Reviewed: Mia Alvar, In the Country, Knopf
When I began reading Mia Alvar’s In the Country I was in the midst of an identity crisis. I felt that something was missing. My whole life I had been asking the question: am I Australian or Filipino? My dad, my Tatay, followed his sister to Australia in the 1980s. In 1990 he married my mum, a white Australian woman, and in 1993 they had me. What did all that make me? I began reading books like Alvar’s, by and about Filipinos, hoping to find an answer.
Reading the book’s opening story ‘The Kontrabida’, I learnt a new word—‘balikbayan’—and it helped. When I looked it up, I found that it refers to a Filipino who has returned to the Philippines after spending a prolonged period overseas. Other sources I found extend the meaning to include the overseas-born children of Filipino citizens. This matches me.
I don’t know Cebuano or Tagalog. When my Aunty was alive, she and my Tatay used to teach me some words and phrases, but my Aunty died a long time ago and my Tatay doesn’t really understand why I’m still interested in learning; he says that we live in Australia and therefore there’s no need. So I settle for Taglish, even if that’s limited to the small number of Tagalog words I know, which stands at around 20.
It’s not much, but it’s something. You have to take what you can get when you’re struggling to grasp a culture you were never really a part of, but are longing for all the same. Longing is a central theme across the nine short stories included in In the Country, along with loss and displacement. For those in the diaspora, these are feelings we know all too well. Alvar’s collection hits close to home. Each of the stories tugged a little differently at my heart, each one showing me facets of people I know and glimpses of a culture I (still) don’t fully understand.
In ‘The Kontrabida’, Steve returns to the Philippines after years away in New York, seemingly living the high life as a pharmacist. His abusive father is dying, which means freedom, finally, for Steve and his mother. It is here I first learned of ‘balikbayan’, as well as ‘pasalubong’, or homecoming gifts. ‘A balikbayan knew better than to show up empty handed,’ Steve reflects as he hands out gifts to family members the day after his arrival. A memory springs into my mind: my Tatay filling his suitcase with bags of Freddo Frogs, Caramello Koalas and little kangaroo keychains to give to my cousins when he returned to the Philippines, alone, for his mother’s funeral. The airline lost his baggage, and those pasalubong were never delivered.
In ‘The Miracle Worker’ I catch a glimpse of my Aunty in a character named Sally Riva, a teacher who is tasked with the impossible: turning young Anoush, a child with ‘a profoundly unlucky combination of cerebral palsy and von Recklinghausen’s Disease’ into the next Helen Keller. Anoush’s mother, Mrs Mansour, doesn’t believe the doctors when they say her mental age will always be that of an infant’s. My Aunty was a teacher in the Philippines too, but her hard-won degree meant nothing in Australia. Professional recognition is a thing you can lose when you migrate, apparently not unlike a suitcase.
Through the subsequent stories in In the Country, I saw yet more of the push and pull of migration—themes concerning loss, displacement and longing reverberate again and again. Why people decide to leave, and what happens to those who stay. As I read about schoolchildren, maids, drivers and engineers, their stories were familiar and yet I felt as if I was missing context. There seems to be a heaviness hanging over the stories, implicitly influencing characters’ choices. For most of the book I accepted that it was poverty and lack of opportunity, but that didn’t seem to be the whole story. I believed there was more to it that Alvar wasn’t saying, until I arrived at ‘The Old Girl’.
As I read about the life of ‘The Old Girl’ and her family, pieces click into place. On the face of it, they left the Philippines for the United States in 1980 to access triple bypass surgery for Dad, the Old Girl’s husband. But we later find out that Dad’s a politician who openly speaks out against former president Ferdinand Marcos. Dad only narrowly avoids the firing squad the first time. His surgery is a convenient excuse to leave, and the Old Girl insists on it—the risk of ‘mysterious causes’ on her husband’s operating table are just too real.
I now know that many Filipinos left the Philippines due to the Marcos regime of the 1970s and 1980s. Some were encouraged by policies designed to promote temporary overseas work as a means of economic stimulation, but what is known as the ‘Martial Law Era’—starting in 1972 and lasting for 14 years—led to political, social and economic instability that prompted even more to leave. I do not know the specifics of why my Aunty and Tatay left, but In the Country paints a picture that helps me appreciate the complexities at play during that time.
Timing is a funny thing. As I read In the Country, the campaign of Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr, the senior Marcos son, was unfolding. I had just started the book when I met a Filipina friend for lunch and she filled me in on the absurdity of Bongbong’s campaign, the audacity even to run for president when his family was still being investigated for corruption. Her rage was palpable, as was her hope for the opposing candidate Leni Robredo.
As I read the titular closing story, Bongbong wins the election. Here, the main protagonist Milagros loses her journalist husband, Jim, to jail. They lose their son to the regime not long after. Milagros decides to leave the country—and Jim—just as the Marcos family flee to Hawai’i.
With this new context, I find myself reflecting on the stories. Each is as different in style and theme as are the characters themselves. But many occur during the time of the Marcos dictatorship. ‘Esmerelda’ takes place in New York on 11 September 2001, but the titular character has ‘shopped and cleaned’ for an American woman in return for discounted room and board for the past 19 years. ‘Shadow Families’ is set in Bahrain in the 1980s and follows the exploits of several Filipino families as they build community in a foreign land, only to have it threatened by a newcomer. In these stories, the characters all left the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s. Some returned later, others did not.
I think about the Filipinos I know and have known. My Tatay, my Aunty, my not-really-my-aunty aunties, uncles, cousins, my Tatay’s friends, my own friends. So many of them say they left for a better life, but now I think I understand what they might have left unsaid.
In Alvar’s collection, longing weighs heavily. I long to understand my Filipino heritage. But I do not understand the longing of wanting something more, in a deep, bone-heavy sense that drives some of the characters to leave the Philippines. ‘A Contract Overseas’ sees the narrator’s older brother leave for a chauffeuring job in Saudi Arabia, as he is driven by a longing to provide for ‘his girls’, as he affectionately calls his mother, sister, wife and twin daughters. He wants more for them than what life in their barangay—neighbourhood—with its dilapidated homes and refuse-filled creek can offer.
My Aunty must have had the same longing. She married an older white man and went with him to Australia, sending back money and gifts whenever she could, never letting on her true feelings. I have never believed that my Aunty loved the man she married. But because of her, so many cousins finished their studies, and my Tatay was able to come to Australia. My great-aunty and many of my not-really-my-aunty aunties did the same, and one of my cousins nearly did too.
Yet another thing left unsaid: Alvar doesn’t mention these women. In the Country offers a series of stories that come together to show the complexities of migration, but women like my Aunty are not there. This is interesting considering seven out of the nine stories have female protagonists. Instead, many of these characters are married to Filipino engineers, politicians and journalists, and are therefore comfortably middle class.
Other things left unsaid include class differences; they are represented but not fully explored. For example, ‘The Miracle Worker’ shows the character of Sally being introduced to Mrs Mansour by Minnie, a maid employed by the Mansour family. While Sally is distracting herself from the boredom of the housewife life her engineer husband has provided for her, Minnie—along with other Mansour household staff—goes on strike. But what were the conditions that led her to strike? Alvar does not delve into this in the story. Many Filipina still pursue domestic work overseas, and as a COVID-19 surge in Hong Kong earlier this year has reminded us, conditions are still exploitative.
Furthermore, the Marcos regime is only directly addressed in two stories—but never by name. This is where Alvar pulls her punches, and relies on the reader to put the pieces together if they can. Perhaps Alvar was writing for those who already know all there is to know. But I also wonder if this aversion is born of her own upbringing in the diaspora where much is left unsaid.
My own relationship with the Philippines is defined by a lack of context. I have been exposed to a diluted version of reality. This creates another kind of longing, the desire to know and understand more, which led me to In the Country to begin with. Alvar has given me a glimpse into a world that otherwise I would not have encountered, but she has left enough things unsaid to leave me wanting more. •
Maria Danuco is a Tokyo-based Filipina/Australian writer born on unceded Noongar land. She won the Seventh Annual Kyoto Writing Competition and is an Express Media Toolkits LITE: Nonfiction Alumnus.