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A Beginning Remembered

I stepped on U.S. soil for the first time on March 16, 1969. It was a Wednesday. The Pan Am plane circled Honolulu, and through the window I saw a gray wet world. Where were the hula girls with leis, I wondered. I was 20-not really scared, you understand-just anxious to see a world different from the one I knew in the Philippines.

Trying to look smart in my beige suit, handbag slung over one shoulder, an overnight bag in one hand, and my X-rays tucked under my arm, I braved the rain and the tough immigration officers. My X-rays were clear, 1-20 visa in order, no contraband in my luggage, I was allowed into this country.

The next day the rain stopped and I looked around Honolulu. The coconut trees, sandy shores, and balmy weather mimicked the world I had left behind. No, this would not do. I wanted to see the America reflected in Hollywood films and American magazines.

I hurried to San Francisco where I had a better sense of Americana. Micromini skirts shamed me into rolling up my waistband to avoid looking provincial. Gloves and coats, quick sandwich lunches were novelties that made me feel I was indeed in another country. Rolling fog, cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bridge itself was disappointing the first time I saw it. I had expected it to be dramatically outlined against a sky streaked with the dying rays of a sunset. It would be luminous, graceful, yet powerful. In years to come I would have the same bewildered feeling when I visited the Tower of London, expecting a solitary tower; and the Sistine Chapel, expecting a one-room chapel. Only later when I had absorbed the ambience and romance of San Francisco did I see the Bridge as more than connecting cables.

In San Francisco I contacted the Peace Corps volunteer I had met in the Philippines. Now a law student, he had put on the 20 pounds he sorely needed. His 6'5 frame had whittled down to 180 pounds in the tropics. It was his turn to show me his country. In mine, I had shown him ancient baroque churches, solid forts, and timeless little towns with sugary beach coves. Now he pointed out Haight-Ashbury's flower children, the Vietnam War protesters, Fisherman's Wharf and Swensen's ice cream parlor where we often ordered hot butterscotch ice cream. A year later, when I was pregnant with his child, we returned to Swensen's. We arrived too late and the manager shooed us out-he was closing up. Then seeing my enormous belly, he asked if I really needed the ice cream. I nodded. He dished out a pint and gave it to me for free. My husband devoured it back in our small apartment in the Mission district.

It's been a dozen years now. The Peace Corps volunteer and I have three sons. I chauffeur my children to school and to soccer, baseball, and basketball games. The floor man is coming tomorrow to re-tile our bathroom. There arc mortgage payments to meet and we worry about inflation. Americana.

But some days a smell, a picture, or a gentle breeze triggers the memory of [hat Wednesday when all these began. It rained then, and I wasn't exactly afraid about leaving home.


I'm not sure what triggers it but some days I get homesick. Postcard images of the Philippines come to mind, and warm memories of family gatherings long gone stir to life. I find myself shopping at the Filipino market on Temple Street. My Tagalog wakes up from its hibernation. I stock up on achara, nata de piña, and lumpia wrappers, and I also pick up Philippine periodicals to update myself. Are (here really battles fought, Filipinos getting killed back home? And are there really 1.5 million Filipinos in the U.S.?

My steak-and-potatoes-hamburger-an d-french-fries family soon notices our meals of rice, adobo, and pancit. You can take a Filipina out of the Philippines, but you can't take the Philippines out of a Filipina, quips my husband.

During one bad case of homesickness, I took my children on a drive around the Filipino area of Los Angeles. We saw familiar brown faces. Some were wrinkled and weathered. I told my children about the manongs of the Filipino American community. We talked about the anti- miscegenation law.

The anti-what? my ten-year-old asked.

The anti-miscegenation law. It was a California law effective until 1953. It prohibited marriage between Anglo-Americans and other races. In other words, ill had met Daddy before 1953, we would not have been allowed to marry.

I understand, Mom, my son replied grimly. But why was (here such a stupid law? I thought about his question. It hit me that a law is just as good as the people who pass it. There are good laws, bad laws, stupid laws. It all depends on who words them, who votes on them, who vetoes them, who interprets them. It depends on the people who have political power. If a group of people do not have political representation, they can be trampled on. Remember World War II, Japanese prison camps, and Manzanar?

The homesickness does not last Long. After all, it has been a decade since I stood in an auditorium one afternoon, listening to someone say: You are now Americans-not Chinese-Americans, not Filipino- Americans; you are Americans. I and the Brazilian to my right wept, muttering, How can we say that? How can we ever say that?

And I rarely do. I am Filipino American. This is my identity. I inject my Filipino-ness into this country. I enrich its culture just as the English, Irish, Polish, and other people have. Thus will this country flourish and truly be the melting pot it claims to be.

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