Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box

What province are you from?

Map of the PhilippinesHere in the Philippines, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have been declared working holidays. Many Filipinos are taking the time to visit cemeteries all over the country, where they can reunite with loved ones, honor the dearly departed, and find another excuse to eat good food together. I am sure it can be fun, but I never grew up with it, mostly because we were abroad.

At work, many of my colleagues had been preparing for the holiday for weeks, anticipating the time when they get to go home and see their families again. Some had asked me where I was going for the holiday, and, among these conversations, the question “What province are you from?” popped up.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the question, colloquially, the “province” basically refers to any region in the Philippines that isn’t Metro Manila. Technically, Metro Manila, or the National Capital Region, is also its own province. However, I have found that many do not consider this when using the term “province”. According to Wikipedia, the same meaning is also applied to the term “province” in France, Peru, and Romania.

Much like the question “Where are you from?”, the question “What province are you from?” seeks to gauge who you are culturally, amidst the vast diversity that exists throughout the 7,107 islands. What province you are from apparently tells others what language you speak, what kind of food you like to eat, what religion you follow, and so on.

Like the question “Where are you from?”, I generally do not have any personal problem with other people asking, “What province are you from?” I know that, generally, there is a genuine social need to answer this question. However, my problem does lie in how to answer it.

First, even without the third culture kid aspect of my life, I have a problem answering the question, simply because I never lived anywhere in the country outside of Metro Manila. When I say this to people like my co-workers, many are genuinely surprised, as they themselves grew up outside of the city and only came here for school and work. The province is still considered “home”. To assuage their surprise and curiosity (and possibly any thoughts of my being a “city brat”), I just tell them I grew up abroad, and somehow that makes it more understandable.

Second, I often find myself answering the question by telling other people where my parents are from. However, I still don’t think this says anything about me. I have visited my dad’s hometown in Bicol and my mom’s family in Quezon many times. The most time I had ever spent outside of the metro and its connected suburbs (where my high school is located) was about three weeks or a month in Bicol. However, I don’t really feel like any of these places have influenced or define me. I don’t speak Bikolano, and even my mom’s Tagalog is different when she is with her family. I am also not knowledgeable about the way of life in both places. So, I feel like I’m just telling a half-truth when I answer the question “What province are you from?” in this manner.

Nonetheless, it still appears to be very useful when I tell other people what provinces my parents are from. Last week, I took a cab home with a particularly chatty driver. He told me he was from Bicol, and I ended up telling him that my dad was, too. Even though I told him that I didn’t speak any Bikolano, he was still very excited and proceeded to tell me about all the other Bikolano people he met here in the city. He told me that the cab he drove was operated by a fellow Bikolano, who basically gave him a lot of flexibility with the cab, even telling him that he could own a cab of his own one day. He told me about another passenger he once had, whose father was also from Bicol, and she said that, even though she also didn’t speak any Bikolano, she knew she was a true Bikolana because she really liked spicy food. We then had a good laugh and started a conversation about spicy food, including the famous Bicol Express. Provincial affinity is clearly still very important to many people here.

While I cannot relate to it, I have always wondered what it would have been like to grow up in the province. My mom likes to tell me outrageous stories from her hometown that somehow always involve faeries, duendes, or creepy neighbors standing outside of your window waiting for you to die. Many of the old folks from that area still believe in many of these stories, and will talk about them matter-of-factly at family gatherings. My dad’s side of the family also had a family reunion a few years ago, and I didn’t know most people and lost track of how I was related to everyone. Despite my own very culturally rich upbringing throughout the world, in a way, I feel like I have missed out on something just as valuable and, in a way, that is a part of who I am.

I will never be comfortable with telling people about what province I am “from”. However, I may consider looking for some ghosts or stopping by the cemetery in my dad’s hometown someday to light a few candles and perhaps enjoy some barbecue.

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