Impact At Scale

The Beeck Center engages global leaders to drive social change at scale.

GU Impacts Reflections: Balikbayan

Kara Avanceña, College, Class of 2017, Major: Government, French
GU Impacts Summer: Ateneo Center for Educational Development (ACED), Manila, Philippines
Hometown: San Ramon, CA

Ateneo Center for Educational Development (ACED) spearheads the Ateneo de Manila University efforts toward public school development. ACED works to improve the quality of education in public schools by providing training to principals and teachers, facilitating the construction of classrooms, and upgrading instructional materials. ACED started feeding programs that provide hot, nutritious lunches for around 22,000 malnourished children at a cost of 25 cents per child per day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

“Around me, in this tin can, my fellow travelers: we, the acquiescent, unaware insurrectionists; we who have left and returned so constantly throughout history our language has given us a name—balikbayan. … These are my people.”

– From Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco

The word balikbayan is a combination of two Tagalog words: balik, which means return, and bayan, which can be translated to country, place or people. Consequently, balikbayan refers to someone who once left the Philippines, his homeland, only to return home after some time. It’s a term so pervasive, so convenient, so all-encompassing that the Bureau of Immigration uses it in official documents when they refer to Filipinos who return to the Philippines from abroad. It’s the Philippines’ way of recognizing that people like myself were born here, that our families’ roots are here, regardless of the current color of our passport covers.

Most of the personal reflections I’ve had here have revolved around my status as a balikbayan. As some of you might know, I spent the first nine years of my life living about two miles away from Ateneo; I called this country, this very city, home.  But much like Lemonhope, a character whose inner conflicts I instantly recognized the second he appeared on my computer screen while I watched Adventure Time, I left my homeland and my people at a young age. Though I anxiously missed home in the years following my emigration process, as I grew older, I refused to return. I had new friends in California who I wanted to spend my summers with. I got to go to school without wearing a uniform and there were boys in my classes. I was content in America. Whatever promises I made about returning when I initially emigrated from the Philippines dissipated in middle school and high school as I dreamt of traveling, studying and living everywhere in the world but the Philippines; to me, it became that hot, sticky place where folks didn’t speak English and DVR was still light years away. And, much like Lemonhope, the strife of the people living in the country I left behind didn’t seem like my responsibility.

But as soon as I arrived in Manila, I had to circle back to a question I’ve been ignoring for most of my life: What do I owe this country? What do I owe the people who told me that I should let my grades drop, lest boys refuse to court me because they were intimidated? What do I owe these people, who gawk at me when I tell them LGBTQ folks deserve as much respect as straight folks? What do I owe a country where I sometimes feel like I no longer belong?

As Sam mentioned in one of her blog posts, we interviewed Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian during Dean Zenick’s visit here in the Philippines. During our talk, we learned that Mayor Rex attended George Washington University for college, but he returned to Philippines shortly thereafter. He served as a congressman for Valenzuela before his current stint as the mayor of the city.

However, Mayor Rex isn’t the only person in his family with a penchant for public service. His brother Sherwin, the former mayor of Valenzuela who is presently congressman and implemented the feeding program in the city, attended Boston University. He, too, returned to the Philippines after university. Mayor Rex’s other brother Wes attended Bryant College before moving to the Philippines and serving in government. He is now working as a congressman.

Three Filipinos, all U.S. educated. They could have stayed. Life in America often glitters comparatively to life in the Philippines, and it’s not uncommon for well-off Filipinos who study abroad to stay in those countries upon graduation. But all three brothers returned to the Philippines and are currently serving their country through government. And, judging from our interview with Mayor Rex, they also seem to be doing a fantastic job; for one, Mayor Rex runs a municipality with a population of 10 million people (!!!), but is still intimately involved with a feeding program that reaches 17,000 children.

Mayor Rex returned to the Philippines after he graduated from GW. At least 17,000 children thus far have benefitted from his efforts. Meanwhile, I’ve spent the last few years of my life trying to see if there’s a way for me to move to France once I graduate from Georgetown. The Philippines is largely out of my radar.

I admire so many of you, including my fellow interns at ACED, for your passion for international development. It warms my heart to know that you will pursue a path in global development, and I expect that many of you will work with communities across the planet to help them in little and big ways. For me, however, this internship has shown me my heart hasn’t stretched so far that it can take on the rest of the world quite yet. It’s stuck on 7,108 islands in Southeast Asia.

The Philippines is my homeland, ma patrie, aking lupang sinilangan. Try as I might to deny it, the ineptitude of the Philippine government is my problem, its aversion to foreigners is my problem and its tendency toward anti-intellectualism is my problem. Most days, I can brush these concerns away — you’ll see me reading Le Monde and U.S. news sources more often than any newspaper based in the Philippines — but it doesn’t take more than one piece of news about a powerful, corrupt government official earning a chance to become the next president of this country to make me wonder what I can do to help build my homeland into the healthy democracy it could be.
I’m not sure when I’ll be back, or in what way I will show this country and its people that I still care. But this Americana, this balikbayan, will return once more. And that’s a promise I hope to keep.My nationalism is, certainly, a net; it will limit me, it will demand much from me, it will ask me to give up the freedom I have earnestly protected and pursued. I will continue to run away from it, praying that someday the problems of the Philippines won’t bother me anymore. But my nationalism will also motivate me, it will demand sacrifice and it will, someday, bring me back. I know now that my heart and soul are here, to some extent. I’ve been changed by life in the States, but there is something about the Philippines I will never shake.

Maraming beses na kita nilayasan
Iniwanan at iba’ang pinuntahan
Parang bababeng ang hirap talagang malimutan
Ikaw lamang ang aking lagging binabalikan

I’ve run away from you so many times
Left you and gone to others
You’re like a woman who’s so difficult to forget
You’re the only one who I always return to


About the Author

Kara was born in the Philippines and lived in Manila until she was nine years old, this past summer was the first time she returned to Manila since childhood. At ACED Kara worked on strategic communications to create promotional materials to raise awareness on the feeding program, attract funding, and develop a social media and online strategy. Back on campus Kara writes for The Hoya and is part of Stride for College, Club Filipino, and Campus Ministry.

The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.

Featured Blog Posts

TedX Georgetown: Where Leaders Live

TedX Georgetown: Where Leaders Live

November 19, 2018: Lessons from a young leaders journey on how discomfort can actually help address problems, identify solutions and ultimately drive impact in communities.

Members of Our Team


Get all of the latest news and our exclusive content straight to your email inbox.




Follow Us

© BCSII 2016


Show All