by Rianna G.

A 9-year-old boy opens his eyes and finds the sun’s rays piercing through his open window, indicating that he’d better get up and begin his regular weekend routine. With a yawn, he rises from bed, slides his slippers on his young feet, and (on his shoulders) slings on his most trusted companion: a styrofoam cooler containing popsicle sticks. He ventures outdoors in the early morning, walking along sidewalks and busy barangays, slipping his way through passers-by, all the while ringing his bell in high hopes that a stranger is in need of refreshment. He does so until noon time falls, then this normal weekend routine concludes as he walks all the way home.

At 14 years old, he enters his first year in the hectic world of high school. A regular school day for him looks like blackboards and work sheets and terminals and jeeps. It sounds like classmates’ chatter and teachers’ discussions and his own strained voice in the late afternoon calling out “TAYABAS-LUCENA!” to jeepney passengers. It also feels like inevitable drowsiness in class, a painful stomach from laughing and then latter coldness of coins against his palm, the lingering mixture of sweat, dirt, and humidity on his skin, along with the strain in his back, legs, and arms from clinging tightly on the tail end of the jeep for the duration of evening travels. His days adapt a rhythm.

Upon reaching 19 years of age, he successfully earns himself a high school diploma after all the tedious work. Through his constant exposure, he had learned at an absurdly early age about the reality that one cannot survive in the world outside four walls without money. From this, he knew that he could never have riches—or even basic needs for his family—without a paying job. So at 19 years old, fresh from high school, he signs up for full-time work involving maintenance of a large warehouse, minding intricate details every day to make sure that all the systems are checked and all work accordingly. Wow, this is the lightest labor I’ve done so far, he reflects at some point into his first official occupation. And he is right, for everything else that he signs up for beyond this point just sprawls out in a blur: washing dishes, following kitchen commands, getting fired, tending to the sick, sweeping subdivision streets, maintaining a subdivision pool, and selling siomai; grabbing at any work opportunity that presents itself because his life just didn’t give him the option to just sit around, relax, and still manage to get by. This is how every waking day went about for Mark Anastacio, or “Kuya Siomai” as we know him.

A glimpse of real life through currently 28-year-old Kuya Siomai’s eyes looks like this. To us, he’s the happy-go-lucky siomai vendor in the Xavier School Nuvali cafeteria who patiently waits in his stall every school day until a hungry student or teacher approaches. In this event, he would be ready (as always) to take their order and deliver it with accuracy, swiftness, and cleanliness, along with some extra joke to add flavor to their experience.

Initial observations and experiences of him direct us towards depicting him to be merely the jolly young siomai kuya of XSN. This description barely scratches the surface of who he really is though, but it does define a big part of him. Little do we know that behind his big smile hides a degree of sadness and behind crescent shaped eyes glints a spark of hope for a future that he longs for. Beyond his meager frame, there lay a story scattered with hardships, requiring strength and perseverance to be squeezed out from him to endure it all. This personal history has built a deeper dimension to his smiles and jokes. Molded by his family and disposition in life he has become the selfless and determined man that he knows he is is today: Kuya Mark Anastacio.

Kuya Mark has been the breadwinner of the family for as long as he could remember—or at least the one to sustain their financial situation when opportunities fell short for his father, the main supporter when they were young. Born the second out of eight siblings, this was a tough task on his shoulders (especially as a kid)  as he had to carry the family through financial difficulties as his mother stayed at home and his father didn’t consistently earn a living in construction work. Because of these monetary dilemmas, his siblings’ and his own early education suffered the most. Their elementary years were like a flickering light bulb– steady years just couldn’t be promised.

Kamusta ka naman po nung bata (How were you as a child?), I asked. “Ayun. Taliwas siya ng sobra dahil…ano kasi, grade 4, working student na ako (My childhood was different since at grade 4 I was already a working student),” he said. This was Kuya Mark’s first intimate exposure to the real world, where he was forced to learn the meaning of money in everyone’s lives. One hundred pesos could already tick one worry off his parents’ list, and he could provide himself baon instead of needing to ask.

Come high school, he became the kuya of his batch as he was older than most of his classmates due to the erratic elementary years. But not only was he kuya because of age, it also came from the respect and admiration given to him by his classmates as he was a figure looked upon in being responsible for his own schooling and work that early in his life. Directly after classes, he worked a night shift as a jeepney conductor to further alleviate the financial disposition of his family. His schedule then became dictated by fixed hours of work and studies, barely leaving him time for leisure or even reviewing at home. He were average, yet he still managed shoot his way up to being elected president of their student council and retaining a four-year leadership award. He also achieved the title of class clown and school joker, spreading good vibes and leaving a mark of his personality in that school despite tiresome days and weighty problems.

He wanted to become something and go somewhere in life. He opted  to go to college, but decided that his family needed him more. He also used to passionately respond “Pulis!” in What will I be 10 years from now exercises in elementary. He had stressed this desire to his parents when he was young, and they always responded along the lines of: Sure, as long as we can afford. Besides the financial predicament, his tendency to think negatively also hindered him from pursuing his dream since it required high standards. Unfortunately, both factors didn’t allow him to become a policeman and instead he was thrown into a string of random careers that made him earn–not just to support self-sustenance though, but to give his family a better life as well. Although his path shifted elsewhere, melancholy never showed on his face. Laughter and jokes defined the kuya Mark he was then and still is today.

Today he works at XSN as Kowloon House’s siomai vendor. The way he composes himself before all customers and all fellow canteen staff would make one think that he’s always at his happiest given whatever circumstances life throws at him. He did share that there was never a dull moment in his current job for he constantly bursted with jokes and everyone was willing to join in the laughter. Another reason for happiness was from his belief that one must love the customer if you want them to love you, so he puts extra effort into making both ends smile. But I had to ask if he was already contented with where he was in life and with how everything turned out. I was surprised by the firmness in his voice when he replied, “Siyempre hindi. Di tayo pwedeng, kumbaga, magpa-kampante sa ganitong buhay[…]Di ako pumapayag na dito lang (Ofcourse not. We can’t just settle with where we are in life at the moment. I refuse to accept just achieving until this point).”

Now he wants to build his own business, or look farther ahead and grasp his vision of working abroad instead. If he were to change anything in his life, he said that at this point he would have already worked his way to establishing a personal enterprise and he would have been hiring his own employees instead of being the one laboring in endless jobs with mediocre pay. “Darating ang magandang bukas sa taong may pagsisikap (A good future lies ahead for those who work for it),he said, reciting what was once his high school motto now his mantra ever since. This was what he held on to whenever reality confronted him.

The opposing ends of negativity and happiness and burdensome poverty and boundless dreams of Kuya Mark’s story are overall inspiring. Given the tedious nature of his life, I asked how he was able to deal with it all and manage to remain true to himself. This is what he imparts: “Oo laging negative thoughts lang pumapasok sa isip kapag nag-iisa. Gawa kasi yun ng pinagdaanan ko. Sa kabilang banda, pinipili ko paring maging masaya at magpasaya para makumpleto ang buhay ko. Dahil ang buhay ay may dalawang mukha, masaya at malungkot. Kapag di natin mararamdaman yun di pa kumpleto ang pagkatao natin (Yes, I always get negative thoughts, especially when I’m alone because of all that I’ve gone through. On the other hand, I still choose to be happy and share happiness so my life may be complete. Because life has two faces: happy and sad. If we don’t feel those, it means we aren’t complete yet).”

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