My mom used to joke that I’m not a Filipino because I didn’t like what Filipinos liked: ube, halo-halo, mais con yelo, sago’t gulaman, kwek-kwek.
I didn’t speak your language very well, couldn’t if I ever tried. I grew up in a tiny kingdom in the Middle East, too small to be a dot on the world map. I was more likely to swear in Arabic than Filipino, and I knew their national anthem better than I knew yours.
I knew the cities and places better: the Starbucks I never went to. The shawarma hub near the Church. The grocery where I would meet a boy. The five different houses we lived in.
I could name the King, the Crown Prince, the Prime Minister, even if their names all sounded the same. But I didn’t know, and didn’t care, who was trying to lead you.
I was so disconnected from you that when I came home, I was homesick for some other home.
Today, it will have been seven years since my plane landed on you. Back then, “Philippines” was all just one big strange place to me, until Manila taught me to say “Manila.”
You’re mostly shitty, Philippines, and I hated you. I hated you, your traffic, your grey cities and your dirty rain, I hated your people, your culture and your lack thereof. But I learned you can be great.
In the years between then and now, I met Sorsogon, where a rainbow swooped into the waters and made me fall in love with the beach; Tanay, the river that made me work to get to its secrets; Baguio, with the tall woods and the cold I didn’t think existed here; and many more places I’ve yet to tick off.
So now you’re one big strange place again, but you’re not such a stranger anymore.
I learned the names of your children, and their dreams for you. I learned the names of your leaders who had their different ideas of saving you, your heroes, your non-heroes, your enemies.
I counted your problems and your roots, more connected with mine than I realized.
I met your artists and your dreamers, and you, you gave me libraries and literature.
I got to know your mountains and your cities.
I took trains to meet a boy, found a new Starbucks and started drinking coffee. It took me a year to ride a Jeep for the first time, and three years to stop being proud of being from somewhere else.
It’s been a long ride.
Every year, I count the years and the problems and the celebrations. I count the parties I’ve been to, the people you made me laugh with, and cry over, the storms you’ve made me brave, how much I’ve been through since.
I still don’t like what Filipinos like. And I forget the words to your song the day after I try to learn them. But I’m in love with your trains that link me to people, and the people that you link me to. I will never love your winding streets, but I will always love the places they make me discover.
I might always pick fights with your leaders, but I will always fight for you. I don’t know if I want to die here, but I know now that I can die for you.
You’ve done strange things to me. You’ve turned me into a Filipino. You’ve changed me for better or worse. One day, I hope to change you too.