Balikbayan, pt. 4: Epilogue

Three years is a long time by most standards. For life milestones and other significant events, it almost seems too soon. When I came to the Philippines for the first time as an adult in 2007, I found it to be a significant and confusing experience. It was awe inspiring at times, depressing at others, and generally lonely. I left motivated with new knowledge and life experience that would fuel my years to come. I did not expect to come back again so "soon."

On the last day of November, my grandfather passed away at the age of 92. My parents packed their things to be with the family in early December, and my Sister and I followed on our own a week later. His name was Nestor. I did not know this basic fact until I came here. Everyone referred to him by his second first name, Virgilio, but legally his real first name was Nestor. How do I go for 23 years without knowing that? I never got to know him on a personal level. I knew and admired him mostly by reputation.

My family is full of pretty amazing people. They are all interesting, unique and even a little bit demented in their own way, myself included. It feels good to come from a line so full of life and quirks. My grandfather was the patriarchal icon of all of that. While I couldn't have full conversations with him -- the language barrier and the age gap made communication a small struggle -- I knew that he was the reason my family name was so important.

He was an intellectual and philosopher. There were several Bachelor's degrees on the walls of his home. When I was last there 7 months ago, he was going through something of a philosophical frustration. He kept wanting to explain his ideas, but found he didn't have the ability to properly articulate them. Whether it was his age or the size of his thoughts, it is hard to tell. But he tried his best in his writings. In his old age, he was unafraid to cast off such ingrained institutions such as religion, while still holding onto the ideals of spirituality:

Religion, superstition, idolatry, faith and mystery are all beliefs. To believe in idol is idolatry. To believe in the bible is Christianity. To believe in mystery is superstition and to believe in superstition is ignorance. The bible of the Christians is full of mystery and superstition so Christianity is superstition and a form of idolatry.

Religion is self delusion caused by fear of punishment and promise of happiness in salvation.

My idea of the Creator is subtle… fine.. cunning.. penetrating… subtle spirit.. perfect expression of the whole… beyond any limitation.. one and all.. many and whole.. within and without.. universal subtle law. The essence of all existence is the shadow of extension of God. God is the origin, the source of all. God is all and all is in God. If you are angry with someone you are also angry with God because someone is also in God. When you walk with God, Gods also walks with you. You cannot go to hell because God is with you. There is no hell , only in the mind as illusion. All is one unique self related with all.

I write "grandfather" instead of "lolo" here because there is something about the English word that conveys the legacy and esteem better than a phoneme repeated. Make no mistake, "lolo" is a wonderful, endearing term of affection. But if I'm going to talk about the man and his mark, I would want to do it in formal, stately words.

There is, in truth, not much I could say about the Philippines that I didn't already say in 2007. The class divide is still atrocious. The language barrier at the dinner table is still powerfully alienating. The political symbolism of everything continues to overpower mere enjoyment of the place. The only difference is that none if it is no longer a surprise or an epiphany; it is old news. We passed through the winter humidity of the Philippines, in lanes too small for the weaving vehicles, past shanty towns turned into advertising space, past billboards bigger than homes, past imagery I did not understand.

As before, due to the overwhelming loneliness that a language barrier imposes on you, I spent a lot of time dwelling in my own head. It is not a great place to be.

We went to our little piece of island off the coast of Quezon again, in Cagbalete. It is, in pictures, an island paradise. But what you don't see is the hundreds of dragonfly-like bugs always buzzing at your feet, or the emaciated dogs that populate the islands, or the giant spiders that spin webs across doorways in seconds, or the dead coral patches that stab your feet in the water. We stayed overnight on the island, and although we were blessed with electric lights and water pumps, it is still a form of living that requires a certain amount of regression. You have to cast off your standards of luxury in order to feel comfortable. Your need to feel clean, standards for bathrooms and aversion to bug bites all have to go. People of my generation often talk about going to the Philippines and "roughing it" without air conditioning, or internet, or other amenities. This is the next level of that.

But I walked far into the waters of the Pacific, because it never gets more than waist-high until you are a mile away from shore. I sat, surrounded by ocean, where it is nearly waveless except for the gentle current and tide coming in. I sat there for about an hour and thought: So what?

So what if this island paradise is actually made of harsh wood and covered in ants? It is still, in actuality an island and paradise. So what if the political subtext of the place keeps hitting me in the face and I can't enjoy anything? So what if the age and language barrier makes it hard for me to connect with the people that came before me? What makes my understanding, my needs, and my life any better? What's so great about my relentless deconstruction and insecurities that I couldn't do my job and be here for other people?

Yet, connecting is hard. I don't know if it's a holdover from my early social ineptitude, or my brain being unable to find conversational footing, or me settling into this routine groove of observing and not participating. The only thing I know is that the problem is mine. I can't expect to put a wall between myself and others and not expect them to eventually do the same.

I have a feeling that things will be like this for a while. My sister is a much more appealing family touchstone and contact point than I, anyway. During the Christmas party, I began to understand that maybe this is how the future relationships will be formed. Maybe when we're all adults, with our own families, my sister will be the spearhead and I will be the one that comes along with that. Maybe that's the role I will inherit.

I'm still figuring out if I'm okay with that resignation. While I would like a more active role in this family and all it represents, I don't know if I have the ability to undo my reputation, or to overcome my own failings. The Philippines is always an event for me. It inspires awe in its landmarks, turbulence in its familial happenings, loneliness in its society and frustration in its history. More than anything, these past 2 weeks, cut off from my being in the US, has felt simply like a sequel to my last trip. Similar locations, ideas, themes. Just a continuation of a story. I don't know when I will return, but I know so much will be the same.

We had a family Christmas party, and at the end of it, I was asked to bring the urn containing my grandfather's ashes to the car. It was heavy, ceramic and gray. I had to hold it close to my chess to maintain a stronger center of gravity and waddled slowly to the SUV. I wondered if this was the closest I had ever been to Nestor. But I was now, and that still matters.