How love and the many forms it takes led this third culture kid to his cultural roots.
I remember my childhood friend Sarah’s words to me in a letter three years ago. Those words were imprinted in my heart and formed the foundation of who I am today as a Filipino. But I wasn’t always this Filipino — the Filipino, who Sarah says, has malasakit for his motherland.
Many times, we define our identities based on where we’re from and where we end up staying. For me, that’s harder to determine. I was born in San Juan to an Ilocano father and a Batangueña mother. I grew up, studied, and made life-long friends in Santa Rosa. I spent 10 cherished years of my childhood there. In 2007, we moved to Mississauga, a city about 30 kilometers west of Toronto, Canada.
Thirteen-year-old me embraced the uncertain, not knowing what I was leaving behind. I looked forward to snow, which I’d grow to hate like any other Canadian. Although my parents were excited about a new beginning in Canada, leaving still wasn’t easy. The universal story of migration applies to my parents: their decision to move wasn’t for them, but for me — their only child — for the promise of better education and boundless opportunities.
In high school, I became subconsciously “less” Filipino. That’s not to say I wasn’t Filipino. I spoke Tagalog at home, had Filipino friends, wore Three Stars and a Sun shirts, caught every Pacquiao fight on pay-per-view when he wasn’t openly a bigot, and ate pansit and adobo. But this brand of Filipino wasn’t steeped in anything substantial. These were superficial qualities of “Pinoy Pride.” Many Filipino-Canadians I have crossed paths with can probably share the same sentiments as me.
My first time back in the Philippines was in 2012, on the heels of a self-discovery period. I just pivoted from STEM to a social science and humanities focus in high school and had been admitted to the University of Waterloo. It was a refreshing experience — I was able to embrace my familial and cultural roots, while grateful for my privileged Canadian upbringing.
It was autumn of 2013 when Sarah and I started to exchange e-mails. In Sarah’s first letter to me, she talked about why she was “nababagabag” by poverty, injustice, and selfishness in the country. She enthusiastically shared that “there’s always a chance for change” and it was worth “holding on to that.”
But it wasn’t until 2014, two years deep into learning about progress, development, and sustainability in university, when I actually start thinking about my purpose. I wanted to serve and use my knowledge. And all the while, Sarah exuded passion and compassion for Philippine society in our frequent e-mail exchanges. Honestly, nakakahawa. I had a huge crush on her ever since.
This led me to a series of experiences in the Philippines. From 2014 to 2016, I spent 13 months in the country. Four months in 2014 of co-operative work experience for a startup social enterprise, one month vacationing in 2015, and eight months in 2016 interning in Palawan for Shell.
Sarah and I grew closer in 2014. Our patient e-mails turned into spontaneous chats on Facebook, and even some drunk and vulnerable messaging, which was mostly (read: all) on my part. My work experience in the Philippines in 2014 wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t agreed to supervise my social enterprise research work. On September 28, 2014, Sarah and I became a couple and would be for two and some years, most of it spent in a difficult and challenging long distance relationship.
It’s now the latter half of 2017. As a recent graduate with a major in Environmental Studies and minors in English Literature and International Development, I’m now at a crossroads regarding my future.
2017 has afforded me a time of discernment and self-rediscovery in light of my breakup with Sarah. I’ve realized it’s not at all an easy decision to migrate back to the Philippines. I always told Sarah I wouldn’t be moving for her, but I was moving back para sa bayan. But maybe that’s not 100% true. Of course, a huge part of me was moving back for love, for Sarah. But that’s immense pressure on her isn’t it?
Now, I remember that boozy night in Katipunan, at a rooftop gig in September 2014, when I asked Sarah to be my partner.
“Elvin, how are we going to work? We’re from two separate worlds.”
I assured her then that I, at least, wanted to try to be part of her world. Even now, I still choose to be part of it — the world where I’m in the Philippines making a difference.
I wrote my senior thesis on the moral renewal of the Filipino character and how that can be utilized in sustainability. It’s my love letter to the Philippines. During my process of writing, I knew how much I deeply love and how I want to labor for the Philippines. This is in part because of Sarah. And I know it’s cheesy to call a significant other a hero, but it’s true. She is my hero, my role model. I learned through her presence and my relationship with her many things: how to love the Philippines and how to be resilient. She taught me what it’s like to truly be Filipino, to be a Filipino of substance and character, and to live and hope for the Filipino.
During this time of separation, I could see clearly that while I’m inspired by Sarah, I’m able to evolve as an individual who has full ownership of what it’s like to be Filipino, at least in my own way, because I know my experience as a Filipino-Canadian is different. It may be going against the grain to strive in a developing country because not many would be comfortable with uprooting their lives from where opportunities are plenty, but that’s what I want.
I want to be in the Philippines. But not for Sarah, not for anyone, but a greater love — love for country, love for myself to pursue the things that would make me happy, commitment to the greater good, all of those kinds of love, you know? However I’m not really sure when I want to. The more time I spend here in Toronto, the harder it feels to leave.
Yet, I still want to go back. I’m reminded by what Sarah said in an e-mail once:
“Being scared is okay. Just have the head and the heart to face whatever uncertainty lies ahead, knowing that you are strong enough and surrounded by people who love you.”
So that’s what I want to do. Give it a shot. I want to jump into the uncertain abyss and chaos that is Duterte’s Philippines knowing that I am resilient, and will be amidst love.