The Tsoi-Ko Din family celebrate grandmother Concepcion Ko Din’s 90th birthday. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Family heart beats strong in Philippines

  • June 11, 2017

Lucila Cordovero, or Lola Lucing as I call her, is very petite. Every day, she sits in the same bamboo rocking chair by the window of her bedroom, listening to the buzz of her radio novellas. Her right hand is always clutching a small promotional fan someone gave her years ago.

This is the first time I’ve seen her after five years apart — me in Toronto, she a half-world away in the Philippines — and with 92 wizened years behind her, there’s no telling if I’ll see her again. I wanted to commit every detail to memory while I still can.

My visit to the Philippines was about celebrating the two matriarchs of our family. Lola Lucing celebrated her 92nd birthday with 30 of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Relatives travelled to the small rural town of Roxas City from as nearby as Manila to as far away as, well, Canada.

Although her 90th birthday was a month away, we also celebrated my father’s mother, Concepcion Ko Din (or Abwa as I call her).

Many relatives crossed seas and oceans to celebrate our grandmothers together. They came from America, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, where they had moved to find work. But most of the Ko Din and Cordovero clan live in the Philippines.

No matter how far we’ve dispersed, the Philippines will always be home. The Philippines is where the heart of our family will always stay.

Sitting across from my Lola Lucing, I asked what her 92 years taught her about life, about family and about God. It took us an hour to pray the rosary together because she peppered each decade with stories.

Her face lit up when she told me about her grandchildren (my cousins) and her great grandchildren (my nieces and nephews).

I laughed when she started to tell me a story about myself. She told me how her Canadian granddaughter already graduated school and is now working full-time.

“Jean’s not married yet, but that’s okay,” she told me in Illonggo, a rural Philippine dialect spoken in the Visayas region. “I have many great grandchildren and I am in no rush to get more. Too many names to remember.”

She laughs at her own jokes.

Three weeks was much too short to reconnect with my relatives. The biggest thing that I had to get used to was being surrounded by so much family. It felt surreal to take family photos and trying to fit 20 to 30 faces in one frame.

The whole trip was a series of big dinners, birthday parties and fiestas. Every few minutes, people would come up to me worried I’m not eating enough or I’m not talking enough.

Do I speak French? Do I have a boyfriend? Do I want a turn on the karaoke machine? Have I met my aunt’s cousin’s goddaughter yet? She likes Justin Bieber, maybe I’ve know him.

It was overwhelming but in the best way possible. It’s a strange combination of feeling like coming home and getting to know a whole new territory.

For my younger sisters, especially, it was a strange culture shock. My sisters were much too young to remember details about home. They can’t speak Tagalog, but they understand it. My relatives can understand English, but they speak in broken sentences.

Even with those challenges, I think my sisters understood the deep roots we have in the Philippines. Our family is here and that’s what this trip was about.

The trip reminded me of the glaring importance of the family. Philippine culture is built on family unity. Filipinos maintain a close relationship even with their distant relatives removed.

Relatives, not unlike my own, almost always live within 30 minutes of each other. They go to school together. They go into business together. They raise their children together.

It is typical for children to maintain their ties to their parents even after graduating school. Children often live in their family homes until they get married. Even then, they try to move into the same neighbourhood.

The family hierarchy is highly valued in the Philippine culture. Children are taught at an early age to say “po” or “opo” to verbally acknowledge respect for their elders.

The elderly are not put into nursing homes. They stay at home where they are taken care of. They help raise, discipline and play with their grandchildren every day.

My father’s mother, for example, grins every time my cousin’s son, Mateo, is placed on her lap. She is weak so she can’t handle the two-year-old ball of energy by herself, but they both light up when they get to play together for five minutes.

Another part of the Philippine culture is to work abroad. My parents, my sisters and I moved to Canada for a better future, but other relatives have also moved to far-away places to do the same.

Filipinos know that the wobbling economy and the erratic political situation in our home country will not lift our families out of poverty. When people work overseas, there is a better chance for a higher salary. When the pay is high, there is more money to send back home to pay for the family’s rent, medicine, tuition and other necessities.

Our trip wasn’t just about reconnecting with our loved ones. Half of our luggage was filled with clothes, medicine and some chocolates for our aunts, uncles and cousins. We bought our aunt a new gas stove for her kitchen. We bought my grandmother some medicine and a new walking cane. We contributed to a few cousins’ college funds. As much as they wanted to take care of us during our vacation, we wanted to take care of them, too.

During this trip, I relearned something that my mom has been trying to teach me since we moved away 16 years ago. Everything must go back to the family. One person succeeds and we all succeed. One person fails and we all fail.

My parents made a huge sacrifice in uprooting our lives to bring us to Canada. Especially in our early years as immigrants, it must have been hard to see a chunk of their paycheques go overseas, but they never complained.

Now that I’m back in Toronto, the trip is starting to fade to memory like it always does. But this time, I’m older and I understand my role. It’s a little less difficult to see a chunk of my own paycheque go to the Philippines, but now I understand even more that it’s my way of going back to the heart of the family.

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