The Town That Bears My Name

Growing up in Amsterdam, New York, I never got to meet many people with the name ‘Ilagan’. In fact, aside from my parents and my brother, no one else in the entire state seemed to share our surname. The closest Ilagans we knew were family in New Jersey. When you grow up in a way where you are instantly and always so different from those around you, it sometimes makes you wonder whether you truly exist, and until you have some concrete proof, there is always a bit of doubt.

Proof for me came in the unlikely Christmas gift of the globe seen here. Spinning it around on its offset axis, I ran my hands over the surface, feeling the raised roughness of mountains and the smooth expanses of seas. And then I found my father’s homeland – the Philippines – and examined it closely. There, near the north, was a town whose name I recognized with a thrill: Ilagan. I’d never heard of it, I didn’t know such a place existed. And for perhaps the first time, I felt as if I suddenly existed. My initial unlikely thought was that there was a place where the name ‘Ilagan’ appeared in long lists in the phone book. That was my reference, because the only phone book I had ever seen, the small one that included Amsterdam, merely had our single listing in it ~ the lonely, solitary ‘Ilagan’ that comprised our family, in a town where we were the only ones. Now, seeing that name on the globe, where even Amsterdam or Albany didn’t merit a mark, I felt suddenly part of the world. We were here, or at least we were there.

Being bi-racial never much bothered or even affected me (certainly not as much as being gay would become such a struggle). When some kid in religion class insisted, not maliciously, that I was the Asian character in ‘The Goonies’, I didn’t get upset, I simply thought some people were really, really stupid. (I never did manage to convince him that I was not, in fact, a member of the cast. And to think I worked with Sean Astin before ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and didn’t even know it.)

The power of that moment has stayed with me. The simple act of seeing my own name in print somewhere, even if it was halfway around the world, made me feel less isolated. When you are finally confronted by people who are like you, the world seems a much less-frightening place, and no matter how alone you might be, you feel a lot less lonely.

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