Got back from Manila yesterday and I am still disoriented, waking at 4:17 a.m. today, with nagging hunger pangs that I decide to feed.
I was amazed to find the quiet dawn at our kitchen quite comforting. It is quiet and dark and very cool—a sharp contrast from the blazing 90’s at mid-day.
Jet lag may very well be my inspiration to assess my first trip back to Manila as an immigrant. I found that that whirlwind of a trip was actually defining, validating, and clarifying to me.
At first, I was hesitant to go home to Manila. Me, the reluctant immigrant, who didn’t want to leave the comforts and frills of home to uproot my 5 children. I did not want to leave the household help (one of my aunts now has 10—I can actually enumerate them but suffice it to say that the houseboy has an assistant, and 2 of them are “pensionadas,” too old to really work but get their loyalty awards for being with the family for many years), the support of many relatives and solid friendships, the long-drawn out lunches with my girlfriends, threshing out our life’s purpose and some gossip, the thriving men’s wear business I built from scratch, the cozy community we lived in had a pool and a salon downstairs. Oh, the salons in Manila—complete with the masahistas for home service, Lani, our ever-loyal one, still charges roughly $7 for one hour to sawa (when the cheapest massage you can get in the States is $60 an hour). Aside from healing massage, she now does bleaching, waxing, and my current favorite, eyebrow threading. I cannot explain to you the lift that eyebrow threading gives to my psyche, as my eyes look lifted and the signs of USA fatigue are threaded away.
What goes around comes around. From converting pesos to US dollars when we got to America, we couldn’t even splurge at the local McDonald’s. Now, I join the many overseas workers and expats in the pleasure of multiplying US dollars times 46 to get unbelievable extended value for my hard-earned money. Shopping in Tutuban and 168 has been given new heights, and strolling in the Mall of Asia has been quite exhilarating, specially because we were able to watch Bourne Ultimatum in the big screen for about $3!
Only in the Philippines can we find ourselves having lunch at their Dampa (fresh sea food picked and cooked while-you-wait) version, then pondered on what movie to watch, considering Razon’s halo-halo or coffee after the movie. Never nagyayari sa US of A ang mga ganito, because, though there may be lots of money to be made, there is never enough time to hang around.
So when my fellow balikbayan brother and sister-in-law got home from our Mall of Asia field trip, we dropped in the neighborhood salon for waxing and threading. My brother got a home massage because he was sore from badminton the day before. What can beat that?
Coming home as an immigrant means keeping your eyes wide open. Every experience is amplified. I noticed that all my friends have proper haircuts and nary a gray strand showing. Heck, even Lani, the masseuse, goes to her own neighborhood salon for her highlights when she is stressed. (I was probably the only one with gray strands showing in the whole Metro Manila!) At the same time, I wanted to hug everyone who greeted me “hello, ma’m-sir!” even if that was all they seemed to do all day. Walang ganyan sa States, ika nga. What I used to take for granted has become precious—the Sunday lunch reunions, small talk, catching up, buying sampaguita from the streets. I know that we are hospitable and warm as a people but to actually see everyone smiling just because and in spite of, was actually profoundly touching.
Every now and then, there was an urge for me to multi-task on
something and I had to restrain myself, willing myself to relax and just take it slow, while making kukot something to eat and making kuwento.
Traffic in Manila forces us to take it slow because there is no choice. What with the rains and floods, my brother spent 3 hours getting from Sucat to Pasay. He almost got culture-shocked out of his wits. For a few inches and a half, fellow drivers will ram their hood into small spaces with nowhere to go. We also forgot that pedestrian lanes don’t count and couldn’t slow down for crossing citizens.
I had to turn down a couple of lunch engagements that begged to become merienda sessions because I wanted to get a massage. My friends have been very understanding. They know that I did not have the stamina for socials as I did not have my own car to drive anymore and my emotional and physical batteries needed recharging with alone time and only quality bonding, with my tita and Lani, working on the dead skin on my feet:
At any given time, there is a beautician--manicurist, hairstylist, waxer and bleacher, and masseuse--in my tita's house:
It was time to go, time to pack. The first trip back to Manila has been interesting. My brother was itching to get back to New Jersey, two days after he got in. He said he expected more from this first trip back. I was surprised that I was quite ready to get back to California, too. I missed my kids and my husband.
I realized that in spite of all the frills of Manila, home is where my kids laugh, where my husband awaits, where I worry by the porch for my boys to come in from school or work, where my girls fill the fridge with the prettiest drawings of princesses that look like me. Home is where your real bed and sheets and towels are, where your garden grows, where you know the grocery aisles by heart, and where you know what the prevailing price of gasoline is.
And here I am, back in the kitchen table, waiting for them to awake. I think that though life in the States is difficult, we have made the right decision. We do things as a family and our precious free time, we spend together. My hair may have no highlights, but the highlight of my day is spent with my family. We rarely watch movies in the theater and we hardly eat out, so we rent movies from Blockbuster and buy tons of microwave popcorn and watch together.
My older boys are poised for University and Film Academy soon. That in itself makes all the sacrifices worth it. What with tuition fees in Manila running to one hundred thousand apiece, my younger kids get to go for free in our efficient California public schools.
As my brother said, sanayan lang. Give us two years in any place in the world and the challenge is to adjust with what we have at hand. I think migrating has given us character and resiliency—very precious gifts, just as hard-earned as the US dollar.
I have to run now, because the sprinkler system has turned on and my newspaper will be soaked if I don’t fetch it.