Saturday, September 20, 2014


Books formed a huge part of Nadia Camit-Upton’s childhood. She recalls being teased as “Pong Pagong” as she always carried tons of books from her elementary school library. She was a fan of British classical literature.

At age seven, when most kids in her neighborhood played “Tumbang Preso”, she read Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.

Her love for words prompted her to start writing at age six. She remembers being called in at the principal’s office, accused of ‘plagiarism’, but alas, the principal just couldn’t believe the vocabulary that flowed from a kid like her. The verses the principal thought she copied from “Poems of Great Britain” were actually hers.

Fast forward, she would write a book of poems titled “Fragments of the Moon”, about finding a way to cope with the loss of her father. But nowadays, who would touch a poetry book? But if you tell them that it’s on DVD or movie format, they might give it a chance. Thus, Upton’s video poetry book was born.

Her friends from the advertising industry helped her put this dream project together 10 years ago. It was released on a limited print edition, with 500 copies. Upton was fortunate to have readings from Robert Alexander (of the Bell Shakespeare Theatre of Sydney) who was thoroughly impressed and agreed to be a part of it.

“Fragments of the Moon”, the Philippines’ first ever video-poetry book was a confirmation that Upton finally made it as a writer. She couldn’t believe when she saw the book displayed on the shelves of two fine Manila bookstores (Powerbooks and A Different Bookstore). It paved the way for her to meet other video poetry enthusiasts in the Philippines and abroad. She was even invited to a poetry arts festival in Kent, England.

Upton grew up in a tiny apartment in the heart of Pasay City -- the middle child of 6 siblings. Even as a kid, she already saw things in a different light. “I told my classmates in school that we were quite well off as our house was along a private road. The truth of the matter was, it was quite narrow and can fit only two tricycles.”

Looking back now, she didn’t have a clue how all six kids were able to fit in a tiny apartment in Pasay. At that time, she felt very proud of the fact that their house had stairs and a gate. “I used to invite my friends around and give them a “tour” of our tiny house pretending it was a museum,” she narrates.

At a very young age, Upton had always a sunny disposition. “Despite the fact that my mum was called the “boiled egg chef”, I was still proud of her cooking. One time, she made me take “Bulalo” for my packed lunch in school. When I opened the container it was in, it was rock-solid with “sebo”. I thought, maybe, if I pretend that the sun was an oven, I can melt it and it would still be edible. I secretly put my lunch under the blazing heat in the playground. Unfortunately, a cat feasted on it. I was secretly pleased that it wasn’t wasted.”

As a child, Upton would spend hours and hours browsing in the children’s section of a famous chain of bookstores. “I particularly liked pop up books and was obsessed to be able to make them. I could not afford them at that time so I made my own out of rubber band and cereal boxes. I would make up stories and characters and amuse myself in my own little world. I suppose I’ve always had the knack for words and wanted to create things. Maybe I didn’t know yet but at that time, I wanted to do something creative, where my mind can just be set free.”

When her poem was first published on a national magazine, Upton was so thrilled she kept it under her bed for a month and read it again and again in disbelief. More pieces came next, more newspapers published them and she got paid for them.

She always was the editor of the school paper, and won inter-school writing competitions. As AB Communication Arts student at UST, Upton’s writing flourished even more. She pioneered a group called Labyrinth, inspired by the movie Dead Poets Society. “We would meet every Friday afternoon just to savour the verses of Keats, Byron and Tennyson.” She also tried other genres and won three major awards in USTetika, UST’s prestigious writing competition.

Her first job after college was a copywriter trainee at McCann Erickson Philippines. She thought she was incredibly lucky surrounded by talented and creative people. She then moved to DDB Philippines where she spent most of her advertising career. At Black Pencil Manila, sister company of Leo Burnett, she rose as Associate Creative Director.

“I immensely enjoyed my job in advertising. I felt like I was being paid to do something that I’ve always wanted to do. Someone even said that it’s the only job in the world where you can live like an artist and be paid like a banker. I remember the days when I used to write copy for a big telecom account. It was incredibly demanding that we actually had bunk beds in the office ready for the graveyard hours. Once you’ve clocked in the morning, you’ll never know when you are clocking out. There was a time when I wore the same shirt for three days and turned my socks inside out three times. I smelled of stale coffee and looked like a zombie,” she says.

How did she meet her British Romeo?

Upton’s love story started one fateful night when she purchased her first ever laptop computer, a second-hand Macbook. The moment she switched it on, she did not have a clue on how to use it. She went to the Techno Geek forum online and found a chat forum. Someone called “Shade2_UK” explained to her everything so patiently.

Their conversation shifted from Macs to Macbeth and she would later on found out that “Shade2_UK” was a graffiti artist named Graham Upton. They chatted non-stop for 13 hours, only stopping for tea breaks (he was British after all). “He started calling me and paying hundreds of pounds just to speak to me on my mobile for hours and hours. We then progressed to skype, and he actually expressed an interest to visit me,” Upton says.

On his first trip to the Philippines, Graham was confronted by a panel interview as soon as he stepped into her future wife’s house. “My Mum was the High Court Judge and my sister, one of the barristers,” Upton relates.

When they went to a local cemetery, Graham went on his knees and scraped some mud off her dad’s grave. He said: “There you are, Sir, nice and lovely, like your daughter.” Upton couldn’t believe her eyes seeing the handsome, dignified British man messed up his clean clothes and shoes, just to tidy up her dad’s resting place.

After that, Upton knew she found “the one”. “It really didn’t matter that he was a thousand times whiter than her. Or that he spelt color with a “u”. “I didn’t at all see a Caucasian man. I saw a man that loved me and embraced my family for who we are.”

For Upton, she has found her soul mate, a meeting of the minds. He was a graphic designer in the UK, and she was a copywriter. He appreciated poetry and practically grew up in a nation of great writers — Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, her all-time heroes. He flew to the Philippines several times, and on his fifth visit, at the departure lounge of NAIA, he asked the ultimate question. She said “yes”. That “Yes” was the reason why she moved halfway across the world, an affirmation of her desire to be happy with a man who loved her for being what she was.

Not all was rosy for the couple though. Fresh from their honeymoon and ready to start a future together, Upton’s husband was greeted by a letter from his then boss saying his design company has gone into administration and had to let him go.
“We had no choice but to face the sad news. I had to learn to practice this British mantra from day one: “Keep calm and carry on.”

The couple had to share a house with Graham’s friend. Days rolled on, and they had to survive on almost nothing. “We couldn’t even keep the heating on as it was expensive to use. It didn’t help that it was the middle of winter. It was dark and dreary and it rained almost every day. There was a time when I became really ill with a nasty cough. Graham crept in the middle of the night to unlock his friend’s cupboard and steal a bit of cough medicine for me. That was the lowest point of our lives I think,” she says.

Graham quickly signed up with a job agency the next morning. He told Upton: “I promise you, I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we always have food on the table and a roof under our head.”

Upton remembers surviving on a loaf of bread and cup of tea for weeks and weeks. Her friends in Manila’s advertising industry would e-mail her pictures of glamorous Ad Congresses, lavish parties and beach conventions and she thought: “I could be eating a sumptuous buffet right now, but instead, I’m having to do with a piece of toast.”
“I had to conceal the situation to my family and friends back home. I told them I did a lot of jogging and swimming at the local gym and find English tea really slimming,” she confides.
Upton eventually landed a job as a receptionist for a primary school in a rough area. “I’ve never seen anything like it: Children as young as six would curse their parents at the school gates. At one instance, I had to phone for an ambulance as the head teacher had a heart attack while having a screaming match with a rude student,” she continues.

She moved a call centre for a parcel company and then became a filing clerk. “All I did for eight hours was file papers for pensioners in a huge vault. I discovered the magic of audio books, and was just listening to them all day while filing. I just broke down in tears one day when I serendipitously filed a document for a retired writer one day. It was a receipt from a shop that sold antique books. It had a verse from Hamlet written on the top of its stationery. It said: “To thine own self, be true.”

Upton gave up her odd job the following day and started to do work for local charity sectors. She knew that she couldn’t forever conceal the fact that she still wanted to make use of her talent. She volunteered as a Marketing Consultant, giving advice to small charities on how to improve their advertising campaigns. This boosted her CV, and made her more familiar with the British way of work life.

After a year of training and working hard work, she landed a job at the local court, which she thoroughly enjoyed. “It still made use of my communication skills, on a legal setting. I became a Case Progression Officer for the Ministry of Justice, dealing with High Court judges, barristers, solicitors and the general public. Finally, my brain was working again!,” she says.

Graham, on the other hand, got a job as a Graphic Designer for a rich local council. After years of hard work and determination, the determined couple was able to get a mortgage and buy their first home. According to Upton, the first thing they did when they moved in was to buy a cough syrup.

Upton gave birth after five years of living in the UK – from a pregnancy classified as high risk. Her baby Sophia, now two years old, has grown to be a pretty little girl, a beautiful mix of Filipino and British lineage. Some people say she looks like Miss World, Filipina Megan Young.

Upton is currently in the process of putting together an online support group for Filipino mums living abroad who suffer from post-natal depression. She wants to tell them that they are not alone. “I have recently started writing a book based on my experience on this. The book would have chapters introducing my “virtual babysitters”.

Things she loves about Filipinos abroad?

“It never ceases to amaze my husband every time I can tell whether someone is a Filipino or not. I tell him: maybe it’s that wacky glint in their eyes and that aura of friendliness that makes them unique. Filipinos in the UK have always been regarded as hardworking. They are in hospitals everywhere—as doctors, nurses and midwives. I can’t help but feel proud every time I am admitted to the hospital and see Pinoy nurses who are highly respected by their colleagues.”

Philippine things she misses in the UK:

“I miss the sun in the Philippines. Anyone who lives in the UK will tell you that. I found it funny before that my husband had to say, “It’s a beautiful and sunny day a thousand times when he visited Manila.” Now I know why. The sun makes a rare appearance in this part of the world. I guess that is the reason why most Europeans suffer from depression. Imagine dealing with grey clouds, rainy weather, freezing temperatures for nine months in a year. That in itself can just make you cry.”
For anyone who’s attempting to migrate to Britain, Upton says: “Be prepared to bring a sturdy umbrella, boots and raincoat as they will be your permanent outfit. Get ready to remind yourself to put “u” in colour, “s’ in organization, and “y” in tyres. Remember, it’s “lift” and not “elevator” and it’s a motorway, not a highway.

Is life easier out there? Upton says it depends how one makes it. She has faith in the Filipino - because he is resilient, resourceful, very much talented and hardworking. He can shine no matter where he is. “If he keeps that Macbeth thought close to his heart: “To thine own self be true”, he’ll definitely shine,” she concludes.