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.

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: