For many people, “immigration” is just another political issue. But for me, immigration completely changed my life.
In September 1991, my mother and I left the Philippines to start a new life in the United States. I was only five years old and pretty clueless as to what this move truly meant. To my mother, however, it meant everything.
“When I came here in the United States,” she said. “I had nothing but my suitcase, my daughter, and a lot of hope.”
She wanted to pursue the opportunities that she’d always heard were in America. The belief was, “If you work hard, you can find success there.” Her first opportunity was with a hospital in Texas, which sponsored her travel to the U.S. and work as a registered nurse.
“Being a nurse made a lot of things easier to come here because there was a need for nurses at the time.”
Unfortunately, soon after we arrived to our new home, we were split apart. My mother was assigned a night shift, which basically would’ve left me home alone most of the time. So I was sent to live with my grandparents in Long Beach.
Long Beach became my indoctrination to American culture. My cousins, who lived next to my grandparents and were born and raised in the U.S., became my “cultural ambassadors.” They introduced me to American music, which at the time involved Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Kriss Kross. They taught me how to rollerblade, play jacks, and work a Hula-Hoop and Skip-It. They also helped me practice my English.
My grandparents helped me maintain ties to my Filipino culture. On Sundays, they’d bring me with them to a Catholic church, where the congregation was made up almost entirely of Filipinos. They’d also bring me to their senior citizen center, where Filipino elders would get together to catch up, share Filipino food, and ballroom dance. They were always trying to maintain a connection to the Philippines, while also surviving in their new American life.
My grandfather, who previously worked as a bus driver in the Philippines, worked as a janitor after moving to the United States. He provided for my grandmother, who stayed at home to take care of me. They made sure I had my school registration, vaccines, and documents in order. I even remember my grandmother helping me sign my Social Security card with my grade school chicken scratch. She and my grandfather did whatever they could to make sure I was squared away for success in this new country.
Eventually, my journey took me away from my grandparents and California. My mother and I reunited after she met and married my stepfather, a fellow nurse and an Oklahoma native. He became my next “cultural ambassador” and taught me another side of American culture, which involved oldies like the Beach Boys and country music, plus new foods like biscuits and gravy. Our new little family moved away from the west coast, all the way to Tennessee.
While other Filipino Americans grew up in California, where they were surrounded by many Asian Americans, I grew up in a rural town outside of Nashville, where you could count the number of Asians from kindergarten through 12th grade on one hand.
Despite being the super minority, however, I was fortunate in that I was never made to feel like an outsider. Sure, kids would take an interest in where I was from, but they always treated me with respect and kindness.
All the years that followed were filled with new friends, participation in “American” activities like student council and cheerleading, and then college prospects. With college on the horizon, my mother was prompted to take our American life to the next stage: citizenship.
“At the time, you had to be a citizen to apply for scholarships,” she said. “I wanted you to have all the education opportunities; so when I took the citizenship test, you were only 16 and still a minor, and automatically became a citizen with me.”
To become an American citizen, however, we had to renounce our Philippines citizenship. That, I believe, embodies our immigrant experience as a whole. We had to let go of certain aspects of ourselves and develop new ones, based on our unique experiences of making a life in America. I had spent so much time learning about and absorbing the new culture and people around me, whether it was in California or Tennessee, that I didn’t really begin to learn about my own Filipino culture until I was in college. It took becoming an anthropology major to find the space to become my own cultural ambassador; but this time, I’d be exploring what it meant to be both an American and a Filipino.
Sacrifices are a normal part of being an immigrant. To gain the benefits of being in a new country, you learn to live without some of the most essential parts of your life. For instance, it took my mother and me ten years to be able to afford a trip back home; in that time, we were only able to keep in touch with loved ones through unreliable international mail and international calls with choppy connections. It wasn’t until the rise of the Internet that our methods of communicating with family improved and expanded, using email and Skype and Facebook.
Sadly, at the end of the day, no advancements in technology could ever close the gap created when you leave your home. From helplessly watching news coverage of typhoons tearing through your country to desperately peering through a pixellated video call to see your ailing grandparent’s last days, many aspects of the immigrant experience make the distance almost unbearable.
Watch “Homecoming,” a short film I made comparing concepts of home in the U.S. and the Philippines:
“I miss the fact that I don’t have family around,” my mother often says. “It’s not like in the Philippines where you have family everywhere. I miss that closeness.”
When we did spend time with family or other Filipinos, I simultaneously felt a sense of the familiar and a startling disconnection. Despite sharing the same black hair and the same brown skin as other Filipinos, being with them was the only time in the United States when I felt like I did not belong. I had explored so much of this new culture that the culture I was born into, that ran through my veins, ended up feeling alien to me. As painful as that disconnection has been, in the minds of immigrants, that is all just part of the game.
While immigration for many is just another talking point in politics or the news, it is a complete game-changer for immigrants like my mother and me. In this new country, this new home, we had to adapt to survive and reap the opportunities. Because, despite the hardships and unintended cultural evolution, you’re ready to do what it takes to find success—to improve your family’s life and fulfill your hopes, all in pursuit of that fabled American dream.
On our 25th anniversary as immigrants in the United States, I feel grateful for the opportunities this country has given us and humbled by the extraordinary spirit of my fellow immigrants.