Balikbayan reflections

The author, Jenny (second from left), with friends (L-R) Ging, Becca, Marlen, Tessa and Cherry.

The following article is another reprint from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. After reading it in its entirety, we got this feeling that these reflections could have been written by anyone of our overseas-based classmates who can now only view and appraise the Philippines – literally and otherwise – from a distance. Hope you enjoy reading it, especially those who are still sorely missing their beloved country of birth and planning to return for good.


Balikbayan reflections
Written by Jenny Gonzalez

(The author was born in Manila and lives in Canada. She has spent more than half of her life outside the Philippines but returns regularly to see family and friends. She wrote this letter to American friends living in Istanbul following her most recent visit, in response to a question she is often asked: What’s it like visiting Manila? It raises another question. When their parents’ generation pass on, will remembrances of things past continue to link overseas kabayans to ‘home’?)

Dear Eric and Kay,

It’s been a month since I’ve come back from Manila but it seems like a much longer time. I wonder if this is what astronauts feel coming back to earth, when distance and the difference between there and here distort one’s sense of time. It feels like my trip there was many moons ago.

I tried to keep a diary but I quickly found that reflecting and writing at the end of the day was pretty near impossible. Manila is an electric, pulsating jumble of stimuli. Every minute and every second is filled with sound, movement and human interaction. I once asked an Australian who had spent time in Manila what he thought of the place. After he made a few comments about the weather, I responded, “Yeah, the humidity can be pretty high and takes getting used to…” He quickly corrected me and said: “Oh no, it wasn’t the humidity that I found oppressive, it was the humanity…”

When I last lived in the Philippines in the late ’70’s, it had a population of 48 million, about 2 million less than England. Today, there are 92 million people in the Philippines according to the latest census projections, and estimates for England’s population peg it at 51 million. The Filipinos have been busy! You might say, “Big deal! The Philippines’ land area is more than twice that of England.” Until you realize that about a fifth of the Philippines’ population live at your doorstep in Metro Manila. It’s this teeming cauldron of humanity that my Australian friend was referring to.

Being constantly surrounded by people is a given when you’re in Manila. First, there’s family, and lots of them because Filipino families are large and are extended to an extreme. Anyone who doesn’t object to being called uncle or aunt or cousin is automatically in. Then there are people involved in your life – those who keep the day’s wheels in motion, so to speak – the cook, the driver, the village security guard, the newspaper delivery boy, the bill collector, the water delivery man and many others. There are people you know such as friends from childhood or schooldays, or people you work with or used to work with, or friends of friends, or neighbors, or family friends who know you even if you’ve never laid eyes on them, and the list goes on. Finally, there are people you don’t know and will probably never know. They’re part of the human ecosystem that envelopes you everywhere you go, and there’s just a lot of them around. Solitude is not a state that comes easily in this country.

I found my father in good spirits and fully engaged in his routines. He maintains a busy schedule writing his memoirs, reading voraciously (two books on the go about the Middle East prompted by the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt), and reviewing legal briefs referred to him by friends and colleagues. He is involved in his neighborhood association and has a network of young friends, mostly in their 60’s and 70’s, and a handful even younger. He stays on top of world events and is devoted to his favorite sports teams and athletes. While I was there, his focus was on the NBA basketball games and the magician point guard, Steve Nash. It is a full life but amidst all this activity is a deep hollow left by my mother’s absence. It’s been four years since her death and he misses her as intensely as the first week she was gone. His devotion to her memory is obvious with the many pictures of her scattered around, she gazing at him from every corner of the house. At the dining table, there is an extra place setting reserved for her beside him.

My father lives in a three-bedroom house that he and my mother moved into after leaving the family home where my brothers and I grew up. I’ve never lived there except for a week or two when I’ve visited since living abroad and yet I find myself instantly transported to my childhood home. It has the same vibe and feel as our original house. There is the breezy lanai filled with plants and the familiar furniture I grew up with. The household rhythms of the day are surprisingly identical – the maid sweeping and dusting in the living room as I come down for breakfast, the laundry being washed and hung on a line by the side of the house, the flurry at mid-morning in the kitchen as the day’s meals are planned and prepared, the cook watering the plants in the yard late in the afternoon.

When the fog of jetlag lifts and I am able to smell the tropics, I know I’ve arrived. The smells of Manila never change. Outside, it’s the dust in the air, the humid earth after a rainfall, the dry hot sun at mid-day, the earthy odor of mossy shade or the smoke from burning leaves. On its crowded streets, one can’t escape the exhaust fume, diesel and steaming metal from cars on paved asphalt. But it’s the smells inside the house that evoke the most comforting feelings for me – the camphor in the clothes chests, the bed sheets that have dried in the sun and the scent of home cooking. If you want to smell umami, you only have to walk into a Filipino kitchen at mid-morning when preparations for lunch are underway.

As he often does when I my visit, my father organized a drive to old Manila with my cousin Fe and my niece Marie. He wanted to visit the neighborhood where he grew up, a district called Tondo, and show us some of his old haunts. Tondo is one of Manila’s oldest districts situated on the banks of the Pasig River and not far from Manila Bay. Throughout its history, provincial migrants have landed here to escape rural poverty, hoping for a better life in the city. Those from the southern islands arrived by boat at Manila’s North Pier just steps west of Tondo while those from the north arrived at Manila’s main interprovincial train station, Tutuban. My father aptly describes this area as Manila’s Hell’s Kitchen.

Today, most of Tondo, unable to escape its past, is a picture of urban decay: decrepit buildings, congested laneways, and polluted esteros (estuaries). There is still much poverty, a combination of unemployment and a perpetual underclass of working poor. Its streets are snarled in traffic, boiling over with people of all ages going about their business. It has a history of gang warfare and a high crime rate. There has been no transformative urban development in Tondo or even faint signs of gentrification. Yet, for all their social and economic disadvantages, Tondeños are an intensely proud, pugnacious and over-achieving bunch. Since Spanish colonial times, Tondo has produced a disproportionately high number of notable achievers: revolutionaries, politicians, poets, writers, lawyers, educators, painters and sculptors.

We drove by the original site of my grandparents’ first home in Tondo and by my father’s grade school and high school. He traced his route going to school and told us of his shortcuts, discovered he says, when he learned that the hypotenuse of a triangle is shorter than the sum of its sides. After a few stops, it became clear that my father transcended the sights, sounds and smells in front of us as he described in great detail what was in his mind’s eyes. “The doorway of our apartment was here, on one side there was a Japanese apa (ice cream cone) bakery, on the other side a factory that produced oil from the champaca (Magnolia) flower…you could smell the fragrance from the street…”

After leaving Tondo, we drove to Escolta, Manila’s old commercial center. In the 1960’s, the city’s most important banks and financial institutions left this venerable district for swankier digs in Makati, a new development south of Manila. We stopped at an office building at the foot of Jones Bridge, a landmark that bears witness to the Philippines’ colonial history. Built by the Spanish in the early 1600’s, it was known as Puente de España until the Americans renamed it after a US Congressman. The FNCB (Citibank) Building, which housed my father’s law firm, was covered with scaffolding and building mesh. We wondered if it was being readied for demolition. He got out of the car and pointed to the fourth floor window of his office with its view of the Pasig River below.

One weekend, five friends and I piled into two cars and made the two-hour trip to our friend Becca’s home in Tiaong, Quezon. Becca and her husband Dado have a weekend retreat at the foot of the mountains in green and lush tropical terrain, surrounded by farmland planted with coffee, bananas and other fruit trees. They’ve built a house and named it “Salamisim”, a beautiful, almost onomatopoeic Tagalog word that means yearning or remembrance. I was warned that accommodations would be basic but comfortable. What I found was a simple and pure habitat, a welcome liberation from the trappings of Manila existence.

After getting off the main highway, we drove through a barrio alternating between paved and dirt roads, passing by the locals’ homes with their pigs, chickens, donkeys, and vegetable patches. Eggplant was in season; I never knew that they grew on vines. A narrow lane led us to Salamisim, an all-wood rectangular house surrounded by banana groves. A set of wide steps mark the entrance to the house, defined by a Malay-looking carved pediment flanked by two tree-trunk posts. At one end of the rectangle on the left is the kitchen and dining area, on the right, a bedroom and a bathroom. The middle of this rectangle is a sitting area comfortably furnished with Filipino furniture. Every house has a defining feature. At Salamisim, instead of walls that insulate you from the environment, this rectangle is sheathed with tall sliding wooden doors made of tiny windows. I love that Salamisim surrenders to the elements, letting in the cool mountain breeze, the sound of birds, the rooster’s wake-up call, and the odd visiting wasp. I love that it is not a replica of something else. (Filipinos have a taste for weekend follies – log cabins, Spanish or Tuscan villas, and Japanese teahouses.)

The six of us – Becca, Cherry, Tessa, Ging, Marlen and I – went on the weekend trip with great illusions of doing some hiking. I was anticipating a swim in their spring-fed pool. Well, the only hiking we did was to and from the sofa, the kitchen and the dining table. We cooked, ate, talked, some had naps, then we talked and ate some more. I had my fill of Filipino comfort food – chicken and pork belly adobo, rice, fish, green mango and bagoong (anchovy paste) and San Miguel beer. Breakfast was equally scrumptious – scrambled eggs, tapa (marinated beef), tomatoes, salted duck eggs and high-octane baraco coffee. (Baraco means wild boar; this coffee is from the Liberica species and is known for its strong taste, robust body, and distinct aroma.) We talked about school days, ourselves, our families, friends who weren’t there, our lives, and mostly we laughed a lot. It was our Big Chill weekend but instead of dancing to Marvin Gaye, we listened to Cherry’s collection of late ’60’s and ’70’s music. After dinner, we put on our pajamas and laid out our sleeping mats, chatting and giggling into the night.

Remember what I said about Filipinos and solitude? Whatever few quiet moments you may have is subject to interruption. The Philippines, with a per capita number of cell phones that’s among the highest in Asia, has created a cell phone culture that feeds on the Filipino’s insatiable need to connect. For starters, everyone has a cell phone. Children have them and play games constantly. Young people are glued to them, texting friends (the Philippines has to be the texting capital of the world). In keeping with their elevated status, most business people and VIP’s (Very Important Pinoys [slang for Filipinos]) have more than one cell phone through which they bark commands at those that tend their enterprises. Social commitments would be difficult to organize, much less keep, were it not for the Filipino habit of over-communicating enabled by mobile phones. (If you’re meeting someone at 7 PM, expect a number of calls or text messages before the time agreed – confirming, possibly changing the time or location, exchanging traffic advisories, advising late arrival, etc.) With its daily flood of text and voice messages, the cell phone drives the behavior of Manila’s millions in a way that can’t compare to anything else I’ve seen in other cultures.

When I first arrive in Manila, the traffic is a source of amusement. By the time I leave, I am happy to get rid of the irritation. I never drive myself beyond the suburban area where my father lives, partly because the new highways and flyovers leave me completely disoriented, but mostly because the sheer volume of traffic overwhelms. Manila’s streets have a Wild West feel, with trucks, buses, cars, pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles and tricycles exercising full ownership of whatever space they can claim; lanes serve no useful purpose and are at best optional. Driving in Manila requires nerve, a sense of humor, good peripheral vision and the ability to read non-verbal cues from other drivers and pedestrians. Luckily, because of traffic volume, you can’t drive really fast. More than speed, what you need is a car that can fake moves, sprint, swerve and waltz at command. In spite of this insanity, there are surprisingly few fender benders or incidents of road rage. Filipinos are remarkably adaptable and there is a kind of rough courtesy that makes the system work.

Every trip I make back to Manila is an experience in nostalgia. Each day that I’m there has its Proustian moments that bring a flood of memories. But my visits are too crazy-busy-kinetic, distracting me from melancholic reflection. What I experience mostly is a lot of picking up where I’ve left off from previous visits. I usually have a “must-eat while I’m here” list to satisfy my cravings for the comfort food of my childhood. When I visit familiar places – neighborhoods, churches, people’s homes, shops, etc. – I take note of how much they’ve changed from the last time. There’s a lot of catching up to do with family and keeping track of nephews and nieces as they grow up and take charge of their lives. Seeing close friends is a special part of every visit, and even if my life is so different from theirs, we have warm and raucous get-togethers that fuel our friendships during the times we are apart.

But the most intense nostalgia I feel is when I surprise myself with the realization that my mother is gone, no longer there, and my mind wanders to the anticipation that one day I’ll make the trip back and find my father no longer there.



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