Postcard from “Back Home”, the Philippines

Country 17: The Philippines | This post is part of my 30×30 series. Read more here!

One of the things I love, in principle, about America is that you can be any kind of American: Filipino-American, Swedish-American, Afro-American, Chinese-American. In theory, you keep the country of your heritage looped in with your identity as an American. My experience as a Filipino-Swedish-American (ScandinAsian-American?), however, focused more on being Californian than anything else. So though I identify as a Filipina, for most of my childhood, the concept of the Philippines was not much more than some prettily embroidered, papery dresses, Christmas lumpia, and the two words: Back home. 

Before I moved abroad, the concept of “Back home” was something I’d only heard from my grandmother, whom we call ‘Mama’ (pronounced like the French maman). “Back home” was a mystical, faraway place that Mama frequently referenced, but few of us American-born grandchildren had ever seen or experienced. When I was 21 and teaching English in Thailand, Mama and I met up to tour the Philippines together for three weeks. She took me to Manila, where many of our family members now live in work, to Samar, the island where she was born and grew up, and to Ilocos, where she moved after meeting my grandfather during the Second World War.

These three weeks of traveling around the Philippines with her are a treasured memory for me, not just because I got to see where we came from and how we got to where we are now, but because I got to know her so deeply. In my own expat experience, I’ve come to realize how much we lose of ourselves when we move to a new country and adapt the language, culture, and guise of that new nationality. In America, Mama is meek and shy, deferential and hesitant to strike up a conversation because of her “bad English”. But in the Philippines, she was fierce—she had energy and verve and a vitality I had never seen before (and have never unseen since). If you have the chance to trace your family roots, do it. If you can go with a grandparent or relative who can make that place, history, language, and culture come alive—do it.

Catbalogan Sunset

September 2010 — Catbalogan, Samar

A lot of young travelers arrive in the Philippines for weeks of beach fun, relaxation, and nightclub highlights. So far, I’ve been in bed by eleven every night, with beer and karaoke making up the happenin’ evening plans. But the crazy, careening trip of a twenty-odd backpacking nomad wasn’t something I expected from this particular trip, though I am, in fact, a twenty-odd something backpacker. For one, I knew I’d be meeting my grandmother, who I call Mama, and certain things would be taboo. That included: dancing like at a club, drinking too much, and refusing to go to Church (darn, darn, and darner—swearing was also a no-no). But the other reason was that I expected to learn so much on this trip. It was imperative to focus not so much as having a crazy good time as it was absorbing information, learning about my family, and experiencing this place that I had come from.

We kicked off with two busy days in Manila: battling with the Philippine Immigration Bureau about extending my visa (it cost a whopping $170 to stay a week longer than 21 days—yikes!), exploring Intramuros, the historic sector Manila City, where we saw the Jose Rizal shrine and museum (Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines, a sort of East Asian Che Guevara, if you will, but a better writer); played endless games of cards with the young cousins; riding in jeepneys and tricycles all over town; and of course, eating a TON of fantastic food.

After which we boarded a Cebu Pacific flight bound for Tacloban, a city in Leyte. From Tacloban, we took a two hour bus ride over the San Jacinto Bridge to the island of Samar, my grandmother’s home. And just a brief ride later, we were parked at a gas station in the center of Catbalogan, Mama’s village.

Catbalogan is still a small village, but apparently, it used to be even smaller—a fact that’s hard to imagine. The main streets are almost completely devoid of automobiles (only delivery trucks), and instead are crowded with tricycles, bicycles, and jeepney vans. Houses have sprung up to crowd each other along narrow walkways in town, leaving only enough space to slide through. When it rains, you can remain completely dry if you’re between the houses-the roofs are so close that they keep the rain out. There is an open air market full of fish and fruit, brightly painted and overhung with signs for Coca-Cola, the beverage of choice.

On our first day, Mama took me to Catbalogan One, the local primary school, where we met Filipino school teachers and played with the children. They loved answering my questions with enthusiastic howls and cheers, and as we left, I think I high-fived every single child there.

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We were in Catbalogan for a particular reason—September 24th is the day of Our Lady of Ransom, and a Catholic feast day means fiesta! Despite having to get up early and sit through a stifling hot Catholic mass, fiesta turned out to be the best time yet. The day basically consisted of nothing but eating. We visited five different homes, meeting family and chatting, and ate a full plate per house, trying all kinds of new and different Filipino foods. Menudo, adobo, rice, babinka, pancit, lechon…the table went on and on.

One of my favorite stops was the house of my grandmother’s cousin, Manuel. Manuel was a basketball star back in the 1950’s, a dashing, handsome young man who was as good on the dance floor as he was on the basketball court. He calls my grandmother, “Nanay,” Tagalog for “mother,” and claims that she was like a mother to him. (To which my grandmother sniffs: “I am only a few years older than you!”) Once the laughter has subsided, Manuel loads the CD player with some cha-cha music, and an impromptu dance lesson commences. His wife, Alice, taught the American soldiers how to dance back in the post-war years, and doesn’t waste any time getting me to practice my one-two-three-one-two-threes. We danced for what seemed like an hour, and then I snuck up to the rooftop deck, leaving the elders to their Englebert in Concert DVD and continued merry-making.

On the roof, I met the Colonel, Manuel’s son-in-law, who plunks down two bottles of San Miguel (“the only beer that nurtures Filipino friendships”) and started a conversation that would span the sunset. He told me all about Samar between the post-year wars (1944-1960-ish) and present-day—filling in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Everyone I’ve met seems to hold a crucial bit of history, and the way the generations are lined up, I’m able to hit every decade.

Down in the basement, karaoke is commencing, and more food is being heaped onto plates on my behalf. My grandmother excuses us on the basis that we still have two more houses to hit before calling it a day. But I already know that this will be my favorite house. When we first arrived, Alice appeared in the doorway with a huge smile on her face.

“Welcome, welcome!” She called in a singsong, waving us in. “You’re laaate! Food’s almost gone!” We laughed, hugged, said hello. Kissing me on the cheek she said, “And you! Welcome home”—as if they had always been expecting me.