Sunday, February 18, 2007

Finding Home (Coming to America 2)

It was bitterly cold in New York when I arrived in April 2001 from Los Angeles. I had a jacket which I bought from Mango in Manila that was warm enough for winter in Los Angeles but definitely not enough for sub-zero temps of the East Coast. I had no money and so I froze whenever I stepped out but it did not matter. There was a chance for a job in New York and the idea warmed me up.

I took the qualifying exam in May and passed it but a job offer did not materialize until two months later. In August, after returning from a brief visit to Manila to get my work visa, I began my life as a New Yorker.

In 2002, I took out my first lease on an apartment in the city. With just 6 months after I took my job, I have not yet saved enough to furnish an apartment, let alone buy a bed. And so for first furnishings, I had an inflatable bed and a 13” flat screen Sony TV on a picnic bench. My aunt donated two sets of towels, two drinking glass and two sets of utensils. And I had paper plates! Meals were Japanese-style, taken on the floor where I sat cross-legged.

Going solo in New York, I felt like a coed coming into my first college dorm - buying my first set of pots and pans, bedsheets, comforters and bath rubs. My first furniture was Ikea and they were good starter items. Eventually, many of the starter pieces were phased out for sturdier items - a bigger and more adult bed and a much more comfortable seating set. Last year my boyfriend brought my apartment to a new age in technology. I gave away my loyal and hardworking 13” TV on craigslist after he bought a 32” LCD flat screen. He also switched my phone system into VOIP (but I later switched it back to Verizon) and then had a DVR installed so that I would not miss the Grey’s Anatomy episodes when I traveled.

Until now I wonder how things turned out the way it have. Nothing had been perfect, trust me. There had been a lot of tears along the way and in the many times that I have returned to New York from a trip to Manila I ask myself why I am a million miles away from the people I love the most and why I am not spending valuable days with my parents as they grow old. It takes a lot of work to not become a stranger to someone you love that you hardly see.

I had never in my wildest dreams thought I would have another place to call home. But yes, this is home. The people at work correct me many times when I tell them “I will be going home,” when I advise that I would be traveling to see my family. They remind me that I would be visiting and that here in New York, this is home. I guess in my grown up world this has become home and my friends have become my new family. I have my parents in Manila and my daughter soon to join me but the people at work who I did not even know six years ago have become my sisters and brothers. We bicker and we rough each other up but we also have respect for each other and even in real families, I know is hard to come by.

I have never asked too much from life. I have always had my happiness in the simple things. I am so shallow I make a big thing of the smallest gestures of thoughtfulness and affection. My life as I planned it was just to take my daughter through school and make my parents proud of me. What I have been given is too much to comprehend, way more than I imagined I could accomplish. And I continue to be grateful.

I have set new goals, try to aim higher and to challenge myself further. Of course I still have dreams, much loftier wishes that I hope I would still make come true. And I know through hard work I would be able to attain them. And some kind of divine intervention.

We make plans but then life happens.

Note: This is not how the apartment looks now. The Ikea apartment has had plenty of upgrades, including the live-in boyfriend!

Coming to America

27 January was my 6th year anniversary.

On that same day in 2001, I made the US my new home. And New York City will be home for 6 years this coming April.

I have traveled here before, many times with family and with absolutely no intent of staying. For me back then, America was a great place to vacation but life was definitely sweeter in Manila.

In 1998, the last time before 2001 that I traveled to the US as a tourist, I had a great job that paid well with a company that was going through expansion. I was renting my own condo in Makati and was home to my parents in the weekends. The work that I was doing was what I had always wanted to do – in the dynamic industry of IT and was in charge of a department that managed events, advertising, public relations and marketing communications. And then things happened fast – the technology bubble burst, the exchange rate of the Asian currencies against the dollar plunged, bank interest rates skyrocketed and people and businesses stopped buying computers and software.

With a daughter just starting college and realizing my income as a single parent and sole breadwinner was not going to be enough to finance her education, I had two options: get married and have someone help me out with the financial situation or move abroad and receive remuneration in a foreign currency. I chose the latter. And the first step was to try my luck in the US.

My first stop was Los Angeles where a friend offered to help me out. Upon arriving, she gave me the number of her headhunter who specialized in the placement of Filipinos in jobs requiring special skills with companies that would eventually provide work-visa sponsorship. I started with a company four days after I arrived, being requested to report the day after I made my first interview and was working for an elite clothing company in Van Nuys within a few weeks.

I was unhappy, however. The friend who I shared the Burbank apartment with was going through a rough time at work and in her personal life. She was romantically frustrated and would often come home surging with hostility which unfortunately got redirected to her sister and I, the people she would find home when she arrived. She was often unhappy and it was a very stressful time for everyone.

At work, too, there was much bickering going around and the incompetent supervisors often felt threatened by the more proficient and so they enforced power play. I realized that the politics in a tiny company was much more unbearable than that of a huge business.

There is a mindset about working abroad – it is acknowledging that as a foreigner on a work visa you automatically become a third class citizen and will be abused. There is just no way out of it – if you decide to fight your supervisor and the management you run the risk of losing your sponsorship and then the processing of your green card application goes back to square one. A process cycle takes approximately eight years and about $15,000 dollars. It is a long time to keep biting your lips and swallowing your pride. I have met a lot of unhappy people who are unable to go home to their countries and are unpaid and overworked. I knew this was not for me. I could go back home, I thought and put up my own marketing communications business if things did not work out. But I knew I could not survive if I broke my soul.

It also seemed a very complicated way to get started with a new life. I surmised that in time I needed to find myself my own apartment once I got settled; and I also needed my own car, a major requirement to survive in California. This, on top of immigration and lawyer fees to process the work visa I needed to get to stay. And of course, I had my financial responsibilities at home in Manila. It was not working out as I expected.

Two months after I arrived, I was informed that I had a chance to work for an international organization in New York. I quit my job in Los Angeles, took my last pay and dedicated the last week of my residence in Los Angeles to playing tourist. I bought an unlimited bus pass and found myself in Pasadena, Long Beach, Hollywood, Glendale, downtown Los Angeles, Universal Studios, Beverly Hills/Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica.

On the first week of April, I took off LAX and traveled to New York. As the plane hovered over the West Coast, I told myself that this would be the last time I would see this side of the country and that I would never come back again.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Kung Hey Fat Choi

It is the year of the Red Fire Boar or Pig. It is a very prosperous year they say for most people.

We just had a new consultant in the office and she's Chinese Australian. Over wine and cheese last Friday she told us about the rituals that are involved in the celebration of the Chinese New Year including a total clean-up of the residence to remove all trace of the past year especially if it had not been a good one. And then there is the purging of all the un-necessary to pave the way for a fresh start.

Stay up late on Chinese New Year! She also said that the later one stayed up late means longer life for your parents. I might just not sleep at all then.... :).

Decorate the house with flowers and have citrus fruits preferably oranges with leaves intact. They bring good luck.

Then she said that tradition included filling the pantry with enough supplies good for 2 weeks. It wasn't advisable to spend any cash for the first 3 days of the New Year's.

We noted that although a lot of the traditions had been carried on through much of the New year traditions back home in the Philippines (fruits, flowers, total clean up), much of the prescribed 'good luck' pre-requisites cannot be applicable to modern life. For one, the idea of not throwing out any trash (bad luck!) for 3 days is almost unimaginable. And neither is keeping all windows and doors open to allow the free flow of luck into our homes - not when it is 20 degrees below freezing outside!

But still I believe in the idea of prodding luck a bit. No harm done, right? So we do have flowers at home, and made some deliveries tonight. Tomorrow my boyfriend and I will trek to Chinatown to elbow our way for some dumplings (asado siopao!!!!) which is suppose to bring abundance.

And also because I had been consistently been denied an asado siopao the whole time I was home! ARGH! The new King Bee which had just opened along the EPZA Road in Rosario was constantly out of stock regardless what time I came in. Unbelievable that to have some of my favorite steamed pork dumplings I have to wait 'til I got back home to New York! IRONIC!

And notice how King Bee looks like Jollibee in a cheongsam?


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fish Food

When I was much younger my friends and I would spit in the water and watch the fishes scamper to feed on it.... (ew!, I heard you...!)

When the family and I spent a Sunday at the Fishing Village, I wanted my 4 year old niece to enjoy the experience of watching live fish feed as well but I knew without asking that Francis wouldn't approve of me teaching his kid to spit into instead we threw rice to the fish ponds. Well, I hope it didn't take anything from her in terms of fun...but the spitting is always a more unforgetable experience.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Notes from the Road

I had been traveling... the reason for the major lapse in new blog entries. To be more specific, I have just returned from a 3-week sojourn from the other side of the world. Still struggling with major jetlag, I had been in slumberland at 8PM and then wide awake at 2AM since Friday.

The thing I have always hated most about traveling is the traveling itself. I hate being confined to a tiny space for almost 12 hours. I have never mastered the art of getting any kind of sleep so that I am wide awake the whole length of my flight from the continental US to a topover in Japan to Manila. Understandably by the time I get home, I am asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

I started to read Daniel Silva's 'The English Assassin" while waiting for my connecting flight from Detroit. I had not put it down and was done by the time we were taking off out of Osaka enroute to Manila. I just adore Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series. So far I have read five of his books including The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death in Vienna and his more recent, The Messenger. I'd recommend the spy series to anyone who enjoys suspense, drama and just a hint of romance (not too mushy).

Arriving in Manila, as usual, my itinerary doesn't have much in terms of content but time with family. I always say that this is the reason I go home and I try my best to enjoy the limited time I have to catch up on stories with my parents and bond with my fast growing niece Gabrielle and nephew Liam. Part of the loving, as typical of Filipino families, involves food. We always say that we share our love through food and my parents are definitely the most loving of all I know. With an agreement that I will binge only ont he first week and then try to shave off the pounds by the last weeks, day one at home was about a kilo of lechon cooked to perfection to paksiw for lunch and then dinuguan and puto for merienda. And then there was the giant prawns (sugpo) cooked in butter, the kare-kare with bagoong, kilawin na bopis (which is regular bopis but mixed with grated green papaya). My dad brings me back turon na saging (banana and a slice of jackfruit cooked in a thin tortilla shell) when he comes home from his tennis games and then Francis and Laila takes home for dinner menudencia con casuy and crispy pata.


Camaron Rebusado and Kinilaw na Tanguingue


GREEN MANGO JUICE : Every time I go home I often have a favorite flavor for the moment. It could either be puto bumbong, dalandan (the local lime) juice and sago gulaman. On this visit it had been the return of the green mango juice. I just loved the sweet tarty flavor of the thick juice that is served everywhere from the small restaurants to the most expensive restaurants in Makati.

It is the tropical fruits that I miss most, however. Regardless that you can literally get everything in New York, nothing is the same as the mangoes of the Philippines (the pico or the carabao) which I can devour either green (with bagoong) or manibalang (semi-ripe) eaten with rock salt and sugar or ripe eaten straight from the seed, which was exactly what I did soon as I walked in to my parent's house from the airport since I couldn't wait for a knife to slice it bonnet-style. And shall I even mention the lanzones which I ws told was now available year-round (same as mangoes) and the mangoesteen. I miss the duhat and singuelas, though since they are only available during the summer season; and the atis, the guavas and santol.

On my first weekend, I got together with Ana and her kids at the Island Cove in Cavite. The girls have grown since the last time I saw them over a year ago. Her eldest, Alex is a precocious young lady who knows how to play for the camera. I took a lot of pictures of her and when she got home told her father that she 'modeled' for me.

Ana and Kids
MALLING: Considering I go home as often as every 10 months or sometimes less, I am still stupefied by the speed of development in the Philippines. The malls get bigger everytime and new stores open to test the Filipino market and lure its shopaholics. The local Zara, Mango and Marks and Spencer stores had become my favorite during my last visit. This time I found myself indulging the once shunned and rated pang-masa goods of Shoemart. I realized that the stuff I found there I would wear in New York where it would be 'unique' or 'one-of-a-kind'. Of course, I never bought those goods before because I'd die if I rossed paths with someone wearing the same outfit as mine (yeah, maarte and mababaw ako - hehehe). I bought a handful of hairclips to tame my growing mane with each costing less than $1 and a nice leather belt for about $6.

Makati City Skyline

Makati's Greenbelt still reigns supreme as the centre for the ultra fashionista who has the deep pockets for shopping with stores like Ferragamo, Cartier, and Couch. The restaurants that have mushroomed in the area speak of class and I have often said outdoes the New York hot spots in terms of flavor, variety of cuisine and ambiance.

The newest hot spot seems to be the gigantic Mall of Asia in Pasay City, along the fringes of the Manila Bay. Its open spaces between the buildings seem to make the most of the location, trying to incorporate the beach scene into the mall area. Quite amazingly, the mall also houses the biggest indoor ice-skating rink in Asia. Yes, an ice-skating rink inside a mall in a very tropical country - the third, as a matter of fact and why the Philippines have become a contender and many times a winner in many figure skating comptetions.


TAGAYTAY: I try my best to stay away from the traffic of Manila and Makati when I can so if I could find a way to move all my days/dates to Tagaytay City I would. In the 3 weeks that I was home, I drove up to Tagaytay 4 times, the last time on a date with a former colleague, Rose who brought me to Antonio's Gardens in Barrio Neogan. I did not bring a camera because I had assumed that having been there so many times I had seen everything and had photographed everything. The place was beautiful - an old rest house converted to a fine dining retaurant that only accepts diners by reservations only. The cuisine is French and is sumptuous and the desserts are to die for. The gardens are expansive and are not manicured but are definitely very beautiful. The menu is semi-fixed and cost per person is about $35 - $40 but if you have time I would definitely recommend it and would note that it is much better than what Sonya's Garden has to offer.


MINNEAPOLIS: My port of entry on my return trip to the US was St. Paul. After the tedious routine of going through immigration and customs (and feeling absolutely violated with the intensifying checks and rechecks), I decided not to take the tram to my connecting flight gate but walk. En route between Concourse G and F is a newly installed vending machine - an Ipod dispenser. How cool is that?

My ipod is now ranked along the same category as my potato chip and my coke - not a necessity but a want item...a junk food item???