5 Challenges When Returning to the Homeland [Portland –> Philippines]

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Janet Brent - sooooo Pinoy!!

I’m a first generation Filipino immigrant to the United States and I’ve got a legit American passport to prove it.

In our first-time plane journey, Mom and I flew to the U.S. from the Philippines to begin our new lives. It all started from one of those pen-pal services that my mom joined pre-online dating sites. Sounds like a ‘Mail Order Brides’ kind of operation to me but who am I to judge?

Mom did what she had to do. All she selflessly wanted was a better life for me.

I spent my whole life growing up in the States; from pre-school through college.

I even worked my first two “professional jobs” in the U.S. We’d visit the Philippines every couple years if money allowed it and when I had those long summer vacations. My last visit was at the age of twenty with Mom. By that time, I was already telling my Tita (aunt) that I wanted to visit on my own next time and really travel the Philippines.

I forgot about this prophetic comment until my next visit six years later. I was twenty-five going on twenty-six.

Newly emerged from a self-proclaimed “quarterlife crisis” in which I had let go of a 5 year long relationship complete with house, mortgage and a dog.  That was slowly killing that fire within, that frees-spirit, that wanderlust that I always had. I knew I had to make big changes and so I walked away.

I uprooted my entire life just to reverse all the opportunities I’d known to embrace my Filipino culture and living with my own people.

I thought returning home would be ‘a spiritual coming home’ experience – a return to my roots. I was going back to the homeland. I’m still here now, but it ain’t all bed and roses. Sometimes, it’s wooden floors and coconuts. It’s a strange sort of culture clash, when you’ve all but lost your own culture.

5 Challenges of Returning Home

1. IDENTITY or “Being Told I’m not Pinoy.”

The term ‘Pinoy’ is used to describe a person from the Philippines; a Filipino.

Pinoy can also refer to the native culture of the Philippines. e.g. “Woke up to bad karaoke blasting from the neighbors singing Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. That’s so Pinoy!”   

I have had many times, especially during when I first landed, where people have told me to my face that I am ‘not Pinoy’.

Who am I if I’m not even Filipino?

Are Filipino-Americans, particularly the Filipino-Americans who don’t know their own language fluently (guilty), such aliens?

Am I a freak?

Do I not belong in my country of birth?

Who am I if I’m not Pinoy?

The comments stung as I grasped for a sense of my own ever-changing identity.

Who am I if I’m not Pinoy and these aren’t my people? Identity is a real bitch. Each devaluation, regardless of the cultural context (OK, so I know I’m not as “Pinoy” as I am “American”), is a kick in the gut. It hurts.

2. ICE COLD SHOWERS or “Going Native.”

Joel Runyon, who runs the popular Impossible HQ, thought it would be weird and crazy to take cold showers for a month just because he can.

I mean, who does that!?

Filipinos.

And probably a big chunk of the world population not in the top 8% we call America. Cold showers are a reality for developing countries and “going native”.

Filling buckets of cold water and using little “dippers” to dump water over my head is a reality for most, especially in the province (Bonus points if you can do this outside with your clothes on. DOUBLE bonus if you can do this outside in your birthday suit. Context is everything. And if you’re wondering, heck yeah, I’ve done both.).

Despite the humid, hot environment, cold showers still take some getting used to.

My technique?

Grabbing my boobs with both hands to cover them while simultaneously jumping up and down with flip-flops (it’s weird to shower barefoot) under the shower. Once I get used to the temperature I let go of my boobs and hang loose, baby! So who’s the crazy one now?

3. CULTURE SHOCK or ‘You’re so yuppy!’

Culture shock is a broad category that can cover a myriad of situations and examples.

But the opposite of ‘Pinoy’ and not being culturally “native” is being ‘sosyal’ (think “social” with an accent). This term refers to the higher-class, often “yuppy” groups of Westernized socialites and urbanites out of touch with their native culture. These social elites live in high rises and not the bahay kubo (“high rise” house on stilts made out of bamboo that the provincial poor dwell in).

I am the LEAST poshy least social person ever and I live in the slums but I still get labeled ‘yuppy’ because it also refers to the mindset, if not the lifestyle, of a Westernized person. 

(By the way, things like using utensils to eat instead of a fork and spoon gets you marked a sosyal!?!)

4. GIMME A KISS AND YO’ US DOLLARS or “Family Obligation.”

Money is a real bitch here, and family members are expected to help out collectively, for the greater good of the family. That’s all fine and dandy but it also means you can get taken advantage of as the “rich” Westerner. This was completely new to me having gone back for the first time by myself.

This is a huge culture shock for someone trying to travel and live on a budget!

Add to this the passive-aggressive communication style. How my aunts would call my mom on the phone to talk about how I wasn’t paying and my mom would call me to tell me I needed to pay. Big turn off.

To this day, I still hesitate visiting knowing that I’m expected to shell out money, and being guilt tripped if I don’t.

Now that’s so Pinoy!

At my current rate, trying to build my web/blog design business (www.byjanet.net), I’m just trying to survive like the rest of the ‘Pinoys’, with very little money to spare.

5. SLUMS or “I’m a Survivor.”

My life is so much different than it was a few years ago. I am now living in the Manila slums when I found my money run dry and was faced with living in the cheapest rent of the city that I could find.

This is like a season of “Survivor” but I guarantee you there’s no million dollar grand prize if I survive.

Not surviving means not making rent or having dinner!

My ‘coming home’ path wasn’t the path I had imagined but I’m certain it is the path that will ultimately make me succeed as a person.

Coming home does have it’s plusses – I am with my people (like it or not) I speak Tagalog daily (so Pinoy!).

I eat with my hands (more often at least) I’ve learnt persistence, survival skills and become more of a local than when I first landed here.

You know what? It feels good to be home.

Did you enjoy Janet’s story? Have you had to ‘go home’? Was your return home anything like Janet’s experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below

Janet Brent is a straight-up Pinoy, still living in the Phillipines and chasing her entrepreneurial dreams. She works with creative and holistic writers and authors to build web platforms, design ebooks and assists with product launches over at the Purple Panda. She’s also living on $2 U.S. dollars a day this month.

26 Comments

  1. Janet! This is simultaneously hilarious and sad. I know exactly what you mean about going to the ‘motherland’ only to be told that you are nothing like the people that live there. You’re nothing like the people that you grew up, either. So, where is one supposed to go????

    For me personally, my Pakistani relatives made the decision for me! I was so annoyed with their behaviour that I realised my values were reflected more in my home country (where I was raised), rather than the country where my parents were from.

    Would you ever consider going back to the States?

    Cold shower therapy – taking a cold shower every day to prove you can get through something tough – First World problems!

    – Razwana

    1. hahaha first world problems. Right!? Something about Cold Shower Therapy always rubs me the wrong way because it’s sooooo west-centric. And the rest of the world doesn’t care. They take cold showers every day, sometimes several times a day, and it’s not to prove you can do something tough. It’s LIFE!!

      I’m visiting the states for 3 months next month and in time for World Domination Summit. I’m not sure if I could live there long term again.. Maybe San Francisco for awhile. But I’d rather be an expat!! And not necessarily in the Philippines forever too. 🙂

      1. Hey Janet, there are some negative sides of our tradition which is actually normal in our country and needless to say Im also not proud of it, especially the finance stuff. A lot of people in our countries thinks that because we are living abroad we have loads of money and the sky is the limit for us, sometimes they cant understand that we have to work hard and carefully manage our budget, its one of the filipino mentality. I grew up basically in the poor province of the Philippines and experienced what you have experienced as a daily routine until I lived in Switzerland in which the society is amazingly living in luxury. Even though you grew up in the states and it became your home, you are still a Filipina though your knowledge in tagalog may not be as fluent as your american english. But at least you know that your roots are Filipino and I hope that you are still proud of where your roots are from. The definition of a Pinoy or Pinay so as we speak is irrelevant, what matters the most is that you have your own identity, besides after all the pass that you have is only political anyways.

        1. Jefferson, You make a good point in that we maintain our ethnicity and knowledge of our culture no matter where we end up living in the world. YOu just have to take the culture and customs you’re comfortable with and slowly move away from the ones you’re not. Thanks for joining us here.

    2. Agreed Razwana! This is pretty hilarious and reflective of many kids with immigrant parents. Janet has an insightful take on identity and living in 2 cultures at the same time.

  2. Hi Janet, I believe I met you in one of the FB groups via Corinne. It’s nice to read your story here.

    Like you, I ‘had’ to go back to the Philippines (to my ‘own’ family after spending so much time away from them). I’ve never been to the US but even I, used to,’judge’ Fil-Americans (*so sorry!). There are those (not all) who’ve adapted the Western culture to the point of forgetting their real identity and wouldn’t even wish to visit the Philippines. I’m glad that you found your roots here and that you speak Tagalog (I guess, even more fluently than I do).

    1. Hi Melissa-
      I definitely don’t speak tagalog fluently! and it’s been 3 years that I’ve lived in the Philippines and still not fluent.. How come you don’t speak Tagalog if you’ve never been to the states? Do you live abroad as an “OFW”?

      1. Janet I do ~ I do speak Tagalog. I was a missionary and I lived with a Peruvian, Columbian and Italians that’s why we spoke English most of the time.

  3. Hi, I loved your article. I’m from Europe but live in the USA. I’ve been to the Philippines about 20 times. I love it there, however I also realize I am being treated very differently than the locals. The currency exchange is to my advantage. I know exactly what you are talking about, I have many friends there from all walks of life. The wealthy act like snobs and above everyone else. The small middle class and the poor always have their hands out in my direction. I was married to a Filipina for 9-years and currently have a GF there. At first I was really turned off about requests for money but after many years I realize that people there really believe we are all rich here. I was wondering, why didn’t you just stay in the USA and take a vacation to the Philippines once a year. Financially it would have been much better?

    1. Yes, white people definitely have some privileges in the Philippines. I guess in Philippine standards we ARE rich. But a lot of people still struggle for money or feel ‘broke’ because no matter how much you make, there’s always a bigger purse.

      I guess financially it would be better if I just lived with my parents rent free. But I didn’t want to do that and I took the adventurous route in this depression/recession. 😛 Now I take a ‘vacation’ to the US once a year… but all the while, I’m still working!

  4. As Razwana said, hilarious and sad. Our cultural identity gets so complicated sometimes, doesn’t it? I have two daughters adopted from China. One was adopted as a toddler and grew up here in the US. The other was adopted as a teenager and grew up in China. They are so different in so many ways, but they are sisters. It’s more of an issue for the second one. Chinese is her first language, and culturally, she now “lives” somewhere in between. I wonder if she will choose to go back to China to live someday. Thank you for sharing your story, and for sharing it so insightfully.

    1. that must be interesting! i wonder if one has an accent and the other is more american sounding. i knew a couple who adopted chinese girls too and started a non-profit for educating chinese orphans!

  5. Boy can I relate to this one! Even though I’m not from the Philippines, I can definitely relate to the money part. The same thing is true when it comes to presents. You’re EXPECTED to bring stuff and give money or be cast out of the family. After all, you’re the “lucky” one who gets to have a stylin’ life in America! Uggghh… like Razwana said, hilarious but sad at the same time.

    1. THanks for the input Dark. You know what we’re talking about! A lot of us from different parts of the world have the same customs, culture and traditions in our home countries which are similar to Filipino culture.

  6. Janet, I felt like I could truly relate to some of the issues you’ve experienced. I, too, am Filipina-American but am never Pinay enough for anyone. What’s more, because I have a Pan-Asian face, I have felt this disdain from almost every Asian group (“What a disgrace! She has totally forsaken her culture!” But I’m not Korean/Thai/Chinese/Japanese/your choice Asian ethnicity!!)

    I’ve often thought the experience of immigrant children/children of immigrants is akin to Third Culture Kids, who make their own hybrid culture from that of their parents’ and where they grew up. I’ve decided to just revel in that third culture. Yes, I have “Western” mannerisms and ideas, but I understand taking off shoes inside the house, having several generations live together, the need to not embarrass the family name. I don’t agree with all aspects of Filipino culture (e.g. the U.S. relative should pay for everything; obeying someone just because they are older) but I will actively seek out and build bridges with the things I can respect: (loyalty to family; the love of chubby children; making sure all parties have enough food to feed not-so-small nations, etc. :)).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it has been tiresome for me, too, to tread the line between many cultures, so I’ve decided to go instead with doing what I think is right and is thoughtful of others. Ain’t no defense against kindness, yo —- and anyone who doesn’t like that that can go suck it. 😀

    P.S. — It takes true grit to do what you’ve done. I believe it will pay off because it seems to me dreams are reached only with some sacrifice. Wishing you much success and God’s guidance!
    P.P.S. — I dealt with cold showers in Thailand by taking a mile-long walk and making sure I got really sweaty and sticky before jumping into the shower. 🙂

    1. Hi Jammie!
      I definitely take on a ‘third culture kid’ mentality and from what I’ve read of the definition, we are actually part of what it means to be a 3rd culture kid.. I first heard the term just a year or two ago and it felt like a relief to hear that others go through this.

      I think the fact that I don’t know the Filipino language (tagalog or visaya, my native tongue) fluently makes it even worse. But I do try to accept my cross-cultural lifestyle because its just who I am. And that makes me ‘different’ but I think in a good way. I love building bridges too or connecting the dots/gaps.

      Cold showers by walking.. now that’s a great way to burn calories and freshen up!! The cold showers are great especially in the warm weather. And I literally take mine on a bathroom balcony outside (with 5 foot walls so no one can see) hahaha.. so it makes it even warmer.

      And thanks!! Yes I do believe this is paying off! Having my best month since being self employed and I know it’s not just a freak accident & it’s on the up and up. 😀

  7. Janet, your post really reminded me of the things I so often take for granted. I love that you are pushing outside of your comfort zone and really growing in the process. Warm wishes to you!

    1. Hi Wendy – Janet always pushes her comfort zone and has an extremely interesting life in the process:) She blogs about it and more on her blog at byjanet.net. I send her my warm wishes too (and warm water 🙂 for showers!!

      1. hahaha you’re so funny, V 😀
        I’ll be getting warm showers sooner or later in Portland when I’m visiting AND when I finally move out of the slums later this year 😀 we’re building a native style house with western amenities of warm shower+air-conditioner!

  8. Hi Janet,
    Great article. Of course my experience was the opposite. Coming from the homeland in the USA to be challenged and transformed by things Pinoy. Anything that works transformation is doing what it should be doing. Again, thanks for designing my book. I give it and the the process of working with you ten stars!
    Zeus

    1. Thanks Zeus for sharing your reverse culture-shock and adjustment:) Janet was definitely transformed by her move back home and I’m certain she’s much more Pinoy now. If she also sing karaoke, that seals the deal.

      That’s awesome that Janet helped with your book design.

  9. Thank you, Janet, for sharing your story. I am awed by your courage. You have certainly taken an unconventional path. I wish you much success.

    I am from Singapore myself. It is always nice to meet another Asian blogging from this part of the world. Not only that, someone with a strong desire to make a difference to the world 🙂

    Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing Janet on your site. I think it is awesome that you are featuring authors and bloggers from various cultures, races and nationalities. I am enjoying the diversity here!

    1. Yes, I agree, Evelyn! I love Vishnus blog for the cultural diversity that he’s cultivated. I guess it’s natural for “minority” bloggers to focus more on this than the typical Anglo (haha).

    2. Thanks Evelyn – not sure how that happened but yes, you’ll be reading from bloggers who live all over the places. Especially the Philippines though:) And of course, you’re going to be featured here soon. I have a feeling before the end of the year and in a video interview. Am I predicting the future or will I be in Singapore again in a few months:) ??

      1. I will be delighted to meet up with you, Vishnu. It will be great if you can let me know in advance. In fact, I was just planning my schedule for the rest of the year.

        I look forward to reading more posts from Philippines and the rest 🙂

  10. Janet, inspiring story! I love to hear how you are pushing your limits and really living life on your own terms. I checked out your website and am really impressed with the projects that you are working on. I look forward to vicariously following your fun and interesting stories in the future!

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