We are a product of the people around us. Our values and beliefs are likely passed down to us by our parents. Our hobbies and interests are often influenced by our siblings or friends. Even the songs we listen to, the condiments we like, and the way we arrange our furniture likely have some external influences. We are a beautiful patchwork of the people we meet in our lives, and while that helped make us who we are now, Karen Ibasco believes that it is also important to not let other people mold us or dictate our path in life.
Traditional Chinoy culture tends to have a one-size-fits-all idea of success, but lately, more and more people have been proving this wrong by going beyond borders. Karen Ibasco is a perfect example. She is a medical physicist, which is already a non-traditional career path for Chinoys. But apart from that, she is also a beauty queen, a host, and an image consultant. She won the title of Miss Earth in 2017, and given her unique career path, one would think that she already knew what she wanted to do all her life, but her journey to Miss Earth was actually a lengthy process of self-discovery.
“Growing up, I knew at some point that I wasn’t pretty enough. I [come from] a family where beauty [was not the focus], because in a Chinoy family, it was more on career, so I grew up not knowing that I look good or that I can look good, but I was just focused on studies. I never thought I would ever join a competition because most Chinoy families are [also] conservative. They do not want their kids to be in the limelight. They just want them to have a great life [and] a great career,” Ibasco shares.
She also thought she was going to be mediocre because in typical Chinoy fashion, many of her relatives tended to compare her to other people. “I remember that I was told before that this should be the course that [I] should take, so [I] can finish it in a very small amount of years. [Then I] would have an okay career [and] an okay life. So I never knew how to see myself achieving a bigger goal because I was being fed with those types of things.”
“I’m very grateful because even though I was surrounded with those types of people, my parents never [saw] me that way. I was different from my brothers, but they supported me. It continually made me understand my value because I was surrounded by great people [who are] very close to me.”
This was what encouraged Ibasco to explore different fields and push the limits of her potential. Even though she felt lost when she started college, she eventually found her footing in doing what she loves. “When I went to college, that’s when I found out that I was a late bloomer, because a lot of people [already developed their talent]. They knew what they were supposed to take in college when they were still in high school. When I was younger, I thought that that was the perfect path–knowing who you are at a young age, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to take up in college, but it led me to a science field in [medical] physics. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in my second year, and I learned that if I continue my field [up to] my master’s degree, I can help people like her. So sometimes it’s okay [if] you don’t know exactly what you’re going to [be] because life would also teach you what path to take.”
“It’s not being pushed to do what you want because [it’s a] dream of another person, but [it should be] something that started from within you, [which would lead to an] understanding that there would be a purpose for why you want to do things, not just because it’s a goal.”
Ibasco eventually developed the desire to be part of something bigger than herself. She wanted to bring the field of medical physics to the limelight, and she also wanted to raise awareness about what is happening to the planet. She found the perfect outlet in pageantry, although earning the title of Miss Earth wasn’t easy either because she was always seen as the underdog.
“I knew that entering a competition would not be easy because in the Philippines, half Americans and half Europeans are more accepted. I guess it’s because when you’re in a country [where] you usually see a lot of Asians, they tend to focus and love other people that look differently from them. And I was completely Asian. I was [half] Filipino and half Chinese.”
Still, this did not dissuade Ibasco from joining Miss Earth, but even after she won the title, she still received some doubts. “People thought that it was so easy for me to win because it was in my hometown, but it was actually harder to win because I was Filipino Chinese, [which] doesn’t [get much] representation in the beauty pageant industry, [so I had] to make people understand that [I didn’t] win out of bias.”
Situations like this require you to have confidence and a strong sense of self-worth, and Ibasco has plenty of advice to offer when it comes to this. “Confidence will never be given to you by another person. You need to find that from within you. It’s something that you do as you wake up in the morning. You overcome your insecurities in the process, so you don’t let other people’s words affect you or [crave] affirmations from them. I made sure I knew who I was before I became a public figure. And no matter what kind of things I experienced after winning, there are people who are going to love you, [and] there are people who are going to hate you . I never change the way I see myself because I already knew who I was before I entered the industry.”
She further stresses the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone and seizing every opportunity. “Sometimes, you need to understand that you will have a specific area of your comfort zone, but if you want to grow as a person, you have to continually widen and make your area of comfort zone bigger. That’s exactly what I’m doing; continually going out of my comfort zone in trying different things.”
“I never thought I would ever be in a position like this. It just happened [because I] maximized my opportunities. I would always give an analogy [that] opportunities are like gifts. A gift can be bought for you or can be made for you. But as long as you’re not in a position to receive that gift from a giver, it will never be yours. Opportunities are the same. Opportunities can be made for you, but as long as you [don’t] accept that opportunity, it will never be yours.”
“So for the girls who would like to try [to enter the] beauty pageant industry, I honestly would love to encourage you. Don’t be afraid of your background, don’t be afraid of the cultures and traditions that you uphold because [that is] exactly what I did. You need to embrace of who you are as a person. I was not afraid to [identify] as a chinay. I was proud, [and] I wasn’t trying to conceal myself, so that’s one of the aspects that I was very proud of; my background as a Chinay [because] you need to learn how to package yourself in a way that would [make you] stand out.”
Ibasco also has advice for Chinoy parents who understandably want nothing but the best for their child. “I believe it’s important that you don’t set goals for them just to follow, because no matter what rules you set for kids, they will go against your rules because they do not understand why you put the rules in the first place. So understanding things out of love, even without rules, will [lead them to] do the right thing. That’s exactly how I grew up. No matter what role [I had[ in the family, I was treated equally. And you have to give back to your family, not because of obligations or rules but [because] of love.”