I could count Filipino money (pesos) just by looking at the color of the bill, and I felt proud.
My moment of appreciation disappeared as I returned to the now-common feeling of being observed.
When I had come into the store, a group of twenty-somethings were gathered next to the checkout counter. They were talking and laughing but stopped abruptly when I walked in. I quickly grabbed water and snacks, being careful not to pause or make eye contact for fear of starting a conversation I could not continue.
As if in sync, I could see them studying my height - I was taller, so they had to tilt their gaze slightly upward. Next, they analyzed my facial features. I knew this because there is a distinct feeling that occurs when someone (or in this case three people) are intensely staring at your face - you can just sense it.
Now that I was leaving the store I felt their heightening curiosity surrounding me and knew the moment I acknowledged them by making eye contact, that the questions would start.
Handing over the pesos to the clerk, I strategically said only one word to her as confidently as I could. “Salamat,” which means ‘thank you’ in the Bisayan language.
As I turned to leave the store I looked up too early and locked eyes with an eagerly smiling guy in the group who said “You’re very beautiful, are you American?”
Given the compliment, I felt obliged to answer. I quickly responded “Visayan.”
I meant to say it matter of factly, but instead the word came out sharp and defiant.
Surprised at my own bold tone of voice I hurriedly turned to leave but out of the murmurs of the group the guy closest to the door said,
“You’re from The Visayas? Do you speak Bisayan?”
As I scurried past him I cooly nodded my head, trying to convey the message “yes of course” confidently without having to speak another word.
I do not speak Visayan and the guilt and feeling of being less Filipino because I didn’t speak the language was self-imposed, which I believe fueled my unplanned attitude to the eager but amicable inquisitor.
Walking back to our hotel, I stepped over sleeping stray dogs and watched for speeding motorcycles coming around the corner, nimbly maneuvering the small sliver of sidewalk. In the short period of time I had been there, I learned to act like a native but inside I felt like an impostor.
I am 50% Filipino by blood. My father was born and raised in the Philippines and I had just spent almost 3 weeks traveling with him throughout the cities and places where his family lived for generations, but even after this trek into my history, I still felt in heritage limbo.
The other 50% of me is Croatian, a fare-skinned European race where people have characteristically lean builds and angular facial features; the complete opposite of the dark brown skin, rounded nose, full cheeks and often full waists of the Filipinos.
Naturally, I inherited a combination of these physical traits plus an unusually tall height of 5’9, so I was an unlikely visual compilation walking around the crowded streets of The Philippines.
Growing up in the states, I was constantly asked by people I met, or even strangers on the street “where are you from?”
The curiosity of people’s desire to know who/what/how created my against-the-norm appearance seemed to overrule their sense of courtesy, enabling them to just blurt out what they were thinking at first glance of me.
My Filipino features have always been the dominant half (dark skin, dark hair), so coming to the Philippines I thought I would better fit in.
But instead, I received the same question just with a different form of confusion. “Where are you from?” Filipinos would ask while mentally calculating my height and noticing my pointy chin, yet thrown off by my similar dark skin, hair, and eyes.
So while I appeared Filipino, they wondered the same way my American inquisitors did but in a different form: not if I was Filipino, but rather how I was Filipino.
But this escape from curious questioners was not why I came.
My dad hadn’t been back to the Philippines in more than 20 years, and before that it had been another 26 years, when he immigrated to the US in 1969. Taking him back to visit his homeland had been on my bucket-list for years, and as much as I wanted to visit for years prior, I continually waited until he could come with me, so that my first time I would experience this pilgrimage with him as my tour guide.
Toasting over a glass of wine in the airport waiting to depart, I asked the questions I hadn’t asked in years. This time the relativity of the answers being much more impactful than the casual inquiries I made in years before.
“Why did your family choose to come to the US? Why Chicago?”
I was surprised and even slightly embarrassed to learn that it wasn’t the typical parents who decided they wanted a better life for their kids immigrant story that I had told people.
Instead, it was his sister Heidi who finished nursing school in the Philippines and then applied for a job in the US. She got the job and was the first to move. Shortly thereafter she married my Uncle John, the son of one her elderly patients.
So my dad’s parents came to visit her after she married, and when they returned back to The Philippines my grandfather declared they were moving to the US.
My dad explained that after his father moved his medical practice from the small town of Polompon to the large city of Cebu, his father became a doctor for the city of Cebu, which was an accomplished appointment. But this left my grandfather feeling that there was nothing else he could aim for in that place, and life would continue on, the same every day.
So my grandfather decided they would leave it all behind and go on a journey. There would be opportunities for them, that they wouldn’t have if they stayed in Cebu.
When they left, my dad and his sister Minda stayed back to take care of the younger siblings in the house. My dad was 23, and he took on the role of caretaker and chaperone: cooking, cleaning, and making sure they everyone still went to school.
Eventually they finished school and my dad and his siblings followed their parents to the United States.
They lived in the basement of my grandparent’s apartment on Taylor street in Chicago, an Italian neighborhood which at that time was overrun with gangs and mafia.
My dad recalls a story of a policeman knocking on their door, asking his parents if the car parked in front of their house was theirs. They said no and asked why. The policeman said it was because a dead body was found in it. They later learned the murder was mafia related.
Its hard for me to understand the experience my dad and his family went through back then.
They were eager, opportunistic Filipino immigrants barely accustomed to the US and living in a not-so-safe Italian neighborhood just trying to get by and build a good life. They took a huge gamble by leaving everyone they knew and the place they called home, to start new lives in a new home on the other side of the world.
Shortly thereafter my dad met my mom while working in the hospital.
She was an immigrant too. Quiet, skinny, demure, and beautiful. She was a nurse with a timid, kind soul. They married quickly and had 4 daughters in 12 years, with me being the last.
The rest as they say, was history.
My father built his medical practice, and my mother raised our family. Together, two immigrants worked very hard and did achieve the ‘American Dream.’
They had a house but no pets, with healthy, English speaking, American-school educated children, who never felt hunger, knew major sickness, or felt lacking of any human necessities.
We didn’t have a lavish life, but we never were without.
It was in the first week of my visit to the Philippines that I felt it was not just a place of my heritage, or a place that held the answers I sought. It was a place that millions of people lived who reminded me of my father, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles, but yet my father and his family had chosen to leave that community behind.
It was a country that was so familiar to me from the second I set foot on it, but yet I realized that if my father had not left, my life would never have been.
As we both looked out the window of our car, we pointed out motorcycles with 3-4 people on them and Filipino ‘jeepneys” (old Jeeps left over from WWII that had been converted into buses for public transportation) holding 12-14 people on the inside, not including the 2-3 guys standing on the back or holding on to the side rails.
There were “tricylces” which was a dirt bike with an attached cabin, or “put puts,” manual bicycles with passenger cabs attached.
As I looked out the window I saw men in their late 20s on a motorcycle with a small child riding behind them, and their wife at the back of the ‘sandwich’ seating arrangement.
Sometimes the men were smoking while driving, and sometimes the child was standing up on the seat instead of sitting down. Surprisingly, the mothers looked completely at peace with the ride and sometimes even bored.
I wondered if my dad was thinking the same thing as I was: that it could have been him doing the same so many years ago, if his family had never chosen to leave.
If he had stayed, he never would have met my mom and he would have lived the life we both saw so fascinatingly played out on the streets around us.
I’ve been lucky to have a supportive, loving, engaged father my entire life. For 32 years he has cared for me, protected me, and loved me unconditionally.
Over the 17 days spent together I felt the deepest understanding of who he is, and more connected to my heritage than I have ever felt.
Growing up, we lived in the suburbs and went to schools that were majority white Jewish, but our house was multicultural.
My mother cooked authentic Croatian food and had also learned to cook Filipino food very well.
My father had the traditional immigrant work ethic: long hours on the job with no seeking of personal recognition. Hard work was a given, not an accomplishment.
Now, I’m an adult and an entrepreneur. I’m also a fiercely independent woman and when our family gathers together I almost always find myself fighting frustration by the attention my family pays to my every move: what I’m eating or not eating, what I’m doing or not doing, If
I’m too hot or too cold, comfortable or not comfortable, if I’ve called so-and-so or not, if I’ve visited so-and-so recently or not, have I been to church, have I heard from this person, and so on and so forth.
With my DIY mentality I often don’t know how to deal with or feel comfortable with the amount of attention placed on me, my actions, and my well being.
For Filipinos, eating is a conversation, and sometimes more instructional than conversational. Eat more rice.
You eat this.
You want more?
Come on this one is for you.
No you eat first.
How do you like this?
Try this one.
This kind of acute attention to your every move can be overwhelming.
But visiting the Philippines helped me to understand.
It was kindness, not intrusion.
It was thoughtfulness and caring, not telling me what to do.
It was love.
I saw it in the displays of exorbitantly good customer service at every place we went.
I saw it in the overly accommodating mentality of every Filipino we encountered.
And I felt it from long-lost family members I had never met before that welcomed me into their homes, or brought food and gifts over to our hotel.
That kind of generosity, consideration, and selflessness is one of my dad’s most ingrained, and admirable traits. And I witnessed an entire country with the same values.
I thought to myself: This is where he gets it from, the is why my whole family thinks of other people before themselves, and I felt proud.
One of the hardest parts of being multicultural but growing up in an American suburb was being surrounded by white people who didn't look like me.
In the Philippines, the people looked familiar to me.
Throughout the trip I experienced many feelings of comfort from just being around Filipino people, and reminisced about memories from my own childhood.
There is a classic Filipino look (hair, skin, eyes, face) thats very familiar for me, and so the adults look like my aunties and uncles. The kids look like my sisters and I, or look like my dad as a little boy. So much so that when I saw a little boy in the street asking cars for money my heart hurt an unexpectedly deep pain. He could have been my dad, or my brother, or my son.
The comforting accent of Filipino natives they speak English. The tone of their voice and their mannerisms while speaking.
The sound and smell of eggs frying in the kitchen reminded of Sunday mornings in our childhood home, when my Mom made us all fried eggs over rice.
The swish swish sound of slippers walking across the floor.
The way older Filipino women purse their lips together, then point at something and make a ‘tst’ sound while nodding their head.
Although I don’t speak either of the languages my family speaks (Bisayan or Tagalog), the rhythm of the languages are like a familiar song. There's a lot of repeating what the last person said, before they begin their own sentence. Everyone seems to be giving their input on a topic. Eventually, the sounds form a rhythm and you can start to piece together the message through single words that have become familiar, or through watching where they look, point, or how they gesture. By the end of the trip, the familiarity of the spoken language, and the names of foods, places and common phrases, was comforting.
The day before we left I sat along the shoreline on the island of Leyte where my dad was born, replaying the trip in my mind and trying to organize my thoughts.
Time passed and I realized the water had been rising ever so slightly since a large rock I had noticed when I sat down was now completely covered.
Like the tide slowly and moving up the shore, my familiarity with the Philippines had grown, and I felt comfortable regardless if I looked the part or not.
Then, it started to rain. Very lightly, almost like a mist, even though it was complete sunshine. It felt odd to have rain while the sun was out, because I was used to rain only coming from grey skies.
But the Philippines had taught me a lesson, if it worked, it worked.
Just like how four people riding on a dirt bike made for two seems (and is) crazy, but apparently it worked just fine. You could even add to the disproportionate balance on the dirt bike and add on a couple heavy bags of rice on each side, which yes, we saw numerous times.
When we flew home, I noticed another strange yet awakening combination. The top of the clouds were bright and white, but the bottom clouds were dark and grey.
To us on the plane, we could see both and it was a sight to behold. But to those on the ground looking up, they had no idea what was past the grey clouds. They didn’t know how magnificent it was above that layer of grey.
My dad and his family didn’t know what was on the other side of the earth when they left the Philippines and came here almost 50 years ago. But they made it work.
Coming to the Philippines I thought I’d find answers to questions about who I am, but instead I found affirmation that simply, I am who I am, and it works.
Read the other half of my journey in Part 1.
A few photos from our trip: