Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On the day I left (or was it the day I arrived?) I found that all of my belongings would fit into a broken suitcase and a half. When I looked out of the window of the taxi from the Pochentong Airport to my new home, I wept. We drove past a pagoda, past the abandoned waterpark, past ladies selling lotuses, and I still wept. This was different from the other landings I’d had in my life.
The world I knew was small and wondrous. I grew up simply in Manila. I didn't have my own bed until I turned 16, and I was raised with and by Filipino women my whole life, in a house of more than a dozen people. Life was my small room, my side of the bed, the street outside, the old woman living across the street from us, and her unruly garden. I could see parts of the otherworld from television shows, magazines, and books. I had spent a lot of my days growing up dreaming about this otherworld, and there was no distinction in my head between the imaginary sci-fi places and the ones that actually existed on earth. I would just have fantastic dreams about them, and now I wanted to see them all with my eyes open. So I left.
What was I getting myself into? There are many things I wish I were better prepared for when I decided I would move. I wasn't told about what an expat life would be like. I wasn't told how often I would miss Nanay's sinigang. I wasn't told people would dismiss me because of the color of my skin or because they didn't know what school I had gone to. Nobody understood my jokes.
It was necessary that I carried home with me at all times. I would always be defined by it, from the moment I needed to clarify where I come from. “Same-same Cambodian,” Khmers always tell me. I look like I could be Cambodian. But I speak English with a neutral accent. My first name is American, and my last name is Spanish. Once, a French client came to the conclusion that I was a Cambodian adopted by Spanish parents who had then sent me to international school.
“I am Filipino,” was, of course, the simpler explanation.
Sometimes silence would ensue when I would tell them where I grew up. Conversation starters would likely be about Imelda and Pacquiao, or about the Filipino cover bands they had seen singing “Too Much Love Will Kill You” the night before. I would be asked why I had left, in a vaguely accusatory manner, by other journalists who had moved to Asia from North America or Europe. Other journalists wondered why I decided to move to photograph in Cambodia, when I could navigate the Philippines more easily, speak the language, and understand the culture. This, of course, made sense pragmatically, but it always bothered me that this question would rarely be posed to my colleagues who were Caucasian. Because there was an idea that since where I was from was already exotic, it did not always make sense to other people that I should seek to explore.
And yet, though difficult, I maintained my delight in the departure. I so longed to be understood. My departure now did not only mean that I would see and experience new things, but also that I could let other people see and experience new things through me. My otherness, though initially isolating, became a way to give. My fiancé, Jon, and I learned to make pork adobo. I would keep mentioning Filipino sayings. “Habang may buhay, may pag-asa.” While there is life, there is hope. I would show people “Not Giving In,” that video Rudimental had done in the Philippines, as if to say, “This is what my home is like, in some parts.”
I began showing images of the Philippines to anyone who would be curious enough. This became my way of forcing my close friends to understand me, every time I was homesick. I would show archival images of beautiful Filipinas in their baro't saya, of pintados, of those who fought in the revolution. See how gorgeous Manila looked before? It doesn't look like that anymore, but you should still come visit. She is now an old lady but she still wears pearls.
I began showing them images I had taken myself, from my first attempts at photography. Photography was, after all, the means of storytelling that made the most sense to me when I didn't know what to say, or when social interaction would make me anxious. Look at this old Manobo woman in her home. This was from a time in my life when I was told that every image I had taken was bullshit, except for my portrait of her. I held on to her, and if I believed in agimat, she would be mine.
I would send back images from home, of the nannies who raised us, of my grandmother's room, of our devotion. In the process of illustrating and explaining, I found an unusual new form of pride in the Philippines that could have never existed if I had never left.
But I had memories and ideas of what the rest of home was like, and these live in the images of brilliant Filipino photographers I look up to, whose work would make me ache for home. Of Veejay Villafranca's “Gangs of Baseco,” of Sonny Yabao's “Somnambulist,” of Jes Aznar's “Strange Fruit,” of Geloy Concepcion's “Reyna delas Flores.” Their images of home are the tales I'd like to tell people when I speak of the Philippines.
When I first left, photography was about trying to find the fantastic otherworld I had imagined. And instead of finding that otherworld, the process of leaving somehow morphed into a way of coming back again and again to the place I thought I knew, with more questions than answers from when I had first set out.