual memory bank, I repeatedly come across photos that had visual or contextual similarities–for example, female fishmongers in the La Boqueria and a wet market in Aurora, Baler:
Or the waiting area in the Oficina de Extranjeria de Barcelona (foreigners’ office) and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila:
or Catalan children sitting on a curb during an FC Barcelona victory parade, and some Filipino boys just hanging out outside a sari-sari store during a holiday:
Incidentally, a week before I left Barcelona, the Spanish National Guard assaulted Catalans who were seeking independence from Spain, or at least the right to hold a referendum to do so. I found this ironic as around 150 years earlier, Spanish soldiers executed Filipinos fighting for independence from the Spanish empire :
In the photobook, I desaturate some of the photos to minimise the distinction between the two worlds.
So Juxtapozitions is one way I’ve chosen to answer the complex question, albeit to a very limited extent. By capturing parallels between life on opposite sides of the planet, a planet that seems to grow smaller with every leap forward in transport and information technology, I hope to provide some insight into what living in a culture and society that is so different–yet in some ways similar–to the one I grew up in, is like.
And if there’s any insight that I’ve gained during all those three years it would be these three:
People are inherently good
Anne Frank said it first. Without people I never would have made it. Not just once, but many times over. This doesn’t mean there aren’t absolute shits out there, there are, and keep away from them by all means. But they most likely didn’t start out that way. I’ve met some amazing and generous people, who didn’t know me at all and didn’t have anything to gain, but went out of their way, who offered help when I needed it so badly.
It takes three to five years
It takes at least three to five years to feel at home in a new place. If you’re lucky. Barcelona is a melting pot, like New York, Paris, or any other major metropolis, and I’ve encountered people from literally all over, but all of them come to the city to live, drawn by its warm climate, endless beaches, and vibrant culture. Some come to study then tried to transition to work, as I did. And like myself, many don’t speak Spanish, or Catalan for that matter. And language is a huge badge that declares you as either a local or a tourist. And there’s the matter of employment. I’ve lived with people who’ve moved from other Spanish cities to find work, only to go back because the financial crisis meant that lucrative opportunities were scarce all around. And friendships need time to grow. It’s more difficult to make friends when you’re older, people are busy or already have their sets of friends, and in a transitory city like Barcelona, people are coming and going all the time.
People are basically the same
Finally, despite everything, people are basically the same. We have the same motivations, the same wants, the same fears. Being indoctrinated at an early age I carried the burden of colonial mentality. I believed that everything from abroad was better, that people from Europe were the epitome of culture, intelligence, and sophistication. That they lived perfect, worry-free lives where they had free quality education, health care, fast internet, no crime or hunger, and everyone’s fart smelled like roses. Needless to say, it was a rather rude awakening.
And in the end, I suppose that’s what I’m trying to point out with Juxtapozitions, that we are the same, you and I. And that no matter where you go, your experience of a place is defined by the people that live in it.
To see previews of the Juxtapozitions photobook, you may check my Instagram or twitter under the hashtag #juxtapozitions.
If you’d like to order a copy, send me an email at pinoyartista(at)gmail. I accept payments via Paypal.
Back in December 2015, I had gotten it on (what I believed at the time to be) good authority that David Bowie was coming to Primavera Sound 2016. The prospect of seeing a creative genius of his calibre live so excited me that despite my source’s admonition not to spread the word, I could not help myself:
Getting into the whole Bowie vibe, I started learning how to play his songs on the guitar, and began researching which day he would perform in Barcelona. Even my sister who was half a world away seemed to be channeling the Thin White Duke:
To be honest, I am not a hardcore Bowie fan, in fact, I was a new one. I didn’t realise it was his birthday or listened to Blackstar until after he had already died.
Then there was that series of highly-publicised deaths that first few days of 2016: Scott Weiland, Lemmy, Alan Rickman, Maurice White. Then Aaron Swartz and Dave Mirra.
But it was the building anticipation of seeing David Bowie live, that whole ‘you might not get another chance’ feeling, then to have it suddenly vanish, that made his death strike a chord. And to make things even more odd, here is where I spent the 1st of January (playing the guitar, to boot):
This inexplicable series of events compelled me to create what will be the #BowieForever series. The series will consist of six limited edition mono screeprints and shirts which will be released over the course of several weeks.
Each mono screenprint is numbered, printed on 300 gsm watercolour paper and signed by Jose Gamboa with a Certificate of Authenticity.
As I created each design (while listening to the mournfully brilliant Blackstar) I could not help but contemplate the power and influence and creativity that could come from just one man, a man who will live forever through his work.
It has only been a few weeks since his spirit rose and stepped aside, and for now, it will be difficult to imagine anyone replacing David Bowie.
One more thing: Before I left the Philippines for Barcelona over a year ago, I sawThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Although inspiring, the film was too cheesy and unrealistic for my taste (How can Walter Mitty’s phone never run out of battery? And downhill long boarding is no easy thing). Nonetheless, it was a good film. Anyway, I didn’t realise or remember (until recently) that David Bowie’s Space Oddity featured largely in that film, and I wanted to share Kristen Wiig’s more than decent rendition of it:
The Creative (detail)
by Jose Gamboa
56 x 20 cm
acrylic on canvas
For the past three and a half weeks, I’ve been on a social media sabbatical–more specifically, a facebook fast.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve gone on a facebook fast or been, to practice my castellano, incommunicado.
A couple of years ago, feeling a bit overwhelmed with how much the internet was taking up my time, and how it was affecting me psychologically, I decided to unplug once a week. That meant that every Sunday I didn’t go online at all. Then, I decided to try getting off facebook for a week.
Then it extended to a month. Then two. It is sort of like freediving, seeing just how far you can push yourself. In the end, I stayed off facebook a year and a half.
Eventually, reality pulled me back in because I started working as a freelance community manager, and the bogus account I had created to manage pages was taken down (big surprise since the account was named Katherine Upton and had only photos of the same). Until that point, even though I was managing several pages, my personal account was deactivated, and I had no connection with my 150 or so facebook friends during this time (I also tried to limit my connections to a minimum, believing Malcolm Gladwell’s “Rule of 150” from The Tipping Point where he purports that people have the capacity to have no more than 150 genuine connections. But believe me, I didn’t really have a whole lot of friends to add back then anyway. Today, things have improved for me somewhat socially, but I still don’t consider myself to have been blessed with a large number of true friends.
For some reason, being reachable never appealed to me. As a result, I only got a cellphone in 2008 when they handed me one at work, signed up for facebook in 2009, five years after the social media giant had already been available. At the height of their popularity, I didn’t sign up for Friendster, Myspace or Multiply, and consequently didn’t feel any remorse when these platforms went under, taking people’s precious photos and writing down with them. Today, I still own the same phone I bought five years ago, and in 2013 I bought a secondhand iPad 2, which was my first ever smart device. On it I installed the messaging app Viber, but because it is not supported on the iPad, I never got on WhatsApp, simply because I didn’t like the name or interface, and I thought mistakenly that Viber was sufficient, which was wrong because the former apparently is the preferred app of 99% of instant messenger users. Later, facebook outsourced their messaging interface, forcing everyone to install a 3rd party app which sucked.
Now, after moving to Barcelona and doubling my number of facebook friends, I decided for a second time, to go on a facebook fast. Again, it was partly because I was starting to feel overwhelmed, and I thought it was time to pull the needle from the vein.
Also, I was simply acting in accordance to my nature. I really think that facebook is too powerful, and can dictate whatever they want and the masses will follow, and that despite Zuckerberg having the best intentions, what happens in the future when he eventually goes? The people left running the biggest repository of private information may not be so ethical. It could already be happening. I had dragged my feet getting into the social media bandwagon, and now I was trying to get out before I got in too deep.
A third reason is because I think one of the biggest drawbacks of social media is narcissism and shortened attention spans. Facebook has spawned the selfie, the throwbacks, the oh-so-precious relationship and status updates that have become drugs for our egos. For an introvert like myself, I find it anathema to overshare, to imagine oneself so important as to matter, to be the voice of reason in a s0-called discussion about what colour a dress is or whatever controversy is currently trending.
Ironically, I have this blog and I have shared quite a bit on it as it is. But this is not for likes.
Furthermore, studies have shown that overuse of social media foments envy, lowered self-esteem, and for younger people, hinders academic adjustment.
It is such a breath of fresh air when you get off the timesuck that is facebook, or social media in general. The day seems longer, there is time to do relatively more important things, read a book, reminisce–not always a good thing, and to have–can you imagine?–real life conversations.
Here’s what unplugging has taught me:
1. You learn who your real friends are
This is the biggest insight I gleaned from my 2nd facebook fast. Of course, living abroad, I told my family that I would be going on a social media sabbatical, but I didn’t tell anybody else. Coincidentally, this was right about the time that Lent started, although I didn’t realise it at the time, and my sister joked that being raised Catholic, religious observance is in my theological body clock.
Even for the first facebook fast, I didn’t post an update notifying my adoring public that I would be deactivating. That would be contradictory to the entire exercise.
A day after I got a text from a couple of people asking what happened to my account. And I also started looking for emails and mobile numbers, alternative ways of getting in touch, and those that I wanted to get in touch with, I did so through these channels. Many were perturbed, others simply took it in stride. But facebook can be such a mindfuck–pardon my french–that you really start to get deluded into thinking those likes mean something, that your opinion matters, that your wall is your pulpit, your microphone for spewing your unimportant garbage into the world. Facebook doesn’t even show it to everyone unless you pay them for reach.
So I realised who actually wanted to talk to me, who I wanted to stay connected with, not just the random like or share. Having 300 or so ‘friends’ on facebook was in the end, a meaningless number, and by my count, I had between thirty to forty real friends. More to the point, it isn’t about being a hermit (something I’ve been called more than once), it’s about realising that you can be in touch in so many other ways, and that while social media may be the easiest and currently the most prevalent, it isn’t necessarily the best.
2. There is more time in the day than you realised
When I started to unplug I would leave my phone at home, or just let the battery run out. I stuck to a rigid schedule for checking email, even using a plug-in that would block my email screen every half hour. Whereas prior to deactivating I would log into facebook the first thing when I booted up the computer, or years later when I got a tablet, was the first thing I would instinctively check in the morning and the last thing before going to bed. Even Instagram at one point started to get too much, but at least it is not so intrusive.
Studies show that Filipinos spend an average of 4 hours a day on social media. The rest of the world probably goes to about 2 to 3…but nonetheless, that adds up. There are a lot of telling statistics on Tech Addiction. Life is brief enough as it is, and I refuse to squander any more time than I already have.
Without facebook, I found life went at a much more leisurely pace: cooking, cleaning, going for strolls, and doing errands, writing, and getting a lot of work that I had been putting off thanks to the addictive distractions of facebook, twitter, instagram, pinterest, tumblr, etc, done.
3. It gets easier
Like any substance you abuse, be it food, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, going cold turkey on facebook is extraordinarily difficult. The first time around, I had a bad case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Nobody invited me to anything, simply because they couldn’t add me to an event. I would hear conversations about this post, that comment, events, and hadn’t the faintest clue about what was going on. I started to feel like a non-person.
But after a while, as I mentioned in No. 1, people start to come around. They find other ways of reaching you, they pass the message through everyone around you. This was similar to when I refused to buy a cellphone. People would reach me through other people’s phones, and I eventually started using other people’s phones to text and call others, which of course, didn’t sit well with the one who owned the phone and had to pay the bill. I also learned that there are actually people who are affronted by or suspicious of people who don’t have a mobile phone or facebook account.
After a month I was relishing the exhilarating feeling of not having to check my wall, or needing to respond to friend requests from strangers or people you really didn’t want to add, or facestalking that cute girl from the bar, or keeping up with whatever people were concerned about, eating, wearing, or hawking.
4. You need a substitute
But it isn’t enough just to deactivate facebook. Or not log into social media…on our personal smart devices these are always on, so unless you adjust the settings (or delete the app) the notifications will keep clamouring for your attention like a spoiled child every three seconds. Like alcoholics or drug addicts, if you don’t substitute the destructive habit with a positive one, you just tend to find another millstone to hang around your neck to replace the previous one. Aside from social media, the internet is in itself a huge landscape for you to simply lose yourself in. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried pretty much all sorts of platforms, wasted hours in discussion boards, watching TV series, days playing computer games, and have gone on youtube video binges, and even email suddenly becomes extremely interesting when you are so used to being in front of a screen that it is your default state, regardless of whether there is something to do or not.
The point of unplugging is to preserve your limited time and bandwidth and devoting these to worthwhile projects and activities. So in the morning, instead of tapping on that notification, do a few stretches instead. Instead of checking twitter twenty times a day, do it only when you’re boiling tea or making coffee, and set a timer. Get a limited data plan. Or better yet, don’t get one. I don’t have 3G on my tablet, which means I cannot always be connected and have to find that modern day oasis: The Wifi hotspot.
Similar to Tim Ferris’ advice in The Four-Hour Workweek, people should go on a low information diet. This means you limit the amount of input to your brain, thereby saving your brain capacity for only important matters. Don’t open email from other people first thing when logging in. This only puts you at the mercy of other people’s agendas. Instead, send those emails that you need to send, setting a timer for a half-hour or so, and log off once you’ve completed the most important email tasks. Repeat in the afternoon. Don’t read shit novels, magazines, listen or look at advertising, don’t memorise useless information, write it down, don’t read messages right when they arrive, or answer the phone during a meal.
So what do you do instead with the extra two to four hours in your day? That’s your call; you could take up a hobby, or learn something you’ve always wanted to, like dancing, but you will be surprised at what you are able to accomplish once you’ve taken control of your daily routine.
So if you’re considering going on a social media sabbatical, here are some suggestions:
Realise whether or not you are spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer
Start weaning yourself off by checking email, social media, a fixed number of times a day. Try running an errand without bringing your device with you.
Intentionally do not check your email/facebook/instagram/twitter the first thing when you wake up and the last thing at night. Place the device in another room, or at least not by the bedside table when you sleep. Place it on silent at night.
Pick a day to unplug. Saturday or Sunday usually works best.
If you decide to deactivate, try shooting for a week and see how it feels. Go longer if you feel like it.
Disable notifications or better yet, sign out or delete the apps. Take them off your home screen.
Find a substitute. If your mornings are spent browsing social media, write instead. In the evenings, reading a book is a great way to relax your brain for deep sleep.
If you have kids, you can install plug-ins to limit their time online, or this is also a great strategy for the more technologically-adept parent:
To finish, I’m not saying facebook is bad, not at all, and just like computers and the internet, it serves a purpose. Google, Wikipedia, Youtube, these have become indispensable, or at least, extremely useful in education, research, finding what’s showing at the cinema and how to breakdance. Social media has brought people closer together in ways that the post, beepers, cellphones, skype, instant messaging did to some degree…but in a more immediate, (somewhat) enjoyable, and visual way.
Nowadays, a community page is mandatory for all businesses and organisations, and I know that it can be useful. As an artist, I have experienced firsthand how the internet has turned the art game on its head, taking away some–not all–the power from the institutions (galleries, curators, museums, auction houses). It is important for anyone with their own business, but especially those in the creative fields to have an online presence, be it a website, online portfolio, or a pinterest account (which I will never ever sign up for. Ever).
18.09.17 Update: 2015 –Opened a Pinterest account 😑
Approaching the end of my social media sabbatical, the urge to stay off facebook for good is really strong. But we’ll see how it goes.