Back in Time
by Fely Joachim
I stepped off the plane with a sigh of apprehension. It had been six years since I last stood in this airport. At seventeen, I had returned again to visit a family I knew only through brief correspondence.
After ten years in San Diego, I had fully adapted to the American culture. Going back to the Philippines caused me concern over whether my differences such as speech, language, and behavior would be accepted. Unfortunately, I was on my own. My parents had decided it was time for me to return to my roots by myself. I was pushed into the pool of adulthood even before I could test the waters.
My destination was the small town of Cabitan, located on one of the islands off the mainland. The dusty road I took wound up and around mountains, and at times I felt as though the bus would tip over while executing one of its turns. All along the road were small, weather-beaten bamboo houses supported only by four stakes in the ground. The green rice terraces rolled in every direction for as far as the eye could see.
The bus I rode was filled to the brim with people on the roof, people on the hood, and even people hanging out of the windows. The ride was nearly three hours long so that by the time I arrived at the house my whole body was sore and caked with dust.
Because of the small size of Cabitan, everyone knew each other. So it was no surprise when I received visitors from everyone in the town.
The first three days of my vacation were filled with visitors, some of whom I could not remember. These three days were very difficult because I was unable to speak to my guests very well, but I hung on and made it through okay. I was quite the novelty of the town, "the girl from the States."
For a month I lived in a little house made of bamboo. I often accompanied my grandmother to the village market to buy fresh fish and I listened attentively as she pointed out which plants we can eat from the field. I helped kill, pluck, and cook a chicken for food. The day before I left, my family killed a pig to celebrate. Before the sun was up that day, the men of my clan went out and killed the pig. Although they tried to keep it from making too much noise, all the commotion woke me up. I laid awake for some time just listening to the screeches of the dying pig. It pained me to hear this, but I knew that this was the way they lived. With this pig, they would be able to eat for days.
Each day I helped with the household chores. We washed all the clothes by hand in a big aluminum wash tub and hung them to dry on clotheslines that circled the house. By the end of the month, my hands were raw from all the scrubbing.
We cooked food over an open flame. I have to admit, this was one of the few things with which I had trouble. Each time I tried to rekindle the fire, I left the kitchen with ashes in my hair and teeth, and there was still no fire. After living with the luxury of a stove, open flame cooking was about as easy as building a house out of sticks.
I took my showers near a well out in the open. This took time to get used to, but Iím glad to say, I didnít expose too much. The water was always cold, no matter how hot it was outside. I even had to go to the bathroom in a field. This was one of the things I could never get used to. I had to walk out into this wide, open field, and there were no bushes to hide behind. I could hardly see where I was walking, and the light from the moon never helped. The visions of snakes, bugs, and other creepy-crawlies were enough to make me stop where I was and run back to the house.
Amazing to me, electricity was available; however, the hours were limited. It would only come on from six to eleven in the evenings, and from four to six in the mornings. Even then, it was only used for one light and a radio which broadcast the daily news. Thank goodness for Walkmans!
The language was a struggle at first. Because the Philippines has over 100 dialects, Tagalog (the main language, spoken usually on the mainland) only helped me a little. I spoke very slowly and sometimes would just blurt things out in English. I was laughed at and this was very frustrating, but toward the end of my trip, I was able to speak very well. After returning to San Diego my mother was pleasantly shocked when I spoke to her in our native tongue.
I came back from the Philippines with more than just a tan and a fancy tongue. I returned with a much deeper insight into my heritage and an appreciation for the Philippine culture. I am at awe at how people in these small mountain towns can live with such little resources. In San Diego, I have all the luxuries of a house with a bathroom, stove, and electricity. I have a soft bed, and I donít have to sleep on a mat on a hard bamboo floor. I have a car which I use to drive to the grocery store and to school, unlike Cabitan where the children walked miles to get to school. Compared to the middle class lifestyle I have in San Diego, the life in Cabitan seems nearly primitive.
This experience was a real eye-opener and awakened my senses. While I was there, no one complained about the food, the weather, or their few belongings. They were happy with what they had, but most importantly, they were happy with each other. Here, in America, people never seem to be satisfied with what they have. Happiness comes hand in hand with material possessions. My experience made me realize the significance of a simple way of life and of being happy with it. Although I would not choose that way of life for myself, I respect the way my relatives have made the best of their own lives.
This is part of our continuing series, Bridging the Cultural Gap: The Overseas-Asian Experience. If you have an Overseas-Asian experience you would like to share, please feel free to send it in! firstname.lastname@example.org
Bridge illustration by Duke Windsor.
Part one in our continuing series:
What is "Field Trip" in Chinese? (February 1998)