I am half Filipina and half Sicilian, and while I grew up listening to Mom’s stories of her native Philippines, this past summer was my first time visiting and experiencing the country for myself. Mom, my daughter Leizel and I traveled together for over a month in southeast Asia, exploring the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. While each part of our trip was a unique and invigorating experience, the Philippines is where we spent the majority of our time. It is also where my thoughts drift toward tonight. It’s been a few months now since the end of our trip. I’ve been longing–but perhaps also stalling–to put into words my impressions of a country I’d previously only known through the stories of family members and friends. What I found was not so much a foreign land–but a homecoming of sorts in which I gained a better understanding of my own cultural roots. The Philippines consists of about 7,600 islands in the western Pacific. While we only saw a small fraction of the country, I left with a sweeping sense of how the various islands, provinces, cities and towns remain culturally unique in and of themselves–but also, so very bound together and inherently, beautifully Filipino.
Some of my travel posts are more informative, focusing on the specifics and logistics of our itinerary. But tonight I feel inclined to be a bit more poetic in my descriptions of a country so defined by family, faith and food. The moment we arrived, we were greeted by family members I’d previously never met. It didn’t take long before “Lolo Guapo” began telling jokes as he drove us from the airport, immediately garnering favor with my daughter. She was no less than spoiled throughout our trip. When our hosts discovered her obsession with mango, they made sure to have the delicious fruit peeled, cut and ready for her nearly every morning. It is an undisputed fact that mango is simply better in the Philippines, along with most other tropical fruit–many of which I had never tasted. Rambutan consists of a red, spiny exterior that protects a dense, sweet, lychee-like flesh. My favorite new fruit, mangosteen, is difficult to describe. Its leathery, dark purple rind, once split open, sensually sloughs away to reveal a cluster of segmented, white fruit. The edible portion is the endocarp of the mangosteen–the inner layer that directly surrounds the seeds. It is sweet and tangy and bursts with juice. Perhaps even more satisfying is that you don’t bite into everything at once. You devour each juicy clove, one by one, like picking petals from a flower.
When I was a child, Mom would often talk about the Philippines with nostalgia and love. One story she repeats time and time again centers around her grandfather, Carlos Borromeo. As the youngest girl in a large family, she was sent to her grandparents’ home in the mountains where she was raised for most of her childhood. Mom has a fondness for the film Heidi, and I suspect much of that is rooted in her close bond with her late grandfather. The story goes that they passed a fruit stand after attending church one day. Mom wanted a watermelon, but when she was told no, she cried and pouted as children often do. Upon arriving home, her grandfather, then already an old man, could not bear to see his granddaughter so sad. He made the trek by foot back down the mountain and up again just to retrieve the fruit for my mother. “My grandfather would do anything for me,” she often says with remembrance, and also, a bit of sadness in her voice.
Filipino families tend to be very large, very close and very Catholic. Growing up, I felt a disconnect from Mom and my extended family–not because of a lack of love but because my own nature is so discordant with traditional Filipino values. Social situations make me anxious, stressed and self-doubting. As a child, I’d often hide away during family gatherings, finding some corner of the house to be away from all the bodies and the noise. I can also be stubborn and find it difficult to bite my tongue when I feel I’m in the right–something I attribute to my Sicilian side. But in Filipino culture, respect for elders is unwavering. There is no arguing or debating.
While I will always value my solitude and independence, I do feel like I have finally gained a better understanding of my mother, my family and my culture. Filipinos, after all, are such a warm, loving, resilient and welcoming people. And while no culture is perfect, there must be a reason I feel so at home and so at peace whenever I meet another person of Filipino descent. My daughter and I recently moved to Reggio Emilia, Italy–a change I will write about in more detail in the coming days–and even here we experience the comfort and familiarity of people who look and feel like family. The Filipino diaspora transcends so many borders. There is a growing community here in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. In fact, one of the first friends Leizel made at the park was a Filipina-Italian girl. I often wonder if my Filipino heritage is visually apparent due to my split heritage. I may have brown skin and some islander facial features, but my hair is thick and curly and my frame much more Mediterranean–or perhaps American–in build. So whenever I see a friendly Filipino face here, I tend to introduce myself. “Are you Filipino?” I usually say. “My mother is from Masbate.”
We unfortunately did not have a chance to visit Mom’s home province. This is just one reason we will be going back someday–hopefully sooner than later. But we did explore the lush, green mountains on our way up to Baguio. At an elevation of 4,810 feet, it is like an emerald city in the sky. We attended my cousin’s wedding in beautiful Boracay with its crystal water, perfectly white sand and sunsets so magnificent they’ve come to spoil all other sunsets. We went island hopping in Coron, swimming in deep lagoons enclosed by towering rock formations from a world lost in time. But my daughter says her favorite part of the Philippines was Manila. According to 2016 census data, it is the world’s most densely populated city with nearly 43,000 people per square kilometer. In Manila, there are museums full of art and innovation, streets jammed with traffic, jeepneys crammed with people, sprawling malls, towering cathedrals, markets of fish and fruit and poultry, opulent casinos with pink carpets and fountain shows, tremendous amounts of absolute poverty–but also, unwavering faith and resilience. The Philippines is many things. While I still have much to discover when I return someday, I do know this. Beneath the rind, its people are the heart and fruit of the country.