The Pain of Homesickness
By Apolinario Villalobos
When I was young, I had that ardent desire to go abroad. For me that time, abroad was America. As I grew older, however, that desire slowly faded from my mind. Many are surprised then to know that despite my having worked with an airline, my passport has never been stained by any US consular mark. I love to travel, yes, but my heart never pines for the so-called land of opportunities until now. My gladness, however, goes to those who endeavor to step on Uncle Sam’s shores, by doing practically everything, including borrowing documents and money for “show”, just to successfully acquire that longed-for mark on their passport.
The overused one valid reason to get a US visa is for having relatives to visit. Some honestly admit their desire to look for a “greener pasture”, but will not stay permanently which is just fine. But still, some find America as a last resort in their effort to evade the law after having committed a crime in the country.
Those who are hardworking, indeed, found a greener pasture by working three shifts at the most, leaving barely four hours of sleep after spending at least one hour for their commuting from home to their jobs and back. There are some however, who got dismayed for not landing a single job after almost a year of stay, which to some extent could be their own fault for expecting similar white collar job they have in the Philippines. General disappointment begins to seep in when not enough is left for savings after finding hourly jobs.
American life is very much different from that of the Philippines’. While America’s economy is hinged on its people’s habitual spending using the plastic card, in the Philippines, most transactions are still in cash. In America, what you earn you “should” spend as you have no choice but pay credit card purchases on time based on the bills that you regularly receive. So what is there to save? Any failure to pay could mean nightmarish court appearances. In the Philippines, unpaid bills are still afforded a special consideration of extension, except of course, the electric and water bills as failure could mean cutting off of connection.
The life as earlier mentioned is what the senior citizens who found their way back home to the Philippines always mention to friends after having spent considerable time in America. Practically, all of them would say that there’s nothing like being back to one’s land of birth. They say that they came home to die, but will spend their remaining days island-hoppingto make up for the lost time. The pang of loneliness have always gnawed at their heart, especially , during Christmas. It is the worst time for those who brave thick snows just to get to work to earn the green bucks that loved ones back in the Philippines need for tuition fees, house rent and the like. Filipino families who are used to the kind of Christmas in the Philippines make do with inviting relatives and friends to their home to enjoy Filipino foods, some window shopping, and the rest of the time spent at home with families or alone, pretending that they enjoy every minute of the season.
In the Philippines, the “simbang gabi” which has always been the mark of Christmas becomes the occasion of reunions, being attended with friends or families. For those who live in Manila, the Rizal Park provides a solace with its dancing lights, “tiangge” stalls and gay crowd. And, one can always make a surprise visit to friends and families, something that cannot be done in America, where, practically everybody is busy.
Last December, while enjoying the company of two families from Tondo, sprawled on two big mats for the night in the crowded space fronting the dancing lights of Rizal Park, I observed an elderly man and a boy giving out small bars of chocnut and biscuits to children. An exchange of smile between us sparked a conversation. He told me that the boy was his grandson, and that his wife with their two other grandchildren were in the vicinity of the grandstand doing their own round of sharing. They were balikbayans, he said, and just arrived four days before from California. For what they were sharing, he said, the budget was ten thousand pesos. He extended an invitation for me to join them in their van at around ten that evening. For curiosity’s sake, I accepted the invitation.
Locating the van was easy as it was parked just near the south gate of the Children’s Museum. A small table beside the van was filled with boiled bananas and sweet potatoes, several broiled tilapia and bangus, salad that consisted of half-ripe mangoes, tomatoes and white onion with a dash of alamang bagoong, rice, ginger brew and coffee. Nobody sat as there was no chair. Stories of how each enjoyed sharing the goodies were shared. I just listened.
The elderly guy told me that he has already made an arrangement for the purchase of a house in Laguna so that he and his wife could retire in the Philippines in two years’ time. They would like to bring with them their grandchildren here so that they would grow just like any other Filipino, while their parents could stay behind in California as both have good jobs there. He said that America with its seemingly deteriorating values no longer appear to be a paradise, but for short stays to earn dollars would be alright. His parting words were, “if homesickness could kill, I would not be here now…but I held on to my wits and pretended to enjoy my stay there, for the sake of my family…”
As I traced my steps back to my two family friends, I was thankful that I did not harbor such painful feeling of homesickness, the way my new-found balikbayan friend described it. I felt blessed that night in the company of my friends belonging to two families, one considers home a pushcart parked in a sidestreet of Divisoria and the other contented in a cramped small room in Baseco Compound in Tondo. Our dinner fare that night: chicken feet adobo, cow’s skin (balbakua) which I cooked myself in coconut milk, plenty of siling labuyo and curry powder, boiled green bananas, sweet potatoes, Milo for the children and coffee for the adults. The two heads of the families were the ones I mentioned in my earlier blog, about two cigarette vendors who were having a late breakfast in a sidewalk food stall near Fabella Center, and who were talking about donating their saved money to the victims of typhoon Yolanda. I went back to the sidewalk food stall two weeks later, and patiently waited for them with the intention of getting their trust so that I would know more about their lives. After getting such, I was given the liberty to spend some of my time with them, an opportunity that included the invitation to join them in their yearly Christmas dinner at the Rizal Park.