You tend to realize a lot of things when you leave the Philippines, and this is particularly true for our kabayans who have done so in search of greener pastures abroad.
To all our friends and family overseas, this featured post is for you: so go ahead and have a look at this article by two-time Palanca-winning essayist Shakira Andrea Sison.
We are told about the wonderful things that happen when we make it out of our own country, but never once told how much it will hurt to lose our home.
They don’t tell you when you leave the homeland what you’ll actually miss. You’re told what you’ll supposedly gain – a better life, more freedom, and the ability to buy nice things. Wide open spaces, the reliability of service, the openness of city streets.
Cleaner bathrooms, the abundance of toilet paper, and reliable flushing. Unlimited ketchup and mustard on your burgers, plus all the fixings. Warehouse club-sized groceries and glutton-portioned meals. A good job, a nice house, and a car in the quiet suburbs.
Nobody tells you that you’ll miss the noises of home – the blaring of jeepney horns, the takatak of the cigarette vendors selling Winstons by the stick. They don’t tell you that you’ll look for the barker yelling out everyday destinations like an international roll call: Bambang, Arranque, Ongpin, Blumentritt. That the language you speak will sound so beautiful once you’ve stopped speaking it. That you’ll seek it out in a crowded train and in your happiness you’ll want to give your fellow Filipino your seat.
You’re not told that “cold” isn’t just Baguio cold, but an impossible, inescapable freeze. That there is no manual on how to dress for winter except for seasons of trial and error, learning fabrics like wool, down, cashmere and fleece. That the first time your toes go numb inside your shoes will be the last time you’ll take the correct footwear for granted. You’re not taught to check the weather in the morning before leaving for the day, but you learn it the first time the temperature drops and you didn’t bring a jacket.
You’re told about the snow, but not what a magical act of physics it really is. You’re told it is beautiful, but not that you have to shovel a truckload of it to get out of your house. Nobody warns you about slipping on ice or getting slush in your shoes. Or how in the deadest and darkest moment of winter, beneath your hats and scarves and layers, you’ll miss the hot breeze of the tropics.
You’re not warned that there is no tsokolate (chocolate), taho, or caramelized plantains bobbing in oil on the street. That you’ll have to eat green apples instead of green mangoes and never find a breakfast sausage that is both garlicky and sweet. You’re caught by surprise when a gourmet restaurant makes a big deal of their pork belly dish – something unimpressive when you’ve been eating crispy pata (pork hock) since you were a little kid.
Nobody warns you that you’ll make enemies frying your tuyo (dried fish) or for heating your lunch of rice and fish. That your everyday meal is considered exotic, and sometimes even gross, next to the blandness of a turkey sandwich.
You won’t be briefed that your decent English will not be understood, and that you’ll stare at a native speaker trying to decipher the combination of words you know but somehow can’t make out from the speed of their speech. You’ll stop talking entirely at one point, afraid of blurting out something that comes so naturally like, “Anak ng tokwa!” because it will make no sense no matter how you translate it.
You’re told about the wonders of earning a decent wage in a stronger currency. You’re not told that your education, experiences, and skills will be diluted, downplayed, and often ignored in a foreign land that doesn’t recognize them. The watering down or disregard of your culture will conveniently be called assimilation. “Welcome to America/UK/Italy/Dubai/Singapore/UAE!” you’ll be told when you learn something about your new country.
You’ll be both happy and sad to fit in, because you’d have lost that edge you came with that made you stand out, so this means you’ve lost what you carried with you that would make you fit right back in when you finally return to the Philippines.
Nobody warns you about how long it takes in between visits – that you’ll be torn between spending money on flights, paying rent, or buying your family more gifts. Where you drool from friends’ photos of lanzones, mangosteen, rambutan, and atis. That you would trade your tray of blackberries and raspberries for a ripe mango picked from your neighbor’s backyard.
You’ll want to wake up to the stench of fried danggit, longganisa, the acid of spiced vinegar for dipping, and garlic rice that anywhere else would be too early to eat in the morning. You’ll stare at your box of cereal and flavorless milk and at that moment you’ll wonder if being away is all worth it.
In all your desire to leave the Philippines – the dissatisfaction with the way things are done, the struggle to even make it out – nobody tells you that in your weakest and most defeated moments in another land, you’ll long to complain in Tagalog about the EDSA traffic. You’ll promise not to mind the inefficient government employees if it means their service comes with a smile and an offer to eat. You’ll long to leave your house and see familiar faces with similar body types and skin tones, all of whom would understand when you scream, “Ang init (It’s hot)!”
The Silence of Efficiency
In the silence of efficiency, of cleaner air, orderly conduct, and litter-free streets, you’ll be saddened by the impossibility of visiting a childhood friend to talk about a shared history. You’ll crave the recognition you got back home, when something as simple as a nod would let you know that you belonged. You’ll miss being visited by a tito (uncle) or a tita (aunt), or bumping into a cousin in the mall, or share sisig with friends in your favorite drinking place.
Even after you’ve made a life for yourself in a foreign country, it doesn’t matter how many decades you’ve lived there. You’ll always be asked where you’re from. Your answer will always elicit a blank stare from those who have no clue about your roots, your heritage, or your culture. You may try your best to assimilate, to blend in, or even deny your country, but the Filipino inside you will always come out of hiding.
With the number of overseas Filipinos growing every year, for the most part our countrymen don’t leave our country for anything other than financial need. Millions of us find small successes from our meager skills and are able to provide for our families, to take them where we are, or build a life for them that we never could afford if we stayed.
But nobody talks about the silences, the empty rooms, all the new experiences that we have to face and adapt to on our own. We are told about the wonderful things that happen when we make it out of our own country, but never once told how much it will hurt to lose our home. How we seek our culture, our food, and our people wherever we land, even just for a moment so the homeland doesn’t seem so out of reach, so that we forget for a minute that everything we love is so far away.
Article by Shakira Andrea Sison for Rappler. Shakira Andrea Sison is a two-time Palanca-winning essayist. She currently works in finance and spends her non-working hours writing stories in subway trains. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002.