“Well, my mom told me that once I get to immigration at the airport, I just need to say I’m a balikbayan,” is what I told Nikki when she called me an expat on our first date. I’m not some rich white guy here in the Philippines making US dollars and living luxuriously. I mean, the Tagalog word balikbayan itself translates to someone who comes home, and that’s what I was doing this summer: coming home. It was a homecoming full of firsts: my first time traveling the Philippines solo and without family, my first time single and out. I had just finished my junior year of college and was more sure of myself than I ever was, and certain that this trip home would only reaffirm my place in the world.
So no, I’m not an expat, but a Fil-Am (short for a Filipino American), just absorbing the humidity, taking in the tropical sunshine, and truly memorizing the shape of the palm trees and power lines littering the Philippine sky enough to get me through another cold Massachusetts winter. This is exactly what I was trying to do on the bus ride to Bantayan with her. Despite the Philippine “courting system” involving waiting months to get even a first kiss, despite the history of harana–window serenades to win over a girl’s heart, and despite the slow-burn dating style of even young Filipina lesbians, my American-ness had managed to rope her into a weekend adventure to the northernmost part of the island a mere month after our first date.
I asked Nikki what time the bus left in the morning; she said, “When it’s full.” We took the last two seats in the back end of a 60+ seater bus,got our tickets from the conductor, and the driver started the engine and the bus lumbered out of the North bus terminal and into the streets of a slowly awakening Cebu. As the soft light of the morning sky filtered in through the bus curtains, it felt like everyone seated was being rocked to sleep by the small bumps on the country road. Meanwhile, Nikki and I began a quiet conversation about books, movies, and a little bit of politics all while musing at the fact that we seemed to be in the part of the bus where all the couples were seated. I put my hand in hers and lent her an earphone as she rested her head on my shoulder. I breathed in the strange calm of the ride and looked out the window, marveling at how such a large bus navigated the narrow two-lane streets and the impossible curves of the provincial roads.
So as the blur from the windows transformed from streets full to the brim of people selling food, singing videoke, and walking close to the road, to wide landscapes of tall palm trees, their leaves and trunks bending with the wind and looking small against the vast rolling mountainscape of this small island, I thought of how much I had missed all of this, how much I had missed this home. Nikki woke up and we talked of how no other countryside around the world could hold a candle to Cebu’s. She understood, for Nikki is somewhat of a balikbayan to this island too; not as far as me, but she still traded all of this for opportunities offered in a bustling metropolis far away from here.
We had finally reached the beach and the passing breeze calmed our bodies while the sound of the waves whispered in our ears. Nikki told me while it may sound corny, she wanted to make a difference in the Philippines from a political perspective. “Growing up in Cebu,” she said, “I had always admired the environment, and now I want to protect it and the people who live in it.” At the same time, she worried about becoming a sellout. Her dreams touched me, took me back to when I used to go to the beach when I grew up in Cebu, how I’d watch out the windows while my dad drove my family to the beach and dream about wanting to become president and make change. Somehow, I had ended up far from the ocean and was instead plotting to be a sellout by doing marketing for some corporation.
The waves were getting rough; nevertheless, we looked towards the horizon and tried to pinpoint where the sea meets the sky. I breathed in with the rhythm of the waves and toyed with what ifs and why nots and possibilities: of coming back here, or not, or of leaving another home and ending up elsewhere once more.
It had rained in between our beach escapade and dinner. Luckily, we had decided to take a tricycle to the small square, which had an eclectic mix of restaurants. This island boasted the most variety of foods from any tourist destinations I saw in the archipelago — from Mexican, Greek, to Mediterranean, and of course some BBQ. Yet Nikki and I had wandered to this glitzy looking restaurant at the end of the street. I felt like I had seen this aesthetic before; it had the same shiny chrome decor, complete with checkerboard floors, of a diner along a Connecticut highway. Nikki and I decided to take a booth at the back of the diner, the type of booth where a high school jock and cheerleader would share a milkshake on a first date turned VIP seating for this restaurant’s three-piece live band. In the audience was a group of men sharing San Miguel beers, their faces red and puffy as they shouted requests at the band, a group of Titas (or aunties) showing each other Facebook posts, and a large family seated at a wider booth, their kids running and playing games on the restaurant floor while the adults sang along to the band’s various musical numbers.
The combination of the pastel pink and blue walls decorated with vintage Coke pictures, along with the local crowd’s use of the space, felt like an explosion of a Filipino-American’s aesthetic fuelling their warped and confused imagination. This would probably be my idea of America if I had never moved there or seen it, I thought. The three-piece band provided the perfect soundtrack to it all. They played everything from the quintessential 80s love ballads heard in any taxi to Cebuano and Tagalog classics. Nikki and I sang along embarrassingly through all of them, managing to know all the lyrics to each song across this broad mix of genres. Somehow, even growing up across oceans, the song choices of the Filipino live bands are always known to everyone in the diaspora. They finished their set with the best cover I’d ever heard of Hotel California, featuring a steady reggae beat, wind chimes, and some expert harmonizing. Such a lovely place, the band sang. Yeah, such a lovely place, I thought, scanning the diner before my eyes landed on the strange logo of an anime girl in roller skates and a waitress uniform, the words “Judy’s dinner” painted on top. Such a lovely place. I gave the band a tip, and we were on our way.
Before heading home, we ended up at a very small bar in the middle of the food square. One side was packed with locals and tourists; the other was a rowdy bunch of queers. “Are you guys two boys?” This very tall, very gay, and very drunk man yelled. After learning we were just a couple of dykes, he asked where we were from, piquing the interest of the rest of his entourage. Nikki explained that she was from here, but studied in Manila. I tried to convince him that I, too, was Cebuana, but Filipino-American since I lived in the U.S, even after he repeatedly asked if I was Korean (a question I got way too frequently for my comfort). He then explained that they were all co-workers at a hotel in Dubai. We met an Australian who, in classic lesbian fashion, followed her girlfriend to Dubai and decided to stay even after they broke up, and was now having a very secret relationship with the Cebuana femme in their squad. The other two were local – well, semi-local – what does being local even mean in the Philippines? They were both from Iloilo, a neighboring city: one had become an Overseas Filipino Worker and worked in Dubai, while the other worked as a nurse in the island. They told us they had managed a long-distance relationship for five years.
“I used to be straight before I met her!” the nurse exclaimed.
“–and then I made her crooked!” her girlfriend responded, with a hearty drunken laugh.
It was honestly refreshing for me to meet fellow Filipino queers with complicated love stories and life entanglements as a consequence of being part of this diaspora. Nikki and I found a strange familiarity interacting with the tourists at the bar — they were from here, but not quite “locals.”
“Are you guys a couple?” the same gay man yelled at us, making me sweat. Nikki looked at me in a way that meant this question was for me to determine; it was an answer she, too, was waiting for. I shook my hand to indicate “kinda?”
“Why are you unsure!? Ohhhh, it’s because she’s from America and the distanceeee,” the nurse lamented for me. The couple in the LDR took it upon themselves that night to coach us on the secrets of long distance— but it wasn’t the distance that was really keeping me from committing. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship and the last thing I wanted to do was U-haul too soon and continue my trend of serial monogamy. At the same time, you can’t truly map out when you’ll be ready for things, as my horoscope said; sometimes you just have to be ready and learn to let go even of the ideas you and thoughts you were certain about yourself. The night continued with sharing secrets with new friends who invited us to their workplace in Dubai, drunken dancing, and an almost bar fight; Nikki and I took the tricycle back and marveled at the stars in the now clear nighttime sky.
The next morning, Nikki and I walked around the beach, commenting on the street dogs digging in the sand. We took turns with her camera as each of us feebly tried to capture paradise. I waded in the tide and thought about what ifs and why nots again, the different possibilities. Bantayan had opened my imagination once more, and made me realize the complicated nature of my diasporic identity. How it affected everything from my ability to choose a career or life plan on the global scale, and who and how I love. 10,000 miles was a long ways, I thought to myself. Where even the environment and culture felt worlds apart. Would FaceTime be enough to traverse across the Pacific?
Since a storm was coming, we had to take an early ferry out of the island. I was tired and rested my head on Nikki’s shoulder as we listened to a playlist I had curated for the trip, titled after our shared middle names.
On the bus, we snacked on some sandwiches and chips as a Korean film played on the bus monitor. The countryside blurred outside the window; I squinted at the greenery and streets that seemed familiar but also new. Although I thought we were on the same road we took to get there, I turned to Nikki and said, “I’m not sure where we are anymore.”🗺️
Edited by rachel.