On Crossing the Same River Again

You can’t go home again. –Thomas Wolfe

I just got back from a week in the Philippines. It’s the first time I’ve been back in five years, and boy was it interesting.

For someone who was born and raised there, and left when I was already 20, I’m not actually that attached to the country. I’ve often heard that this is a very different experience for a first-generation immigrant, and particularly, it seems, for a Filipino. I have friends who will save up all their vacation for a couple years so they can spend a month back “home.” My parents, too, go every year if they can, sometimes twice a year.

People ask me if I miss the country. Am I excited, they ask, to finally make the trip back?

I say, Yes, I’m excited to see my friends and relatives again. I’ve missed them. And the food. I always miss the food. There are dishes you just can’t get outside of the Philippines. And there are things you can try to make the same way, that still somehow taste just slightly off, probably because the ingredients aren’t quite right.

But the country itself? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because I subscribe more to the ideas in that iconic John Lennon song: Imagine there’s no countries… it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. While both nationalism and religion can be a unifying force and create an important sense of community, the news is full of reports of ways in which these concepts have been more of a divisive cause.

Or I could just be heartless. I’ve heard that a lot too.

home quote

The reason for my visit was a wedding. A girl I’ve known since I was 13, and her boyfriend of 7 years, were finally tying the knot.

I’m not that big into marriage either, but that’s a discussion for another time. No matter what my personal feelings are about it, I was glad that my friend was about to embark on this adventure, and decided that it would be an opportune time for a long-delayed return to the motherland.

So, I approached this trip in a slightly different way from any other trip I take. For one, there wasn’t as much sightseeing, though David and I did spend three days in Boracay (more on that later!). Much of my time was spent in dinners with friends, or hanging out with nephews.

We often found ourselves in mall areas; but then again, most of Philippine entertainment in the cities happens around mall areas. Filipinos love their malls. You find everything in them: movie theaters, restaurants, skating rinks, bowling alleys, video game arcades. Sometimes even small amusement parks. They’re a one-stop entertainment shop.

It was interesting to observe everything with new eyes. I felt almost like a tourist, but one who had maybe visited before, and could speak the language. Like my roommate said, there are things you just don’t realize until you’ve gone and come back again.

For instance, the driving was utterly horrendous. I mean, really just plain dangerous. The following distance is about six inches, the concept of lanes is completely foreign, and people will aggressively cut in front of you, or cross three “lanes” of traffic to make a right turn in about 20 feet, or zoom down the road only to slam on the brakes when another car invariably sneaks in. This wiki breaks fatalities down by country and in the Philippines, 128.1 people die per 100,000 vehicles. I’m actually shocked that it isn’t higher. Compare that with 13.6 people per 100,000 vehicles in the US.

I didn’t drive there. I couldn’t.

And then there were the scammers. For the most part, people were nice and polite. Even friendly and gracious. But the presence of a white guy apparently screamed, “Hey, we have money, rob us, we are stupid and would never guess.” They always seem surprised when I call them out on it. One night, after a tiring day, we got into a cab and needed to be dropped off within 5 miles… the driver tried to pretend there was a “meter freeze” in that area and he said it was 350 pesos to where we wanted to go. Good thing I had gotten into the habit of checking before the car started moving. We were out of there so fast we must have burned the leather off the seats. We flagged a different cab about a half mile away and when we reached our destination, the meter came out to about 150.

There’s the striking juxtaposition of huge mansions next to slums, or gated communities surrounded by shanties. And the gaping class differences that are so obvious even in day to day transactions, like the way the upper middle class acts toward the perceived lower class.

People in service industries, like restaurant servers and jeep drivers, are treated as though they are less than people who sit in an office cube in one of the many high-rise buildings and towers crowded around Metro Manila. Not in any obviously demeaning way, mind you. Just dismissively — a wave of the hand, a lack of acknowledgment or thanks or the simple politeness of meeting their gaze. They’re “unskilled” workers, you see. They probably didn’t go to college and likely couldn’t get a “real” job. Never mind that navigating those streets for a living takes some very real ability, or that cleaning a table or keeping the bathroom in working order probably has more empirical impact than the paper-pushing that most of us do.

No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and he's not the same man. -Heraclitus of Ephesus

I’m sure these things happen in the US too: there are bad drivers, and poor areas, and all kinds of discrimination. I think it strikes me more because I see Filipinos being capable of so much kindness and grace. Their resilience in the face of constant disasters is well-known, and their inventiveness so apparent, like in the myriad uses of old oil containers as streetlamp covers or electric post insulators.

And their generosity to their own seems boundless. People will bend over backwards to help their friends and family. A friend offered me a place to stay and wouldn’t accept any money. Another friend’s family let us shower in their home, drove us to and from the wedding, and even to the bus station afterward even though we would’ve just as easily taken a tricycle. Even here in the US and in other countries, when Filipinos meet each other, there seems to be an instant sense of kinship. Everyone is your aunt or uncle, brother or sister. We refer to each other as though we were blood relatives, not merely friends.

It saddens me that this hugeness of heart is so limited and becomes overshadowed by so much selfishness. I mean, to what else can you attribute all these behaviors? I have somewhere I really need to get to, and you’re being too slow for me, so I’ll risk both our lives to get ahead of you. I need money, and you look like you don’t, so I’ll charge you twice the fare. You don’t know how demanding my job is; you’re just a server.

So did I miss the Philippines? Yes… and no. I know I can’t call it “home” anymore.

Right now, Seattle is home. Three years ago it was the Bay Area, and in three years, who knows? I’m not the kind of person, apparently, who gets attached to places. It’s never the same river. And, well, I’m never the same person.


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