Ever wondered what life is like in America?
I asked myself that question once, seventeen years ago to be exact.
I was on the patio of a trendy restaurant in Manila one humid Friday night, watching cars go by across the busy street.
Sitting at a table reserved for six, I marveled at the usual scene from the scrapbook of my life, enjoying the sights and sounds of urban living. I listened to people chatter while plates and glassware were set meticulously by servers in their handsome black and white ensemble, patiently waiting for my friends to come join me for another round of catching up over wine and coffee and our payday favorites, adobo flakes on rice and buttery bibingka.
It was our self-indulgent ritual.
A quiet dinner, followed by an hour or two of gossiping and comparing notes, careful not to spill our trade secrets among each other, and when there was absolutely nothing else to talk about, there would be poignant musing about our lives that none of us would trade for the universe, anyway.
We were the toast of our version of Madison Avenue—young, brilliant minds that powered the thriving, cutthroat, enticingly competitive, fun and frivolous advertising industry—each of us representing an ad agency entrenched in the most prominent financial hubs in the Philippines, our corporate headquarters located in high profile cities in Europe and the United States. I had no doubt any white-collar professional newbie fond of business duels and corporate ladders would love to join our troupe.
And then it hit me.
What would life be like if I chose to give up everything I had—my career, lifestyle, ambitions, friends, family, and freedom—to start a brand-new life in an unfamiliar place? What would happen if I turned my back on everything I had, forgot about my dreams, and moved far away?
Ridiculous, I told myself as I savored the cold water from my glass.
After all, I was only twenty-five, single, flourishing, sprawled in my bed of roses, the whole world at my feet. In two years I’d be promoted at my job, the youngest assistant vice president of our account management team, set to win my dream account—the fastest-growing telecommunications company in the country.
I would then move out of my parents’ house and be able to rent my own apartment in the more upscale area in the city. Instead of parking on our street every night after coming home from work, praying no one would scribble their initials or run their key across my newly bought silver Honda Civic, I’d have my own designated parking space in my new apartment with free twenty-four-hour security. I knew we weren’t rich, but I grew up with maids—because maids are affordable in the Philippines—and I planned to employ one of my parents’ household help to take care of housekeeping, cooking, and laundry for me.
The princess-cut diamond set in my gold engagement ring suddenly caught a ray of light, blazing momentarily like a torch, as if blinding me on purpose. I stared at my hand absentmindedly as I watched my slim fingers play with the bread crumbs on the tiny plate in front of me, pushing them back and forth ever so slowly.
And then I remembered.
I was sitting on a time bomb.
My heart tingled in bittersweet anticipation as the handsome face of my fiancé flashed in my mind.
I could feel my heart beating faster, my knees getting weaker. I quickly finished the glass of cold water in my trembling hand. It was like my feet were dangling over the edge of a cliff. A part of me wanted to turn around and run back to safety in the comforts of my normal everyday reality, yet another part of me wanted to close my eyes and jump off without a care in the world.
I loved Anthony, and because of that, I wanted to hold onto my belief that once I jumped off the cliff, I would land on soft grass, unscathed and safe, just as he had promised. I looked around anxiously. I knew I had to make a decision soon.
Ridiculous, I repeated silently to myself.
My friends started streaming into the restaurant one by one, smiling from ear to ear, laughing their hearts out as usual, genuinely thrilled to be in one another’s company, yet absolutely clueless as to what was going on inside me.
Two days later I bought a round-trip ticket for my leap-of-faith adventure in the fabulous and much romanticized “Land of Opportunity.”
“America, here I come,” I whispered nervously.
My name is Janelle.
This is my story.
April 2, 2000.
I fell asleep on the plane while reading The Chamber of Secrets, the thick hardbound Harry Potter book my dear older sister had given me as my going-away gift.
And boy, did I go away.
We were probably cruising at thirty-two thousand feet from God knew what was down there at the bottom of nowhere, as I curled up in one of the plane’s seats by the window. It was pretty comfortable if you asked me, except when the ride got really bumpy due to some crazy, mind-twisting air pockets. Contrary to what others had been complaining about traveling cheap, the coach class of a humongous American commercial jet wasn’t so bad, even for the dragging and mentally stressful fourteen-hour non-stop flight I was on board for.
I guessed for a ninety-pound, five-foot-tall Filipina like me, anything was spacious enough to accommodate my deceivingly undernourished body.
Speaking of nourishment, I was getting hungry. My last meal consisted of fried rice, eggs, and bacon—the quick breakfast our maid had cooked for me before my parents took me to the airport that morning.
In a hurry, by the way.
Ironically, my parents, who were traditional and conservative post-war babies, did not believe in Filipino Time—read: fashionably late by almost an hour to infinity and beyond—whereas the modern Filipina in me was a chronic abuser, if there was such a term, of that backward cultural habit of ours.
In the Philippines, where I worked as a senior accounts executive for a sophisticated global advertising agency, I had to dress up in trendy, tailored business clothes every day of the week. Consequently, since it was my first time to fly to the United States, I thought I should also dress appropriately.
I wore my chic-looking tan chinos and a most flattering black, body-hugging turtleneck sweater that my sister had bought for me in Japan. The turtleneck sweater could very well be a medium for physical torture if worn in tropical Philippines any time of the year, but it would be great for the currently freezing—by my standards—weather in Houston, where I was headed. I also wore my newly bought black ankle boots to match my outfit, and my soft taupe trouser socks to keep my feet warm and toasty.
So imagine my shock when I mingled with my fellow passengers at the airport who were wearing sweats and sneakers. To my monumental chagrin, I found myself sticking out like a sore thumb in a crowd of underdressed backpackers as I headed to the gate prior to departure.
I noticed the Asian-looking flight attendant rolling the lunch cart in the aisle, two feet away from my seat. She missed our row and started serving dinner for the passengers seated behind me. Before she could roll the cart two steps farther, an older-looking Caucasian lady sitting next to me, who was probably in her sixties, called the attention of the flight attendant with apparent distaste.
“You didn’t serve this young lady’s dinner,” the older lady told the flight attendant, referring to me. The seemingly clueless flight attendant answered back, “I beg your pardon?”
“You didn’t give my little friend here her dinner,” the older lady reiterated.
The snobbish flight attendant raised her thick eyebrows, then frowned and looked at me like she wanted to put a sizable portion of wasabi in my mouth. With her perfect, mindboggling Southern accent, she told the older lady, “Well, I thought she was asleep when I was serving y’alls dinner.”
The older lady looked at the flight attendant as if squinting from blinding sunlight. Apparently irritated yet resigned, she told the flight attendant that I was awake now, and could she please give me my dinner already.
To make the long story short, the flight attendant obliged and handed me my tray of airplane delicacies. I noticed her eyebrows were raised, forming quite a freakish straight line on her creased forehead.
For an outspoken advertising executive, I was speechless. Did I just get snubbed by my own kind and was rescued by another person of a different race? Talk about shattering cultural myths on my first day away from home, I thought.
“The captain has advised that everyone go back to their seats. Please fasten your seatbelts as we may experience turbulence. Thank you,” the flight attendant announced on the intercom.
“Here we go again,” I muttered to myself as I braced for yet another dose of heart-stopping plane jiggles, postponing my much-needed trip to the claustrophobia-triggering restroom. I shook off the jitters as I started doing my countdown.
Five more hours to go and I’d get out of that big metal bird and breathe the much-talked-about air of everyone’s dreamland.
It was early spring in Houston, Texas.
The arrival area of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport was surprisingly empty, a stark contrast to the arrival area of the smaller airport in the Philippines that I was familiar with.
In comparison, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila bustled with life, even in the wee hours of the morning as cars got stuck in traffic and hundreds of people—some bearing leis made of sampaguita flowers to welcome arriving passengers—waited outside.
I looked at the few passengers around me who were waiting patiently for their rides to arrive. They looked tired; quiet, as if deep in thought. I picked a spot by the glass doors and waited along with them.
I stared at the frigid cup of coffee in my hand. After collecting my luggage from the baggage carousel half an hour ago, I’d absentmindedly headed to a Starbucks inside the airport and ordered a large Mocha Frappuccino, sans the whipped cream, out of habit. But then, as soon as I’d managed to get out of the building to wait for my aunt to pick me up, the cold wind hit my face. It felt like a thousand ice daggers had landed on my cheeks. The iced coffee numbed my hands. I wanted to quickly toss the plastic cup, but my fingers refused to obey my bidding.
It was extremely cold and windy in Houston. I had heard the city was at the tail end of a rare cold front, and I was lucky enough to catch it. My black turtleneck sweater kept me warm, but it wasn’t enough to ward off the chills running through my travel-worn and incredibly shocked system.
I recalled a scene when our plane landed, more than five hours ago at the Detroit Metro Airport, my point of entry to the United States.
As soon as our plane had been attached to the jetway, I was suddenly filled with a mixed set of emotions. Excitement was interspersed with panic as I walked out of the terminal gate.
The Detroit airport was huge and intimidating, like a modern cornfield maze with all sorts of signs pointing in different directions. I felt like a lost child on my first day in kindergarten, yet excited at what was about to happen.
As I stood, frozen in the middle of nowhere it seemed, I tried to still the voice of panic inside me.
Let the fun begin, I thought.
I quickly fumbled for the itinerary hidden in my purse and studied my connecting flight information.
“Dito tayo sa may escalator. Kukuhanin yung mga bagahe.”
I thought someone had pinched me. I looked around carefully, wondering where the voice was coming from.
“Head towards the escalator. They’re taking the luggage.” That’s what the mystery voice seemed to say.
I almost jumped when I saw an elderly woman staring at me from behind her gold-rimmed glasses. Judging from the words coming out of her mouth, I gathered she was also Filipino like me. Her accent sounded familiar.
“Pinay ka din, hija?” The old lady spoke to me again in Tagalog, one of our main local languages in the Philippines.
She wanted to know if I was Filipino like her.
I said “Opo,” the Tagalog term for yes, used as a sign of respect when responding to an older person.
She seemed pleased and amused as she led me to the escalator along with other fellow passengers. We went through a series of corridors and hallways until we arrived at the Customs and Border Patrol gate. There, a long line of passengers was moving like a lazy snake, slowly and quietly inching its way to the other side of a set of glass doors.
I took my place in the long line behind the old lady. She seemed strong for her age and quite cheerful. She did not whine or get grumpy, despite the long wait. Except for the occasional crying and laughter of little children in the line, our group was pretty quiet. Everyone looked tired but tolerant, patiently accepting what they had to go through as required by the law.
Finally, my turn came to face the immigrations officer. An older gentleman, the officer sat behind the booth and asked about my travel plans—where I was going, and what the purpose of my trip was. I suddenly became sentimental as I told him I was going to Houston to visit my cousin’s family and my fiancé.
A gush of excitement shot up to my heart, and I caught myself smiling dreamily.
Wait. Control your emotions, Janelle. You do not want the officer to think you’re a nutcase and deny your entry to his country, I told myself quietly.
I smiled and composed myself, careful not to show my anticipation, holding in the excitement brimming inside me. Yet my reverie continued.
I’d finally see my favorite cousin and his family again. And in just a few days, once I’ve recovered from jet lag, I would give my fiancé the biggest surprise of his life.
“Maria Janelle Marquez. Enjoy your stay in Houston.”
The officer’s words snapped me out of my daydream. He smiled warmly and handed back my passport, officially stamped with my date of arrival.
I had been approved entry into the United States.
I smiled back at the officer, thanked him quickly, and rushed to the other side of the terminal to collect my luggage. There, the old lady with the gold-rimmed glasses was surprisingly waiting for me. She told me she was on her way to Maryland to visit her grandkids, a mixture of joy and sorrow as it may be the last time she would travel to the United States. She said she had been in and out of Maryland for years but now that she was much older, she was afraid her daughter and her husband may send her back home to the Philippines for good.
It was strange.
Within a span of five minutes, the old lady described her fourteen-hour journey to me, occasionally giggling like a young woman narrating her love story. Somehow, we found a connection not only because we belonged to the same race, but because we were both fortunate, having had the opportunity to come to America, crossed the seas safely, and passed through airport security fuss-free.
Then she told me her secret.