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  WITNESS

When I Stepped Foot in America



When I stepped foot on America…
I had a business visa without a business. My passport was marked by different entry and exit visas of different ports from a former nomadic lifestyle. I had a two way ticket from my country of origin, at least five thousand dollars from the generosity of people I know, two hard suit cases, a one month, three-plane air pass to travel in any part of the United States, and an address of contact at Wilmette, an affluent Suburb north of the Gold Coast. What I did not have was a job contract or a close family member to pick me up. My mother’s sister was in California. I chose to stay in Illinois, thousands of miles apart. I had no acquaintance, no former classmates, no distant relative, really no dreams at all to migrate in this land of dreams. What I had was a promise – a commitment to marry the woman I love. And we lived happily ever after (or so I thought…)

When I stepped foot in America….
Everything was a gift. It all began when I was an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. It was my 24th birthday. A bulky unsealed envelope was waiting on top of my desk. The lovely birthday card with my boss’s handwriting wrote, “Spread your Wings”. What could that mean, I mused. The message became more lucid as I saw a plane ticket. A trip to the United States! I was euphoric. Back then, there were no e-tickets. I literally caressed the excitement marked in ink, a gratuitous chance to further my studies and realize the freedom of independence. I traveled with friends. They all had post graduate scholarships waiting for them. I had to apply for mine. But even that came easy, indeed another gift. And now that I am weaned from my parents, I had to prove my ability to support myself. How? Although the “Au Pair” organization was nonexistent at that time, I found a job an “au pair”-like job, a stay in governess, a baby sitter for short. The family I worked for provided my lodging. I did not even have to prepare my own food. They had a chef who did it. I was the envy of my friends. Many years passed….

When I stepped foot on America….
I had to respond to a father’s threat: “Either come to America soon or forget that you even have a family!” That was a tough invitation. After all that dad did for us, he deserved to have his family by his side. Solitude is a painful plight, especially for immigrant workers; faithful customers of remittance centers, photo developing stores, shipping places and currency exchange kiosks. They can only hug pictures and cherish voices from expensive long distance phone calls. Life is tough. For someone enjoying the last phase of adolescent years – the prospects of separation from friends, the adjustments from the stability of familiar settings, the land of the unknown – is almost as painful as the pangs of solitude. We were forced to choose for the family’s common good. It appeared that I had to opt for the lesser evil. It wasn’t easy, but we survived…

When I stepped foot in America…
I was an incredulous tourist. Many of us arrived this way. They had to temporarily detain me in the special area of the immigration and custom section of O’Hare. I only had ten dollars, no personal belongings and a one way ticket from Switzerland. I could not give any hotel address as to where I would stay. I did not have any itinerary for cruises, tours or plans for sight-seeing. These clowns were not aware that my plight was a flight for survival. I was the poster child for the Bush-esque like slogan: ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ – words uttered to hunt down the notorious Osama, the son of the Bin Laden, right after George W. declared war against terror. In my case however, the terrorist was the hunter. I was the prey. With an assault, seize and seizure order on my head, the author of my country’s Martial Law was on a rampage. He was adamant to smother anyone who dared cross his path and I was one of them. America was my sanctuary, the fortress for my political journey against oppression. The fight for justice, for freedom, for human rights does not have any borders. It was a long struggle. It still is…

When I stepped foot in America…
Everything was huge. Architectural structures were colossal. Highways were really high; they were wider than my wildest adventures. Food proportion was larger than my hunger to could consume. A child’s menu was more than enough. People were tall, bulky and oversized. Chicago was obviously larger than my baranggay. I was not as big, but I started to be one; at least in my dreams, in my desire for something better, in my wishes to do something good…

I had to take care of my mother. America would be a better place for her. Now that I am a mother myself, I cannot stop from thinking that America has also been a mother, a great care taker to so many travelers, countless immigrants, both intentional and accidental, souls in search for greener pastures, hearts restless for a better world. I am but a fragment. Yet with other fragments, we grow stronger….

Now in America…
We see things we never saw before. We hear words we did not even care to listen. We gain friends who were former strangers. We feel the brutal cold of winter. We gather in our spare time to share time so that we could have more time trying to give another shot that could give sense to everything we do. We speak. We talk. We walk the walk of an immigrant’s gait so that gates could open. We work. And work does not end.
What we have heard are life snippets: tales, fragments, foretastes and figments of misplaced stories that mark the beginning of a yet unconcluded feat. Some are facts. Some are fiction. They are not thoroughly accurate. But they are all real. They are all great. Our stories are like songs whispered in the dark, waiting for a voice to utter its form – shapes that hanker roots of significance, in search of purpose, the purpose of a long lived life; the life of a legacy, a legacy for all.
As immigrants immersed in a dynamic flux of change, we thrive in following the footsteps of those who made it and we find comfort identifying with the same struggles that others went through and are still passing through. We learn from the wisdom of the old timers as the relentless zeal of newcomers inspire us to move on. There are so many blanks to fill. It would be nice to have some help. Can you be counted to fill that space? Wanted: Stories – yours, in whatever size, shape or form. Please let me know: arnoldjr2@gmail.com.



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