When I first left the Philippines, it was September of 2005.
I remember the months leading up to our departure. Carefully wrapping my collection of angel figurines and preparing them for storage, going through all my letters and journals, curating my library to figure out which books to take and leave behind. We could each only take a suitcase and a box.
What would you carry, if you had to fit your life in a box?
Strangely, I wasn’t emotional. I had gotten an extension on my permanent residency because I was halfway through college and wanted to finish my degree in the Philippines. So I would stay in the US for two weeks, and then go back to Manila until my graduation, at which point I would leave for good. To me, this first trip was like a vacation.
My mother cried through the entire flight from Manila to Taipei, and again from Taipei to San Francisco. We were leaving my older sister and her family, you see.
I don’t remember much of those two weeks in the US. I have but snippets of experience…
We stayed with my aunt in Castro Valley, California. We walked around Lake Chabot a lot. I was amazed at the libraries. In the Philippines, libraries were for borrowing academic texts to write school papers. US libraries had music, movies, magazines, recipe books, fiction, nonfiction… and you could borrow from one branch in a county and return to any other branch. How amazing was that?!
We explored San Francisco, of course. Pier 39, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Chinatown, Golden Gate, the works. My college friends and I were obsessed with Tibet at the time, so I bought baoding balls for all of them. I bought my first coat and a pair of boots. Boots! The Philippines is about 80 degrees and incredibly humid all year round, so boots were a thing I had never needed to wear.
I flew back to the Philippines by myself. At that point in my life, I had flown exactly twice: once domestically when I was 8, and the flight to San Francisco. I was nervous, but I made it through fine… at least, until I made it to my old home in the suburbs and realized I had lost my green card.
I was in terror. My green card! How would I go back? What would I do now? Would the US know it was me, would they have records? They had my fingerprints and my photo. But would they let me in without the card?
Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. I called China Airlines and they had my card–it had fallen out on the plane.
For the next two years, I protected that green card like nothing else I owned. I hid it in my home. I checked periodically to make sure it was fine. And I did nothing that would potentially jeopardize my return to the US.
The second time I left the Philippines, it was July of 2007.
This time, it hurt. In my two years of reprieve, I had made more friends and found a boyfriend. I had helped my sister raise her son.
Imagine what it would be like, to leave everything you know. Could you do it?
But I had graduated college the previous April. Already my friends were scattered, starting their first jobs. I had been in a state of ennui for months. I was ready to go.
I remember my heart quietly breaking as the car drove away and I saw my boyfriend’s face looking back at me for the last time. I remember sitting on the plane, crying silently–silently, because I didn’t want anyone to see. I missed my past. I missed the person I would otherwise have become, if I had stayed. I was looking into the future and it was huge, open, terrifying.
I remember landing in San Francisco and feeling confused that it was 9 PM and the sun was still out.
My family had their own apartment now. We had a car. We drove to LA and spent a few days in Disneyland and Universal Studios. Again, it was like being on vacation.
But the next few months were listlessness and confusion. After the LA trip, my parents went back to their jobs, my sister to school. I had my degree in English, but no job experience. I tried searching online for job openings and going to interviews, and got nowhere. I had never felt so lost.
I decided to take classes community college. School was familiar to me. It was inexpensive–I qualified for grants because we had so little income. I took Spanish, accounting, and management. I learned to ride the bus and BART, and I practiced driving a car–a completely different experience than driving in the Philippines. I got a job at Forever 21. Funny, I was actually 21, on my first job, with kids as young as 14 and 15.
One day, my mom asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
I really didn’t know. You see, I had known since I was 14 that I would be leaving the Philippines someday. My aunts had told me that in the US, job experience was what mattered. So I chose my college degree based on what I was interested in, not what I could make a career out of.
I told my mom I wanted to travel. I had grown up seeing photos of my aunts traveling to Europe and Asia. I had grown up with a giant world atlas, and books about beautiful and mysterious places around the world: the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the stone figures on Easter Island. I had read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and desperately wanted to see Greece.
My mom said, “Well, to travel, you need money.”
I realized she was wrong. To travel, I needed an airline job.
This year, in March, I will have worked for Alaska Airlines for 9 years. July will be my 10th anniversary as a US resident. August will be my 2nd year as a citizen. June will be my 6th year as a Seattleite.
I’ve done quite a few things for the company. I’ve worked in various airports. I’ve written training bulletins and blog articles. I’ve tested software, both legacy and cutting-edge.
I have friends in dozens of countries around the world. Filipinos get around: we’re everywhere. Of my high school graduating class of over 300, probably a quarter are living in other countries.
And you meet people when you travel. I’m an introvert; it’s hard for me to make friends with strangers. But when you travel, sometimes you can’t help it. You pick up a hitchhiker and end up spending the day hiking together. You’re on a cruise and meet people from the Pacific Northwest. You’re on an island and help put out a fire, and so form a bond with the only other couple staying there.
No one who travels is close-minded, except maybe at the start. The more you see of the world, the more you realize that people are the same.
Oh, cultures are different, food is different, habits are different. In Istanbul, we got woken up every day at dawn by the chanting from all the mosques around us. In Cappadocia, we heard the cries of an animal being slaughtered for a religious holiday. In Athens, we got robbed by gypsy children. In Amsterdam, we marveled at the women in the windows of the red light district. In Negril, we refused insistent offers of weed from passing cars. In Tokyo, we rode the last trains of the night with businessmen just getting off work.
But people are the same. They may drive or bike or take the train to work. They may rent out their homes to travelers. They may sell street food for a living. They may check your groceries at the store, or sell you produce at the market.
They work, they play, they sing. They fall in love. They raise their children and take care of their parents. They create homes. They hope and they despair. They fail and they succeed. They live their lives. They strive for better lives.
We carry our histories with us. People like me are everywhere. In every country, but especially this one, you’ll find so many of us. Our stories are different in the details, but one in this aspect: we wanted to live better lives.
I will always be Filipino. I will always be American. I will always be a traveler. While I live my life and you live yours, we may intersect. We may meet. We may change each other. We may better each other’s lives.
I will always be that stranger trying to make a place her home. Maybe for a few days, maybe for a few years. Maybe for life–who knows?
I will always be an immigrant.