The first time I visited the Philippines, I was 12 years old — a pretentious, insufferable seventh grader leaving the country for the very first time. Despite having the incredible and rare fortune of traveling to my ancestral home — the country where my parents were raised and where most of my family resides — I didn’t like it much.
Nearly everything was overwhelming to me. My naive wardrobe, ready for Michigan winters, was unbearable in the sticky humidity. Manila, my Dad’s hometown and the nation’s capital, was bustling with traffic and people that I found suffocating and frustrating. Even though a variety of new, authentic, delicious dishes were available to me, I started getting tired of Filipino food after a while. The commodities I was used to, like fast Wi-Fi and hot water, weren’t available at my whim. On top of that, I didn’t know how to speak Tagalog, so I felt inadequate compared to my dad’s family; and I didn’t know how to speak Llonggo, so I felt the same compared to my mom’s family.
Saying that now is embarrassing and a rather poor reflection of myself at the time. I couldn’t enjoy my first time exploring the mother country of my family and cultural homecoming because of my close-minded, dismissive attitude. Instead, I longed for the comforts of my home, uninterested in the Filipino culture and history that I supposedly belonged to, and the place my parents called home for so much of their lives. I knew the Philippines was an integral part of my identity, my culture and my family history, but it just felt too foreign for me to ever feel at home.
However, throughout six years, I got curious. I asked my mom and dad about their childhoods and what going to school was like in the Philippines. When the pressures of school and college apps bogged me down and crippled me with self-doubt, I asked them what it was like to leave their home and families to work and start their own family, as well as to not return home for over a decade.
The stories I got were funny, moving, inspiring, and above all, illuminating.
My mom would tell me about her childhood growing up in the rural, sugar capital of the Philippines, where she lived with her large family of Lolo, Lola and five older siblings. When she went to study at one of the country’s top universities, she described moving from the provinces to the big city as both exciting and isolating. Once I developed an interest in cooking, she shared Filipino recipes and suggestions for easy meals, in addition to basic cooking skills, and I gained a newfound appreciation for Filipino cuisine and its ingredients.
To make me feel better about my grades and the college transition, my dad comedically characterized his move to college as a harried endeavor. I laughed endlessly when he described some of his ludicrous project partners and hijinks he pulled to “narrowly” pass school. On the other hand, I felt gut-punching sadness when he told me the last time he saw his childhood dog was when he immigrated to America, knowing he likely wouldn’t return home for a long time. And I felt admiration when he told me how he and many of his classmates took to the Manila streets to protest the government violence and oppression in the famous 1988 People Power Revolution that ended the Marcos dictatorship.
From the stories I collected from my parents out of my impulsive, extensive question-and-answer sessions, I felt more connected to the Philippines. More importantly, I developed a fueled interest in my culture, my history and embracing my Filipino identity.
In feelings of bleakness and hopelessness in our news timelines, I’m reminded of the activism my parents and their peers championed. Their fight and the continued struggle for human rights in the Philippines is a reminder of the democracy we take for granted and emboldens me to participate in the rights I possess as an American citizen.
In feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, I remember of my parents’ experiences as students and young, immigrant professionals. Every ball-busting class, nerve-wracking interview or overwhelming job seems a bit easier when I remember how my parents toughed out college, medical school and residency in a completely different country, showing that these personal hardships aren’t forever.
In feelings of loneliness and homesickness, I turn to Filipino music for something familiar. When I’m far from home, missing the taste of Filipino food, I queue up classic Pinoy rock that my dad used to play in our car and listen fondly to the Tagalog lyrics, though I don’t understand most of them, or I explore current Filipino-American artists like Jay Som and Ruby Ibarra as they sing their stories of navigating their lives in the diaspora.
Though I first called America my home, through my parents’ stories, I learned to also find a home in the Philippines, and I’m so eager to learn and to work to give back to my home. And though my parents are probably tired of hearing it, the next time I see them, I’ll excitedly ask them for another story.