The best word to describe the feeling I encountered when returning to the United States is ambivalent. After the 16 hour plane-ride, I ventured to my car, luggage in hand. My eyes blinked in the bright sun the way it does first thing in the morning. Everything felt different. My face softened, tinged with both comfort and confusion. “Wow, the streets are so nice here!” I thought, as I walked with ease through the sidewalks, no longer fumbling over broken chunks of cement. “The drivers, they’re actually yielding to pedestrians!” I thought, as I watched the cars inch along the street, staying within the lines, pausing gingerly to let me cross.
I approached my car, a beautiful creature I lovingly named “Baby.” A strange juxtaposition of gratitude and guilt swelled in my heart as I realized this entire car belonged to me, and only me, for no other reason than my dad decided to buy it during my senior year of college. “What did I do to deserve this privilege?” I thought. If I were the exact same person born in the Philippines instead of the United States, I wouldn’t afford this car. Does a Filipino/a person deserve it less than I do? Is “deserve” even the right word, or is it luck that I was born into this fortunate life? If my mom hadn’t made the momentous decision to move before I was born, I would never live in this city; I would never reap the rewards of two college degrees; I would never purchase $7 bottles of kombucha, or walk around town with my expensive haircut.
I climbed into my car, and through the windows, gazed at the scene around me. Strangers ambled passed each other on the sidewalk, their heads down, their eyes averted, neither one acknowledging the other. Everyone in their own universes, layers and layers of walls cushioning themselves from the other. Nostalgia came over me as I remembered the warmth and openness of my neighbors in the village. I may have money, but I lack the warm community and collectivism that I left behind. It was then that I realized: the people of the Philippines, in a different way, are the ones who are rich.
Returning to the Philippines as an adult inspired curiosity from all directions. Walking through the village, I felt curious sets of eyes boring into me. I dared to look back. Neighbors waved enthusiastically, greeting me by name. I grinned widely and waved back. I must have been an anomalous sight with my light skin, light hair, and new clothes. It’s not every day that a half-white, half-Filipina girl visits this isolated village. I couldn’t remember who everyone was, or keep track of which neighbors I was related to or not, but they all knew me. They recognized me as my mom’s daughter, the one who lives in the United States and visits every few years. There’s no such thing as anonymity in this village.
My eyes soaked in the sight of the neighborhood. I passed the squat houses, their cement walls and dirt floors serving as homes for multiple generations of relatives. Their doors always open to impromptu visits from unexpected guests. Neighbors sat on plastic furniture on their porches, sharing conversations in a language I couldn’t understand but knew very well. Family members all shared one or two bedrooms and one or two closets. In their yards, tricycles (motorcycle with a carriage attached) sat parked for the family to share. The tricycle could carry four people comfortably, six or seven uncomfortably, and eight or more if they were feeling ambitious.
In our house, neighbors and relatives dropped by to visit, unannounced. I clasped the hand of each elder and gently touched the back of their hand to my forehead, a sign of respect. New, young friends came over and approached me with zeal. “I heard you were coming!” they announced, “I couldn’t wait to meet you.” I wasn’t accustomed to folks accepting me so readily. I saw their genuine interest in knowing me, and so I dropped all my reservations and let them in. “I know we just met,” they said, “But I feel like I’ve known you forever.” I knew, in that moment, I was making a lifelong friend.
It came as no surprise, but it was heart-wrenching nevertheless, to witness the lack of amenities. I approached the upstairs faucet to wash my hands. I rotated the knob absent-mindedly and waited. No water came out. I blinked. Then, I realized, there was no water in the upstairs except in the evening, let alone hot water or bath tubs with showers. We had to wash dishes and laundry by hand in cold water. Some of the public bathrooms didn’t have toilet paper or soap. Air conditioning was not a thing in most houses. With entire families living off only $200 a month, there wasn’t much room for anything but necessities. I had to drink bottled water to prevent digestive issues. I felt guilty every time I purchased one, because those 15 pesos (30 cents), meant so much more to them than it did to me.
A learning moment for me was adapting to a country whose language I did not know. Although many Filipinos/as spoke conversational English, none in my near vicinity were fluent. Most of the time, I zoned out. I relinquished control and went wherever my family took me. We would be zooming around on the tricycle, and all of a sudden, we would end up at a beach, and I’d think, “Oh! I guess we’re going to the beach now.” Or, I would ask my aunt where I could buy some nail polish remover, and she would send me down the street with my cousin. The next thing I knew, we were at some lady’s house who offered to give me a manicure for 70 cents. I thought, “Oh! I guess I’m getting a manicure right now!” (I tipped 100%).
What warmed my heart was the value of helping others for the sake of helping. Whatever we needed, they provided, without complaint. While my mom was grocery shopping in the open-air markets, I carried the shopping bags without much thought. I felt a set of little fingers pry my hands open. I looked down, and there was my little cousin, insisting on carrying the bags for me.
When it was time to go home, my mom and I had to leave for the airport at five in the morning. Naturally, I would feel very guilty to ask anyone to give me a ride that early in the morning; I would prefer to rent a cab. For my uncle, however, he had no intentions of letting us take a cab. “I’ll be here at five in the morning,” he said, and sure enough, he was there. I noticed, that morning, as I sleepily threw my luggage on top of the tricycle, that my fourteen year old cousin was also accompanying us to the airport.
“It sucks that he has to wake up this early in the morning. I feel bad,” I quietly whispered to my mom. “He volunteered,” she replied. My heart warmed. He joined us for no other reason than he wanted to be there to see us off. It brought a tear to my eye.
I realized that I saw in the Filipinos/as something that also lived within me. Service is something highly regarded, the duty to help those they care about. I’ve always valued service myself. It’s about donating my energy to a greater cause, and putting the needs of others over the wants of myself. It was fascinating to witness it in others. There’s a saying: the blood remembers, and I believe I inherited my value of service from my Filipino/a background.
I couldn’t help but compare the culture of the Philippines to that of the United States. I’m not saying this as a criticism, but as an observation. Many (not all) Americans have their own rooms and their own closets and their own cars and order their own meals at restaurants. Coming over unannounced is considered rude. So many Americans put up walls to detach and cushion themselves from the vulnerabilities they face with other people. There’s an ethos that promotes the values of individual needs, self-care, putting yourself first, putting up boundaries to stop others from walking all over you, and the saying, “You can’t help others until you help yourself.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m a HUGE proponent of these values and I think they’re very healthy when in balance. HOWEVER, I think the interpretation can swing so far into left field that they become excuses for not helping others out. I know that not everyone would agree with me, and that’s okay.
When I set out to write this blog, I didn’t want it to be about what the people of the Philippines lack. It wasn’t to enact guilt, or to encourage anyone to stop what they’re doing and join a mission to serve in a developing country (more power to you, though, if that’s what you do). I find that many Americans already are grateful for the advantages and opportunities that most of the world can’t enjoy. I wrote this blog to share the ways in which the people of the Philippines are rich in a different way. They’re rich by the loving community they share.