Ang Aking Tahanan (My Home)

The piece below is an attempt for me to process what the last few months have been like. It’s all over the place and I’ll definitely revise it at some point, but it was helpful to better structure the tangle of thoughts and emotions onto which I’d been holding.

Manila is exhausting. Even in the milder, drier months, the heat and humidity stifle you and breathing the thick, moist air becomes a chore. The traffic, among the worst in the world, traps you in time and space, the minutes and hours ticking away as you stare out into a sea of cars. Poverty is rampant, with tin huts as numerous as sand crammed between the mega-skyscrapers that line the metropolitan sky. It’s a lot to take in, especially for an American who’s experienced as much luck and privilege as me. 

And yet I know I need the discomfort that comes from being in this city and in this country, not because it exposed me to the lives that some unknown others live, but because it exposed me to the lives that others who are just like me live. Being here is both a reminder of who I am and who I am not. More importantly, it is a recollection of who I could be.

I’ve written before about my struggles to reconcile my ethnic Filipino identity with my American national identity. Walking every day among people who look like me, who speak a language that I sort of know, has been jarring.

I was surprised at how quickly I took to the country, especially given how accustomed I’ve grown to my comfortable life in the States. That transition stems in part from how much American culture the Philippines has adopted, even in the provinces we saw. Most people we met spoke English well. The Aeta tribe chief we visited wore a knock-off Golden State Warriors jersey and rode an American motorcycle despite living in a village of wooden huts. The Tagalog word for toothpaste is colgate.

I also came to grow more repulsed by the country’s Americanness. I initially took it as the Philippines surrendering itself to a bully, even if that bully was my home country. But I became more critical of the United States too, especially as I spent time in the country reading Filipino-focused accounts of imperialism. Stanley Karnow’s In Our Image illustrated how all of the Philippines’ imperial overlords displayed what George W. Bush described as the “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. America loved the Philippines as long as the country did what it was told and remained its “little brown brothers”.

The paternalism behind “little brown brother” reminded me of the time in high school when my A.P. Calculus teacher found out I was among three students who had gotten into Stanford via early admission. He was incredulous. When a classmate had told him, he immediately looked at me and said, “You?” He didn’t seem to surprised to hear that the other two, better students of his–one Vietnamese-American and the other, White–got in as well. Apparently I didn’t seem to fit the image of a student who could achieve that.

Strangely, there were times when I felt like I fit in and times when I didn’t feel “Filipino enough”. For example, I was surprised at how much Tagalog came back to me. I wasn’t fluent by any means, but I could carry conversations in a broken but satisfying Taglish, good enough to have many locals, especially provincial residents, speak to me completely in Tagalog once they knew I could understand. 

Yet I was surprised that only about half of the Filipinos we met were able to identify me as Filipino. Many said they thought I was Vietnamese or Thai or something else completely. It was more frustrating than I’d like to admit, especially since I’d grown up in the States having people continuously ask me the “What are you?” question. When Filipino locals would ask me, “Where are you from, sir?” (a question that carried the built-in assumption that I was American due to my accent), I’d reply, “Filipino ako, po” (“I’m Filipino, sir.”). They’d be aghast.

That said, being mistaken for a foreigner wasn’t all bad. Jen and I would often approach island tour guides as if we were clueless Americans. I could see the brokers smile as Jen would ask questions about included amenities, schedules, and stops. They’d say they needed to check with their associates–mostly the other boatmen–and they’d say something in Tagalog to them about how they thought this couple was going to be an easy sale. When they’d turn around, I’d smile and say, “Magkano ba ito, po?” (“So how much for it, sir?”). Their eyes would grow large and every time they’d say, “Ay! Filipino ka ba?!” (“What? You’re Filipino?!”) Then we’d both laugh and negotiate on a price.

But living here, even if for only a few weeks, made me more appreciative of the opportunities living in the States gave me. I saw myself in the faces of the street kids I’d walk by every day: I could have been any of them had my both my parents not decided to immigrate to California for a better life.

But I also wish I hadn’t spurned my ethnic identity so early and for so long. So much of who I am comes from this place, as much as it comes from being a lucky American.

*****

I was surprised that the Philippines had survived–in some cases, thrived–as much as it has up until this point, amidst all the changing hands among Spain, the United States, Japan (briefly during WWII), back to the States, then freedom. And so any disappointment I might feel at the country’s slow growth is tempered by hope given its impeded start.

I was touched that Jen loved the Philippines so much: the food, the people, the natural beauty. There were times when she’d detour us to a local sari-sari (convenience store) just so she could find a particular Filipino snack she was craving. There were times when we’d go to a restaurant and I’d order a burger and she’d ask for adobo, a well-loved Filipino dish. 

I loved working with MAD Travel, a socially-responsible tour agency run mostly by young, idealistic twenty-somethings trying to improve their country and the lives of their countrymen by sustainably sharing what was unique about the Philippines. These employees loved their country and in working for its betterment are as patriotic as any Americans I’ve met.

I was convicted seeing how so many Filipinos banded together when one part of the country suffered. The concept is called bayanihan, or being part of a community. I was humbled by Gawad Kalinga’s spirit of Walang Iwanan, or “No one left behind,” a mantra they lived by trying to uplift the Filipino poor. The welcoming spirit of everyone we met reminded me that even I, a prodigal son who rejected his cultural inheritance, was welcome to return.

So now, despite a lifetime of resistance and rejection, I’m proud to be Filipino.

What then does it mean to be Filipino? Does it mean I should get a tribal tattoo and set the country’s national anthem, Lupang Hinirang, as my default ringtone? Probably not. 

But it’s a question that’s just as difficult to answer as defining what it means to be an American. Just like the in the United States, where much of the country is a mosaic of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the Philippines has always been more of a federation of different tribes arbitrarily coalesced by colonialism. Filipinos don’t even speak the same dialect across the country: northerners speak Tagalog, Visayan residents speak Bisayan, and a whole smattering of other regional dialects, like Bicolano and Siargao-non, exist in-between. And yet the country exists, an ugly beautiful mess that somehow exists at all. I am better for it.

America is my cultural father and the Philippines is my cultural mother. They are each imperfect. Just like with my real parents, I can’t love one more than the other. In the past, I looked exclusively to my cultural father as an example, as a model of who I would like to become. But as I’ve grown older–and especially now–I’ve come to appreciate the quiet presence of my cultural mother, who had always been there, steadfast in her care and faithful her son would come to know her, admire her, emulate her, too.

I was raised by my father, but I am also my mother’s son. Nasa tahanan ako. I am home.

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