Homeland Intruder: hopes and fears before arriving in the Philippines

Time draws nearer to take off for the Philippines, and pre-departure preparations have precipitated into a frenzy.  I am less timid now about my impending new life as a foreigner, and instead welcome my landing in Manila as a vacation from the bureaucracies of being a traveler!

Some thoughts in recent weeks have revolved around my impressions of  “the motherland.”  I never once, until ten years ago, even thought of the Philippines as more than that terra incognita my grandma and her accent are from.  Family and school didn’t do much to alter this position.  During my first year in college, I finally got the opportunity to consider the Philippines as a historically significant country and culture.  And since then, the Philppines and its people, in my mind, have morphed from bland obscurity to improbable myth.  This is a bit of my piecemeal construction of the land I often envision a version of myself living a possible, synchronous life, and of the people I imagine myself to belong to.  I have quotes from my friends, family, and acquaintances, scenes from Filipino literature and film, and academic script of theoretical Filipino culture to go on:

I won’t walk the streets of Manila so much as shove my way through masses of people, and dodge reckless vehicles, but the heat will wither away my will to even leave whatever cool indoors I can find.  I’ll be greeted in Tagalog, but will have to answer guiltily in English.  People will be in general, very friendly toward me.  Each person might remind me of a family member or friend back home.  Some people will be overly helpful; that’s probably when I’ll draw my belongings closer and start looking for a way to excuse myself.  In one block I’ll find comfort in the familiar yet somehow estranged environment of a Filipino super mall.  In the next block I’ll find myself inconsolable in the foreign terrain of one of the Philippines’ garbage mountains.  I’ll go out to a bar.  Locals will draw near enough to satisfy their curiosity, yet even after months of friendship, they will keep me at a distance.  I’ll find ex-pats to commiserate with.  Every night I’ll blow black soot from my nose, and attempt to drift off to sleep in the suffocating humidity.

I want to be able to reflect on what I imagined the Philippines to be when I believed it would always be a place only in my imagination.  The people I know here, my family and friends, other Filipinos I’ve met, and the years of Filipino culture, history, and language classes have been my only personal link to the Philippines.  Having a physical racial stamp does not prepare you for the cultural implications of being that race.  I couldn’t tell you the first qualification for being Filipino, or Filipino-American, or “only part Filipino.”  But I’ll still tell you I’m Filipino.

In the Philippines, I always imagined I would be approached with curiosity and skepticism, since I am an American biracial Filipino.  But I find comfort in the the fact that friends of mine who look undeniably Filipino, still “act” American.  My deepest fear is that after calling myself Filipino all these years, I’ll realize I am the furthest thing from a Filipino, and in fact, I don’t really know what I am.


5 thoughts on “Homeland Intruder: hopes and fears before arriving in the Philippines

  1. One who embraces and implements the good values of a Filipino is a true Filipino. Also, we must show our “citizenship” as much as we can. Whenever someone talks bad about our country, some parts may be true but still we always see the bright side of every issue. Panatang Makabayan: “Sisikapin ko na maging isang tunay na Pilipino. Sa isip, sa salita, at sa gawa” 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, pilosopotamad! I was not aware of the panatang makabayan, thanks for sharing. There is an interesting phrase here,”tunay na Pilipino,” which can be translated into “true Filipino,” right? I have been asking my friends and family back home what different images, words, emotions etc come up for them associated with the phrase “American” versus “true American.” They seem to inspire two slightly different sets of characteristics. I thought that was a interesting quirk about labeling and citizenship.

  2. Hi Shelley,

    “My deepest fear is that after calling myself Filipino all these years, I’ll realize I am the furthest thing from a Filipino, and in fact, I don’t really know what I am.”

    This line reminds me of a great Filipino novel called “The Woman Who Had Two Navels” by Nick Joaquín (National Artist for Literature). It tackles about the subtleties and problems of Filipino Identity. Check it out. It’s in bookstores everywhere.

    I have just received your email. Until when are you staying here in the country?

    Best regards,


    • Hi Pepe, how funny a coincidence that you thought of The Woman Who Had Two Navels! The novel was the subject of my B.A. thesis, and of course the first Filipino literature I fell in love with. I’m very happy indeed that you connected my own frustrations to the story. I will be in the Philippines this time around only until August. I’ve blocked off all of June and July for interviews, so let me know if you find some availability then. Thanks for stopping by! -Shelley.

      • Nick Joaquín was the quintessential Filipino. It was he who defined what a true Filipino is, not Rizal. He was, hands down, the best Filipino writer in the English language… and to think that his first language was Spanish!

        I’ll send you an email. =)

        Best regards,


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