Seeing Family (Hellos and Farewells in Pangasinan)

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Facebook and other social networks have changed the game for Filipinos. It allows far flung families to keep up like never before. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Singapore, or  back in the homeland, Filipino families can be present in each others’ lives so long as there’s an internet connection.

That doesn’t negate the importance of meeting face-to-face, though. That’s why, despite having made internet connections, my cousins have come to a small barangay in Pangasinan, the province north of Manila. They’re here to visit their cousins for the first and, perhaps, last time. This is an out-of-the-way place. The barangay isn’t a vacation spot so it won’t be easy convincing spouses and kids to make this trip. For many of the cousins there’s also a language barrier, so that makes a trip that much more difficult. Without the help and urging of first generation family, it’s hard to see how this meet up will happen again.

To get to the house, we meet a cousin at a CalTex gas station and follow his car to a simple, cinder block home. Down a dirt driveway off a side road, the building has no finishing or siding. The windows have no screens. The floor is bare, polished concrete. There are no interior doors, just curtains hung over doorways. The dim kitchen is cinder block up to the waist; the rest is covered in loosely assembled bamboo slats to allow air to flow around the open air stone stove. There is no air conditioner or running water. When the dishes need to be cleaned one of the boys fills a bucket from a water pump out back. The dishes are washed and rinsed over a counter made of bamboo which allows the water to drain straight into the backyard. Some of the family lived in the main house and part in a single room bamboo hutch out back. A particularly successful son lives in a more finished home down a dirt road towards the back of the property.

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Leaving the hustle of the city for Pangasinan, a province north of Manila.

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Whizzing by rice paddies, sugar cane fields, and a volcano.

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The towns become farther apart, but no less full of hustle and bustle.

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Welcome to our home.

But the humble home is not what’s important. What matters is the people and the food. There’s plenty of both. First, though, the pasalubong is distributed: a large sack of oats, pasta, dry beans, bags of lentils, canned meats, rare (in the Philippines) nuts, a backpack, and the obligatory chocolate. Shy children are teased out of hiding with M&Ms. In exchange for counting to ten in English, a dance, or even just a name, every kid gets some sweets.

Then, out of the simple kitchen comes a feast. Fried chicken, rice, pancit, green mango salad, yellow watermelon, and two kinds of fish. It’s an extravagant for sure, but family has come a long way, so it’s worth it. After eating, the four brothers–my uncle and his siblings—tell stories of their trouble-making days, all in Tagalog. The vibe is light, but there’s an undercurrent of melancholy; the reality is this is likely the last time they’ll all be together, at least in this lifetime. The brothers are getting older now.

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Serving as the dishwasher, shower, toilet tank, and more, the hand pumped water does it all.

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A backyard includes an enclosure that was previously used to fatten pigs but now stores firewood. The bamboo-thatched, one room enclosure sits to the left.

There’s a point in life where you get old enough to stop saying to yourself, “Someday I will. . .” and exchange it for “Never again will I. . .” or even “Never at all will I. . .” This generation is in the sixties now. No one says it, but everyone knows. Time here is running out.

But that’s for later. Relationships live on the hope of a tomorrow and even more on the now. And the “now” is here, sitting on benches in the dirt yard, surrounded by chickens, vagrant cats, and mangy dogs. It’s about food and laughter; stories and tears. It’s about the time a girl chased down uncle for a marriage proposal or the time he butchered the school cow out in the woods and hosted an illicit feast for his friends. It’s about putting names to faces. It’s meeting a chubby nephew who uses you to practice his English or a toddler niece who dances and winks on cue.

And, because this is a Filipino family, it’s about a lot of friggin’ pictures. Portraits grouped by family, by generation, by cousins, by brother’s and sisters. Then, of course, the grand finale: a big group picture.

Whether it’s in pictures, on Facebook, in person, or in another life, this family doesn’t end their time together with a solemn, “Goodbye.” Through lingering hugs and misty eyes there are smiles words that all say, “See you again, soon.”

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