Half & Half: a Story of an Immigrant

Maria Garcia grew up as the daughter of a university professor in the Philippines. As she describes her childhood, and later immigration to the United States, she reflects on the different layers of society and the differences between countries. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns Shy of two years, I am almost able to declare that I had spent half of my life in a third world country and the other half in a first world country.

Having been born on an island where the first president of the Republic of the Philippines hailed from, and being related to him on my father’s side, I didn’t really know what “third world” country meant until I was old enough to see the gap between the rich and the poor and the “in-betweeners.”

I took it for granted that having my own nanny as a child and having maids was the norm. I literally was an in-betweener - between the rich and the poor.

I grew up in the city and didn’t have much recollection of my birthplace since we moved when I was two years old.  Life for me was family.  My aunts and uncles came for many occasions, so my growing years were spent, pretty much, playing with my cousins.

Every Sunday my father picked up Grandma and Grandpa to have them join the family for breakfast.  However, they were mostly icons to be revered, two people who handed us money gifts during Christmas.

I studied in a convent school for most of my school years and studied ballet on Saturdays. My dad was a professor of law and a dean at the State University where I studied. Dad brought home the bacon to my mom who never, ever worked.  Although we had a cook, Mom cooked gourmet Spanish dishes, and she insisted I should learn the recipes by “watching.”

My dad was a simple man who took me to the movies every Sunday morning after Mass. Afterwards, we returned home to a home-cooked, special Sunday meal. He took me to plays and concerts and performances at the university.

Mother took me with her to the country or province to hike on hilly terrain and see how our tenants were taking care of the land that she owned.  We would sample freshly picked young coconut and eat dishes mostly cooked in some coconut milk, and sun-dried salted fish and steamed rice.  These were the occasions that I would experience being with the simple poor and needy, occasions which I truly relish and value to this day.

Back in the city I sometimes rubbed elbows with the rich.  On these occasions I felt like I was a privileged, incognito guest amongst wealthy politicians or relatives in their mansions and swimming pools, or classmates who had chauffeured cars to take me with them to parties.

But in the city I could not miss seeing makeshift shanties and little kids running around, and vendors in the streets selling flower leis, boiled bananas, or peanuts to passing motorists caught in traffic.

Immigrating to America in 1982 was like opening a curtain on stage with a backdrop of freeways and cookie cutter homes. While my family and I had the luxury of being able to stay in my brother’s vacation condo in San Francisco, having maids was now history and a wake-up call for me.

With tears flowing down my cheeks, I washed dishes, not knowing whether there was a right way of washing dishes, or if I was just being emotional from being uprooted.  Then there was laundry to do.  I missed our lavandera – the maid assigned to laundry.  But I learned to wash, dry, and fold.

Having taught in an American school, I had some inkling of the culture; but then the mix of immigrants in California was the culture I had to blend in with now.   Food was a part of this complex mix of cultures in the United States. Breakfast didn’t have to have rice.  I could even have steak and hash-browns.  I tasted the enchiladas of the Hispanic cook in Paramount where I first taught. I learned to eat Pho, a Vietnamese soup garnished with herbs.  Thai cuisine was a bit sweet and nutty for my palate.  Pizzas came with so many toppings.

Gaining weight must have been the first thing that happened to me.  Food was (is) aplenty.  In fact, I never saw so much food and so much waste of it.  And I thought of the poor and needy and the hungry of the third world country I left.

In a land of opportunity I have worked my way to having a comfortable life but I am more aware now of what I left behind, where plenty is only for the rich. A voice calls me home, away from home.



Published: Oct. 2, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 25