My First Overseas Trip

Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die


I grew up in NYC.  My family immigrated to this country in the 1970s and I arrived on my mother’s arm when I was one.  My parents restarted their lives with practically nothing and worked hard the moment they arrived.  We never ate out, we never took trips.  We just couldn’t afford it.  When I was 7 years old, I was shocked to learn that my mother was planning a trip to the Philippines to visit our family.  She missed them so she decided to go home for Christmas and take me with her.

When our plane tickets were booked, mom prepared and shopped for gifts to bring home to our family.  Our suitcases were packed full of American goods to give away.  The plane ride was long but uneventful…I think I got a pair of plastic wings from the flight attendant.  Twenty four hours after we departed JFK, we emerged out of Manila International Airport to the tearful greetings of our family.  I only knew these family members from letters, greetings cards, and occasional conversations on the telephone.  Suddenly their words and voices transformed into flesh.  It was strange to know them yet not know them.

We got in the van and my first observations of the country were the weather and the people.  It was hot.  And tropical.  In December.  “Isn’t December supposed to be cold and full of snow?” my seven year old mind wondered.  I watched the people walking the streets.  They wore t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops.  And then I noticed that they all looked the same: short, brown-skinned, black-haired.  They all looked just like me.  Everywhere.

“WHERE AM I?” I asked myself.

As we crawled through Manila traffic, we approached a group of young kids on the side of the road.  The car slowed down and eventually stopped.  The kids scattered and systematically approached every car with their arms outstretched and one hand up.  I looked at them, confused and amazed.  A young girl appeared and looked inside the car.  It was as if I looked into a mirror.  Our eyes locked.  We were identical:  the same age, the same hair, the same skin, the same almond shaped eyes.  But then I noticed her tattered clothes, her disheveled hair, and her solemn eyes.  She carried a baby on her hip.  My uncle, driving, shooed her away.  I turned to my mother and asked, “Why are there so many children begging on the street?”  I couldn’t understand why they weren’t playing.  “Because they are poor and probably hungry,” my mother explained.

The girl could have been my playmate but instead she asked for money.  I realized then that even though we were the same, she lived in a world so different from mine.  She didn’t play all the time, she probably didn’t have as many toys as I did, and she wasn’t always going to bed on a full stomach.  How did other children in other places live?  Like me?  Like her?  Or some other way?

My fascination with different cultures  can be traced back to this defining experience at a young age.  It started with traveling back to the country of my birth, a place that was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  Growing up bicultural trained me to vacillate easily between two cultures and taught me that life is far more nuanced than we often realize.  Traveling all over the world showed me that despite our differences, people essentially seek the same things:  peace, happiness, a livelihood to support themselves and their families, and the opportunity to improve their lives.

In the intervening years, I haven’t given much thought to the girl I locked eyes with so long ago.  As I write, I wonder.  Where is she now?  Is she living in poverty or did she manage to lift herself out of it?  Is she a wife, a mother?  Is she even alive?

This post was inspired by the organizers of “Travel Talk on Twitter“.  Join like-minded travelers every Tuesday at 0900 0930 & 2100 2130 hrs GMT as we answer 5 questions, 1 question every 10 minutes.  The first #TTOT will kick off this January 25 with the topic “Your First Journey”.


13 responses to “My First Overseas Trip

  1. Great post. Really touching and made me think a lot. I’m blessed to be born in Europe and even though my childhood was nothing special, I still had it much much better than some people in third world countries.

    • Hi Nino, it’s true. I was blessed to have parents who were willing to give up everything they knew and move to a foreign land and start over. I was blessed that they even had the opportunity to emigrate. If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve grown up in the Philippines living a different kind of life. My family in the Philippines wasn’t poor but I certainly wouldn’t have had the same opportunities I did growing up in America. As an adult looking back on this memory, I say to myself, “That girl could’ve been me.” Is it by sheer luck, destiny, purpose, or for no reason whatsoever was I born into this life and not another?

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  3. What a remarkable post! Very thoughtful. Travel, even within our own country, does open our eyes to the world.

    Whenever my husband and I travel we try to read as much as possible about where we’re going first. Not just about the museums and restaurants but about the people. How do they dress? What is their culture? It helped a lot on our trip to Paris this past October. Renting an apartment rather than a hotel helped even more. Each morning we’d walk down the street to buy produce and croissants. We saw wealthy business people, shopkeepers, and homeless all living in the same small neighborhood.

    By growing up between two cultures you’ve been able to see so much more. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I enjoyed reading this.

    • Hi Deb, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! I hope to continue writing about topics on travel and culture especially since I committed myself to the 2011 WordPress Post-a-Week Challenge.

      Isn’t it interesting how different our surroundings appear when we look at them from a different perspective? Even one tiny shift can make a huge difference! It sounds like you did just that when you visited Paris last year. Immersing yourself and living among the locals is such a great way of gaining a better understanding of a place and the culture. Your morning routine of buying what I imagine were buttery, flaky, fresh croissants sounds absolutely divine! And I’m sure out of all the things you did during that trip, that daily walk will linger far longer in your memory than your visits to the touristy places.

  4. Wow girl, this is such a touching post, well written too. I will wonder the same question like if she’s okay and what does she do etc…
    I came to NY when I was 8 years old and I haven’t visit Taiwan for like almost 20 years and then I recently saw a post from Nino about the town where I grew up. The pictures were so different then what I had in my memories. Time goes by fast and things changes so let’s hope this girl who lock her eyes with your is doing better now. 😉 Cheers

    • Hey Sarah, yes. I do hope that girl is doing better today than when I met her. It must’ve been so jolting for you to look at those pictures of your hometown in Taiwan today and reconcile them with the memories you have! Do you think you’ll go back for a visit? You should totally do it! I would be curious to hear your experience especially since you left the country at an age when you could remember things and you would be returning as an adult.

  5. this is a touching post… and timely i would say… you see for the past few days i’ve been pondering if we really did the right choice to move here in the US 10 years ago. We had a good life in the Philippines and I always wonder how our lives be if we didn’t come here. But my husband always reminds me that the answers lie on our kids’ and the opportunities they are enjoying right now. My oldest daughter for instance who was 11 when we moved here will be graduating this year with 2 degrees and looking forward to intern in Washington… I guess the sacrifice was well worth it… Thanks for posting this beautifully written, poignant post.

    • My dear Malou, and fellow kababayan: thank you for your beautiful comment. You and your husband, like my parents, and countless others, have such incredible courage to do what you did. My admiration for all of you is great!

      I’m happy that my post helped to reassure you even more that you did the right thing. That fact that your family is even together, under the same roof, is a blessing. There are so many of our fellow countrymen/women who go overseas as contract workers and never get to see their children grow up. Congratulations on your daughter’s impending graduation! I am certain she recognizes your and your husband’s roles in shaping the woman that she has become today.

  6. oh that was a great post, miss J. my favourite part of it:

    ‘Growing up bicultural trained me to vacillate easily between two cultures and taught me that life is far more nuanced than we often realize. Traveling all over the world showed me that despite our differences, people essentially seek the same things: peace, happiness, a livelihood to support themselves and their families, and the opportunity to improve their lives.’

    i find that being who we are (imm. kids) is a unique position to be able to connect with people, even if we don’t speak the same language. in fact, most people i connect with on my travels are the ones i don’t share the same language with. that is, of course, if we choose to take advantage of the fact.

    thx for the great post!!

    • Very interesting L, that you connect with travelers who don’t share the same language as you. Someone’s energy — sense of adventure, open-mindedness, curiosity — can be felt without the need for words indeed!

  7. Pingback: Wanderfly Video: My Travels to the Philippines | ActionJoJo

  8. Pingback: Wanderfly Video: My Travels to the Philippines | Action JoJo

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