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On Cooking, Moving, and Being Filipino

Having been away for nearly 10 years-I lived in Los Angeles since 1999, and moved to France with my husband last September-I've built an armor of self-reliance that both comforts and unnerves me.

Here's the truth: The farther I get from home, the better I get in the kitchen. Each meal becomes more than just a simple meal, but a homage to my Filipino roots. From arroz caldo to afritada, from turon to tinola, from gulaman to ginataan, each dish brings me back to Manila, to friends and loved ones with whom I've shared many healing—and sacred—moments of eating.

Granted, it's not always easy. Where I live now, which is at the heart of rural France, the nearest supermarket is 15 kilometers away. And while they do stock patis (manufactured under the Vietnamese name "Nuoc Mam"), you'd be hard-pressed to find other Filipino staples, like bagoong or saging na saba. There's no fresh pandesal. No fish balls or kikiam sold on the street. No puto bungbong or bibingka to munch on at dawn.

But I've learned to make do. Not just in approximating foreign ingredients to suit my homegrown taste, but in other things as well. Such as picking firewood and starting a fire to keep warm. Or keeping house, even when I'm worn out from work. Or keeping healthy, especially when I'm sick and there is no one around.

Having been away for nearly 10 years—I lived in Los Angeles since 1999, and moved to France with my husband last September—I've built an armor of self-reliance that both comforts and unnerves me. In the Philippines, it's almost unavoidable to be cocooned in some sort of community, for better or worse. You have a spider web of immediate and extended families, not to mention "yayas", "ates" and "kuyas." You have church groups, childhood friends, alumni associations. You have the EDSA revolution.

St Cirque Le Popie

In the Philippines, there's a continuity of memory and identity. You grow up with the same people, follow the trajectories of the same stars on the silver screen, observe the same rituals, celebrate the same victories. And if the crosses one has to bear remain the same from generation to generation—poverty, corruption, inadequate health coverage and education—at least, there's an inherent sense of ownership. By "ownership" I don't mean action; there will always be apathetic people everywhere. I refer instead to "belongingness," to having a sense of who one is—that is, a Filipino, through and through.

house built into stone

Being an immigrant, first in L.A. and now in France, I find that I am often on my own. And my solitude stretches further than any line on a map. It's like being stuck in a mental and emotional limbo; I'm not really here, but I'm not really there either.

Even when I was called to pledge allegiance to the American flag, after five years of living in the States, I knew I couldn't call myself a full-fledged American (or a FilAm, if you will). I didn't feel connected to America 's history, and knew only what I have heard on the news or memorized for my citizenship test. I couldn't cheer for any SuperBowl team, I didn't have fond memories of Mr. Rogers, and when I watched the night sky every 4th of July, the only sparks that flew were pyrotechnic. No matter how much I brushed up on national issues or mastered the language (It's amazing how well you speak English! is a comment I often get), I still felt like an outsider, looking in.

Here in France, where I am the only Asian in town, and no one speaks English, what more Filipino, that feeling is even more pronounced.

Don't get me wrong, though. I am immensely grateful to have the opportunity to see and experience another part of the world. And I have seen and experienced so many amazing things. The Grand Canyon. Las Vegas. Paris. Versailles. Century-old houses built into walls of stone. Right now, if you look outside the window of the house we're looking after, you would think you were looking at a postcard. Lush hills dip and rise in the horizon, their edges hugged by towering trees. The sky is blue. The air is pure. But the awe that I feel at the beauty that I see is always tempered by melancholy. If only my friends and family were with me.

And just as my loved ones are removed from my experiences, I too am removed from theirs. As a kid, my cousins and I were all tied at the hip; we knew each other's littlest secrets. Now, one by one, they're all getting married and having kids, and I know little about who they've become and what their lives are like, apart from what they say in our occasional e-mails and phone calls. I know even less about what's going on in with my friends, who continue to go around in the same circles. And as for the state of the country, I know nothing save for what I hear in the news or read about on the Internet, and often I feel helpless to do anything about it.

If you ask me, do I still consider myself Filipino? The answer would be a resounding yes, even though I am more and more uncertain of what that really means to someone like me who's lost in the "diaspora." What I do know, what pangs in my gut, is that I still care about what happens to the country. I still crave for halu-halo and polvoron. I still hum songs by the EraserHeads, Side A and the Apo Hiking Society. And wherever I go, no matter how far I go or how long I stay away, there's always a part of me that stays behind in Manila.

So I do what I can, like stock up on sticky rice and sago, and trawl the Web for new Filipino recipes to try. I know I'm far from making each dish taste just like they did under my lola's and titas' hands, and that nothing can really compare to being back there, gorging on BBQ and pansit while someone somewhere sings karaoke full blast. But as I sift flour between my fingers, rub salt onto each fish or bring steaming Filipino treats to the table for my husband to taste, I am happy. I am grateful. I am home. Well, somewhat.

© Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

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