I know how it feels to be unwanted. I was unwanted from birth, rejected by my birth parents. My adoptive parents took pity on me and I ended up in their arms for life.
But growing up, I also felt like I didn’t belong. As a Filipino immigrant, I was labeled. I didn’t have the accent, so I was teased horribly, called a “brown monkey,” a “flip,” and other degrading names. I was in a whole new atmosphere, and so I learned to adapt. I have been learning to adapt my whole life—to an adopted family, to an adopted home.
I lived in New York City from age 8 to 22. Like a chameleon, I formed popular opinions and ideals, and then started forming an individual niche that I hoped would take me to adulthood. However, the onset of a deep depression in my fourth year in college forced me to return to the Philippines and live here for two years.
I had to adapt once again, but this time it was much harder. I reunited with my adopted mother, who had come back to the Philippines in my college years to be with my stepdad. I had to get used to another family dynamic. I had to face the days getting rest without the busyness of school. I spent days missing New York, missing the chilly weather, missing the pitter-patter of feet on the sidewalk, missing even the traffic.
It was in the warmth and sweetness of my mother’s care that I suddenly began to change my skin once again. She took me swimming, to the mall, to the places I went to before, and to the Chinese restaurant where we used to celebrate occasions. We went to the movies every week, to the market, to the ukay-ukay. Most importantly, we went to our old neighborhood church every week, and I had my first confession in years.
I had a spiritual rebirth—I started to believe in a God once again, a Being that could salve my long-term loneliness. Once again, I started to see the land of my birth, Olongapo City—first through her eyes, then my memory’s eyes. I felt myself growing roots, and the roots spreading, although above ground there was only a truncated tree.
My mother introduced me to our neighbors, who told me so many stories. “Kapitbahay” is a deep word: bonded houses. Our neighbors do not just live next to each other, they also protect one another. When we were in the United States, our family house in Olongapo burned down, but our kapitbahay all helped rescue things from the burning building. I never knew my neighbors in the United States, really. I did not realize the value of community until I returned home and heard our neighbors’ heroic stories of rescuing our beloved things from the fire. They knew other things as well—my birthday celebrations, my little habits, the time I got run over by a tricycle. I started forming a history of myself that didn’t just include New York stories but also narratives so deep-rooted that I had kept them in the recesses of my mind all this time.
My mother, knowing that I needed to take root, took me to the place of her birth, to San Marcelino, Zambales. There, I reunited with my aunts who took care of me when I was young; I lay once more in their kawayan beds and their duyan. I saw, and remembered from when I had vacations in San Marcelino, that they lived in a veritable bahay-kubo held together by bamboo. When the rain comes, they get their pails and put these directly under the water. I saw how simply they lived, yet I also saw how they are the happiest people I have ever come across. At the dinner table with only cashew fruit for dinner, they talked about goings-on around town, totally relaxed and laughing at jokes. Making a joke out of everything and living simply—perhaps their secret to happiness—are qualities that I incorporated into my healing self, here in the Philippines.
I was also encouraged by my mother this past summer to take part in the elections in San Marcelino. I joined the people campaigning door to door. It surprised me how many people knew their kagawad, their representatives, showering them with problems as if they were their dearest friends. I was the announcer at the loudspeaker, and it was amazing to be part of the electoral process. We all stayed up on the night of Election Day, and the tension in the air was palpable. When we learned who had won, we trumpeted the news like elephants and rejoiced.
Those experiences are things I will always keep in my metaphorical pocket, like souvenirs from a time gone by, when I am back in New York in the coming months.
There are things in New York that I miss, especially the ways of life there. I miss the rush of people getting somewhere and doing something. There is an air of importance to New Yorkers, the air of always changing the world through whatever way. I hope to change the world, too, through whatever God-given gifts I possess. I know for certain as I start my working life in New York in November that I will change and readapt once more.
But there’s one factor that New York doesn’t have and that I will miss dearly as I get ready to leave—my mom. The emphasis on family is one of the many things I love about the Philippines. My mom worked so hard to raise her six kids, including her last, adopted one. She has become an expert at preventing injuries—bodily, mentally, or emotionally. She took care of me when I needed her most, after a heart-and-mind break, the reason I returned to the Philippines in the first place. I have since completely recovered, thanks to my mother. But I will never forget those drives when I poured out my heart and soul to her, when she gave back motherly care, advice, and love. I will also never forget my stepdad who was a source of intellectual discourse. (I am currently in school here, and it was he who edited my papers.)
Learning to adapt to a culture is tough, but having to readapt to the culture one came from is maddening.
It requires skill and a huge EQ—learning to dress in a proper way, relearning the language, learning more about the people. And so as I write this, I don’t even know where my home is. Is it where my heritage and my race have their roots, or is it where all races can call their new home, where freedom reigns? Perhaps it is because of my liberal education that I am so confused.
Frantz Fanon, the French-Algerian theorist, talked about cosmopolitanism among the youth—that they pick their homes, rather than settle where they grew up, that they become citizens of the world, living for the moment, creating a history in and of many cities. Do I call myself a cosmopolite? Yes, I do. I have lived in the Philippines, was raised in New York, and want to settle in London when I retire. So I still don’t know where home is. But in rethinking my relationship with my mom, whose home is where her family is, perhaps when I have a family of my own I will rediscover where my heart truly belongs.
Angela Gabrielle Fabunan, 24, is “studying abroad” at the University of Santo Tomas, where she is enrolled in a literature course after attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in the United States. She still expects to graduate from Bowdoin, where her course is English.