by Jeehan Quijano
Home means different things to each one of us. It could be the yellow door of your childhood home, the tread of your father’s boots as he left for work, or how your kitchen smelled of roasted chicken or lentils or apple pudding. Home could be the red brick wall building on the corner of the street, or a distinct sound, say the way the church bell rang or how your neighbor’s rooster crowed early morning. Home could be the crisp air of autumn whose particular scent you have not smelled in any other city you have lived or visited. Home could be a feeling, a state of being, or a city far from the place of your origin, far from a past that evokes longing or dread or ambivalence.
We can build roots anywhere we choose. I do not think there is any edict that bars a person from proclaiming a place as her or his home. I grew up in the Philippines, a country comprised of at least seven thousand one hundred islands, and as I write this, more islands are being discovered. We have a strong sense of family and community. It is not uncommon to consider someone your relative if you have the same last name even though the blood line is vague or too distant to be traced, or in fact, non-existent. I remember many Christmases where we opened our door to people I had never met or heard of before. “I am Octavio, son of Pinang, sister of Cipriano.” “My father, Ismael, was a great friend of your Tio Inting.” Names would be continually recited until my father catches a familiar one, someone he probably had not seen in fifteen years, or someone whose name he had heard of only a few times in his life. It is unthinkable to close the door and tell them to leave. But if you must, you first have to give food, water, and some change for the bus fare back to their town. “No man is an island” is a dictum that we practice deeply. You cannot live there and feel lonely. You will be invited to gatherings even if you are an acquaintance of the host’s friend’s second cousin, and the host does not even know you. The possible downside if you are a shy person is that you might have to sing karaoke. This is one scenario where you have to lose your inhibitions, all in the spirit of fun and camaraderie. Cebu City, where I was born and raised, is the oldest city in the Philippines. Before the Spaniards came, it was a vital place of trading. The island itself is long and narrow. It has coves and waterfalls and white sandy beaches. It is made of resilience and creativity and beauty.
For a couple of years, home to me was Venice, a beach town in the west side of Los Angeles. It is popular for its bohemian spirit, home to artists and mad people – mad for music and dance, mad for art, mad to live life to the fullest without much constraint. Smoking pot, before it became legal, was commonplace. There are a lot of homeless people, their faces becoming familiar that you would nod to them when you walk by their spot, and if they are not there, you’d wonder where they’d gone. I loved living close to the sea. I loved the boardwalk teeming with diversity – locals who sold their art, the drum circle that attracted a large crowd, musicians performing their original songs, tourists from all over the world, weirdos, hustlers, lovers, families. If I felt lonely, all I had to do was go to the boardwalk and observe the beautiful chaos with the calm sea in the background, and the loneliness faded away. I loved the small shops and establishments that had existed for many, many years where the friendly shop owners talk to you like an old uncle would tell you untold stories of your family history. But like any other place, it has its flaws. Crimes, gang fracas (some ended in violence), suchlike. Once, the police shot an allegedly belligerent homeless person outside a busy café two blocks from my house. But for the most part, people were kind, warm, and open.
But change is inevitable. I do not know exactly how or when it began. What is chief in my mind is that the tech giants from Silicon Valley arrived, then followed a host of very wealthy people. Rent became outrageously high. I saw a sign outside one of the newer apartment buildings that said, “Top unit, 2 bedrooms, $6000. With hot tub!” Everything else got expensive – lattes, acai bowls, real estate. Small independent shops closed for good. Perhaps such is the nature of places, perhaps this has always been the way of the world. The gentrification dampened my spirit (and wallet), but the dynamics of how we perceived each other, how we treated each other, was equally damaging.
One typical sunny afternoon, I had just gotten off the bus, famished, and started to walk home when a white woman came up to me and yelled to my face, “You are a fucking ugly wetback!” Then she carried on walking with her two dogs, walking with a smug look as though she emerged from a battle, victorious and vindicated. I was in shock, unable to respond in any way. All I wanted was to go home and eat. So I continued to walk, angry, confused, deflated. My hands were shaking as I heated leftover food, and I sat on the sofa and thought about what just happened. I did not fathom the aggravation she exhibited when she knew nothing about me, when I did not bring her harm. Did my existence cause her pain or put her life in danger? Did I steal her food, belongings, identity? I know that “wetback” is a derogatory term specifically aimed at Mexicans. I am not Mexican, but an affront to Mexicans is an affront to myself as a person of color. An affront against a human being is an affront against humanity. When one is on the receiving end of a racist remark or behavior, at the very least, you are made to feel unwelcome, that you have no place in the community. What that woman was essentially telling me was that I was inferior, inadequate, that I belonged somewhere else. I was made to feel that way simply by not being white.
One of the things I love about living in Los Angeles is that I meet people from all sorts of background. Some remain as acquaintances, others become cherished friends. These meetings have undoubtedly enriched my life. I first met Terry, a woman in her fifties, while waiting for the bus. I was gathering my bus fare when she approached me and offered a free bus ticket because she had an extra one. A total random act of kindness from a stranger. We sat next to each other for about twenty minutes. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I remember she had a warm way about her that made me feel at ease. Since then, we have formed a camaraderie. We laugh a lot. She tells me about her work, her grandchildren, her dream of travelling to Ireland with her daughter. She asks me about my life and actually listens. She gets concerned when I look out the window of the bus with a blank stare. “You okay? Rough day? Why don’t you come home with me and hang out with my crazy black family and you’ll have a laugh. And I’ll feed you spaghetti. I know you love spaghetti.” She touches me with her caring. She says her son is brilliant with computers and is working towards getting a college degree. “A mama’s boy, that one.” Sometimes she’d take a call from her son or daughter while we are on the bus. She keeps her voice down, giggles, and I hear the words “food” and “love” and “home.” Language is joyless without these three words. Life is empty without them.
And there is Carla, a former work colleague. She knows my deep love for tacos, and she sent me to a Mexican restaurant called Mariela’s. They were the tastiest tacos I ever had in my life. From her I learned to put Tajin on my fresh fruits, and I rekindled my love for tamarind candy. When I first met her mom, it immediately felt like I knew her, as though we had met before. It dawned on me that she reminded me of an old aunt. Fierce yet loving, the type who’d vex you with a harsh scolding for doing something foolish yet unconditionally love you with all that she has. She offered me a variety of dulces, corn chips, and beef mole that she made. Our cultural similarities eased the language barrier but it was her hospitality that truly made me feel at home. Once in a while Carla would invite me to her home for lunch or snacks. I adore her family and sometimes I don’t understand them and sometimes they don’t understand me. But it does not matter. We share food. They show me endless old family albums. I know all the latest family drama. They fight and make up and say sorry and fight again and then forgive each other. The day after Carla’s dad had died, I went with her to the hospital to get his medical records. His death was unexpected. Her family suspected negligence but they could not come up with the money to pay an attorney so they accepted with a heavy heart, that a legal battle was something they could not afford. What a somber day that was for her, waiting for records, making funeral arrangements, taking calls from relatives in Mexico, holding herself together for the practicalities while wallowing in grief. It was the first time I saw Carla cry. It was the first time we cried together. I know the heartbreak of a loved one’s death. It happened to me in 2009 when my father passed away. Some days the pain is raw and deep and I find myself inhabiting a hollow meaningless world. I am sitting in a small dark room with no windows. I see Carla in that room, and I stand by the door and wait for her to come out when she is ready. It was a tough year. We bonded over grief, hearty meals, spurts of laughter in between.
Hermie is a Filipina woman in her eighties. She calls me randomly to invite me to lunch. We meet at the train station near her house; she greets me with an endearing smile, and we walk to her favorite all-you-can-eat restaurant near the station. “Huwag kang mag-alala. Akong mang libre sayo.” Don’t worry, my treat, she says. Like any typical Filipina grandmother, she won’t stop feeding you. You cannot just have one big meal, you must also have Leche Flan after that, or Maja Blanca or Turon. If you want, you can have them all. In the summer, Halo-halo is obligatory. Even if you politely decline the dessert, she will buy them for you anyway. To go, for your merienda later, she’d say. She reminds me of Cebu. She reminds me of my mother and aunts and grandmothers, and that food is home and home is kitchen and stories and three generations of family all gathered together around long tables. Home is lechon and adobo and Tupperware filled with food to take home. Home is karaoke and silliness and nosy relatives and your heart swelling with joy. Home is your grandmother’s papery hands touching your cheek as you bid her goodbye. Hermie’s husband passed away recently. Their relatives from Northern California and the East Coast flew to Los Angeles to pay their respects. They respected him a lot, she said, beaming with pride. She lives alone and I cannot help but wonder about the silence of her house. I wonder about how she must miss their conversations, even their annoyances, the sound of footsteps and tinkering around, the particulars of their everyday life as a married couple for fifty years. She said that for thirty years, she worked as a nurse’s assistant “wiping people’s asses.” She worked hard, did a lot of overtime, and was able to build a house in Bicol, her husband’s hometown. She saved money to live decently in her retirement. Once in a while I do errands for her. I pay her bills, make phone calls, write letters to her relatives in the Philippines who owe her late rent payments. While I do all these, she is in the kitchen cooking pansit for me. “You realize we have known each other for about six years,” she reminds me. I smile and fill my mouth with delicious noodles. I devour them and cannot speak. I have no poise or shame when I eat her homecooked meals. She tells me stories about her life, her childhood spent in a small province in the Luzon area, what she was like as a teenager and a young woman. I let her carry on with her stories because her eyes light up when she talks about her journeys. I let her carry on because the stories are about perseverance and hope and leaving home and arriving at one wherever that is. They are about patience and loving people and fighting for what you believe is righteous and fair. This is what I keep coming back for, her stories, and I suspect she is aware of it, and perhaps all the enticing food she offers is just a ruse. Whenever we part ways, my heart breaks a little at her fragility and I fear that some incident might befall her and there is no one around to help. When I sit on the train on my way home from our lunch together, I often feel a renewed hope for the world, and how wonderful it is that a woman in her eighties bestows me with such optimism. I get ashamed of my trifling annoyances and dismal thoughts because Hermie, who wiped people’s asses for thirty years, who survived, heaven knows how many deaths and calamities, still loves this world and sends me off with the loveliest of smiles and a bagful of food. I am eager to go home, eat Leche Flan, talk to my plants and inform them that I have no vexations to report.
My friend Jen loves to cook and invite people for dinner. She was raised in Arizona, moved to New York at eighteen, then eventually settled in Los Angeles. Her home is home to the wayward and practically anyone with a good heart. You would not go to her house for food alone, but you would go because of her company. She has survived adversities – death of a child, toxic relationships, and just recently – illness – but she did not only survive, she rose above it. Her resilience shines through her beautiful blue eyes and brightens my grim soul. I had shown up at her door sad, maudlin, philosophical, disagreeable, and still, she indulged me with plenty of food, wine, and conversations. There had been many times when we stayed up all night worried about the state of the world as though the world was our child and we had to come up with brilliant ideas to save it. Our creative side as musicians was our immediate bond. Over time, our bond grew deeper that I was over at her house on some holidays and grand occasions, and I went along with her on various missions: looking for a wine shop that’s still open past midnight, locating her daughter’s whereabouts, plotting schemes on how to make life a bit cheerful. There was a year where we collected clothes, blankets, goods, and gave them to homeless people in our area on Thanksgiving. Home is conversations and community and music and kindness. I recall one particular evening at her apartment where I shared food with people of different faiths – Jewish, Christian, agnostic – from different countries. We ate bread and pasta and asked for a second serving and drank wine. We talked about religion and family and Plato and King Solomon. We disagreed and agreed and ate cake and drank more wine and laughed and talked all night long. No one was offensive or rude. No one got hurt. You would think it is possible for people to come to a place bringing their baggage, unique history, present circumstances, and get along well. You would think it is possible to live in harmony. You would think it is possible to treat each other decently despite all the differences. It certainly was possible in her home. It was possible because, Jen, who has one of the biggest hearts in the world, enabled our hearts to be open too. Kindness begets kindness and it went around again and again that we could not fathom any other way of living.
The First Philippine Republic was proclaimed in 1899 with Emilio Aguinaldo as president. He established a revolutionary government after the American forces defeated the Spanish in the American-Spanish war in 1898. Under Aguinaldo, the Philippine Revolutionary Army was the official armed forces of the country. Its members and officers were not only native Filipinos but included various races and nationalities as well — Franco Indian mestizos, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Italians, Americans. A woman, General Agueda Kahabagan y Iniquinto, was one of the generals. This was in 1899! We were progressive and diverse and trusting.
“Philippines is now my favorite country,” exclaims my friend, Steve, after his first visit to the country. He is Scottish and had been to various countries in Asia, Europe, and North America. “Why?” I ask. “The people are the loveliest and most welcoming and hospitable.” He spent Christmas in the southern part of Cebu City without knowing anyone. He got invited to parties and never felt lonely. I knew this was going to happen. I knew this because we learned hospitality in the same moment when we learned how to walk.
These days where the Asian community is a target of racist attacks, I have to be extra vigilant when I am walking the streets. In Koreatown, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, a group of young people meet on Friday and Saturday evenings and hold a “Safety Night Walk” where they accompany individuals walking to their car or waiting for Uber. I think of my neighbors, my bus mates, people of color, the marginalized. I think of Terry’s son going to school walking the streets in the dead of night. I think of what might happen to him or Carla’s mom or Carlos selling fruits down the street. I think of solutions but come out empty. I wish we could all just sit down for a meal, share food, and drop this nonsense. Here, try some adobo and pansit. How about some bread pudding? This is authentic chorizo from my great grandmother’s recipe. I wish for an accessible, cheap public transportation where people can visit other places, experience other cultures, and emerge from it enlightened, in disbelief at their unfounded fears, questioning what they were conditioned to believe all along. I wish for a comic relief, for some magic to happen, for the great gods to descend and put everything right. I know this is a dream. I know racism and injustice will not end but I also know that it will not always prevail.
Lately I have been thinking about my encounter in Venice with that racist woman. I regret not standing up for myself. I remember thinking, as she turned to walk away from me, that it was not worth the energy to engage with such ignorance and hatred. Perhaps it was due in part to our cultural trait of keeping our heads down and avoiding conflict. Perhaps I was too exhausted and famished to argue. I vow to never again allow someone to speak to me the way she did.
These days I walk with a bit of a swagger if only to say that I am not inferior or subhuman. If only to say that I am part of this community. If only to say that this is my home too and I will not have anyone tell me otherwise. I carry on living life the way I know how because I will not allow myself to live in fear. I fill my mornings with coffee and gratitude, and then I think of ways I might conquer the world. But I do not conquer the world so I move on. I play my part in society: I do my work with integrity, be a good neighbor, recycle, bring joy to my loved ones. I fail on the last one and I try again the next day. I play the piano then sit outside for a while and wait for hummingbirds to come. I wait for other things as well: sunset, birdsong, forgiveness, world peace, for a dream to come true. I buy books from the local bookshop, decide to splurge, so I come home with fine stationery, two pens, a postcard, and a box of croissants. I take my walks and moan about the litter and how the street smells of piss. I think of Cebu and daydream of its beautiful beaches and get nostalgic. I daydream some more and a phone call snaps me out of it. I thank the heavens it is not a sales call or bad news. It is a friend inviting me over for cake. Some days luck is truly on my side. I laugh heartily in the middle of the road and startle people. I roam this city with wonder, love this city for what it gives. I wait for nightfall and have a quiet moment with the sky. Morning glories close and say goodnight, not making any promises about tomorrow. Thank you, I say to whoever can hear me – the gods, my dead loved ones, the red walls of my bedroom, the dying grass, the universe. Thank you, for this, for all that I have, for the places I call home.
Jeehan Quijano is the author of the novel The Unfolding. She is a freelance writer and paralegal and loves playing the piano. She can be found on Instagram jeehan_quijano and www.jeehanquijano.com.