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?

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Balikbayan – On Returning Home

Balikbayan translated

Balikbayan:

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.

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.

Welcome aboard our barangay!

What is a barangay anyway? Pronounced like “bar-ang-guy”

Wikipedia has this to say about barangay:

“When the first Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they found the Filipinos having a civilization of their own and some living in well-organized independent villages called barangays. The name barangay originated from balangay, a Malay word meaning “sailboat”.”  In pre-colonial times settlers from Malaysia and Indonesia came in these boats, and settled in villages in the Philippines. Nowadays, barangay refers to the smallest unit of administrative government, it’s like a barrio or neighborhood.

In our case, our Brooklyn barangay consists of one loft, seven people, lots of love, struggle and dishes to wash. We are Filipinos, immigrants, Jewish, Americans, radicals, students, organizers, one lawyer and 3 children – afloat in the unbearable hipness of being in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We often have extra passengers that stay on our sofa. It is quite a ride, and we thought maybe you would want to join us!