Be good to yourself. People will only treat you as well as you treat yourself. ~ M. V. Hansen

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Mama's Dream and Remembering My Trip to the United States (US)

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my mom to the US Embassy. For several weeks she's been citing the approval of her visa as one of her intentions for praying the rosary. The reason? To attend my brother's graduation as a licensed nursing assistant and to take a much needed vacation away from home.

Mom would have gone to California if she only had a US visa.
Not that I hate the US for I've been there for a short time, but I didn't want her to go because of reasons I will discuss later.

From having a medical degree and a licensed general practitioner in the Philippines and serving as a community doctor in the Fiji Islands, my brother has opted to study para-nursing to survive in the US and be able to continue sending my parents some money. He went there when Fiji Islands had several political conflicts and foreigners were advised to leave. Apparently, unlike in the Philippines, applying for a US visa in other countries was quite a breeze.

My brother is one of the millions of Filipinos who have opted to seek seemingly greener pastures overseas. The Philippine economy owes much of its resilience to migrant workers. For being the eldest and with a medical degree in his belt, I've long ago accepted the fact that he's the favorite and I'm the black sheep. At the age of 38, it's best to acknowledge whatever it is that makes me imperfect and flawed.

Why I went to the United States

In January 2005, I thought of visiting the US. Attending academic conferences was the only reason I had at that time. I looked for events I could attend and found two.

The first one was about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders (LGBTs). It was going to be held at the University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA). The other one was about women's issues in general and was organized by a women's studies department at Purdue University in Indiana. Both were three days long and they were two days apart. I had no idea how far these states are from each other, but the map made the distance seemed minimal (Yeah, I can be stupid and silly from time to time).

I had a good feeling I'd be able to attend these events. I paid $100 for the interview. It was my savings I had at that time and I didn't want it to go to waste.

My experience in obtaining a US visa

I prepared all the needed documents. It was a good thing that my research boss also wanted me to take a break. She signed all the needed papers. During that time, I had to download a document from the US Embassy site and filled out the necessary information. I was too careful in making any mistake about the entries.

In spite of feeling nervous, I couldn't help but feel excited. To ensure that I'd get approved, I sought help from a good friend who used to live in Chicago. During that time, Rahm Emanuel was the congress representative of that particular district. My friend went to his office and was able to talk to an immigration personnel on the eve of my interview at the US Embassy.

I kept my interview schedule secret from my parents since I started preparing for it. I learned my lesson when I was preparing my immigrant papers for Canada in the mid-1990s. My mom was too excited for me that she didn't fail to tell anyone she talked to that I was going to Canada even if I had no visa yet. I wasn't blaming her enthusiasm, but I felt telling other people about one's plan was like pre-empting it. It never materialized. And yes, we wasted money. From then on, I thought that it'd be better not tell anyone about my life plans.

I kept that resolution when I applied for a short-term US visa. The only time I told my parents was two days before the interview. And they were happy to hear the good news that my visa application got approved.

The Consul gave me his approval five minutes or less. He never mentioned anything about the recommendation until my friend gave me the letter that Rep. Emanuel's office sent to inform him that I was given a visa.

My first US trip - Adventures of a naive tourist

I traveled for three days, leaving the Philippines on March 29 at 10:00 PM and arriving in North Carolina on April 1 at 3:00 AM. The conference was slated to start at 7:30 AM. Asheville is such a lovely place, but I wasn't able to explore much of it when I was there.

The plane ride from Manila took 17 hours. I waited for 2-3 hours at LAX in California before getting into another plane, this time enroute to Atlanta, Georgia where I waited again for 2 hours before reaching Raleigh, North Carolina at 8:30 AM of March 31 - US time.

Asheville is worth a US tourist's time.
Sadly, the bus I was supposed to take left at 8 AM and the next ride was scheduled at 6 PM. It was a good thing that the cab driver - an immigrant from Iran (if I remember it right) - advised that I stay in a mall which is 10-15 minutes away from the Greyhound bus terminal instead of staying in a motel. His suggestion was more viable to me for I had very limited pocket money. Ergo, I waited for almost 8 hours at a mall to catch the next bus trip to Asheville.

I was among the first few people "window shopping" at that time.What baffled me during my stay there was that the door of each toilet cubicle had openings on its sides - meaning, when I closed it, people outside could see what I was doing inside. I made sure that I would only use the last cubicle so that I only had to cover one side of the door. Still, it wasn't comfortable, so I arranged the sleeves of my jacket and a shawl to cover the gap even if there were no other women around.

Aside from that, I wanted to take a bath so badly but couldn't. I felt dirty. Coming from a tropical country, it's important for me to shower twice or thrice a day. Three traveling days with no bath was quite a sacrifice for me. I'd like to think I wasn't stinky though. None of my co-travelers had to cover their noses while talking or sitting beside me, so I surmised my "armpit power" was still in check - thanks to my handy set of baby cologne and isoprophyl alcohol. I use the latter before I sit on any public toilet bowl, so I carry a small bottle with it all the time and a pack of tissues, as well as extra bottled water.

When I arrived in Asheville, my host provided me the chance to use the bath tub and soak myself in warm water - just for one day though. It was my first time and it felt like a "reward" for the three long days of travel. I knew the United States was big, but I never thought my first trip would make me stay on air and on the road for 72 hours. Surprisingly, I didn't feel sleepy. It was as if I was high on some unknown drug.

My stay in Chicago and in Indiana were equally exciting. My good friend who helped me secure a visa had me sleep on the floor. He set up his futton in a kitchen that was bigger than his bedroom. He also brought me to and from Indiana. Good thing I brought him some souvenirs and cooked seafood spaghetti for him. But of course, those things could never fully compensate him for all the help he gave me. We've managed to keep in touch since then. He and I have been friends since 2002.

I had fun during my Indiana stint. Several Filipino students at Purdue University treated me to a series of "eat all you can" dinners and home-made dishes. They also brought me to a thrift shop where I bought some used shirts and pants. Sales tax in Indiana was pretty low compared to Chicago and California. One couple was kind enough to offer me the use of their washing machine and dryer so that I could use the clothes during my almost a week-long  stay in Indiana. 

Lessons learned from overseas trips 

The United States was the second country I've been to outside the Philippines. The first was Hong Kong (or China) in 2001. Unlike in Hong Kong where I met many Filipino workers, I only met a few in the United States - this does not mean that there are only a handful of Filipinos there for there are millions of them living and working in this country.

In both trips, however, there are a few pointers I've gained:
  • Learn the language.
I met Mexicans in the United States who didn't know how to talk in English that I found it difficult to converse with them. I'm not saying that I should learn Spanish. I do know some words because the Spain occupied the Philippines for over three centuries that many of the words we use here have Spanish origins. However, even though the Mexicans might think that the Anglo-Saxons robbed them of lands that they previously owned, the English speakers are the ones who have the upper hand in the United States.

For anyone who wants to live and work overseas, it is best to know the native language first - even just the basics. It'll help you get by and survive. You would even know if you're being duped by the locals if you know their language.
  • Learn the currencies.
One of my bloopers during my stay in the United States was the fact that I didn't know how the coins looked like. Or what each type was and its corresponding name. A cent, a dime, a quarter, a nickel. I got intimidated by the vending machine because I was panicking as to how many or what type of coin I had to drop to buy bottled water. Of course the amount was shown like 25 cents for the quarter, but still, I got nervous. The machine didn't give out change so one had to have the exact amount. For a tourist with limited money, even just a nickel or a dime matters.
  • Learn the basic laws and/or read instructions.
I miss Chicago.
For those with no friends in the country you'd like to go and visit, it'd be better to do some research online and read.

When my friend in Chicago brought me to a park in Evanston (he knew I like John Cusack as an actor (I don't know the man personally so I feel I should qualify that), I pulled up some purple-colored small flowers. That got him to say "Don't do that! We can get arrested for that". His face was red while looking around for cops. Instead of getting afraid, I felt like I won something. Of course we didn't get nabbed. He pointed me to a sign that reminded people not to do what I did. 
  • Stay cool when you see celebrities.
Incidentally, I saw John Cusack on LSD (Lake Shore Drive) on my last day in Chicago. The Cubs won a game at that time. And I saw how devoted their fans were, that even kids had a Cubs uniform. I would have bought a baseball shirt if I could afford it.

Before leaving Indiana, my friend told me that Cusack was in town for the game. I thought watching a baseball game was pretty cheap. It wasn't. Thus, he made me choose between going to this Sears Tower in Chicago and a tour of the city or a trip to Evanston where Cusack was born and raised. Obviously, I chose the latter and even had a photo taken at the Piven Theater.

The Northwestern University campus was equally captivating. It didn't feel like a campus, but more of a community near Michigan Lake (I just hope I'm not making mistakes here as I'm not that geographically literate).

My friend brought me to O'Hare airport 2-3 hours before my flight. The Evanston trip was completed in an hour and we had time to buy an extra bag (for the used clothes I bought in Indiana). He also bought a book for my kid.

While driving on LSD, he suggested that I take a photo of the Chicago skyline. While trying to get my jurassic camera (I had no digital camera at that time) at from a luggage, a gray pick-up maneuvered from behind to drive "side by side" with us.

I saw a white guy with dark shades and in black shirt smiling at me (no teeth showing). I thought, "This guy looks familiar, but why is he smiling at me? Or is he smiling at my friend? Does my friend know him? Is he waiting for him to acknowledge him?"

It took me a minute to realize I was looking at John Cusack and it was his friend (a fellow actor) Jeremy Piven driving. There were two women sitting in between them. And no, they weren't flirting.

It was after recognizing who he was when the truck sped away fast. I asked my friend to run after them, but he didn't. He stopped the car on the right side of LSD instead so I could take pictures of the buildings. I just watched the gray Ford disappear from my sight.

I should've taken a photo of the person smiling at me in that car, but it didn't happen. I could only reminisce that moment from time to time. If only I had a picture of that moment, my friend would have believed me immediately when I told him that I saw John Cusack on LSD.
  • People may seem nice to you, but that doesn't mean they'd like to befriend you.
I tried keeping in touch with the people I met at the bus terminal, at the two conferences, my hosts, and with the Filipino students even after meeting them. Sadly, all were not inclined to make the acquaintance evolve into a long-term overseas correspondence. 

Not that I asked them if they wanted to remain friends, but I surmised that wouldn't happen, judging from their silence or intermittent and short replies to my emails asking how they're doing. I even called a few of them, but the "friendship" ended as soon as I left the place.
  • Living overseas is not easy.
Traveling abroad is exciting. However, living in another country for several weeks or even months or years is difficult, especially if you're living alone - away from your family or your comfort zone. 

Major cities in the Philippines have 24-hour public transportation like these passenger jeepneys.
A 24-hour public transportation is not available in the United States, except in New York City where cabs abound around the clock and the subway train is available as well. In the Philippines, however, a cab is not affordable for the masses.

Major cities and nearby villages have passenger jeepneys, buses, and tricycles until the wee hours of the morning. It's a different matter when it comes to the countryside though.

When I stayed in California with a friend, I had to wait for 30 minutes before the next bus arrived. My trip to Asheville had me waiting a full day for a bus ride as well. 

This is the part why I didn't want my mom to leave because she likes to go out. Her day wouldn't be complete without going to church or wherever. She doesn't know how to drive and my brother goes to work everyday. Of course, he'd have to take a leave if mom were there, but it would only be for a couple of days.

I couldn't imagine what Mama would do if she stayed in his room during her brief vacation. If only I could come with her, then she and I could go somewhere and explore; however, we can't afford it.  Plus, I have my kid to look after.

It's not that my mom couldn't understand English. She does, actually. It's just that she's not used to talking in English which I think also contributed to her negative mark with the consular officer.

When Mama cried - A trip gone south 

My mom is a devout Catholic. If only I could, I would buy her (and my dad) a pilgrimage package. I'd rather see her do this first than go to the United States - although it's sad to see my brother graduate without any family member present. He might ask a friend or two to attend instead. Or he might not attend at all and just get his certificate (or diploma) after the event.

Mom prays every morning. And I caught her crying while doing that a few days ago. I knew it had something to do with her failed bid to get a US visa. I couldn't ask my friend who helped me before. He now lives in Colorado and Rahm Emanuel is now mayor of Chicago after serving as President Barack Obama's Chief-of-Staff. Good thing I didn't violate my visa, lest I would've been a liability to both my friend and Mayor Emanuel. I would've also disappointed my research boss for she supported my trip.

I wrote hoping that someone would extend help to my mom aside from referring her to a website link with information about applying again. Unfortunately, the person who answered my mail did just that.

I'm already a burden to Mama that I'd like to really help her go to the United States and spend time with my brother who's been helping our family survive with his hard-earned money. Living overseas even for a brief time had made me appreciate the Philippines more in spite of her seemingly negative qualities.

I recognize that my not wanting Mama to leave was selfish, yet at the same time I didn't want her to feel lonely in the United States as days passed. That's what I felt when I was there - lonely. The adrenaline high waned when I realized that life in a developed and "rich" country is essentially the same in an underdeveloped and "poor" nation. The logistics of living are the same. One has to work hard for an income to ensure one's survival.

There are people in the United States who are not tolerant of immigrants or who find it envious that foreigners have a job in their own country. Saudi Arabia has already prohibited the hiring of foreigners to work as domestic helpers, requiring homeowners to hire a fellow Saudian instead. It would be a huge chaos if local Americans would demand for the same policy.

If given the chance, I'd like to see Mama go to the United States with her eyes wide open. The tourist experience would definitely be great, but the problem of survival is the same. There are many poor people living in the United States. I guess I also just don't want my mom to experience discrimination.

There's no place like home, Mama.  

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