I never caught the moment “Where are you from?” became a question I could answer without hesitation; the first time my stomach didn’t clench as I answered, “Laoag;” the first morning I awoke without a heavy yearning to be in Cambodia.
I never caught the moment I felt in my heart that I was a Laoageño; the first time I felt pride in being from the Sunshine City of the North; the first night I went to sleep without Tros Village at the back of my mind.
There are times I completely lose track of the fact that I am a third culture kid (TCK), until I am faced with an unmistakable indicator that I am not fully from the Philippines… neither am I from Cambodia, again pressing onto my skin my identity as a TCK, or global nomad, or denizen.
I often just tell myself, “You are from nowhere.”
TCKs, in DenizenMag, are defined as “people who have spent a portion of their formative childhood years (0-18) in a culture different than their parents’.” There are different types of TCKs, including: army brats, children of diplomats, business kids, and — yours truly — missionary kids. Between the ages of 3 ½ and 11 ½, the majority of my life was spent in Cambodia.
My father, a missionary-doctor, says that when I was much younger, perhaps around four or five, I even thought we were Cambodian. In my head Cambodia was home, while the Philippines was just a place we visited every two years or so. It never crossed my mind that in Cambodia, it would just be us, the immediate family, while in the Philippines we would visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Cambodia was our home base, our family headquarters; where we were from. The Philippines was only good for visits. Every visit here was wrapped with anticipation for our flight back to Phnom Penh. There was one year — 2004 — when my three siblings and I stayed for a whole school year, but there was still an itch to be back in Cambodia. Laoag City was the foreign place.
My “for-good” stay in Laoag started in December of 2006. I remember spending that New Year glued to deviantART.com (I used to be into photography, armed with a Canon compact) with some relatives getting slightly drunk in the background. In 2007, I graduated from sixth grade into high school (the K-12 system was only introduced in the Philippines when I was in college). Aside from a two-month visit to Cambodia in 2009, all four years of high school were spent in Laoag.
Approximately 1.5 months of my college life were spent in Cambodia: one month during the summer between junior and senior year, and then two weeks during Christmas vacation of senior year (December 2014).
In this retrospect, the moments I described in my opening paragraphs must have occurred sometime during my sophomore or junior year of college. Perhaps it was only natural — a sense of true belonging to anywhere had been exactly what I had grown up lacking, and my sudden immersion into university life changed that. From my block section, a barkada of my own arose; I also joined the university publication and gained friends who seemed even closer than siblings.
To be honest, the sense of belonging proved more intense among my Sirmata (publication) friends. (Sirmata is the Ilocano word for “vision/insight”). We fondly call each other Kavsats, a play on the Ilocano word for “sibling” (kabsat). Perhaps it was because the friendship developed less predictably — a barkada that develops from classmates is almost expected, as every single day is spent together within the same four walls, or on the same field. In contrast, the Kavsats were formed from coincidences — being the only ones left in the Batac City Minipark after a mini get-together with several other publication staff; being the last ones to go home after weekend press work at the office; being the four individuals consistently present every time another staff member would call for a movie, or dinner.
All these added up to feeling like a family, even after only a few months of knowing each other and despite me being the newest to the group — kuya JV and kuya Michael had met a year prior, and Michael and Jheia knew each other from high school.
That’s not to say my fellow sociology majors — Team Puyat — weren’t a gift of amazing friendship. There is still a special connection felt with people with whom you have shared all-nighters, conducted interviews alongside, and of course spent week after week of sitting beside in class. There’s something precious about arriving somewhere every day and instinctively looking for their faces; automatically writing their names down when you are allowed to choose your partners for a group project; knowing you can depend on them to lend you their notes when you miss a class.
Reminiscing those moments reminds me of something I said to kuya Michael one night while I was intoxicated: “College made me realize that I don’t like being alone.”
More elaborately, college made me realize that I can enjoy the company of other people even for long periods of time; that there are people around with whom I can be myself, completely, without feeling alienating or awkward.
The rare moments I was reminded of what I didn’t have as a TCK were usually self-induced.
I would get sudden flashes of envy for my friends who had the privilege of coming home to one house from kindergarten ’til college.
I felt sorry for myself one night in Banna, when we Kavsats stayed at kuya Michael’s house, and I realized I would never fully grasp the sense of community he had known his whole life living in Catagtaguen.
I would even get the sudden urge to cry when someone described a time they’d arrived at home, exhausted and stressed, burst into tears, and were greeted by a hug from their mother. For most of college, all that greeted me after a tiring day would be an empty apartment.
Yet, those were mere fleeting moments compared to my younger years of constantly feeling lost and alone while anywhere in the Philippines. In a way, I began seeing Laoag as my home.
Until I realized last month, as my brother and I arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) after I spent around six months in Cambodia, that it hurt more to leave Cambodia than the Philippines. It hurt more to leave Tros Village than Laoag City, even compared to our earlier years, when our permanent residence was in Cambodia.
I have lived in Laoag for eight years, almost surpassing the number of years I spent in Cambodia. I learned to speak Ilocano at 13 years old, and Tagalog at 18; I never became fluent in Khmer, as the locals preferred to learn English than try to understand our mediocre Khmer intonations. I have explored more of the Province of Ilocos Norte than I had Phnom Penh City, Siem Reap City, or Tros Village. All of my friends are Filipino, save for one Fil-Am best friend; I have no especially close friend who is Khmer. I have walked the streets of Laoag City, San Nicolas, and Batac City; in Cambodia, our dad drives us everywhere.
I should be more attached to the Philippines, considering that level of immersion, but it still hurt more to leave Cambodia.
I am a fresh graduate of a state university and full of potential to pursue a career and life based here, but I know that my life operates on two simultaneous paths based on the two countries who have given up on the fight to be called “home.”
It is the space between those two paths that remind me of who I am: a TCK — the identity I have been trying to run away from and ignore, all these years.
These TCK “feels” may have been triggered by this book I recently re-picked up. I plan to do a series on it soon, taking some chapters and then creating reflections on my own experiences.