It has been 8 years since I was last in the Philippines. The confluence of finishing up my university degree, getting my career started, traveling to other faraway places, and just generally and selfishly being in my twenties has kept me away for so long. But I finally found myself back home again and these last few weeks have been messy, frustrating, comforting, disappointing, rejuvenating, sad, and, as life often is, beautiful.
Justine at the Sirao Gardens
PAMILYA PUTS THE “HOME” IN HOMELAND
For better or for worse, returning home to the Philippines for me always means family. It means weeks of preparation with my mom even before stepping foot on the plane as we put together suitcases and balikbayan boxes of pasalubong – gifts and souvenirs of chocolates, canned goods, and other knick-knacks deemed too expensive to buy in country but come relatively cheap from abroad. And when I set foot on our soil, it means rounds upon rounds of meals and outings with extended family and well, family who aren’t even really blood-related, but who may as well be.
It is an experience full of joy, anticipation, comfort, and yes, a whole lot of anxiety. As if packing wasn’t stressful enough, try packing in suitcases full of goodies for dozens upon dozens of people! And then try packing your vacation days with quality time with family you haven’t seen in years! Just think of the joys and stress of Thanksgiving dinner – but every single day for weeks on end. Ta-dah! You have yourself a trip back home to the motherland.
Going back to the Philippines always meant weeks of preparation, putting together suitcases and Balikbayan boxes of pasalubong - gifts and souvenirs - to be distributed to family back home.
But I always relished it growing up. The excitement, the anticipation. Being reunited and catching up with family I haven’t seen in so long. Getting to know, bit by bit, the cousins I never had the chance to grow up with but who I’d heard so many stories about. Meeting new nieces and nephews who had just been born.
The meaning and memory of this place is so deeply rooted in these people who put the “home” in my homeland.
A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME
And that whole experience for me has always been encapsulated by this one physical place that my family always returns to in Parañaque.
BF, as we affectionately call it, has been our family home for decades. It’s owned by one of my titos and titas, but my grandparents have lived there, as well as various aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephews throughout the years. It is a home that has lived through so much – laughter, countless dramas, reunions and separations, death, and even afterlife (yes, ghosts of different family members have been known to roam its halls).
Justine on the BF Roof, her family's home in Parañaque.
It’s always been so boisterous – full of laughter and shouting, often both. One of my favourite memories is when we packed that bungalow to the brim for a family reunion back in 2006. We filled the master bedroom with mattresses end-to-end and each night was a symphony of snores that kept me up ‘til dawn. Each day was madness as we tried to plan excursions and outings. But it didn’t matter because the titas (aunts) were reunited, the pinsans (cousins) were all under one roof for the first time since before I was born, and the apos (grandchildren) were all meeting each other for the first time. It was chaos and it was bliss.
But on this most recent trip, I had a rude awakening. Staying in that home felt disconcertingly different. I mean, everything was the same – the furniture, the art, the rooms, almost everything remained untouched. And yet, there was something there so deeply different. It was just so quiet, so empty. I felt so disoriented on my first few days there trying to come to grips with the stillness of the place.
It felt like a home for ghosts. A home just for memories.
I understood then that what was different wasn’t the static pieces, but the living, breathing people who made that house a home. I realized then that most of my family no longer lives here. Almost all of us have moved abroad.
A DREAM REALIZED
Like many Filipinos, our family’s dream has always been to move to Canada or the US. Our family’s dream has always been to leave the Philippines so that we could all have a better life while being close to each other. For decades, my Titas, the fierce and powerful matriarchs of my family, busted their asses off to make that dream happen. And here it was. There it was. The emptiness a testament to a dream come true. A dream realized and a goal achieved.
The current emptiness of my family home in Paranaque was a testament to a dream come true: that of my family's hopes to move everyone abroad.
We’d finally done it. We’d finally made it! And truly – we have. My family has reached a level of stability, comfort, and most importantly, economic opportunity in North America that so many Filipinos only dream of. We have “moved up” in this world of ours and are now able to attain what once seemed unattainable to our ancestors.
And yet. But still. The emptiness of our home gnawed at my heart and the endless questioning came rushing in.
I was devastated by the thought that I probably wouldn’t be back here for many more years to come.
What for? What was there to come home to now? What is this place without the people who were my reason for returning? What is a homeland without the people who made it “home”?
After eight years, I finally found myself back home again. These last few weeks have been messy, frustrating, comforting, disappointing, rejuvenating, sad, and, as life often is, beautiful.
I was angry to come from a place where leaving means better opportunities. Where “balikbayan” - that is, to leave for another country and return to the Philippines again - is so commonplace that it has seeped into our language. Why did migrating have to be “the dream”? Why couldn’t we stay here? Why couldn’t this country provide enough for us? For all of its people?
I was furious – I am furious – at this country for encouraging its own people to depart, separating us from our roots with vast oceans - all for a better life. And what do we lose in exchange for that better life? As a people seemingly destined to be of a diaspora, what do we lose in making our dreams come true? What parts of us do we chip away when we migrate to new lands? And can we ever really get it back?
These questions continue to swim in my head, and I know they will continue to haunt me even long after the intensity of this trip has waned. I have no answers. Not yet. Maybe I never will.
But this much I know. The Philippines continues to elude me. It seems that my relationship to my ancestral home is this shape shifting thing that I just can’t grasp. And every time I feel like I’m closer to understanding this place, something within me, within the country, and/or between us changes, and I am left puzzled all over again.