When I announced my plans to study in the Philippines to my parents, the shift of their instinctive feelings of concern to excitement took agonizingly longer than expected. A fortnight before my departure – this time right on cue – the parents began to pile on bizarre pearls of ‘wisdom’ that were effectively reminders about personal hygiene and social cues. Twenty years or so of exposure to such characteristically Filipino candidness coupled with my British idiosyncratic respect for more subtle propriety has prepared me for such curious and stressful times like ‘The Fortnight Before Departure’.
With my passport renewed and preparations ensuing, more and more of our family and friends began to find out that I was ‘going home’. I started reflecting on the word ‘balikbayan’ and while concentrating a little too hard on the roots of the word itself, I started to wonder how curious it was that I had casually slipped into this category. A quarter of my suitcase content of pasalubong could certainly identify me as balikbayan, but on this very special occasion, I think ‘pasalubong mule of dual nationality’ is a more accurate description.
According to its legal definition, balikbayan refers to a Filipino national who has lived and/or worked outside of the Philippines for at least one year. Regardless of whether or not one chooses to go through with naturalization later on in their host country, balikbayan is a permanent term which the Filipino is referred to as. It is ironic how the concept of permanence abroad defines the balikbayan when it simultaneously refers to the Philippines as the place and point of return. It was certainly confusing when more or less the same concept of ‘going to the Philippines’ for me suddenly became the same as ‘going home’ for my parents.
As legally termed spouse of the balikbayan (who are by definition not in their own rights balikbayan themselves), there is some sort of comfort in being an included extension to this increasingly growing global network of Filipinos. But the comfort is more of a sentiment that balikbayans – parents mainly – feel the most assured. If we take a closer look at the socio-cultural implications of the word, balikbayan is not a term that can be transferred to the generation that followed after. To transfer the meaning entirely would be like transferring the past onto the present, which in reality does not reflect our generation today. It is the differences in history and of time that we distinguished ourselves as the 2nd Generation.
Who is included in this category of people? Apart from the ‘2nd generation’, the balikbayans and the global Filipino diaspora in general continue to grow in age, number and diversity. The abstract concept of the generation that followed the balikbayans is not something that can be quantified. As those directing the aptly named Philippine Generations have been discussing: we need not agonize over the criteria that might help the individual define themselves as part of this ‘2nd generation’. The concept does not intend to be exclusive nor alienating. The term should be understood and must be allowed to become looser in definition in order to incorporate the idea of the 2nd generation as an ideological movement of an existing community of people.
When I thought about what going back to the Philippines meant for me and my parents, I was reminded that family has no geographical constraints. The 2nd generation counts itself privileged to have a wealth of access to two or more cultures because of its familial connections, which in some cases can span across two or three continents. But learning to appreciate or even to recognize that we are an inherent part of a diverse and international network sprung from one nation is a gradual and sometimes difficult learning process. Some sadly may continue to be ignorant of their cultural wealth; particularly because we are nurtured and believe ourselves more ‘native’ to a nation our parents call their ‘host country’. The feeling of alienation is mutual on both generational sides.
From another perspective, it is also equally a challenge for some balikbayan parents to not get offended if their children do not immediately assume the Philippines as ‘home’. As some of you may have experienced, it is natural that both generations of different cultural eras experience moments of conflict like this with each other. An example of this between my parents and I culminates in this recurring humorous moment when both my parents exclaim in astonishment (yet again) that I behave too much like “an English person”. I am not afraid to say that I cannot apologize for the nature and location of my own upbringing.
The point is that we – the generation that followed – have the choice to nurture our Filipino cultural connection and have two ‘homes’ if we wanted. Nationality may be given by default i.e. my own being British-Filipino through place of birth and ancestry, but cultural heritage can never be just given. The ideas and traditions that we embody are borne, whether through our surrounding environment or by choice, over time and not just involuntarily inherited.
In the past couple of invested years of travelling and studying languages, I have learned that to appreciate any cultural heritage, we have to allow new ideas we come in contact with to permeate and change our preconceptions. Not just for learning’s sake or for a sense of immersion, but also to really imagine that we are part of an evolution of ideas about people and culture that we can engage in – a cultural revolution that we can truly affect. In the month that I have spent here in the Philippines, I can confidently say that at the very least, it is worth the fun exploring our Filipino culture.
By Kat Cruz
Kat Cruz is currently enrolled for one semester at the University of the Philippines (Diliman) on Philippine Studies program, she is also a PG volunteer and dedicate some of her time to write for Philippine Generations.