Thirteen years a Fil-Am
Today marks the 13th anniversary of my move from Manila to New York. I remember it like it was yesterday - from the tearful goodbyes of my friends and family at the airport, to the long haul flight from one hemisphere to another, to seeing the happy face of someone I loved in a crowd when I landed in JFK.
In my excitement, I barely slept on the plane. I had black ink on my nose because my pen leaked as I filled out immigration forms in a rush, even if I had several hours left on that flight to complete them.
I was moving as fast as I could. I just spent 3 weeks with a visiting New Yorker in Manila. I reeled from her departure so I followed her to the US one month later with no concrete plan.
Except to arrive. And I did, straight into a pair of arms I didn't really know. We hugged at the airport terminal in a crowd of Indian families. She brought me a coat and was happy to take me home.
The first thing I noticed when we got out of the cab was the crisp fall air, the smell of leaves, trees, and burning wood. We lugged what I decided were my world's possessions inside two suitcases up three flights of stairs. In my new lover's bedroom were two dozen long-stemmed red roses, each bud the size of my fist. I was never a big fan of flowers but that was a good introduction to the super-sized nature of most things in a country I was invading.
Even the pigeons were obese. I noticed this when I sat in the park where I was no longer the tallest person but became part of a minority for the first time. I looked at the diversity of faces, skin tones, and outfits. I studied people's intonations and accents. I read up on every cultural and religious group I encountered so I would understand their every visible detail. I kept to myself, made myself scarce, studied and learned everything I could about my new surroundings, jobs, coworkers, acquaintances, and friends. I was determined to thrive.
I got used to tiny apartment living and its discipline of never keeping too much of anything for too long a time. I was homesick, calling my friends at odd hours when I was lonely just to speak Tagalog and to tell them how I was and what I was discovering. I learned how to use the laundromatand became amused at the ease of completing what for me used to be a three-day task. I tried to find the smells and flavors of home in the entrees and salads I was learning to eat.
I learned to cook Filipino food as a matter of sentiment and survival. I was told that Lily's peanut butter was essential to my favorite kare-kare, but at a high cost from the distant Filipino store I found the slightly sweeter ones from the nearby bodega would do. I discovered that roasted rice need not be ground manually in a mortar, instead the assistance of a coffee grinder provided the texture I desired.
During meals I would first close my eyes and pretend to be back home. I told my wife that the smell of sautéed onions and tomatoes in fish sauce is the smell of the Philippine kitchen. I told her stories about each meal I made and how it would transport me to a place and time that seemed so far away. I realized that as years passed we created our own stories instead.
I became used to rejection and not being recognized for my education and achievements back home. One day, I hopelessly walked into my eighth or eighteenth job interview where the Caucasian employer pointed out that we had the same University of the Philippines diploma and said, "I know what you know," and then gave me my first job.
I've learned about love - its highs, lows, and the changes and tragedies that come with age and the passing of years and a decade. I fought the pressure of hanging on to just one person in a country I didn't know, where I had to be taught to zip up my jacket, pull my shirt sleeves through my coats, tap the ice off my boots before going indoors, and dust my shoulders of snow.
I've been lonely and terribly isolated; at times feeling like my whole move was a great mistake. I've failed at jobs and challenges and wished for a familiar face or a city where I could relax with friends and be myself. Or at least yell out a crispy hybrid curse like "Ukinamshet!"
I've learned that missing the homeland doesn't mean being ungrateful for where you are, nor does it mean you want to move back home. Any love results in heartbreak of some kind, including the love of the place of your birth. Displacement has its own rewards and costs as well.
It's been a long time since the nights where coming home without tears was considered a good day. They made up the months and years when I doubted who I was or if I would ever be good enough and recognized for my worth. It hasn't been easy and there have been times where it seemed that the only feasible option was to give up. But I didn't.
There must be some reward for holding on - to love, hope, and the small chance that tomorrow will be better. The next days were and have been better. I now have stable gainful employment, a healthy relationship, a loving family, and the right to live, work, and marry like any other person who is here. Through years of joy and difficulty I still have the same pair of arms and kind eyes to greet me at the start and end of each day. That has been the biggest blessing and probably the real reason I am still here.
Thirteen years later, I can finally say I truly have arrived. Happy anniversary to me!
A big hug to all those with whom I share this journey. Whether you are at the beginning, middle, or end of it, we all have different stories. But our losses and longings are one and the same - that for a country we have lost and forced ourselves to find in pieces in our respective new surroundings, and the bittersweet notions we gain about what we consider home. – Rappler.com
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