Monday, March 25, 2013

Fatal Fatalism

On March 15, Kristel Tejada, a 16-year old University of the Philippines freshman, committed suicide because she was despondent that she couldn't pay her tuition on time and as a result was faced with having to sit out the semester. The University, a public institution, has taken a lot of heat for its purported inflexibility in not working with the girl and her family. However, the school was in the midst of changing its policy towards its economically disadvantaged students, and if the Kristel had waited a few more days, under the new guidelines, she would have gotten a break.

But who's really to blame for this tragedy? Was it really the school's fault? Or instead as one newspaper columnist submitted, was Kristel herself personally responsible for making the decision to end her life? I think the latter opinion is too harsh. Kristel was still an adolescent which is a time of life when problems often seem magnified out of proportion and when emotional maturity and rational thinking are not yet fully developed. This is especially the case in the Philippines where according to my wife Lydia, a psychologist, emotional maturity is impeded even further due to overly intense family interdependency. (And BTW the combined number of years of study for pupils in Philippine public and many private elementary and high schools is only 10 years rather than 12 as in many other countries. So sixteen is the typical age for starting college).

In my opinion it was the parents who were at fault, not for pushing Kristel academically (in her case that wasn't necessary anyway as she was a brilliant scholar who loved her studies) but rather for placing the financial future of the family, which included several siblings, on her shoulders, a burden which she evidently took very seriously. In Philippine culture it's common for poor families which usually include several children to try scrape up college tuition for one of the kids, usually the eldest, and charge her or him  with the task of completing school, landing a good job, and then not just "paying forward" the school costs of the other siblings, but also  becoming the main source of the family's income. If the parents lack  the funds to cover the full tuition expenses of even one child, well "bahala na"just leave the matter in God's hands. Somehow things will work out.

But as Kristel's death shows, such arrangements are fraught with risk. Evidently, she believed that she had failed her family and just couldn't handle (what she perceived as) the shame for letting them down. To quote her father."The UP deprived my daughter of her only hope to help us". This says it all. Why did Kristel have feel that way? Was it her fault the family had too many mouths to feed in the first place? Who should be supporting whom? She should never have been made to feel for an instant that her sole purpose in life was improving her family's living standard.

Then yesterday, I read about a young man, also from a large, poor family who was putting himself through college by working at night, but he was killed in a mugging on his way home from his job. As with Kristel, his parents had pinned their hopes for a better life not just for their son but for the whole family on his eventual completion of his studies and a starting a successful career.

In short, for his and Kristel's parents, it seems that these children were considered  a ticket out of poverty, little more than means to an end. But will people see it that way?  More likely they will blame everything but the parents' participation in a  way of life of irresponsibly  bringing more children into the world than they can afford  and then expecting their kids to pick up the slack for their own short-sightedness,  a toxic tradition which in the end needlessly cost these two young people their lives.


Kano said...

Hi Rick,

Yes, it is so sad to see someone taking her own life for this reason.

Although, we really don't know the whole story, there was that issue where the family did not have enough money for her college tuition. And that caused a lot of stress for the girl. And not being that old to be able see the end of the tunnel, she commited suicide. The perfect ingredients for disaster.

Also, that families push the burden onto the elder siblings to take care of the family is a very wrong thinking from the parents, but in the Philippines, and also in other Asian countries, many parents push this idea onto the elder kids.

That is probably why they make many children, like many investors invest in many stocks, because parents think, one of the children will be a profit for the family and for them when they will be of old age.

That is fortunately true, as I do see this with the family of my wife. Some do contribute to the parents, so usually, the father does not have to go out and work anymore, usually, this has been going on since he was in his 50s, where he can just stay home and collect from his daughter's hard work and his son-in-law. He may already have many kids who are doing this. So, they are just opportunists.

However, there are also many other Colleges/Universities, where children can study for free or for very little money (upon proving that the parents have very little income), like at the State Universities in the provinces, and they also produce many professionals who get decent jobs in the Philippines.

So, there could also have been options to this girl who killed herself, after she may had to sit another semester out without studying. But, these avenues did not come into play, probably because of the stress from her parents and her belief that studying in a University in Metro Manila is the only way for prosperity and lifting her parents out of poverty.

She was just a young heart who thought had only very few options in her life, and it just broke her.


Secular Guy said...


Well said,and anyone who was not moved by the last line in your reply must have a heart of stone.

Anonymous said...

I support 2 kids there in the Phils. Well, I help one and one I support. Both are the oldest in their families and both carry that burden of being "bread winners" one day. It certainly surprised me when they explained this to me. And, it burdens both of them.
How can a family expect their 4th grade dropout to be a bread winner??

I wonder how that father feels now after reading or hearing on tv his selfish comment after his daughters suicide? I bet all her life he drummed this "bread winner" thing into her head. You never want to feel this was a relief to her because life is precious but I bet that is what she thought she would feel. (that last line is kinda dumb but I am leaving it)
I am enjoying your blog..i just found it today

Secular Guy said...


Thanks for your vote of support. This was one of the most difficult topics that I ever wrote about in "Your Guide to Living In The Philippines.

Hats off you for helping those kids.

You're probably right that Kristel got a daily dose of "great expectations", too great. Deep down inside she probably always resented it, which was a healthy response to the prospect of being used. Sadly, though she probably felt that she had no one to talk to about this trap and turned this anger herself instead. So I wonder if counseling might have saved her.