Origins (A Visit to the Philippines)

February 13, 2019

View from the rooftop of Cortess Printing, Davao City, Philippines. The pink building on the right is the high school my mom attended.

In December 2018, I spent the first two weeks of the month in my mom’s hometown, Davao City, Philippines. It’s taken me a long to write about it because I’ve been having trouble putting all of my thoughts and feelings down into words. Since I returned stateside, friends have asked me about the trip and it’s been difficult to answer with all the complexity of emotions attached to it. Increasingly as I get older, I’m becoming more and more aware of the ways colonization and colonial mentality have affected me and my mental health. It had been over ten years since my last trip to the Philippines and the first time visiting with this awareness and with a mindset of decolonization and healing. But overall, it was so good for me. I spent as much time as possible outdoors. I swam in the ocean frequently and to the point of exhaustion. I ate all the things. I heard stories and learned new things about ancestors I never got to know. Although it took me several days to realize it, being there and away from my life in Chicago, I never felt angry or stressed. The absence of those emotions is something I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

Growing up in a conservative, mostly white community in Florida, I internalized a lot of self-hatred. My parents’ aspirations of assimilation only accentuated the ways in which I would never reach the idealized standards of western culture and beauty. Like so many young Filipina girls, I was told by members of my extended family to stay out of the sun, otherwise I’d get dark and if I got dark I would be ugly. Those are almost exact words that many Filipina girls hear as children. It’s not something I thought about a lot, and in a way kind of forgot - almost an instinctual forgetting as a means of survival. The first time I listened to Ruby Ibarra’s Circa91, it was almost jarring hearing the opening track. On the track her mother chastises her and her sister for playing in the sun, and all of a sudden I am five-years-old again hearing my grandmother and my aunties telling me the exact same thing, the feeling of shame for being in one’s own skin ingrained from childhood. (On the other side of that, if you happened to have a more fair (white) complexion, you would be praised for having “flawless skin”.)

On one hand, it felt great to look around and be surrounded by people that looked like me. But not living in the Philippines, I forgot how ever present this idolization of whiteness is, and so on the other hand, it was hard to look around and see all the industry that exists that perpetuates the belief that the natural color of our skin is inferior. The banquet at my mother’s homecoming celebration was sponsored by a skin-whitening soap company and each give away bag had a bar of papaya whitening soap in it. My cousin’s daughters are told not to lay in the sun on our rented bangka. Their bathroom counter holds more than one skin lightening lotion. The subtleties of language that shame us for getting “dark”, while in the United States white people get “tan”.

I could continue on about all the things in Filipino culture that frustrate and anger me, but there so many contradictions that exist in the Philippines and within the Filipino diaspora. Also, it’s probably already been written about more eloquently than anything I could possibly muster up. As I sat down to write this, all of the contradictions kept me thinking about our constant need to define things. I understand that definition is important because ambiguity is (can be) scary. But with definition, there is often judgement. The thing that I wanted to share, the thing that I kept thinking about and still think about is the idea of tenderness and love without judgement. Being in the Philippines was an exercise in loving without judgment. So much of the trauma I feel is informed by the 500 plus years of colonization that my ancestors endured. But the most beautiful parts of me also stem from this ancestry. I am in no place to judge the things my ancestors did in order to survive. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. It wouldn’t have been productive of me to get into arguments about hundreds of years of history that I can’t change. It only would’ve put up walls between me and something I’m trying to understand. Mostly I came away from my trip with a desire to hold the entire country/culture in my arms and tell it that it’s okay, that the best I can do for the culture is to heal myself.

If you have thoughts or feelings on this, feel free to email me or slide into my DMs on your preferred social media platform. I’m (usually) down for some thoughtful, respectful conversation.