AFTER living in the US for 10 years, Senator and presidential candidate Grace Poe became a naturalized American citizen, a status she went on to renounce. She reacquired the Philippine citizenship that sometime earlier she had also renounced, and she made return trips from the US to the Philippines ‘at least’ 21 times in a four-year period. Some have called this ‘flip-flopping.’ I would call it incredibly lucky. As an émigré and balikbayan, Poe has enjoyed the luxury to choose which citizenship to keep and which to discard. She had the funds and the time for frequent back and forth flights, the social connections to ensure a comfortable landing in whichever country she chooses to call home, and her family members, on either side of the Pacific, were always present to bid her farewell or welcome her back, as needed. Perhaps she was even fortunate enough to have escaped the dreaded affliction of homesickness.
Homesickness can be an overwhelming, paralyzing feeling. Yearning for the familiar but absent, whether it is the company of old friends or the faces of family members long gone, beloved past comforts and the sight of certain scenes, the taste and smell of particular foods from one’s motherland, or one’s childhood, can leave a person prostrate with manic longing, melancholy and profoundly depressed. The impact is visceral. After his defection to Moscow in 1963, the British Communist spy and double-agent Kim Philby, desperately missed Colman’s mustard and Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce. Guy Burgess, Philby’s close friend, compatriot and fellow spy, who had defected seven years earlier, precisely recreated his Cambridge rooms, right down to his old ink-stand, at his Moscow apartment, and continued to have his suits and shirts made by his tailor in London’s Savile Row.
One of the earliest documented examples of homesickness can be traced to Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when a group of Spanish soldiers fighting in Flanders were sent home, distraught from el mal de coraz. The symptoms were not identified as a medical disorder and named until 1688, by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer who coined the term ‘nostalgia’. 19th century French doctors observed that nostalgic individuals were withdrawn from the world of the present, having become overly attached to the past. Anything it seemed could trigger an onset, from mountain scenery to masturbation. During the American Civil War, nostalgia was denounced as weak-willed and unmanly, yet 2000 soldiers were diagnosed with the illness and 40 died, literally from longing.
Filipino male patriots seem to have been remarkably susceptible. Finding himself in exile in the US after the declaration of Martial Law, Senator Raul Manglapus, while anxiously awaiting the arrival of his family, consoled himself with comfort food – beef broth, nilaga, and sour soup, sinigang.
In the late 19th century, sons of elite families headed to Madrid, Paris, London and other capital cities of Europe to further their education, escape from political persecution and agitate for reforms. These ilustrados, mostly young intellectuals, spent their prime years outside their homeland: José Rizal was away for a total of 8 years, Juan Luna for 17 years, his brother Antonio for 8 years, the same amount of time as the great anti-clerical propagandist and journalist Marcelo H. del Pilar. Fraternal and class solidarity, camaraderie, and eating familiar food when they could, helped stave off the worst effects of homesickness. In Paris, Rizal and his friends met several times a week to eat sotanghon and adobo, and sing Tagalog love songs, kundiman. At weekends, they gathered at the home of Juan Luna’s mother-in-law, Doña Juliana Gorricho, who prepared an extraordinary array of Filipino food — lumpia, arroz caldo, paksiw, menudo, even dinuguan. Her repertoire of snacks and sweet dishes would have probably made them weep: chicharron, ukoy, ginataan and bibingka.
Del Pilar seemed to have suffered more than most. Older than the others and married with children, he was plagued by both physical ailments and remembrances. In letters to his wife, Chanay, he complained about lack of money, the intolerably chilly Spanish winters, the behavior of Spaniards, which he found boorish and offensive, and concerned himself with his family’s mundane affairs. He thought about their pet kittens, of the dangers in crossing their local streets filled with jostling horse-drawn carts, and relentlessly fretted over their daughters, telling his wife to make sure they rose early, appeared dignified in public, confided only to their mother, and busied themselves solely with women’s affairs, gawa ng babae. What Chanay made of these wearying admonishments from afar we can only imagine. Del Pilar’s years in Europe were marked by his brilliant writings, impoverishment and ill-health. He was sent his fare for his passage home but he never made it back. He succumbed to tuberculosis in 1896, a month before the outbreak of the Philippine revolution against Spain.
Homesickness tells a lot about where one’s heart lies. From a quiet and anonymous life in the American suburbs, Grace Poe returned to the Philippines and stepped straight into a fast-tracked political career. If she had felt or feels the pangs of homesickness, what or where would make her pine? Nobody has thought to ask. One suspects her answer would be very revealing.
Dr. Rachel A.G. Reyes is a historian affiliated to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.