Sunday, 29 April 2018

A Homecoming

When I was 20, armed with a good academic record and a few pennies my parents scraped out of our meager funds, I left home to chase after bright lights and the big city. We didn't have a lot while growing up but my parents taught us to have dreams and to work hard to reach them. My dream was to leave the big seaside town I grew up in and I worked hard to do just that.

It has been 13 years since I have flown the nest and my visits have been short, few and far in between. In the many years that I have been away, I never once felt homesickness, that crippling feeling of longing that most Filipinos living overseas had to contend. Perhaps it was because I have grown up in a happy home with many fond memories of my childhood where I never once felt unloved or unwanted that I was able to feel secure enough to carry that love wherever life took me. Occasionally, I would feel guilt that by bringing me up with a deep sense of independence, my own parents couldn't be part of the life I have chosen.

A few weeks ago, after seven years of absence and with a little boy in tow, I came home and was welcomed with a fattened calf like a black sheep that I have always been. It was a homecoming that my father has long-waited for, to meet his only grandchild who was normally shy around strangers but who went straight to his arms when they finally met. In our language, we call it 'lukso ng dugo', a strong sense of connection, of kinship. 

The visit wasn't planned - we didn't go anywhere, see anyone or do anything. It was Easter Break in Isaac's school and rather than enduring two weeks of cold and miserable weather, we decided to travel halfway across the globe. It wasn't cheap but Tita Bre was happy to sponsor most of the trip and I jumped at the chance.

My visit to my hometown meant revisiting my youth, that golden time of my life when I thought I could do anything without any fear or inhibition because I had nothing to lose. But though I remember my youthful self and the people within it with a lot of fondness, I have happily moved on. And yet whilst I was walking down memory lane, I couldn't help but feel proud of my friends, most of us from an 'inner city school' background, who have managed to achieve social mobility thanks largely to the opportunities offered by education. So in my attempt to inspire the hundreds of graduates from my elementary school graduation, I have credited the friendships of my youth to the path I have found myself in life.

Because we didn't do much, I spent most of the time at home, hanging out with my younger cousins, annoying little brats when I first left home, but well-rounded adults I was happy to get to know when I came back. For a moment, I felt a pang of regret, for what I was missing out on and the people I could have been with. But big families are not without a lot of baggage and dramas worthy of a television series that as much as you love them, you would be happy to get out of the picture as soon as you can (or is that is just me?).

While sharing anecdotes of my life in Europe, my father commented that I have fitted right in, embracing the culture I have chosen as opposed to the one imposed on me. I would like to think that it was without hints of disappointment but understanding. I have broken my father's heart many times in my adolescence and although I have tried to make up for it in the latter days of my youth, we developed differences of opinions once I have reached adulthood. I was always afraid that I have disappointed him but I choose to believe that my father would only see the good in me.

It was for these differences that I fell out with my sister three times, complete with walk out scenes, shouting matches and me begging to be forgiven (because she is paying for the holiday after all!). She couldn't stand my sarcasm which she claims is tinted with malice ("leave your culture where it is from!") and I was forced to conform with the cultural norms (although ironically as the eldest I should have the last say). But we always made up, complete with hugs and kisses and public declarations of undying love.

But this whole trip was mostly about and for Isaac, who happily embraced the many 'Pinas' ("Are there four?", in reference to the many houses we have stayed in). On the day we arrived in General Santos, my dad took us to my uncle's farm where chickens ran around as freely as the village children with worn-out slippers playing tag. This fascinated the little man and he happily played and took many photos with them despite their initial unease with the olive-skinned child in their midst.

With his doting grandfather, he did many things that strict health and safety rules in the West wouldn't allow - riding the back of a motorcycle or sitting in a driver's seat - inside a safe compound I promise! He followed Lolo Pop around in his many rounds of showing off his grandson and was spoiled rotten it took us a week to get him back to his disciplined routine.

Yet what he loved most about this visit was perhaps the abundance of people who wanted to play with him with a steady stream of friends and family turning up in our doorstep. They invented many games ('Sleeping game' was a failed attempt to get him to sleep) and allowed him to win any chance he wanted. By the end of the trip he asked me "Do I have to go back to Sheffield?", his dad being left behind wasn't even enough to temp him to go back.

I have taken a lot out of this trip with a renewed appreciation of the family I have left behind and it has reacquainted me with the realities of the country I have chosen to leave behind. When I was eating a lovely piece of cake in Greenbelt (that is more expensive than one made at my favourite cafe in Hillsborough), I marveled at how an ordinary citizen (considering the rampant unemployment) could afford such a luxury. When I went to visit my sister's workplace before she started her shift work in a never sleeping Makati, I suddenly felt a renewed feeling of gratitude for my 30-hour-a-week job which allows me to enjoy a work-life balance. When I was driving around the traffic maze that was Manila, I uttered a small thanks to the tram at the bottom of my road which takes me to my workplace in 20 minutes.

We do not have it all easy in this part of the world - we work full time jobs and can't afford household help; we have 35-year-mortgages and pay a big chunk of our salaries for pension; we would like to have more holidays a year than we can afford - but we do have a comfortable life. We know where our taxes go, we vote politicians based on their policies (or so I hope!), we can criticise freely without fear - all these and many more.

So while I had to drag my little boy's bum up the plane for the 18-hour trip back to Sheffield, I was ready to go back to my reality. But we will be back for sure and will be looking forward to those happy moments that the home of my childhood always offers, hopefully this time it won't take another seven years to happen. 

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