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.”
I mean, who does that!?
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.
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.