There are many stories of self-discovery and coming of age. So many, that it’s practically its own genre in literature and film. They’re supposed to help us cope with times of transition in our lives, mostly when we make the change from childhood to adolescence.

My own coming-of-age story began in early 2001, when my parents and I came up with the idea that I would go to school in the Philippines — my family’s home country — for a year. I was 12 years old.

Many Filipinos who are born in America tend to stay there. But I recently had to leave my middle school in the seventh grade due to bullying and my parents didn’t think transferring to another local school, public or private, would be any better. Unlike most protagonists in stories like this, I thought it was a great idea, but not for the right reasons. 12-year-old me saw it as a change of pace. I wanted to do something new. I’d inadvertently decided to come of age and get in touch with my culture and heritage.

Another thing that made my situation unique, and probably helped ease my relocation from the United States to the Philippines, is that I had a firm grasp of the local languages. It’s rare for Filipino-Americans to fluently speak Tagalog, but my parents had spoken to me in both Tagalog and Hiligaynon, a local dialect. I saw myself as something like a unicorn, easily imagined but never seen, because my parents had taken the time and effort to teach me something many other Filipino-American kids struggled with.

Before 2001, I had only visited the Philippines with my parents over the summers. Those trips were mostly to visit relatives, but I had spent a significant time in the country when I was 3 years old and again for a few summers in the late 90s. So when I arrived in March 2001 to live with my father’s relatives in Bacolod, a city on the northern side of Negros Island, I was unprepared for the task of actually living there on a daily basis. Going to school was actually the easy part, even though I did not know anything about how school operated there compared to the United States. I stayed with my aunt, one of my dad’s older sisters, and she mainly took care of me, but my grandmother lived across the street. My huge extended family on my father’s side all lived in Bacolod, close to one another. My mother’s relatives were also just one island over to the west and I visited them as much as possible on weekends, holidays, and semester breaks.

The writer and family members in the Philippines in 2001 and 2012. Image via Jose Alvarez.

The school I attended in the Philippines for eighth grade was a lot like a private school in the United States. One big difference is that students had to stay for longer hours. A normal day began at 8 a.m and didn’t end until 5 p.m. While some of my classmates were international students there, my situation as a Filipino-American to make the trip from the US to the Philippines was unusual. On my first day, some students had tried to welcome me by hazing me, and were surprised when I answered them in their local dialect.

Although I thought I was accustomed and well-versed before, there’s nothing that could have shown and instilled in me more about Filipino culture and heritage than living in the Philippines for a year. I could take part in the many local festivals throughout the year. There was the MassKara, which takes place in Bacolod every October, in which people wear smiling masks throughout and has led to Bacolod being nicknamed the “City of Smiles.” In Iloilo, where my mother’s relatives lived, there is the Dinagyang festival. It celebrates the indigenous peoples of Panay Island, takes place every January, and is known as the Queen of All Festivals as it is the most awarded festival in the country.

I thought it was a great idea, but not for the right reasons. 12-year-old me saw it as a change of pace. I wanted to do something new. I’d inadvertently decided to come of age and get in touch with my culture and heritage.

The people of the Philippines are friendly and accommodating. No matter what dialect a person uses, there’s never a significant language barrier since students also learn English alongside Tagalog in school. I still discovered differences from living in the US. In the Philippines, for example, it’s not a good idea to draw attention to yourself. While nobody will say something openly, people will have a negative perception of your behavior if you purposely stand out or make an effort to be noticed.

The experience was so eye-opening for me that I returned to the Philippines over a decade later to work as a staff writer for a tech and lifestyle magazine. Again, I only stayed a year, but it was an important stage and turning point in my career. I made friends and met colleagues that I ended up working with again a year later, and I continue to work with them (remotely) to this day.

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I found that getting in touch with my roots made me more aware of my own culture and heritage. I think that’s especially important for Filipino-Americans, since family is an essential part of life to Filipinos. I’ve since begun recommending to family and friends that they should consider sending their kids to school there, even if it is only for a year. A cousin of mine went to school in the Philippines a few years after I did. Another cousin also went there to attend nursing school. A family friend also went there for school. So, I’ve become something of an advocate for the experience.

In the end, my trip merged coming of age and discovering my heritage. It was something I enjoyed and it had a profound effect on me. I recommend taking similar trips to any Filipino-American, because while we may not all have the exact same experiences, it helps us become more aware of our history and culture.

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About The Author

Jose Alvarez is a 30-year-old freelance writer based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He enjoys video games, soccer, and traveling (not in that particular order). Jose also strongly believes that humor is the spice of life.