Fish ‘n’ Chips on the Bicol Express

by Nina Torceliono-Iszatt

When asked how my stay in the Philippines is, I’m so often at a loss as how to answer. I have so very much to say yet how I am unable to articulate something that is so intrinsically part of me. At times enlightened clarity, at others plain confusion. Prior to my arrival eight months ago, I wasn’t even aware I had this craving. This need to know. Me and the Philippines. Me in the Philippines. I intended it to be a ‘year out’ but it’s become far too involved for that. What does it really mean?

I am a 25-year-old half-Filipina (on my mother’s side) and for 24 years I’ve lived in England. I’m very British daw . And it’s true. I’ve inherited the one racial prejudice acceptable to all British (including those on the left…or should that be especially those on the left?). A healthy dislike of all things American. My nationality is as confusing to Filipinos (they don’t understand my aversion to being called FilAm) as my accent.

I am very British. But I’m slowly discovering I have Filipino feelings too. I didn’t know they would be this big. Or taste so good. These untouchable nameless feelings I’m experiencing. Every day. And they’re so very fluid.

Some days it’s about my mother. Well, principally it’s about her. Who she was, how she became who she is, the role of culture and upbringing in becoming. And us. Mother and daughter, the original entrée to the therapist’s couch. We rarely saw eye-to-eye and I often thought the things she said were irrational or overstated. I could never quite understand where she was coming from. Not that I knew this was the problem, I just became teenage and irritated instead. Communication would readily be reduced to altercation. Now I’m in the Philippines our affinity is transforming, becoming enriched. Everyday more of her life is revealed to me, living here brings me closer to understanding. This is why I feel a special tie with Catanduanes, my Bicol home: it’s where she grew up.

How can I explain that thing I have when I travel to Catanduanes? This sense of excitement that unapologetically floods my feelings just before I reach our barangay. "I’m coming home" my elated heart screams. I only know it’s paralleled in the sadness that comes over me every time I leave. Early one morning I left for the airport, one of my lolos taking me by motorbike. (That’s another thing – I never had so many lolos in my life!) Riding along the damaged semi-concrete road, verdant mountains rising on our left, I was surprised to find the gentle drizzle in my face blending effortlessly with tears of both sadness and joy at the beauty of it all.

In Catanduanes I also found Bebo, who was my boyfriend when we visited when I was 11. It’s been so hard to find the vocabulary to explain to my childhood sweetheart how important a part of my discovery he is. Siyempre, there are all sorts of expectations, especially as our mothers were best friends when they were young. Imagine just how many people would love for us to get married – except my parents of course who think I’m far too young. This is diametrically opposed to popular Filipino thought that states my age is ‘tama’ for marriage!

I have had to explain that actually, it’s his friendship that’s most important to me. Sometimes I imagine how my life would have been if I’d grown up in Lictin (our barangay), like my mum. Would I be more like her? Travel the world? Or be married for life with three children of my own to forge intricate relationships with? I indulge myself and believe that Bebo growing up there allows me an insight into the kind of experiences that I might have had. His friends would have been mine, his adventures part of my own.

Sometimes it hits me when I’m hanging out with members of my very large extended family, drinking cheap gin. Barangay Ginebra – taga rito ka! (I always fantasise this line in the advertisements was written just for me). Whilst making kuwentohan in faltering Tagalog (I’ll save learning Bicol for next year!) I feel infinitely happy and part of something. However, they still can’t understand my reluctance to get up and sing or play guitar at the drop-of-a-hat. I’m not fully Filipina (and for the record I have neither intention nor desire of going into show business!)

Occasionally when I’m sitting quietly with my Lola who has Parkinson’s disease, we exchange smiles which convey more than we could in words (not only because of the language barrier) and I’m struck with some intangible realisation. I don’t know quite what it is, just that it happens.

Despite my delight in my Filipino family, I don’t live with them but rent a room by myself. When I first arrived I was sharing a room, and a bed , with 2 small cousins, one of whom practiced comedy tossing and turning before promptly wetting the bed on my first of many jet-lagged nights. I wasn’t allowed to travel alone and always had to await an escort. The well-meaning overprotection of my family pushed me towards a state of mind I was not yet familiar with. After three weeks I declared that I was moving out. The response? Pause… quiet … "We’ll discuss it when your mum arrives". No! We won’t! I’m just informing you! I’ve grown up independently in an individualistic society (never mind that I’ve lived away from home, in London, for 6 years!) I learned early on that I’m not ready for Filipino families just yet!

Sometimes I just love the openness and all encompassing Filipino community. People really look out for each other, helping out in difficult times. But other times, I’m so British, I don’t want kasama, I want space! I’m desperate for some privacy. Here a secret shared isÉa secret shared talaga.

A further confusion arises when I’m treated preferentially on account of being medio maputi – yet I don’t possess the self-confidence that should accompany it because my experience was growing up as a minority and knowing it. Even if racism isn’t always explicit. The understanding that a seemingly neutral comment is inherently racist partially formed my feelings of self-worth. And people here cannot understand how that could be, growing up in a racial minority where nothing is black and white (How to explain what it means to me when the same boys who would tease my brother on account of our colour would have a crush on me? Or how to explain the racism of the middle classes in which you’re okay because you are not one of them, those other foreigners?)

So then it’s even more bewildering to come to the place where my colour is rooted only to discover a different type of racism. I had always grown up feeling a spontaneous solidarity with people of colour. In our differences we are the same. Yet here there exists a strong and open racism especially in reference to the Chinese. If I pause to think for a moment I know it is no different in other countries but I just didn’t expect that to be the case. In fact issues of race are not broadly recognised, although colour certainly is. Skin whitening creams? "Be careful Nina," I have been warned, "you’re getting dark now it’s summer". But I’ve learned to love my colour now! Why would I want to be a pale imitation of myself?

How I loved it when my English girlfriends visited and embraced me with those monumental words "Nina, you’re so Filipino now". And how I loved it even more that their presence reminded me how British I am too. Whilst my accent deteriorated to an incomprehensibly broad British accent (Essex for those who know!), the longer I was with them the more Tagalog I spoke. Instead of relying on my Filipino friends, ako na lang . We were on my ‘home turf’. They had known me in my old life and understood this is equally my home. They disclosed that it was equally important for them too, to be able to see the Filipina version of Nina. Complete with her family in Catanduanes.

How to sum up? It’s all these things and more. It’s rainy season and each typhoon brings with it something new. I am always learning. I am now applying for citizenship (akala ko, staying here for one year would be long enough), and wonder how it will be for my sister who is not automatically able to because my mum was naturalised before she was born.

Today I received an email from a Filipina friend who is visiting her mother and half (English) sister in London. She told me she wished I was there so I could show her my London, where I lived, worked and thought. Then a huge part of me missed London so very badly. But I still smiled inside as I replied. Because it’s a little like my reply when I’m asked, "Sweet or savoury?" Sometimes I’m more sweet, others, savoury but mostly I prefer both. I just like food. I’m British and I’m Filipina. And I love the way that tastes.


[Note: This article used to be on Filipino Youth Network in Europe’s (FYNE)
website ( The page
isn’t there anymore but we managed to retrieve it from google’s cache.
It seemed a shame to lose it!]