The end of October marks the end of Filipino American History Month, and I’ve been missing my Filipino family recently.
I’ve previously written about my mother and her story of immigrating to the U.S. from the Philippines, but I’ve often struggled with articulating what the Philippines means to me. I’ve always felt like a bit of a fraud. Being a mixed Chinese Filipino American, I’ve never felt like I’ve fit in anywhere, even among other Filipino Americans. I don’t speak Tagalog or Cebuano, nor do I eat red meat like the famous Cebu lechon (slow-roasted pig). I’ve been on the University of Michigan Filipino American Student Association email list since my freshman year, but life got busy and I never ended up going to any meetings or events, no matter how tempted I’ve been to join Tinikling on the Diag or halo-halo-eating festivities.
But recently, as the wistfulness for the Philippines and my family grows, I’ve been trying to connect back with my roots. There’s that old saying that distance makes the heart grow fonder, and the longer I’ve been away from the Philippines and think about the future, the more I consider how people and places grow older. I’ve been video chatting with my aunts and uncles and listening to their conversations, even when it switches to a language I don’t speak. I’ve asked my mom about some of her favorite recipes and planned some questions to ask my grandparents when we go back to the Philippines. I’ve even centered the story of my novella, a project I’m doing for my creative writing honors thesis, around the Philippines. Just as my character grows in learning about the country and herself, I too am using the opportunity to learn about the Philippines and reflect on my own experiences and memories.
When it comes to finances, my parents have always prioritized saving money to go back to the Philippines. We try to visit my grandparents every other year or so, especially as they’ve gotten older. The last time I visited the Philippines, however, was over four years ago. Since then, my grandfather has turned 91 and I’ve lost two great aunts there to COVID-19. We were meant to go back to the Philippines in 2019, the summer following my freshman year of college, but my mom had been diagnosed with cancer and was continuing treatment so we didn’t end up going. The next year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so the travel plans were pushed back to 2021. With the state of the pandemic overseas still uncertain, our plans are on hold indefinitely. We hope that a continuing decrease in cases means that we can visit soon.
When I was younger, I took advantage of the trips. It wasn’t until the past few years I’ve had to think about the impermanence of things that I didn’t spend much time thinking about before. The trips were never about gaining bragging rights or Instagram pictures. They were never meant to be excuses for tropical paradises or getting away from the tedious routine of everyday life. Trips to the Philippines were about making memories, visiting family and connecting with my mother’s homeland. Dozens of memories and cultural hallmarks fill my mind, many of which I miss.
The duality of buzzing city streets and beautiful beach landscapes. Marine habitats and limestone cliffs. New high-rises that make Cebu look different each time I visit. The Chocolate Hills in Bohol, Magellan’s Cross in Cebu City and the white sandy beaches of Bantayan Island. The sunshine and warmth of tropical weather, no matter how scorching and exhausting the heat feels at times.
The never-ending rice, pancit and chicken inasal. The fruit — fresh mangoes, longan and bananas. Even Milo cereal, the chocolate cereal I had for breakfast throughout my early childhood. And the desserts. Puto, turon (fried plantains), halo-halo. The tsokolate (Filipino hot chocolate) my mother enjoys with fresh pandesal for breakfast. My father’s favorite buko pie. Ube ice cream. Ube anything.
The abundance of fried chicken and rice, even in fast-food restaurants. I love the little differences between the Philippines and U.S., like how the same fast-food chains serve different food in different countries. Rather than a salad or chicken wrap like on the McDonald’s menu in the U.S., you might find spaghetti or fried chicken with rice in the Philippines. And speaking of fast food, McDonald’s has nothing on Jollibee.
Procuring gum and cheddar-flavored Clover chips from the closest sari-sari store, the small neighborhood retail shop that serves members of the community. The small eateries on the side of the street. Buying more snacks, like roasted peanuts or banana cue, from people selling them on the sidewalk. My mother’s tales about which dirty ice cream vendors to trust and which ones to be more hesitant of.
The cheap transportation of the jeepney and the small joy of passing pesos up to the driver. Enjoying the taxi rides, too, even if the journey takes twice as long as expected due to growing traffic and urban sprawl. Spending the day at SM City Cebu just to admire the mall’s AC and sheerness in size. Watching my younger cousins ride the merry-go-round and pick what kind of food to eat in the food court. Drinking fresh watermelon juices and slushes. Going shopping with my mother in the mall’s supermarket. The beaded bracelets and dried mangoes among other souvenirs we bring home. The little shell figurines, like the turtle made from seashells and googly eyes.
My grandparents’ home. Angkong (grandfather) and Ama (grandmother) standing at the end of the driveway, waiting for me and my parents to arrive. The chair that houses Ama for her afternoon naps. The sofa that seats memories of melted ice cream and backs sticky with sweat. The painting of Jesus that watches over everyone from the second-floor railing. The old-fashioned radio drowned out by a rotating fan. The childhood photographs of my mother and her siblings from 40 to 50 years ago. All the framed college diplomas they earned decades later. Too many people squished into not enough bedrooms, leaving some on pull-out cots in the living room.
Remembering to greet my elders with mano po, pressing their hand to my forehead out of respect. Watching my Angkong and Ama joke around with one another after over 60 years of marriage. Conversations with my aunts and uncles about books like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and musicals such as “Les Misérables.” The chess matches between my uncle and grandfather followed by the much louder games of Uno among the cousins — two Japanese and two Americans, including myself — around the coffee table.
The wallet full of foreign currency gifted to me by my relatives. Australian dollars from Aunt Christine, Philippine pesos from my grandparents and Uncle Patrick, Japanese yen from Uncle Peter. Fresh fish and noodle soup for dinner around a crowded dining table. The energy of the room is unlike any other, close and connected even in the absence of words.
The memories start to fade away as time goes on, but I never forget the elated feeling of connecting with loved ones I haven’t seen in some time. There are few moments that can compare to the happiness of seeing the whole family seated around the dining table. During the trips to the Philippines that my parents and I made every other year, my mother’s siblings (outside of an uncle who lives with my grandparents) also made the trek home. An uncle from California, an aunt from Australia, an uncle in the Philippines, and an uncle from Japan, along with their spouses and/or families, would fit into one house. My cousins and I grew too quickly in the adults’ eyes, but sitting in the same room with everyone made me feel as though I never left.
If you ask me where I consider “home” to be, I can’t say that my first response will always be the Philippines. But home is where the heart is, and these days, I’d consider the Philippines my second home. However far away the island nation is, it will always hold a special place in my heart.
MiC Columnist Elizabeth Schriner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.