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From the Filipino dinner table: A personal essay

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MARTHA TIBBALS | STAFF

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SEPTEMBER 02, 2023

When I returned to the Philippines, I vowed to go to the beach at night. I imagined us there: me and my friends surrounding a bonfire with the melodies we’d play from the Filipino rock band Franco, songs reflecting the warm reception of my friends.

However, being there felt different from how I had imagined it would be. There was the reoccurring drizzle that made the sand damp and threatened the safety of our belongings. There were the preoccupations. Some of my friends found it difficult to place down their laptops because, even on a weekend, they had to meet some deadlines. 

When we did eventually group everyone together, my friends took me to a beach-front hostel to celebrate my return to my home country. I walked a hundred feet from the hostel to listen to the ebbs and flows of the sea. I felt the nip of the sand piercing through my shirt, which comforted me. I am and always have been, a fan of the cold night. In my solitude, I let the cool air and darkness cocoon me. 

In addition to visiting the beach, the first thing I did when I returned to the Philippines was indulge in the food that I had been craving for so long. The first bite made me rejoice in the cuisine of my home country. I could tell the food was authentic by the taste of the salt, spices and the MSG that intensifies the flavors of meat umami. Eating Filipino staple foods — dishes that are unavailable in California — was celebratory. 

Returning to my roots was extraordinary — my own homecoming. Traveling was like going back home: It was instinctive because I knew the geography and could articulate myself better with my first language. And my homecoming was a big event, an event filled with food, gossip, drinks and souvenirs … Years had passed since I’d attended a party that grand. 

Yet sometime between the meals and the beach trips, my homecoming made me realize how rapidly family dynamics can change when you’re out of sight for four years. 

What I had realized was that an irrevocable change occurred between me and my relatives: As an expat, I had acquired a new sense of command among my relatives; I earned specific responsibilities too. I was expected to ensure that everyone was well-off because, now, I was someone who had been earning U.S. dollars. 

In the Philippines, I quickly learned that families and friends expect the returnee to shower them with a great time. They anticipate out-of-town trips, house parties and window shopping. At first, I didn’t understand why I needed to treat my family just because I returned home. When I asked my mom about it, she told me that it’s because it’s a part of our culture. As someone who earned what is viewed as the golden ticket in the Philippines, it was expected of me to give my family a sliver of the “good life.” 

Some of my friends did not like how I surrendered to the familial pressures of giving to and providing for my family. They called such culture “bull” and argued that I shouldn’t be expected to spend money that I don’t have. When they told me this, I heard them — My relatives have stable income and, unlike them, I’m a college student working part-time. But what they said also made me begin to wonder whether I had been giving to my family out of obligation or sincerity in these instances of gratitude. 

In Filipino, utang na loob refers to a trait that demands respect and reciprocity to those who have been kind or have provided gratitude to you. I take utang na loob seriously, which means that I lean toward generosity on most occasions. Because I’ve grown up with this mindset, my sense of generosity often prevails over my practical concerns because I feel indebted to those who have been kind to me in the past. For a long time, I’ve struggled between two conflicting pressures — culture and practicality — that clash in my psyche whenever I want to do something good for my family. 

Growing up in the Philippines, money was deeply linked to my living experience. As early as I can remember, my relatives always gave me what they could so I could go further in life. My aunt would give me my weekly budget for fare and food, my older brother still pays for my tuition, and the oldest gave me hand-me-down technology to stay abreast with the digitization of education. Even my cousins, bless their hearts, gave me unsolicited gifts and tokens when they could. 

My parents gave me something more enduring, and less material than money –– the American Dream. After several failed attempts to establish a food business, the promise of earning U.S. dollars inspired my parents to chase the American Dream. Yet, both of my parents did not finish college and experienced a life where their opportunities were only but limited. Such finite latitude extended to us, their children, and each of us grew up striving to do what we can to ensure that everyone’s well-off. As for me, I did my best to exemplify their desire for the American Dream by nearly spoiling them with experiences we didn’t have when we were younger. 

On the second day of our family vacation, my family prepared a classic Filipino breakfast: salted, dried fish, scrambled eggs, hotdogs and pasta – only because I had requested it. By 8 AM, everyone had finished cooking and they were waiting for me, the guest of honor, to wake up. Jetlag made sleeping difficult, and I fell into a deep sleep. The kids, my brothers and my aunt tried to wake me up to no avail. I woke up two hours later, when everyone was already eating our meal that went cold. 

I was surprised that my family actually waited for me to wake up. The fact that they stalled breakfast for two hours, and even had the kids swim early so they could pass the time, surprised me because I was not used to that kind of special treatment. It was unsettling to hold this new kind of significance on my relatives and the people surrounding me. Way back when, breakfast was served on a first-come-first-serve basis, and you only got to eat what’s left. 

Being treated in a different way by my family started to make me wish that my residency in the United States didn’t have to change everything. After all, I am still the youngest child in my family, I am still the cousin whose world stops at the sight of crane games, I am still the uncle who beats my nieces and nephews’ fathers in online games. 

I’m aware that my family’s hospitality was their way of showing affection, an expression of their longing for a family member who they’d only seen on-screen for the past four years. However, I feared that all their hospitality, or veneration even, was brought about only because I live in the United States, and that somehow, traces of colonial mentality had transpired in such a way to make my family perceive me differently. Unsure how to respond to this new yet familiar environment, I didn’t know whether I should accept the changes in our family dynamics or turn skeptical toward their kind gestures. 

Like any other vacation, all trips come to an end. After exploring Singapore, going to the beach and taking the kids to the oceanarium, I had to leave the Philippines because I was about to start my summer journalism classes. 

In July, my brothers, my cousin and my closest uncle dropped me off at the airport. Unlike the day before — when any sort of special treatment had brought me discomfort — seeing my aunt and my cousin bid me farewell with tears welling up their eyes took an effect on me. 

Slowly, I distanced myself from the group as sadness made its way through my spine. My shoulders jerked, then I wiped away the tears that raced down my face. Despite seeing other families embracing their departing loved ones and giving their final kisses, I didn’t want my family to see me emotional. At the last moment, I caved in, and as I embraced my brothers, I squeezed them close to my chest.

After I checked in my baggage, I went back outside the departure area infuriated because I would have to pay $300 to have soft brooms — items that my aunt had requested that I bring to the United States —  taped on the side of my checked-in baggage. While they scrutinized the items, my oldest brother chuckled when he saw my face heated and red because of the distasteful experience. I rolled my eyes, a special skill that I can only do when I’m really annoyed. 

My family laughed, then tried to roll their eyes like I do.

Contact Chris Ceguerra at 

LAST UPDATED

SEPTEMBER 02, 2023