Getting a Life in the US of A

Getting a Life in the US of A

We, Filipinos are known for our cheerfulness. We tap on this hefty sense of humor to cope with indigenous handicaps like flash floods, gridlock traffic, and snide remarks about a homemade parachute. Wherever we are, we relentlessly exercise this propensity for guffawing at the lighter side of the most disagreeable situations. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. Or some kind of survival instinct. I discovered that this lightheartedness serves us well when we find ourselves in foreign environments like the United States of America.

Filipinos want to live in America – live the good life – just like in the movies. We almost believe that the second we step on American soil, our skins bleach out, our hair turns gold, our noses grow an inch, and our tongues slacken to say “Peydrow” instead of “Pidro.”

Okay, you say if Michael Jackson can do it, anyone can do it. You say you were raised on Sesame Street and all the housemaids speak to you in English, so the twang wouldn’t be a problem, or nothing that can’t be fixed by a little mimicry. Fine. But aside from the physical and linguistic aspects of blending and coalescing with the American population, there are a lot of other issues Filipinos living in America have to deal with.

Take sports, for example. Everyone in the US is into sports. Americans devote more than half their lives and resources watching games – you’ll have to be living under a rock to not know John Elway, Jimmy Sosa, and Shaquille O’Neal. You watch live NFL and NBA, in stadiums crammed with addicted die-hard fans who paint their bodies and faces with their favorite team’s logos, and you wonder, “How come Filipinos don’t go this loony over the PBA and sipa?”

Americans also love to talk about the weather. It’s unbelievable how a conversation can remain animated for hours, between strangers, about how the temperature rose two degrees not unlike in the summer of 1993. Okay, compared to the dry and wet seasons of the Philippines, I suppose the North American climate is a tad more interesting – or at least interesting enough to start every small talk with “How’s the weather?”

Aside from sports and weather talk, what I’ve been culture-shocked for the longest time is how Americans are, to a large extent, spoiled. Children sue their parents; parents kick their 18-year-olds out of the house; terminated employees have unemployment pay; and, yes, cats and dogs have rights.

In terms of possessions, despite recycling and environmentalism efforts, most disposable items are, of course, disposed of — including appliances. A friend of mine living in Oregon furnished his apartment by picking up discarded lampshades, couches, mattresses, and tables and chairs from the garbage dumpster. Manpower is expensive in America, so instead of taking a busted TV to the repair shop, owners just throw them away and purchase new ones. (Filipinos, on the other hand, are inherently ingenious and creative, especially at bringing broken appliances back to life.)

You’d think all Americans are rich because they seem to live the good life – at least that’s what Filipinos want to believe. Unfortunately, a lot of US residents are hard up too. Not everyone has that super-organized picture-perfect home we see in movies and TV commercials. Not everyone earns the substantial income vital to achieving the American Dream.

Let’s say Filipinos can afford this American lifestyle. But can we deal with the individualistic society? Americans are not as clannish as the Filipinos; once you hit 18, you’re expected to leave the maternal home, get a job, and get a life. Friends are a luxury in America, and trust comes with a premium. And because anyone can take anyone to court about anything, people think twice about being friendly. People think thrice about sharing unwrapped food, even dog food, with a neighbor because, knock on wood, the recipient gets upset stomach, subpoenas will rapidly be on their way.

Discipline is another US nuance that requires some getting used to. Uncle Sam is big on discipline. Form a line and wait your turn. The government enforces strict laws on practically everything, with stiff penalties for what we barely take seriously in the Philippines like littering, smoking in prohibited areas, buying liquor under the age of 21, driving under the influence of alcohol, exceeding speed limits, and discriminating against every known issue on earth. In this nation of laws not men, there are no backers, no bribes, no BS.

So, now you wonder if America is really your Land of Milk and Honey, your Land of Opportunity, your Home of the Free (by the way, before picking up anything that says “Free”, check the fine print). It’s the most powerful nation in the world, there’s no question about that, but is it home for the Filipino?

America is America. Filipinos in the US must not expect to see similarities with the homeland’s culture, attitudes, and way of life. It’s living in another country – nothing is the same. The lives of Filipinos — aka alien minority — no matter how long they’ve stayed in the US, will always touch on uncomfortable, shocking and even traumatic, not to mention estranged and lonesome. It will require a lot of courage and strength of spirit to cope.

For us, red-blooded Filipinos, there’s no guarantee that a life under the US stars-and-stripes will be as delightful as we envision. Sometimes it becomes a heart-wrenching, backbreaking challenge. Then again, maybe that’s precisely why we’re hardwired with a wacky sense of humor.

[Written in June 2000 for]

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