An immigrant’s love letter: The stench of fried fish, designer jeans and the American dream

Me on a pony on my family’s beach in the mid 1970s on the island of Negros, about an hour by jet south of Manila, Philippines.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Longbranch Chronicles is on assignment in Dumaguete City, Philippines, where I grew up. This city of more than 100,000 people is on an island south of Manila, about an hour by jet. This will be my first time back in almost 30 years and I will be as much a stranger to my countrymen as my wife will be. I will share as honestly as I can the experience my wife and I will have as we explore a place that has only lived in my memory for the past three decades. Join us as I rediscover the land of my youth. 

Dear Inday* (pronounced in-dye),

I have to say I have not been this excited since the day I bid you farewell and boarded my Northwest Orient flight to the United States. I was just a boy then — scared, awkward, unsure of what was ahead.

That was 30 years ago. Way too long if you ask me.

As you read this I will be at 36,000 feet strapped to a seat next to my lovely bride in a Boeing 777 going approximately 564 miles an hour. To be honest with you I am scared all over again. I am now a middle-aged guy with a few rodeos under my belt yet I don’t know what I am going to say when I see you again.

My memories of you date back to a time when Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was topping the charts, “People Power” was yet to hitch a ride on Cory’s (Aquino) shirttails and Dunkin’ Donuts was all the rage as pasalubong (omiyage or souvenir from a trip).

Much has changed since then. Michael’s dead, Nonoy (Cory’s son) is president and you can get a Pizza Hut pizza right in town. I suppose that passes for progress these days.

Boy you’ve been hard at work while I’ve been gone. Your Gross Domestic Product has grown almost ten times since I left. Even home prices are through the roof. I think it is a travesty that you can’t seem to gain recognition as one of Asia’s leading economies. I suppose, being considered a Tiger Cub economy is not all that bad.

I’m sure that oversight is just a stubborn stain leftover from the government  corruption during the Marcos regime and the era of Erap (Joseph Estrada). I mean c’mon, a B-list action movie star as president? What did we think was going to happen?

But enough political talk. I want to talk about you.

I can’t wait to smell you, hear you and see you as you are today.

I’ve been dreaming of fresh harvest rice steaming in banana leaves with grilled succulent sugpo (tiger prawns) in a sweet lime and chili glaze. Just the thought of homemade siopao and tocino from the boulevard makes my mouth water with anticipation.

How about fresh young coconut meat all mixed in its juice, a few tablespoons of condensed milk and crushed ice? I might even throw in a couple of scoops of macapuno (sweet palm) ice cream. If you want to call it halo-halo, go ahead. To me that is mother’s milk.

Do you remember how you used to run to the bakery even before the sun came up, wait in line outside, for the first batch of fresh pan de sal just out of the oven? I do. I remember spreading margarine on those still-warm breakfast rolls and sprinkling white sugar on top.

And then there is the humba (braised ham hock). Believe me, I’ve tried making it here in the States but I can’t make it like you can. I know its bad for me. But… oh the sweet taste of tender tendons and fall-off-the-bone pig’s skin.

You will probably have a hard time recognizing me when you see me in my designer jeans, black blazer and slip-on black leather shoes. You will most likely ask: “Who’s this American wannabe flip**?”

I get that. Really I do. I might even deserve it.

But I have to tell you, my life in the States has not been all a bed of ilang-ilang***. Every time a ‘Cano**** looks at me I’m sure they’re thinking “affirmative action”. Or wonder if I’m related to the guy they spoke with on the phone when they called customer service for their local newspaper.

Chasing the American Dream has not all been that simple. All this talk about immigration reform throws our people right back in the limelight. Or should I say crosshairs.

I came here legally when I was 16. You remember. I didn’t even want to come. My mother was a naturalized American citizen, having gone through the system legally, and petitioned for me to join her. But sometimes I feel as if that nuance gets lost in the color of my skin. Damn.

My lovely bride Meg.

The one thing that has definitely turned out well for me is meeting my lovely bride. You will absolutely love her. She is an all-American gal who grew up in a two-story colonial in Guilford, Connecticut — complete with a small lake in the backyard. She is also a rebellious hippie broad who, with a few San Miguels in her, might have a saltier mouth than a sailor fresh off the deck of an estrangjero (a large foreign-flag freighter) anchored on Dumaguete Bay.

But she loves me. She really, really loves me. I know this because she doesn’t say anything even when the stench of fried fish and shrimp paste fill the house. She will sit and eat with me an entire fish with head still on. She even thanked me for making her kalamungay***** soup when she was nursing a very bad cold. This chick claims Filipina-hood just because she is married to me.

Like I said, you will absolutely love her. Believe me, she is just as excited to meet you.

Well, I’d better finish up packing. I wouldn’t want to forget the sunscreen. I shall see you in 18 hours.

With all my love and affection,


*A term of endearment in the Philippines for a nanny or a young female servant. ** Slang for Filipino. *** A sweet-smelling blossom that is also the national flower. ****  Filipino slang referring to an American. ***** A green leafy vegetable grown in the Philippines.

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