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  • Jikka

A Family History

And what the concepts of “home” and “identity” mean to me

In March this year, we received news that my aunt (my mother’s younger sister) had died. So we’ve flown home to Iloilo—the province where my parents were born and raised. Despite both being Ilonggos, mama and papa were born in separate cities, and speak different languages. I and my sister, on the other hand, were born in Manila, and were raised near Bulacan, a province near the Philippines’ capital.

Lineage-wise, we’re a mix of many different cultures. It’s always easy for me to just say I’m Filipino. I’m proud and happy that I was born and raised here.

The trip was a much-needed break, and one that allowed me to further appreciate my roots. We visited both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family. It was nice seeing both sides do well. Most of my cousins have grown up and no longer stay with their parents (like my sister and I). 

Growing up, mama and papa always told me how poor they both were. Like me, they were both the firstborns in their families and have helped provide for their siblings and their parents. In a way, knowing this helped me get into a mindset to work really hard so that I can live a better life and give back in whatever way I can.

A Mother’s Presence

In my formative years, I spent more time with my mom. It can’t be helped—my dad mostly worked overseas for a maritime company. For the most part, mama stayed home and was the perfect housewife. When we got a little more independence, she got crafty with little retail businesses. Mama always told us stories about her youth. She loved scrapbooking and would label pictures kept in photo albums.

Mama was seven years old when her father died. She said she doesn’t remember much about him, but she remembers how he died.

Prior to World War II, we were a small political clan in Miag-ao, Iloilo. When the war broke out, the Philippines was a pawn to the Americans and the Japanese, and both parties wanted the city to choose an allyship. My great grandfather, the hero he was, resisted and claimed we should stand our ground as Filipinos. So a bounty was placed on the family’s head, and the family broke apart. Some fought as guerrillas, others enlisted in the military.

My maternal grandfather was a scout ranger in the US Armed Forces in the Far East, and he had actually survived World War II. After the war, however, relatives said he always complained about muscle cramps and chest pains.

I don’t think people back in the day were sensitive about mental health, PTSD, and heart attacks. Mama says that her aunts and neighbors suspect that her dad died of a cramp because he was shouting in pain as he died, but I tried connecting the dots as I got older and I believe he died of a heart attack while suffering from PTSD.

I didn’t tell mama about my suspicions—I think she’s accepted the “cramps” theory from the old folks as gospel truth. However, she gets deathly scared whenever she gets a leg cramp (she thinks she’ll die like my grandfather did), and that always worries me.

And so, my grandmother was widowed early. Mama was prim and proper, and always did well in school. She was always in the top class, but things took a turn when the family was running out of funds. In her high school years, she was sent to a different province to study, and she worked as a househelp for richer families for extra money. Sometimes, she’d tell me stories of abuse, not fully understanding that the treatment was abusive, then she would play them off lightly, and end with happier stories of gratitude. I really wish she did not have to go through that.

She kept her school records until college, and showed me how all her grades were above 90. She would then look sad when she says hopes she could have finished college. She was forced to work early to provide for her younger siblings (a sister and a brother). Eventually, she moved to Manila to work again as a househelp, and eventually moved on to become a secretary in a manufacturing company. She became best friends with the feisty office manager and accountant—who is my dad’s younger sister.

A Father’s Sacrifice

Papa was more secretive about his background. My paternal grandmother was born during the Japanese occupation, and doesn’t look much like the other people in town, but everyone’s accepted her as a native in Dumangas, Iloilo and was “married off” in her teens to my grandfather. Everyone’s got an inkling of what happened, but we don’t really talk about it. Lola didn’t have a birth certificate until much later when my dad and aunt needed it to enroll for higher education.

What I do know about papa is that he has a complicated relationship with my paternal grandfather. When my grandfather found out that their firstborn was a boy, he left my grandmother and would only visit every once in a while. When my grandmother got pregnant again and gave birth to a girl (this girl eventually became mama’s best friend), it was only then that my grandfather chose to stay with his family. Eventually, they had six children.

I said my father was secretive about his background, but he was extremely talkative about his shenanigans. He tells us about all the girls he’s dated, how he was a clown and a slacker in school, and how he tried his best to send his other siblings to school. Initially, he didn’t feel like he’ll amount to much because everyone wanted for him was to stay in town and be a farmer. It’s a simple and peaceful life, and it was everyone’s dream post-war. He worked in the rice and sugar fields and gave his salary to his siblings. He says he’s thankful to his sister, because she was always so determined, always did well in school, and did not take any shit growing up—which was a rare personality for girls back then.

My aunt said she wanted to be an accountant, so my dad promised to give her money so she could go to university. When my aunt graduated, she moved to Manila and worked in the manufacturing company where my mom would eventually work in.

At that time, my dad was determined to also finish his studies and decided he world major in marine transport. He saw the opportunity from working in the fields and seeing how integral export transport was. He says people laughed at his dream because it all felt far-fetched.

Now it’s important to remember he was a small town boy, so graduating was just one obstacle. His bigger hurdle was to get a job graduation. He told me he was broke when he flew to Manila and had no idea where to start. He worked a lot of jobs before landing a contract with a maritime company (an insurance agent, a messenger/delivery boy in the manufacturing company).

It’s where he got introduced to my mom. They got married at around 33 and 34 years of age. They had me at 38/39. My sister followed at 39/40.

Building a Home

There’s so much about starting a family that makes it difficult to start. Mama left her job to raise us and take care of household matters full-time. Papa kept taking exams to get a higher rank and work on deck, and would work away for ten months at a time.

Mama and Papa didn’t own a house until I was more than a year old. They chose to stay near Bulacan (traffic wasn’t hell back in the day and land prices on the outskirts of Manila were much more affordable). They always laugh whenever they recall how adamant baby Jikka was when she saw the new property under construction.

“Hindi atin bah ‘yan. Uwi taya bahay ikka.” (That’s not our house. Let’s go back to [J]ikka’s house.)—Yes, baby me was referring to the rented house in Manila. Lol. Papa said he almost cried when he heard baby Jikka complain about the state of the house. 

Of course I eventually grew to love the home. Home?

Ah, when I started this post I said “we’ve flown home to Iloilo” yeah? It’s honestly difficult for me to pinpoint what home is. It’s been more than 10 years since Philippine laws considered me as an adult and I still haven’t quite grasped it. I’ve moved so many addresses that home seems so blurry. I’ve been living a completely different life than that of my parents’ and home still feels undefinable. 

Is Iloilo home? Maybe. Though raised in Tagalog-speaking Bulacan, our household kept the Ilonggo traditions—including the food, and speaking Hiligaynon (Papa’s language) and Karay-a (Mama’s language). English, if I were to rank it, is actually my second/third language. In this manner, my identity is Ilongga.

Is Bulacan home? Possibly. I was raised there. My friends from preschool to high school are in Bulacan. I’ve primarily spoken Tagalog (in a Bulakenyo dialect) all my life. When I tell my Manila friends I’m going home, I mean I’m going to visit the house my parents built in Bulacan. In this case, I am Bulakenya.

Is home in the cities I’ve lived in? Quezon City—where I spent my college years? Makati—where I’ve been living since I started working? And if it’s in Makati, is it the place where I rented, or is it the house I bought and now live in? (What am I then? An Atenean? An Iskolar ng Bayan? A Makatizen? Hahahahaha)

Home is Tahanan

Then, maybe home isn’t necessarily a just place. Maybe home is more strongly tied to our identity, our way of expression, and feeling.

In Filipino, home roughly translates to “tahanan.” There’s a popular saying that the root word of “tahanan” is “tahan” which means “to stop crying” or “to ease sadness” (though I do not know how etymologically correct this is).

Maybe home is the smell of mama’s cooking at 6:00 p.m. while I’m doing my homework in my teenage years. Maybe it’s mama tucking us in bed, telling us good night, and that she’s proud of us.

Maybe home is the tears we shed at the airport every time papa has to leave for work, and every time we welcome him back to the Philippines. Maybe home is in the long drives he organized so we could spend more time when he’s in the Philippines.

Maybe home is the hard drive of all the comedic Vine-worthy video selfies my sister and I recorded growing up. Maybe it’s in the multitude of awkward secrets, judging stares, and matching clothes we’ve shared.

Maybe home is all the laughs, the alcohol, the smoke, the games, off-key singing and silly-dancing with friends and family.

Maybe home is in the hugs, the stories, and the hearts of people who love me. Heck, maybe home is my own brain telling me to take a break.

Maybe home is in these little moments conspired by the universe that make me who I am. If “home” is “tahanan,” then it’s wherever and whenever I find myself that puts my heart at ease.

Then—perhaps, I, myself, am home.

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