Little Tokens: The Carabao

About a year and a half ago, I moved cross-country, only bringing with me what I could fit in half of my car (the other half was reserved for my road trip companion, but that’s a story for another time). It was difficult leaving behind things that were meaningful to me, so I compromised with myself and decided to bring a small collection of things smaller than my palm as tokens to remind me of what I was leaving behind. This series is about those tokens. 

It’s carved out of dark wood, with graceful lines and hints of a bony rump. I saw a real carabao once when my family and I were walking through the countryside near my grandma’s house in the Philippines. I was afraid that it would charge at me like a Spanish fighting bull because my shirt was a) sparkly, and b) bright, bright red.

The Philippines always held a certain mystique for me. It was where my mom grew up, and where my parents sent money and taped-up, packed-to-the-brim LBC boxes. I’d been there as an infant, but I didn’t remember anything from that trip. I was finally there again, but this time at the age of thirteen, with a hundred dollars’ worth of Christmas money in my pocket to spend as I wished. A dollar went farther in the Philippines, so I felt incredibly rich.

I don’t remember where or when I bought this carving of a carabao, but I know that I bought it for a shadowbox that I planned to make when I got back home. I took pictures, collected brochures, postcards, coins, and nicknacks with which to decorate the shadowbox. I had a feeling that it would be an important trip, and I wanted to commemorate it properly.

I was right; the trip was important. In the years after I visited the Philippines, the neighborhood where almost everyone in my extended family lived slowly lost its young people, with my cousins moving away to other parts of the world to find different opportunities. The Philippines that I met on that trip doesn’t exist anymore. It reminds me of the indelible marks that colonization and globalization have made on my family. My mother, and then her cousins and their children, moved away from the place that was their heart home because the opportunities were where the money was: in the U.S., in Canada, in Dubai and Singapore. I exist because my mom moved to the United States when she was 19 (even though she and my dad didn’t meet until a decade later). And sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a part of myself—the part that would have loved the afternoon downpours, the Coca-Cola sipped through a straw in a plastic bag, and the orchids that grew wild on the trees.

The carved carabao reminds me of the place that I glimpse from the corner of my heart’s eye. In many ways, it’s a place that doesn’t exist anymore, lost as it is to the tides of change, or maybe just the tides of time. Still, I want to return, to eat the fruit of the land that sometimes feels like it should have been my home. But at the same time, I am afraid to go back because I will never really belong there. This is what it means for me to be biracial and bicultural: I don’t get to inherit where I belong. Instead, I have to find a place—or choose one. Sometimes it feels like a blessing, and sometimes it feels like a curse. But most of the time I’m just proud of who I am and where I come from, and that is the better blessing.

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