Saturday, May 26, 2007
EXPAT TALES 1: THE LAMPAs OF MANILA
From time to time, ode2old will feature nostalgia stories of Pinoys and Pinoy families living abroad -- how they made it there, the struggles they went through to get settled, how they've kept their "pinoyness" while trying to assimilate a borrowed culture, what they miss most about the ole country, and generally their remembrances of home and their dreams of coming back.
Here's the first such story by my ole friend and high school classmate -- the former child prodigy I blogged about months ago -- ta-daah! -- Rolando Lampa.
My sisters left in ‘74: one in August heading for Australia, the other, barely two months later, bound for Canada. They would not see each other for almost 20 years; that was not the way they planned it, but that was how things panned out.
Sisters led the way
My soon-to-be Australian sister left with her husband, their 2-1/2 year old son and their baby daughter who was only four months old when they boarded the plane. They would have gone away, sooner or later, anyway. My sis and her hubby met at the U.S. Embassy on Roxas Blvd where they both worked and in 20 years or so (not sure now about American federal worker retirement policy; its probably changed now) they would have been given their green cards anyway. But they couldn’t wait; all around us in the early seventies, the baby boomers were departing in great numbers for anywhere that paid wages in dollar currency.
My sister’s husband was an electrical engineer and worked in maintenance at the U.S. Embassy. He got a tip that Australia had just formulated a very generous migrant-assisted program for “technos” and tradesmen. You applied, got interviewed, got approved – the Aussies would fly you and your family to a capital city of your choice, house you, feed you, put you in touch with local industry, and if you couldn’t land a suitable job within a year, or if you just felt it wasn’t the country for you, why, the Aussies would fly you back to Manila at their expense. Good deal, wasn’t it ?
So they applied with the Australian Embassy before Christmas ’73, were interviewed in the New Year, and were approved shortly after my sister gave birth to her baby girl in April. They were given six months to front up to Aussieland. Late August, they were living in government housing in Melbourne and by Christmas they both had jobs and had moved to their own flat.
Next sister was dalaga, no boy friend, and five years away from getting married and settling down. She was doing well working in admin in a garment firm in Pasig; but all her barkada, one after another, were drifting away to the West. Within a two-year period in ’73-’74, around six of them, singles and newly-weds, all migrated to the U.S./Canada. So my sis filled up applications with both embassies and swore privately to ruck up to whichever country responded first. Seems so unheard of nowadays, but in the late sixties and early seventies, you could really just front up to those embassies and fill up migrant visa applications. Quotas were not overflowing then; it was a more innocent time.
The Canadian approval came in early ’74; a year later, with my sister Baby well settled in her high rise apartment in Toronto, the Americans sent their own approval. My sister thought about it but her close friends were nearby and she had a good job, so she said – Not. Besides, she could freely move across the U.S. border and did so regularly to visit other friends from the old firm who had set up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, just four hours away from Toronto on the road to Niagara Falls. She stayed put.
Migrant waves in 'innocent' times
My sisters were lucky. They were in the first big wave of non-medical migrants. From the mid-60’s onwards, Pinoy doctors and nurses were already entering the States via the Exchange Visitor Program. In the early 70’s and especially after martial law, the migrant mix changed – in came the white-collar professionals, the engineers, accountants, teachers, marketing guys, etc. Much different then, when it was easier to apply for migrant visas. By ’79 when Marcos had lifted the travel ban and it was OK to go and visit the U.S./Canada on tourist visas, times had changed. There were long lines at the embassies. On Roxas Blvd., outside the embassy, you had to have an alalay to stand in line for you or hold your spot in the queue while you went off to buy a sandwich and a drink. There would be the odd cowboy who made it a business to stand in line and offer his place in the queue to latecomers – for a suitable fee, of course.
Those were the early days. There were no airport tubes yet – you went out on the tarmac and boarded the stairs, turned around at the top of the stairs to wave to family and friends, indistinguishable in the crowd at that distance, and then you were swallowed up by the plane and suddenly you were gone from their lives and you were stepping into another planet. That was at the old MIA on Airport Road in Paranaque.
Leavetaking at the airport, Pinoy Style
Departures were a new thing then. Whole families would rent jeeps and mini-buses from the province to give their son or daughter the proper send-off. They brought their own baon: pancit and adobo and rice in kalderos and Tupperware, and also plates and crockery, and they shared lunch in the car park outside MIA. Departure day was like All Saints Day at the cemetery. The children bawled and squabbled and played with the automatic doors and spilt coca cola on the marble floors inside the airport reception area. Outside there was an army of vendors and on-lookers and loiterers. Everywhere there was picture taking. Souvenir shots with Uncle This and Auntie That and cousins and barkada. Pinoy culture. You would think they had said their goodbyes at home before setting off for the airport but they could never have enough goodbyes. Last minute reminders to call up Tio This and Kumadre That when you get to San Francisco. Pinoy courtesies. Makulit – also Pinoy habit.
There was even a kind of dress code, back in the early seventies. Departing women wore pant suits and some even that most inconvenient of all attire for going to the toilet, the one-piece jumpsuit. The men wore coats or bush jackets. They would be stuck in cattle class for 15 to 18 hours, but what the heck, you had to look good for the photos. Nowadays, we all tend to get on the plane wearing the daggiest of T-shirts, loose track pants and a weather-beaten jacket with pockets for passport, eyeglasses and cell phone. That was a long way away then.
The migrant would check in, clinging to that ubiquitous documentation envelop with X-ray test result as tightly as if it were his beating heart. He would shake loose from family and barkada, retaining the vision of a teary-eyed nanay blowing a last air kiss, and go out the doors, onto the tarmac and the stairs that Ninoy Aquino would make famous much later.
There was one last crazy goodbye rite to be done. When the plane doors closed and the engines sprang to life, the crowd would move on up the stairs and on to the airport roof. Their eyes would follow the plane as it taxied up the runway. The crowd would move to one side of the roof and as the plane moved in the other direction, the crowd would follow on to the other side of the roof, all the while waving and trying to catch a glimpse of their son or daughter in the airplane windows. Unbelievable now but that’s how it was done. Then the plane would take off and the crowd would yell and maintain eye contact until the plane was a speck on the horizon, until it was gone from sight. Then they would disperse.
Today we chortle at the memory at the way we said goodbye to family members back then (still done today but there’s less drama) but there is a sweetness in the memory. Sometimes, we relate these things to our new non-Pinoy friends and they are amazed. Our way, we say, of bidding goodbye and wishing well. And that’s the way (aha, aha) I liked it.
So my sisters left for the great unknown and I said goodbye (as above) In good time, I also left for good. But that’s another story.
Rolando Agaton Lampa
Note: Are you a Pinoy living abroad? How is it like? What are its upside and downside? Would you like to write about it? Send your pinoy diaspora pieces for posting on http://ode2old.blogspot.com by emailing annamanila at myrnaco.@gmail.com