Best Worst Year: Episode 46 (Or, By the Time I Get to Calasi)

By the time I had finally visited the Philippines, I was 33 years old, exactly ten years older than my mother when she married a navy man and left the islands for a small coal cracker town in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was 1971–the year of Led Zeppelin IV, Jim Morrison’s death, and the grand opening of Disney World. When she hopped that Pan-Am flight to San Francisco from Manila, I wonder if she ever thought she’d wait until 2009 to finally go home. Post-Marcos, post death of her father, post births of numerous nieces and nephews. By the time my mother decided to go back to the Philippines, she had spent more years away than home. Ask her, and she’ll tell you she grew up in Antique, Culasi, but know her, and she’ll tell you she grew up here in America. I don’t know what fueled the need to go home–my insistent threat of heading there with or without her, a sense of mortality, the knowledge of my grandparents’ resting place being in disrepair–it didn’t matter. For the first time there would be a reunion, a delayed homecoming, and for me, a chance to feel like a real Pinoy–even if I’m only half Filipino.

Antique is on the western side of Visayans–a cluster of islands in the core of the country. We stayed with my aunt and uncle, had an addition built on to their home for us, a bathroom with a shower (one of the only, if not the only, indoor showers in the village). Cross a bamboo thicket, walk down a short footpath, and the volcanic beach would give way to the Sulu Sea. The white coral tourist beaches of Boracay were hours away–my family’s seaside was as coarse and hardened as the fishermen who paddled out at dusk to return at dawn to spend the early daylight hours going door to door selling their wares after an all night shift at sea. The two-lane stretch of blacktop which connects the island teems with ramshackle busses and trikes. We hired one of these trike-drivers for the majority of our stay–a chopshopped motorbike with a sidecar welded to it and a roof. We would head into town daily for a supply of water, food, and San Miguel Light. It was ninety-plus degrees everyday with matching digits in humidity. No A/C. Rolling brownouts. Emaciated packs of wild dogs. My cousin training gamecocks. Children everywhere. Fresh mangos. Bolos. Legs scared by chemical burns from pesticides. Rice paddies. Tilapia hatcheries. A limestone quarry. Coconut wine. Pet monkeys. Catholic churches. Bare feet.

It was beautiful and sad and graceful and exotic and dirty all at once; all the time. Poetry in the spine of those island days rushes like blood to blush my face–words escape me like guilt and love–color and life navigating second skins and unfamiliar tongues. All those island dialects mixed with English and Tagalog–all the confusion and limits to not only what I understood but how I understood. I thought going to the Philippines would, in some way, give me the permission to write about being Pinoy, and in some ways it did. By the same token, it added another layer to my own anxieties as a writer. The Visayans are inside me but I’m not inside of it. I am and am not Pinoy. I feel more and less authentic. This thought boils beneath the surface of my writing– I’m an imposter, that my complexion is all the Pinoy I have–that my name is so American–that I am American–that I’m not Filipino at all–that my mother embraces and denies her homeland. I understand her guilt about getting out much more now. Springfield is not Antique and I haven’t been a housemaid from the age of 14 to support a cadre of brothers and sisters, but I know what leaving looks like–how opportunity and distance carves a realness out of you–chisels illusion away from doubt and need away from want. Somewhere between home and exile is the satisfaction of self-reliance–an endpoint on westward compasses. It’s probably why she’s never been prouder of me. It’s probably why we’re getting along better than we ever have.

And yet in the last week I have barely been able to think about the Philippines without an ocean-sized ache in my chest. There isn’t a waking hour where I haven’t been reminded of super typhoon Yolanda. Between friends texting, the disconnected middle of the night messages from my cousins, and the 24 hour news feed, I feel like I’m taking on water–drowning in helplessness. The other day, someone was publicly complaining over her frustration with how relief aid was being handled, and I was so angry at the arrogance and voyeuristic sympathy which social media can bring. We click to share or retweet to be supportive and it would be easy to make this into some faceless rant about human suffering and our disconnection but for me, this suffering has a face–I share the blood they shed half a world away. I don’t even know if I have a right to this anger or this hurt or this loss. I am as sleepless and as bewildered by a world I am and am not privy to–and feel twice as guilty about the whole damn thing. By this time next week, I will be 38, fifteen years older than my mother when she first came to America. I will spend my birthday about 800 miles from home and half a world away from my blood.

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University.  He lives in Springfield, IL.

Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.

Donate to the Philippine relief effort here via Oxfam:

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