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Coming to America

Did you know that the first documented Asians who arrived in the Continental United States, California, were Filipinos (1587)? I find that fascinating! Because it is May, which is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I will share my own coming to America journey, close to 400 years after the very first historical Filipino arrival.

I had $5 (250 pesos) in my pocket. I carried a dark brown bag with a pair of pants and a shirt. I wore a white 80’s dress and was ready to travel to America. I was twelve years old, fearless, spoke no English, had a great amount of trust and excitement with minimal knowledge, and traveled by myself across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles.

This was my dream! I had been waiting to be summoned to America! For months, maybe even years, I told my schoolmates or anyone who would listen that I was going to America! And there I was on the tarmac waving goodbye to my aunts. At that time, there were no escorts. I sat in my seat as a typical passenger. My first connection was in Tokyo.

My seatmate asked me where I was going? “United States of America!” She continued to ask if I knew that most of the passengers had missed their connections already? Of course I didn’t. If I had been told, I was not paying attention. She assured me that once we arrived in Tokyo, she would take me to the gate counter so that I would be able to catch a flight to Los Angeles. She also asked how much money I had and was shocked and puzzled by my answer. I once found a couple of pennies in the house where I grew up and that was a lot! I went straight to the bank and exchanged my pennies. I was able to purchase enough candy to share! For me $5 was carrying plenty of cash.

When we arrived in Tokyo, my seatmate with her child ushered me quickly to the counter and handed me off. I was again quickly taken to another plane on my way to Los Angeles. I was asleep the entire time and when I awoke, I was the only person on the plane. I walked out of the airplane and headed straight outside the airport. There were so many people!! I have arrived! I had never seen so many people before, the sidewalk flooded with a sea of strangers. It was very noisy but the air was sweet and fresh. I thought to myself, “Mom, where are you?” I saw a payphone and after a couple tries, I was somehow able to call collect and connected with my mom. I hear a panicked voice, “Asa na man ka?!” I informed my mom that I arrived and asked where she was.

While I was making my way back inside the airport, I was tapped on the shoulder and asked if I was Charlene. I followed him and he took me back inside into a mini lounge area and was served spaghetti. That was my first taste of red-sauced spaghetti. Yum! I was again back on the plane heading to Phoenix. I remember feeling a bit disappointed that I was going to Phoenix. I hadn’t heard of Phoenix before. I thought LA was THE City to go to. As I landed, there were so many beautiful lights, my excitement was again sparked!

I woke up and was curious about all the electronic gadgets in the living room. I had never seen a huge stereo tuner, VCR, and other unfamiliar electronic gadgets. I touched the dials. “Don’t touch that!” I turned around, but didn’t understand and, again, I touched the stereo. “Don’t touch that!!” That was the first time I met my sister, the first time we fought in two different languages, and that was how and when my life began in the U.S.

Top three things I miss most about the Philippines:

Marang, oh what I wouldn’t do for you!

I have an amazing story about this fruit that was life changing for another time.

Water Buffalo “kabaw”

No one could keep me from riding a water buffalo even if it was wild!

I grew up partially in the country and enjoyed riding domesticated water buffalo.

Market “Palengke”

I visited the market regularly and met my uncle there. He would give me a quarter to buy dessert.


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