Wednesday , March 6 2024

How I Escaped Poverty in the Philippines

25 years ago, I was a broke teenage boy with no future.

Today, I’m a tech director at an IT firm in Tokyo.

This is how I broke the cycle of poverty through a combination of luck, clear purpose, and an unwavering determination to never give up.

A Childhood Realization

I grew up in a poor family in the Philippines. Maybe not that poor, but poor enough to remember that I often starved at school having no money to buy food for lunch.

Growing up in a poor family where there were constant fights about money, gambling, and alcoholism, you could say I didn’t have a happy childhood.

Other than that I was a well-rounded kid. My mother and father, although flawed in their own ways, loved us, and that helped a lot.

But the constant fights at home and my mother’s alcoholism instilled in me the longing to build a family I never had.

At the young age of 13, I dreamt of running away and longed to build an ideal family of my own.

Grappling with Poverty

Although our family was poor I didn’t really mind it when I was growing up. I was busy playing outdoors and most of my mates are either the same or worse than us.

During my teens, the time I started to read a lot, I became aware of social inequities in the world.

I read a lot of John Steinbeck’s works and one of his novels, Of Mice and Men, made a deep impression on me.

The real shock came when I entered college at the age of 16.

There, I felt and understood firsthand what it meant to be poor.

While I starved and barely could afford the college tuition fee, my classmates were coming to school in their fancy cars.

I didn’t resent my classmates―most of them were good to me.

But I knew, too, that they couldn’t help me. So I mostly kept to myself, spending most of my time at the uni’s library.

Maybe because of stress at college, lack of food, or both, my body got weak and I contracted tuberculosis during my first year in college.

Nobody knew until I collapsed and puked blood all over the place.

I was lucky I contracted the disease in 1996 when medicine for it was already readily available.

My grandfather, whom I never met, wasn’t so lucky. He died poor and from the same disease in 1973.

Meanwhile, I had to stop college for a year to get on medication.

That was when I realized that the game was unfairly rigged against poor students like me in the Philippines.

At the age of 17, I knew I needed to change my game.

The Mac Shock

After I recovered I came back to college a year later.

My classmates were already 1 year ahead of me.

No matter. I already knew I couldn’t compete with them anyway so I just played along and bided my time.

A chance came a year later in an unlikely form.

My eldest brother who was studying in Japan at that time returned for the holidays and brought back a computer.

It was an Apple computer called Color Classic II.

It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

This started my fascination with computers and it became a sort of a craze for me.

Our eldest brother told us (three siblings) that if we wanted one for ourselves the easiest way was to go to Japan.

But there was a catch ― we needed to study really hard to get it.

No matter, I’ve already made up my mind. I wanted out anyway so I decided there and then that I’m going to Japan whatever it takes.

I used the Mac as the symbolic object of my purpose.

So the next semester, I made one of the most significant decisions in my life:

I lied to my parents.

The Plan

Even at a young age I already knew graduating college in the Philippines wouldn’t get me anywhere.

But I knew, too, that if I told my parents about my plan, they wouldn’t approve of it.

What was the plan?

The plan was to forget about college in the Philippines and focus on just one thing:

Winning the Japanese Government Scholarship to study in Japan.

To do that I needed to focus all my energy on passing the examination. And for that, I needed support and funding.

Of course, my parents wouldn’t support nor fund my “escape plan.” That’s for sure.

So come enrollment time, I dropped 90% of my courses and pretended to my parents that I was taking all classes.

I made it seem that I have full classes but in truth, I was attending only 3 courses per week.

I spent most of my time at the uni’s library and sometimes going to random malls and public libraries to study (for the scholarship exam).

Then I used the refund from the dropped courses to buy used books and fund my wicked plan.

I stopped drinking and disappeared from my drinking buddies ― I focused all my energy on preparing and passing the test.

I never told a single soul about my plan.

And then in 1998, I took the Japanese Government scholarship exam for the first time.

I wish I could tell you I aced the exam and I was on the plane to Japan by early 1999.

But as is often the case, the reality isn’t that easy and the universe will test your resolve first before it gives in to your request.

The exam was difficult as expected, but I did OK.

Well, I passed the test alright. I was one of the candidates selected from thousands of applicants in the Philippines and all over the globe.

Unfortunately for me, the powers that be thought that other students deserved the limited scholarship placements more than I did.

So in January 1999, I received the “I regret to inform you” letter by post.

It was one of the greatest disappointments in my life.

The Choice

While I was still licking my wounds trying to figure out what did I do wrong, I had to quickly decide on one thing:

Am I going to quit and accept my fate in the Philippines or am I going to try one more time?

My parents were expecting me to graduate in a year or so.

If continued dropping classes to focus on the scholarship exam, graduation would take two more years.

If I get selected it wouldn’t matter, but if I failed again I had to admit to my parents that I had been lying to them all this time.

It was an agonizing decision at that time.

A part of me felt it would be easier to just quit and get back to drinking with my buddies.

I imagined my parents’ grim faces when they finally learned I couldn’t graduate on time.

“You lied to us. Your father could barely pay for your tuition fees and you’re telling us you still need two more years to finish college? What have you been doing all this time!?!”

“The hell with it! I’m going to do it!”

It was my final chance anyway since I’m nearing the age limit for the scholarship program.

I decided to take the scholarship exam one last time.

On my second try, I doubled down on the work:

・studied World History inside out

・mastered English grammar

・doubled my efforts in Algebra and Calculus (my weakness)

So in the fall of 1999, I again took the examination for the Japanese Government Scholarship, passed it, and was again invited for the final interview.

During the final interview, I remember I wasn’t as nervous as the first one―I guess I was more determined than nervous.

One of the interviewers recognized me from the year before, he said, “You were here last year, weren’t you?”

“Yes sir, I was. And if I didn’t get the scholarship this time around, I promise you you’ll be seeing me again next year, too.” They laughed.

It was a hollow promise since it was my final chance. I’ve reached the age limit for the program and I wasn’t qualified to apply again.

Luckily, it worked!

So in late January, year 2000, I finally received the “I am pleased to inform you” letter by post mail.

The Land of the Rising Sun

On April 3, 2000, I boarded my very first plane ride.

Destination: Osaka, Japan.

Although I knew nothing about the language or the Japanese culture, I didn’t care.

I was free and I never looked back.

My flight arrived at Kansai International Airport at night time. I remember it was cold and windy. My memory of that night was a fuzzy haze of darkness combined with an incredible array of lights at the airport.

The following day, I went outside my dorm room to gaze at the strange new land under the morning sun for the first time.

Breathing in the cold spring air of Japan, there was a faint smell of green tea in the air.

The memory of that first day is still vivid in my head.

I realized that morning that I’d made it―I broke the cycle.

I thought, “This is a good country to start a family. My children will be born in this land. Here, they will have a fighting chance…”

Then a voice in my head said, “Hey, you’re getting way over your head. Let’s first focus on getting that Mac, shall we?”



23 years later… I’m now married to a beautiful and supportive wife, and we have three children ― all happy and healthy kids. We couldn’t ask for more.

We live in western Tokyo where there’s still lots of green and the river is crystal clear.

I guess my plan worked out well after all.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to get from this story, it’s that you’ll have to view your life at the macro level and ask,

“What kind of life do I want to have?”

As long as the decisions you make henceforth help you move closer to your ideal life, don’t hold back. You’ll be Okay.

And never, ever, give up on your dreams.


As for me, I’m now ready to embark on a new adventure again.

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