“Have you been back?” This is a question I got a lot whenever I met with other Filipino-Americans during various family functions like birthdays and baptisms throughout my youth. I would then have to explain to a nosy tita ((“Tita” or “Tito” is Tagalog for Aunt and Uncle. However, this title is not just for actual aunts and uncles. We use the title for close family friends who are just like relatives to us. This is similar to how “Aunt” and “Uncle” are used in the United States and other countries.)) or cousin, that since I was born in Culver City, California, I had never been much less been back. “Back” refers of course to “the mother country” as many Filipinos and Filipino-Americans call the country of my parents’ birth – the Philippines. The question, “Have you been back?” used to bother me much more than the question “Where do you come from?” because it stabbed me with a pang of guilt. It was this self-created guilt that I had not yet made the pilgrimage that so many of my fellow Filipino-Americans had already made, some multiple times. While most Filipinos do emigrate to the United States to create a better life for themselves economically, many of them visit frequently and end up retiring back in the Philippines since the cost of living there is comparatively low. I heard “Have you been back?”so much, I was tempted at times just to lie, to claim that I had been there so I could get out of having to explain why I hadn’t made the journey. Eventually the question only strengthened my resolve. I knew I would go to the Philippines at least once in my life before I became too old to appreciate its natural wonders and to see the places where my parents were raised before deciding to embark on the American dream they bequeathed to my sister, brother and me.
I did not have a lot of opportunities to “return.” My parents did not go back so often that my siblings or I would be able to accompany them. When they did go back, the cost of a trans-Pacific trip was too prohibitive for my sister, brother, or me to be able to join them. My brother was the first of my siblings to visit the Philippines, and he went with Dad after his sophomore year in high school. He had a great time meeting our relatives but complained about having been a feast for the mosquitoes there. After they returned, I told Mom and my sister that someday we would have to make a girls’ trip to the Philippines as this was only fair. At that moment, my brother became one of “them,” someone who had “been back,” and I admit that I envied him.
I used to feel this interminable divide between Filipino-Americans like me who were born in the United States and Filipino-Americans who immigrated mostly as small children with their parents to the United States. I often wondered if they were somehow superior Filipinos, and that they were somehow culturally predisposed to be more proficient in Tagalog and have an undiscerning taste for Filipino cuisine, no matter what ingredients and strange animal parts were involved. Being U.S.-born, I felt that there was some ineffable, missing element that made me more of a poseur than a “real” Filipino-American. In fact, for a time, I insisted on identifying myself as just “American” because I was born in the United States and did not see the point of placing my parents’ national origin in my own ethnic identification. I also saw the label “Filipino-American” as something of a lie – how could I dare to label myself with a country I have never seen with my own eyes?
As originally planned, we Espineli women finally set off on our own Philippine journey on June 7, 2007 with the intention to canvass a selection of its thousands of islands in a scant two weeks. Like some kind of strange time warp across the International Date Line, Mom, my sister Lauren, and I left Los Angeles for Manila in the early evening of a Thursday and arrived in Manila early Saturday morning. The sixteen-hour plane ride was punctuated with many hot meals – an unexpected treat given the fact that all U.S. domestic plane trips no longer serve meals. The hot meals were Filipino dishes which helped make it all the more real that we were finally going to visit our parents’ home country. I remember feeling nervous about meeting my large extended family and wondering what they will think of us. Mom is the fifth of nine children, so we had plenty of aunts, uncles, and cousins to meet. Dad only had three siblings, all of whom are now in the United States, but his uncle had eleven children and his aunt had sixteen. So this makes for many more cousins, many of whom are scattered around the world (such as in Norway).
As per usual, Lauren and I procrastinated about packing, and we each ended up each packing a huge suitcase, a decision we regretted as soon as we landed. In addition to all of our suitcases, we had a huge cardboard box, filled with gifts and supplies for relatives. If you have ever passed the Philippine Airlines counter in the international terminal, you have probably seen many passengers waiting to check in huge cardboard boxes called Balikbayan ((“Balikbayan” literally means “returnee” or someone coming home after an extended stay.)) boxes. These boxes are a long-standing tradition which also adds to the cost of a trip to the Philippines – because you can’t just go there empty-handed. We brought old clothes, little gifts and souvenirs as well as foodstuffs like instant coffee, corned beef, and Coffeemate that are very expensive and hard to come by in the Philippines.
As we deplaned and made our way to the baggage claim, we felt the profound humidity engulf us as we tried to find our bearings. So this was what the tropics really felt like. Our first trip to the bathroom was an experience! We had to tip someone in the bathroom when we finished using the facilities…the last time I encountered this was going to the bathroom at a nice hotel so it was a bit unexpected in an airport. Thankfully, we had been warned in advance to bring our own toilet paper as this convenience is very much a Western one. As soon as we gathered all of our luggage, we needed to find our connecting flight to Tacloban. Our first stop on our journey was to go to Mom’s hometown of Calbayog on the island of Samar. Samar is part of the middle region of the Philippines known as the Visayas.
As we dipped beneath the thin layer of clouds, we got our first peek at the lush greenery that awaited us. I had seen some photos of Mom’s hometown but they were mostly of people and of buildings so my imagination forgot to fill in the fact that it was enclosed by all of this amazing nature! I wondered why my mother never mentioned this…then again, it was probably something she saw as normal and not something worth pointing out to us.
Fortunately, we got help in acclimating to our new environment. Our uncle Tito Ecot (Mom’s brother-in-law) and our cousin Francis met us at the airport in Tacloban. Tacloban is on the island of Leyte and is best-known for being the humble birthplace of Imelda Marcos – this was a factoid with which we were immediately supplied. Tito Ecot and Francis hired a van for the day to pick us and our luggage up since it was a five-hour trip by car to Calbayog. I think that our luggage outweighed us so this was good planning. Tito Ecot warned us that it would be a bumpy road, but that was an understatement. The potholes in some places were so deep that the driver would drive on the dirt shoulders which were actually smoother than the roads themselves. We were amazed that this was the main highway of Samar! When we asked why the roads were in such a state, Mom explained that due to political corruption, the funds for public works were siphoned off to more personal interests. This got me to thinking about how much I took for granted in the United States. Despite the frequent potholes I encounter in the Boston area, I don’t complain about them anymore. Having a road in good repair is not a right but a privilege in my mother’s home province.
When I asked about whether they would ever do any repair on the road, my uncle and cousin laughed. They explained that the road had been and would always be dangerous to travel and that they avoided taking this route when possible. Our cousin Francis also mentioned that there was a possibility that Calbayog’s airport would soon offer flights to and from Manila (it does today). It was great to see Francis, having only known him through photos and relatives’ stories. I knew he was a little older than me and that he and his twin brother Terrence were both married with kids. I looked forward to connecting with him and all of our cousins. I could not help but wonder what we would talk about, if we had any interests in common, and what they would think of me and Lauren and our American ways. It was a nice surprise to discover that he had so much to share with us about the Philippines, including local attractions and historic sites that he wanted us to see.
Before we started out on our treacherous five-hour journey to our relatives’ hometown, Calbayog, we took a quick trip to a nearby monument. General MacArthur’s words, “I shall return,” was one of the few tidbits I remembered learning about the Philippines in my high school world history class. It was a surprise for Lauren and me to learn that we could go to the exact spot where General MacArthur had indeed returned with forces to liberate the Philippines at the end of World War II. The monument’s statues of MacArthur and his officers looked to me like performance artists standing in water. It was meant to duplicate how MacArthur and his men waded through the Pacific waters to return to the Philippine shores marking the fulfillment of his promise of his famous words.
Just as I had once felt awe standing in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris where so much of the history of that city had taken place, I felt chills about what a momentous occasion this moment was for both the United States and the Philippines that had only happened 63 years previously. Now here were my sister and me, making our way to the country that our parents left behind to pursue a brighter future in the United States. Would they have left the Philippines behind had MacArthur not returned as promised? The Philippines would never be the same and still struggles with the repercussions of that moment today. Gone were its Japanese oppressors and in came the democratic saviors. But at what cost? Did the United States seduce the Philippines with so much of its culture and language that we first-generation Filipino-Americans feel even more of a disconnect between our ethnic origins than other first-generation Asian-Americans? I couldn’t help but think of all of the implications that MacArthur’s return had for both the Philippines’ destiny as well as my own.
We crossed a bridge connecting Leyte to the island of Samar, and I was blown away by this island of palm trees. It looked completely untouched by human hands as the palms grew thick and wild to the very ends of its shores. How many islands were there like that in this archipelago of thousands? In crossing this bridge, it made me think of the threshold I waited for so long to cross – to be one of those Filipino-Americans who have been “back.” Of course, I did not feel any differently, but I knew that thereafter, I would never be the same.
(Sheila Espineli’s travels in the Philippines will be continued in a later issue)