The Balikbayan (one who returns to their home country)

The Peruvian poet Pablo Neruda wrote, “It’s well known that he who returns never left”. This is my exact sentiment every time I return to my birth country, Philippines as a balikbayan.

It’s getting close to four years since I returned to the Philippines; the country where I was born, raised until the age of five and left behind in the 1980’s to start a new life in Australia.

There’s a certain point when the plane touches the ground that I’m smacked with that smell – one that is meshed with fumes, pollution and the inescapable humidity – it smells just like the Philippines.

When I traverse the chaotic roads of Manila, an imaginary mirror reflects the faces of Filipinos who look just like me wearing the same dark shade of skin as mine. I feel a shot of familiarity and belonging to a place that still feels like home.

I listen closely to the buzzing mixture of Tagalog, Spanish and English which I perfectly understand and interpret but struggle to coherently verbalise. Years of growing up abroad runs the risk of forgetting to communicate articulately in a native tongue that’s now mangled and tinged with an Australian and sometimes American accent.

But after all these years, it feels like I never really left.

When I am immersed in the day-to-day life in Australia, the Filipino side of me sadly gets left behind the scenes and it isn’t until a balikbayan trip it ignites back to life again. One of the best things my parents could have done for my brother and I when we were growing up was to save up the modest money they earned and every few years treat us to a few weeks’ vacation in the Philippines.

They were never fancy. We didn’t go island hopping in Boracay or stay in fancy hotels in Manila. Instead, we spent weeks in the provinces with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents we left behind 25 years ago and what we did in a short space of time was compact years of separation into blissful memories.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t give up so easily on the Philippines. I often wonder what life would be like if we hadn’t migrated to another country.

But I do love Australia. I know the sails of destiny led me here and this is where I am supposed to be for now. There is however, something to be said about celebrating your cultural and ethnic roots – it’s organic – and any immigrant living between two fences of different cultures have the responsibility and privilege to celebrate their beliefs, traditions, language and physical appearance and avoid the perils of abnegation. I admire what Jewish people do well – preservation of heritage no matter what corner of the world they may find themselves in.

To the native Australians, the Aborigines, have an unbreakable connection between their land and all living creatures. The lore of Aboriginal customs and traditions are borne from this interconnectedness. Aborigines cannot escape their land because it’s an integral part of their existence – it’s in their blood and spiritual practices. I think this same principle is characteristic of the Filipino balikbayan.