Coming to America, adapting like a chameleon

SILVER SPRING, Maryland — I came to the United States in 1985. My first time ever to leave my small town of San Fernando, Camarines Sur. My very first airplane ride. All the way, I had my rosary with me, which I held tightly during turbulence. I arrived at the Reagan National Airport (DCA) on Jan. 27. It was freezing cold. Roads were icy. I remember my sister salubong(meet) me with a very thick, heavy poncho-style winter coat. My 5-foot, 88 lbs. self was instantly swallowed by the coat. My sister, Ate Josie Callo (God Bless her soul), cried out loud, “My, you are so payat! (thin). How I wish I am still that payat.”


I arrived on a Sunday, and was taxied to my work site the following day. Imagine the jet lag, and now you had to work as a live-in nanny to a one-month old boy and your couple bosses, who spoke no Bicol or Tagalog, did not have rice in the pantry. Imagine back home, where I was the boss of my household. I had students who greeted me Ma’am. Now it’s me who greeted them Ma’am and Sir.

But here is where we thrive. We Filipinos adapt like chameleons, if only to survive but still keep our pride. Challenges and difficulties keep us sharp.

MaryLou Jackson, 63, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. with her husband, Larry. They’ve been happily married for 10 years. She is one of the founders of the Bicol Association of Metro DC. CONTRIBUTED

Life in San Fernando was a hand to mouth existence. Although I finished high school, my parents didn’t want me to go to college. They sent me to Manila, instead, to work as a housekeeper for a rich family. I didn’t like it, so I went back home, took up odd jobs while attending college with excellent grades. I got married to a classmate, Felimon Marmol, and had four children. The mountain got harder to climb. Climbing up a steep hill carrying an extra load is not for the weak. I was determined to finish my degree.

In 1977, I was on the Dean’s list and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education, passed the Board Exam for Teachers, and eventually became a full time high school teacher for almost a decade. But raising four children with one income as an underpaid teacher prompted me to look for a better job. As luck would have it, my sister who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1972, had a part time employer (a World Bank executive), who was pregnant. She needed a nanny for their son.

That opened doors for me – as a cook for the British Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission and later for the Ambassador of Israel. In summer of 1994, I got my permanent residency, and a year later landed a job at the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. I am now the school’s Department Operations Manager, a position I achieved in 24 years.

I brought four of our children to the U.S. in 1996. All three daughters are now married with stable jobs, raising their own families. Our sons are both employed and doing very well. After divorcing my husband, I remarried, gave birth to a son but his father died before our boy turned seven. Despite being a widow, I kept chugging. Perseverance has its reward. I found love again and got married for the third time.

Having lived and worked in this country for 33 years, I reflect on where I came from, grateful not only for having survived and achieved professional success, but also for the many opportunities to serve. I look forward to my retirement years doing volunteer and community work, traveling and simply snuggling with my husband and enjoying our grandchildren, Jed, Abigail, Gwen, Samantha, Cassandra and Sophia.

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TAGS: emigrating, immigrating to U.S., life story, MaryLou Jackson, memoir, starting out in U.S.
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