Who am I? Who I am.

Travel story by Mike

Who am I? Who I am.

Identity Crisis
Manila. It was once my home for 9.5 years of my life which I have some memory of but on the other hand, i had been away for 25 years that I definitely consider myself a foreigner. On the flight there, we received the usual declaration forms and I found myself stuttering to write “Filipino” or “Canadian.”

Me: Err. Duh, Mike your passport is Canadian so, you’re Canadian

Me: But it also says I’m born in Manila.

 

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Normally, its automatic for me to fill out “Canadian” whenever I see the Nationality part of any  form. I’m proud to be Canadian.. but…

But what?

Is it because I’m entering the Philippines that I should be writing filipino? Would they accept me more if that’s what I write? Nothing about the rest of my upbringing screams that I’m Filipino. I only know about the Filipino stereotypes my karaoke-singing, spam-and-rice eating, basketball-playing, break-dancing countrymen (and women.) Aside from the spam-and-rice part, I’m none of that. To add to the list, I can barely speak / read tagalog, and heck, I can even count how many Filipino friends I have on one hand. My goal, aside from hanging out on the beach and living the island life, is to remember who I am and to be more proud of my own heritage.

I scribbled what I thought was correct and hoped for the best.

 

Wet Feet
My cousin had been kind enough  (yes, I have many) to pick Vicki and I up from the airport. In the back of my mind, I realized that I would be meeting my cousin for the first time, in a very long time. I’ve spoken to him on WhatsApp briefly but aside from that, I knew nothing about him. What do I do? What do I say? I was anxious meeting him because he would not be the only one I would be meeting for the first time. There are maybe 10+ cousins I haven’t met because they were either still babies or I was too young to remember before I left. It felt like I was trying to make friends in a new school but with my own cousins.

People only knew me by my nickname. When my parents mentioned “Michael” everyone would ask who that is. They quickly correct themselves and say “you know… Angel?” Ugh. I hate(d) that nickname even to this day (and why I’m posting it publicly is beyond me.) I have a cousin named Michael so we both were called by our second name. He gets a more normal “John” and I get “Angel”

shudder

Why not just Angelo? It’s perfectly fine! Anyway, it’s stuck with me. Forever. While going through the customs process at the airport, I was thinking of things to talk about: Cars, I’m not a big car guy. Sports? Ha, that’s laughable. Politics? Pfft. Food? Sure, that could kill some conversation time. Travel? Ok, I can do that at least.

Ready!

All this time I was preparing, my cousin met us and conversation just flowed naturally. Even at 2am.  I had no reason to worry. Especially talking to family. I do a facepalm whenever I over analyze a situation and end up making it worse by “preparing” for it. After talking for hours over lacklustre Jolibee burger and ketchupy spaghetti at 4am, I was looking forward in meeting the rest of my family.

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Home

We got in the car after eating breakfast and my uncle asked me what I wanted to do here in the Philippines. I told him that I wanted to visit some islands, go to the north, eat this and that and visit our old home. He didn’t really respond after that but after a few minutes, my uncle stops by this street stall to pick up suman. I love suman! It’s a steamed sticky rice, cooked in coconut milk and sugar,  wrapped in either banana or coconut leaves. In Chinese cuisine, it’s usually savoury, but in the Philippines, it’s a dessert or a sweet snack. My uncle was quiet but he was always on it. Slowly knocking things off my food list. He goes on to tell my mom, “this C. Lawis street..”

C. Lawis street…? Hey, that sounds familiar!

I was expecting to go to my old home on my own. Wasn’t sure how I was going to get there but I was certain that my mom didn’t want to see it. My dad and sister had scoffed at the idea when I mentioned it to them, but I didn’t care, it was our home. I wanted to see it no matter what state or condition it was in. I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize home when I saw it.. I mean, it’s been years and maybe it fell apart. Who knows.

I was excited to see what my old home looked like. I remember our yard with a big avocado tree which I used to climb and grab fruits for my dad to catch. I remember our cemented lawn because it was such a pain to maintain grass during rainy season.The bushes of jasmine plants surrounding our coconut tree smelled so sweet every evening. We also had a small papaya tree where my sister and I found a bird’s nest with dead birds because of the blazing heat. Inside our home, we had rattan couch where I hid underneath and picked at each weave, breaking it in the process. My mom got so mad at me for doing that, but I didn’t care, it was fun. My dad was so proud that he had drawn up the plans, gathered materials, and hired the manpower to build our home. Little by little, he had saved up enough money, building the house in phases.

Why wouldn’t I want to see this place after all that?

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This is suman: steamed sticky rice goodness

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Changes
25 years has gone by since leaving Antipolo to start a new life in Canada. That’s a long time away. I had very little idea of the surrounding area further than my neighborhood really. I mean, I was only 10, but I didn’t know what to really expect. What would be new in my hometown?  There wasn’t really much there except the main church, central auditorium and the market. Every morning outside my house, you could smell the fresh pandesal from the bakery around the corner. A man yelling “Taho!” would come by and my sister and I would run outside with the largest bowl we could find and for 1 peso (piso) he would fill our bowls up to the brim with some warm tofu pudding, tapioca and arnival (syrup). We would take a tricycle towards my (great) aunt’s restaurant near the church, which we took over for a couple of years to earn enough extra money to live off in Canada. Around the church was a row of shops selling rosaries, candles and religious trinkets as you make your way to mass.

Fast forward 25 years later.

Someone (I say that because I don’t remember who) had asked me of my plans during my visit home. I’ve told them the usual list of things to see here in the Philippines and mentioned that I was going to be in Manila. The person asked, “where in Manila?” and I mentioned Antipolo. This person had said “Antipolo? That’s not in Manila, that’s Antipolo.”

Really? It’s that big?

The whole time I thought it was a part of Manila. Like a borough or something. Manila is comprised of a bunch of other cities so I figure Antipolo is just another part of this amalgamation. It’s not. Antipolo is Antipolo, and Manila is Manila. It’s that big.

We drove down in between streets until the way became vaguely familiar. It dipped down to a small bridge and there it was. C. Lawis street of old. Hard to say that beyond the boom of my hometown, time had stood still in this part. There’s a subdivision across my house  which just had an over growth of grass and trees. The houses were either the same, or something… older / run down? Decrepit? Might be a bit harsh to describe but upon entering this street, it felt that it had not had the same progression as the rest of the city did. Growing up, this street was booming. Most were middle+ income families but as time passed, they had left for bigger and better things and left this street frozen in time. We parked the car at a nearby opening to see my old house.

It was a sad sight to see. I was sad to see it on google streetview in Toronto and didn’t want to believe it. My feeling was just the same, as my mom, Vicki and I looked at what it is now. The big avocado tree is now skinny and neglected. The branches have enough leaves to survive but not so much that it’ll blossom and bear tons of fruit. Sections of the wall are painted in an odd peach / pink colour and the other teal with an orange gate. The rest of the wall has been converted into two store fronts: 1 was a sari-sari store (convenience shop) and the other, an electrical repair shop. Both have not had seen faces of customers for years. The yard became a shanty town surrounding the main house – 90% of it is covered with sheet metal, you’ll never really see the light of day. I had the intention of knocking to have a look around, then out of the corner of my eye, a few unwelcoming gazes from inside the propped window of the odd teal storefront and I decided against it and just walk back to the car. I had mixed feelings after visiting: I’m grateful at where I am now; upset and sad at what it has become; Excitement turned into pity.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

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My mom and I in front of our old house. =(

 

Wander, don’t Wonder
What’s next? Who knows. All I know is that I want to learn more about my roots. In this small country of 7000+ islands, there’s so much to explore. It’s great that I’m able to travel within my country without having to get a visa if I stay for more than the allotted 30 days since I was born there. By extension, Vicki also gets the same benefit (though it would’ve been much easier if she had changed her last name!) Having the chance to take time and absorb the culture, maybe it’ll help me understand my own heritage. I want to get started with the food since it’s the easiest. I know we have more things beyond pork and fried things. I was slightly offended when a friend had described what he thought Filipino food was to me. It’s like me thinking that the most iconic Chinese dish was General Tao chicken. We have more complex things aside from deep frying. Slowly I’ve been trying to understand the dishes by learning from my mom and the more I’ve been trying to cook it, the better I was at explaining what Filipino cuisine is. I want to have a deeper understanding of our food from different regions. But first, I have to get there and with this trip, I’m that much closer to it.

I grew up understanding that parts of the Philippines are dangerous. Even until now, the city is divided into gated subdivisions which are protected by armed guards – even the grocery stores are policed by private security who usually carry shotguns. On the flipside, the Philippines has a reputation of having the most hospitable and charming people. Many travellers we’ve met have had a great experience in the country.

So which is it really? I’m here to find out in the eyes of a visitor, with the sensibility of a local.

 

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Michael Gozum

I'm a food photographer that wants to eat my way around the world.