Home Sweet Home
Tale of a Balikbayan
with Bles Chavez-Bernstein
Over the next decade, millions of Americans, expats and balikbayans, will make the move to the new Philippines. Many will come to invest in its booming new economy, some will start a new chapter in their lives, while others will be attracted to the optimistic outlook of the Philippines –grabbing their chance to escape the down-economy and discrimination of the western world.
Some of them –around 1 million- will seize the opportunity to return home as balikbayans. More than 4 million Filipinos live in the United States, centered mainly in California, Florida, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. Along with the rest of the world, they are hearing the whispers of economic progress that abound in the new Philippines. Many of the 1st generation Filipinos abroad still own real estate, family businesses and have children who remain in the Philippines. In addition, most Filipinos who have settled abroad are now immensely successful. Caught in the boom of the ‘work abroad’ movement coupled with the benefits of up to 50 times the earnings from their paychecks overseas, they were able to shift the life of their families financially and socially.
Until the recent economic downturn that inspired Americans and other foreigners to take a new look into the Philippine market, Filipinos were the largest beneficiaries of the sliding peso exchange rate. Filipinos thrive in situations where their ambition, charm, and talent are recognized and rewarded. The society-imposed limitations of skin shade, family name, province, and foreign education rarely apply to the successful Filipino in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East –enabling them to rise in their lifestyle.
This is home. The refreshing and familiar scene of friendly people makes it easy to laugh along among the waves of smiles. My years of absence have instantly made me fond of the noisy interaction that is creating an almost pleasant chaos. Here, I am one of them: brown-skinned, petite and dark-haired. Exotic, a word I have grown to identify with for many years now, is no longer appropriate.
As I stare at the carousel carrying luggage and oversized brown boxes labeled “Balikbayan”, I can feel the energy and jolts of excitement that propel every hand that grabs them. Emerging from long, tedious flights I see faces which reveal eagerness to bring home gifts labeled “made in USA” to their loved ones. “Stateside” is a word uttered with pride, despite the haggard faces of the sleep-deprived. I remember one such woman who sat beside me during my flight. Tina, is in her forties, still single and seems content being so, something unusual for a Filipina of her generation.
“I have been traveling for 24-hours…my boss paid for my airline tickets which gave me 8-hours of layover in Bangkok. He said this was the cheapest deal.” Tina uttered to me, wearing a gracious smile and dark circles around her eyes.
“You know, this is the first time in five years that I’m coming home. We had three deaths in the family within this time but I continued to work because I needed the money to help them.” She added, sounding somewhat resigned.
I told her I was based in Miami, Florida and handed her my card. Her face lit up as she went on telling me she had received job offers from Miami as a caregiver. The word, “caregiver” made me excited as well, but something stopped me from telling her that I have been a registered nurse in the US for the last twenty-five years. Perhaps, I did not want her to feel jealous of my relative fortune. At this point, old emotions came flooding inside me.
At 21, I too traveled for 28 hours to find work abroad and find success for myself and my family. I felt so alone then, like being thrown to the wolves of unfamiliarity, novelty, and culture shock that bit me all over. Eventually, the wolves swallowed me until I succumbed to an involuntary transformation. Losing sight of my home and country land was just the first among the many trials of my personal strength and adaptability. There were many others.
I remember well the night I arrived at the Miami International Airport, being greeted by a cardboard sign bearing my name in bold letters. The man in white and blue uniform held it firmly as he sighed with relief when he saw me wave my hand. He took me in a van and drove me to the nurses’ dorm near the hospital where I was contracted to work. The room was clean and furnished, lamps were lit, the bed was dressed in white sheets, and a small dining table was filled with food that included various fruits, a whole roasted chicken, and fresh bread. An impressive welcome; I felt important.
My first day of work in an American hospital flabbergasted me. I found out that there was more than one “American accent”. To my foreign ears the words did not sound as written, or as I had studied them. I was terrified to take telephone orders for fear of making a grave mistake. The straightforwardness and seemingly aggressive attitude of my American colleagues sounded disrespectful of my feelings. The loud and harsh voices of some of the doctors did not meet my professional expectations. It took months before I learned how to laugh at their jokes, understand their wit and relate to the direct, fast-paced American culture. I found Americans to be very social, fun-loving and using their humor made the process of acclimation to my new environment much easier to bear.
It was initially a huge and overwhelming sacrifice on my part to be an obedient child. Having known what I wanted to be since I was 12, I reached out to my father to buy me a piano, but instead, he had handed me back the Filipino ‘American Dream.’ I was devastated.
Being the oldest of six younger siblings, helping them finish grade school, then high school and ultimately college was my parent-imposed code of conduct. Perhaps, everything would have been just a simple adventure, instead of a personal sacrifice, if I did not have to leave my fiancé and love of my life behind in the Philippines. I promised him I would be away no more than three years, the same promise I gave my parents. That was nearly 25-years ago.
My thoughts brought me far. My life went far.
In America I found a new perspective, career success, love, and rewards I could never have imagined as a little girl who simply dreamed of singing and playing the piano. Now 17 years of being a wife and mother offered me its own rewards: a warm home filled with love.
Life’s plans can be either prearranged or serendipitous according to one’s personal point of view. Eventually I had to surrender to the reality that I don’t own it, that life is something that happens regardless of my plans. Cancer took my husband away, leaving me with three young children to raise. In spite of this tragedy I chose to embrace my newly single lifestyle, and foster a perspective which would allow me and my children to see the world as an endless opportunity for changes. Nothing, I thought, could be more painful than losing a life partner. I asked myself, why would I be afraid of change? That moment, I realized that life would never stop sending surprises, so fighting it was futile and not the key to winning. I decided to embrace change with love. Welcoming change became my new philosophy in life. This may be one of the most ferocious wolves of transformation that bit me when I was new in America. This same wolf has turned out to be my faithful friend. Perhaps this is an American philosophy. In this country where I have grown and evolved as my own person, the common mantra is that ‘change is inevitable’ and that change can be exciting.
Grieving the loss of my beloved husband took its own course. After grief had lifted its dark veil off my mind, I left my job of seventeen years which led me to learn sales, public speaking, and networking. I was placed in leadership positions to serve the civic community. My circle of friends widened to various nationalities as I continued to appreciate the warm presence of diverse people. Miami was the perfect venue! I was fondly nicknamed “merry widow,” a rather lame description of my rapidly evolving life. Parenting became a tough challenge in a cross-cultural home with three teenagers, which then, enlightened me to yet another truth. I could not follow my parents’ methods of discipline. I needed to evolve in that area as well, I decided. We were no longer in the Philippines. My children and I were dealing with issues, trials, and tribulations that were happening in an environment that was totally different from where I was growing up as a teenager. I decided to raise my children the “American way,” if there was such a thing. I simply followed my intuitive instincts, creating my own formula for successful parenting – democracy with limits. It was the best decision I ever made.
Years passed. My children learned how to make and manage their own schedules – schedules which no longer included me. I found myself alone, with no more kids in tow. Definitely not the Filipino lifestyle I was raised in, but it worked.
Spending time by myself more often made me get in touch with my old love and passion. One afternoon, I drove by a conservatory and it made my heart long for the day when I could sing again, dance again –perform like I’d used to. I had no more excuses. I could buy my own piano, pay for music lessons, my siblings were on their own, and I had no children to clothe or feed. I was undergoing through a rebirth.
With professional preparation and few years of private lessons, I felt ready to finally reclaim my childhood dream of becoming the performer I knew I could be. I was in my early 40‘s when I auditioned and was accepted to New World School of the Arts in Miami, popularly known as the “Juilliard of South Florida.” With a scholarship to pursue a degree in music with a major in vocal performance, I worked at night and studied during the day. I was passionate, but friends called me crazier than the psychiatric patients I tended in order to pay the bills. Every morning as I drove to school, I murmured my thanksgiving prayers for this rare chance that had fallen in my lap. Someone was paying the cost of my music education so I could sing well! All I had to do was pass the audition and ask for what I wanted. It reminded me of why my father insisted that I come to America. For the first time, the phrase, “America, land of dreams and endless opportunities”, started to make full sense to me. I felt privileged.
I sang everywhere I could with my newfound voice. Classical and sacred music, opera, and languages have always fascinated me. They transport me to the inner world of the spirit.
Romance came naturally in my single lifestyle. I met many gentlemen in social gatherings, community activities, volunteer work, libraries, church, and of course, online! At this time I began feeling attracted again to the idea of male companionship. I loved being a woman, so to speak. Interacting with strangers to get to know someone on a personal level sharpened my communication skills. Dressing up for a nice dinner with a friend became one of my weekend events. Little did I know that no matter how much influence foreign culture had on my life, I still valued my need to be pursued as a woman, an ideal that has been ingrained in my being long before I knew what the word dating meant. As a young girl sitting in my third grade classroom, I was in awe listening to my teacher say emphatically, “The ideal Filipina is demure.”
“Hey, Manay Bles! Over here!” My sister Bel’s greeting brings me back to my present travels. I see that the carousel has stopped moving. The whole area is cleared of suitcases and balikbayan boxes. My travel mate Tina is long gone.
As she walks towards me, I notice that hard work is written all over Bel’s face. Her eyes tell me a thousand stories but only one keeps coming back…that one summer day in the campus of Santo Tomas University in Manila many years ago. Her skin looks light yellow against the sunlight… her dress, slightly faded in color, her sunken eyes looked at me with fear that was camouflaged by a half-formed smile. She stood quietly with an unbalanced gait that made me question if she was weak and hungry. Her hesitation made her lips quiver as words finally came out, “I eloped. I’m pregnant.” I felt the need to read her lips as words were almost inaudible.
This thought suddenly melts with the sight of my nephew, my sister’s youngest son. Bel, glows with pride telling me that her oldest son is now a civil engineer in Dubai, his brother, a lawyer, and her third, a Fine Arts Major. She herself is a Geodetic Engineer, managing huge government projects. As I drag my suitcase into my sister’s car, I notice that her car looks expensive and her way of dressing shows self-confidence with a fashionable touch. She has come a long way in life. I have, too.
I am a proud Bicolana. A bus ride by day gives me the most scenic view of mountains, palm trees, calm seas, fishermen working their nets…and of course, the most awaited stop at that restaurant famous for its nilagang bulalo, soupy beef stew. Every traveler driving on South Road from Manila to Bicol finds this stop strategically timed. My anticipation of home is heightened most as I reach Naga City. Its streets bring back the image of myself as a young girl in white uniform loudly chanting, “Viva la Virgen!” Santa Isabel University, my Alma Mater, still stands elegant with its century-old walls but is no longer exclusive for girls. I feel fortunate having had the privilege to spend several years behind those walls when it was exclusive for girls but I feel sad as well, knowing that it had lost the one most special thing it could offer to young girls – the security of an all-feminine influence.
Roads leading to my hometown seem unchanged. The rough pavement does not bother me as I revel in the sight of the rice fields boasting golden grains ready for harvest. Mount Isarog, set in the heart of Bicol, overlooks my hometown like an ever-watchful mother, just like it was when I ran in those fields. This mountain has witnessed the quiet disappearance of my childhood. Made visible only by the flickering kerosene lamps, the nipa huts and their silhouettes at dusk are like impressionistic art. Familiar faces look older, while some souls departed long ago in my absence.
As I look back at the last 25 years, I realize that I have spent more of my life in America than in my homeland. This time I feel the strange need to belong again to my surroundings as I find myself no longer demure and timid unlike most of my old friends and relatives. They tell me I have changed and that I have become straightforward and fully expressive, saying it with a negative bite to it. What has become of me… I do tend to reflect. I am a product of multicultural upbringing, travels, life tragedies and successes, and the constant processing of insights gained from these experiences. I am truly grateful for having been enriched by the fusion of these values, both cultural and personal.
Although I was absent for decades from my beloved town, its old traditions set against the mellow temperament of its people have laid the foundation for me to become the person that I am today – poet, singer, artist. I am an heir to its legacy of spirit so rich as to sustain me for a lifetime.
My final thoughts fade into the blazing sunset.
“Blesnak, is that you?!” A familiar voice calls me by my childhood nickname. His smile brings back the freshness of his youth and mine.
At last I am home. Sweet home.