The Struggles of Missing Home
Back home in the Philippines, my family and friends would celebrate my birthday with fireworks outside, with some thunderous laughter and screams until late night. Food was passed down from the table from one person’s hands to the other, and smiles filled the air.
May 31, 2020. My birthday. Different country. Different people. Different times.
Instead of fireworks, I heard loud shots and noises that seemed like bombs going off. Instead of many friends and family coming over, it was only my housemates—a pandemic and a curfew changed what used to be a festive and intimate birthday party.
I never thought that things would end up that way. The months leading up to my birthday, I spent that time mostly isolated indoors and under a constant threat of precarity. I don’t have an idea of when I would go back home or when the isolation and the plague would end. Everything is uncertain. But it all started out so calmly.
March 13, 2020. Friday the Thirteenth. Our college president sent out an email prolonging Spring Break for almost a month, and we all knew it was because of the growing pandemic. The changes were gradual. We were expecting people to come back after Spring Break. We were only being hopeful, until we received another email telling people who came back home to never come back for the remainder of the school year. Uncertainty filled the air. What about our stuff? What about classes? What about our friends? That is when we knew that March 13, 2020 was the last “normal” day of classes we would have in a long time.
Who knew then that I had my last dinner with some of my best friends whom up until now I haven’t seen in more than a year? Who knew that I would no longer get to hear any live music and performances from my peers? Who knew that when we said “goodbye” that that was the last one in a long time?
No one knew.
No one expected.
No one to blame.
Perhaps the hardest part to fathom is that we find ways to seek someone or even something to blame for this predicament, and we can’t find any single one to blame. In my dorm, each day was like a group therapy session where all of us would try to remember and rationalize what happened over the past few days—thinking of ways to understand why and how this could have happened. We would look at memes and play board games to remove our minds from the situation, but the inevitable would have to come: one by one, all my housemates left our dorm, with each one, I knew deep inside that I would not see them in a long time. Until one day, it was only me. I was stuck inside my dorm, usually for 11 people, but only inhabited by me. I was fortunate enough to have some savings to buy myself a Nintendo Switch and play Animal Crossing with my friends who were far away in Chicago, New York, and Bangkok. If not that, I would cook alone in a large kitchen, and I would mistakenly cook for ten people, because I was used to cooking for my friends. Not this time. I had many leftovers, and each time I take it out, I am constantly reminded of how alone and lonely I was.
The only person I ever talk to then was the school custodian who would come occasionally and see me catching fish in my Animal Crossing island. He’s a fun Asian guy, and he would also tell me how he also picked up the game, and that he began terraforming his island. I only started, so I was in the early setup of my island—no bridges and staircases, just rubber tents. Each day, I started up my Switch constantly playing, fishing, hunting for bugs, watering my tulips, paying off my mortgage to a capitalist tanuki, and building up my way to get at the level my custodian was—terraforming. Once in a while, my friends and I would play hide-and-seek in my friend’s Animal Crossing island. He had this great Zen garden and herbaceous forest that we can go hide in. It was fun to play Animal Crossing because it reminded me of the outdoors, but more importantly, I think, it also made me feel that I was in control of that world. If ever there were bad things happening, it was my fault. I was to blame, and that was fine. This pandemic, however, was harder to rationalize, and perhaps, I played Animal Crossing as my therapeutic getaway.
April 02, 2020. I received an email from Residential Life that they would relocate me to a conventional dormitory without a kitchen. They would offer me to be in the traditional meal plan, but as a person who cooked my entire life—and who received solace from cooking and eating homemade Filipino food—I knew that being away from the kitchen would be a huge blow to my sanity. During the past days, I have only been cooking Filipino food, because it was one of the few ways that I can be in touch with home. I cannot forget that one time that I made Adobo, and I took a single bite, and I tried holding back my tears. That single bite reminded me of how far away I was from home—and how uncertain when I would even go back home.
Before I had to relocate from my old dorm, my friend gladly offered me to stay at their place near campus. That was a sigh of relief: to know that my college would reimburse the money for the remaining days I was supposed to be on campus, and that I can still cook for me and my friend in their house. I was no longer simply alone.
The days went by the same way as before. I would make breakfast, play Animal Crossing, but Spring break was over, so I had to Zoom to class now, and push through each task each day. I didn’t want to do any of those—I really just want to play Animal Crossing and cook. I started to take pictures of what I prepared each day: Dalgona coffee, banana bread, ribs, poutine, pizza, mango float, and countless food that I whipped out of what was remaining out of my friend’s fridge. Most times, I would wake up, tune in to my class about nineteenth-century Western Classical music as if it were a podcast and make bacon and eggs. Honestly, it felt a bit calm. Too calm. But it sank in me, when my housemate and I had to go out and buy groceries.
We packed our bags with sanitizers, masks, and gloves. We had our grocery list and a regimented number of stops. It felt like going to a warzone. Every surface, every person was a potential landmine. A potential carrier. My mind was always distressed when I go out, as if the air is full of miasma, and that kept me inside all the time. I have been inside for so long that I forgot what it felt to be outside. It was never the same.
May 15, 2020. That was the first time I went out for the sake of the outdoors. I walked with my housemate to campus and never have I felt so happy just being outside. The golden sun was caressing my face, and the wind was warmly kissing my cheeks. We got burgers and a small blanket. We had a small picnic right by the large lawn on campus.
I walked by some of the buildings, and I saw tulips. I exclaimed without any hesitation: “My god, this is like Animal Crossing but in real life!”
My friend laughed because they knew what I meant—we watered our flowers in Animal Crossing daily. To see an actual tulip made me happy like a child discovering what a rainbow was for the very first time. Since then, I tried going outside of my house for an hour to experience the sun and be with the outdoors that I once only experienced for a while inside Animal Crossing.
May 25, 2020. George Floyd, Jr. was brutally murdered by the Minneapolis police who knelt on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Horrible. Disgusting. Yet expected. It hurt more that it was not surprising. The pandemic was already hard, and compassion more than anything else was what we all needed—yet what happened to George Floyd on that day was the epitome of how cruel the police state is. They are choking us. They are keeping us hostage—both economically and politically. They subject brown and black bodies to economic precarity—to serve as workers in food service, factories, and hazardous work—and they call it “essential” to compensate for the fact that they do not want to make the situation better nor to pay us living wages. George Floyd was not the beginning. George Floyd was the final straw—we had enough. And for that, we crowd the streets. I remember the lootings at Target on University Avenue, and people call these violent protests, but they forget—all protests have been violent—every protest has seen BIPOC bodies being battered, hit, and shot. Protests have been violent not because of the protesters, but because these protests expose the violence and the brutality that the police have inflicted on BIPOC bodies.
No peace because we are exposing police violence. There is no peace when there is violence. Only when the police end the brutality will true peace come.
June 01, 2020. As an international student from the Philippines, police brutality in the United States has strong resonance with the police brutality in the Philippines under the Duterte regime. The day after my birthday, President Duterte certified the passing of the “Anti-Terror” Bill as urgent. Many of my friends back home, who are dissidents, are red-tagged—and they may be the next victims of state-sanctioned brutality. For some of them, it was difficult enough that the pandemic kept them indoors for far longer than any of us in the United States, and the state has constantly policed every single person in Manila. However, my friends went out to protest and call for democratic changes and for the end of police brutality. I was afraid for them, but I was proud. I see them in news from back home, and it was hard to contact them because of connection issues.
It struck me when one of them called me to ask how the protests in Minneapolis are. He urged me to help the protests here like how I would back home. My friend in the Philippines called me to help the protests here in Minneapolis—a place that he has never set foot in—the United States, a country that has colonized us, that he has protested. I was afraid that my visa status would be in danger if I join the protests and get detained, but he was right. I had to help in whatever way I can even if I was at home. Translating. Donating. Organizing. All the things that I could do to help, I tried—and that was when I realized that even during the throes of a global pandemic, any community organizing is possible if we wanted. Our daily jobs may prevent most of us from physically protesting the harsh reality of police brutality around the world, but there is nothing preventing us from helping in whatever way we can.
June 05, 2020. My government might be on my trail. Many people who dissent against the government had their social media accounts duplicated, and they might use these duplicates to violate the upcoming “Anti-Terror” Law. I was one of them. There were more than ten duplicate accounts under my name. And for some of my other friends, these dummy accounts messaged them that they should be scared going against the government as they will be next. Next to what?
They are threatening us again and again—trying to curtail our freedom. The pandemic was too convenient for them. To use a public health crisis as political leverage against their enemies and the poor is a crime. It must be a crime.
I messaged all my family members and friends, only to learn that they, too, have dummy accounts and perhaps targeted already. We were scrambling to organize for our sake and the sake of our democracy. These are truly—and I mean it—unprecedented times. I know what fear looks like, and it is staring at me once again. I am afraid for myself, but I am more afraid for my friends and family. If the Anti-Terror Bill passes, what atrocities can the government commit?
All of this was happening in my apartment in Saint Paul amid the George Floyd protests, and I cannot—never—turn a blind eye to what is happening here. I may not be a US citizen, but I am a person of color, always susceptible to state oppression both here in Minnesota and in my home country. Brutality knows no borders but so does justice.
July 03, 2020. Duterte signed the Anti-Terror Bill into law.
I dreaded that day. My friends both here and home dreaded that day.
I dreaded it because that means I no longer know when I should go back home. Should I even go back home? My parents told me to stay where I am and to never come back until the situation becomes better. But there was no sight of things getting better at all back home.
I was trapped in the United States—cut off from the cultural contact of home. And that broke my heart. And it dried up all my patience for being unseen, misunderstood, and for feeling that I do not belong in this place I cannot call home. The following months after the terror bill was passed, I was depressed—in agony—and always in deep thought. What does it mean then to be at home? What does it mean for me to cope when I am away from home?
I felt isolated. Sure, there are people around me whom I can speak to and enjoy time with. However, isolation isn’t simply about being alone. It’s about feeling lonely. I felt lonely, because I see no one whom I can relate to or talk to about the strongest sides of my identity. When I speak of my town, Novaliches, no one here would understand. When I speak of pandesal at 5AM or “teamwork” in high school, no one here would understand. When I speak my language, no one here would understand. Yes, there are Filipino Americans around me; and yes, there are people who speak and understand Filipino, but the experiences that we have are differently valuable. Our unique connections to our Filipino-ness, no matter how small or big, are all important and valid yet undeniably differing. Having said that, I am not saying, by any means, that I cannot connect with them. Of course, I can. We bond over food, the idea of a Filipino Christmas and New Year, the moments when our parents (mostly our moms) call us by our full names, the “pssssst,” and the lip pointing, Jollibee, mangoes, and so many other things. And of course, I am not only Filipino. I am a college student. I am a humanities and social science scholar. I am a musician and composer. I am so many things. And I connect with my Filipino American friends on so many other levels than just being Filipino. But the thing here is this: when it comes to my Filipino subjectivity, I become lonely. And being a Filipino is a huge part of my life.
Does that mean I perceive a difference between Filipinos and Filipino Americans? Short answer, yes. But it’s never always a dichotomy. I think that’s false. I don’t even think it’s just a spectrum either. If you’ve dabbled in MS Paint or Adobe, you might have seen an HSV color wheel. Turn that into a sphere. The difference between a Filipino and a Filipino American is a three-dimensional issue to me. It’s never simple. There are multiple generations of both, different experiences, different cultures within cultures, different belongingness, different subjectivities, different contexts, and many different things. I’ll try to boil it down to what I think is the crucial difference:
We grew up in different countries.
A Filipino growing up in a white neighborhood with lawns in Minnesota certainly would grow differently from a Filipino growing up in the iskwaters with barely any space between dilapidated houses. Even a Filipino growing up in a BIPOC community in Minnesota would be different from a Filipino living in a subdivision in Quezon City. While this point is obvious, I want to emphasize it. Culture is also a practice inasmuch as it is an ideology. The daily things we do, the minutiae, are part of the struggles of our lives. Commute in the Philippines is different from here. Jeepneys don’t have stops. To be more accurate, I think, anywhere is a stop. The white noise in the Philippine during the night is also a bit different from here. While lawnmowers may wake me up in Minnesota, sometimes roosters wake me up in the Philippines; in some situations, squealing slaughtered pigs wake me up.
December 18, 2020. I was in a very dark place, and I don’t know if it was still worth going on with life. I called one of my friends back home knowing that she might slap me back to reality.
The conversation started out with energy and yelling.
“How are you! It’s been so long!”
“Yeah, it really was.”
“I’m glad you called. How are you doing?”
“Bad. Really bad.”
“I feel so insecure and uncertain. School beats me up. Zoom is not working. I don’t know when I would be back home. And I don’t know if I can still make it. I don’t know if I made the right choices in life.”
“Do you want some advice or comfort?”
That question of hers. It struck a chord because I knew she was listening—she saw me; she understood.
“I feel lonely here. I feel like no one really ever cares for me no longer.”
“What do you mean? Whenever I and our other friends meet, we always wonder about how you are doing, especially nowadays! Don’t think that you are unloved, because we do love you.’”
I heard that too many times, but when she said it, I know it’s true. She wasn’t lying. And she wasn’t saying it because she had to. She meant it.
I hated myself so much the past few months for all the things that have happened to me. The pandemic. The protests. The terror bill. I have been so occupied with all these stresses that I put the blame on myself—I blame myself too much and saw too much fault in myself.
Even if other people say that I should start believing in myself more, their words did not sway me as much. For I knew that to be true, but I did not feel it to be true. However, when my friends back home in the Philippines tell me to start believing in myself, their words ring true, and they feel true, because I know exactly what they are talking about, I feel it, because we have gone through it. They are the mirror from which I can see my growth.
They show me that I am indeed capable of many astounding things, that I should not worry about envy as what is there to be envious of in the first place? They show me that I am loved and desired as they are the ones who look out for me and think about me from time to time. They are always there, and I took that for granted. I do believe I have trust issues, but among all people, I should not have it against them, for they have been there for forever. And my people in the present are there to continue to know me until they too become a mirror of my growth, and that I too become their mirror at a certain time.
Before, I felt completely alone and isolated because I put myself in a box. It was my choice to see that I was isolated. And while it is true that the pandemic hampered my social interactions, it should not have weakened my connection to my people. I felt alone because my connection was weak not because theirs were. To quell that feeling of isolation, I was looking for the right things in the wrong places, and what it took to steer me into the right direction is to look back. Only then can I see myself face to face and accept my truth.
December 31, 2020. The last day. To say that the year was difficult is an understatement. The pandemic. The protests. The terror bill. The insecurities. The precarity of life. All these things made it harder for me to accept my life and to accept myself. I still don’t know when I would be going back home, but I learned to be grateful with the smallest things that life has to offer me. I was with friends during New Year’s Eve, and we celebrated the end of this horrible year, and we look forward to fresh and hopeful beginnings. And of course, we were wearing our lucky New Year colors: silver and yellow. Messages from home were flying through the roof. My family and friends are looking forward to new things—for hope and rest. So do all of us.
For me, I was starting to unlearn to hate myself slowly. People tell me to search for answers inside. That’s proved impossible as I hated myself more than anyone else. I even stretch to say that it is always impossible to search for these answers inside, alone, for the answers not only relate to me, but it often does relate to others as well. Because of that, oftentimes, to learn to love me, I need to look at myself with other people’s eyes to see my loveliness, my beauty, and my perfection. Only then can I find, accept, and slowly love me.
As the clock strikes 12, we all shouted, “happy new year.” Deep inside, I was thinking, even if I did not get a big celebration for my 20th birthday, I still felt happy that this year made us stronger, helped us foster richer connections, and opened our eyes to the reality of life: that we must be in solidarity for our personal justice all the way to the justice of our communities.
May 31, 2021. I look forward to my 21st birthday, and I hope that when this day comes, I can be once again outside with my friends, eating Filipino food, laughing thunderously, and enjoying all the victories—big and small—throughout our lives full of meaningful struggles.