In October 1996 I was born in the bustling streets of Manila, Philippines. Before I was old enough to walk or eat on my own, my parents had moved our family to the other side of the world and the place I call home — Toronto, Canada. That is why when my boyfriend’s mom asked if I wanted to come to Philippines with them, I gladly took the opportunity, knowing my parents weren’t going to go back any time soon. I wanted to experience the place where my parents grew up. I wanted to see the place I had only ever heard stories about, where most of my family tree resides, and maybe even meet some of those people that I can call family but I’d never met. I was expecting to feel a huge culture shock (which I definitely did), and for people to treat me weirdly because I wasn’t from there.
I was wrong about the second part, since everyone was nothing but hospitable and sweet. I got to meet my boyfriends grandparents on both sides, with both sweet grandmas urging us to get married ASAP. We got to see all his aunts and uncles that I previously met on their trips to Canada, and we were reunited with some of his favourite cousins, which we hadn’t seen in about three years. I come from a family that isn’t very family-oriented, so growing up, I’d always craved that huge close-knit family feel, and going to see my boyfriend’s family coming together really sparked this happiness and sadness in me.
Life there is very different. Every morning we woke up to the sound of at least one rooster crowing outside our window (literally right outside, I think he was purposely trying to wake us up). On Christmas day, children line up at the doors of wealthier houses of people they know, to give respect and hold their hands out for pesos. The home owners stand at the front, awaiting the children whilst holding a stack of pesos to give out — it made me think of Halloween, but instead of candy, its pesos being given out. On one of the days during our stay, we hosted an annual children’s party for all the children in the area, which was catered by Jollibee, Philippine’s number one fast food restaurant. There were prizes for the kids, a magic act, a clown, cotton candy topped with milk powder, and of course, the Jollibee mascot himself.
Everything seems to be more festive in the Philippines during the holidays. There are Filipino lanterns flashing everywhere, countless Christmas tree displays everywhere you go, and DIY firework displays by my boyfriend’s uncles on New Year’s Eve. They also played really loud (curfew-free) techno beats, while we were equipped with sparklers, glow sticks, drinks, a lot of funny dance moves, and just a really good time.
We mostly stayed in Bulacan, where my boyfriend’s grandparents own a huge plot of land, mulitple businesses, and an ancestral house that is so full of history. His grandmother also runs a catering business/bakery, which I thought was quite funny since it’s my own dream to own a bakery one day. When we weren’t in Bulacan, we were in a Hiace van. We took an 8 hour overnight drive to the beautiful historic city of Vigan, which is known for it’s preserved colonial Spanish architecture, and unsurprisingly reminded me a lot of Havana, Cuba. From there, we went down to the beach in La Union, but didn’t stay for long because of the rainy weather. However, we did get to go to a coffee shop that not only had coffee, but they also had s’mores bowls, pasta, and pho. It definitely was a cute little cafe and still made the trip to the beach worthwhile. When we were in Manila for the last few days, we were able to pass by the hospital I was born in, which happens to be on the same street that my boyfriend’s dad grew up on — another funny way the world seems to work.
The food in Philippines is ultimately what made me feel like I was returning home in a way. The first night we arrived, we had a feast of lechon (a whole roasted pig), and it turned out to be the first of many lechon over the trip. I’ve had lechon in Canada, but for some reason, the lechon in the Philippines was so much more juicier. Throughout my life, I grew up eating sinigang (a sour and savoury stew), bangus (fried milkfish), and having eggs and longanisa (a sweet pork sausage) for breakfast. When we had multicultural day in elementary school, I’d bring puto (steamed rice cakes), or cassava cake. Occasionally we would buy suman, a rice cake wrapped in banana leaves for dessert. So ultimately, almost every meal I ate in the Philippines reminded me of my mother and my grandmother’s cooking, and everything was so delicious. While we were on a long drive from La Union back to Bulacan, we passed by many street vendors, selling everything from pottery, to dried fish, to onions and garlic. While stuck in traffic we bought suman from a woman selling them outside our van, and honestly, it was the best suman I’d ever had in my life. Most likely a once in a life-time experience since I will probably never find that woman or her suman again, but it is definitely a memory I (and my stomach) will cherish forever.
On top of all the nostalgic meals and desserts, and the festive family gatherings, I was able to arrange a meet up with my cousins from my mom’s side, which also reunited me with my grandparents. I missed them a lot since I haven’t seen them in a couple years. They were really happy to see that I was experiencing their home country after all these years, and that made me really happy. This trip left my heart (and my stomach) full, and I would gladly go back again. If you’d like to read about my short trip to The Dessert Museum in Manila, check it out here! I also want to share this cute little video that my boyfriend made of the trip, feel free to check it out below! ❤️