The Philippines – it is my hometown, my birthplace, my childhood. And yet, before the Spring of 2009, I only remembered bits and pieces of it. After eight years of living in California, my mom and I decided it was finally time to take a visit to the place we were born in. During that 15-hour plane ride, I had no idea what to expect. I was only seven when we moved to the United States, and my memories of my old country consisted of happy, playful moments with my cousins, my grandparents, and my mom; as was every other childhood memory. Little did I know there was so much more to be found.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, it assaulted me – the harsh humidity and heat. I had been expecting it, but I had forgotten how it would be like. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. When my aunt and uncle picked us up from the airport, I had the opportunity to observe my surroundings; but it was nothing like I dreamt or remembered it to be. The streets were loaded with trash and people living off them, and some houses were so compacted and poorly structured that, come a rainstorm, were doomed to be destroyed. Children who were not even of school age were selling homemade items or food on the streets. Other children, just as young, ran from one vehicle to another, amidst the traffic, begging commuters for food or money. I’d never seen such struggle for survival.
When we arrived at my old house, all my childhood memories came flowing back to me – and I had the chance to live them again. My dear cousins and I finally reunited, and though it was a bit awkward at first, we got back to the swing of things. The first thing we did was play in the playground across the street under the pouring rain. It was the most fun I’ve had in years, and at that moment, it felt like I never left. Amazement filled me as I realized how easy it was to feel joy from the simplest of things.
That joy, however, came to a halt when we went back inside the house. I went to the bathroom to wash up and, to my surprise, there was no shower – only a faucet, a bucket, and a water dipper (in Tagalog, it’s known as a “tabo”). How was I supposed to take a bath using those? I had grown so accustomed to convenient shower heads and I knew this was going to be a challenge. To make matters worse, there was no hot water. However, I managed to get through the inconvenience.
The next morning, as I was getting ready for yet another day of surprises, one of my cousins, Helina, watched me put makeup on and asked, “Why do you put makeup on? None of us do.” In fact, unless there is a special occasion, teenage girls in the Philippines do not normally wear makeup. In fact, most schools prohibit girls from wearing them. They cannot even color their nails without getting in trouble at school, where even public schools have uniforms. Girls are also expected to wear more conservative clothes than we are used to.
As we ate breakfast, I noticed that my cousins, and even their parents, ate in very small portions. My aunt explained to me that it was a way to conserve food and money. It saddened me so much that my relatives could not even eat their fill of food, while I had been taking food for granted in the US, throwing away whatever I did not feel like eating anymore.
We went to visit my great grandfather that day, in a house where you had to crouch down to enter through the doorway. My cousins took turns kissing his hand as a form of respect, a practice I have long forgotten. Other great aunts and uncles also came to his house upon learning that we were visiting. He told me stories about the way my grandparents and parents used to live, about how they had to work at very, very young age to help support the family. All the children have to wake up very early to do their share of house and farm work before heading to school. Even as they understood the importance of education, schoolwork took second priority over a child’s responsibilities to the family’s livelihood. Siblings had to help raise their younger siblings.
I cannot imagine such a life. I’ve been so lucky to have my mom support me and give me all the things she did not have the luxury to have.
Spring of 2009 was the right time for me to go back to my birthplace. I was young enough to remember and old enough to understand. It opened my eyes to three things:
First is the extent of my mom’s sacrifice. My mom has made a big sacrifice in leaving her whole life behind to give me an opportunity for a better life. Even with the hardships in the Philippines, I know that being uprooted from your family, friends, and basically everything you are, cannot be easy.
Second is to remember who I was, a part of me that I should never forget. The Filipino values that should be treasured – love for God and family, respect for elders.
Third is to appreciate what I have become and what I can become. My life’s blessing is not only to have had the opportunity to move to the United States and enjoy everything this country has to offer. I feel more blessed because I see it now with new eyes. All the things that I used to take for granted, I now appreciate a thousand times more than most people can ever do. I always remind myself to always seize every opportunity that come my way, as if it is being offered to me on a silver platter.
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