‘I am a Pokémon Master!’


    GABRIEL20160221“I want to be a Pokémon Master.”

    If you grew up in the era of the late 1990s, it wasn’t a strange thing to hear those words among kids who were asked what they wanted to be. The latter part of the said decade, after all, was a time when the Pokémon craze first exploded. And to be honest, after 16 years of falling and staying in love with these colorful monsters created by Japanese video game designer Satoshi Tajiri, I doubt anyone could blame them—nor I—for giving such a reply.

    To be part of a generation overpoweringly captivated by a fire-breathing dragon-lizard, a blue turtle that could stand just on its hind legs, and an adorable mouse whose cheeks shot out lightning, I knew I had to try telling my story somehow, somewhere. And thanks to The Sunday Times Magazine—whom I courageously emailed—here is my journey to becoming a full-fledged Pokemon Master.

    Meeting my first Pokémon
    I was nine years old when my mom gave me my first deck of Pokémon cards. My first holographic card was a Lapras and, like most kids who got their first cards around that time in between 1999 and 2000, it was fascinating just to watch it shine under the light when tilted from side to side.

    This was around the same time Pokémon started airing on local television, so every one you met in school knew exactly what you were on about, as well as the shiny-tilting marvel I discovered.

    He caught them all! After close to 16 years, 24 year-old Serge Gabriel completed his Pokémon card collection containing the first generation of the 151 Pokémon

    He caught them all! After close to 16 years, 24 year-old Serge Gabriel completed his Pokémon card collection containing the first generation of the 151 Pokémon

    Before I knew it, Pokémon stickers were on everyone’s bags. Booster packs and decks were for sale just outside the gates of my school too, as those of us inside shouted out Pokémon names to each other, pretending to be our favorite characters. And yes, we would fight with each other too like the powerful little monsters.

    While the franchise captured everything from toys to TV shows, Gameboy, posters, and the trading cards, my first interaction with Pokémon would always hold a special place in my heart. So special indeed that I kept all of my trading cards even after I entered high school, and through the Pokemon craze’s decline later in the first decade of 2000.

    I had kept Pokémon cards in binders and boxes for many years, and just when I thought I was content to use them here and there as bookmarks, occasionally going over them maybe every other year, a strange turn of events resurrected a childhood dream I had almost forgotten. I remembered I wanted to collect every single Pokémon to become a Pokémon Master.

    Going for 151
    Had it not been for my friend Ken who shared a photo on Facebook of someone who had the original 151 Pokémon characters on display, my days of catching Satoshi Tajiri’s monsters had long been over.

    To see an actual Pokemon Master—even just his picture—was exciting enough for a fan like me who had tried but failed to accomplish his feat. But to my surprise, it turned out I wasn’t the only one thrilled over that post. Friends on social media started to post comments about our childhood “friends,” which led to nostalgic conversations about the pocket monsters. Then and there, my love for the franchise reawakened, and I decided 16 years after meeting my first Pokemon, that I still wanted to be a master.

    I immediately unearthed all my cards, catalogued and printed a list of all the characters I already have, and in another file, figured out which cards I still needed.

    By March 2015, I realized I already had most of the collection with an impressive 130 cards out of the total 151. But, my problem was, most of the remaining 20 were a few of the rarest Pokémon cards in the universe!

    The Blastoise and Venusaur cards, for example, I had never seen in my life. More importantly, I wasn’t prepared to spend a lot on missing cards because: 1) most of them went for as high as $50 to $100 each; and 2) it didn’t feel right buying them. Just like they did in the show, the cards were meant to be traded and completed by chance, and never bought.

    Good friends sharing their love and support for my Pokémon dream. Patty Andamo (right) also collected the 151

    Good friends sharing their love and support for my Pokémon dream. Patty Andamo (right) also collected the 151

    I soon told my friends Ken and Nick about my dilemma via public chat on Facebook. And yet again, an entire generation got excited.

    My friends, their friends, and their friends’ friends all went online to let me know what they had kept of their own Pokemon collections, and looked out for the ones I needed. In no time, I was receiving photos of card collections long-stored away, immersed in conversation how they got them in the first place, and ultimately, trading my duplicates to steadily complete the last 20 cards missing.

    By the way, I got two of the rarest cards—a Gyarados and a Wigglytuff—from a cousin all the way from the United States, just to illustrate how the search—and everyone’s help—went far and wide.

    Awesomely, it felt like the ‘90s all over again with the Pokémon craze exploding in so many social circles—this time, social circles of the digital kind. As such, by the end of July 2015 I was only five Pokémon cards away from completing the collection. And, to make things even more dramatic, those last five cards emerged from the most unexpected of people from the farthest of places.

    At that point, I had exhausted searching for cards that my friends and their friends had, and were willing to trade. I had also gone through every single specialty store I could find, and still left wanting those five elusive cards.

    I was forced to join trading card groups online, praying and hoping that someone in the vast land of the Internet could help me. After scrolling through countless posts, revealing to complete strangers that I was on a mission to realize my childhood dream, the last five Pokemon cards found their way to my doorstep.

    I remember opening the box of an old, duck taped Samsung box one day to find a Venusaur shipped from Mindanao. In another package, a Nidoking and Moltres flew all the way from Cebu. And, finally, to complete the collection, the final card I needed, an Electabuzz, traveled all the way from San Francisco thanks to an old thesis group mate who had moved there.

    More than just a card collection
    After 16 years and nine hard months of searching far and wide, my childhood dream finally came true. I was a real deal Pokemon Master in the form of a giant 38 x 50 inches frame that displayed 151 pieces of cards, which together sparkled when heaved, rather than tilted, from side to side.

    While I imagine most people would just see this frame as a card collection of fictional characters that dates back to the 1990s, to me, it meant the world.

    For me, Pokémon goes beyond a fad. It was never just a TV show I eagerly waited for every Friday night at 7:30. I made my first friends for life through Pokémon cards.

    I had no idea that one of the kids I was talking to about the cards I wanted to trade back then would become my best friend to this very day. The same kid—well, now a grownup man—who posted that Pokemon Master picture on my wall because he knew how passionate I had been to collect all the cards, but that I needed to be reminded of that dream. He is also the same person who eagerly gave me seven of the 20 cards I needed back in July, as rare as they were.

    He reminded me how I had always used Pokémon characters as a means to express myself freely. Yes, whenever I wrote Valentine’s letters to a crush or Mother’s Day cards, before I even knew what a crush was, I would always include a drawing of Pokémon somewhere. I guess I felt more able to express how I valued other people by doing that as I dug into my own experience of being so passionate about something, and sharing it with others.

    Finally, absurd as this may read, my fascination with Pokemon was in hindsight, the first step I took towards building my own identity. Let me explain: Most of the people who know me have no idea that I derived my nickname from Pokémon. While my name is Sergio, I’ve always introduced myself as “Serge,” even if I was really called “Gio” at home.

    I decided I liked the nickname when Pokémon introduced a character called Lt. Surge. He was a gym leader, a powerful Pokémon trainer, and the master of Pikachu’s evolved form—and my favorite Pokémon until this day—in Raichu.

    While I can’t say I identify with Lt. Surge’s personality, the very act of choosing a nickname for myself was the first time I felt proud to make my own decision. I was in the fourth grade at that time and I promised to commit myself to the name Surge, and yes, I have kept that decision to this day.

    But still, having said all of that, the most compelling lesson and experience I have learned throughout my journey to becoming a Pokemon Master is one I will surely take with me for the rest of my life. The poetic reality that greatest things and accomplishments anyone can ever make cannot be made alone.

    True, I enjoyed the battles where fire, ice, lightning, and all the elements would clash with each other in the Pokemon episodes. But more than that, I loved how an extraordinary team of individuals—the Pokemons and their trainers—could come and work together to achieve victory. My experience is a reflection of these riveting battle scenes for I know t

    If it weren’t for my family and friends, and even strangers on the Internet, I would never have come close to completing my collection.

    I may have the honor of finally claiming to be a Pokemon Master, but I am prouder to reflect on how these 151 fictional characters allowed me to experience the love, friendship and goodwill of so many people since I was nine. With my dream realized, I have also seen the best in others, and the generosity of humanity.

    For the rest of my life, this frame of cards will serve as a reminder to me that there is so much good in the world and that it is my responsibility to reciprocate that good. And yes, that there is room for childhood dreams, even when you’re 24, and that it feels so damn good to reach them.

    * * *

    POST SCRIPT: I would like to thank all my family, friends—both old and new, and fellow Pokémon trainers for helping me achieve my dream. Thank you, Ken Cruz, Carlo Gabriel, Patty Andamo, Miko Tiu, Nick Price, Charley Ty, Denise Wilczynski, Shaquelle Suson, Ramil Pacana, Jake Haw, my cousin Kiko Flores, and Pokemon TCG Philippines. Your love and support has given this trainer the courage to pull through.

    * * *

    Serge-Gabriel20160221EDITOR’S NOTE: The author, Serge Gabriel is a psychology graduate from the Ateneo de Manila University. He is currently marketing manager of Dailypedia and LionhearTV, a triathlete, and spoken word artist under Words Anonymous. He also describes himself as an aspiring philosophy professor and restaurant owner, and while he is proud to call himself a “storyteller,” he is prouder to call himself a “Pokémon Master.”

    The author also had his few minutes of fame at President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s State of the Nation Address on July 27, 2015, when a random photo of a young volunteer carrying a crate of bottled water under the pouring rain was flashed onscreen, as the President thanked everyday Filipinos for their selflessness in doing what they can in relief operations following natural disasters. Thereafter dubbed as “the boy in the SONA photo,” Gabriel’s beaming smile, drenched as he was, as he went about what others may consider a menial task touched many who saw it.

    Indeed, his sincerity jumped out of that powerful photograph, just as it did in his emailed request to The Sunday Times Magazine—what he described as “a long shot”—to publish his story of realizing his childhood dream, while seeing the good in humanity.

    Serge, how can The Sunday Times Magazine refuse? We fervently hope that as you go on to achieve more goals in your young life that you will keep that refreshing sense of positivity—that optimism and faith in the human race that seems already seems to be a rarity among your generation. And most of all, we wish that life will give you back the good you see in the world and be spared from disappointments.


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