Growing up, we always had rice: cooking, cooked or going stale in the fridge. My going away present for my college dorm was a rice cooker. I bought another one when I moved to Portland, and somehow had two by the time I had to give away all my possessions for this journey.
In the Philippines they are always eating, and this eating almost always includes rice. There are six meals per day. Yes, I’m serious six meals per day: breakfast, merienda, lunch, merienda, dinner & merienda.
My grandma is cooking all day, when she isn’t cooking she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself. She doesn’t even sit down to eat; she’s just picking up the finished plates and replacing them with more food. Since I was very young, I’d visit my grandparents, be surrounded by a language that I didn’t understand and fed mounds and mounds of food that no one else I knew ate.
This was the norm for me–adobo, pinukbut, pansit, pandisal, siopoi & my rice cooker– this is what it meant to be Filipino.
A Little Family History
In 1970, my grandfather was offered a job as a teacher at a Catholic grade school in Carroll, Iowa. He told them that he wouldn’t take it unless they would give his wife a job as well. The school agreed. So my grandparents jumped through all the right hoops and filled out all the right papers, and after two years apart my grandfather was finally able to move his wife and four kids to the United States.
My dad, the oldest of the four kids, had never been on a plane, had never left the Philippines, had never seen the ocean and definitely didn’t speak any English. He was 12 years old in a new country with only his three younger siblings, his parents and his imported fighting spiders.
No one in the United States had any spiders to fight his spiders, so he decided to let them all go. He started to play the guitar all the time, and learned English from watching The Brady Bunch. He thought he would never return to The Philippines again.
Fast forward another ten years or so, and my father meets my mother. She was serving him mixed vegetables in the cafeteria. She gave him what he thought to be an extra large scoop, so of course, he fell madly in love with her. As we may recall, Filipinos love to eat. They were married in 1983 at her church in rural Iowa. An Iowa farm girl and a Filipino immigrant, an unusual combination indeed, but that is what makes a dynamic love story, isn’t it?
They went on to have three beautiful & intelligent children with excellent genes and a firm grasp on humility. Don’t mind me, this is a running joke in our family, so clearly, we can add “funny” to that list.
In my small town in Iowa people thought we were Mexicans or terrorists or other things equally bizarre and racists. This seemed normal to us. We were different, and that was fine, because we had better food than they did. We would regularly use our vacation time to drive the five hours to my grandparent’s house and eat grotesque amounts of Filipino food.
This is how we exercised our heritage– lengthy travel & overeating.
As my grandparents grew older, and all the kids were out of the house; they started to visit the Philippines again. Once both of them fully settled into retirement, they started to spend their winters there as well; the snow and the cold of Iowa was getting to be a bit much for them. As time went on, they would spend more and more time on the other side of the world.
Of course, I was curious. My whole life they had told me never to go to the Philippines. I am a mestiza, a mix of Filipino & white; I would most certainly get kidnapped, raped and sold into sex slavery. I believed them. How could I not? They should know better, they’re from the Philippines.
I never thought I would ever go to the Philippines.
As I got older, I started traveling to other places that weren’t as rich or luxurious as the United States. I learned how to live without hot showers & nice toilets. I learned about other languages and other cultures, and became comfortable living with less among people with less.
It took me years to come to terms with my desire to be places slightly less glamorous and slightly mas tranquilo, with less wasteful luxury and more community than I was used to in the United States. It was for these exact reasons that I choose to settle in the place that I did in Mexico a few months ago.
I had realized that these environments were where I felt most comfortable.
And so in 2010, it was time for me to fly over the Pacific Ocean to visit the country that gave me this brown skin and a taste for rice. I had a whole culture of my very own that needed exploring. I tried to listen to my grandparents and my parents about not going there, but I figured that maybe they watched a bit too much Fox News, and The Philippines were no scarier than any of the other places that I had been.
So, I bought a plane ticket and set out on my first vacation to the motherland. My grandparents were there to pick me up from the airport. I had never seen them so happy. They showed me off to the whole town; I was the tall white American girl, and they were oh so proud. Now, mind you, everywhere else I go I am short and brown, but not here in the Philippines, they think I look like Sandra Bullock.
I’ll take it.
We visited many relatives. I saw things that I had previously only seen on television. I met my other grandparents–Filipinos consider your grandparents’ brothers and sisters to be your grandparents as well, in fact anyone in your family, extended or not, are part of your family. I visited houses that until then I had only seen from the windows of buses or on those Christian Children’s Fund commercials, and these people weren’t strangers that I could dismiss by changing the channel, they were my cousins, my aunties, my grandparents, my family.
The experience changed my life.
I was 24 years old at the time. I worked at a food bank back in the United States. I made more money in one day than many of my family members would make all month. Yet, I wasn’t rich. I was educated, yet in debt. I could give some money, or some food or something like that, but I wasn’t going to change anything. My baby cousins would still be sleeping on a dirt floor, eating nothing but rice & sweet potatoes, with no health care and no schooling. I would return to the United States, back to my job organizing volunteers & my fancy air-conditioned office, back to stocked grocery stores & warm showers, back to the “first world” with all the sweet sweet distractions & blissful ignorance that it entails.
I had the conversation probably one hundred times once I returned. It usually went something like this:
“Ohmigawd! How was your trip? Was it totally a-mah-zing?” some poor unsuspecting acquaintance would gush.
“Uh, yeah, it’s was really great. Quite an experience.” I’d say, usually avoiding eye contact, usually quite awkwardly.
“Tell me everything! What was your favorite part? Were the beaches just to die for? You look so tan! Ohmigawd!”
“Yeah. The beach was nice, we went one day, the South China sea,” I’d say unenthusiastically.
“Com’n! How was it?! You’re not giving me anything.”
“Well, I was mostly in the center of the big island. Rural Philippines where my family lives. I saw things that most people have only seen on TV. I saw members of my family living in poverty, sleeping on cement, crying and begging for a dollar fifty. I saw barefoot dirty kids working instead of going to school. I saw all those things that you don’t think about because they are so far away and so different from you and me. But in reality, they weren’t any different than me, we are in the same family, except my grandparents were able to move to the United States and their grandparents weren’t, making me a college educated, employed, middle class American, and making them young mother with three kids, no education, no job and arguably no future. Don’t get me wrong, I had lots of fun, and I loved it there, but I can’t exactly sit here an act like I was on some tropical beach paradise vacation. It was amazing. It changed my life, but not in the way that you’re thinking at all.”
“Oh. Okay,” eyes shifting from side to side, “So, like, what are you doing tonight?”
I told my grandparents that I loved the Philippines. They confessed that they wanted to move back. When they tell the story now, I am the culprit that convinced them to move to the other side of the world. I’ll take the blame if that makes them feel better, but really as soon as I told them that I liked the Philippines better than where they lived in Iowa, grandma started talking about when they move back and picking out the fences that they liked best. By the end of my two week stay, they had decided on the house that they would move into, an old cinder block number previously inhabited by another one of my grandmas. I promised them that if they moved, I would visit them. This seemed to make it more OK.
I would tell my immediate family about my trip. I was able to be quite honest with them. I told them that they needed to go. I was mad at them for making me fear it so much, and mad at them for deliberately hiding their heads in the sand. Some members understood where I was coming from, and some seemed equally as mad at me.
The next year, my father returned to place that he grew up, forty-two years later. He had not been back in forty-two years. He and the older of my two brothers toured some of the more beautiful sites of the island and met the family that was still living there. They took some compelling videos that helped to change the tone of the rest of my family. Sunddenly, it was more acceptable for my grandparents to move back to the Philippines and everyone, aunts and uncles included, were planning their trip back to the motherland.
Come 2011, my grandparents were redesigning & renovating the place they had chosen the year before. They moved in this past October. The locals are calling it “the mansion.” It is equipped with two extra bedrooms to support all the visitors from abroad, three hot showers, flushing toilets & wi-fi internet to satisfy our expensive tastes.
This past week, my mother and youngest brother left the United States for the very first time in their lives. Yes, you read me right, the very first time in their entire lives to see where their husband & father grew up, and finally wrap their heads around what all the fuss has been about.
Next week, I’ll post all about their vacation and show you fabulous pictures of all the beautiful destinations that we have been, but first it seemed, that I needed to tell the back story to all of this. The when, where and why of my current situation. This story has a lot to do with why I am Voluntouristing in the first place.
I will be here in the Philppines for the next couple months, working on, what is for now, a top secret volunteer project, and hanging out with my grandparents.
Next week, I’ll show you a bunch of pictures of interesting attractions & exotic locales in this beautiful archipelago to help you plan your next Filipino getaway. I promise.
So until then, here’s a fabulous sunrise for your tired eyes…