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”.