Going Home, walking between borders and Living in the House of Trump

It is obvious that Trump and his followers doesn’t think we belong here.

Who do I mean by “we”? Brown skinned immigrants. His wives are immigrants, but he never talks about dirty Russians or suspicious Eastern Europeans. Black Americans, people who disagree with his politics – obviously also other.

My kids always use “American” as short hand for white American. I ask, do you mean “white American?” or “Black American?” or “Asian American?” Clearly, they perceive our otherness, in this culture and in the House of Trump. “American” defaults to Whiteness.

A Trump supporter yells, go back to Africa, go back to Mexico, tells all “Muslims” to go back to Islam(!??!). The US Supreme Court allows for the forcible internment, imprisonment of all people of Japanese descent, their US citizenship not protecting them. I learned about this as a child and realized that this belief – the belief that we are not really American, even if born here, this applies to me. This place has always been the House of Trump.

My mom always calls the Philippines “back home.” A US citizen for decades but the Philippines is always back home. A reader of my blog (thanks for reading!) asked me whether the Philippines is home. And I have been thinking a lot about it.

I was born in the US and grew up only understanding every nook and cranny of American racism, white supremacy, hatred of women. The Philippines is respite for me, where my small Asian body feels more at home and not alien, but the culture, the politics, the colonialism and its impacts are mysteries I experience only at Skype’s length of through Facebook posts. But the US can never totally be home because it includes the House of Trump and its inhabitants feel like they could kick us out at any moment, no matter citizenship.

I remember vividly the joy of returning back to the Philippines for the first time. I was astounded that my family could greet me with open arms, that the country recognized me as a returning fellow countryperson, a member of the diaspora, even though it was my first actual physical step in the Philippines. I was relating this to my friend, a Black-American and he said he wished he had that. The brutality of American-slavery was the destruction of that return home. Where would he go? To the place of his enslavement? But the US is his because his ancestors built it – it became a world superpower because of 400 years of slavery meant an accumulation of wealth at the hands of the ruling elite that no one could match.

The US is mine, because I was born here but I will always be a stranger too. The Philippines is home because my heart was born there, but I will always also be a stranger. Children of immigrants, we walk borderlands, we follow whispers, we dive into deep caves. And let’s not kid ourselves, the House of Trump has always been here. This country was built on equal parts genocide, slavery, war, imperialism, AND hope, revolution, protest, and resistance. As always, the question is Which Side are You On?


Balikbayan – On Returning Home

Balikbayan translated


root words (at the root of it) =

Balik: to return, to go back

Bayan: a town, the nation, the “People”, the homeland,

 Balikbayan = Specifically: A person who returns to the Philippines, usually after an extended time living and working abroad. Generally: a person who returns to their homeland. Radically: A person who returns to the People,

Balikbayan box – A box of gifts, remembrances, first world status symbols that the Balikbayan brings with them to compensate (but never really compensate) for the long absences, the missing of decades of birthdays, weddings, funerals, christenings. They have changed over time, from Spam to Old Navy T-shirts made in some other 3rd World country. Aspiration Definition: The treasure we bring back, the dreams, the hopes.

Preparing for the return home to the Philippines. Technically, I am not a Balikbayan. I was born in the United States. Geography and place of birth and the heart can be contradictory. My mother is the true Balikbayan who returns home with half decades and half lives lived between. I am her daughter and I chose the balikbayan status, the obligations of the balikbayan box, the money wired overseas, the designation of godmother to children of cousins of cousins.

I compile lists to prepare, Tita Vingyan, and her 14 children, born while Tito Carding worked his whole life as a groundskeeper at the American School in Saudi Arabia, his life inspiring the naming of one child – “Haji.” But what about her son Kuya Ahbet, isn’t he working in Dubai as a construction worker? Ahh no, he returned, after deciding it was too hard to be away. And Tita Budha? Who is skinny like bamboo and has lived her life next to the railroad tracks, and squatter camps and whose children are scattered. And what about the children of those children? Lists and lists, and trying to remember ages, sizes, creating timelapse photos in my head from 5 years ago.

Why take it on? – Why take on the stress of trying to compensate for the pure luck of my circumstance, being born in the ruling empire of this era, rather than the colonized nation of my mother? I do it for love. Not my love, but theirs, in exchange for claiming my 2nd generation Balikbayan status, I get a whole family, I get a homeland, and a place TO return. And yes that family is full of drama, anger, petty jealousies, and grudges. But remembering what Audre Lorde said, that we were never meant to survive, and those words are so true of the colonized, violated 3rd word nations like the Philippines. To survive and to build the bridge from one country to another, to RETURN. From the Palestinian fight for the right to return to the lands stolen, to the domestic worker wiping the ass of their first world employers’ child or parent who fights to return. So I claim the right to return back to my mothers’ country, and in exchange for my boxes of gifts I get tears, embraces, love, and the land I lost.

Rough Seas

It makes so much sense that the basic unit of government in the Philippines is called a barangay – from the word “balangay” – a sea faring ship. Much of Filipino culture and livelihood is based on the ocean. As a country made of of more than 1,700 islands, it is heard to image a war with the ocean – undoubtedly the ocean will win.

And so as our family in the Philippines is left to rebuild again, after this last battle with nature, it is time to talk climate change reality. The irony is that that, like most people in the 3rd world, Filipinos are some of the “greenest” around. If energy is scarce and expensive, then it is not wasted like we do in the United States.

In 2005, I spent 5 months in the Philippines, staying with family and on weekends and spending my time with the labor org, KMU, Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st movement). During those 5 months, I watched as every night-  all outlets were unplugged, every plastic bag saved and reused. I visited people in houses made from scavenged billboards. Families live with 15 people in a tiny house. Nothing is wasted by the poor of the Philippines. Government buildings were only half lit, in an attempt to save money. I myself, began to compulsively save plastic and cardboard, I was living with workers on strike lines and on the street – plastic bags were essential to protect myself from the elements and sometimes to stash my cell phone in in case the police used their hoses on us. Cardboard was often my only barrier between the sidewalk and myself.

The Philippines, one of the poorest countries in the world, is also energy poor. My family in the rural area only got access to electricity 20 years ago. Manila is used to “brown outs” – regular and intermittent loss of electricity.

All of this goes to say that the Philippines has contributed little to nothing of the greenhouse gases, and yet. And yet, it is being ravaged by some of the strongest storms on the planet. Studies put the Philippines at number 4 country in the world to be the most vulnerable to the impending disaster of climate change.

We, as Filipinos here and abroad, need to start screaming about climate change, raging about climate change and fighting for climate change justice. We will never win a war with the ocean.


On the frontlines of climate catastrophe


pic by me

Balactasan, Aklan, pic by me

The Philippines is beautiful. I say this to remind myself because all the pictures of death and destruction make it hard to remember. The first time I visited the province of Aklan, our family’s ancestral lands, was when I was 19. It looked like paradise. Children jumping from the bridge into the crystal clear river. Palm trees and coconuts, mangos and pineapple, fresh bananas and coconut. It was also terribly poor and without much of a future for the next generation. Rice farming barely eked out a living. There was no electricity. The only carbon we burned was bio-mass-plants and trash to keep away the mosquitoes at night.

The last few days, our brooklyn household has been anxiously glued to the TV and the internet to get news from the Philippines. On twitter, we have been sharing satellite pictures of this super-typhoon, the most powerful storm to hit the planet,  threatening our families. We all stayed up all night, desperately looking for news from parts of the Philippines that have been wiped out and with no power and no cell phone.

Knowing the Philippines and knowing how we live in homes made of nipa and bamboo, we knew what being hit by the strongest typhoon in the history of the planet meant for the Philippines. The video and news of total destruction just confirmed what we all dreaded in our hearts.


My grandmother’s house – in Aklan, in 2000, gone now, my pic.

And we are exhausted, typhoon weary. Our family lost everything a few years ago, in 2008, when Typhoon Ondoy dumped so much rain, that our home was flooded by the nearby river. Our home had never been flooded before – we were 100 feet above the river. This time, many of our family lost their homes and roofs to the wind. How many more times can we raise money from our friends and neighbors, how many times can we send boxes of clothes and food? My family in Manila were flooded out just this year in August. What will happen to our country – will it just be wiped out to sea? The news and pictures coming from the Philippines is almost too much to bear. But we have no choice but to bear it for the sake of the dead and living. And I am angry. It is like our land is being stolen, because who can rebuild and rebuild again and again?

I will post next about the brave efforts of our Filipino representative at the UN climate talks in Warsaw Poland. For now, I end with a call, yes please donate and give money to relief efforts. But then – remember that many of those on the frontlines of the climate catastrophe can’t choose BUT YOU can choose to get on the frontline – fight the XL Pipeline, fight coal and big oil, demand a Just transition to renewable energy. Demand that industrialized nations help countries like the Philippines transition to renewable energy.

Discovery of new Balangay “mother ship”

Givebalangay2n the name of my blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t post about this exciting discovery. As I mention in my “about” section, the Filipino word Barangay means the smallest administrative unit of government in the Philippines, like a neighborhood or barrio. It is believed that our Filipino ancestors built the ships that could take 100 or so people, and these 100 or so people became a barangay. This past August, a new, much larger balangay was found in Butuan in the Philippines. This ship pre-dates Magellan and indicates and ability to travel and trade with much of Asia – further than originally thought. Here is a link to the story http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/321334/scitech/science/massive-balangay-mother-boat-unearthed-in-butuan.

There is a lot of lost Filipino history that we, as Filipinos don’t know. As my cousin says, who grew-up in the Philippines, “we know more about American history, than our own.” Of course, this was deliberate. When the US took the Philippines as a colony, after committing genocide, killing up to 200,000 people on the island of Samar, they then began a system of killing our history and sense of ourselves as a people. They brought in American textbooks, taught English, ran the government in English. This is very similar to what the US government did here, in North America, killing the First Nations here and then banning their language and their religion and kidnapping their children to place with white families.

Just a thought as we go into the weekend, I leave you with an excerpt from Saul Williams’ poem – Amethyst Rocks

I dance for no reason, for reason you can’t dance,
call me an activist of intellectualized circumstance,
you can’t learn my steps until you unlearn your thoughts,
spirit, soul, can be store-bought, fuck thought,
leads to naught, simply leads to you trying to figure me out,
your intellect’s disfiguring your soul,
your being’s not whole, check your flagpole,
stars and stripes, your astrology’s
imprisoned by your concept of white, of self,
what’s your plan for spiritual health? Calling reality unreal,
your line of thought is tangled, the star
spangled got your soul mangled, your being’s angled,
forbidding you to be real and feel, you can’t find truth
with an axe or a drill in a white house on a hill or
in factories or plants made of steel. Selling us was the
smartest thing you ever did, too bad you don’t teach the
truth to your kids. My influence on user reflection you
see when you look in your minstrel mirror and talk about
your culture, your existence is that of a schizophrenic
vulture who thinks he has enough life in him to prey on the dead,
not knowing that the dead ain’t dead, that he ain’t got enough
spirituality to know how to pray. Yeah, there’s no repentance,
you’re bound to live in infinite consecutive executive life sentence.


On Kal Penn & Owning Up to Hate in our Asian-American communities

ImageThe other day the Twittersphere was all a-twitter about Kal Penn’s tweets supporting racist profiling by the NYPD in their stop and frisk harassment program.   When questioned by his Twitter followers as to why he supported stop & frisk, a program that disproportionately targets Black and Latino young men in NY, he answered “and who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”  His tweet implying that it was Black and Latinos committing the most crimes out there anyway, so a little racial profiling was justified.**

But really this blog post is not about Kal Penn or about stop and frisk, but about how we shouldn’t be surprised by Kal’s tweets. Rather, my post is about how we should be pleasantly surprised by the support of leaders in the South Asian community and how it led to Kal’s subsequent change of heart. I think it reveals a profound shift in the Asian-American community. I hope that this shift continues but it won’t without: a. recognition of the problem and b. continuing education on the history of Black America – a source of profound lessons in organizing against state power resistance to oppression, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and theories of social change.

Growing up Asian-American in the rural South meant I experienced racism from an early age. But it also meant that I was taught to fear and hate Blackness from both my White father and my Filipina mother. Some teaching moments:

  • We stopped going to a public pool that I loved because “too many Black kids go there.”
  • When I dated a Black boy for the first time, my mother said, “White people hate Black people so it’s just better if you stay away from them.”
  • My White grandmother complained about integration saying that Whites and Blacks shouldn’t go the same schools. I asked, “But grandma, what about me, and she said well White people don’t mind your kind as much.”

But for me, a transformative moment happened when I received a hate letter in high school, signed “KKK”, using racial epithets and telling me to go back to China, and wishing me dead. I knew who did it; they were privileged, popular upper-middle class White guys who thought they were funny. So I turned them in to the school administration and immediately many of my White “friends” questioned my decision. Predictably, they felt sorry for those boys and didn’t understand why I didn’t understand it was a joke. Rumors were flying around the school that I should be prepared to get my “ass kicked.”

I felt alone. Until a Black classmate of mine, whom I barely knew came up to me. He said, “Hey we heard about what happened to you and I just want you to know that if any of those white boys touch you, every Black guy in the school is going to kick their ass.” Then he walked away.

I learned a powerful lesson about whiteness, blackness, race, and solidarity. I learned that day, that I may be “half-white” or “light skinned,” but the One drop rule still applies. I also learned that all those lessons that I learned about Blackness and Whiteness from my mother was wrong. We would never be assimilated – when push came to shove, White people mainly like and side with White people, and Blackness was powerful and could be our ally if only we weren’t so busy hating and trying to align ourselves with Whiteness.

So I was very happy that Kal Penn’s Twitter followers called him out on his own anti-Black prejudice. And even better, South-Asian community leaders then reached out to him to replace his childhood lessons with new ones.

** The actual statistics that came out in the class action lawsuit to stop NYPD’s racist stop and frisk policy in NYC: Out of 4.4 million stops, only 6 percent led to an arrest, which means that cops were wrong 16 times more often than they were right. (Source: http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/08/stop_and_frisk_south_asians_and_kal_penns_tweets.html)