• February 28, 2024

Haunted by Home

I miss Cagayan de Oro, my hometown in the Philippines. I remember the days I spent bathing in the Cagayan River, playing with childhood friends, speaking Bisaya, and welcoming the warm embrace of the earth. But now I’ve lived in the United States for almost eight years and this homesickness has never left me. The increased anti-Asian hate has only made me feel less “at home” in the U.S., while Cagayan feels too far away. Torn between two continents, I struggle to find belonging in either.

I moved to the U.S. in 2015 for my dad’s seminary education. We immigrated with international student visas, so we didn’t have citizenship. We joined various evangelical spaces where white people towered over me, speaking and worshipping God in unfamiliar English. A midwestern accent replaced my “heavy” accent, and Bisaya slowly dissolved into memory. I remember calling one of my friends who spoke Bisaya. I couldn’t keep up with our conversation and constantly reverted to my midwestern English. Another friend from the Philippines started calling me an “American” when they realized I could no longer speak Bisaya. After both interactions, I wept for whatever vestige of Cagayan I had left.

In losing Bisaya, home escaped my grasp, taking with it my sense of identity. I felt that I became “less Filipino” with the loss of Bisaya — unable to read, write, pray, or speak in the language. Now, Cagayan is a ghost that haunts me wherever I go, beckoning for my return. But whenever I turn around, I find myself back in the U.S. This homesickness pulls me into my memory. I desire to belong like I did as a child in Cagayan de Oro, in a familiar place filled with recognizable people, a comforting culture, and the language of my heart.

Throughout my time in the U.S., I met other Filipinos, but they were not new immigrants or international students like me. They were American citizens who voted in elections, lived in big homes, drove expensive cars, spoke with perfect “American” accents, and had lucrative careers. In contrast to many of them, my family had a beat-up 2004 Subaru Forester and lived on financial aid from my dad’s seminary.

At my former Bible college, other students recognized my midwestern accent and categorized me as a “Filipino American,” a label I disliked because of the disparities between citizens and immigrants. I would respond, “No, I’m not Filipino American. They’re different.”

I responded with aversion because I did not understand what it meant to be “American” when I felt no belonging here. At the same time, I also struggled to figure out what being “Filipino” meant in the U.S., a country where many pressured me to forsake my culture. I realized after encountering the students who categorized me as “Filipino American” that maybe I didn’t quite belong either to Filipinos or Filipino Americans. I had become “too American” for the former and was “not American enough” for the latter.

So where really is my home? I am not so sure. Every day, I wake up in the United States, a place I don’t belong in, and haunted by Cagayan, a distant home of equal unbelonging. Hence, I feel as if I am neither Filipino nor Filipino American, estranged from my homeland and racialized by the western empire I’m currently living in. At a time when racist attitudes are directed at people who look like me, I am reminded that the yearning for home remains.

But while home may be hard to find here, I am still choosing to forge it. I now live in central New Jersey, where I started working at a local small-scale farm to care for this land. In this work, the dirt covers my fingertips, bonding me to this local part of the earth, and shaping who I am as a dweller on New Jersey soil – or, more precisely, Lenapehoking (Lenni-Lenape) land. One thing I have learned in working this land is that, despite the alienation I feel as an immigrant, the earth still welcomes me, providing me with the food, water, and oxygen I need to live. In that, I am reminded of Cagayan de Oro, a place where I first felt embraced by the earth. Thus, I am choosing to forge home here in the U.S. by learning to be vulnerable to the earth’s embrace, and by allowing it to teach me, to change me, to touch me.

The tensions of my identity formation call me to choose to make a home in a place that does not feel like home. In becoming vulnerable to the land, I am finding myself situated in where I am now, living with the life before me: my loved ones, friends, strangers, plants, animals, soil, and water. With them, I set off to wrestle for belonging in this foreign land.

 

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