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.

Broken Butterflies, Empty Homes and the Price of Forced Migration

A recent family tragedy in the Philippines really brings home the profound dislocation and loss that is the other wing of migration. That’s why the butterfly symbol for migration is based on broken assumptions. Assumptions that people come to the US because they want to, rather than forced to by the ravages of global capital. Only people in the 1st world can imagine migration without the accompanying loss and heartbreak. We believe the narrative of the migrant who wins the lottery to the land of milk and honey and builds a better life for her and her children. “How lucky they are,” we say.

This narrative misses the tragedy that forces entire populations from their homeland. 10,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines because they are driven out by economic forces. Children are gathering at the Mexican side of the US border because of desperate bid for survival. Humans are social creatures, we build families and communities because we need them for our physical, spiritual and mental survival. When we lose our families, our communities, we suffer profound trauma.

Imagine the life of the overseas workers, whom successive Filipino Presidents refer to as “heros of the economy.” Births, deaths, illnesses, and marriages happen half a world away. Children grow up without their mother, while their mother spend their days taking care of 1st world children or aging parents.

Back in the Philippines, neighborhoods are without mothers but littered with little mcMansions, gated monuments to the hard, break breaking labor of Filipino overseas workers. These homes conspicuously rise up, between bamboo houses and thatched roofs, concrete hopes of these women, who send money every month, while living in tiny NYC apartments, sharing a room. They scrub, wipe the asses of babies and the elderly, with the dream of retiring in their homeland, in their gated, concrete homes. They hold onto this fantasy as they watch their children grow up without them, miss funerals, and one year death anniversaries, Skype being a terrible substitute for actually living their lives with their families and communities.

When we received the phone call, telling us that a close family member just had a massive stroke and was on life support – There was nothing we could do. If we were in the Philippines, we could hold each other, grieve together, make food for the soon-to-be widow. But here? Here, life goes on, and we can only grieve by ourselves, wire money, light a candle. And wonder why we are a world apart.

And it is not just the big moments. It is the small ones, the sense of dislocation, not knowing your way, experiencing US racism, raising children in a land and language not your own.

But today, it is a big moment – a death of a loved one that brings the price of separation home. Can his grandson get off of school for a week? Can we afford tickets and time off work? In the Philippines, when someone dies, we do something like sitting shiva. The body is embalmed and comes back to the house and loved ones stay up all night with the body, neighbors come, food is eaten, cards played until sunrise. This goes on for an impossible 10-15 days. At the end, you are so exhausted, you are like a towel wrung out, all your grief spent, at least for a short time. Your loved one is buried and then you sleep. Here, we can’t join with the community to wring ourselves out.

RIP, to a fabulous farmer who always woke before sunrise and grew some of the most delicious rice I have ever eaten.

Thoughts on Getting Lost and Marauding Relatives

I have been reading Rebecca Solnit’s novel, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. A quote from her: “The mind too can be imagined as a landscape, but only the minds of sages might resemble tImagehe short-grass prairie…The rest of us have caverns, glaciers, torrential rivers, heavy fogs, chasms that open up underfoot, even marauding wildlife bearing family names.”

I guffawed at the last part, marauding wildlife/family trampling through the landscapes of our minds. As a Filipino family, we have a herds of water buffalo relatives that like to charge through our lives and loves. Like many immigrants, we have intercontinental family dramas. Arguments over cows, rice, and water buffalo cross space and time to come to roost here in hipster Williamsburg. The 20 year-old butchers over at Marlow and Daughters THINK they know all about meat – talk to my relatives, who can butcher, barbeque a pig AND climb a coconut tree and cut down some fresh coconuts with their bolo AND drink a case of San Miguel within 24 hour period. We also have the fastest intercontinental gossip (chismis) line, where gossip can somehow instantly get to the Philippines, and to several US states within 5 minutes or less.

No, but back to the book – on getting lost. I am there – hanging out in a place of no directions. Meditating on that. Getting. Lost. I am not the type of person to allow myself to “get lost.”  I knew I want to organize people for systemic change and collective action since I was 18. A therapist called me “actualized” at the age of 24. I went on a union organizing campaign at 28 and fell in love again. All of which means I have been “with it” for a long time or at least pretending I knew the way. Now that I am 40, I am much more likely to let you know I don’t know what the hell I am doing. So I mean that kind of lost – allowing myself to not know the way for a bit. This year promises big changes again, and my tendency is to plan, research, and make declarations. I am trying hard to avoid that and to let myself visit the caverns and the glaciers of my mind, to allow marauding worries plow through and then see the dust settle, to visit the scary corners and turn the lights off in the bright, shiny pretty scenes I have built for the visiting public. More later on getting lost…. For now, I will return to watching the snow.

We Laid His Body Down, anniversary of the murder of Filipino Labor Leader


“Bye Bye Miss American Pie…”

We were singing because it was a wake and this was HIS favorite song. It was night, and still almost 100 degrees because we were in the tropical Philippines. As is the custom when a loved one dies in the Philippines, we were all there for the duration of the night. It is traditional for everyone to stay with the family through the night – the hardest part of mourning, making it through the night. The body was in the house, sealed in the casket. We were outside, in front of the home, singing at the top of our lungs,

“took the chevy to the levy but the levy was dry”.

Tears, sweat, and laughter.

The dead man was Fortuna Diosdado (1954-2005), the president of the Nestle workers union. He was assassinated on Sept 22, 2005. Men on Motorcycles wearing ski masks shot him in the head. The Nestle workers were on strike because the company wanted to take away retirement benefits in their collective bargaining agreement. He was also a father and a husband and he loved Don Mclean songs.

“Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day”

 I met him once, I remember his smile and warm greeting. We were all laughing in the back of the jeepney – going home after a rally. He was loved. Loved by workers and his family. His nickname was Ka. Fort. (Ka. is an abbreviation for kasama, which means “to go with.” There is no real English translation, comrade is the closest but kasama doesn’t have to be political. It means someone who walks “with you”.)

Ka. Fort’s death, his murder, shook us all. We were not going to only mourn in the darkness. We were going to keen and gnash our teeth and shake our fists in the day.

We took his body 100 miles from his home to Manila. His casket on a flatbed truck covered in flowers. We followed, in jeepneys and on foot. Hundreds of us, we brought his body to the doors of the Commission of Human rights who had so clearly failed to stop the murder of labor leaders in the Philippines. We took his body to the front of the Nestle HQ in Manila. There, men all in black with large guns greeted us, Nestlé private Security. Standing faceless, with automatic weapons in front, guarding the modern office building of a worldwide corporation.

All along our pilgrimage of rage and grief, police and military followed us, sometimes stopping us for hours, blocking traffic. I rodein the jeepney with Ka Fort’s older brother. A man in his 60’s yelling out the windows at the military, you are all murderers!

It was hot. It was humid. We were dripping in sweat. We were exhausted and angry and covered in grime and dirt. We were stopped again, the police and military blocking the highway. Cars and busses that were not part of our caravan jumped the median to get out of the blockade. We poured out of vehicles and moved towards Ka. Fort’s casket. The police had water cannons pointed at us and at his casket. His sister was screaming at police in riot gear. I began sobbing uncontrollably, overcome from days of no sleep, from special security precautions, from the reality of a dead labor leader’s body so threatened by water cannons.

“With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land”

Finally, the police turned around and let us leave Manila. We began a long journey back to Ka Fort’s hometown, back to the gates of the Neslte factory where he had spent more than 2 decades working. Back to the strike line. As we entered the barangay(town) we all got out and walked behind his body. People lined the streets. It was dark by the time we arrived, but still steaming hot. Children, women and men all stood on the side of the road, fists raised high to honor Ka Fort’s commitment to the rights of workers. Many held candles, their faces lit and glowing in the darkness as we all walked forward carried by our mission.

“Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They did not listen, They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now”

 Suddenly we saw the darkened, locked gates of the Nestle factory and our mood changed and fury swept over the crowd. We rushed the gates and shook the bars and screamed “murderers!” We shook and shook the bars, the sound of metal scraping against concrete, the angry words, the sweat, the smell of fear, all washed up over the concrete the way heat rises from pavement. Then suddenly from behind the storage containers that were lined up behind the gates of the factory – more men in black. They scurried out into positions, automatic weapons trained on us – unarmed civilians. The organizers, realizing the imminent danger, began shouting “peace brothers and sisters” and “ move away from the gates” so we did, and we began our final vigil. After a long day, the next day we had to bury our friend, labor leader, father, brother, husband – but tonite we sang our final songs on the strike line. The men with guns in the shadows, watching and guarding their corporate masters.


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

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:

Welcome Home Artchan (& our messed up immigration system, plus real questions about the Pilgrims)

You may have looked at our picture above and said “Wait! She said there were 3 kids, but they are only 2 in the picture.” Or maybe you didn’t notice because the picture looks so much like a commercial for a TV sitcom that you were too busy imagining yourself as the cool auntie/uncle that stops by to teach the kids how make spitballs or farting sounds with your armpit. But back to the task at hand – who is this mysterious 3rd child and where did he come from?

Artchan is Charina’s 5 year old son and to explain why he just now joined us – I have to do a brief run-down of our messed up immigration system. More than 22 years ago, my mother, as a naturalized US “citizen”, petitioned for one of her sisters and her brother to come here as “legal” immigrants. I put “legal” in quotes because “legal” and the corresponding “illegal” and “citizen” and “immigrant” are all just fluid, legal, constructs. Our society changes the meaning – for instance in this country’s creation story – what are Pilgrims anyway? Today, they would be called EWI’s – illegal aliens who Entered Without Inspection. A lawyer today would have to tell Captain John Smith – “I don’t care if you marry Pocahontas – you can’t get legal, and if you leave for England, you will be banned for 10 years from coming back.”

The tragedy of it all is that the average wait for a family/sibiling petition for someone from the Philippines is 20 years.  Can you imagine? A lot of life can happen in the span of 2 decades. In my Aunt’s case – she became a mom and then a grandmother by the time her petition came through – 22 years later. Which left Auntie Alecia and her daughter Charina with a terrible choice – because the petition would allow Charina as an unmarried child under 21 to come under the petition, but NOT Charina’s son/Auntie’s grandson – Artchan.

Of course, in an age of forced migration caused by massive global, economic inequality this is a story that is well worn with tattered pages for millions of the people of the world. The 3rd world IS the 99%.  Just go into any western union and see the ads for sending flowers to the funeral/wedding/graduation of a son/daughter/abuela/spouse  that a migrant worker has had to miss while toiling away in the shadows of the 1st world.

The heartbreaking thing is that those in the Global South are so used to making these “choices” between a whole heart or surviving the trash heap that they were thrown into by unrelenting capitalism, that the impossible choice become commonplace. Of course – if given the chance to go the US, the land of milk and honey, you go. It’s like winning the ultimate lottery in the global monopoly game. If you didn’t take it – what would it say about the game?

After Charina arrived with that green card in hand – she could petition for her son. That took 3 years. Well, actually after 2 years she was approved, but then when we got all the paperwork together – we called the visa center and they said “Well yes, you did have visa BEFORE, but NOW we are backlogged again, so we can’t give you a visa anymore.” So back in line we went, and every month we had to check a “Visa Bulletin”, that would tell us whose number was being called. Every month we crossed our fingers and held our breaths. And then after 6 months of this, his number was finally called again. This time, all our paperwork was already iin, so the process went smoothly.

This July, Charina was able to bring her baby with her. And we are so happy to have him here. But, it is bittersweet, his family back home misses him terribly, especially his father. His father will never get a visitors visa to come here – he would be deemed a flight risk.

But still. We welcome Artchan into our barangay! We had been saving a spot for him for the last few years. Our hearts feel better now that he is here, with us, but really he has always been in our hearts while we waited for that golden ticket.