Balikbayan, pt. 1

Filipino immigrants always return. Like an annual ritual, they come back regularly to family and familiarity. For American-born Filipinos, they are brought along for the pilgrimage by their parents. I could call it a rite of passage, or an exposure to one's roots, but it's a part of Pilipino American culture that has many different meanings and indications for many different people. Some hate going, some never see more than their Lola's house, and some go every other summer.

For me, it had been at least 12 years since I last set foot on Filipino soil. As the years went on, another trip to the Philippines became more and more inevitable. You could only go so long without visiting. So it was decided that in the summer of 2007, that we would spend over one month immersed in the Philippines. We wouldn't just be visiting family and hanging out in the province. We would also see the sights, from the tourist destinations to the historical landmarks that defined the country's history.

It's been three nights here in the Philippines. I'm enjoying it, but it still a little bit daunting to think that I'll be away from the familiar routines for over a month. It has been, and will continue to be, much more than a vacation.

When we arrived at our gate at LAX, I saw a huge crowd of Filipinos with the same intention. To go home and visit their families. The islands DO have a tourist industry, but most of the travellers seemed to be of the immigrant sort. It reminds me of worker ants, sent out into the lands beyond the hill to bring back resources for the good of the colony. This is most evident in what most of the passengers are bringing: Big, cardboard boxes covered in tape. These are the fabled "Balikbayan boxes", a staple of the culture.

The word "Balikbayan" in Tagalog means, "To go home" or "coming home." For immigrants, there is no more appropriate word for the experience. For their children, the Pilipino American community, the word represents a conflict in identities. It IS home in the sense that this is where I came from - though I wasn't born there. How do you reconcile calling it 'home' when it can feel so strange?

The Balikbayan boxes are very indicative of our culture. It represents our family dynamics of helping/dependence, and the on-going struggle of our loved ones on the islands. They are likely filled with ordinary American goods, bought at cheaper American prices. I imagine family-sized tubs of Peanut Butter from Costco snuggled between columns of Colgate toothpaste. They are equal parts supplies and gifts.

After the leg stiffening 15 hour flight, we arrived at Ninoy Aquino Airport at 5 in the morning. As we landed, the pilot informed us that it was a cool 72 degrees, which is just about the daily weather in Sunny Southern California TM. But it's the humidity that gets you. I hadn't felt this kind of heat in a long time, but once I did, it was like the return of an old friend, who makes your skin feel dry. Or something.

We were picked up by my kuya and lola, and what followed is an experience that would become the repeating chorus of the journey: I know these names, but not these faces. Well, except my Lola. She was probably the only relative I could recognise easily. Nearly everyone else, though, would be a slightly strange reintroduction. As we left the airport, we entered the urban sprawl that is Metro Manila. Chaotic city going-ons in make-shift streetside shops, cement everywhere dinged by pollution, and wires connecting everything in tangles. But as we kept driving, we entered what could be described as Downtown Manila. Skyscrapers, mega malls, and restaurant chains that were an unwelcome sight. California Pizza Kitchen? KFC? What are you guys doing here?

Driving, by the way, is a little bit crazy. The lines in the road are reduced to meaningless formalities, as everyone is changing lanes all the time to get ahead. Imagine the scene of every car in and out of traffic. The car horn is a more useful tool for signaling your turns than the turn signal, but it isn't used in rage, only for function. I certainly don't think I'd be able to make it through some of these tight squeezes. Maybe that's why Jeepneys are so prevalent.

Another observation is the vastness of the class divide. Instead of vacant lots, there are shanty towns taking up this empty space. Makeshift shelters of aluminum sheets for walls & roofs, where grizzled shirtless men squat and laughing children play in puddles. All of this, right next to the gigantic mega mall of epic proportions that will probably have to expand over that land soon enough. In my college club, we held & supported benefits for a charity called Gawad Kalinga that did such a simple, effective charity: Building homes for those that don't have one. Seeing how pervasive the poverty is really put into perspective how useful such a charity is.

By the way, the only constant through the poor & rich areas? Jeepneys.

Day one was nothing. We would have visited some relatives, but we decided to take it easy and relax in our hotel. Yes, we stay in a hotel - a non-traditional rarity. But it makes for a much less stressful, carefree stay compared to staying with relatives. Day two started with a visit to some of my upper class relatives in what seemed like tropical sub-urbs. I got reacquainted with four relatives from my father's side of the family. After attaching the names to the faces, we ate dinner and left for the rest of the day. Day two was also an insight into the mall culture of the Philippines.

The malls here are designed to awe. They are bigger, fuller, and nicer than anything i've seen in my hometowns. What's even more unbelievable is that there are so many, and more are being built or expanded every year. In Manila alone, there are at least 10 malls, and they are all huge and filled to the brim. Somehow. The people are captivated by the spectacle, that right here in Manila, there are these titanic, shining examples of modernity. I imagine a game of escalation between these mall constructors, each one trying to outdo the last to have the bigger, shinier, more modern mall. The one-up-manship reached a point to where someone built the Mall of Asia, allegedly the biggest mall in the entire continent of Asia right off Manila Bay.

It also occured to me, while browsing these places, that white people in stock photography is annoyingly prevalent. Not that they aren't welcome on the walls of the local supermarket but -- why? Why am I in a country 15 hours away that still has some strong white privilege? There is something in our psyche and collective consciousness that stems from the country's layered history.

Day three was all about that. It was history day. We visited the Ayala Museum, a nice little three floor feel-good museum in one of the more popular malls. The third floor had a number of historical paintings, as well as some more recent abstract art. The second floor was the best - a walk through of the history of the Philippines, starting in prehistoric times. This exhibit consisted of diorama's with beautifully crafted 7-inch figurines, designed to capture a dynamic moment in the history of the phillippines. With over 40 dioramas in total, it was the first time on the trip that I really felt like I had a sense of where I was. It perfectly and logically illustrated the storybook/domino nature of history.

Some of the moments depicted I had known about, either due to curiosity on Wikipedia, or knowledge from my Filipino club. Others were intriguingly new, such as the scuffles with Chinese forces that I didn't even know happened.

I mean, this beautifully portrayed the arrival of Islam. The skirmishes with the Spanish. The first printing press. The forming of the Katipunan. The violent creation of a Catholic Church controlled by Filipinos. The start of the Philippine-American War. The Bataan Death march. The EDSA revolution. This glowed with LEGACY. To me, legacy is one of the most interesting and appealing concepts. It's why I read comic books, or learn about my heritage, or want to continue traditons already in place. The idea of honoring what came before, like carrying on a mantle, is powerful to the point of being emotional. It made my day, and made me wish I could share it with others, so that it might inspire the same re-affirmation of identity.

On that same day, we visited the San Agustin Church, a relic left behind by the Spanish colonizers. It was located in a walled, fort-esque section of Manila called Intramuros. It was very much preserved, with some Spanish architectured buildings still standing, cobblestone paths and even guards in traditional soldier attire.

The church -- well, if you've ever seen a century old church, what words can you use to describe it? Every inch is amazing from the highest ceiling to the stone foundation. It is extravagant, as I knew it would be, but it was still an experience. The main church really felt like hallowed ground. Mass was not in session and no one dared to make too much noise. We walked carefully with precision through the pews, through the halls, through the aisles. The other visitors were also silent observers, trying to take in the grandeur.

But that's Manila, the capital city. That's mega malls and tourist attractions. It's one aspect of the Philippines, and to think that you've experienced it all is naive. You can never really experience the whole of a country, but you can damn well try. I think that's one of the missions on this month long excursion into South-East Asia: To try.

Next time: Pampanga, Bacalor, Mount Pinatubo, Identity and musings on the future.