When I still lived in the Philippines, my brother had to move to Saudi Arabia for work. I was younger then and thinking now, I probably fully did not realize how hard it was for him to leave. I remember us praying as a family before his flight and I remember he was wearing his brown polo shirt, and when he hugged my dad, I felt so sad. I felt so sad not because my I’d be away from my brother; I felt sad that I had no idea how it must feel for a parent to see their child go to some far place, sad to see them go yet happy for their success in life. I felt sad because I had no idea why people had to move. Anyway, that was the first time our family was apart.
The saddest day of 2014 was the day we drove my brother back to the airport after his weeklong stay in Manila. It was like 2011 (the year we moved to the US) all over again, only this time, I was the one being left behind. He flew out back to Malaysia three (I’m not sure) days before I had to fly back home to the US, two days before my dad has to fly back home and approximately a month before my mom had to fly back home. I knew the days we had were limited, but I’ve never fully realized how hard it was to be the one left behind. When we brought my dad to the airport, that was when I knew it was real: we were going back to our respective realities — apart. Again.
It must be incredibly sad for my sister to see us come and go. Repeatedly.
The sadness that I feel (felt) though isn’t the empty kind. I don’t have a term for sadness that comes with acceptance. I have come to terms with us being apart. And to be completely honest, when I went back home (Manila), there were days I wanted to be back to the US. It’s push and pull; I have two homes, I am living both lives.
2014 is the year I was able to go back to Manila. Seeing this after my fifteen hour-long flight probably was the most surreal. It was all kinds of nostalgia. I felt so sentimental, it felt like the first time I was seeing Manila.
As soon as I walked out of the plane, there it was: crowded NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport). Dubbed as one of the worst airports in the world. The discomfort of slow to almost no Internet connection, the humidity and the crowd. I have lived here before, but now I carry with me a point of comparison, an alternate home.
I saw my sister for the first time in hundreds of weeks and I saw my niece, the first time since I last held her when she was just six months old. I hug them dearly. We drive for dinner to a mall that is 10 miles away and I wish I was kidding but it took us over an hour to get there. Everything Manila-related was so immaculate in my thinking when I lived in lonely, quiet America. And yet this was the traffic I was romanticizing about.
One random time at the mall while waiting for friends stuck in traffic, I happened to open into Bob Ong’s Bakit Baliktad Magbasa ng Libro ang Mga Pilipino?
“Manila (Metro Manila) is one of the dirtiest cities in the world,” sabi n’ya. Parang musika sa tenga ko ang sinabi n’ya. Muntik ko na nga s’yang ilaglag sa sasakyan. Pero mas malakas ang sipa ng katotohanan. Madumi nga yung lugar na ‘yon.”
I used to hate, abhor, hate Filipinos who talked about Manila that way when I moved here (US) in 2011. When I was asked about being homesick, people were quick to console me with “nothing would happen in Manila anyway,” or somewhere along the lines of having no future in the Philippines, or that there was too much corruption, so on and so forth. I had so much to say: that leaving the country does not grant us a better place in the society we deem non-progressive. Maybe I truly believe
d that; or maybe I got struck with guilt by my patriotic university upbringing that makes me think I believe d that. Or both.
We tend to be territorial about or beliefs or identities or things we like to protect and claim as our own. Probably why when I was new in America, everything that has to do with Filipinos made me swell with pride sometimes for no logical reason. Explaining anything that is associated with Filipino culture to non Filipinos made me beam with pride and enthusiasm. And meeting people of Filipino/Asian descent made me somehow feel connected to them, thinking that their identity is static: only to be disappointed when a Filipino born in America tells me “I’m American.” It is because I come from a homogenous place, where if you differ in color or language you are classified as a foreigner. Either you’re a Filipino or a foreigner. America has taught me to embrace varying ethnicities and ancestries and remove my ideal of associating physical appearance with people’s identity (identity as in where they come from).
These are the two things that I let go of and made me happier as an individual living in what I then viewed as a foreign country (US): exclusive nationalism and association of identity through people’s ancestry. We are all just individual human beings traversing this earth.
Back in Manila
Fast forward to the day I had to renew my passport. I had to line up as early as 7 a.m. at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in San Fernando, Pampanga only to be informed at 9 a.m. (when they started speaking to inform people in line about general procedures) that they do not offer expedited services (I had to renew my passport within seven days). I lost two hours of my dad’s and my time. These officials weren’t sorry at all nor were they approachable in any way, shape or form. We weren’t the only ones who lost our time, I was speaking to two other men who can hardly wait to leave the country.
“Yung ate ko, sa Brunei, pagpasok at paglabas niya sa DFA doon, tapos na ang passport same day. Tayo, mag aantay pa, magbabayad ng ganito ganyan.” (My sister who lives in Brunei, their passports are processed the same day. When she walks out of that office, her passport is in her hand. But us, we have to wait and pay all kinds of unnecessary fees here and there.)
Long story short I had to travel to the DFA’s main office in Manila; some two hours away and had to line up all over again. This is when I realize how amazing America’s customer service is. Actually, it is not amazing. It is the status quo, it is the standard. We should not feel privileged receiving that kind of service. But living in Manila, I didn’t know that because I had no point of comparison back then.
“Totoo ang mga kwento ng boss ko. Nakakangilo sa ngipin, pero totoo. At bagama’t nakakapikon s’ya minsan e mabait at mabuti s’yang tao. Sa bayan nila, hinihikayat ang mga tao na umunlad.”
I’m afraid I now share those Filipinos’ sentiments, those Filipinos whose comments I used to hate. I’m afraid that when I’m asked if I still want to live in the Philippines, I now hesitate at my answer. I used to be able to answer within three seconds “yes I would definitely live there.” But these days, hesitation takes more than three seconds. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
I’m afraid that in more days than I’d hope to have said it, I mentioned about how I can no longer live in Manila’s public transportation, the unruly driving standards or the subpar customer service (and not to get started on government corruption, etc) now that I have experienced living in my point of comparison. Now I understand what others then have been talking to me about, not to make themselves sound better than people who still go through these every single day — because no one is truly better than anyone — but just to state facts, actual things.
I booked my flight as early as March 2014 to fly to Manila in October 2014. I wanted to go home to:
1 see my family
2 see my friends
3 relive my favorite things to do
Going home (to Manila) is like cleaning your room, and finding that stack of notes full of highlighted lines and some textbooks you’ve used in high school. Flipping its pages brings up vivid images of your classroom, your lunches at the cafetria with your favorite friends and long Math classes that seemed to make that time stop forever. You relive it, your heart warms with (hopefully) fond memories but you just can’t go back to it — those books have been closed and you’re in a new chapter.
Going home I learned:
1 family will always be there for you. period.
2 people (that includes yourself) and people’s priorities change
Time did not allow me to see everyone I wanted to, but I’m glad that I have a better idea of who are willing to stay around. And I’ve experienced the real definition of having no distance between true friendships and sincere relationships. It’s crazy how I have been apart and have not talked on a day-to-day basis with my amazing friends and nothing seemed to change. In the same way that it was crazy to assume that nothing will ever change but some people just have different priorities now. And it takes being away for years and travelling the 7,000 some miles to realize this.
3 your memories are your made by your own preferred perceptions; and
4 ‘home’ is a moving, changing concept
might prefer to stay in America, I don’t think I can ever find a place with a stronger sense of community than the Philippines. I don’t think I can ever find the warmth of genuine friendships built not only by time, but just by the inherent culture itself. In the Philippines, if I left my house keys and got locked outside, my neighbor would invite me to dinner while I wait for my parents to unlock the house as soon as they found out. If that were to happen to me here, I think I’d have to make calls myself and just buy take out and forever blame myself for my stupidity. In the Philippines, you meet someone for the first time and you just feel like family. Here in America, ‘busy’ is so glorified and time is always passing, always seems to be passing in between work and chores.
Manila teaches its children the realities of life early on. And the practical implications of your choices. It prepares its children that we are not too good for anything (unless you’re a spoiled brat). Students commute in traffic and rain. Children exist in a harsh but real world. America’s poor is still in better living conditions than the rest of the world.
Yet I have never found a happier place with happier, more genuine and welcoming people than the Philippines.
I have lived in America for three and a half years and I realize there’s a reason I’m still living here. I choose it to be. It’s a
painful process of dematerializing: not just actual things but your relationships with people back home. And for those who live abroad, this feeling must be universal. The indescribable pain lingers, but we get used to it. Moving emancipates us from a lot of unnecessary beliefs and traditions and it constantly trains us to try to be better people as we deal with individuals who entirely differ from us (language, culture, skin and all).
Would I have made these realizations if I stayed? Maybe.
Would I have been still friends with people I lost touched with had I stayed? Maybe.
Would I have met new ones that could have been incredibly significant in my life now? Maybe.
But all those maybes; I really don’t know. I can’t question what is unknown to me. But I’d like to think that moving is one of my life’s best, hardest choices. It cost me my relationships with important people and beliefs however has rewarded me a better, much better perception of where we all stand in this earth and has rewarded me with knowing what’s genuine: be it people or beliefs I hold dearly. It’s push and pull; I have two homes, I am living both lives.