On a bright day in March 1997, I went to school not dressed in the mandatory uniform but rather in a pink shirt and blue jeans. It was almost the end of my freshman year in high school. I was 13 years old. I came to school that day not to attend it; I came to say goodbye. I remember shyly but urgently interrupting the teacher as I knocked on the classroom door. I remember seeing all the faces I’ve known since kindergarten. I remember the teacher stopping her lessons just so we could go about with our farewells. I also had to take care of some logistics: transcripts, records, et cetera…all the things I needed to bring to my future school. I remember exchanging things with my friends–handkerchief for a pen, a pad of stationery for a tie clip. It all seemed so pure then. The desperate preservation of memory. The inevitable departure of innocence as we experienced a slight loss. I felt defeated, sad. I remember standing in the girls’ restroom with a group of my closest friends, crying our eyes out as we hugged, saying repeatedly how we’d never lose each other.
As I walked home, I carried in my pocket a huge double poster-sized paper with everyone’s names and addresses and messages of good luck and God bless. I cried all the way to my house, where my entire family were waiting to go to the airport. Luggages stacked. Boxes sealed. Eyes swollen. It was time to go. We were to leave for Manama, Bahrain, never to return again. And as much as I loved to travel even then as a young girl, I was hesitant, with my entire being, to leave the place where I knew I belonged. That was in Manila, in the Philippines, where life was beautifully simple.
My friends and I wrote letters to each other for a while, even after my family migrated permanently to the United States in September of 1997. It was an exciting time for all of us. It was a new beginning, a chance for a new and different kind of life. My family stayed in Newark, New Jersey for about a month and eventually moved to South Florida, where we still all reside in different areas, now with our own respective families. I turned 14 before our move, and at that time, I was to supposed to start my sophomore year even though I was young according to American standards. I opted to test out of middle school and freshman year, passed with flying colors, and started as a sophomore in high school that same month. My siblings were both in college then. My mom stayed at home, while my dad worked to support the whole family. Then, next thing you know, life happened.
We got our first family car. We got part-time jobs. We got the best dog ever. We traveled when we could. We got another car. I graduated high school and went to college. My siblings finished school. We became permanent residents and got our green cards. We got better jobs. We bought a house. We got another car. My sister got married. Our dog died. We got another car. My brother moved out and got married. I moved out. My dad got a new car. My sister got pregnant. My brother had a baby. I got pregnant and had a baby. Then I got pregnant again. My sister got pregnant. My mom got a new car. And roughly, everything else in between. Like I said, life happened.
The point of the story is that throughout it all, I had no intention of becoming an American citizen until I had my first child. I always proudly considered myself a Filipino. I lived in the United States. I followed the wonderful American culture and tradition. Even when I went on a short trip to the Philippines in 2007, I knew I was completely “Americanized”. After 10 years, it didn’t feel like home anymore, even though in my head I still called it home. I told my parents I was going to renew my green card, but I wanted to hold on to my Philippine passport. Why? I’m not sure. It felt as if I was going to betray my natural-born identity if I let go of my Philippine citizenship. However, when my daughter was born, it became a completely different story. It was no longer about me. It’s now about the future and what I can do to better ensure a good one for my child. Hence, becoming a citizen was the next step. I understood immediately what my parents always told us, that opportunities abound in this country like no other. These are opportunities of every kind: the opportunity to learn whatever your heart desires, the opportunity to pursue your dreams, to experience and explore life to its fullest, to be freely happy as you are. I understand now why people come here. People come to this country to take advantage of what I must’ve taken for granted so many years ago and what I still sometimes take for granted now: an oppression-free way of life. I really can do anything I want. I really can go for my dreams and live the life I’m meant to live. All these from a country with a past rich in courage and pride. This country’s past reverberates to the future, affecting not only those born here but even those born from far away.
So on a bright day in June 2012, I fully embraced who I was and became an American. I am still proud of my heritage and also proud of who I am now. And after 16 years of living in this country and lighting up fireworks on the 4th of July, it somehow means more now than just the aroma of barbecue and a painted night sky.
Interestingly, the 4th of July is also important in Philippine history. It’s a less known holiday called the Philippine Republic Day, and it commemorates the Philippine Independence from the United States in 1946. For those who didn’t know, the Philippines was a US territory for 48 years from 1898 to 1946. This day in the Philippines is informally known as the Filipino-American Friendship Day. Therefore on that note, I end this post with the thought of friendship.
I still have all the memorabilia I gathered from my friends that day I left the Philippines and all the letters they’ve written to me over the years. They’re kept safe, and they always will be. Call me sentimental, but when my children get older, I will show them these letters and teach them about a different way of life when Facebook or Twitter didn’t exist, and Instagram wasn’t around to make memories look better. Back then, we had to make sure the memories themselves were perfect, take pictures with a camera, have the film developed, write letters by hand, seal the envelopes with love, and send them far away where our friends lived.
In retrospect, thank God for technology. Have a safe and happy 4th of July!!!