I HAD seen it coming.

It was too obvious. I had seen it from the way Dad and Mom had puttered around the house, rearranging the tables and leather sofas like infatuated interior designers.

Weird, but it all meant one thing: a VIP was coming.

In our household, VIPs could be a long-lost family member who hadn’t seen yet how much hair Dad lost in the past two years; a swanky person clad in Gap and Ralph Lauren from head to foot, with big balikbayan boxes and Samsonites trailing behind or a combination of the two.

Either way, my older sister Kristine fit the description nicely. Her first homecoming from cosmopolitan Chicago threw my parents into a quite senseless hysteria and delirium.

Don’t get me wrong. Like the rest of the family, I was glad too that Kristine was finally coming home after a couple of years. But what I found really funny was how they prepared for her arrival. Did they really have to repaint the whole house or buy new furniture? It was all unnecessary spending. But all I heard from them when I asked for money was “Magtipid ka naman.” Now, look who’s talking. Besides, I didn’t think Kristine would complain just because the white walls had dulled into grey. Although she was the annoying my-way-or-the-highway type, she didn’t whine constantly.

She was an exact replica of Mom, whose gentle disposition often clashed with Dad’s hyperactivity. When she wanted something done her own way, she got it in an admirable manner by saying it was practical and right. But sometimes, it was only practical but not right.

I pleaded to stay behind when they went to the airport to fetch Kristine because I was too lazy to go to that chaotic place. I went up to my room and retired to bed. It seemed like only yesterday when she was a harassed student like me. But I was always conscious of the great difference between us. She was a conscientious nursing student and was often in the dean’s list, while I was contented with passing grades and having fun in college. I was amazed at the energy she poured into her studies. Usually, after a quick dinner, she would lock herself up in her room, only coming out every three or so hours to go to the bathroom or have a snack, mumbling incoherently to herself. When I would ask her what she had been up to, she would look at me with narrowed eyes and snap, “Studying, of course. What else?”

The nightly soliloquy with her books paid off; eventually she graduated magna cum laude, topped the board exams and immediately landed a job in a prestigious hospital in the US. And now, after two years, she was finally coming back. Soon, I drifted into a fitful sleep in which a blur of faces floated inside my head like crazy.

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I woke up the next morning, thinking in my foggy daze that I had to go to school. I glanced at the alarm clock: eight o’clock already, late again! I tossed off the heavy blanket and forced myself to look out of the window to the street below, where a noisy game of tumbang preso was going on. Then I remembered that it was Saturday. Of course, another glorious weekend. As I lay back once more, a delicious aroma of garlic, onions, eggs, and rice most probably sauteed to a pleasant golden brown wafted up to my room and my smile wavered a little as I remembered one Very Important Fact: Maying would cook fried rice only when a VIP was around. Kristine loved fried rice. I couldn’t remember a morning when she didn’t have a full plate of it.

It all came back – Kristine’s arrival last night. I had almost conveniently forgotten. I sighed heavily. How I wished I didn’t have to remeber, that everything was all right, that I was happy that my sister was back – but I was not. seeing her would only remind me of the last thing I want to be – another clone. And I was so tired of being one.

How far would you go to make someone happy? And why did they say that making someone happy will make you feel the same too? It went the other way around for me. I thought I was doing myself a big favor when I agreed to follow Kristine’s footsteps because I wanted to please my parents. Yet, I ended up becoming miserable each day.

“Nyca, are you there? Are you awake?”

I yanked the door open and in a moment I was tightly engulfed in a sea of pink silk and reddish brown hair. A fruity scent stung my nose and I fought the urge to sneeze. Kristine stepped back to survey me, a playful smile on her face and her perfectly manicured hands on her hips.

“Man, you’ve grown prettier!” she exclaimed, sitting down on my bed. She fanned herself and pulled her tousled bangs away from her face. “I can’t stand the heat in here! Man!” She smiled apologetically. “But then, it’s good to be home, at last. Thank God, Dad had installed an aircon in my room. So how’s life? You’re in your second year, right?”

I nodded.

“And soon you’ll be joining me.” As we gaily swapped stories, I realized that nothing much had really changed about her. She was still the same Ate I knew. She really loved her life in the States. Her face was all lit up as she recounted all her adventures.

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I listened to her with only one ear. Another clone, a voice echoed in my mind.

I really couldn’t understand why my whole family was so hell-bent on going abroad. They seemed to adore very much the dollar sign, maybe that was why I was turning into someone I didn’t want to be in the first place.

Look at your sister, listen to her! She’s the perfect mold from the cookie cutter. Why can’t you be like her? Why do you want to be different? You can be happy too, if you stop trying hard to be different. It’s simple logic: if A is equal to B, B equal to C, then A is equal to C!

Kristine had long left the room but I still sat there, staring vacantly at the wall.

Unfortunately, my parents had drawn up an irrevocable plan for me and forced me to take up nursing because they wanted to migrate to the States. Although, I had set my mind on becoming a teacher, they had refused to hear my side. “Nurses are in demand nowadays,” they reasoned. “Don’t waste your opportunities. Why? Your Ate Kristine is very successful there, earning big money and enjoying life. We know what’s best for you.” I argued that I was not Kristine but Mom gave me a stern look that said, “Our decision is final. No buts.” So what else could I do but comply? So I worked my way through college trying to live up to the “practical” ideas of my parents.

We lived a fairly comfortable life, yet my parents strongly believed that on the other side of this planet, the grass is greener. Therefore, life there is much easier, unlike in this seemingly damned country, where graft and corruption is the stable fare and the weather is perpetually annoying. But I was much pretty sure that I could survive here. I couldn’t care less about earning big money, as long as I could do whatever I truly love.

No, I’m not a zealous patriot. I just couldn’t understand the simplest inanities we all do¯like how we prioritize the wrong things. What I even found more baffling was how my Mom could rejoice when the peso depreciates against the dollar. This meant good news for her¯more corresponding pesos for the dollars Kristine regularly sent her, more money for shopping, more new makeup and dresses. You’d think she was only keeping herself from gleefully clapping her hands, jumping up and down, raising her eyes to the ceiling and exclaiming, “Thank God!” She had the most unusual source of gratification.

For almost two months, I tried to avoid the whole family as they went to the prescribed duty-free shops and resorts, visited long-forgotten relatives and generally tried to have fun. As often as possible, I didn’t join them during meals or TV time. I immersed myself in my studies, often went out with friends and even if I was home, I just stayed in my room. My sudden “hibernation” didn’t go unnoticed though. One morning as I was preparing for school, Kristine greeted me jokingly, “Where have you been?” I only smiled blankly and went on my way.

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If only she knew what she really represented to me, then she would surely run out of jokes or stories about how great her life was in the States. If only I could find happiness in whatever was given to me and stop being a grouch. I didn’t want to die a raging pessimist or lunatic, but it seemed like everyone around me was driving me to do so. I had to do something before it was to late.

The opportunity came sooner than I expected. One hot afternoon while I was studying, Kristine came barging into my room. “Hey, look at what I’ve bought for you from the bookstore,” she said enthusiastically, holding up a package. “A book on nursing procedures! It’s really a good find.” She then noticed my impassive face. “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”

I stared at her and then at the book neatly wrapped in red plastic, and without a word, viciously flung it out of the window.

Kristine stood there with mouth open. “What’s wrong with you? I paid good money for it, and you threw it like it was nothing!”

“I hate it,” I burst out, fury welling up in my fists, and I started to haphazardly throw my books and papers to the floor. “I hate this life you’ve all given me!” Finally, I found the courage to say all the things that had built up dusty cobwebs in my head over the years. Although taken aback, Kristine listened to me quietly. When I had finished, I felt exhausted but relieved. My heart felt lighter as I let those words out in the open. “I’ve thought this over for so long, and decided. I’m going to shift to another course.” She started to speak but I held up an authoritative hand and repeated the same words my parents had used. “No buts.”

Hurriedly she strode out of my room. I knew that she would immediately tell my parents, that shortly they would be here in my room to try to make me change my mind. Again, they would cite the bright future awaiting me abroad and lament the two years I had wasted. But no, nothing could change my mind now. I valued my sanity and happiness more than anything.

Like Kristine, I too, was finally home.

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