'Topline' is the pep talk I wish I could give my younger self
If you choose your dream, you alienate your family. You can't have both. Or can you?
I watched Topline, a new series streaming on CBC Gem, twice, and cried my little Filipina heart out both times. I cried for Gab, the ate (the older sister), who has no choice but to take on the role of the family breadwinner after their mother passed, I cried for Tala the bunso (the youngest of the family) who is made to choose between family and music, her passion, and I cried for me, who saw herself in both.
In Topline, we meet Tala, her sister Gab and her father Rubenin, rebuilding their lives after the devastating loss of their mother. Mom left a "blueprint," a plan for the family to survive which involves Gab and Tala becoming nurses to have a steady income to support the family. As Tala comes of age she decides that the plan isn't for her and pursues an opportunity to work with the best and the brightest topliners in the music industry, "the people responsible for the hits."
The "blueprint" that Tala's mom leaves behind, and the cross-generational family angst that comes along with it are familiar to me. Many immigrant families have a similar plan; eldest daughters are expected to sacrifice their hopes and dreams for the family's well-being. Growing up, I had heard many a tale of the good eldest child, the one that sent all of their siblings to college, at great cost to themselves, and all the while still being the "top-scorer'' on some sort of professional exam.
That blueprint is a manifestation of traditional family values, the model minority myth, utang ng loob, and patriarchy, among other things. The weight of it can be suffocating and it is hard to escape without feeling that you've let your family down. If you choose your dream, you alienate your family. You can't have both. Tala simply deciding that this is not her path, is refreshing, it is a type of bravery I didn't have the capacity for at 16.
At that age, I had planned my life out as a "good eldest daughter" would, like Gab. Despite identifying as an artist my entire childhood, I decided to go to university and get a nice respectable degree (in economics, yikes), so that I could get a good job, and ultimately have that nice steady income. For that to happen, I would take the thing I have been using to express myself since I was three and relegate it to just a hobby.
By the time I was 27, I had found myself in an office, working late, feeling trapped by choices I had made for myself. I had done everything I was supposed to do: got the job, got the promotion, got the financial stability, but I felt empty. I remember asking myself, "Is this it? This is life?" I decided that I couldn't bear it any longer. So I quit. I pulled a "Tala" — but not without anxiety — quitting my job as the general manager in a million-dollar business and taking a 70 per cent pay cut so that I could focus on building an artistic practice. Everyone was worried about me.
If you choose your dream, you alienate your family. You can't have both. Tala simply deciding that this is not her path, is refreshing, it is a type of bravery I didn't have the capacity for at 16.
I know that if I had stories like Topline when I was younger, not only would it have been that pep talk I needed to take the leap sooner, it might have felt less lonely when I finally did. Like Tala, it was difficult to navigate the repercussions of this choice at first, but ultimately I was fine. Even better still, I am happy now.
Advocating for the life you want is tough, but worth it. Yes, jobs like nursing are essential and vital professions but so are careers in music, theatre and other forms of art. There are many ways to be a force for good in the world, and as Tala discovers in the series, art can also be a powerful force for healing.
I want young Filipino folks to know that the world is a little different now, so if they want to take that leap, they have a lot of ates (like me!) and kuyas who would have their back. We got you.
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