I turned 21 last week.

At times like these — I mean birthdays — I often get into thinking about things. Like growing up. I am now 21 and people expect me to grow up. Act like one, they’d say.

My best buddy told me a day before my birthday, “Pare, bukas, you’re technically a man.” To which I answered something like, “I’ve always been a man. For the past year, I have lived independently.” And then I went on saying other things to prove I’m already grown up — practically a man — even before I turned 21.

I actually believe I have enough reasons to support this: When I started college, I faced the overwhelming university culture alone, only with some help from my friends and benefactors. Even while still in journalism school, I pounded the police and Congress beats, and faced harsh realities, as a trainee and later a correspondent for a great newspaper that was eventually hit by the speeding presidential jeepney.

I have also experienced rejection and failed relationships and still, I have been able to build strong friendships. I’ve been in the real world long enough, I guess. But still, I don’t blame people when they would say that at 21, I might not be mature enough.

An officemate, for example, remarked that I am still their little boy. She explained it in a not-so-malambing way: “isip-bata.” That is the reason, she said, that I should not have a girlfriend yet.

But what is actually on my mind about this birthday thing? Well, I’m now 21 years old. Now, I have to get used to saying I am 21. (Last year, there were times when I still thought I was only 19.)

I recognize that with the idea of growing up comes greater things and concepts.

As all of us would say, responsibility is the foremost among these things. But hey, what’s responsibility for me? That’s almost exactly what my best friend asked me during my birthday celebration. I told him the responsibility at this point concerned mostly my work in the office. But of course, what I said was only a portion of the truth.

Responsibility that comes with age, I’m quite sure, is a far bigger thing. It is not just about efficiency in my job. To be responsible is to be able to carry myself well, live my life on my own, to be really independent. It also means having stable relationships which would require a greater involvement of thought and emotion — in short, a more mature outlook — on my part. This big word is also associated with gentlemanly actions, palabra de honor, and being more serious about life, to name only a few.

My officemates might say my being responsible would mean coming to the office before our boss arrives; for my grandma, my finding time to write her and ask how she is doing in the province; for my uncle, my being able to successfully handle being alone in the house, and initiating a fulfilling relationship with a lucky girl.

My friends, on the other hand, would think of it as my becoming less dependent emotionally and financially on them.

For me, responsibility is all that and a lot more — like having a greater hold on myself, my words and actions. It’s being able to face my reflection in the mirror — as a birthday card said — and being proud with the image I see in it. Ultimately, it’s living a way of life that would be pleasing to the One who created me.

Still, despite my efforts to understand all these expectations of a young adult, some questions still hound me: Will growing and being responsible also mean saying goodbye to the little boy in me who refuses to leave, and to my sumpongs and my hang-ups? Does being 21 also mean trying to be as mature as my parents, who’d been long gone even before I reached this age?

Is life after 21 worth these thoughts, the excitement and the fear? Is there more to fear in turning 21, in growing up? What’s with the number 21, anyway?

Ah, ayoko na. Maybe I’m just being praning. I shouldn’t be — I’m 21 na, eh!

First published in the Philippine Post.