On Guam, Filipino culture is ubiquitous. From attending a Tagalog mass to eating at Rambie’s and even getting my haircut at Angie’s Salon in Dededo, I’ve always felt warmth in Filipino culture. Therefore, growing up I did not feel outside of my mom’s Ilocano heritage.
Although my mom never spoke to me in her native dialects, I feel great pride in calling myself a Chamorro-Filipina.
Yet, whenever visiting the motherland, there is a slight disconnect between my experiences coming from a first world nation and glancing at the different society in the Philippines. Just sitting in gridlocked Manila traffic, surrounded by hundreds of cars as throngs of pedestrians march on the overpass, a strong sense of wonder can fill one’s heart.
I opened 2019 by visiting my mom’s hometown in Burgos, Ilocos Norte. “Is this your first visit?” I was asked this question several times. I suppose every trip is like a first trip for me because I don’t speak the language. My presence is mostly in the sidelines, watching the scenes and people’s interactions.
My half-Filipina experiences and ideas are unworthy of those living and dreaming in the motherland, and so I’ve felt a need to educate myself about the Philippine history and the Filipino lifestyle.
On my second day, I purchased “Manila Was a Long Time Ago” by A.A. Patawaran. Yet, reading literature by a Manila-based Tagalog somehow felt out of place in calm, tranquil Burgos.
This trip, I was lucky to be in Burgos the same time as my cousin Ria, a nurse working in Saudi Arabia. Our day together was mainly driving from Burgos to Laoag City so she could get a new tattoo. The long ride gave us a chance to catch up, since she wasn’t in the Philippines during my last trip in 2016.
Ria described how Saudi Arabia is much cleaner and wealthier than Philippines, yet Saudi women can’t be as vocal or expressive compared to Filipinas.
“Are you still a Filipino citizen?” I asked.
“Of course!” Ria proudly replied. “I love home, but I don’t make as much if I were to work in Saudi.”
“Wow,” I said. “So were you able to vote during the last Philippine election?”
“Oh no, but I’m glad Duterte won.”
I was taken aback. During my week in Burgos, any political conversations I’d overhear were in reference to Trump or even Europe. Discussing faraway governments seemed more tolerable than struggles close to home. Even on Guam, it is easier to talk about Trump’s corruption than the corruption and other transgressions of our relatives in GovGuam. Of course, as diaspora Filipinas, my cousin and I do not fully experience the effects of Duterte’s rule. From afar, corruption seems like a cultural norm for the Philippines.
While some things may seem to have stayed the same, Ilocos has certainly changed. When visiting as a little girl, Burgos was a dusty little town with gravel roads and no streetlights. I remember walking in Burgos at night and seeing more stars there compared to Guam. Now, Burgos is paved. I’m unsure whether the lack of stars in Burgos has to do with the new streetlights or if the pollution from Manila is clouding Burgos skies.
Before, visiting Burgos between November and February meant cold, breezy weather. On my previous trip in February 2016, the wind was thick and cool. Cold air this January lasted about two days, so the rest of my stay was warm and humid. My soft sweaters and long socks sat useless in my luggage, like dreams of another vacation.
With the unexpected spring weather, swimming became a part of my plans. The house next to my mother’s had a pool. When I asked to use their swimming pool, they told me to come by at 5 p.m. when the sun isn’t too bright. “You’ll get dark if you swim early in the afternoon,” said the neighbor. I found this fascinating. On Guam, the best time to enjoy the water is when the sun is bright and hot. Swimming at 5 p.m. in their cold pool felt like I was punishing myself for not experiencing the fresh Burgos springs or Ilocos sweet sea.
To get my mind off the unforgiving freezing pool, I joked, asking my 12-year-old niece swimming beside me if she loved Duterte.
“No! I don’t love Du!” she exclaimed. “He kills people. He’s a killer.”
Although I’m half-Filipina, I’m always just a visitor. Getting older, I’ve become more curious about who I am. Even being half-Chamorro living on Guam, I still try to understand my home and my Chamorro people.
Even my family in Manila seemed polarized on Philippine politics. “Duterte is a greater hero than Rizal and Lapu-Lapu,” said my cousin who works as a nurse in Makati. He took me for a walk around Makati and as we crossed the bridge, I saw three barefoot toddlers fighting at the bottom. Their mother was begging beside them, not stopping the scuffle among the diaper-clad toddlers. I didn’t know this woman’s story, but I knew she didn’t choose to be poor; however, she definitely chooses not to console her children. That image of a homeless family— and there are hundreds of them in the metropolis— is associated with the Philippines’ label as a developing country.
I spent one week in Taguig, a first class, highly urbanized city in Metro Manila. The streets are cleaner and less crowded. No sight of the traditional tricycles.
“There’s nothing natural in Manila anymore. Even the trees—someone put those trees there. The trees didn’t just grow on their own,” my auntie said as we navigated Bonifacio Global City. This is an enclave of the privileged Filipinos, who own newer cars and well-groomed poodles.
I actually appreciated the trees throughout the city. They helped cool the warm afternoon.
However, I still wonder what metro Manila looked like before the tall buildings and stagnant traffic took over the city’s landscape. Auntie said Bonifacio was actually a flatland, and home to a military base. Taguig continues to prosper and I wonder how long it would take for it to become as dense as Makati.
Everything in the Philippines moves with purpose, from women begging under bridges to the white horses pulling carriages — they all have a story to live.
Although I’m half-Filipina, I’m always just a visitor. Getting older, I’ve become more curious about who I am. Even being half-Chamorro living on Guam, I still try to understand my home and my Chamorro people. In the Philippines, it felt strange asking questions about my family and watching people walking and interacting, but I craved to comprehend the Filipino life.
I’ll surely return to the Philippines. I hope my mom would teach me more Tagalog, and even Ilocano, to better prepare me for my next visit and help me discover the other half of me.