I’ve been in the Philippines a few days now and I am lost in a sea of conflicting thoughts, much of it stemming from an inner debate as to my responsibilities as a balikbayan [returning Filipinos living abroad] and my purpose in this project.
I am introspective by nature, travel back to the homeland only heightens this. This post is not about art, it is about my mindset on this trip.
As a balikbayan one fits outside Philippine society. No matter how economically challenged one might be in Toronto all of us are still better off than the vast majority in Philippine society. This weighs on me heavily.
There are two main classes here: the elite and the masses (the middle class is very, very tiny and so exert little of the balancing influence that they do in Western societies). Conversations with the girls made me realise that as balikbayans we have to make a choice about which group identify with—and this choice gives us focus and purpose.
I think most Filipinos from abroad make this choice subconsciously, I make mine fully aware.
So with whom do I identify you may wonder? Well let me share with you a family story from my first full day here: I have an adopted cousin who is currently working illegally in the Middle-East, and while spending time with family in Quiapo I found out she just got caught by the authorities.
This cousin was abandoned by her birth mother as a child and was unofficially adopted by my aunt. When I lived with them in the squatter neighbourhood by the railroad tracks during my first trip to the Phils in 2001 she was just finishing high school and she took care of the household chores. She ‘found’ a caregiving job in the middle-east just before my next trip to the Phils in 2005 but it was sketchy and the family was concerned. They grew more concerned when she didn’t call for months and when she finally called (I was with them when this happened) she was barely intelligible through the tears.
We all wanted her to go home, but she felt that she had to stay in order to make money and help support her adopted family (who struggle as street vendors). She never told us about her work, and the family had severe doubts she was actually working as a caregiver (they didn’t know yet that she was there illegally).
She finally made it back earlier this year (2009). She came back with very little money, and even less in terms of details of what she was doing there. The family found out that the people that found her the work were not with a legit agency, and that she was made to travel under a fake name and passport. Further she was asked to transport mystery packages she could not open.
Just days ago she was caught as an illegal worker. The family is in tears wanting her to return, but she doesn’t want to be a burden. She tells them that a rich family is offering to help her out, but again illegally and with a ‘new’ fake name.
Her story is not unique. This happens everyday to the poor of this country just trying to make a better life for their family—even at the expense of their own.
I am a balikbayan and I am very lucky to be in the position I’m in. My position, contrasted with my family here, is not easy on me it never has been and I doubt it ever will be. All this informs my travels back, and shapes a great deal of who I am.
My Culture Shock
I have to admit that I am probably experiencing more culture shock on this trip than on any of my other visits. I am living in a nice air-conditioned place in Malate where I have someone cook for me and drive me around. I eat with the girls at Aristocrat, and I speak English most of the time (even with the locals that are in my immediate circle this time around, which is strange and somewhat unsettling).
I feel like I’m in a foreign world for the first time ever in the Philippines. And I have to admit, it feels so very odd to me.
Now I do know that as a balikbayan I am not one of the Philippine poor. I know that I can never be, and I know that I am glad for that fact—but the poor remain my point of reference when I think of life in this country. Because of this I find myself feeling guilty and uncomfortable at times.
I knew before hand that this was going to be a unique trip for me. But only a few days in, it’s already messed with my mind more than I expected.
This month is going to be crazy….
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photos ©2005-08 alex felipe / All Rights Reserved.
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