What lasts after the tides

The Philippines is always changing; our people are always moving. Our first class of balikbayan fellows search for something permanent about who we are.

By Gabby Dee, Kaya Collaborative

Gabby Dee chronicles her own experience circling between the Philippines and the Americas — and looks back at our fellows’ expectations from the start of the 2014 Kaya Co. fellowship.

Each time I come home for the summer, the only consistency in Manila’s cityscape is that there’s always something new. Malls, hotels, and houses rise up as soon as older ones crumble; new roads join the already confusing tangle of infrastructure; stores paint over last year’s names with repurposed titles.

Like a molting snake, Manila is always changing.

I have come to realize that "Filipino" cannot be defined by the transient, easily eroded structures that outline the country. When I joined Kaya Collaborative, I wanted to understand something deeper and more permanent about us, our culture, and the change we can make.

LEFT TO RIGHT: #kayaco means I can… "better understand my heritage to build a brighter future for myself and others", "promote Filipino pride & progress", "experience and learn firsthand how to effectively serve the Filipino society that raised me!", "return to a home I haven't known and carry it wherever I go", "lead by example."

This May, just a month before Kaya Co’s first summer fellowship in the Philippines, we asked our 14 fellows about their hopes, their aspirations, and the questions they hoped to tackle through the experience. Their responses paint a picture of a similar passion and a similar search:

#kayaco means I can return to a home I haven't known & carry it wherever I go.
- Aldric Ulep

Since then, the summer has brought back faces that have dispersed over the years, and reunited a generation with its culture through hands-on exposure. The links and relationships that these fellows have formed — with the people that they met and the service they carried out during their three-month stays in the Philippines — serve as foundations for lasting change.

LEFT TO RIGHT: #kayaco means I can… "learn more about my Filipino identity", "engage in something of utmost importance to me", "give back to the culture that has so heavily shaped me", "create change."

Among the fellows, no face, handwriting, or expectation was the same. They come from all over the United States, with different backgrounds and interests. This is the story of diaspora: of us, the scattering, swept by time, struggle, and opportunity to cover the world beyond these 7,017 islands.

Often, we lose ourselves. But somewhere along the line, motherland always pulls back. This is one thing the fellows all share: a curiosity to discover that inner something that lies at the core of their identities and their Filipino heritage.

They're still figuring out what it means, and how to best heed that call. For now they visit — they experience — and they listen.

LEFT TO RIGHT: #kayaco means I can… "give back to the country I love as much as it has given to me", "bring my passions together in the service of a homeland", "give back to a community that is every part of my Filipino-American identity", "both pursue my creative interests and create impact in my local community", "be the agent of change I seek to be."

The Filipino is everywhere.

Every now and then, friends that I’ve known only in this familiar tropical backdrop will share photos of themselves in their new homes, buried in Toronto’s thick snow. My Instagram will reveal that someone’s just moved to Abu Dhabi, nestled in between the two humps of a camel instead of embedded in the regular traffic jam I’m used to braving with them on Monday mornings. A Tito will send me a photo of his new baby from an American suburb, his hair a startling light brown that will stand out from the sea of jet-black heads at family reunions.

Filipinos can thrive anywhere, continually redefining the face of our global nation. Yet we always carry a bit of home with us, manifested in the age-old principles of hard work, unfailing smiles, and chicken adobo.

There’s a song that I often listen to when I’m homesick, called Noypi by Bamboo. It goes:

Sinisid ko ang dagat / Nilibot ko ang mundo / Nasa puso ko pala hinahanap kong pulo” — I dived to the bottom of the ocean, I went around the world, but the island I was looking for was actually in my heart.

The Filipino lies in your puso, deep in the heart, and we witnessed this summer the first steps of 14 long journeys back home.

The photos in this article were taken in May and June, before many of our fellows even landed in the Philippines. What happened since then — and what happens now?

We want to document and share these stories of return. Over the next few months, we at Kaya Co. will be publishing some of these snippets and reflections through various mediums, including this collection and our Facebook page. In the same way that the shattered islands we see on the map make up our archipelago, it’s my hope that these distinct voices will reveal a unified Filipino tale.

Kaya Collaborative (Kaya Co.) aims to inspire, educate, and mobilize the young Filipino diaspora as partners to long-term, locally-led social change in the Philippines. Learn more and get connected by clicking here!