An immigrant’s experience leaving the familiar to embrace the unknown local news

Tickets to the U.S.: Dianne’s ticket and boarding pass for her flight from Detroit to Chicago on Dec. 15, 2001. This was the connecting flight from her port of entry to her final destination by plane. The family drove two hours to South Bend from Chicago. The passenger service charge was a mandatory fee at the Ninong Aquino International Airport. The new immigrants paid this fee before leaving the country.

I was in Manila, Philippines, my birthplace, when the news of the terrorist attacks shook the world. I remember sitting on my parents’ bed in the two-story apartment I shared with my mom, 11-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister watching the cable news’ coverage. Little did I realize that only three short months later — on a date I will never forget — I would be on a flight heading to the United States with my family to become an immigrant of the post-9/11 era.

That date was Dec. 15, 2001. I woke up early — probably around 2 a.m. — in an almost empty concrete apartment where I had lived for the last 10 years. My then 83-year-old great-grandmother was already up, sitting on the last remaining couch (one that she intended to bring to her home in the province) in our living room saying her morning prayers.

When my dad got a teaching job the previous August just after graduating from his doctoral program, he petitioned for us to join him in the U.S. to end almost a decade of living apart. My mom had been speaking to me about our impending immigration, but it didn’t seem real until I saw the yellow envelope on her office desk in early December containing documents that many people covet: U.S. visas.

During this time, decisions were made quickly. We sold a newly-built house we never got the chance to live in and almost everything we owned in order to raise close to 225,000 pesos or 5,000 dollars for plane tickets for me, my mom, my brother and my sister. My grandfather bought our car, a friend from my mom’s work bought our refrigerator and other relatives bought our beds, dining set, TV and other appliances. My mom’s separation pay from her job, and of course, funds from my dad, also helped with the airfare.

These physical forms of our uprooting were challenging but not as much as the emotional ones. My mom gave an immediate notice of resignation at a university teaching job she had had for 18 years. One-by-one, I said goodbye to my relatives, teachers and classmates, whom, as you may recall from my first installment, were the only friends I had. Before dawn on Dec. 15, I tearfully gave my great-grandmother a hug goodbye as she urged us to say our prayers one more time before leaving the apartment. I did the same to my paternal grandfather and two maternal aunts who accompanied us to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport to see us off.

Because of the time zone putting the U.S. 13 hours behind the Philippines, we landed in Detroit Metropolitan Airport, our port of entry, when the date on the calendar was still Dec. 15. Following the lead of my mother, who courageously crossed the Pacific Ocean with three children in tow, we answered the questions of immigration and customs officials at the airport.

We brought with us small carry-on items and the allowable two suitcases per person containing the essentials: clothes, toothbrushes, important documents such as school records, birth certificates, parting notes, tokens of remembrance from friends, childhood keepsakes, and a statue of the child Jesus. Neither family albums nor toys made the cut, however, I was able to bring the magazines and books about the British Royal Family I had purchased with my school lunch money. As a lifelong royal watcher, I considered those essentials.

The realization that I had entered a strange land set in when we got lost in the Chicago airport in our effort to navigate the exit where my dad was waiting. My mom asked an employee, neither of us understanding the answer. My mother’s 18 years of teaching English literature and my English lessons at school did not prepare our ears for what Filipinos call the “American accent.” We figured it out eventually, and this incident became an inside joke at home.

My feet touched American soil for the first time dressed only in a thin green sweater purchased from Baguio, a city in the Philippines where the temperature can reach a cool 55 degrees. This was the best I could do because winter coats were not readily available in the tropical country I came from. I thought, if it’s good enough for Baguio, surely it’s good enough for America, right? I was wrong. It was really a cold December that year!