I was 9-years-old and I was dancing to the music video “Baby One More Time” with my eyes glued to the television. My mom barged into room with the portable phone to her ear and asked me, “What should your uncle name your new baby cousin?” Naturally, the most obvious answer to me was: “Britney.” I grew up Americanized, with first generation Filipino parents and brothers who immigrated to America in the ‘80s. Immersed in American pop-culture and growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my life couldn’t be more opposite than what it could have been in the Philippines. In April 2017, I traveled to the Philippines for the first time since I was six with my mother and my boyfriend, Daniel, who documented the journey in photos. What started off as a vacation turned into a transformative experience, from exploring the culture to meeting an overwhelming amount of family—including a 17-year-old cousin named Britney.
“Be careful, don’t touch the sea urchins, they’re poisonous,” said the short Filipino tour guide in his bright orange life-vest. He was grinning at a tough crowd of snorkel-clad tourists in the middle of the emerald-green water of Palawan, Philippines. “But, you can touch my partner,” he said as he looked at the other tour guide. “He’s not poisonous, but he’s dangerous!” There was silence, and if crickets could swim, we would’ve probably heard them on that boat. “Don’t swim to the right to the drop off, you might see a shark. But don’t worry, they’re vegetarian in Palawan! Swim to the left, you’ll find Nemo and Papa Nemo, and maybe even a Starbucks!” Pinoys (Filipinos) are popular for making corny jokes, along with other stereotypes like being undyingly hospitable, friendly and constantly breaking out into song—but I digress. Daniel and I laughed enough for all of us, dived into the open water and entered a tropical world of the most colorful underwater sea-life. The current was strong and overwhelming, pushing me to the drop off. Thankfully I didn’t find any sharks (vegetarian or not); however, I did find indigo angelfish, and bright orange “Nemo’s” like the tour guide promised. I pushed myself back against the current to discover brilliant blue starfish— no luck on Starbucks.
My mother grew up on an island called Mindanao, south of the Philippines. She took us to the house where she grew up in with her seven siblings—a large house in Tangub City once owned by the Governor Maximo Fernandez, my grandfather. It had been deteriorating since the ‘80s, and was occupied by squatters who welcomed us into a house that looked very much haunted. My mother was elated as we walked into an broken-down home with rickety staircases, battered wooden walls, no electricity and stray puppies. Through her eyes, she was reliving the memories the majestic house once held: “This is the living room where we danced after dinner, this is my grandmother’s room and this is where we greeted the former President Marcos when he visited during his campaign.” I stared at the dilapidated ceiling, then at the current residents’ faces. They were listening in fascination, as she described an unfamiliar home—a house that they’ve never been to before.