Written by Kim Koelmeyer
Without fail, whenever I go back to the Philippines my family says “welcome home.”
The idea of going “back” to the Philippines is an odd concept to me, because I was never there to start with. It only feels homely so far as my aunties and uncles dote on me. There’s nowhere for me to go “back” to, except Melbourne.
If you were to ask me where I was from, my first instinct would be Melbourne. But I’d have the qualifiers in my back pocket if you didn’t believe the slanted eyes and olive skin.
But Melbourne is home. It’s where I grew up, and where I still live. It’s been the backdrop to 90% of the formative moments of my life. But my Melbourne isn’t your Melbourne. It’s qualified; it’s split at the threshold of my front door. It’s grappling with conflicting socializations. It’s not having the language to explain why I used honorifics for Filipino adults or why they got together every weekend for dinner and some karaoke. Melbourne being home has meant a lot of identity gymnastics I’m only now realizing absorbed a lot of my brain power as a child.
I remember being about 8 or 9 and pondering whether genetics or nationality played a larger role in determining cultural identity. I just couldn’t make sense of what I was “supposed” to be. The “where are you from?” question takes me about 3 qualifiers.
Those dilemmas only became more complicated when I went to the Philippines for the first time. I stepped off the plane, and suddenly the threshold of my front door spread to every corner. Things I questioned in Melbourne suddenly made sense when I was confronted with its original source.
I felt at home.
The Philippines should, for all intents and purposes be something of a respite for me; a break from constantly wondering about the performance of my race. A place where everyone shared a nationality and culture. However, it isn’t that easy. Because Melbourne is my home, I never picked up my mother tongue. And that makes me one in my mum’s side of 30 plus who can only speak English. Add on my step-father’s extended family and the number doubles. The only half Filipino on the family tree.
Such a fundamental hole in my cultural vernacular means the Philippines isn’t quite as functionally a home as I would like. I’m less of a human with agency, and more akin to a child who needs constant care and maintenance. I can only speak when spoken to. I spend most days following someone around, be that my parents or some cousins when they’re on school holidays.
While I may blend into a crowd in the Philippines, I am materially different to everyone who knows me. It takes up until someone addresses me and I open my mouth that the illusion is shattered.
Having this distinction between myself and my family has made conceptualizing the Philippines as “home” a difficult task. Language is such a huge part of cultural currency, and I feel my bankruptcy stronger than ever when I’m over there.
“Do you eat Filipino food?”
A friend of the family asked me this during one of my earlier visits. Of course I did; I lived under my mother’s roof. But a lack in the language equaled a complete lack of engagement with the culture in their eyes.
I jumped to answer, eager to compensate for my illiteracy for all the other hallmarks of the culture. I would take cold showers without complaining, I would sleep in crowded rooms without lamenting the lack of space, and eat my food with my hands alongside my cousins. I had to, at all costs, blend in.
No matter where I am, I always feel like I have something to prove. Be that my place at table among the Anglo populace or my literal place at the table with my family as we eat dinner together. Going home, whichever home that may be, holds a mirror to my respective cultural failings. Not white enough, not Asian enough, just not enough in general. The idea of belonging to a certain culture or race is so clear cut and binary that I find myself without a solid place in either.
I’m still not sure what it means to go home. But I’m trying to conceptualise myself as a whole person with different parts, rather than half a Filipino and half an Australian. And in that, home has become less about where my blood runs, or what cultures I subscribe to. It’s wherever I feel uplifted, whole, and the wifi connects automatically.