January 27, 2011

Where’s home?

[Note: This is a piece that appeared on the Youngblood section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It was written by Tet Grajo, a management trainee at J&J Philippines Inc. In this essay, Tet asks the questions what does home mean and where exactly is home? She recounts the trips she took to Cagayan de Oro, Bukidnon and Sagada which became the foundation of the questions about "home" that she began asking herself.]

 IT BEGAN when, fresh from enrolling in my last semester, I sent my resume everywhere. With no real knowledge of what it meant to earn a “living,” to work a “job,” or to run the “race,” I wrote that I was looking for a job in either marketing or sales, and that yes, I was “willing to travel.” 

The dust had not even settled on the shoes I wore to my graduation when I learned that my first sales assignment would be in Cagayan de Oro (CDO). Everything I knew about the city at the time I learned during my internship with a telco. I knew by heart the city’s telecommunications capacity and the number of SIM cards each store of the network carried over any period of time. Beyond that I knew very little about the city. In two weeks’ time, however, I went to the airport with 17 kilos of luggage (two more than the free baggage allowance), the relentless idealism of my heady youth, and a one-way ticket to CDO. I was fearless.

Life in my new city was not at all peachy. The work was challenging, the language barrier seemingly as impenetrable as a wall of brick. Some nights found me crying on the phone as I spoke to my father. There were mornings when I would stare at the ceiling of my apartment and pray that when I got out of bed, my feet would land on the familiar wooden parquet floors of our house in Manila.

But before six months passed I had learned the dialect, spoke native Filipino with the local twang, and felt relieved whenever I saw the hut that was the CDO airport through an airplane window. What started to bother me were the occasional slips of tongue, when friends asked me when I was returning to CDO and I would reply, “Uuwi ako sa Sunday.”

Image source: flickr/gino.mempin
Of course “uwi” could mean either “come” or “go” but always the destination is home. So my response baffled and comforted me at the same time: If I was coming home to CDO from Manila, what did I mean when I said I was going home to Manila on my flight out of CDO? Until the last few days of my CDO stint, I had resigned myself to the explanation that perhaps I had developed a fondness for CDO that gave me the feeling of home in a city where I had no roots.

It was not until I visited Sagada with friends for the first time that the question of what home really meant came back to me. I was there seeking catharsis—to rid myself of the weight of emotions that had been plaguing me for months— and the opportunity to brave the local cave networks, to hike to a hidden waterfall, and to drink the famed civet cat coffee seemed like the right way to go about it.

However, like a mother longing for children, Sagada took me in like one of her own. Even at the deepest point of Sumaguing Cave, it felt right to be in the throes of darkness and move through it, slowly. As we walked back to where we were staying, in muddy clothes and battered footwear, the smell of pine and the cold wind embraced us with the comfort of belonging. Sipping coffee early on the morning on my last day there, I looked out at the town from the veranda and told myself that coming to Sagada felt every bit like coming home.

Later, I wrote about the dilemma that admission brought: “How can I come home to Manila when I just came from home, from Sagada?”

I found the answer to that question in a novel that I had finished reading before my Sagada trip. Ann Rosenbaum in Chandler Burr’s “You or Someone Like You” spoke about how she was ”... one who saw home Auden’s way, the place we have chosen, wherever we might be somewhere else, yet trust that we have chosen right.” As such, we could say, that “we were part of Auden’s tribe—the determinedly origin-free.” When I read those words, they made so much sense, and in every way rang true through the deepest corners of who I was.

“Determinedly origin-free,” like moving elsewhere for work, away from family, is the purest manifestation of the true sense of liberty (for many, admittedly, it is not). Determinedly origin-free, like it is fine to be called Cebuana here in Bacolod where I am now based, even if I have to later explain that I am a Manileña (I have an inclination to speak the Cebuano dialect when in the Visayas region). Determinedly origin-free, like the many others before me who came to accept that perhaps home, as a concept, is something that is fluid, something that cannot be pinned down.

Yes, Manila is home to me, but it does not rule out the fact that I am also home when I find myself lost in the side-streets of Barangay Nazareth in Cagayan de Oro, or when I feel the wind whipping my hair as I drive up to Malaybalay, Bukidnon, or when I wake up to the chilly mornings in Sagada, ready to explore its numerous caves. It means, too, that perhaps, soon, the home I am making for myself in Bacolod City will reciprocate my affection up to the point where my tongue will slip again to say, “Uuwi ako (sa Bacolod) sa Sunday.”

In “The Geography of Bliss,” Eric Weiner wrote: “Home need not be one place or any place at all, but every home has two essential elements: a sense of community, and even more important, a history.” I can’t agree more.

On an evening flight back home to Manila, I concluded that home is a moment, like the smell of marang that managed to escape through tightly sealed packages loaded into the plane’s cargo compartment. It was a waft of the scent, not a full-on nasal assault, but suddenly there was warmth, comfort, and familiarity that filled me from within. I was transported back to late evenings in Divisoria, CDO, when my friends and I would buy a single fragrant marang at P5 each, savor the funny-looking fruit, and joke about its scent sticking to our clothes until we got home.

It’s our memories that define our home, the people we share them with, the people around whom we recognize where home is.

I understand now what people mean when they say that their coffee is “home in a cup,” or that the voice of a mother, father, husband or wife crackling through a long-distance call makes them feel like they are home, without moving an inch.

What determinedly origin-free means for me, as someone in constant transit, is that home will always, always be with me, wherever I might be.

(To my mentor Tim who taught me that happiness can be found like places on a map; my first boss Jun who taught me that the most important thing about sales is knowing to whom you are dedicating your work, like his little boy Beau waiting home for him daily; my sister, Paola my primordial anchor; and my girls Tinka, Arianne, Mels, and Bo whose faces, anywhere, make me feel as if I am home to stay).

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  1. That is a very touching story. I could relate to your situation since I also came here in Cagayan de Oro with only myself for my internship. (I don't live in CDo). And everything is different from the things I used to and all I could do is to be do things all by myself. But later on, I learn to stand in my own feet and realized that I can have my home everywhere I go. Because home is not in a certain place but it lies in our hearts.

  2. Nice article. Somehow I learn a lesson from your post. Next month, I will be having my internship in a place where i have no much knowledge. Thanks to your blog, I acquired more courage to do it and I don't know but I am in fact excited about it. Maybe, the taste of independence will give me lesson after all.