by alex

I lived here in 2001 with my family. The simple house of corregated iron, plywood, and cinderblock was by active traintracks.

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.

Urban poor squatters living in Manilas North Cemetary.

Urban poor squatters living in Manila's North Cemetary.

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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  1. romeo candido

    i struggled with many of the same things during my time there. the ‘first world’ guilt, the feelings of otherness, malate, being massa, being elite, being neither. it’s the balikbayan experience. the thing with that country, is it can teach something profoundly different every time. if anything, it always left me with more questions than answers.
    i remember my first trip there, i was so ‘ghetto’ in canada, that i identified with the ‘poor’ more readily than i did with the ‘A’ class…the socio-economic level of my moms side of the family. the maids were mortified when i would wash my own dishes. at the time i was reading ghandis autobiography, so my first world guilt was in full full effect. during my stay there, i just felt myself slipping in and out of various personas to fit into different circles. sure…i could identify with the ofws and ‘massa’ in my own way, but it wasn’t necessarily the other way around. being balikbayan, we are of our own tribe, the dual blessing of being able to experience what it’s like to be massa, and elite, but knowing we can leave at anytime. it’s alot to deal with. this exchange with you is reminding me of the things i still have to reconcile now that i’m back in canada. keep expressing these questions. keep taking your pictures. i see my own journey reflected in yours.

  2. oh, Alex, I feel the conflicting emotions of being glad to be back and yet not glad to be seeing the same sad things you saw last time you were “home”… i cry silent tears for you and the likes of you, same with Romeo Candido. We all experience different levels of pain in our hearts, esp. where our own people are concerned. I feel that in your heart, you would like to change the scenarios you see here… ease the hurt of your family members who doesn’t seem to be getting any better financially…
    Like you, I ache a lot for many people. I am not affluent presently, but my 4 teen kids and I (solo parent that I am), belong to the middle tiny average percentage you mentioned. I try to help however I can to people within my reach, but I can only do so little. And it can depress me a lot sometimes when I can’t extend a hand, though I wanted to.
    I am very qualified to work overseas…I get tempted to follow the steps of our kababayans like you…there in Canada, for my kids’ future also. But I feel an overpowering need to stay, if only to still be available to my group and some youth here, Forever family (the ones you call “the masses”) who not only seek me out for extra help with cash, but moreso for their spiritual upliftment…a life coach who will push them to go onward… with a smile, reminding them there is our God who watches over us.

    What to advise you young people who feel that way? wanting to change what you see… but … ????
    I am 46, a mom…said to be wise and compassionate. Yet no special advice regarding what you are undergoing within yourselves. But rather, also feeling helpless about what you see, what I see around me. Maybe, just help make a difference in some people’s lives… and let the people you help pass it on! That will somehow make you feel better…

    I guess, prayers is all we can give and do immediately…and frequently please!

    The Himno Kislap Pilipinas of the kabataan Tutupad Ka (2007-2008 on you tube) goes like this… A call to change… a call to all Filipinos…






    It’s sad… I wrote this song with tears in my eyes, but still looking forward to a better Pilipinas…

    Don’t feel guilty anymore. Maybe God’s plan for you is that you have a better life there…so you can be a good samaritan to a few … make a difference to some. Become a blessing…

    I sure am glad to know there are still youth like you !!!

  3. romeo candido

    to add to mommy joyce
    there were many many many moments when i felt like i couldn’t do ANYTHING to help change the tide of poverty and corruption that swept over that country. i was blessed to be in a position to employ many people over there, and that was my tangible contribution, but it felt like such a small thing. coming back to canada, i realized that my service to my countrymen is to help our artists grow. it’s the artists that will repair the spirit of our people. it’s our art that can elevate the consciousness of our people…it’s through our art that we can find new ways to connect and relate to eachother. i feel you kilusan-ers are doing your job by returning, documenting, and expressing your experience. hopefully it will inspire more to do the same, because it really is about the continuity. it’s about building the whole movement and creating enough momentum for the ones ‘who got next’. don’t dwell on the guilt alex. take advantage of your access. take advantage of the new perspectives you come into contact with. as sofu showed us, our culture isn’t homogenous. glean wisdom from all of it.

  4. What a feeling this must be for you. Honestly I have no understanding of why you must be feeling. Being of Chinese heritage I really have no idea what the Philipines is like, its history its people and struggles. The use of photography can be a great medium to convey what you see and I only hope you use this without bias for the people like me who are ignorant to the happenings of this country.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Romeo: I hear you about the dishes, Manang Rose is always telling me to stop bringing in the dishes and washing them–still I do as many as I can until I get caught! Thanks for your support man, this trip is crazy! I am feeling like a fish out of water in this ‘other manila’ that I am living in right now…

    Mommy Joyce: I am glad to have met you on facebook, you are a warm and caring woman and remind me of all the brave people that struggle on despite all the difficulties and hardships here in the Phils. I remember before I first came to the Phils in 2001 I used to think that the Filipino people had given up, that they were content to merely mimic the West and aspire to be other than they are. I was awed and humbled by how wrong I was, and by how strong the masa are–despite the colonised desires of the colonised minds of many of the (so-called) elite.

    JLuk: Thanks bro. Are you living in China or abroad? If you live abroad I’m sure you can somewhat empathise, while our histories are different, your home country has felt the touch of Western imperialism. I appreciate your words.

    I just got home after a long day with the Filipino elite and to tell you the truth, I felt like I was anywhere but in Manila. I am looking forward to taking a vacation from this world I’m living in right now. I think tomorrow I will go visit the Philippines…

  6. i felt you vibing and thinking today alex. i hope that you were able to appreciate the positive initiatives of the evening in spite of it.

    “I think tomorrow I will go visit the Philippines…”

    you have to remember buddy, that was the philippines too.

    every country has its many faces, and though you have a powerful focus and compassion on a certain facet, you must acknowledge the others as well and not be dismissive of its role in this country and our exchange with it.

    anyway, you worked so hard today and you’re sleeping and you deserve it. sleep well kuya exie.

    readers, keep up the good posts. goodnight.

  7. oh my ..and all the while I thought you were enjoying a fabulous night of Phil. poetry, music, etc… while sitting on banig mats and feeling very nostalgic….

    well… on the positive side of things… you have tomorrow…

  8. Wow.

    This discussion is really moving and Alex, I’m glad that you’ve put in on the Kilusan forefront.

    I love how Romeo put it… “Don’t dwell on the guilt…take advantage of your access”.

    I hope all of you experience/directly witness the full range of livelihood in the Philippines, document it all, and then share with us the beauty and the pain.

    It must be such a mind-explosion to be living among the elite when knowing full well how the big majority of other Filipinos are living.

    Take that experience, observe, be critical – then CREATE. Show us how that makes you feel – I want to feel it too. Show us the inner conflict, the sentiments of hypocrisy, let the ‘ugly’ bear its teeth, because it’s all a part of the process – it’s all a part of the journey you are on, and the journey you have taken us on along with.

    “I am looking forward to taking a vacation from this world…I think tomorrow I will go visit the Philippines”.

    This is beautiful, Alex.

    My heart is beating heavy.

  9. Tito Alex!

    It MUST be really interesting for you to feel the different ‘faces’ of the Philippines — namely the one that contrasts with YOUR experience the most! My family is that middle class you speak of — pineapple/lanzones/coconut farmers from laguna. The decadence you’re experiencing would be way foreign to them too and therefore makes me feel guilty also.

    You’re in a prime vintage spot in Malate (my ass has probably sat right where you are sitting now) and you’re eating at the Aristocrat across the street, staring out of the glass window at the hungry people waiting for you to come out (and there’s a guy holding some ugly paintings).

    Caroline said it best to me the first time I went — I was totally conflicted. She told to recognize my privelige. Then, her mom, Tita Mitit, told Romeo and I to do what we could to “make it great”. Then, when I talked to my own mother on the phone during that first trip, I told her how I was feeling. She said “just do what you can do to help your family”.

    I still feel funny when I’m in the Philippines and maybe I’m Mr. Not-Make-a-Decision on anything — but somehow those words from those 3 women are the ones that ring in my head — recognize your privelige, do what you can to make it great again (even if you live somewhere else) and just help your family.

    There’s way too many feelings over there that pull a balikbayan in too many different directions, but for me, the simplest of intentions have helped me sort through the clutter. I’m still pretty confused (as you’ll see when I see you there in a few weeks), but i feel like I’m figuring out where I fit in – to that country, to our community here and to my own family.

    Kudos for bearing your thoughts. Obviously they echo how a LOT of us feel.

    see you soon!

  10. Ilona: “you have to remember buddy, that was the philippines too.”

    Definately. But as my entry above tries to show, it’s not the one I know, and it’s not the one 95% of Filipinos know.

    And of course I use the term to put my personal views in metaphor form… and I hope it asks everyone to ask ‘what is the filipino?’ and ‘what am I?’

    “every country has its many faces, and though you have a powerful focus and compassion on a certain facet, you must acknowledge the others as well and not be dismissive of its role in this country and our exchange with it.”

    Trust me. I acknowledge it. I do not dismiss it’s role. No way in hell do I dismiss it, there’s no way I can, it’s role has been dominant and the ramifications can be felt on every inch of this country’s being.

  11. Hi Alex,

    As someone who spent most of her life in Manila, and moved to Toronto three years ago to study and live (and who has now come to consider both cities “home” as well as “foreign”), I feel compelled to add my comments to your insightful and sincere entry.

    1. Balikbayans are Filipinos who return to their homeland — regardless of their citizenship. In the Philippines, the term is most often associated with OFW’s who work abroad temporarily and return to their families bearing balikbayan boxes filled with goodies. Filipino im/migrants and their children are also balikbayans — I’m just saying there’s more than one definition.

    2. Dividing Philippine classes into “masa” and “elite” is very simplistic. The middle class is larger than you think/see, and there’s also the aspect of how education changes things — there’s the illiterate, the educated masa, the “intellectual elite” (including scholars and artists) who are often middle class or not very well off either, the overeducated Westernized upper class who buy Louis Vuitton bags and are often members of political clans, and so on… I understand your affinity with the masa, but also think your lumping the “elite” into one big category seems unfair.

    I’m curious to see how your kilusan’s visit will open your eyes to all these categories and contradictions, and help you situate yourself. The Philippines is motherland, all right, and like any mother, is inherently flawed, but not hopeless — you can’t pick and choose which parts of your mother to love.

    I wish I was there for Manila Transitio — some of my poet friends were also involved in the event. Let us know how it went.

    Best wishes,


  12. Alex, i live in the Tdot, and i’m sad to say that i haven’t left in a long time. I am a student, again..good and bad thing. i’m sure we’ve met, but honestly i can’t remember. ha!

    Anyway, i think it would be difficult to understand what you’re seeing at the moment. So many things happening and the shock itself. For now, observe, look listen and take photos as objectively as you can. Being in the Philippines makes it the Philippines, and even though this experience is different doesn’t make it not.

    Look at Canada, we are known as a multicultural country. Truth be told there is only a handful of major cities (take a guess which ones you smart intelligent people!) that are. The rest of the nation is not and you would be hard pressed to find a highschool class room that is as mixed as the one you would find in Toronto. That doesn’t make it less Canadian.

  13. Hi Naya and J,

    please don’t misunderstand my metaphor, I don’t mean that what I was was not the PHilippines, I am no fool, I just meant it as a metaphor for the emotion I felt: that it didn’t feel like the Philippines I knew.

    Naya: Thanks for the correction on the B definition, I wrote that too hastily I can see now so I will be correcting it. As for the middle class, I agree with you, I guess I was simplifying it in terms of wealth, but this post is really more about my feelings than a treatise on the class system.

    I have met many an educated poet, writer, singer, -enter misc art form here- and so yes I realise that many of them are quite the opposite of wealthy (in fact many of them are a part of the reform movement here in the Phils that I have worked with)–but I do find that wealth is in general, quite a dividing line in terms of political thought. Again this is a simplification true, people are not homogenous, but the grouping remains true for them as a whole.

    Thank you both for your comments.

    And thank you all for reading.


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