Creative Non-fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

Vignettes and Fragments: Filipino Musings in a Foreign Country

by Pauline Joyce Gonzalvo

Everyday for the past seven months, I've woken up with a slight pain in either my nape or my back, and a sense of having slept quite uncomfortably through dreams already half-forgotten. Most of the time, it's my phone's alarm that jarringly cuts my well-deserved (or so I think) sleep; sometimes, it's the sound of slight movement on the bed across from mine, the ruffling of sheets or shifting of blankets. I will open my eyes to white ceilings and walls, and to the small figure of my roommate still asleep on her side of the room. 

I miss my bed back home—soft but sturdy versus the thin and hard mattress I have here (which I hope will not lead to back problems in the future). I miss waking up to sunlight filtered by pink curtains, the sound of breakfast cooking and the smell of sinangag (fried rice) wafting in from the kitchen. I miss being able to turn up the music in the living room on weekend mornings or laughing out loud with my family over our dining table, without having to worry about the noise we're making and what the neighbours will think. The walls are really thin here, and I can hear doors slamming or students talking all the way down the hall. Admittedly, there are a lot of things that I've been missing in the Philippines since I came to Taiwan last year to start my master's degree. It is pretty good to live in, but from time to time, I get really, really homesick.


What I love most about my university is its location on the southeast edge of Taipei, away from the lights and sounds of the city centre. The Zhinan and Jingmei rivers slice through campus, dividing it into two—the uphill part sitting on the Maokong mountainside and the downhill one surrounded by parks and lush green landscape. Where we do our laundry on the roof of my seven-floor dorm, there's a breath-taking view of the downhill campus, a spread of Wenshan district and the ubiquitous Taipei 101. 

Some mornings or afternoons, I walk down the hill to the riverside, which reminds me of the dikes and patubig (irrigation systems) we have back in Bulacan province. Angat, Bulacan's major tributary, flows from the Sierra Madre mountains and serpents through eleven municipalities before pouring into Manila Bay. Where I live, in the small but thriving town of Plaridel, palayans (rice fields) are literally my backyard. In my teenage years, much of my weekends were spent with friends just walking or riding a bicycle along the patubig that bordered rice fields. Some people even take a dip in the water on hot summer days.

Sadly, the opening of a bypass road several years ago brought Plaridel closer to the capital region, and the fields are now giving way to commercial establishments. For an agricultural town with high hopes of industrialising, land conversion seems inevitable. It's like a domino effect: with each converted rice field or newly constructed road, the ground gets higher and surrounding areas will be flooded with water, no longer good for planting. To top this off—irrigation fees increase year by year, rice exports compete with domestic production and the climate keeps on changing its mind. In the end, farmers are forced to sell their lands to companies that have no intention of maintaining the rural landscape. This is but a pinhole view to an entire host of agrarian reform issues that have plagued the country ever since the dawn of Spanish colonisation, when the friars claimed lands for their own.

Bulakenyos (what we call people from Bulacan), especially the young people now, might not realise the irony of this situation. The province figured prominently in Philippine history, something we all learnt from elementary school. Not only was it the seat of the First Philippine Republic, but it is also represented by one of the sun's eight rays on the Philippine flag. "Plaridel" is actually the pen name of Marcelo H. del Pilar, a Filipino hero (and also a Bulakenyo) who sought reforms from Spain by writing propaganda against the Spanish government in the Philippines. But before being named after him, the town was called Qingua, one of the sites of many battles during the Philippine-American War. A monument to the Battle of Quingua was installed in the town plaza, a proud legacy to summon history for people with short memories. Many Bulakenyos, alongside Filipinos from other provinces, have died on the battlefields of past revolutions in a brave attempt to win back the country's independence from the hands of colonisers. 

I believe colonisers were but one form of oppressors; nowadays, they could be anyone. The capitalists in multinational companies, the mining firms, politikos (elected government officials) in far-flung areas with their private armies, human traffickers, pimps in the cities, militant communists in the countryside, the police, the military, the state—anyone and any form—even those who "steal" farmland in the guise of commercial development. As long as it's not beneficial for the Filipino masses and the Philippine nation in the long run, it could be called oppression. Simple. Complicated. It makes me wonder, who will rise up today and tomorrow in the battlefields of the modern ("global"? "Western"?) world to fight for a far simpler—and maybe, happier—one.


I was born and raised in the Philippines and have lived nowhere else for the past twenty-six years. I have never resided anywhere apart from with my family, not even when we moved to Bulacan fourteen years ago, and I had to travel for four hours each day to go to school and back again. Although we have changed our living arrangements five times since my parents got married in 1990, have no house of our own and no permanent address, I consider Plaridel my home.

There are also ironies here. The city life has never been appealing to me—I disliked the traffic, the pollution, the noise. And yet, I didn't want to study in the provinces, much less work there. The opportunities were all in the capital region. (I always explain to my classmates here that Manila is still the capital city, but there are fifteen others and one municipality in the centre, where the current seat of government is.) I would like to think that I have the heart of a probinsyana (country girl), but I also wanted to see the world and go "global." (I don't even know what this word means, anymore.)

So this year, I celebrated my 27th birthday in a "foreign" country. And it seems that almost every day for the past seven months, I've struggled with a question I couldn't even remember asking myself before, aside from the occasional essay I was required to write for school. What does it mean to be Filipino?


Almost all our immediate relatives live abroad. My mother's parents live in the U.S. with my aunt's family, while my grandmother on my father's side lives in Canada with my uncle's family. Of course, that has not always been the case. It usually starts with one member of the family—in this case, one of my grandfathers in Guam, and one of my uncles in Singapore—but it eventually gobbles up everyone. My mother was over twenty-one when her father decided to take their family to the U.S., so she stayed in the Philippines, married my father and ultimately made it more difficult for her parents to bring over her and her family. There was always the promise of a better life, the much-quoted "greener pastures" in another country, which may not necessarily be true or false, but simply the reality. Ask any Filipino, and chances are, he or she might have a relative, friend or neighbour abroad. When I was younger, I used to think that there were so many Filipinos scattered in other countries that they would be enough to start "colonising" the world. Which is a joke, considering how many people identify as ethnic Chinese outside of China, and that's something that actually makes other countries nervous. The Filipino diaspora does not compare.

So every year since I was a kid, we would go to the airport and pick up relatives coming home for vacation (sundo), and then later, we would take them back again to the airport (hatid). In the Philippines, there's a tradition that's also an inside joke. Not just entire families, but entire barangays (the smallest local government unit; like a village, but not really) go to the airport to see off balikbayans (people who go back and forth between their current country of residence and the Philippines). They would come in private passenger vans or rented jeepneys (a localised type of vehicle modelled after the military jeep and now used for public transport) with packed lunches to boot. Before the three other terminals were built, there was only one terminal for Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), and the relatives and well-wishers could not actually go inside. We usually waited outside in the parking lot until we were sure that the family member has boarded the plane.

I have so many memories of hellos and goodbyes at airports. To a kid, the process seems complicated. There were these things they call travel taxes and terminal fees and over-baggage fees and immigration, and my parents had to see to it that our relatives got all the support they need (both moral and financial) if anything went wrong. As I grew older, I began to understand that the emotions, and not the process, were more complicated. My parents, my younger brother and I – we were always the ones left behind, such that airports were a teary affair every time. For most of my life, I have been on the side of the pasture that's green, but not greener. After graduating from college, our relatives encouraged me to try applying for work abroad, but I just couldn't seem to leave the country. I had a good job—my first and only job, so far—which gave me the chance to travel at times to other provinces, and there were not enough compelling reasons to go.

Fast forward to 2017, four years later. It was burnout from that same job and an uncertainty in the political climate that pushed me to apply for a graduate scholarship abroad. And for once, I was the one who was going away; I was leaving my family behind. We were hunched inside a coffee shop at Terminal 3 (which, thank God, allows non-passengers to go in)—my mother and father locked in a seemingly trivial argument that was heating up—minutes away from the last boarding call, and I couldn't help but start to cry. That was when it hit me—I'm finally going, I'm leaving and I wouldn't be able to see my family for a couple of months. Amidst hasty apologies and goodbyes, I went through security checkpoints and ran all the way to my boarding gate, my name already being called on the PA system. Though I boarded the plane fine, it was not quite the scenario that I'd expected. I remember swallowing another wave of tears while I looked outside the oval pane of glass that now separated me from the outside world, dreading my last glimpse of Manila skies. In that moment, I realised there was something even more difficult than being left behind—leaving everything behind.


Looking back now, the feelings I felt that night seem like nothing compared to my kababayans' (fellow countrymen's) experiences. Although the figure varies depending on the source, official statistics say that more than two million citizens are overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). As they send back more than 200 billion pesos in remittances—now a mainstay of the Philippine economy—they have always been characterised as bagong bayani (modern-day heroes) who bring the bacon home. Unfortunately, happy endings are the exception and not the rule for OFWs. It is common knowledge that more often than not, Filipinos abroad are overworked, underemployed and underpaid. Especially in blue collar industries, it seems that they are still not considered at par with their foreign counterparts. 

The experiences of domestic workers (the stereotypical OFW) are particularly horrible and scary—they often end up being maltreated or beaten up by their employers. Working or living abroad may not exactly be greener pastures for them, but unlike me, who chose to study abroad, some OFWs don't feel that they actually have a choice. It doesn't matter what employment figures are, there just never seems to be enough jobs in the country that pay well enough to raise a family and live a decent life. Given an alternative, many OFWs would probably choose to stay home with their families, rather than away from them. Just like with agrarian reform, labour issues abound in the Philippines. 

On the other side of the spectrum, there are also professionals who choose to go abroad and become citizens of other countries, where there are more benefits and a higher quality of life. This phenomenon of human capital flight is better known as brain drain. Hence, we have Filipino communities overseas. Even though they may have renounced Filipino citizenship or hold two passports, I would like to believe that just like my relatives abroad, most of them still think of themselves as Filipino. But what exactly does that mean?

In college, one of my professors always said that we could never help the country outside of the country, and that as scholars of taxpayers' money, we had to give back by building the nation from within. When I think about my future, this is always a dilemma for me. My family has actually been sponsored by my grandmother to immigrate to the U.S. While the petition itself has taken more than a decade to be approved, the visa will probably take longer than that. My brother and I are both over twenty-one years old now, however, and we will no longer be covered by the sponsorship. At the same time, we're free to find work abroad that can bring us closer to our relatives. One of the values that characterises and may set Filipinos apart from others is being family-oriented (sometimes, to a fault). So, to be a true Filipino, which should come first—family or country?


For the first time, I am now living in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from my family. It sounds like an exaggeration, though, as Taiwan seems to be a mere stone's throw away from Luzon, the Philippines main island group where the capital region is located. The flight from Manila to Taipei takes just two hours—even less than the time it takes to drive home to Bulacan from the airport, or it took to commute home from my work in Quezon City! And it's not exactly foreign either—it's the "heart of Asia," as they say. They eat rice and noodles and dim sum, so there should be no "food shock" in that sense. Taiwanese aboriginals are also said to be related to indigenous groups in Batanes, the northernmost part of Luzon Island, which is in turn, closest to the southern tip of Taiwan. A friend who lives in the north claims that they can occasionally tune into Taiwanese radio stations on Philippine airwaves. But still, Taiwan is different.

There are more than 150,000 OFWs here. In places like Zhongli District in Taoyuan, a city adjacent to Taipei, I can't even tell that I'm in another country. On weekends, they flock to Catholic churches and Filipino grocery stores. Filipinos outnumber Taiwanese people on the streets. I can hear our language being spoken left and right. There are also Pinoy (a shorthand for Filipino and how we usually refer to ourselves) restaurants that sell regional favourites—sinigang na baboy (pork in sour broth), nilagang baka (boiled beef in clear soup), kare-kare (oxtail and vegetables in peanut sauce) and even sisig (chopped pig head seasoned with Philippine lime and topped with egg). When you've been craving Pinoy food for so long, eating in these joints can be deeply satisfying. 

I haven't actually heard of Taiwan OFW horror stories. Instead, Filipinos here comment on how clean the cities are, or how safe, or how generally it is a good place to work. Just last year, amidst news of OFW abuses in the Middle East, the Taiwanese representative to the Philippines assured the public that these things did not happen here. But even if they may not experience physical abuse, discrimination can still take place. According to both academic research and the accounts of friends, migrant workers occupy the lowest classes in society. Taiwan, by virtue of being both a developed country and having a complicated relationship with China, has always considered itself part of the East Asian economies, and thus, superior in a sense to its Southeast Asian neighbours. Consequently, there is a tendency to think lowly of migrant workers. Even the term itself already carries stereotypical connotations and draws images of uneducated people mired in poverty.

It's not necessarily true. One of my closest friends, a teacher in the Philippines, finished her bachelor's degree in secondary education, but came to Taiwan to work in chip factories. Some workers in the same factory also hold degrees in other fields, and most have finished high school. The general assumption is that, if you come from any Southeast Asian country—primarily the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand or Vietnam—you're most likely a migrant worker. More often than not, the word "foreigner" is reserved for those who come from Europe, America and even East Asia. All the same, in my mind, I have a different status here. Being a student or "scholar," like being an "expat," seems to be at least one notch higher than a migrant worker. But every time I raise the image of myself over my countrymen, I feel a twinge of guilt. I am no more of a Filipino because we all were. Besides, we're merely passers-by in another country. In a way, I even envy them. These are not people who grapple with what being Pinoy means. Not because they can't, but because they just know they are, and they live that out every single day.


I am taking up International Studies for my master's, which I've come to believe, is not actually "international" at all. In class after class of learning theories of international relations, we talk about global politics as if there was something universal about it, a pattern that works the same way everywhere around the world. But usually, we just end up talking about the U.S. and China, the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and Latin America … Sometimes I feel like it's all about the U.S. and its international relations with the world. All we ever talk about is politics in the Western (read: the North, the West, the modern, the developed) world. And most of the time, we discuss concepts that I feel are completely incompatible with the experiences of the developing world, especially my own country. I am always left with an impression of how small and inconsequential the Philippines is to the rest of the world. Does the Philippines even matter to the world?

So, at some point, I became "obsessed" with bringing the perspectives of the non-Western world to the fore by highlighting the Philippine experience. I always feel the need to raise my hand and let my international classmates know some stuff like: yes, the rest of the world may be moving towards technological advancement, but there are places in the Philippines that still don't have stable sources of electricity, if they have it at all; yes, Asian economies may be rising, but in my country, the gap between the rich and poor just gets wider and wider. And by clarifying these things for other people, I felt that I was also making things clearer for myself.


While doing research for my literature review on small powers like the Philippines in Southeast Asia, I went to the library to borrow some books. There were entire bookcases on other regions, but only several rows for my own. And there were tons of books for other Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, but only a dozen or so for the Philippines. I know that it was quite unreasonable to feel sad (whose fault is it that the world feels my country is not that famous or consequential, anyway?), but I did.

Somehow, it was strangely ironic and perhaps perfectly natural (or naturalised?) for me to be more interested in other places and people when I was still living in the Philippines. But now that I'm not in the country, I feel that I actually want to learn more about who I am, such that I find myself constantly looking for meaning and purpose in my historical roots. Maybe I've been looking in the wrong places, like most people do.


When I was in elementary school, I fell in love with J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings; so much so that I actually learnt how to write in his fictional Elvish languages, which I found really beautiful. For the past few months, I have also been practising writing traditional Mandarin Chinese characters, and it is fascinating for me to decipher the words based on the meaning of the radicals. My roommate is Thai, and her desk is littered with notes in Thai characters, which I also find particularly interesting. But learning another language can prove really difficult, especially if being able to speak it is still fundamentally different from learning how to read it, much less actually being able to write with it. 

Except for the letters ñ and ng, the modern Filipino alphabet is basically the same as the English alphabet. Unlike Mandarin, Thai or Vietnamese, Filipino is not a tonal language, and we can basically understand what one is saying by the way the words are said or read. It's pretty straightforward, and in that sense, it seems pretty easy to learn. But aside from the occasional dedicated foreigner, who would actually want to learn it? Among the Asian languages and aside from Chinese, most people would rather learn Japanese or Korean, while English is still the lingua franca in Southeast Asia. Learning Filipino is neither practical, nor popular.

Last semester, one of my Russian friends asked me if Filipinos have their own writing system. And I said, we almost did. Having lived for a short while among Asians with writing systems of their own made me sentimental about this (a little envious, too, I guess). Baybayin, literally "to spell," is just one of the many ancient Philippine scripts that existed in pre-colonial times. Said to be derived from the Brahmic scripts of India, some indigenous groups in the country still use similar writing systems today. However, due to hundreds of years of colonial rule and the more widespread use of the Roman alphabet, some Filipinos may not even be aware of its existence. After being put on pending status for a long time, a bill aiming to get a modernised version of it declared as the national script was approved just last April by the House of Representatives' Committee on Basic Education and Culture. If the bill gets passed into law, food products, public signs and establishments and even print media, would be required to include a Baybayin translation alongside names and descriptions in Filipino. People are now debating the practicality, utility and financial cost of this move.


Probably because of Taiwan's "southbound policy," sim cards here are free for Filipinos, Indonesians, Thai and Vietnamese. But while the instructions for use are written in the three other countries' languages, they only ever have English for the Philippines. Even om traffic signs or reminders in train stations, they don't bother to translate in Filipino. I cannot really explain why, but I always feel indignant about this—it seems that wherever I go, they neglect to translate into Filipino. While walking through one of Taipei's night markets, I finally found a single shop that cared to include my language. Funnily enough, they translated the well-known market phrase "Buy 1, take 1," which we never bother to translate back home. Two or three of my friends here have actually said to me, "Well, isn't English your official language?" And I have kept on answering, "No, it's not. Filipino is." I have been so engrossed in thinking about being Filipino that I actually forgot that we do have two official languages—one of which is English—which means there was no basis for my frustration about the translations. The Taiwanese didn't translate into Filipino because they didn't want to, but because they didn't have to. They just assumed that we could all read English. 


Meeting me for the first time, a Mongolian classmate who used to work with Filipinos asked me if I had ever studied abroad before Taiwan. I answered, "No, I haven't. This is my first time." And she said, "Why don't you have a Filipino accent? It was so cute and I really liked hearing it." That time, I honestly didn't know if it was a compliment or not. Some other classmates claimed that if they didn't know me, they wouldn't have been able to place where I was from, because my English is "accent-less." No matter how I looked, I could be from anywhere. 

Again, this is where Filipino international students would differ from the migrant workers. Although the latter know how to speak in English, they would shy away from practising it, and thus, are generally less confident in using it. Plus, they have a "Filipino accent." And in the Philippines, the educational system in the centre trains you to lose your accent, as it is associated with the lower classes or people from the provinces who speak in different Philippine dialects. But studying alongside people from other nationalities with strong accents, I've gained another perspective. As long as you can be understood and what you're saying makes sense, your accent doesn't matter. It doesn't make you inferior, and it doesn't make you less intelligent. There were times that I actually felt ashamed for not having one.

Another thing that I somehow feel emotional about is how other languages have a translation for everything, while Pinoys nowadays usually converse in a mix of English and Filipino and sometimes, another dialect. If they listened in on Filipino conversations, English speakers would definitely be able to make out some of the words. My roommate told me that in Thailand, they have translated versions for practically everything, especially English bestsellers like the Harry Potter series. 

But in Filipino, it's ridiculous to think about. Si Harry Potter at ang Bato ng Pilosopo (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone). Si Harry Potter at ang Silid ng mga Sikreto (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Just the title makes me crack up; what more if it was an entire book? There wouldn't even be exact translations for most of the words, so it would still end up borrowing many English words. I love my language, especially how poetic and patriotic it can sound, but I am also quite embarrassed to say that it would be more difficult for me to write an essay or an academic paper in straight Filipino, than it is to write in straight English.


We were talking about soft power and nation branding in my Public Diplomacy class. The professor—an American through and through—asked us about examples of countries' attempts to brand themselves. Among others, there was Incredible India, Taiwan: Heart of Asia, Malaysia: Truly Asia. The professor pondered on the validity of claims to "Asian-ness," then he looked at me and said, "I'm sorry, but the Philippines is not." And I think I could agree with him, though I responded with a shrug, "Well, it's still 'more fun in the Philippines.'" 


Chopsticks is another "Asian thing"—something that is used on the dining tables of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, among others, but not in the Philippines. Our daily utensils are plain old spoons and forks. But if we really want to do it the Filipino way, we use our bare hands to eat, the hallmark of masarap kumain (being really into the food because it's delicious). Does this make us any less Asian? 


Foreigners, especially Europeans, coming to Asia for the first time, always talk about how much "different" it seems. They talk about the temples and massive monuments—the landmarks of other Asian countries—and they equate exoticism with "oriental" and "Asian." But in the Philippines, the most prominent landmarks are not temples, but antique Catholic churches, which are not exotic to Europeans at all. Take a picture of a busy road, and the signs are not in an unfamiliar script or character, but in perfectly readable English. Does that make us less Asian?


My roommate listens not only to Thai, but to Japanese, Korean and Chinese songs. Aside from Original Pinoy Music or OPM (which, ironically, is still a term in English!), my taste in music is largely limited to the Western sphere and predominantly in the English language. Even my friend from the Czech Republic knows more Korean songs than I do! So I've been wondering, does this make me more "Western" and less Asian or less Filipino?


I still don't have answers to most of my questions, and they never seem to end. How can we even break away from any kind of "colonial thinking," if even the name of our country was "given" to us in honour of a foreign king—a vestige of an historical period that never really went away? For now, there seems nothing more to do than go figure.


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