Since I left the Philippines at age 17 to study in the US, my life has been a series of leaving and returning to my home country. But one thing that has remained constant is the persistent rediscovery of my Filipino identity.
Halfway around the world, I wrote a hundred-pages on the Filipino Identity in Children’s Art while dealing with a frigid Massachusetts winter. Inspired by the mail order brides down under, I wrote my dissertation on the foodways of Filipino women married to Australians in the warmth of Adelaide. Sixteen years ago, a Singaporean classmate in Australia told me, “You know you’re the first Filipino I’m talking to who’s my equal.” “Thanks, I think!?,” my confused teenaged brain wanted to answer back. I held back and kept these words instead. In Singapore today, some cab drivers are still dumbfounded that Filipina professionals exist.
But discovering my Filipino identity has always been a joyous celebration. When I would return home to Manila for my holidays during my college years, I would voraciously read F. Sionil Jose’s novels. I thoroughly enjoyed them, like a gripping suspense book, unable to put them down. Reading Gilda Cordero Fernando and Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo’s essays felt like listening to a warm tita (auntie)’s stories.
Last week, I attended Ambeth Ocampo’s talk at the Singapore Art Musuem called Jose Rizal: The First OCW (Overseas Contract Worker). Not many know, Jose Rizal visited Singapore in 1882, 1887, 1891 and 1896.
Speaking before a large audience of Filipinos working in Singapore and a handful of non-Filipinos, Ocampo enthralled us with stories of Rizal and his friends noted painters Juan Luna and Hidalgo. Away from home, these scholars developed a deep bond with each other in Spain. Rizal would pose for Juan Luna’s paintings. They would eat and drink together, a deep camaraderie so familiar to many OFW’s like myself. They became more than friends for each other, almost like family. Even today, gathering with fellow Filipino most especially to eat and talk, eases one's pain of being abroad. Being with them almost makes it feel like home. It is a special bond shared. In many ways, Rizal and his friends lifted up the image of Filipinos abroad during their stay there. Luna and Hidalgo were recognized as fine painters. Rizal was regarded as a fine doctor even in other Asian countries and in Spain. But living abroad also strengthened these accomplished professionals love for their beloved home country.
Ambeth Ocampo has this special gift of humanizing Rizal and Filipino history in a fun entertaining way. Many times, I found myself rolling into big bursts of laughter. We learned history, as he revealed the saga of how original Rizal manuscript of the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo were lost and found. He explained how a Filipino painting merited US $800,000 in a Christie’s auction, also due to Rizal’s presence.
Historian Ambeth Ocampo and Maida at the Singapore Art Museum talk
It was one of Ocampo’s tour guiding duties for visiting dignitaries that lead to this Fiesta Filipino in Singapore. Thanks to the historian’s conversation with Singapore President S.R. Nathan, a series of events and talks were organized in museums here to celebrate our rich heritage. As he ended his talk, Ocampo emphasized, “Every generation writes its own history.” He laments that while history has seen many Filipinos leave their home country, they often came back. Now, many young Filipinos he says leave with no intention of coming back home.
After the talk, Filipino dishes from Rizal’s hometown Laguna were served. There was Buco Pie (a pastry with young coconut strips and milk filling) and Espasol, a chewy tubular rice cake made with toasted rice flour and coconut milk. Shaped into cylinders, they are rolled in more toasted ground rice flour. They served Pancit Habhab, which is not exactly a Laguna dish, but originally from Lucban, Quezon. Pancit Habhab is stir-fried noodle dish with bits of pork and chayote, eaten habhab-style, slurped without a fork. A banana leaf is used as a plate, which you bring close to your mouth to slurp the noodles. It was a quick, cheap snack for jeepney drivers in Quezon, as they waited for their vehicle to be filled with passengers.
Buco Pie, a dessert from Laguna, Rizal's home province
The habhab, usually with just a few ingredients, here with lots of veggies and meat
The Espasol cut into bite-size pieces
As we ate, one friend told me how excited she was to see Espasol on her recent visit to the Philippines with her family. Her son, half- Filipino and half-British born in Singapore was repulsed by the way it looked. He couldn’t understand his mom’s excitement over this sweet delicacy, “But, Mom, it looks like tae (poop)”. It looked strange to this young boy. I smiled, knowing that this young Filipino, was already starting to discover and celebrate his Filipino identity at an early age.
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