The Philippines that I knew

I was born in the poorest parts of Manila and spent the first few years of my life at a time the country was in the midst of political turmoil during the latter part of Marcos’ reign just before he was ousted. Although we didn’t have much, I had many happy memories of playing in the streets with my young friends, celebrating the many fiestas that was part of our culture and the rare outings with my family to the park. Being a child, I didn’t know anything else other than the little one bedroom apartment our family of 6 lived in and the mean streets surrounding it.

Growing up in Australia

When I was eight years old we moved to Australia, and one of my first memories was a classmate asking “what is Philippines?” The meaner kids would tease and tell me to “go back to China”. Back in those days, it seemed, not many Australians had knowledge of where in the world the Philippines was, let alone know anything about the people or the culture. When the Philippines made the news, it was usually negative, such as natural disasters, corrupt government officials and how many shoes Imelda Marcos owned, abundant crime and devastating poverty. As a result I grew up with a negative image of my own country.

In the 30 years that I have lived in Australia I have only been back to the Philippines a total of four times, the first three times not by choice (i.e. obligated to go by my parents and once on a business trip).

Seeing the Philippines with fresh eyes

What changed my perspective of the Philippines was my last travel there. I got married a few years ago to an Australian man who loved all things Asian, and whose bucket list included a visit to the Philippines. I wanted him and our kids to know where I came from, so we began planning our trip. I made sure to include a good mix of history, culture, city-scapes, country-scapes, adventure and island hopping in our itinerary so that they could get a good taster for what this country was about. I learned so much just from planning the trip and doing research on the different places, but I can say my perspective truly changed when we finally got to visit this great archipelago of some 7,641 islands.

My emotions were stirred before we even touch-landed on the tarmac of Manila airport. Seeing the breath-taking islands from the airplane amidst amazing turquoise-hued waters made me teary-eyed. This land of my birth, wracked by natural disasters, let down by bad government, and debilitated by poverty, had such ethereal beauty from the sky, that not many foreigners get to see, and under-appreciated by Filipinos themselves.

Seeing my motherland through the eyes of my husband, a foreigner, made me see a different side to the country of my birth. Also, this is the first time I ventured far outside Manila to some of the many islands. My husband and I were amazed at the great diversity of things to see and do in the Philippines: from world-class Bonifacio Global City in Manila with modern skyscrapers to historical Intramuros, to highlands of northern Luzon to the tropical paradise of the beautiful islands. The Philippines truly exceeded our expectations.

We also got to meet the friendliest and care-free people in our travels. What makes Filipinos so chilled is precisely because they have experienced so much hardship over the generations that they’ve embraced the “whatever will be will be” mantra (they even have a saying “bahala na” that reflects that). They make the best of whatever situation they find themselves in, and are always optimistic. I also marvelled at how amazingly multilingual the people were. Everywhere we went (especially in the islands) people would speak to me in Tagalog (the national tongue), then in English to my husband, then in their native dialect with each other. It amazed me the ease with which everyone switched from one language to another – from the hotel manager down to the humble bar attendant.

Our vacation was only for two weeks, and in the last few days, we took to the streets outside of our hotel and gave away ours and our kids’ old clothes, shoes and toys that we had brought along for the trip. It was the highlight of our trip as a family, as our kids got to see real poverty first hand and giving away their old things made them realise how lucky they are and not to take anything for granted. The smiles on the Filipino children’s faces were priceless – they were so excited to receive things from total strangers, that afterwards they couldn’t stop thanking us. Even our own kids, long after we got back to Australia, still fondly remember how good they felt giving away their unused things. It made them realise the truth to the saying “it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

As for me, my trip to my motherland made me appreciate fully the country and its people; it reminded me to look beyond the negative press the country gets and peel back the curtain to see the beauty that I had under-appreciated for so long. T.S. Elliot said it well: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”