[Balikbayan Voice] Notes from a Manila Kid

'It’s impossible not to have a connection to Manila in some way or another, regardless of where you are from," says Filipino-American Simona Gemayel

Simona Gemayel

8:15:44am June 23, 2018

10:31:4am June 24, 2018

During my high school years, all I could think about was getting out of Manila. Having spent most of my life here, I was in need of a change in scenery and pace.

To me, there was something toxically routine about the catered house parties, the overrated significance of "kuwento (storytelling)," and the urgency to grow up that inhibited so many of my friends. So when I boarded my flight to New York at the end of summer, there were no tears as I said my goodbyes to the city below me.

I started my freshman year of college on the cusp of Fall. Throughout all my years of adolescent crushes, infatuations, and somewhat serious relationships, I had never loved anything like I loved sitting in Washington Square Park and describing the day's climate to my younger sister via WhatsApp.

MANILA KID. 'It’s impossible not to have a connection to Manila in some way or another, regardless of where you are from,' says author Simona Gemayel.

MANILA KID. 'It’s impossible not to have a connection to Manila in some way or another, regardless of where you are from,' says author Simona Gemayel.

I quickly found an amazing group of friends who helped me navigate the New York lifestyle and eased my culture shock. However, more frequently, they helped explain to every new person I met that “Yes, her English is so good because it’s the only language she speaks. That’s a thing in the Philippines."

For the most part, I had assimilated pretty well into college life. With my great friends, great teachers, and the great abundance of activities New York had to offer, I didn’t have much time to be homesick.

Only under the stress of finals, the wrath of east coast winter, and the "FOMO (fear of missing out)" I felt from missing family events, did I finally crack. I called my mom asking what medicine to take and suddenly the questions became tangled with sobs.

“I’ll see you in a week, okay?” was the motivation I used to get through the last week of that first semester.

I landed in Manila 3 days before Christmas. I was greeted by the heavy heat of NAIA air, the "sorry for the inconvenience" sign placed on the escalator that went down to baggage claim, and a swaying choir singing Christmas songs. 

After the first two weeks of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, I spent a month getting reaquainted with my old Manila routine. Yet even back in my mundane Manila life, I didn’t feel claustrophobic or that it was toxic, in fact, I realized that it was something I had subconsciously yearned for.

When I returned to New York for the start of the second semester, I had never been more homesick. As much as I tried to distract myself, there was a constant discomfort I felt for not being at home. After many calls with friends from home, I could finally be diagnosed: I was a Manila Kid. 

I don’t speak Tagalog (or understand it very well) and I’m not really a full Filipino (ethnically speaking), but when you grow up in Manila, the city somehow makes its way into your roots.

CONNECTION. 'There is a kind of unspoken camaraderie between kids who grew up in Manila,' says Simona.

CONNECTION. 'There is a kind of unspoken camaraderie between kids who grew up in Manila,' says Simona.

Growing up in the country instills a certain set of values in you. The Manila culture, whether you were raised in it or grew accustomed to it, is ultimately taken to heart. There is a kind of unspoken comradery between kids who grew up in Manila. 

Maybe it comes down to the sense of connection you feel when you’re making bad decisions on a Wednesday night at Black Market. Or perhaps it’s the sincerity in hospitality and genuine interest that is so pronounced when another Manila Kid asks, “How are you?” 

I think on some level, you could even zero it down to the easiness of giving "beso’ (a buss on the cheek)" as a form of greeting. 

It’s impossible not to have a connection to Manila in one way or another, regardless of where you are from. If you spend more than two years there, it marks you. You can find these marks in the simple things, like the way even Caucasians who went to school in Manila use the terms gags (idiot), basura’ (trash), kwents  (worthless) etc. The more significant Manila marks being things like having a tita (an aunt, not necessarily blood-related) or a guy friend always making sure you’re getting home safely.

I don’t think I hold so much attachment to the physical city itself. But parts of the people I was raised with and went to school with, have been greatly shaped by Manila and are attachments that I can’t fathom separating from.

There is an indescribable sense of community in finding another person who has grown in this city –it’s like being home. – Rappler.com

Simona Gemayel is a Rappler intern. She studies Media Culture Communications at New York University.