The first time I visited another country was when I was 18. I attended a Youth Camp in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. What did I enjoy the most? Food. The stretch of seafood restaurants and hawker stalls in Jalan Alor at Bukit Bintang has an array of local (Nasi Lemak) and exotic (Frog on a stick) delicacies you can enjoy until the wee hours of the morning. My sister lived there for almost a decade before settling in Canada, so Malaysia was like a second home. Its neighbor Singapore is also renowned for its seafood. The ‘sambal stingray’ or spicy banana leaf stingray is mouth-watering!
I was never really out of the Philippines for a long time until I lived in Dubai for four years. As a foodie? The zesty flavor of Al Machboos and the insanely tender and juicy meat of Mandi Rice will be forever etched in my memory. Four years in Dubai, and I rarely felt homesick, culture shock was at no time a struggle. My friends and I thought that I am less likely to experience homesickness and culture shock as I can survive anywhere, eat exotic foods, and enjoy meeting people from across the globe.
Well, that was before I met India.
In 2015, the peak of summer, my best friend and I decided to tie the knot in New Delhi. He is a Tangkhul Naga from the state of Manipur, but he practically is a Filipino at heart, having stayed in the Philippines from Grade 6 until college. He and his sisters speak my language, enjoy my food, and share memories of my country. Despite all this, culture shock and homesickness squeezed its way during my first year in New Delhi. The scorching summer heat, the air and noise pollution, the seemingly rude behavior of the locals, and most of all, the almost non-existent Filipino community took a toll on me. Unlike Malaysia, Singapore, and Dubai, where Filipinos are everywhere, and Filipino goods and products are almost in every store; I had to ask my mom to send me an expat box full of favorite ‘Pinoy’ goodies! The hardest was during Christmas.
…culture shock and homesickness squeezed its way during my first year in New Delhi. The scorching summer heat, the air and noise pollution, the seemingly rude behavior of the locals, and most of all, the almost non-existent Filipino community took a toll on me.
The Philippines is known to have the world’s longest Christmas season. As soon as September hits, Christmas carols fill the air. Homes, malls, and streets are adorned with festive decorations and sparkling lights— almost overnight! The countdown to Christmas spans from September to December, otherwise known as the “BER Months.” Why that long? Because of the family-centric values of the Filipino society, and Christmas is that time of the year when families reunite. With many Filipinos living outside the country as expats or immigrants, the long Christmas season gives families time to get back together and be “home for Christmas.”
I spent four Christmases in India and never really felt home. Don’t get me wrong. I sure have a warm, loving family here plus a wonderful church family. I always look forward to our Christmas Cantata, a grand celebration of the reason for the season – the birth of Jesus. The Filipino blood in me, however, longs to experience that strong family and community bond, highly seen in our Christmas culture. A longing I thought would only be realized once I go home for Christmas. My fifth Christmas in India proved me wrong.
The Filipino blood in me, however, longs to experience that strong family and community bond, highly seen in our Christmas culture. A longing I thought would only be realized once I go home for Christmas. My fifth Christmas in India proved me wrong.
Somdal Village, home to people of Tangkhul Naga ethnic group, located west of Ukhrul District, Manipur State in Northeast India – my husband’s hometown, with roughly 500 families, about 2500 people, the village was full of life! The scenic mountains reminded me of Baguio, the Summer Capital of the Philippines, also known as the City of Pines. The scent of fresh air and the melodious sounds of the birds and children’s laughter was an everyday treat – a total escape from Delhi noise and pollution.
Just like in the Philippines, lanterns and Christmas lights and carols graced the village homes and streets. If we Filipinos gather around midnight for Noche Buena feast on Christmas Eve, Somdalite families go for picnics by the river to bask under the sun and cook a feast together. I enjoyed de-feathering a homegrown chicken while enjoying a scenic view, for the first time! The exchange of laughter and craziness mixed with the aroma of the organic food was heart-warming.
The evening comes, and the entire village is filled with Christmas choruses by the community, as they march around the courtyard. Young and old, men and women, gather around in circles, and sometimes around the bonfire, singing and dancing in celebration of the season. It was quite a sight!
New Year falls within the Christmas season in the Philippines. And while we Filipinos eagerly wait for the clock to strike midnight so we can make a joyful noise to welcome the New Year, it was utterly quiet in the village. But a deep and beautiful tradition lies within. Somdal Village has seven tangs or area. A day before the 1st of January, each tang goes for hunting (mostly birds) and river fishing. A group (the good cooks) is then assigned to prepare various meals for the New Year Community Lunch (tang-wise), which by the way, is around 10 in the morning. All families gather in a circle to welcome the New Year together by enjoying sumptuous meals – traditional, exotic dishes a foodie like me would find heavenly! Children, parents, grandparents – three generations in one place, celebrating the gift of New Year. To see our 2-year-old daughter experience such precious moments was a bonus.
Filipinos take ‘home for Christmas’ seriously. And this time, spending Christmas in Somdal, I can finally say, “I was home for Christmas.” As an expat, it was emotionally rewarding to see that two different cultures can be inextricably intertwined. India has a vast culture, like its geography. But with a fresh, unprejudiced perspective, we can also call it home.