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Elena Lopez - Blog Post 1: Homecoming in an Unknown Land

Elena Lopez - Blog Post 1: Homecoming in an Unknown Land

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It has been a month since my plane first touched down in Manila, and it feels like I’ve been here both forever and no time at all. This juxtaposition of emotion mirrors my own juxtaposition of identity: on the one hand, I am born and raised Canadian, and privy to all the privileges it entails; on the other, I am Filipino and visibly so, as I am often reminded by well-meaning compatriots in my home country. It seems that in both Canada and the Philippines, I am marked in some way of being the “other”, whether it is through appearance or through culture.

I have been extremely lucky to be born into a comfortable Western lifestyle. Despite being half-Filipino, I can’t claim to “know” the Philippines and its culture in any genuine context. My cultural heritage is second-hand and inescapably altered through its contact with Canadian culture. However, my Filipino heritage has resulted in an enduring interest in the Philippines, especially its experience with migration, as my dad and Lola (grandmother in Tagalog) both immigrated here in the 1960s. Hearing about their fantastical journey of thousands of kilometres to come to Canada always struck a chord in me - especially considering that when they first arrived in rural Ontario, my father first met my mother. What are the chances of that on a planet populated by billions?

I knew that my internship would be challenging, even with my second-hand knowledge of Filipino culture. I tried to arrive in the Philippines with a mindset of mindfulness and respect, bracing myself to be constantly seen on the basis of being a foreigner also recognising the commensurate privileges my status as a Westerner brings me. The biggest surprise when I got here turned out to be the opposite – in the Philippines, I blend in. No one gives me a second glance. I grew up in Canadian culture, and even though I felt disconnected to Filipino culture upon my arrival, those around me took it for granted that I was a part of it. This brings interesting challenges and benefits. On the challenge side – being visibly foreign brings with it many offers as help, as everyone visibly sees that you’re an outsider. Both at meetings and out in public, everyone assumes I speak Tagalog until they realise I have zero comprehension of what they’re saying or once I open my mouth and mutilate a few Tagalog words. As a result, I’ve learnt to be more vocal about my lack of Tagalog knowledge.

However, I find I don’t mind being what I call an “invisible Westerner”. One of my goals in coming here is to integrate within the Philippines. It would be easy to fall in with the expat community and insulate myself in a simulacrum of Western culture, but I don’t want to recreate my life in North America over the next six months. Otherwise it would’ve been pointless to leave Victoria. As well, when others find out I’m half-Filipino, many take it upon themselves to introduce me to facets of Filipino culture I never knew about. While the Philippines has not been exactly how I pictured it, in as many ways it is foreign, it is also familiar. I hope I can continue to explore the diverse identities I hold – Canadian, Filipino, and all those in between – in ways that further enrich my life and broaden my capacity to understand others.