The Importance of Community and Belonging
The air in St. Paul smelled like the clothes from a balikbayan box—new and foreign. It was unlike the muggy air in Carmona, Cavite, which smelled like smoke, freshly mown grass and salty ocean breeze.
These were my first thoughts upon taking my first breath of Minnesota. It was June 2011, and my mom and I had just landed at our new home. From the airport, we drove to a restaurant for dinner. On our way, I noticed the roads were almost empty.
To my surprise, the drivers seemed to follow the rules. The ride was nothing compared to the traffic congestion that seemed to plague the highways in the Philippines. It was a place where traffic lights and lanes were mere decoration, and jeepneys and tricycles cut each other. I couldn’t help but wonder if cleaner air and smoother roads were the reasons why Filipinos leave the Philippines. As for me, I couldn’t care less about air quality or traffic flow. I had something else in mind. I left the Philippines to escape poverty.
Living in the Philippines was a challenge. Opportunities were limited, and jobs were scarce. For a long time, my mom was unemployed. Acquiring a job if you were above age 25 with no college degree was almost impossible. With only a high school diploma in her 30’s, my mom was an unappealing candidate. Furthermore, companies’ requirements, such as medical, cost money. If you couldn’t afford to fulfill the requirement, you wouldn’t get the job.
With no luck, my mom and I ended up relying on my aunt, who had worked in England to provide for her children. While she was away, my mom and I cared for my cousins as compensation for housing and food. Other members of our family helped my mom and me too. With their meager income, my mom’s other siblings and my grandparents contributed to my education. Relying on my family for many years, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of my burden on others. I knew I was loved, but I also knew I couldn’t keep on depending on my family to survive.
I vowed that someday I would return the favor. I would pay my utang na loob, my indebtedness, not because my family had asked but because I wanted to show them my gratitude. Eventually, I landed on an opportunity to pay my debt. I had a shot at moving to the United States.
Growing up, I heard of the Land of Opportunities that was America. For many Filipinos, this country held the promise of a better life. My mom’s marriage to an American citizen was my chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the States, I could go to college and get a job. I would earn money to support my family. It all sounded easy in my head, but it wasn’t. It hadn’t been easy living here.
I was grateful for my life in the United States. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to get my next meal or whether I was going to be evicted from my house. I didn’t have to worry about unreliable electricity and whether I had a ride to go to school. I had a better living situation, but as an immigrant I faced a new set of problems. This country has a history of excluding communities of color and immigrants. As a person of color and immigrant, I lived with the persistent feelings of loneliness and estrangement. I didn’t encounter these feelings until I started my 10th grade in high school, three months after my arrival to Minnesota.
On my first day, I remember opening the double doors of Anoka High School to a sea of white students. Overwhelmed by a wave of panic, I immediately searched for anyone who looked like me. I was hyper aware of my brownness and how different I looked next to a white person. It was as if a barricade suddenly materialized between us. I didn’t know where the wall came from. I didn’t know if I had willed it to appear. Nobody ever said, “You don’t belong here,” but I felt as though I entered the wrong room. In my head, I was apologizing for being there. I wanted to shrink myself. I wanted to run.
I didn’t run, but I cried a lot. I missed my family and friends. Everything around me was new. I felt so alone, and I struggled to make friends. During my first few months as a sophomore, I had many questions. How could people eat raw carrots? Why did nobody eat rice for lunch? Nobody knew what ulam was. How were students allowed to chew gum in class? Why did the students talk to their teachers like they were the same age? “Walang modo. How ill mannered,” my grandma would say. How to say po and opo in English? Why did this girl always flirt with her boyfriend in front of my locker? She should have known that she was in my way; I didn’t have to tell her. I heard my grandma’s voice again: “Ay manhid! How insensitive!” Finally, I asked myself: how could I be friends with anyone if I were so different?
The only option was to be like everybody else. If I were less Filipino, maybe then I could make friends. Maybe then, I wouldn’t feel so lonely. But I couldn’t do it. Conforming sounded like I had to chop parts of myself so I could fit in a mold. I wasn’t willing to do that.
Despite the struggle of fitting in, I eventually made a friend in Mayu. She was an exchange student from Japan, and she became my closest friend during my first year at Anoka. On weekends, we spent time shopping at the mall or watching movies at the cinema. Mayu was wonderful, and I was grateful to have her. But at the end of the day, I still felt alone; I couldn’t talk to Mayu about the things that ate me up inside. I didn’t think she would understand. I couldn’t tell her that I cried myself to sleep, because I wished I hadn’t come to Minnesota. I was too ashamed to tell her that I ate my lunch in the bathroom crying. I couldn’t tell her how gross it was, but at the time it seemed like the only option I had. I would rather eat in the bathroom by myself than in the cafeteria or anywhere else, where I felt alone in a crowded room. I couldn’t talk about these things to my mom and family either. I didn’t want to worry them.
I thought about my childhood in the Philippines. It had been fun despite growing up poor. I had my family and friends. I was loved. At Anoka, I spent a lot of my time feeling unwanted and believing that something was wrong with me because I couldn’t fit in. There was not a day that I didn’t wish to go back home.
But I stayed. I thought of my family in the Philippines and how happy they were that one of us finally made it to America. I remembered my grandma’s big smile. It carried hope—the assurance that they, too, would make it out. My grandma’s smile reminded me of the reason I came here in the first place.
I came here so I could go to college, get a job and finally give back to my family—to pay my utang na loob. To achieve all these dreams, I needed to endure the isolation and loneliness.
To distract myself, I focused on my studies. I studied hard to earn good grades, and I obtained awards for my diligence. I once received a certificate that read: “Queen of Algebra.” It was something my math teacher handed out to her outstanding students. I once became the student of the month in science. For a month, the school had a framed picture of me up on the bulletin board with the other students who also received accolades for other subjects. I was awarded the student of the year for ESL too.
Finally, I graduated high school with honors. I was proud of myself for thriving academically despite the barriers present at the time. My success wouldn’t have happened without the help of a mentor that I met along the way: Ms. Neary. She had been the Career and College Specialist at Anoka. Ms. Neary helped me navigate the school system. She provided me with resources that were often invisible to immigrants and students of color. If Ms. Neary hadn’t helped me, my college application wouldn’t have been as easy either. She even took me on a campus tour of my alma mater, which eventually became my home for four years.
I had been sure that my college experience would be like high school, but it was the complete opposite. The university I attended was more diverse than Anoka. Students of color made up almost half of the student population. At my college, I saw people who looked like me, and I made a friend right away. I met Jana on registration day, a week before our official first day as college students. She was also a Filipina and right off the bat, we clicked. During my first week of college, I made more friends than I did in my three years of high school. Perhaps it had something to do with the way college was set up: as first years, we were all new to the school. Most of us lived on campus far from our families, so we had no choice but to look for friends and community. I was not alone. I met even more people when I started joining clubs and organizations.
I found a family in SEASA (a Southeast Asian student group) and SCISO (an international student group). In these spaces, I developed friendships with people who had similar experiences. Many of them missed their families and the food back home like I did. Many of them had a difficult time adjusting to American culture as well. For the first time since 10th grade, I finally felt seen. I had people I could talk to about the things that I couldn’t tell Mayu. My friends from college made me realize that there was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t have to change who I was to feel accepted. I just didn’t find the right people to welcome me until college.
It has been ten years since I immigrated to Minnesota. I have come to love this place because of the people I met. Ever since I graduated, I have been working full-time. I don’t earn as much as I wished, but still I am able to support my family in the Philippines the way they supported me in times of need.
Once again, I thought of my childhood. My family and I struggled, but we struggled together. We always had each other’s backs, and I never had to face the battle alone. After losing that support and sense of community in high school, I began to understand how important belonging is to our survival. My time in college was extraordinary, but it still had its own obstacles. I managed because I had my friends—my support system.
All kinds of changes like moving to a different country or starting a new school are always hard, but it can be bearable when you have the support of a community: when you have people with whom you can share, not only your joys, but also your sorrows.
Cathrine Tejada currently resides in Minnesota and works full-time at a university. When she’s not at her 9-5 job, Cathrine writes to remember and preserve her memories—both good and bad. She likes to look back in time to understand the present and prepare for the future. You can find her on Instagram at pinaymemories.