I was 5-years old when I arrived from the Philippines to the U.S. in 1986. We lived in a small suburb in Dallas, TX called Grand Prairie and it was predominantly Anglo Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans. My biological father didn't follow and my parents never married, but I was so young that I forgot who my biological father was anyway. And there were so many people living in under one roof that I was too distracted to even ask. I do remember living in a small ranch-style one-story home with 3-bedrooms and 10 people living in it (my Grandmother, Grandfather, Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins). We were all just getting started in the U.S. and although many of them had college degrees from the Philippines – none of those educational credits really counted in America. It was a huge culture shock for our family, and the land of opportunity required having to start from the bottom.
Asians didn't exist very much there – and kids had a hard time understanding what I was because of the shape of my eyes (slanted) and the color of my skin (a darker brown). I learned how much of a bully, racist, and judgmental human beings could be (including teachers). I didn't understand what I was doing or saying wrong to make these kids (and some of my teachers) hate me so much, but they made it loud and clear that I was not wanted or warranted any respect. I honestly don't remember much of my childhood (and maybe because I chose not to remember). There were many nights my Uncle and Mom have come home with surprises from McDonald's – it was the leftover balloons from a kid's birthday party and McDonald's Happy Meal boxes filled with chicken nuggets and french fries that my Uncle brought back that I remember so vividly. It was exciting as a child to experience a Kid's Meal, and I didn't care whether the food was old and the toys were already opened — it was neat-o!
I remember learning curse words from another Uncle who was visiting from the Navy. Words I never heard before that he used with such passion. I began copying my Uncle and cursing too, but that soon ended with a scolding from my Mom not to speak like that ever again (to both my Uncle and I – whoops). I didn't speak English and had to go through ESL (English as a Second Language) and I was fluent in Tagalog and Spanish, so thank God there was a Spanish speaking ESL teacher there to help me translate and teach me English.
I wasn't good at painting on the easel, I couldn't speak English, and kids didn't want to be my friend because they didn't know what I was — Kindergarten was rough. I learned to speak English and learned the alphabet thanks to Sesame Street and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). I kept watching observing, listening, and watching Americans and attempted to acclimate myself to their style and culture. By 1st grade, I was completely fluent in English and making straight A's. By 2nd grade, I liked boys and learned what boyfriends and girlfriends were. By 3rd grade, I was winning awards at the district level for my creative writing. By 4th grade, I was the President of our school class. By 5th grade, I was forcing my friends to be part of the board committee I created for my Sticker and Stamp Club and held meetings once every month using a projector and Vis-A-Vis markers. I was in honors classes in 5th grade and winning even more creative writing stories, I loved math and even competed in Math Olympiad Contests. Things were starting to look up for me, even though things at home were dysfunctional and out of the norm. But I guess if you're not from this country, you don't really know what would've been considered normal to compare yourself to anyway.
My grandparents would feed me coffee and a peanut butter sandwich in the mornings (I would dip it into my coffee until it was soggy) – talk about breakfast of the champions for THIS 10-year old! My Mom was always in school trying to finish up her degree in psychology. Our house was so old, it was constantly infested with bugs and I oftentimes found myself waking up with several bug bites on my face and body. After school, my Grandmother would be watching Bob Barker from “The Price Is Right” and never let a day go by to remind me that she was once on that show. After “The Price Is Right” was “The Young and the Restless”, and every soap opera thereafter. She would be sewing a dress or cleaning something in the kitchen. One time after school, I came home to my grandparents fighting and my grandmother started chasing my grandfather around the house with a butcher knife! Please tell me this was part of your childhood memory too?! As funny as it is now, it was very scary as a 10-year old child.
My grandparents were like parents to me, because they were all I was exposed to and learned from. My grandfather was a hot-tempered military genius who always had to be right and was constantly staying fit and exercising. My grandmother was a stay-at-home woman who loved her soap operas during the day and gambling at night. There were several altercations with police throughout my elementary school times between my grandmother and uncles, but I never knew those things weren't “normal” because I never had anything to compare. Since we never went to church and my mom was always in school, my grandparents were my solid rock and foundation.
When I started the sixth grade (middle school), I was on my way to success! I was in all honors classes and competing in a variety of school events from sports to spelling bees. My grades were straight A's and if I ever found myself slacking towards A's and B's my mom and stepdad would ground me. They had high expectations of me, and so did I. By then, we were already living in our own home in Grand Prairie and my parents had my half-brothers (who were just toddlers then). My grandparents, uncles, and aunts had all separated and moved out into different cities and states (primarily San Diego, Houston, and Dallas). It was December and getting closer towards Christmas! As an 11-year old, there is nothing more exciting than counting down the days when you'll be receiving gifts and seeing family for the holidays. But this Christmas holiday was the year that changed my life…I came home and my Mom was crying out (even screaming) and I knew the news wasn't good. My stepdad had to explain to me that my Grandfather was missing in San Diego and they're trying to find him. And then a few hours later, the police discovered his lifeless body in the bathroom of a Carl's, Jr. fast food restaurant. He had suffered severe head trauma and the cause (whether it was a murder or an accident) was unknown. The autopsy revealed that it was not suicide and he wasn't sick or suffered a stroke or heart attack or any of those things – he was very healthy?
My life had fallen apart at that moment. We all packed, rushed, and drove to San Diego, California from Dallas, Texas to attend his funeral (just a couple of weeks before Christmas). I missed over a week of school and when I came back, I was always sad and crying. I didn't know how to express these feelings with my parents because we weren't close – my mom finished college but was now working grave shifts for the Post Office and I hardly saw her. My stepdad and I had only known each other for a few years, and he was so busy raising two toddlers and working full-time that he didn't know there was anything wrong. I had only been in the United States for six years, but had already seen and experienced so much. Was this really a land of opportunity that so many speak of?…