I want to grow sampaguita in our house in Vermont. I tell my husband, Reid, I want a coconut tree, even though I’m indifferent to coconuts. I tell him, I want to grow a pineapple, even though, for the four years we lived next to the Dole Plantation, I would look past its pineapple fields and instead look towards the ocean’s horizon or the ridges of the mountains in the Waianae Kai Forest Reserve, and only occasionally glance at the fruits growing from their crowns. In our backyard full of maple trees, I think of palm fronds, of calamansi and oranges and persimmons, of sayote vines, of all the things that remind me of the places I miss most: the Philippines, California, Hawai’i.
I have not been home since I left. That’s twenty-one years: an adult-sized time gap.
When I talk about my leaving, it sounds like a speech—it’s so tired, so rehearsed, so memorized: My mother and I left when I was ten, and my father followed soon after. For some reason, I thought we were coming back; for some reason, I didn’t connect that the move was permanent.
The first letter that I started—but never sent—to one of my best friends was about the sidewalks in my cousin’s neighborhood, about the second half of fifth grade, about this thing called science camp (We sang this song about banana slugs, I wrote before getting overwhelmed by the number of things I so badly wanted to share but couldn’t describe well enough). I didn’t, couldn’t, even write about how much I missed everyone, how, the day we landed in San Francisco and drove to San José, I had already begun calculating the time spent away from Baguio City. My Uncle Mart pointed at the Golden Gate Bridge, glowing in the middle of the night, and all I could think of was, I want the sharp switchbacks of Kennon Road, even though the zigzags always made me sick. I didn’t, couldn’t, write about how, right after I walked through the doors of my new home, Papang said, Anak ko. Don’t speak Tagalog anymore; you’re in America now. How, later that night, when I slipped in Tagalog speaking with Daeneth, I looked around to make sure he wasn’t there to hear it.
That’s one way to lose your language. You move to another country, sometimes when you’re too young to understand what moving means, when you don’t know—but will find out later—that your parents were only thinking about your future. (Maybe, too, they were thinking of family, of the closeness that they missed when, one by one, their siblings moved from Pasuquin to the States; Laoag to the States; Baguio to the States—this gaping distance that can’t be closed by a two-hour drive.) You move to another country, and when you get there, it’s not an outsider admonishing you for your foreignness; it’s your grandfather. You’re in America now. You move to another country. You’re in America now. You wonder: who first spoke those words to him?
After my first day of fifth grade in America, a boy in my class approached me during recess. He said, Wait, so you’re from the Philippines? And I nodded yes. Born there, got here one or two weeks ago, however long it took for my mother to enroll me in my new elementary school.
That’s weird—you don’t have an accent.
Yeah, you don’t sound like a fob.
You know, fresh off the boat.
I didn’t know. We flew here, I wanted to tell him, but I was still confused, still stuck on accent. Earlier that schoolyear, when I was still in Baguio, my English teacher challenged our class to speak nothing but English during recess. One week, she said. Whoever lasted the longest…—well, maybe there was a prize for whoever didn’t slip, I don’t remember. I do remember that somebody walked around with a notepad with our names on it, tallying up how many times they overheard us speaking in Tagalog.
But that teacher never said anything about what an accent sounded like, what it meant to have one, what it meant to look like someone who might have one. We start learning English in kindergarten, I wanted to tell this boy, but he had walked away after he said fresh off the boat.
When I went home and my mom asked, How did your day go?, I said, Great!
I have not been home since I left. Sporadic visits over thirteen years: a list of trips that I wrote out and deleted because I couldn’t believe how short it was. California had been the next best thing. My grandparents, their children, and their grandchildren all lived, at one point, under one roof on the East Side of San José.
Back in the Philippines, we lived so far away from each other that sometimes I would only see my cousins once a year, once every two years. Family land was passed down to my grandparents’ children; family homes were inherited, the same ones that Papang grew up in or bought after the war. They’re still there, waiting for our return.
In San José, every part of the house was occupied. Where we once had acres of space, now we smothered each other. The house was full of everything. Every morning the men would go to the backyard and look at the fruits and vegetables they had planted, picking some before they were ready to be picked and offering them to their wives and their children to taste. Every night the women would drink coffee and gossip over the kitchen table, watching a telenovela on The Filipino Channel. And every weekend, the entire family would celebrate something—it didn’t matter what that something was, it could be Meagan taking her first steps or Manang May getting married to Kuya Eph.
The house was full of everything.
Lechon, leche flan, pinakbet, sinigang, lumpia, dinuguan, pancit, palabok, kare-kare, champorado, tinola, kaldereta, afritada, turon, bibingka—someone was always ready to fulfill your cravings for home with a meal made from scratch, regardless of the hour. Aunties coming home from night shifts at the assisted living facilities and hospitals they worked at, taking siestas in the family room before waking up to make spam and eggs and rice for us before we went to school.
Do you want something, anak ko?
It didn’t matter whose anak you were; if you wanted it, you got it. Food became the love language of coping with the distance from home, of working several jobs to make it in a new one, of being aware of your voice, the inflections—it’s more like COM-ftrble not com-FORT-able—of memorizing and practicing what words are supposed to sound like: What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean? Food became the love language, the salve that soothes (some of) the shame that came with constantly apologizing, Sorry, sorry, my English is not too good. Food, everyone understood.
Our house was full of everything.
So, when people left—it was inevitable, after all—we felt that emptiness, that silence. Suddenly, the spaces we had for ourselves were more than enough. Suddenly, we missed the smothering, the voices, the movements, the comings and goings.
I have not been home since I left. That was five years ago. I had never been to Hawai’i before 2012. When I reenlisted for Schofield Barracks, I had no expectations. I knew I had family there, scattered around O’ahu, but I only ever saw them in California. I remember everyone’s excitement when I told them: Hawai’i, finally, something they could get behind, not like middle-of-nowhere Kansas—all flat, all plain, with no decent Filipino grocery store in sight.
A day after I flew into Honolulu, I called my grandfather’s cousin (she’d say, Don’t call me his cousin; we’re more like siblings), Auntie Tina. I’m here, Auntie, I said, and she said, Stay put. We’re on our way. Oh my goodness, why didn’t you tell us you were going to be coming, balasang ko? We would have been prepared for your arrival. Anyway, stay put! We’re on our way.
She and her husband, Uncle Joe, picked me up at the Hale Koa five minutes later. Him, stepping out with a fedora and helping me put my luggage in his car’s trunk; her, hugging me, asking, When did you get here? Why didn’t you call us when you landed? Are you hungry? When I got a rental, I would drive from their place on Kamamalu Ave and explore: first, staying inside the Honolulu area, going to Ala Moana and Waikiki and Kahala; then, branching out, driving to Kaneohe, Waimea, Hawaii Kai.
Did you know that Filipinos make up the second largest population in Hawai’i, I tell Reid. It’s true; I checked. It made sense, then, that I felt like I belonged. It didn’t take long to love O’ahu like it was mine, driving to the places that I thought I’d never see again after leaving the Philippines: a Jollibee’s in Kalihi, a Max’s Restaurant in Honolulu, a Red Ribbon in Waipahu. I didn’t have to call dinuguan, chocolate meat, didn’t have to translate what this or that dish was or had, didn’t have to avert my eyes when answering the question, What the hell is that smell? The friends that I made there said instead: Girl, my mom makes all of that, too.
It makes sense, then, to say that I want to go back. I want the feeling of rush hour on the H-1 or the H-2, maybe Kamehameha Highway, the drivers throwing you a shaka immediately after cutting you off that you can’t help but smile and throw one back. I want the feeling of not having to pronounce my maiden name—of hearing it roll off someone’s tongue perfectly: Kweh-poh, not Cue-poe. I want the feeling of driving through neighborhoods that look like they could be plucked from any barangay in the Philippines—you know, those houses with mango trees and chickens running amok, houses stocked with Mang Tomas sauce and banana ketchup and Maggi seasoning, houses with Costco-sized bags of rice stacked on the side next to the open garage.
In Hawai’i, the language slips without embarrassment, without fear: Ilokano then English then Tagalog then Hawaiian then Pidgin then Ilokano again.
I want to grow pīkake. I want to cook the dishes that my aunties cooked, grow the fruits and vegetables my uncles grew, fill my closet with muumuus that look just like Auntie Tina’s so I can trick myself into thinking that they’re nearby, not 8,127 miles away, not 4,943 miles away, not 3,073 miles away. I want to go back to the house full of voices, full of movement, full of traffic.
Do you want something, anak ko?
I just want to come home.
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