First week back as a doctoral student!

I survived the first week of my doctoral studies! I am in a new institution, a new department, and an entirely new field – I’ve had some apprehensions about this jump into Politics from Geography/Planning, but one of the professors I spoke to advised me to take this as an opportunity to be challenged in an academically fruitful way. That really stuck with me, and I will be taking it with me throughout this journey. It’s set me on a path where I looked for courses that I knew I would find more difficult but ultimately more fulfilling, as opposed to taking old favourites where I knew I would be “safe.”

I had three or four orientations this week at two different departments – one at Politics, my home department, and the other at Equity Studies, which is where I’ll be TA-ing for this year. I get to TA! I’m so excited. I actually had a good chuckle when I picked up the textbook for the class; it’s the third edition of a book that I own the second edition to. There were also orientations from the student unions that were so packed with information my head is still kind of reeling, and I’ve set aside a day to just look through the printed material.

I want this time to be different. I remember being in such a bad place during the first year of my masters, and really not making any effort to make friends. I intentionally skipped all of the group outings, potlucks, picnics, all of it, with nary so much as a text message saying, “I’m sorry, I really can’t make it.” Granted, I was blindly feeling my way through a thick fog of grief, but I regret not making more friends. By the time I lifted my head up during my second year, it was too late. I did leave my masters with some good people I count as friends, but I could have made it a more fulfilling time. Not making that mistake this time around; I am a social creature and I need all the help and company this place has to offer!

Although I’m still orienting myself to this department, I feel like I have a spot here. That there is a place for me to grow and be tested and thrive.

 

Homecoming

Home: the going back, the getting there, the vivid memories of how food really tastes like dancing on the back of your tongue, lending flavour to whatever pale ghost of an imitation it is that you can get wherever you currently are. The sheen of summer sweat on brown skin during dreamily imagined summer scorchers of days taking on moments of romanticism in deep winter. Us diasporic Filipinos, we have a shared obsession with  the idea of home. It’s woven into our psyche, thread upon tangled thread, deftly braided into our imaginaries of how the Philippine experience feels. We are locked in an eternal cycle: of wanting to be home, of planning to go home, of flying home. Repeat ad infinitum.

My mom and I went back home to Bacolod last summer, the first time in eight years for me. A kindly benefactor had generously gifted us business class tickets for the journey that would span almost 48 hours, and I had a (dream!) job waiting for me. I was very optimistic.

And off we flew, starting the first leg at the Toronto Pearson International Airport on a flight to Beijing, then Beijing to Manila, and finally, Manila to Bacolod. It was an almost two-day cycle of naps and movies and bland meals and peanuts and waiting in lounges, and many, many rounds of orange juice for me. Once we landed in Bacolod, we hopped into a van for the last hour and a half ride to Pontevedra, where we were met with hugs and a feast. I then lurched into bed and right into the arms of food poisoning: I retched nonstop for about two days and could not for the life of me keep anything down.

Ahh, home. There I finally was, surrounded by the un/familiar: the places, the people, the food, the trauma of my childhood and young adulthood. At the core of homecoming for me, I painfully learned, would always be an inescapably dissonant storm. And the memories and effects of it are violent. In so many words, a biological father who abandoned my family for another; my mother wrenched away from us by the global labour market to work several oceans and thousands of miles away; an emotionally and psychologically abusive aunt as a guardian, at whose actions nobody in the family batted an eye.  Having to leave for Canada. Having to integrate into Toronto. Coming back home to the Philippines. Having to leave, again. 

It was a near-blinding epiphany that I would never be able to just “travel” to the Philippines for a vacation. Or take the time to find myself in the spaces and places that I used to call home. The geographies of trauma are rocky and injurious, too convoluted in generational trauma for home to be something I can consider a space of, well, home.

But there was no running away now. I hadn’t realised that the death of one of my abusers meant that I would instead channel all my pent-up anger towards the people who bore witness but never intervened. Did they deserve my rage? It’s likely not fair to place blame on them as theirs weren’t the hands that lifted the stick, but the fury has nowhere to go. I was confronted with spectres of families that I did not get to participate in as a child, feeling entitled to participate now in mine. And as it turns out, I resented that.

Neither did I get any closure from my biological father, in part because I belatedly realized that my flight from Manila to Vancouver left at 4AM instead of 4PM, and in part because he chose to spend a couple of hours with us and then bail. For work, he said. But I truly, finally, get to say that there is no reason for me to keep trying to pry that door open –  there is no substance to the man, nor are there good answers to any of the questions that I have. I refuse to let it haunt me. There is joy to be had in finally refusing to interact with the ghost of the father that could have been.

Had I made a mistake in coming home? In attempting to deal with the pain by trying to rationalize how being a child of the Filipinx-Canadian labour diaspora simultaneously fucked me up and blessed me? Was I attempting to straddle the line of a hyphenated existence – that active, living acknowledgement of being Filipinx-Canadian –  by trying to take those traumas and the blessings together to make something beautiful out of it, and fumbling the line, because I don’t know how to do that, either? All these questions keep floating up my throat, coating my mouth, tasting bitterly like the young adulthood I didn’t get to spend in the Philippines and that I will continue to romanticise until the day I fucking die.

I guess in writing this, I was hoping to find my way through the cloying, sticky sweet feeling of being back home. I wanted to make sense of a homecoming that violently reopened all the wounds I thought had already scabbed over, and why all the anger and resentment simmering for years and years finally exploded out. Most of all, I wanted to know why, despite that, I still seriously considered staying, and never coming back to Toronto.

I flitted in and out so rapidly that there was no time to find a space where I could work through my trauma.

Maybe the Bacolod, and to a certain extent the Manila, that I was interacting with were ghosts, too – so very real to me, but nonetheless an imaginary of my childhood memories. There was no triumph in going home. There was no beautiful revelation of finding myself. Only the land itself remains, recognizable, green and lush, the soil black and dotted with crushed white seashells.

See you when I see you, Bacolod. And maybe next time I’ll be able to focus on the hellos, instead of the goodbyes. 

Hair and its Memories

I received such overwhelmingly positive reactions to my hair that I feel the need to speak about why I was moved to tears by those lovely comments, multiple times. If you’d like, come along and let me tell you why for the past few years, I have always cut my hair when it gets long enough to put up in a bun.

The Summer of 1999, the Philippines:

My little family was on a ship bound for Bacolod City from Metro Manila, my mother, my brother, and I. I remember looking at Manila getting smaller as we sailed further out, wondering where my bioDad was and why he didn’t say goodbye that day. Many years later, I would hear conflicting things from my parents: my Mom says he knew what time we were leaving but he never showed up, my bioDad says he missed it because of the famed Manila traffic. I mean, hey, they’re both right. But as a little kid, all I remember is that he didn’t make it on time to say goodbye.

My family and I were in the ship’s economy class, which at the time consisted of a hall of bunk beds spaced a few feet apart on one of the ship’s upper decks. I remember loving those accommodations because you could see and hear the ocean constantly, and I could look down into the water and daydream. One of our fellow passengers told me that the patches of darker water that we occasionally spotted in the lighter green sea meant that those parts were deeper than others, and I could never make sense of that.

My hair on that trip was already long – from old photos, it looks as if it draped a few inches below my shoulders – and I was blissfully unaware that my arrival in the city I would eventually call home heralded a twelve-year period in my life when that hair would go uncut. Why would I be thinking of my hair back then, you know? I was nine, moving from Manila to a city located in Western Visayas, starting a new school that June. There were other things to think about, other things to be excited for.

It was hot but breezy, and the pier was chaotic and bustling. My family finally arrived at Bacolod City after a three-day trip by a passenger ship.

A few weeks later, when we were settled in at my aunt’s place, my Mom left for Hong Kong to continue her work as a nanny for a wealthy family, and my brother and I, ages 5 and 9 respectively, were left in the care of our aunt with the agreement that she would take care of us. In return, my Mom would send money to cover living expenses, tuition fees, and some extra leftover.

My tita and her family were religious, their lives deeply embedded in the fabric of the church. Their particular brand of Christianity is called Pentecostalism. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s a sect of Christianity where women are not allowed to cut their hair, amongst other restrictions, and Acts 2:38 was the defining Bible verse of the organization. I was never asked if I wanted to attend this church. I was made to, by dint of being young, and more importantly, because I was living under her roof – and so, by her and the church she worshipped at, my life was shaped and moulded.

::Please keep in mind that I am speaking to my own experience. Your encounter with religion might have been different – and I certainly know people who are happy in it, who find comfort in the community, and who are good people. I am not writing this to defame or criticize religious beliefs or practices, but to speak about how my upbringing has led to my complicated relationship with my hair.::

So for years, from when I was 9 to when I was 21, I was made to grow my hair out as a sign of obedience to God’s will. I often kept it pulled back in a bun. But as I got older, and began to read more, I began to notice that I was part of a community that didn’t encourage critical thinking beyond parsing what Bible stories meant, nor did the people in charge take critique easily. One of my favourite little anecdotes to illustrate this is how my pastor used “humans use 10% of their brain” in his preaching one Sunday, and when I went to speak to him after the service (I was a student nurse at the time) about how that’s just not true biologically, he shrugged it off and said, in a very lofty tone, “if we all used 100% of our brains, we would have accomplished more as a church.”

I need you to understand this from my perspective – for the entirety of my youth, I belonged to a church of fewer than 100 people. My life, both socially and spiritually, was caught up in a net of restrictions, of disapproval, of people who were distrustful of my love of books that weren’t biblical.

Simultaneously, for twelve years, I was in a household where the matriarch doled out emotional and psychological abuse almost on the daily. I was repeatedly told I would get pregnant early and never become successful, in a voice intentionally raised so that the next-door neighbours heard it. The situation exploded to the point that the church elders attempted to stage an intervention – and the pastor did not believe me when I expressed how bad my aunt was behind closed doors. Perhaps it had to do with the rumours she had spread amongst the congregation saying that I was a liar and not to be trusted. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that she and the pastor were close friends, and he was among the first people she would gift things to whenever my mother send home balikbayan boxes. But my aunt, dear reader, was manipulative in ways I can’t even begin to describe, and perhaps in ways I can’t really imagine. All I know is that I felt so alone and so helpless. I began to question how godly my pastor really was, and how genuine his relationship with God could be, if he couldn’t even tell that I was telling the truth.

This is not to say that there weren’t good people in that church. I know there were at least four to six people who believed me. But all of them were women – who did not really have positions of authority within that church’s hierarchy – and while some of them were willing to listen, none of them stood up for myself and my younger brother.

It was hell.

I hope you see where I’m going with this.

The Winter of 2017, Toronto:
When I turned twenty-three, I decided, this is it. I’m in Canada now, and I have no reason to keep this charade going. I am going to cut my hair. I am going to cut it, and it is going to feel so good. I am going to feel so free. And so I did. I cut it to shoulder length, having it cut shorter and shorter every few months until I finally took the plunge and got a super short pixie in March 2017.

There is a photo on my Instagram account somewhere that shows me with my head tilted to one side, my hair tied up in a bun. I’m in my McDonald’s crew uniform in that photo, and I took it while I was on break. It’s captioned, “This is the last week I’ll be wearing a bun.”

Hair, for me, is never just about my hair. My hair is a symbol: of a past life that I loved and lost, of emotional abuse by an authority figure, of being in a church where life was controlled in more ways than just spiritually. I tried living what was their biblical interpretation of an “acceptable” woman – non-confrontational, submissive, not too ambitious. It is a problematic environment when the highest position a man can aspire to is a pastor, and a woman, a pastor’s wife.

My twenties have been a whirlwind of self-discovery. It’s still happening. I’m still changing. For the better, I hope. But right now, as a young woman of twenty-six – I’ve made conscious decisions to change, drastically. I am ambitious, and as the people who know me will say, I am so fucking stubborn. I have a tendency to choose life paths I know are going to be difficult adventures. It’s been great fun, this whole figuring-out-who-I-am thing, especially with the love and guidance of friends and family.

And I will never wear a bun again.