It’s so easy to forget things.
Where you left your keys; that plan you made with a friend; how to do long division.
But when the thing you’ve forgotten is so important, so integral to your life and who you are, you can go on living feeling a little incomplete: like an invisible blanket has been thrown over your eyes.
In January 2016 I visited the Philippines.
This is where my roots lie, where my mother is from and where dozens of my aunties, uncles and cousins live, work and support one another.
After 18 years away, coming back to where I started was life-changing.
It was like having that invisible blanket lifted: and I began to understand a lot more about myself, my family, and the country whose history and culture run through my veins.
The Deligentes live in Victorias City, a small town (that’s not really a city) about 40 minutes away from Bacolod.
It’s famous for the world’s largest integrated sugar mill, a fact highlighted by the rows of sugarcane extending miles over the horizon.
It’s not much, as far as towns go: there’s a bank, some bakeries, makeshift houses with tin slab rooves, pop-up vendors selling bbq pork and fresh OJ, tricycles dodging in between huge 4x4s, schoolchildren skipping by the sides of the road, stray dogs following the scent of dinner, palm trees crossing with telephone wires, private cock-fighting farms, men sipping red horse beer at the front of the house, delivery guys dropping off cases of coca-cola bottles, half-built brick houses in empty plots of land, makeshift street signs advertising “the best school in Negros Occidental”, “Vote Bong Bong for Mayor” posters foreshadowing the upcoming presidential elections, a beautiful ivory town hall and its surrounding gardens, young women on their iPhones idly spooning their halo-halo, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, people in their day to day making ends meet in their small community.
Here’s a video I shot of the place, to give you a glimpse (taken inside the back of a tricycle):
We stayed with our Tita (Auntie) Virgie, who lives in a big house with eleven other family members, including her sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
Now, you must realise I’ve not been back to Victorias since I was about seven.
18 years is a massive amount of time, and so after landing at Bacolod Airport and seeing a small, smiling woman squeal and extend her arms, flanked by two well-built men in their late-twenties (who I used to play the Playstation with), time froze for a moment.
It all came flooding back: an 18 year-long gap was about to be filled.
“Hey cuz, do you remember me?”
It started raining on the drive home.
“Aray! Marlo ay makakakuha ng basa!”
My cousin was sitting in the back of the pickup truck, getting drenched.
My cousin Teng, driving, pulled over to the side of the road.
It was pitch black outside, save for a few flickering streetlights in the distance. All infrastructure was incomplete on these country roads.
Marlo ran into the car, squeezing in beside my mom, sister and Tita.
“Marlo you’re not so small anymore!”
We laughed. The kid I used to duke it out with on Tekken was now a 28-year-old programmer with a beard.
Teng turned to me and asked: “Hey Doy, do you want to see the pigs tomorrow?”
Surprised, I gave a “…yeah?”
“I’m a pig farmer, it is our business now. Every morning I get up at 4am to take the pigs to market. You used to drive a motorbike in Vietnam, right?
“I drive a motorbike with sidecar to the market. My pig sits in the sidecar.”
My family have several business outlets.
There’s the pig farm, which helps pay for the house.
Then there’s the boarding house: my Tita provides accommodation and dinner for schoolkids attending a prestigious Science and Maths academy in Victorias.
The boarding house sits just down the street from the house. Her husband, Tito Boy, is the nightguard.
Then, we have the other half of the family, who live in a separate house in Victorias several blocks away.
My grandmother, several aunties and uncles and their kids live there, altogether, in true Pinoy family style.
To explain, my mom has 11 brothers and sisters, and we have many, many cousins.
Then of course, there’s my cousin’s kids.
My sister and I were named godparents to my cousin Teng’s two boys, aged six and three.
Matt, the youngest, is an adorable little doughball. If you asked him to dance he would get up and start waving his hands, muttering “oh my gosh” (which he must’ve learned from TV?).
Many an afternoon was spent playing with the next generation.
“Hey Andoy, do you remember when you were little, your mom would always tell us off?”
We’re sitting in the back of a school bus, with one row of benches on one side and one on another.
We’re on our way to Mambukal, a popular resort about an hour’s drive away.
My cousin, Albert, is sitting next to me, talking about the time we last met as kids. I was seven, he was about four.
“Your dad said we couldn’t use the playstation so we just jumped on the bed. Your mom then got mad.”
While his memory was surprisingly good, it wasn’t surprising. My mother is known for being a disciplinarian.
Looking out the window, I saw vast green fields stretching out towards the mountains.
The bus stopped, picking up more relatives.
“AAIEEEEEE Let me sit!”
My Tita Annabel runs on, budging Albert out of the way.
“Pogi pogi!” she says, squeezing my cheeks with her strong hands.
The bus is full now, and we had to take 2 extra cars – over 30 Deligentes (and their next of kin) reunited with the sister and her kids who live a Western life halfway across the planet.
Puto – steamed rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves.
Waking up to a steaming plate of hot dog and rice in the morning is one surefire way to offset jetlag.
“Andoy! Look, I got you mango, your favourite!”
Just as I put down my fork and spoon, Tita Virgie picks up a bag of mangoes and plonks it on the table.
“I know you like this one, come on eat!”
Instantly I’m a taba-taba seven year old again, being pandered to by my elders who best express their love through food.
It’s as nostalgic for them as it is for me.
My Lola (grandmother) was in hospital, so we went to visit.
She turns 90 years old in April 2016.
Standing proud at the top of the family tree as matriarch, nobody fucks with Nanay.
She’s lived in this town all her life, meeting my Lolo (grandfather) in the sugarcane fields where they both used to work.
She has little English. But she has enough strength in her to show her love, regardless of language.
She grabbed my hand, then my sister’s, squeezing hard and smiling without holding back.
We walked into the hopsital room and saw her sitting up in bed, surrounded by my Tita Rose and Tito (uncle) Jeff.
These two spent some time with us in Saudi Arabia, helping to run the restaurant.
Tita Rose shared a room with my sister, whilst Tito Jeff taught me how to ride a bike, a fact I never forgot.
He saw me enter and said, a little older and more weary: “Darling, how are you?”
It was weird seeing the man who had taught me to overcome one of my biggest struggles growing up – I was a late bloomer, as they say, using stabilisers until about twelve.
I was overweight, lacked confidence and had little athleticism in me.
Jeff unscrewed the stabilisers from my bike one day (without my parents knowing), held onto the back and took me out for a ride.
“Are you ready? You can do it Doy!” he said, holding the frame behind me.
I started pedalling faster and faster, until he let go.
I fell, of course.
“That’s okay get back up, we’ll try again. Keep practicing.”
And so we stayed out all afternoon, and many afternoons after that, until I finally rode the bicycle all by myself.
“I remember ten days after you were born,” says my Tito Vel, talking in between sips of Red Horse Beer, his arm wrapped affectionately around my shoulder. “Your mother had to evacuate the hospital in Manila.
“There was an earthquake and she wanted to get you out of harm’s way. I was there with her as she held you in her arms.”
This was the first time I’d ever heard this story. My mother was never one for narratives, and said “Oh yeah, haha” when I asked her about it.
Tito Jeff’s store.
Later that night my Tito Jeff called me from the back porch.
“DOY! COME HERE”
I arrive outside, where he’s sitting with four of my cousins. They’re laughing loudly in Iloilonggo (the regional dialect), poking fun at my cousin Arbie.
“Arbie wants to come to the UK with you,” says my cousin Jerwin (who I distinctly remember making me cry when he insisted there were vampires outside).
“Can you take him with you? He will study in university there.”
Unsure of what to say, I ask what subject he’d study.
“P.E! You can show me the beautiful UK girls!” says Arbie, uncharacteristically loud (when speaking English).
The cousins erupt into laughter.
“He’s exotic right? We’re exotic to you in the UK.”
I laugh, and say sure, I’ll take him if there’s room in my suitcase.
“Bring me a nice Vietnamese husband, ok?”
Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
I was born in The Philippines, have deep historical roots with it, and a big ol family who haven’t forgotten a thing.
Family is so highly valued here.
The knowledge and trust you can put into them, that no matter who you’ve become or what you’re doing, they’ll always have your back.
I realised the meaning behind the name, Deligente. It’s Spanish for ‘diligent’. And no truer adjective could be used to describe the survivors out here on this little Pacific island.
I’m Pinoy and proud.