Coming to America: Fresh off the Boeing 747
It’s as clear as if it just happened yesterday, but it was in March 16, 1994 that we left the Philippines. Ironically, that was the exact date when Magellan discovered the Philippines in 1621. As the plane started to take off, my eyes were filled with tears for leaving our whole life back then and a husband.
I was eight months pregnant with my bunso, OJ, two kids in tow ages seven and three, and $20 in my pocket. We just brought few pieces of clothes, but we were filled with dreams of our new life. I was ambitious, with a strong desire to succeed. It was like a clean slate, and you drew the next chapters of your life.
We shivered in the cold at DCA Airport while waiting for my mom to pick us up. We were lucky it was a legal petition by my mom, and I could bring all my kids as a single parent. None of the TNT from immigration.
My mom and brother, who came here six years earlier, guided us in our new life. We got our first snow a day after and everything looked like Dreamland for us. Everything we’d seen in movies and pictures were right in front of our eyes as we toured around Washington, DC.
The never-ending jet lag came after. It took a while to settle in as I had to give birth to my son and take care of him for the first few months before I started work. We were under government assistance programs some parts of the first year while we were working on our papers too.
Almost the whole family came in at the same time. Five adults and five kids in the household. We rented a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom. My grandparents came every six months to help as we took turns working. Thankfully, we didn’t need babysitters as we had a full family support system. It was a hide-and-seek game every time the landlord visited the apartment.
My mom couldn’t take the pressure anymore, so she decided to look for a house before the lease ended, putting all our names on the deed. At the time, lenders were so lenient and all we needed were paychecks to have a mortgage loan approved. As a law-abiding citizen, my mother did everything by the book.
It was difficult at first, coming from the Philippines, especially driving. I ended up paying high insurance bills due to numerous driving violations. I am so proud now that my last traffic ticket was in 1997! But, of course, I experienced waiting for the bus, wrapped in a thick winter coat.
I did a call center as my first job to practice my English in American slang, given my thick accent. My first job was to encourage customers to switch to MCI from AT&T. I was the top sales representative during my time. I experienced discrimination on the phone, and I still remember the conversation:
Customer: I need to speak to somebody that speaks English; I can’t understand every word you said!! (in an irate voice)
Me: I will be happy to get one for you and I’m sorry Ma’am if you cannot understand my English; maybe because I speak three different languages? What about you Ma’am? How many languages do you speak? She immediately hung up.
I worked two jobs mostly in the early years with only few hours of sleep, leaving three kids in the care of my mom and grandparents. From Reservations Agent at United Airlines to folding clothes at Old Navy and cleaning big houses on the side with my friends — these were all my previous jobs. I had to earn more money raising three kids on my own. Then it occurred to me: “One day I will not be cleaning homes; I will be selling homes.”
I later found a job in the corporate travel industry that provided benefits and enough salary to pay my bills. I had a very strict manager, but I earned his trust and became his “favorite.” I also learned a lot from the Lady Boss who replaced him, by being dependable, hardworking and vocal. She saw my potentials in just a few months and promoted me after just a year to Supervisor, beating out all other aspirants who who had been there for years. My paycheck almost doubled. I was shocked! For the final interview, I had to make a presentation and teach all the managers what I did in my job. Well, hello. I was a high school teacher back home teaching English and Literature! I knew then I got this!
My biggest stumbling block was my computer literacy. I admitted being computer illiterate. She told me that for me to be effective on the job, I had to take classes. I did that for months, which built my confidence to lead my staff. I eventually taught Microsoft Office and other applications I had learned to empower my staff as well. I always got excellent reviews every year and bonuses on top of my paychecks.
We eventually moved to a new house with my kids from my portion of equity from our first house. My mom and my brother moved in with me and my husband eventually joined us here in the U.S. While buying the house, I looked at the commission my realtor got from that transaction and got interested. I went to real estate school, which led to my first transactions with friends and families, then friends of friends. The rest is history.
After practicing real estate for two years, I quit my good-paying full-time job of a decade 11 years ago. I built spheres of loyal clients through the years by providing them honest, informative and transparent transactions. Then the real estate market crashed. Short sales and foreclosures were taking place left and right when I started. My goal of earning more commissions turned into helping homeowners (mostly our kababayans) get back on their feet as they could no longer afford their homes. I negotiated with different banks and lenders to accept whatever offer we had in hand, forgive any debt by my clients and provide them money to start new with their lives. Clients from my first years of practice still call me, trusting me with their real estate needs and referring me to their friends.
Life in America is not a bed of roses. You have to work hard, but the opportunities are infinite. Any job is a stepping stone to whatever you want to become. You will learn from all of it. All the falling and slipping will help you discover and cultivate your potentials. I feel blessed to have been guided by people I believe were God’s gifts to me. Once your intention is good and your desire to succeed is there, work hard. That is how you will achieve “The American Dream” in its truest sense.
Most of all, don’t forget to help people back home. Regardless of our U.S citizenship, we’re still Filipino. Pagbali-baligtarin man ang mundo! Even if the world goes topsy-turvy.