When homesickness feels a lot like grief

Trying to keep my Filipino heritage alive in the diaspora

A girl with short black hair stands with her back turned. She is wearing a winter jacket and holding Mukmuk, a Vancouver 2010 winter plush mascot who resembles a beaver, in one hand and a Filipino flag in the other hand. In the distance is a scene of a busy street in Manila with people socializing and laughing.
ILLUSTRATION: Jiamin Bai / The Peak

By: Alyssa Victorino, SFU Student

I learned what it meant to be homesick when I was nine. 

My family and I packed up everything we owned, said heavy goodbyes to family and friends, and boarded a plane from Manila. Our destination was Vancouver where we became permanent residents, and later, Canadian citizens. I left behind my sari-sari store toys and replaced them with the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic mascot plushies (my favourite was Mukmuk). I traded in my tank tops and flip-flops for rain jackets and snow boots and got used to the deafening silence at home. There was no more playful banter among extended family members in the house. 

During the first couple of months, family friends kept asking me if I ever missed the Philippines. I think they expected whatever disorientation I felt to dissipate quickly as I adjusted. But even after 12 years, the sting of homesickness lingers. 

When you experience a deep longing for something you know you can’t get back, you start to lose yourself in fantasy and memory. Every few months, I get an itch to go through photo albums, old journals, playlists, and past school projects to immerse myself in the comfort of simpler times. They bring back memories of Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house where the grandkids would fight over who got the last KFC fried chicken. I can still hear the never-ending bustle in the kitchen where family members would cook, clean, and gossip; they were excellent multitaskers.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes the grief she felt after her husband’s death: the fruitless waiting for the past to show up at your door and the subsequent realisation that there is only forward — things change whether or not we are ready. My life has been riddled with a similar yet different kind of grief for the last decade, lost in the memory of another version of myself that got to stay home. I struggle to reconcile the reality that I will never be able to find out who she would’ve turned out to be, and I fear I will always feel split between two lives. 

And it isn’t just about me. My family lost our village. My mom, who had loads of friends unafraid to let out full-belly laughs in quiet restaurants, had to learn how to navigate her first winter alone with three kids. My dad, who once played the guitar and sang Filipino folk music freely, was bogged down by work, travelling for months at a time. My sisters, too, had to navigate university and high school alone, learning for the first time what it’s like to have to search for a piece of home to hold onto. I grieve for them, the versions of my family members who remained proud and sure, whose senses of belonging remained intact. 

In elementary school, I used to count the number of Filipino students in each of my classes to anchor me and took every possible opportunity to make projects about Filipino culture. In grade four, I made a “Guide to the Philippines” handbook for my class, listing traditional Filipino clothing, games, and cuisine. Today, I flood my parents with questions at the dinner table about what their lives were like back home. I look up recipes for Filipino dishes — Filipino spaghetti for birthdays and arroz caldo for when it rains (needless to say, I have arroz caldo a lot). I make sure to watch cheesy Tagalog romcoms when they come out on Netflix like Isa Pa With Feelings and Love You to the Stars and Back

Most significantly, I decided to study social justice in universit and took every chance to centre my assignments on memory, colonialism, or immigration. At some point, the grief turned into a deep curiosity for everything that I had lost and everything that I was feeling; the whys and hows of my being here. 

But I soon found it’s difficult to study economic inequality, globalisation, and racism as an immigrant in a western institution. I see my childhood unfold in some of the case studies — the unemployment and low wages, the degrading process of the immigration point system. Learning about the structural forces behind my immigration story — the greed behind poverty and the centuries of colonialism behind the desire to be in proximity to whiteness — brought with it a transformation of grief for land and community. I grieve in classrooms, among my peers. I leave classes with an empty feeling wondering, “Now what?” 

My mom still asks me if I would move back to the Philippines out of fear that she and my dad made the wrong decision by moving us all here. It used to be an easy answer: of course not. There are better opportunities here, more choice and freedom, and easier access to nature. For a long time, I felt so much pressure to just be happy and grateful to live here. Of course, I am, and I acknowledge my privilege in this. But I can’t ignore the constant waves of sadness and struggle I feel in trying to reclaim my cultural identity. I hate not knowing the places that my parents talk about when they reminisce, having family members’ names feel foreign on my tongue, and asking what certain Tagalog words mean. I should know all of these things. I should have gotten the chance to know these things.

Home is something that I had to define for myself. It is not a place, but a feeling. I experience it now as fleeting moments that feel familiar: barbeques by the lake, loud Christmas parties with titos and titas you don’t know, and the warm and inviting smell of summer air. Losing the familiar to the unknown so suddenly 12 years ago taught me to cherish and live in these small, beautiful moments whenever they come along. 

And so, if someone were to ask me today if I’d move back to the Philippines, I’d want to say yes, if only to feel whole again.