Exhausted. I felt very exhausted after the grueling 24+ hour trip from Los Angeles to Manila, Philippines. My mom and I actually had to stop in Taiwan for about nine hours for a connecting flight. I’ve never slept in those airport seats before but it was a very uncomfortable nine hours.
But finally we landed in Manila and stepped outside to smell that fresh Philippine air I haven’t smelt in eight years. It was that familiar humid aroma — a mix of heat, sweat and pollution — that I still clearly remember. My mom had arranged for an old college friend to drive us to our hometown of Lucena, a four hour drive from the capital. I was admittedly a little anxious. There was mixture of shame, guilt and embarrassment of being gone almost a decade — for a surprise return to the family that raised me.
The drive to Lucena was a rather scary one. Actually, driving in general in the Philippines is really, really, scary. There are no traffic laws. There is but nobody cares to follow them. At one point during my stay, we were in a taxi and we drove on the wrong side of the road! Mind you it was a whole lane doing this so I guess if a lot of people started to disobey the law, I guess it was okay.
The whole landscape of Manila seemed the same except much more crowded. It seems the Philippines is in an economic boom but there is still extreme poverty. This was most apparent when I visited the “Mall of Asia.” A grand testament of Western Capitalism, with every store you could imagine with a stage and basketball area within the mall. But despite that, the same slums of squatters still existed. Among the piles of garbage, many Filipinos still lived in squalor. It was there when I left and it’s still here now.
Even when we got to Lucena, the once sleepy rural town I knew was now an overcrowded, smoggy metropolis. So many things have changed ever since I left, and I wondered what changes happened back home.
It’s been eight years since I seen any of my Ladera family. One of my cousins actually did visit but that proved to be an awkward occasion (which was later confirmed to me by her brother when I saw him during my visit). That underlying awkwardness is what I’ve always felt ever since I got internet communication with my family. I just didn’t feel comfortable talking to them online.
But hear me out here! I apologize to all my family reading this but yes, I do try to avoid talking to you — but not on purpose! I grew up in the Philippines without the internet being a part of everyone’s daily life. Then when it did come around, I was already in America, speaking mostly English and never really learned how to type Tagalog or any of the slang words. I just felt a communication barrier stopping me and having not seen them in a long time, it just didn’t feel right. It felt lacking and empty. And I was a pre-teen at the time dealing with my own shit growing up in America. I had more pressing matters to deal with and it was called “Middle School.”
It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to them. It was because I felt chatting on Facebook once in a while wouldn’t be enough. I actually wanted to talk to them, face to face, just like when I was a kid. The only way I knew how to talk to them. Call me old-fashioned, but there was no substitute to that when talking to the most important people in my life.
My childhood is actually starting to become a little hazy whenever I try to remember it. But I do remember spending a majority of it in Lucena and I consider it my hometown. During my childhood, I remember my mom working at the Philippine General Hospital and my dad was already in the Middle East. So, it was my Ladera family who would take care of me.
Mainly it was my Ninong (godfather) and Ninang (godmother), who took care of me. My mom’s side of the family is really big. She has 12 other siblings, so there was many who took care of me. My Lola (grandmother), had died a year before I was born so it was only my Lolo (grandfather) left. They say it takes a village to raise a child, well, they were my village.
I look back fondly at all the memories I made there and everything they taught me. It still shapes the person I am today. And when I learned that I was going to have to leave, I didn’t know what to think. I was actually very excited. I think I was 7-years-old when my mom and my then only younger brother, Rowell, flew to the United Arab Emirates to join my dad. Maybe I had the assumption it was a temporary stay because it didn’t feel like I wasn’t ever going to them again. But it turns out I won’t see them until five years later, a long time for a kid.
5 years later, we returned from the Middle East, except it wasn’t a permanent return. My parents and my new youngest brother, Rafael, went ahead to the United States to setup everything. But for now, my brother and I stayed with my Lola on my dad’s side. It was nice and that year we really got close to our Lola. I appreciate the year a lot more now after she passed away in 2014.
We got to visit Lucena but only a little bit and already so much had changed. My little cousins had grown up! Things had changed. The old open field near our house was now a gigantic shopping mall. The street in front of the house was now filled with so many cars passing through. It wasn’t as quiet as it once was.
It was awkward being back in a country that I call home, five years later, and everything has changed. I — someone who was born in that country — felt like an outsider. I honestly hated it. I hated and loved that year in the Philippines. It must’ve been all the changes and puberty, but I saw pictures of myself that my Ninang showed me later on and I was not smiling in any of it. And I knew then. I knew that I was going away again for a very long time and I won’t see them for a very long time. I knew it. And I hated it.
When I got to America, I think I kind of wanted to forget — forget that I was ever Filipino. The ostracization I felt coming to America and wanting to fit in, I felt like I wanted to just act like everyone else here. It was frustrating. I had just gone through feeling like an outsider in my own home country and now I’m in this new one that honestly feel like it did not want me there.
I don’t mean that in a racial kind of thing, I mean there was some of that but mostly it was coming to America and starting middle school is such a rough way to start. Let me just say this right now, fuck middle school. I just… felt weird. I didn’t know how to properly convey anything into words. I didn’t know the culture, the lingo, or anything. I just didn’t get it. I got used to it but it was painful — to say the least.
My mom at one point told me to stop acting too American. It frustrated me so much because I’m here trying to blend in to make myself feel normal in such a strange country. But later on I think I got what she meant.
This was the fear I had coming back to the Philippines.
Did I lose my Filipino identity?
Will I be so out of touch that maybe they hate me?
Will they just be angry at me for not keeping in touch?
Those were the things going through my head as we approached my Lolo’s house. My mom’s friend had call my Lolo to tell him we were dropping off a “package” — which in hindsight sounded very shady.
And there he was, wearing the same wife-beater shirt and shorts I knew he always wore, standing there waiting for a package — except that package was my mom and I.
I stepped out of the car and greeted him. He was in shock. He didn’t really move and his mouth agape. I went down the path towards his new house. This wasn’t the same house I grew up in — he apparently sold it a few years back, to my dismay.
And my Ninong stepped out to see who it was and it was me. It was the kid that annoyed him to let him use his Playstation, the kid that would annoy his customers, the kid who ate KFC with. It was the kid who left but never said goodbye.
And he started crying and I started crying and we hugged. It was one of the best cries I’ve had in awhile. And I cry a lot.
In that moment, the fear of them being angry for not talking to them — for being gone so long — dissipated. I was greeted with not scorn, like I feared, but with warmth and unconditional love.
One of my Titos (Uncle), Tito Wattie, came out too and I also hugged and cried. It was a surreal moment to see these people again when previously I’ve had only dreams of seeing.
Within the next couple of hours, my mom’s siblings who were in town came to the house and a mini-reunion pretty much happened.
Here they were — the faces I once knew when I was a kid — in front of me again. But this time they were older. And now had kids! The last time I saw them, they were teenagers but now they were parents
In my mind, I’ve always had a wishful thought that when I came back, I would go back to the same old Lucena I first left. But I knew that wasn’t true and the reality of it is that things changed. And you gotta learn to accept that. I had to learn to accept that. I still am.
I met the cousins I knew when I was growing up, now all handsome teenagers. And the new cousins that I’ve never met before. It was nice. It was just a comforting feeling that after so many years, I was still greeted with the same warmth as they did when I was just a kid. And that’s when most of those fears dissipated and I knew I was finally home again.
Being home and adjusting to home, was a different story. We were staying there for a month and adjusting back to the amenities that was there was kind of difficult. My mom and I were simply spoiled by the American way of living we knew. But we already knew what was there but actually living it again after many years was difficult. There was no flush on the toilet or showers or none of that. It was just a bucket and you use that bucket to pour water over your head or pour it into the toilet bowl to flush it (pictured below). It wasn’t a terrible standard of living but it wasn’t American standard of living.
Which brought out the other guilt I had stored up in my heart, which was that I live in such a great place and the people I care about the most live like this? It was a thought I’ve struggled with ever since I was in the US.
Going through about the old Filipino way of living did really bring me back though. It felt like my childhood again and most of the nights, my Ninang and all my other Tita’s would come over the house for dinner and all my little cousins would be over.
I have to say that my cousins are the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. They actually showed me why anyone would even consider having a kid. Previously, I had fully written out ever having kids ever. But now I know why. It’s great having them around and just being wonderful people. And it made me reflect back on my own childhood. Their parents were the ones who raised me and watching them being little rascals reminded me so much of myself. I guess they all practiced being parents while taking care of me when I was a kid and I know they’ll turn out better than I have.
I finally did achieve my childhood dream when I was there. My childhood dream was that I wanted to buy a big bucket of KFC for everyone. When I was a kid, that was pretty expensive and I was told we couldn’t afford it. But I finally did it and it just felt great. It brought me back to my original internal conflict of living in the US.
That guilt doesn’t really make sense if you really think about it but for me, I just felt shitty about it. And with me not communicating with them after all these years, I just felt like an asshole. But there was one thing that isn’t in the US, which is them. My family. There is no substitute. In my head, it’s either the choice of living in the US apart from them but having lots of cool American stuff or going back, living in kind-of-poverty but having that love there. I don’t know the answer really. It’s really a dilemma.
Even if I did stay, so many things have changed and like I’ve said, I would never feel like I belonged there and I don’t really feel like I belong here in Fresno either. I’ve lived in Fresno, California, for six years. I’ve moved around so much, that I think I need to just keep moving and travelling. It just doesn’t feel right staying in one place too long. I think I did go a little stir-crazy being in Fresno for so long. This has been the longest I’ve ever been in a place since the Philippines. I have now technically lived longer in the US now, even more than the Philippines.
I just felt like I really needed to come home. Maybe to say a proper goodbye. But probably more of saying a definite “see you later.”
The answer I ultimately came up with to that guilt I have is that I need to make the best of the opportunities I have here in the US. I just want to make my family proud. This ultimately is what I want to do, is to dedicate everything I do to make them and just make them proud. Maybe it’s through photography, journalism or wherever life takes me, it’s all for them. I want to thank them for everything they’ve done for me. They gave me the fondest memories and I hope to make more.
This piece was originally written right after I got back from that trip in 2015. It wasn’t as eloquently worded and was a raw stream of emotions. It’s been re-edited with added clarity for Medium. The images was part of a photo essay I made as well.
I decided to basically “remake” this essay because during this time of very turbulent immigration policies by you-know-who, I think it’s important to show that immigrants, documented or undocumented, make HUGE sacrifices moving anywhere outside of their country. I might make that a separate essay. But my heart is with all the children separated from their children at the border. I can only imagine the emotional turmoil they will go through growing up.
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this essay. Smash that mf clap button if you did!