Where do I come from? You tell me!
“Where I come from” is a phrase that gives me goose pimples. I have answered the question “Where do you really come from” more than a hundred times, and I expect to encounter the same query any moment. Do they mean where I was born, where I have studied, worked and lived, where I have immigrated, or where I feel I belong?
The local midwife, armed only with scissors, hot water in a plastic basin and a fluffy purple towel, cut my umbilical cord at three in the afternoon in soaring heat inside a 70-square metre wooden house situated in the centre of a village called Ma-ao. Without an epidural, my mother’s screaming and crying for help persisted for more than two hours and competed with the outside noise of trucks and tricycles going in both directions. Women and children living next door gathered on the footpath in front of our nipa hut when they heard oddly chopped cries. The midwife wiped my forehead and cheered, “A healthy baby, a baby girl who did not need to be smacked”.
This baby girl became a resourceful and ardent survivor. Every seven o’clock in the morning, from Monday to Friday, she dashed out to the bitumen road under the unfolding heat. On most days, on her way to school, she dropped the sweet potato “camote” leaves at the neighbour’s food stand at the market for some pesos. During weekends and school holidays, she and her sister sold melons that their gambler father purchased from farms in Pulupandan. They were only nine and ten years old but were excellent merchants getting into buses with trays of sliced watermelons and rockmelons. Customers would look, move their heads slightly sideways or nod, and ask, “Is it sweet?” when even a blind person could see the fruit's redness and swoon by its sugary smell.
This baby girl became the apple of politicians’ eyes. One of the most outstanding achievements of the Philippines government was its scholarship program for brilliant children of indigent coconut farmers nationwide, funding more than 20,000 scholars from 1975 to 1986. She was not a daughter of a farmer but got the scholarship. She finished first in the academic competition that included public and private high school students. Their mayor, Mr K, had confidence in her, so he pulled the town’s resources together to ensure she could attend all exams and qualify for the national finals. Mr Y, whom she eventually called uncle E, was a small coconut farmer who lived about two kilometres from her family. Due to Mayor K’s instigation, Uncle E included her in his family tree, as it was the final requirement for granting the generous scholarship.
She and her dad woke up at 4 AM to take a bus for Bacolod; another bus for Negros Oriental; a boat to Cebu, and then to Baybay, where the only means of transport to cross the nameless river was a roofless barge (there is a bridge now) without life jackets or life-saving floats. She could hear the daunting sound of waves crashing against the barge. As passengers spun around, her breakfast churned inside her, making her nauseous. Flash! Crack! Her ears were filled with the deafening sound of the barge’s compressions and rarefactions. She sensed panic. The boiled rice and fried egg were about to exit from her oesophagus, so she stayed motionless. As the wave crashed on the walls of the barge, the other passengers sprung to retch. When the ferocious waves subsided, she became well again. They left the flatboat and hailed a tricycle headed for the Visayas State University (VSU).
This baby girl became an astute university student. She arrived at VSU not knowing what to study. Any degree was better than doing housework for relatives or selling sweets and melons. Her dad gave her only ten pesos, thinking she had a roof over her head and a full plate thrice a day. He never asked what degree she would do and left hurriedly to take the next once-a-week boat for Cebu (He didn’t have money to pay for his food and accommodation).
She jumped with joy when she learned that there was a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Development Education, the least technical of all degrees. However, she still had compulsory physics and chemistry subjects, which she found difficult because she had not studied these in high school. She burnt candles at both ends! She had not understood the lesson in the first statistics exam, and with little time for extra study, she memorised the formulas and applied them to questions similar to those in her notes. She had become more religious. She remembered Pastor F’s words, “See the Lord in every situation. His sovereignty controls the universe”. She believed in His promise to prosper her and shield her from failure. After the exam, with her heart beating fast, she prayed all the way back to their dormitory, avoiding anyone on the passage, particularly her classmates.
On the dreaded morning of the results, she woke up so flustered she couldn’t pray. The Statistics exam results were posted on the board outside the Engineering Department for everyone to see. A crowd of students started to gather before eight in the morning. She paced up and down the pathway outside her dormitory, hoping she would get 50%, courtesy of the theoretical part where they had to explain the how and why of data analysis, which she had also memorised. On top of the sheet of A4 paper, it was written that a dozen students who got excellent results would be exempted from the final end-of-the-year exam. In less than 20 minutes, she heard one of them was her. The heavy load dropped from her shoulder, and her heart started beating normally again. Inside her was a shout of joy and an instant thought of “twice lucky”.
This baby girl became career-oriented. After graduation, she got a job as a university research assistant and official guide. One of the departmental contacts for the campus-guided tour was a friendly lecturer, Miss C, who unsuccessfully applied for a doctoral fellowship in the USA. To date, she does not know why Miss C gave her an application form for a postgraduate scholarship abroad because she was not entitled to it being a non-teaching staff (yet she filled in and sent that form). Today, she still wonders how she managed to get the American ADC-Winrock/Rockefeller scholarship for Australia.
This baby girl fell in love with Australia. She identified with Australian values of fairness, transparency, kindness, and being down-to-earth. As part of her master’s degree at the University of Queensland, she had to conduct a research project. Considering her background, International House experience and involvement in the Filipino-Australian community, she decided to examine the subject of cross-cultural relationships. This curiosity was sparked by her arrival in Brisbane a year earlier. On the Qantas plane from Manila, she sat next to S, who was in her 40s and going to Australia to meet her fiancé for the first time. “We were pen pals and developed a deep romantic attachment to each other”, S proudly narrated. She became S’s friend, and they attended many parties together. She also joined government-funded multicultural festivals and gatherings, where she was always attracted to Australian-born, admiring their views about life, politics and the world. Even before becoming an Aussie, she felt she had found a place she belonged.
This baby girl kept her wedding vow, “I’ll go wherever you go”. After 13 years of marriage and having a lovely home in Australia, she had to move to France, her hubby’s homeland. Last summer, while on holiday in Croatia, a tourism office employee asked her where she’s from for their statistical record. She replied, “France, but I work in Luxembourg, a small yet rich country I call my other home”.