Second Time Around

It’s my second trip to the Philippines after living here for 9 months in 2012-2013.  I always think it’s so interesting how a travel experience changes when you visit a place for the second time.  All the magic wrapped up in stepping foot onto a foreign place is gone the second time around.  It’s been replaced instead with a measure of comfort and strange sense of foreign home.  For me, several emotions defined my initial trip to this country.  First of all, I am half-Filipino and half-American, so this first trip was something of right of passage I’d been waiting to take for a decade.  I was in anticipation for all sorts of questions about myself and my heritage to be answered.  Second, the fear of the unknown on my first visit became a major contribution to my experience at the time.  I spent so much time scrutinizing maps, yet getting lost anyway.  Every attempt to speak Tagalog was riddled with fear of ridicule.  And then there was the unknown of how to simply exist in a major metropolitan landscape that was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  I could not “google map” jeepney routes to get places.  I had to operate the old fashioned way: ask someone for directions, then ask again at the next block, and ask again until you get there.  I did not know my place in relation to neighborhoods I should or shouldn’t be in, or people I should be especially polite to.IMG_8774 (2) IMG_8792 (2) IMG_8772 (2)

This time, I notice that I have carved out paths of familiarity from my first trips, and I generally don’t stray from them.  I can glide through certain train and jeepney routes without hesitation.  I know exactly where I want to have my Indian food, or which café has the best internet connection.  I had carved out a way of life for myself.  I do allow for little explorations here or there.  But, I definitely have a way of life here now–a way to live in the Philippines, a way to be part of the Philippines.

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Eating Mangoes in Guimaras and the Simplicity of Cultural Transmission

Since meeting my family in Ilo-Ilo City and Guimaras Island, I have been expecting to integrate my brief experiences into some new definition of self.  But recognizing the extent to which I have or have not found meaning by meeting Lola Doty or Lolo Nando, etc has been the cardinal question of the past few months.  These faces still exist for me in oscillation somewhere between “stranger” and “everything.”

My weekend visit may have been too short to establish a real emotional connection beyond our immediate and warm acceptance of each other as family, but it was just long enough to alter my behavior.  This is a post about the social significance of the people we call family and the surprisingly simple process of cultural transmission.

“Do you know how to eat buko?”an Ate (term for addressing an older female family member) asked me as a Kuya (term for addressing an older male family member) shimmied up a nearby palm tree to hack off a few young, green coconuts.  I did know.  With friends in Puerto Galera, I had learned to sip the water from the bowl and to use the top coconut shell piece as a spoon to scrape out and eat the soft white insides after.

With our 10-pound bukos in hand, we sat down to lunch at a picnic table.  A Lola handed me a Guimaras mango (infamous for being the sweetest mangoes in the Philippines.)  “Now, I’ll show you to do it our way,” Lola coyly suggested, feeling that she faced certain ridicule for her provincial ways.  She dug into the side of the yellow skin and proceeded to circumvent the fruit, finishing with one long curly mango peel.  I peeled my own in this way, leaving a stub of peel at the bottom to grip while I bit into the fruit.  Lola was visibly pleased that I embraced this technique, and I was equally gratified to participate.  It was a simple, almost forgettable moment, but I have since returned over and over to this memory nearly every time I buy a whole mango–because now I have to decide whether I want to use a knife or peel it.

I learned to eat local fruits by local practice in two ways–buko by friends and mango by family.  For the life of me, I can’t enunciate what the difference is.  While learning from my friends was just as practical and permanent, there was something sacred in learning from my Lola.  It was almost as if I was learning from all her bygone generations as well.  I believe this is something that is presumed or inherent in generational learning: we imagine these lessons to be timeless and intensely personal possessions passed through family.

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.

Going to the Philippines 2012-2013!


Quezon City, Philippines

I won a Fulbright grant yesterday to study and research in the Philippines!  I will be based at University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City.  My project will focus on national consciousness formation and expression through social media.  I’m so excited to finally start some investigation on those burning questions that keep me up at night!

I’m more excited, though, to visit my mother’s family’s country.  Studying Tagalog for the past 9 months has brought me a bit closer to my roots, but there’s nothing like digging down right to the source.  Most of my Filipino family has been back to the Philippines at least once.  I will be the first of my other half-blooded siblings and cousins to visit their distant ancestral land.  It will be an experience, for sure.

I proposed to arrive in November, and I have much preparing to do before then.  Despite the 2 month detour to Guatemala I am starting next week, the timing couldn’t have been better!