BY MICHI FERREOL
To date, I have “come home” to the Philippines about sixteen times. In our language, this makes me a Balikbayan — a Filipino who has returned home after an extended period of time studying or working overseas. I’ve always thought it was beautiful that Filipinos have a special word for such a person, and that its connotation is so rich with appreciation and respect for the over 10 million of us that live up to its definition.
I first became a Balikbayan at eighteen, when I first left the Philippines to attend university in the U.S.A. As an international student, my college years were riddled with flights to and from the Philippines. But despite thirty-hour trips, I was always grateful to escape the snowy, arctic hell that befell Boston in the winter time; Not to mention getting the chance to recharge my batteries away from the hectic New England lifestyle.
Before long, I became an expert at packing (and living out of) a suitcase. I could easily rattle off the list of prohibited items for a carry-on bag (curling irons are allowed, but only as long as they don’t contain Butane gas), and I soon learned my passport number by heart. I grew accustomed to hectic airport pickups and “welcome back!” dinners. I even learned to conquer my fear of immigration officers.
Coming home always felt like a celebration, no matter how long I was away. It was refreshing to see and interact with Manila with a newfound excitement and set of perspectives. I relished in the barrage of questions (and compliments!) I would get from friends and family on my time abroad: “Your skin looks so good! How’s the weather there?” “I saw your photos with your new friends! Where are they from?” “Did you find a foreigner boyfriend na?”
Even my parents were not spared from hullabaloo. With their eldest daughter away for a majority of the year, Mom and Dad both felt the need to dote on me more than ever before. No time could be wasted scolding or telling me off for something, so I got away with a lot. No shopping item was too expensive to buy, either. My days would be peppered with dinners at the newest restaurants and family excursions to Manila’s holiday sites, with some visits to the doctor and the dentist scattered in between for good measure.
Perks aside, I cherished these visits because they became opportunities to discover how I had changed.
Though these developments were not obvious to me, people were not shy to point things out about my accent, the way I dressed, and — thanks to the Chipotle that was walking distance from my dorm — my weight. Some changes were more subtle and surfaced only after several trips back. The independence I had gained, for instance, continued to boost my confidence and maturity. The variety of people I met gave me a cultural fluency and relatability that I would have never been able to pick up from movies or books. I felt myself getting better at manoeuvring conversations and approaching issues with a fair but critical eye, instead of taking everything told to me at face value. Ironically, the longer I spent from Manila, the more I understood and appreciated its idiosyncrasies.
I learned quickly that two weeks seemed to be the maximum amount of time to spend at home before the novelty of my return would wane. My trips never lasted more than that, providing just the right dose of sunshine, traffic and family time to allay homesickness for another half a year. Any longer and I would begin to feel like a toddler who needed to be shepherded around or who bothered everyone in the house out of boredom. Regardless, those two weeks were always magical and never failed to remind me of why I loved the Philippines.
Over time, however, my Balikbayan returns began to lose their magic and turned bittersweet. In reconnecting with the people and places I had left behind, I acknowledged the ways in which they continued to shape me, but also became painfully aware of the things I could no longer relate to. This first became evident to me through conversations I would have over lunches or coffees. Discussions that centered purely around Manila gossip began to eat at me. I noticed how people casually threw around well-known family names in the middle of a conversation and chatted tactlessly about things that didn’t necessarily concern them. Everyone seemed oddly connected and related, with everyone carrying tidbits of others’ personal affairs like a currency to be exchanged. Manila suddenly felt small and suffocating.
At home, my parents and I struggled to find the balance between my newfound independence and their parental authority.
Mom and I would get into arguments about allowing me to go for a run around the neighborhood or take taxis to get around the city. The freedom of doing these things in Boston had become so natural to my daily routines, and I wanted that same mobility in Manila. But there was no such luck. Of course, I chalked this up to my parents’ love for me and their natural inclination to be protective. But being under a mild form of house arrest made me long to be back in Boston, where I was free to go wherever and do whatever.
Then, of course, there were the simple comforts and efficiencies that I had gotten so used to in the U.S. that I was hard-pressed to find in Manila. Traffic was always a killer. A distance I could normally cover in 10 minutes in Boston would take me 45 instead. The concept of waiting in line also seemed non-existent. Instead of patiently waiting for one’s turn, people would push and shove to make their way to the front, whether disembarking a plane or waiting to receive communion at church or going to the bathroom at a mall. I had gotten so used to Western courtesy and norms that these things jumped out at me immediately, whereas I might not have even noticed them (or even done them myself) before. I also missed some infrastructural luxuries, like well-stocked public libraries, sprawling public parks, and well-paved sidewalks. These, I simply would not find in Manila.
I often felt spoiled and entitled for complaining about these tiny details (and you’re probably thinking now that I am, in fact, both those things). I could not help but think about my aunts and uncles, who had left the Philippines several years ago and had surrendered their Filipino passports for American citizenships. I remembered them complaining over one Thanksgiving dinner about the heat, the noise and the ‘lack of culture’ in Manila. I used to think these statements were snooty and elitist and did not give the Philippines enough of a fair chance. Perhaps, I thought, they were just trying to justify to themselves the choice they had made to leave. I recognized that there would always been some form of guilt over escaping this “tough” lifestyle and seeking solace in the comforts of a more developed country — a battle that I was always willing to fight to return home and contribute to the Philippines’ growth.
But, slowly, I began to empathise with my relatives. It was, indeed, a fair question to pose: Why leave the cushy comforts of a life in North America for the daily headaches of a city like Manila?
My personal answer to this question is currently chunked into three (and continues to be refined as I become more conscientious and thoughtful on the matter):
No matter where I go in the future or where I decide to live, I am a born and bred Filipino. This is something I can never change. In the pursuit to become more self-aware and become a more whole person, I must understand and accept the Philippines for both its beauties and its flaws as they very much mimic my own. For better or worse, all these things make up a large and intricate part of who I am and how I am. Perhaps living abroad has just made me more aware of this (for how can one really understand the functions of a machine if they can never break out of their position as a cog?).
For several years, everything about this country was just a larger scale representation of me — my thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. It no longer continues to be the only place that figures in this equation, but it is still a large part. In understanding the Philippines better, and teasing out the inner workings of its structures, norms and politics, I also understand my own self better. To abandon it is to also abandon the most raw and visceral opportunity to discern its role in my journey.
A comfortable life in a more developed area is exactly just that — comfortable. I’ve found that places of comfort tend to breed indifference and stagnation. The push to become better and to actually want to do so, for both oneself and others, occurs most jarringly when placed in difficult situations or contexts.
I moved to Mauritius, a place where I knew no one and of which I had no prior knowledge or connection, precisely for this purpose. In my move there, I have learned so much about the African continent and have met friends from cultures I could not have claimed to understand or appreciate previously. I have also become much more confident in my ability to jump into completely untested waters.
Moving back to the Philippines would cause a similar discomfort, but the productive kind — the kind that inspires the appreciation of one’s own experiences and blessings, the ability to tease out root causes for systemic inequality and failure, and the setting in motion of a slow but fruitful process to effect change. Most of all, it is this type of discomfort that cultivates humility. From this challenge, I will ache but also grow.
Filipinos raised me and nurtured me. I have nothing but gratitude for the communities which took me under their wings and moulded me. Without them, I would have never had the chance to leave the country to begin with. For the longest time, these communities seemed utterly full to me, lacking nothing. But I was also privileged and could take full advantage of what they were offering — in short, I was one of the lucky ones of a botched system.
The irony in the opportunities I was given, full as they seemed, was that they opened my eyes to the holes in which others landed or fell. But instead of complaints or guilt or jadedness, these realizations can be used as a catalyst for action. We can turn pains into data points, which can then be used to determine a way of better doing things to make sure our systems benefit more people.
Now, as an Overseas Filipino Worker, I find myself returning to Manila for the customary holiday festivities every December, unable to fend off tempting dreams of the Lechon Kawali and Jollibee spaghetti that would be waiting for me upon arrival. The routine is as predicted: go home, eat a lot, see a few friends, sit in traffic for a good chunk of time, and leave just when all those tiny pains begin to claw at me. But this routine is temporary and does not scratch the surface of why I will continue to return. The reasons go much deeper than that.
And no matter how many times I repeat the routine and become more aware of what Manila is not, the more I appreciate what it actually is. It is still home,and no matter how many times I leave, I will always find a way, a reason, and a time to return.