The Eye of the Storm

Nostalgia That Was Never Mine to Feel

Where I'm from, people learn to live in the eye of the storm.

I'm one of the few U.S-born American citizens in my family. My grandma took me to the Philippines at a very young age before I learned to speak proper English, so Tagalog was my native language.  But when my family moved back to the U.S less than two years later and no one spoke Tagalog to me, it was displaced by English.  I don't remember my family's native tongue, nor do I remember how the soil in the Philippines feels.  I don't remember what the sky looks like or how the beaches smell.  My grandma watches the Filipino news every morning and hopes that I can pick up on everything again.

When I watched the news with her, the majority of it covered floods, storms, or typhoons.  Dozens of casualties, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of people evacuating their homes. I was convinced for a very long time that the Philippines was home to disaster and that I was lucky to be away.  In elementary and part of middle school, I was ashamed of being Filipino.  I thought it was a bad place because of the natural and political disasters ensuing every year.  I wished that I could be from somewhere that was comparable to a dreamland, like Japan or France.  I even lied to some kids about my ethnicity because I was too embarrassed about my own background.  I felt like the dash (-) in "Filipino-American," trapped in cultural purgatory: between two identities, neither of which I could practice wholeheartedly. I was the division between them., like two parents that can't seem to love each other, but stay together to take care of the child they’ve created. I was desperate to piece together two identities that I couldn’t even understand separately. Something about it felt so lonely.

According to physics, particles are attracted to those with opposite charges, and yet they repel each other at the same time. Thus, their electrons never actually come in contact with one another. Their wave packets, however, can overlap, but never actually touch. My identities overlapped but never touched. I felt like I lived between two worlds, and so I clung to any aspect of Filipino culture that I could reach. Most of the time, they weren’t even from my own memories.

When my older sister took a trip to the Philippines with my mom, she came back and told me all about the white sand beaches and strikingly blue water.  The cool breeze in Boracay and the wet pavement in Manila.  The nostalgic streets of Pampanga that she missed more than the breathtaking sights and tranquil atmosphere.  She stayed there for a few more years after I left, so she had a closer attachment to the place.  The image of being completely at peace with yourself and the world, laying down on soft sand, and watching the sunset.  No one taps your shoulder or calls your name.  It's just you, the ocean, and the sky, sharing a mutual respect for one another.  Sharing a mutual need for someone to understand you.  When no floods catch your feet and no heavy rain knocks you down, for as long as you stay still, you'll be okay for a while.

My grandma knows the Philippines like the back of her hand.  She has a deep, intuitive understanding of the people, the geography, the history, and so on.  She wasn't surprised when I showed her a photograph of a couple getting married in the middle of a flood.  They were kissing under an umbrella while a bunch of kids, soaking wet and holding their slippers, cheered them on.  She told me about how Filipinos were resilient, how they would throw a party in the middle of a storm because they've been planning it for months and it wouldn't be desirable to reschedule it.  Sometime after I left the Philippines, my sister got in trouble for sneaking out of the house to swim in the floodwater.  My grand-aunt scolded her, smacked her with a slipper, and so on. The story taught me something both strange and comforting about the Philippines: not every disaster has to be left in history as a tragedy.  When you've been living in the Philippines for long enough to understand the pattern of the storms and the proper strategies of evading your potential doom, you learn how to adapt.

Recently, I learned about a group of indigenous Southeast Asians called the Bajau peoples.  They live in several islands in the southwestern Philippines and in eastern Indonesia and Malaysia.  From a bit of research that I did on my own time, I was fascinated to learn that these people adapted to living in houses floating right on the water and could hold their breaths significantly longer than the average person.  They go spear-fishing by swimming underwater themselves and generally swim for hours every day.  They are the last of Southeast Asian "sea nomads."  While their population is very limited at this point, they remain tightly knit and true to their ancestries.

Reading all of this, I was more astonished than ever by the Bajau people’s extraordinary ability to adapt to their surroundings with ease.  I was even more engrossed when I learned that such a captivating race had Filipino roots, and so the stories of my sister swimming in floodwater and the couple getting married in the rain circled back to my memory.  In essence, making the best out of any situation is a gift of theirs that I could never match.  While I was ashamed for a large fraction of my childhood about my family's background, I'm prouder than ever to say now that my family was born on Philippine soil.

They swam in its water.

They felt its breeze.

They ducked under its rain.

They adapted.

Where I'm from, people learn to live.

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