The emotions of coming home are strong, even though I was here only two years ago. That first glimpse of Manila by night always takes my breath away. The city may be sinking with the rest of the country with debts, overpopulation and bad publicity, but outside my plane window, this brightly lit Pearl of the Orient looks just like any prosperous city in the world.
The pearl’s an illusion, I know. Ninoy Aquino International Airport is frayed and smells old. Outside, I step around mud puddles while fending off an entire family begging to help me with my luggage. All the way to Quezon City, I look for familiar landmarks, but most of them are gone. Even the streets have different names.
I flew home in May to fulfill the first item on my bucket list, which is to go home every year or so to remember, to joke around with my siblings, to feel young again with the friends of my youth. On this trip, I also intended to visit parts of the Philippines I haven’t yet seen.
Alas, five days after I arrived, I went to pot. Or rather, to potty. It was the worst case of the runs that I had ever experienced, complete with low-grade fever and a huge headache. Lomotil and Gatorade saw me through. However, seven days later, I endured another series of races to the commode, and a third one the week after that.
Forget about visiting faraway tourist sites. My six weeks had to be spent close to home and within sprinting distance of clean restrooms. Manila’s gazillion malls served that purpose. Wherever we found ourselves in Metro Manila, there was always a mall a few blocks away.
And so, my trip home this year became a trip to the malls, particularly the one on Aurora Boulevard (or whatever that thoroughfare is called now). Only 12 blocks away from my sister’s townhouse, this mall became a second home. I met my high school and college friends there. My siblings and I hang around in cool comfort there. We ate, shopped, watched movies, and had beauty treatments there.
When not at the mall, I stayed home and lazed around. I watched local TV shows. Although the TV personalities, save for Mel Tiangco, were strangers to me, the corny jokes and slapstick were familiar, making me laugh. They were the same ones that had made me smirk when I was 35 years younger and much more unforgiving.
The big news was the pork barrel scam. (It’s still in the news as I write this). My siblings and friends practically foamed at the mouth condemning Estrada, Revilla, Napoles (new name to me) and Ponce Enrile. Juan Ponce Enrile, the much-vaunted hero of the People Power Revolution? Sic transit gloria mundi.
Visiting home is always fun, if unsettling. Whenever I am trapped in traffic jams without a policeman in sight or standing in a long line at the bank simply to deposit a few pesos, I swear under my breath. I can’t live here anymore. I see where I am better off in America, where the system works.
On the other hand, what have I exchanged for law and order? A deep loneliness. In America, whose past I don’t share, I am regarded as the alien I am. Even now, after more than 30 years there, it is necessary for me to explain myself and the culture that shaped me.
Coming home heightens this loneliness. I see these small, brown people with their gentle ways. I see their natural friendliness, their wonderful respect for elders. How easily they laugh. Oh, how I miss them.
When I am home, I begin to think and see the world like a Filipino again. I relax, embrace the heat and dust, the traffic (not!), the many inconveniences of a country that still has to put its house in order.
Mag-enjoy tayo, my people exhort. One with them, I go see a movie. I visit friends. I window shop and, like my kababayan, I am diverted from the problems and poverty of the country.
Whenever I pass the Edsa Shrine, I recall the time when a happy-go-lucky people found a focus. The miracle that occurred 28 years ago was the miracle of a people united. It is this power of a people that gives me hope. That makes me proud. That creates this confusion in me.
Where do I belong? I look at my brother, a US Marine, who chose to retire here and sent his children, both American-born, to study at Ateneo and UP. I look at my sister, an American citizen, who took dual citizenship two years ago and now lives in New Manila.
I want to be like my siblings. However, I can’t. I also have family in America—an American husband, four daughters and three grandchildren. I cannot choose one part of me and deny the other part. To be complete, I have to straddle both worlds.
That is why I will continue flying back and forth between my two homes while I still can, racking up mileage points and eating insipid plane food.
The author was formerly editor of the now defunct Woman’s Home Companion. She lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and is a retired copy editor of the Intelligencer Journal/New Era, the county’s morning daily.