Even for someone with a good memory, a trip that took place eleven years ago can be difficult to recall. Even more so if that trip occurred when you were still a child. I was fifteen the last time I went to the Philippines, and I consider fifteen to qualify as a ‘child’ age, if not simply childish.
In many ways I was a typical American teenager. While I was never totally rude or outlandish (like I am today), I still maintained a private solipsism, out of ignorance rather than self-centrism or any other thing. I spent large amounts of time in front of televisions, and I hardly ever read. Many teenagers around me had, even if it was empty talk, life goals. I didn’t. My capacity to think outside of myself was rather limited, and it hardly occurred.
When my mother said she’d be taking my two brothers and I ‘back home’ for three weeks in August 2001, I was hardly excited. The country of the Philippines is home to both my parents but it wasn’t home to me. During the trip ‘back home’ prior, I was four; the only details I remembered from that trip may’ve actually been conjured from photographs with, for all I knew, fabricated anecdotes from my imagination. Home, for me, was here, in my house. Home was the sunken spot on the couch facing the television. Home was my bed, where I spend long periods on my back, staring at the ceiling, searching my mind for something to daydream about.
Like so many other things, I didn’t understand at the time what this trip could’ve meant for my mother. It would be the first time returning home with all three of her children. My father, who had just switched jobs at that time, couldn’t get the time off work to come with us, which would mean my mother would lug three boys around the Philippines with her for three weeks on her own. For a reason I can’t recall, we took two cars to the airport. Someone, perhaps an uncle or an aunt, drove my mother and two young brothers (ages eleven and four at the time) while my dad drove me in a separate car. At a stoplight, he told me to take care of everyone. It was the first time he addressed me as an adult. I felt like he had me mistaken for someone else.
In those three weeks, we stayed primarily in three different cities: Manila, the Philippine capital where many relatives from my mother’s side lived; Tuguegarao City, the small town in which my mother grew up; and Antique, the province in which my father grew up. Our time was divided somewhat equally between the three places, but we’d repeatedly return to Manila in between trips within the different Philippine Islands, so Manila acted as our main base.
We made the trip in August during the country’s rain season, which often made our surroundings muggy and humid. In Manila we stayed at an uncle’s house, and almost immediately upon arrival, my brothers and I were hospitably ushered into the guest bedroom where crisp air conditioning smacked our sweaty, travel-worn bodies. That room would become our safe haven for the next three weeks. We even named both the AC unit and the oscillating fan (Carrier and Brother, respectively). That’s how attached we became.
When our mother forced us to venture out of our room, we were often driven around the city by our older cousin, Jay, who was at least seven years older than I was (so, needless to say, an adult) but to our pleasure acted our age, making silly jokes and generally being a loveable goofball. Whether he was assigned the role of ‘showing the American kids around’ or he filled it himself (knowingly or unknowingly), that was what he became to us. He’d drive my eleven-year-old brother and I out in his car, taking us to the mall, to his favourite restaurants, and to a wonderfully countless array of pool halls. In between stops he’d sprinkle in a Philippine history lesson or cultural anecdote here and there but with a Jay flavour that my brother and I would come to recognise.
‘You know Wolverine from the X-Men was created by a Filipino?’ said Jay.
‘I thought Stan Lee created him,’ I said. (This is incorrect, also, but I was fifteen.)
‘He stole the idea,’ Jay said. ‘The original creator was Filipino. That’s why Wolverine is so short.’
Up until then, I was never close with any of my cousins in the Philippines; Jay was the first one I’d really come to know. Whether he knew it or not (his happy-go-lucky demeanor makes it impossible to discern whether his actions are deliberate or inherent), the entertainment he provided during those introductory tours around the city opened my mind and set it at ease. Thanks to him, the teenage fortress that I built around my brain and heart in preparation for this trip had already been disarmed. Without him, I would’ve continued through those entire three weeks with my eyes shut, unwilling to open them until I was back in America.
[Continue onto part two of my trip as a kid to the Philippines.]