It was my first time on a plane. I was on my way to America with my mom, brother, and sister after a disorienting 24-hour voyage from Manila, Philippines. Along the way, one child almost got lost, two children threw up at every landing and take-off, our last flight got cancelled, and several cardboard boxes carrying our stuff had ripped apart. Tired but antsy in the Dulles International Airport waiting room, we saw a man in the distance. A man that we recognized from photographs and videos we’d seen over the years, but had never met in person. I knew how he looked, how he sounded, maybe what his interests were, and that he loved us, but have never felt his touch. As he got closer, I started running towards him as fast as I could. Finally, I was going to meet Papa.
My twin sister and I were born in April 1990. The February prior to our birth, my mom received her visa to come to America—she was six months pregnant and also had a two-year-old son in tow. On the brink of adding two babies to a family of three, my parents had to make an incomprehensible decision of whether to bring us with them to this new non-tagalog speaking, non-rice eating foreign land, or entrust our care to family members while they built a foundation in America. After much deliberation and advice from relatives in similar situations, they painstakingly decided that my mom would travel first and get a job, my dad would follow once she was settled, and they would come back and get us the following year.
To their dismay, the American immigration system had a different plan in mind. When they applied for the petition to bring the three of us to America, they were told that the immigration quota had been filled and they would have to wait for the next batch to be approved. Dumbfounded at the thought of delaying their reunion with their children, my parents filed various applications, special case petitions, and called the US Philippine Embassy over and over again trying to find a loophole to get us to America sooner. One year turned into two years, two years turned into three, and three became five. My mom was able to visit once for three weeks when I was two years old—we were so excited to “finally have a mom”—but unfortunately our dad was never able to visit due to budget and status constraints.
Luckily, we were blessed with our paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncle who compassionately and selflessly raised us in our parents’ stead. My aunt Susan was only 27 years old when she quit her job to raise the three of us, while my other aunt Annette and uncle Larry treated us like second, third, and fourth children alongside their son. They along with my grandparents assured us that our parents loved us tremendously and did what they had to do so that we’d have a bright future. My siblings and I never felt a lack of love or resentment towards our parents.
During those years we communicated very openly with our mom and dad via phone calls, birthday cards, letters, videotapes, and balikbayan boxes—huge cardboard boxes filled with goodies such as cans of Spam and corned beef, boxes of Swiss Miss cocoa mix, Dove soap bars, Crunch chocolate bars, Play Doh, Crayola crayon sets, Barbie dolls, action figures, Game Boy consoles and games, and coloring books. They regularly sent picture albums of their lives in America while we in turn sent albums and videotapes of our birthday parties, first days school, Christmases, and vacations. We felt their love with every new package we received; however, we were never able to feel their hugs and kisses, or even speak with them in real time (video conferencing didn’t exist in the 90s). To this day, I cannot fathom the immense sacrifice our parents, aunts, uncle, and grandparents made for these three little kids.
After five grueling years, our immigration papers finally went through in 1995. My mom flew back just in time for my sister and I to have one last birthday in the Philippines, a memorable occasion at Goldilocks restaurant. After another short three-week vacation, my mom brought her children to the airport to start our new lives—on my uncle Larry’s birthday. Needless to say, that was the saddest birthday he’d ever had. Before we boarded the plane, we achingly said goodbye to the only family we had known for our entire lives. It was an unbelievably emotional time, and I am only now beginning to understand the bittersweet uncertainty we all felt as we hugged and kissed each other one last time.*
Although it was an excruciating 24-hour voyage through three countries, several delays, cancelled flights, and an hour-long shuttle bus ride between airports, all the effort became worthwhile when we finally saw our dad waiting for us right as we got off the shuttle bus. Although I’d never seen in him in real life, I knew who this man was. I still have a vivid memory of running to him because I was so excited touch, smell, and feel his embrace. My dad’s not an emotional person, but I knew he was beyond ecstatic because it was finally here: the dream of seeing his family together.
We left the airport exhausted, jetlagged, and hungry—but so excited to finally be holding our dad’s hands. When we arrived at our new home, we were met with more strangers who would eventually become our second mothers, fathers, and siblings in America. We were about to embark on a journey that we then couldn’t have ever comprehended: growing up in a bicultural household—simultaneously learning how to be Filipino and American—and all the pros and cons that came with that lifestyle. It’s a journey neither our mom nor dad, nor us kids have taken for granted. To all be together in this country was well worth all their sacrifices.
*We are still incredibly close to our family back in Philippines and visit each other every few years. We call them during every birthday, holiday, and sporadically just to say hi. They attended the college graduations of me, my brother, and my sister, and we attended the graduation of our cousin, Valro, who we are also still very close with, and his sister Myla, born after we moved to America. The time we shared during those first few years left an invisible connection that bonded us for life.