• Reflecting on a Hip Hop 101 Lesson Plan: 16 Barz - the Art of Rhyme

    When I look back at my planning for this unit - I honestly did not think it would take 4-5 weeks to really cover ‘The Art of Rhyme’. There were several factors that came into play:

    • Students’ prior knowledge when it comes to poetic constructs and reading/hearing them in songs
    • How much can be accomplished in 40 minute blocks - some days flow quickly as they got some concepts faster, while some days we had to slow things down and really dig in
    • Comfort-level with being vulnerable to the process: writer’s block, not worrying about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approaches, etc.

    Once I was able to meet my students where they were at - they really took the reigns and ran with it.  By the time we reached the end, they were asking…BEGGING…to present to each other.

    Starting off slow: Build-up to writing their rhymes

    The decision to start off slow and not jump into writing rhymes right away was intentional. I wanted them to truly explore the importance of the element and its use of known literary conventions. Inspired by Chase March's Lesson Plan on the Structure of Rap Songs and Paul Carl's Rap Poetry Lesson, I created a Kahoot! fun quiz on “Shakespeare” vs. “Hip Hop” which helped the students see that when you strip the beat away, rap lyrics can often be indistinguishable from a Shakespearean sonnet. We also watched a bit of the Ted Talk where Akala eloquently modeled this. This led to exploring the literary conventions emcees use in their rhymes. 


    We looked at several sets of lyrics and annotated them; spotting the different conventions in the verses. We discussed and broke down what they meant. They backed up their choices.  They struggled with spotting the conventions.  After jumping through a few annotations of classic and modern hip hop songs - I hit them with Hamilton.

    Again, saving Hamilton for last was intentional. Their challenge was to find as many literary conventions as possible. Of the 10 conventions on their lists, “Alexander Hamilton” - the introductory song to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s libretto - has about EIGHT.  Feedback from the students was fruitful. They shared their awe with rapping over a live orchestra pit, observations of the different rhyme styles presented by the characters, etc.

    Following our annotations, we looked at the construct of most Hip Hop songs. Hence the title of our lesson, 16 Barz. They learned that most Hip Hop songs are 16 bars in a verse (8 couplets) and a hook. We looked at Run DMC’s “My Adidas” to examine phrasing, aesthetics, as well as the beat.  Through this exercise they learned how to “find the one” and how rap song generally follow a four beat count-off - “1, 2, 3, 4, 2-2, 3, 4…”


    Then they were off and attempting to fly on their own. 

    Unlocking the inquiry

    Each section (101 A & 101 B) split into two groups.  Each group was assigned a school-related topic: Books, Notes, Pens, and Class. The requirements were simple: come up with 16 bars (8 couplets) using the “end rhyme” convention aka the most common literary convention in a rap song. To spark their ideas - I had them write the topic in the middle of the poster paper and they were to come up with as many words that could possible rhyme with it. I provided them with 10 classic Hip Hop beats (selected from Complex Magazine's list) to choose from and they worked on matching their rhymes over the beat of their choosing. 


    Pushing, but nurturing students to challenge themselves

    Teaching a Hip Hop sociocultural history elective is challenging enough with younger, middle school students, but there is an added layer of challenge when the population is as diverse as an international school. Students aren’t always going to be comfortable with lyrics, much less writing their own - particularly when English is not their first language.  Some days, I felt I was maybe pushing too hard or that maybe I was not mindful of the time they needed to process the information flying at them. Thus, it was helpful to have the list of conventions w/ definitions that they could always reference. Moreover, I required them to only use words that they actually knew the meaning and use in the correct context. Lastly, when they were really stuck - we took time to talk about that frustration and having them unpack it.  Those side conversations were quite informative because I discovered that most of them were anxious about doing it “wrong.” It was a reminder for me - a native English speaker who listens to Hip Hop songs regularly - that my students want to do things well and that they need to be reminded and encouraged that that it was okay for them to make mistakes and that the real lesson is in the process of creating.

    The end result is MAGIC:



  • Cebu: Thoughts on the Road...

    Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

    The weeks leading up to Spring Break 2017 were a total whirlwind both at work and at home: student activities, Student Safety Week, trip to Prague (!!! - more on that later), etc. So it seemed absolutely appopriate that I booked a trip to the Philippines for a few days in Manila and a getaway to Cebu. Cebu is the place where Ferdinand Magellan laid claim to the Philippines for Spain - charting the course for 400 years of Spanish colonization.  In addition to its importance in Philippine history, it is well known for its food, beaches, and underwater beauty.  Needless to say, Cebu is on my "Philippines Must-sees" list and a definite "must return".  

    Here's why:

    1. The scenery.

    My fiance and I booked an awesome resort in Moalboal approximately 3 hours from Cebu City. We stayed at a magical locally-owned property called Hale Mana - Hawaiian for "good vibes."

    Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

    The resort sits right on the reef wall and has a breathtaking dramatic landscape, especially when it's lowtide:

    Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

    Peaceful comes to mind when I think of Hale Manna. It's not a large mega resort and at times it felt like we were the only ones there. When it rained all day on Thursday (fortunately AFTER our daytrip), we were unbothered. We took advantage of the massage on site and I spent the afternoon writing in the Balinese-style open air lobby; the sound of the rainfall helping to clear my mind as I typed away.

    2. Nature.

    Snorkeling, diving, waterfalls, whale sharks, etc. are all around this great place. We spent a day trekking to Oslob to see the whale sharks, Mainit Hot Springs, and Kawasan Falls.

    4. Lastly, upon returning to Cebu City on our last night, we found a vibrant city full of creativity.

    From our accommodations at the The Henry Hotel:


    To fashion with a heart at Anthill Fabric Gallery:

    A great holiday, with the best company! I can't wait to go back and explore more!

    Cost breakdown

    * 1 USD = 50 PhP at time of publishing

    Flights - ~3000 PhP per person roundtrip MNL-CEB on AirAsia.

    Private transportation to/from Hale Mana Resort in Moalboal - 2500 PhP each way for 3 hours drive from Cebu/Mactan Airport (Cebu City) to Moalboal

    Hale Mana Resort - 3850 PhP per night including breakfast

    Southern Cebu day trip (Oslob, Mainit Hotsprings, and Kawasan Falls):

    • Transportation - 3500 PhP for the day
    • Whale watching - 1000 PhP per person (foreigner rate) OR 500 PhP per local to snorkel
    • Mainit Hot Springs entrance fee - 20 PhP
    • Kawasan Falls entrance fee - 20 PhP

    The Henry Hotel - $70 per night

    Incidental expenses - food, tips for driver, Uber/GrabTaxi around Cebu City, and souvenirs

  • The Hip Hop Counselor...

    Hip Hop 101 is now in full swing.  My students just completed their first major assessment task - presenting in groups one of the 4 elements of Hip Hop.  This assignment was a big challenge for students born in the 2000s who have no historical or cultural context of Hip Hop's roots.  For the first few weeks of the class, it was about establishing that foundation.  They learned about the Bronx, Kool Herc, the impact of poverty/redlining/racism, etc. that created this cultural phenomenon known as Hip Hop. As we started to dabble with aesthetics - I felt it would be more interesting that they did their own research on the 4 Elements.  The presentations were a little rough around the edges, but I can see signs of connections they are making to past and present - what it looked/sounded like. So, when my friends Ceci and Nathan approached the SIS staff about joining the 8th grade Humanities classes in their "This, I believe" participation was without doubt and what I wanted to share came quite naturally.

    It had to be about a huge part of my identity and my own experience as a middle schooler. It had to be about Hip Hop.

    My Audio

    2017 SIS This, I believe Podcasts


    When I was 12, my cousin Ryan’s bedroom was my first dance club.  There, we taped live DJ mixes off of the radio and he tried to teach ME - a goofy 7th grader with two left feet, the latest dance moves.  I was a quick study on the Roger Rabbit, Running Man, Cabbage Patch, the Wop - but the Walk was my kryptonite.  Every day after our homework was finished - Ryan dutifully brought out the boombox and showed me how to do it.  I could NEVER. GET IT. RIGHT.  My arms were always ahead of my feet or vice-versa.  In hindsight getting that dance move down seems so frivolous, but to my 12 year-old self - it was everything. 

    See music has always been an important part of my existence.  I can associate every family party, school activity, and life drama to a song, singer, or genre.  Dancing and listening to Hip Hop and R&B was common ground for my cousins, friends, and me.  We could have very different interests - but this is how we bonded.  Not getting that move down meant the difference between being cool or not. I had to be able to do it, especially when my younger sister got it before I did. And so when I finally got that dance move right, I was walking on Cloud 9.  It was an important milestone for a middle schooler aiming to be like her cooler, older cousins. 

    While dance lessons took over many afternoons, the primary driver of that bonding time was Hip Hop culture and its aesthetics: the fashion, the dance moves, the artwork, the message, etc.  We looked at clothes, dissected lyrics, and we even started looking at politics - at least as much as our pre-teen and teenage selves could possibly understand. As a child of Filipino immigrants who grew up in a middle-class, predominately white California suburb, Hip Hop music helped me explore why many times I felt different from my classmates.  Through the rhymes layered over sampled beats,  I learned about the experience of Black and brown people in the United States that wasn’t covered in my public school history books.  I started reading Malcolm X and Maya Angelou - attempting to process their words on identity, community, revolution, and social justice.  In turn, I was inspired to start exploring my own background and what it was like to be a Filipino growing up in the United States.  For me, Hip Hop wasn’t just beats making me bob my head or move my feet, the words got me to think and brought me to different worlds and told stories that weren’t always within my immediate reach.  Each group or emcee told tales about love, life, friendships, the inner city, growing up poor, or womanhood - to name just a few topics.  The music that backed those stories was often sampled from Hip Hop’s predecessors and it broadened my interest in soul music.  Underneath those rhymes is the funk of James Brown, sax of Tom Scott and John Coltrane, or keys of Ronnie Foster and so many other music greats who preceded the Hip Hop generation.  I was hooked and never let go.

    25 years since those after school dance lessons, I don’t do those dance moves as much any more unless I’m at a 90s theme party or family reunion, but my belief in the power that music has to transform, heal, and express deep and hidden feelings remains strong and unyielding.  I see it in my students’ eyes as they talk about their favorite artists and debate the importance of which songs are played at the middle school dances.  I see it amongst my friends, loved ones, and colleagues as we discuss our favorite musicians and how we use music to cope with the world’s current events.  I see how it helped an awkward, precocious 12 year old find her rhythm and voice through the emcees and singers she idolized; building connections to the world beyond her cozy, suburban hometown.  Music can mean many things to different people and to me, music is life.  This, I believe.

  • #NoPassionLeftBehind

    #sishiphop101 gets a taste of The Big Payback by James Brown #hiphopeducation #sisrocks #passion

    — Yvette Cuenco (@YvetteCuencoSC) January 19, 2017 

    Shortly before Winter Break, my assistant principal approached me about teaching electives in Semester 2. Not only did this opportunity give me a chance to have more face time with my students, but it also gave me the challenge of figuring out WHAT I was going to teach and HOW I was going to do it. Within about an hour after that conversation, I asked to run something by her. I decided I wanted to teach an elective on Hip Hop - but it won't just be about performance, it will give the students a foundation of where Hip Hop began and explore how it got to where it is now.  I got the greenlight.

    Begin panic.

    "Will they like it?" "How am I going to make this interesting for middle schoolers?" "I don't want to sound like I'm preaching." "I don't want to sound...OLD." 

    For the first time in quite a long time, I was nervous.  So how did I respond? I talked to my colleagues and I watched/read the news.  My colleagues seemed more excited about the Hip Hop class than the students. Through my conversations with them, my creative juices of what I will teach and how started flowing. Ideas of beat making, annotating rap lyrics, etc. all started to turn my anxiety to excitement. Watching/reading the news (particularly news from the United States) fueled my inspiration for the students to explore how external factors such as poverty, racism, disenfranchisement can manifest into a whole culture known as Hip Hop.

    @YvetteCuencoSC sharing her passion and spinning talents in her History of #HipHop class! Ss are loving it! #SISrocks #nopassionleftbehind

    — Carlos Galvez (@clos_gm) January 25, 2017

    My goals became quite clear:

    1. Exploring the foundations of Hip Hop gives them cultural context of not just the music, but also the sociopolitical factors that resulted in the artform.
    2. Learning by doing makes it FUN and complements our inquiry-based curriculum. We were going to explore the 4 Elements of Hip Hop Culture: MCing, Grafitti, DJing, and Bboying through experimentation and research.
    3. Lastly, outside of teaching/counseling - music is a passion of mine and Hip Hop culture is a huge part of who I am. This class is a great opportunity to model for my students how to take something your passionate about and challenge yourself to use it in different ways.

    We've only just finished the 2nd week of electives and already as my students and I warm up to each other, my pre-class jitters are slowly starting to go away.  When you let the internal mind chatter quiet down and you look at what's right in front of you, you will often see that "the work" isn't so difficult after all.

  • Fall Break 2016: Tokyo, Japan! Part I

    Fun in Shibuya

    Japan has always been HIGH on my travel bucket list. The culture, the food, and the modernity has always intrigued me. Upon moving to Shenzhen, China - I immediately had a look at my school calendar to plot out my holidays.  Fall Break seemed to be the most logical time for me to go. I shared the idea with my boyfriend and his parents who've also had it on their Asia bucketlists and we began the planning.  We set the dates - 5 days in Tokyo, staying in Shibuya-ku. Part 1 details some of the sights and eats we enjoyed during this trip and part two: quirky culture + quick tips for when you decide to travel through!

    Why Shibuya-ku?

    Shibuya is one of the more central locations in the city.  My only set plan on this trip was to see Meiji Shrine, soak in Tokyo's energy, and to eat so staying near such a huge transport hub was key.  When I looked at the AirBnB map - Shibuya is the neighborhood that houses Harajuku, Shibuya Crossing, Yoyogi Park, Meiji-jingumae Shrine. With only a few days in the city - it was the neighborhood where we can see a lot without having to go too far. 

    In short - Shibuya is where it's at.

    The Sights

    One stop from bustling Shibuya station to Harajuku/Meiji-jingumae and you are transported to some of the best urban greenery I've seen since I moved to Asia.  

    Joe at the entrance of Meiji shrine

    We entered the park and followed the crowd/path to the temple. Along the way we stopped at the decorative sake barrels donated to the temple by brewers across the country.


    Finally the temple. An impressive structure dating back to 1915, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

    Meiji main shrine building

    The Eats

    When Joe and I asked each other what we wanted to eat our first day out and about, we said in unison "ramen". Luckily, ramen is EVERYWHERE in Tokyo. We turned a corner in Harajuku and ran into this place. The verdict: good, simple broth. Noodles had a great bite.

    #ramen on a rainy day. #harajuku #tokyo #japan #asiantakingfoodpix #theroamingfilipina #chopsticks #nomnomnom #japanesefood

    A photo posted by Yvette Cuenco (@theroamingfilipina) on

    Conveyor belt sushi at Genki. Prices start at 129 yen ($1.29USD) per platter.

    After a full morning of shooting Joe's mom's fashion collection, we were STARVING. The solution: ramen 2.0. This time we were with a good family friend who happens to be Japanese. He helped us with ordering and I picked one of my favorites - ramen tsukemen. It is literally noodles + pork gravy = heaven in a bowl.

    On our last full day in Tokyo, we were wandering around Shibuya looking for lunch and came upon this cozy, unassuming pizzeria run by Italians. They had a great lunch special 1100 yen ($11USD) for pizza or pasta and a drink. It was perfetto.


  • On Being an International School Counselor and #BlackLivesMatter


    I say this with every fiber of my proud, WILD (Filipina) American self (Galang 96). I state this at the risk of losing readership, but not at the risk of losing face. If you haven't figured out by now from the premise of my blog (identity, travel, living abroad, etc.) that I might have a thing or two to say about intersectionality and race - then MAYBE you haven't been reading my blog too well.

    Why now? WHY NOT?

    I just read a personal narrative by a teacher in Tulsa, Rebbecca Lee, on her school's response to the killing of Terence Crutcher. Her school, Knowledge is Power Program Charter school in Tulsa, Oklahoma is where Mr. Crutcher's daughter is a 5th grade student.   Her post reflects many of the questions, concerns, and fine lines I constantly contemplate as an international educator/counselor:

    • How can I authentically engage students in exploring these topics when they may or may not understand these issues as deeply as students back home in the United States?
    • Is it necessary for international schools to create a safe space for their school communities to delve into these issues?
    • Why should it matter to me?
    • How can I cope with my own feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, etc.?

    I've been wanting to write about this for as long as I can remember. I just couldn't find the words and for the sake of self-preservation, I busied myself with other things. Lastly, everytime I wanted to write about this before, it devolved into a curse-ridden pile of gibberish.  I was too angry, too sad, and everything in between.  Now, after a few months spent recharging and thinking about my role as an international school counselor/lifetimesocialworker/FilipinoAmerican/womanofcolor and the role I play with my students and colleagues, my mind is clear. 

    #BLACKLIVESMATTER - because even if at the end of the day I believe that all lives matter, according to the Washington Post, just in 2016 alone, Black citizens dying via police shootings represent 25% of total police-involved deaths and they're only 12.5% of the population. (U.S. Census Bureau 13). In plain speech - in the United States, police-involved deaths happen more to Black people than anybody else. Anecdotally, most - if not all - of my Black friends in the United States are afraid to walk out of their homes and those with sons are tearing their hair out trying to protect them.  The pain of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and countless others too fresh, too close, too young, too soon.  

    Moreover, as a student community service volunteer at UCLA and social worker for 5 years in Brooklyn, a routine part of my role was teaching children and teens (Filipino, Black, and Latino) about their rights and how to respond when confronted by police. When I moved abroad, I began to engage students/colleagues (who aren't always familiar with the US history of oppression) on discussions about what is going on back home and how they might be perceived in the United States, especially if they are considered minorities. Or fielding comments/questions from parents about the safety of their children IF they were going to visit the United States.  Furthermore, working at an international school also means looking at world events and social justice issues, patterns of oppression, etc. While I am eager to take this on, I am also quite tired.

    Each day I think - I shouldn't have to do this. 

    I should not have to teach children how to manage interactions with people meant to protect and to serve them and their families.

    I should not have to field questions from parents about their children's safety because of the news.

    I should not have to explore privilege, class, race, gender, etc. with my students - NOT IN 2016.

    BUT I DO.

    If I don't, then it would not only be a betrayal of my own personal background and cultural history of resistance (Constantino 76), but I'd be betraying my friends and the actions Black people took on during the Civil Rights Movement which afforded the opportunity for my family to emigrate to the United States. I would betray the reason why I became a counselor/therapist in the first place - to help people for the greater good.  I've transitioned that desire into international school counseling because I want to see the world and I firmly believe that Third Culture Kids (Pollock & Van Reken 9) have the agency to effect wider societal change. They need the social emotional tools to empower themselves and their communities to dig deep and think critically about how to make our world a better place to live.

    Because of this - I harness the anger, sadness, confusion, and other emotions I may be feeling and I redirect it towards helping my students explore issues surrounding identity, race, culture, gender and our place in all of it. I write and I engage in productive dialogue with people face to face or on social media. It's the least I can do when I am so far away from home. 

    If Black lives didn't matter to me, I'd be a hypocrite. 


    Literary Resources:

    A History of the Philippines by Dr. Renato Constantino

    Her WIld American Self by M. Evelina Galang

    Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds

    White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Dr. Peggy McIntosh

    Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? - Dr. Beverly Ann Tatum

    Web/Organizational Resources:

    Black Lives Matter

    Define American

    Interrupting Racism: Race & Equity in Your Program - American School Counselors Association

    Learning to Give

    Letters for Black Lives: An Open-Letter Project on Anti-Blackness

    People's Institute for Survival and Beyond

    Teaching Tolerance

  • Hello Shenzhen! 您好深圳! Part 1

    I arrived in Shenzhen three days ago and so far, so good.  The settling in process takes time and plenty of energy.  In the next few posts I will be sharing my Shenzhen experiences and dropping a few pro tips along the way!


    Like with every international school orientation, it is information OVERLOAD and a major hit to the senses - new sights, sounds, smells, language, culture, etc.  I am sure my fellow newbies would agree that the school nailed their role in making this transition as worry-free as possible.

    Here is what stood out to me:

    1. Much like my school in Uzbekistan - greeted at the hotel by admin.
    2. Welcome bags full of creature comforts - snacks, bread, peanut butter, wine, beer, soda, etc.
    3. Cellphone w/ sim card. I took the sim out and popped it into my unlocked Android phone.
    4. Phone numbers of all admin and administrative assistants who are reachable at any time.
    5. Most importantly for me - It's a community that HUGS. There's truly nothing like coming off a plane after dealing with the dog, delayed bag, etc. and being greeted with warmth and friendly faces.


    After that first night, we toured the Elementary campus and were taken to different returning teachers' apartments to truly get a feel for the potential of spaces we'd call home.  Living in Tashkent and Bangkok, prepared me well for the lack of uniformity in the apartments I would see.  For some background - modern Shenzhen is really only 30 years old. It is a young city compared to Beijing and Shanghai.  Despite it's "new-ness", thanks to oil and tech - it is incredibly WEALTHY.  I did not expect to see so many BMWs, Teslas, Mercedes Benzes, etc. and I've only explored one district - Shekou.  This contributes to the lack of uniformity in the apartment spaces.  They build large skyrise condos and the original units are an empty shell when purchased. The landlords create the interiors on their own which leads to the diversity of spaces. I saw 5 or 6 two bedroom apartments in the same condo mega-complex and they all looked totally different. 

    While some of my colleagues have found it a little daunting, I did my best to enjoy it.  I stuck to my guns with what I wanted:

    1. Two bedroom flat - second bedroom has to fit a full-sized bed or at least a futon for guests
    2. Large open plan to get the most natural light
    3. All appliances inside (some apartments had their washers out on the balcony)
    4. Hardwood floor
    5. View of Shenzhen Bay
    6. Large exterior gardens with swimming pool
    7. Walking distance to school
    8. Easy access to shops and amenities

    One of the more surprising aspects of this hunt is that it was evident that the apartments were not cleaned, albeit empty. Some were much worse off than others. I saw an apartment with rotting food inside a fridge. I chalked this up to the fact that the landlords know Shenzhen is a hot market, particularly Shekou which is the special economic zone and closest proximity to Hong Kong (30 minutes by ferry).  Condo owners KNOW that their spaces will be rented no matter what. Despite being thrown off by the dust and grime, it actually made it easier to spot what issues needed to be addressed. I really liked the first place so I didn't want to waste any time - I asked the real estate agent if we could go back to it and I proceeded to check it out more thoroughly.

    PRO TIPS when apartment hunting - coming from my new colleagues:

    1. Flip open all the lights
    2. Open every door, cupboard, etc.
    3. Turn on all the faucets
    4. Look at the ceiling for water damage
    5. Check the furniture
    6. Don't be afraid to ask for stuff when negotiating
    7. Keep an open mind...a place can look like a mess, but have lots of potential

    As a result of this I was able to get my landlord to agree to a new fridge, new mattress, and repairing the shower at no extra cost. 

    Here is my new home:

    I'll post exterior photos later, but the complex hits all of my requirements and I will be surrounded by an instant community of colleagues/new friends.  The date of move-in is still TBD as things need to be purchased/cleaned/repaired, but at least now Milo and I can rest easier knowing we have a place to call home!

    Come back soon for Hello Shenzhen! 您好深圳! Part 2!

  • On living abroad and vulnerability...

    It seems that my last few posts on this blog have been about the cycle of life - dealing with the deaths of my grandmother and great aunt. 5 weeks home in the United States this summer have helped me process these losses and gain clarity on where it all fits at this stage in my life.  This past year has often felt like mercury in retrograde - EVERY. DAY.  I have never felt so metaphysically challenged in the 5 years I've been living abroad.  This is that lull/dip in the expat roller coaster ride that you read about and understand intellectually, but never really know what it is like until you experience it for yourself. The passing of these extremely influential women and realising that my parents/aunts/uncles and my own generation are now moving up in our respective generational levels were just small parts in this cathartic process.  

    I won't delve into deep details, but my last job just wasn't a good fit.  The anxiety surrounding this seems to be magnified tenfold when you're abroad. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was anxious over minute things and not my usual "even-keeled" self. I stopped listening to music regularly. I stopped cooking. I stopped writing and taking pictures.  I stopped doing a lot of things that made "me"..."ME". Fortunately, I have a great support network, but there were many days where I felt alone.  When this feeling started to become the norm, I knew that it was time to switch things up even if THAT process was scary without any predictable outcome.

    So how did I get through it? I allowed myself to feel.

    I was scared, sad, angry, happy, etc.  and I talked to my loved ones about it.  In hindsight, it probably would've been helpful to get a few therapy sessions in and I'll keep that in mind for next time. 

    When I saw my grandmother one last time in March, it wasn't just me saying goodbye to her. It very much felt like the end of my "letting go" process of my experience here in Bangkok.  It helped me realise that no matter where I am in the world, many things that cause these emotional dips are so trivial compared to the relationships we have with people in our lives - family, friends, significant others, etc.  Thinking about her and her long life well-lived also reminded me that it is totally okay to feel sad and unhappy and I was fully in charge of what happens to me next, on my own terms.

    Embracing vulnerability growth.

  • Featured Contributor: Griots Republic Issue #6

    Featured Contributor: Griots Republic Issue #6

    So excited to be a contributor to this month's issue of Griots Republic! Check out my article (p. 48) on Bangkok's Baan Silapin. Photos by yours truly.

  • Spring Break 2016: Celebrating Songkran (Thai New Year) in Phuket

    When my friend Sabrina said she wanted to come and visit me in Thailand, we immediately started looking at the best time of year for her to come. I suggested that my Spring Break would be perfect and we chose to go down to Phuket for a few days.  We opted for Phuket because I felt it was a "must-do" for her first time in Southeast Asia. We stayed on the quieter northern area of Khao Lak our first 2 nights and then celebrated Songkran (Thai New Year) down in Patong.

    Khao Lak

    Khao Lak is a series of villages in the Pha Nga Province - approximately 1 hour from Phuket Airport. We chose the Khao Lak Bhandari Resort as it offered the most amenities within our budget (max of $50 per night, per person). Cost per night was $56 (!!!) for a chalet room, including buffet breakfast. The property and rooms are decorated in traditional Thai style with sculpted gardens, spa, and a great pool.


    From the hotel, we were only 2 minutes walking from Nang Thong Beach.  We had dinner/drinks along the beach each night. It is quiet and peaceful, very different from our next destination: Patong.  On our last day we started, the morning celebrating Songkran with the hotel's staff.

    Songkran marks the start of Spring. It starts with a solemn ceremony of pouring scented water on Buddha and the hands of elders to wash away sins and bad luck.  The celebration then turns quite festive as revelers engage in water fights and smearing of powder/chalk on one another.  On our way down to Patong from Khao Lak, we opted to get out of the car as roads were only running one-way. We bought water guns at the nearest 7-11 and water gunned our way to our hotel.  It was definitely an experience I won't ever forget for a long time.


    Patong Beach is one of the most popular beach destinations in the world.  Even during the height of the summer season, we managed to find a great boutique hotel experience at a reasonable price. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and it only cost about $67 per night, including breakfast. Staying here put us just 200 meters from the famous Patong Beachfront.

    We capped our stay on our last night with dinner at Baan Rim Pa to celebrate Sabrina's birthday overlooking sunset across the Patong beachline.

    Sunset at Patong

    Per-person Travel and Accommodations Budget breakdown:

    • Roundtrip airfare between Bangkok (DMK) and Phuket (HKT) on NokAir: 5,067 THB ($145 USD)
    • Khao Lak Bhandari 3 days/2 nights: 1,980 THB ($56 USD)
    • Holiday Inn Express: 2350 THB ($67 USD)
    • Transport from airport to Khao Lak and Khao Lak to Patong booked via Boss Taxi: 1400 THB ($40 USD)
    • Transport from Patong to airport on shared minivan booked via Abbie Tours: 200 THB ($7)
    • Extra expenses for food and drinks - dependent on how much you want to spend, but highly doubt it would go over $150 per person.
  • Dacal Pung Salamat - Thank You.

    Three weeks ago, I received the news that my grandmother, Juana A. Cuenco, was in the hospital. At that time we weren't sure of her prognosis and my parents and I agreed that it would be best that I come home.  It was a good trip, albeit under worrisome circumstances.  I was able to see her everyday and ultimately it was my farewell.  I returned to Bangkok and I received the news of her passing after about a week, I was overcome with sadness and an overwhelming feeling of joy for a life well-lived.  My family buries her today, but we continue to feel so fortunate that she was with us for 98 years.  She had the kind of toughness that one can only get from working hard and passing down your faith, work ethic, and love to your children and future generations of Cuencos. I wish to have at least 1/10th of that true grit as seen in the photo above. Below are my "thank you notes" to her that I asked my siblings to read at her vigil.

    Dearest Apu,

    I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there when you were reunited with Ingkong, but I am so grateful I was able to see you one last time so I could tell you that I love you.  I couldn’t think of a full story or essay to write this time, but I think this series of “thank you notes” captures what I want people to know what me, Mom, Dad, my aunties, my uncles, my sisters and brother, cousins, nieces, and nephews have seen from you and Ingkong, our whole lives.


    Dearest Apu,

    Thank you for being firm.

    I didn’t always understand why when I was younger,

    But now I know the importance of sticking to your convictions

    And not letting anybody take that away from you.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu --

    Thank you for insisting that McDonald’s wasn’t a real meal.

    For giving us that extra scoop of rice and savory main dish,

    even when we thought we were full.

    We grew up eating REAL food, now considered “posh and farm to table”.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for teaching us an after-school system –

    homework, chores around your house,

    playing outside if the weather was okay – when it

    wasn’t Holy Week – and then dinner.

    Routines are important to help calm an otherwise unpredictable day.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu --

    Thank you for asking me if I’d already eaten while

    talking on Skype or on the phone;

    It didn’t matter what time it was,

     it was always a comfort to know

    that no matter where I would be in the world,

    there was someone looking out for me.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for teaching me how to cook.

    Every recipe and technique is committed to memory.

    I now know the sound fried chicken makes when it’s done cooking;

    Just the right moment to add vinegar to the garlic when making adobo;

    To not rely on measurements, but the senses – taste, sound, smell, and sight;

    The satisfaction of sharing your food with others.

    Cooking is not just a necessity for survival, but a way to bring

    people together and to pass down your legacy.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for teaching me to be proud of who I am.

    Eh ku pu kakalingwan reng tiru yu kekami.

    Adyang maragul naku – biyasa ku pa mag Kapampangan ampung

    Antidyan ku pa reng kasalesayan kwentu yu pu kanitang malati ku pa.


    I won’t ever forget what you taught us.

    Even if I am an adult now – I still know how to speak Kapampangan and

    I still understand the stories you told me when I was younger

    Your language carries with it deeper meanings, power, and emotion.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.


    Dearest Apu –

    Thank you for taking care of ALL of us.

    You and Ingkong set an enduring example of how

    Hard work, sacrifice, and faith equals love

    From this,

    WE NOW KNOW how to take care of each other.

    You knew, you ALWAYS knew.

    Kaluguran da kayu.

    I love you.

  • Paalam, Lola Bills

    Paalam, Lola Bills

    The woman seated to my immediate left in her impeccable Yves Saint Laurent glasses is my maternal grandfather's second oldest sister, Isabel A. Santos aka Lola Bills aka Tita Bills. Our far left is Lola Bills' sister-in-law and Mom's aunt, my Lola Remy. Lola Bills' passing last night marks an important milestone for my mom, her siblings, and their cousins.  Lola Bills was the last living child of my great grandparents, Major General Paulino Santos and Elisa Angeles Santos. Now they are all gone. I have not yet had the opportunity to speak to Mom about this, but I am sure in the coming days they will all have the opportunity to reflect on what this all means.  

    To me, this reflection is a testament to Lola Bills legacy. She was not only a "tita" (auntie) to my mom and siblings. She was a symbol of all the things that made them proud to be Santoses.  In her lifetime, Lola Bills survived World War II, was a Fulbright Scholar, and lead costume designer/tour director for the Bayanihan National Dance Company.  Through Bayanihan, she traveled the world and is "Tita Bills" to several generations of dancers. Growing up during visits to the Philippines, we always made sure to stop at FilAm Homes in Quezon City to visit with family and see her at her studio. From elaborate costume sketches to sculpting, jewelry-making, and painting - she was ALWAYS creating and ALWAYS fashionable from her glasses to her clothes. My early childhood memories of her and Mom's stories of her are one of the many reasons I developed an interest in fine arts. 

    In 2013, she'd been in the hospital for quite sometime and we were not sure if she would make it. She bounced back and since I was visiting the Philippines from Uzbekistan I decided to buy her a handmade suzani.  When I came into her room I quickly asked her, "Kilala mo parin ba po ako?/Do you still know who I am?" Her eyes lit up and she said, "Panganay ni Soling/Soling's oldest." I presented her with the suzani and she touched the weaving delicately, impressed by the colors and the handiwork. Here are my Tita Marissa and Lola Remy posing with the suzani in Lola Bills' nursing home room.

    Not long after that visit, my aunts and uncles arranged for her to be transferred from Manila to Davao - not far from General Santos City, the city my great-grandfather, her father, founded.  The last time I saw her was Christmas Day 2014.  There was no pictures taken that day. Mostly because we were there for just a short while and I wanted to remember her differently.  The image in my head that I keep of her is one I believe she will be most proud of - the creative dynamo talking about her travels and latest creations in her Yves Saint Laurent glasses.

  • Integrity ความชื่อสัตย์

    "Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching" -- C.S. Lewis

    The school I work for has 8 core values: Appreciation, Respect, Integrity, Giving, Responsibility, Friendship, Compassion/Empathy, and the Golden Rule.  October is the month of Integrity. As a school counselor, part of my job is to help students explore these concepts in our guidance lessons and how they apply to real life.  Integrity can be a tough one because it is not black and white.  Integrity deals with the core of who a person is on the inside - the moral compass that helps you determine what is right and wrong.  Normally, in my guidance lessons and conversations with the students they can talk about how to model all of these values, they know how to respond on paper and when given the time to "chew" on an idea.  However, one can never really know how well people know how to apply these values, until you experience these ethical dilemmas in real life.

    Tonight, for about an hour of sheer panic, I thought my wallet was missing/stolen.

    I was all set to meet up with a good friend in town w/ her friends/cousins visiting from Brooklyn and Miami, respectively. I have not seen her in 4 years - basically since I left New York. So I was quite excited to meet up.  I left my house around 7:40, took the songthaew (mini-bus) up to the BTS and quickly discovered when I looked in purse that my wallet was not there.  I backtracked to the songthaew, but I mistakenly assumed that the driver did not understand my query if he'd seen my wallet. The songthaew was full so I could not see if it was on - or under - one of the benches. I then thought I'd left it on the dining room table so decided to grab a motorbike taxi home. I msg'ed my friend's cousin and explained the whole ordeal. I got all the way home and realized it was not there either.

    In a panic, I cancelled dinner and proceeded to log onto my accounts to try and cancel them when suddenly I get this SMS on my phone from one of my principals:

    Hi Yvette,
    Your wallet was found by someone next to 7-eleven, they found the emergency card in it. 
    Please call back, they are waiting: <Good Samaritan's number>

    When I met up with her at the 7-11 near my house she explained that the driver DID find the wallet after I'd asked him about it and asked her to try to figure out who it belonged to since it was very clearly a farang's (foreigner's).  She asked me to check the wallet and everything was in there.  I offered her 100 baht for her troubles and she vehemently shook her head and said "No. This was no trouble at all." I profusely wai to her (prayer hands w/ bowed head) and said "Khob khun na kha"  = "Thank you VERY much" several times.  Then I was able to enjoy a great catch up w/ my friend Sandrinne.

    The driver and this woman could have easily taken this wallet for their own use.  Instead, they chose to do the right thing because it's simply what you should do.  Good karma and integrity, definitely. I was able to enjoy dinner as pictured below!

    From #BK to #BKK. Loved catching up with Sandrinne aka @bluebearfanatic ! Thank you for putting up with my nearly missing wallet shenanigans and for the wonderful catch up time!