“Do you get homesick?”
As an international student at Yale, this is a pretty common dining-hall conversation starter. Not really, I usually tell my usually American interlocutor over turkey and New England clam chowder, enunciating my vowels and softening my “T”s and “R”s in the standard American accent I’ve picked up more and more over the last year and a half. Manila is home but so is Yale.
“Manila is home but so is Yale.” It’s a statement that’s true but nonetheless strange: I was born and raised in the Philippines, so I braced myself for culture shock when I first moved away all by myself last year, to a strange college in a strange country where kalabasa comes in pale orange pies and kamote comes in casseroles topped with torched marshmallows. But as proud as I am to be Pinay, I don’t get homesick and I don’t know why, and it bothers me more than I’d like to admit.
Maybe I’m lucky, or maybe on some level I’m just deeply estranged from my home country and culture. Somehow, it’s the Americans that remind me of this—my Filipino-American peers wear Abakada hoodies emblazoned with Tagalog and host teleserye screenings in their dorm rooms, and a Filipino-American boy once invited me to see his band perform at the Kasama club’s cultural show. I was both violently ill and violently hung-over that evening, so I slept through two alarms, the whole show and dinner to match.
I am fantastically terrible at “representing,” whatever that means. I don’t show up to Kasama meetings because I have disappointingly little interest in dressing up and doing tinikling. I didn’t really do that stuff back home, so I’m a little embarrassed and unsettled by the unspoken pressure to start doing it in America.
My conversations with other Filipino-from-the-Philippines students at Yale have led me to believe that I am not alone. Is our Filipino-ness so deeply ingrained in us that we take it for granted and don’t feel the need to cultivate or prove it, or are we simply disconnected and jaded? How does one “reconnect” with a culture when performing Filipino identity feels like just that—a performance, and nothing more?
I scoop up my dining hall turkey with a spoon and fork and chew over the question. As my American friend’s eyes follow my utensils and their brows raise in a quizzical smile, I remember that the answer—or at least part of it—is surprisingly simple.
I am very much still Pinay, and food is what reminds me of this.
With the exception of another Southeast Asian friend of ours, none of my Yale peers had ever seen anyone eat with a spoon and fork before meeting me. I once showed my roommates how to do it because our dining hall usually runs out of knives, but the scooping motion that’s always been second nature to me felt so foreign to them that they fumbled, laughed and resigned to poking at their rice in vain, single forks in their hands.
The first and only time I saw an American table set entirely and exclusively with spoons and forks was the time the other Filipino upperclassmen and I made sinigang to welcome the freshmen to Yale. Between the eight of us, about one and a half of us had any real cooking experience, but the sinigang somehow turned out to be among the best I’ve ever tasted. If tinikling can’t get us to come together, sinigang certainly can—and the table will always, always be set with spoons.
In my admittedly very limited experience, food, more than anything, is how Filipino college students in America bond—it matters less what we’re cooking or eating and more that we cook and eat at all. The first time I cooked at college was what seemed to be a distinctly Filipino attempt at an American Thanksgiving lunch, which I spent with some high school friends and some friends-of-friends-of-friends from home.
As a result of his instruction to bring “anyone from the Philippines,” our host ended up making lobster bisque for over 20 people, college-style: in painstakingly small batches in a single-serve blender, poured out into red solo cups because none of us owned any real dishware. Huddled together and joking boisterously in Taglish on a windy Brooklyn rooftop, stuffing ourselves with some rapidly cooling (but no less delicious) ribs made by strangers who were now friends solely on the basis of being kababayan, I had never felt more Pinay.
Just as fulfilling as cooking and eating with other Filipino kids is sharing our cuisine and love for food with our American friends. As a freshman with next to no culinary skills, the best I could do last year was bring back a box of pinipig polvoron as pasalubong for my roommates, which one of them proclaimed to be “like crack” and the others immediately proceeded to search for on Amazon in vain.
I now bring back multiple boxes of polvoron a semester, which always disappear within a matter of weeks. Not everything sounds sweet to the non-Filipino palate—particularly delight in weirding my friends out by describing the perfect cocktail of ube ice cream, condensada, gulaman, beans and corn (“Yes, beans and corn”) that constitutes halo-halo—but it’s precisely the weirdness that makes me proud of a cuisine so rich and distinct that it tends to be an acquired taste. I’m determined to make my roommates try halo-halo someday, whether that means bringing them home with me for the summer or bringing back tubs of langka and leche flan in an insulated box on the plane.
Joan Didion once wrote that smells are notorious memory stimuli, but Joan Didion wasn’t Pinay. Taste, more than smell, reminds me of home, the people I love and the cultures they’ve brought into my life. Moving halfway across the world has expanded those definitions a little—a bacon-egg-and-cheese on an everything bagel is now as comforting to me as the toasted pandesal I fantasize about in America.
Instant jjajangmyeon is a warm hug when I’m lonely, reminding me of the Korean-American best friend who microwaved my first bowl of it on a particularly cold night of our freshman fall. Burns on the tongue taste of spontaneous day trips to New York with a rotating cast of Southeast Asian international students craving flavors from home, which almost always end in barbecue or hotpot as the closest thing to a compromise between Filipino/Singaporean/Malaysian/insert miscellaneous Southeast Asian cuisine here.
Regardless of what or where or with whom I’m eating, I like to think that my appreciation for food as a source of community and shared culture is a direct product of my Filipino upbringing—one that has taught me to find home in other people, and in doing so find home wherever I am.