How Being Swept Out to Sea in a Basin Helped Me Live Abroad

I grew up by the ocean. San Fabian is a small town in northern Philippines, full of fishermen and farmers. My mum grew up there, her family owned a small farm and a fishing boat. My dad grew up in Spain.

Consequently, I can speak English, Filipino, and Spanish, but in San Fabian, people spoke Pangasinense, a subdialect. You’d think it’d be hard then, to make friends, but when we went to the beach, that didn’t matter. And since we went to the beach every day, it never did.

In the water, it didn’t really matter what language you spoke. Here’s what did: you were all under the same sun, smelling the same salt in the air, hearing the same crash of the waves, getting sand in the same wrong places. The sea is synesthetic: you can break it down to different sensory experiences, but it’ll fuse together like the foam on a wave.

This meant what I liked best about the ocean came with what I liked least: the beach meant both the roaring call of the ocean and the smell of brine, it meant my dad giving me sandy mermaid tails and the jellyfish stings were a package deal.

Filipinos in general are a laughing people. Better or worse, we’re taught to grin and bear. Rarely do we lose our sunburnt, smile-lined faces. I remember the day everyone did.

We lived in my grandmother’s house, a small, lovable old thing intact even after World War II. At seven-thirty every morning, I’d clamber down the thick, old, wooden stairs and climb into the back of my auntie’s pickup truck: off we were to the ocean.

We couldn’t afford any floaties, or even an actual swimsuit. Instead, my parents put me in a wash basin and pushed me out onto the waves. It was my first memory — sitting in the faded green plastic, balancing carefully to avoid having to bail water, being rocked back and forth by the waves as the sun seeped into my skin. The waves were softer the farther out I got, so farther out I went, until I was swept out too far.

My mother, who can’t swim, called my dad to get me, who was still tucked in the mermaid tail I made. Struggling to get out, he started yelling for someone to get me, while I waved to tiny fishing boats that were starting to come into view. Eventually, a friendly fisherman reeled me in and delivered me to my parents, who were panicking on the shore with 50 other people.

Years later, I no longer live by the ocean, but I still rise with the sun.

Though the memory still horrifies my parents, it wakes the restless adventurer in me. I have a habit of straying too far from safety. Even now, writing this in a foreign country, living alone for the first time, I don’t feel any danger: now, like then, I smile and wave at the new horizon coming into view.