In this series, we’re highlighting the stories of people who remain connected to their home countries—either those with immigrant parents or those who are immigrants themselves. With “We Are All Immigrants: Stories About the Places We’re From,” you’ll hear from those most acutely affected by changing policies and a shifting reality, those who exist as part of multiple cultures at once. Here, writer and performer Maria Carreon, of Away’s own Customer Experience team, describes the challenges of growing up between the Philippines and the U.S., and learning how to accept herself as a product of both places.
It’s difficult to find balance, because you naturally teeter back and forth between cultures.
Those who immigrated with their parents to the U.S. walk a cultural tightrope through life. It’s difficult to find balance, because you naturally teeter back and forth between cultures. We were born elsewhere, we made the journey with our families, and we witnessed our parents go through the process of assimilation—a prettier word to describe the cultural self-mutilation our parents perform on themselves, to fit into the shoebox America set aside for them. We, however, arrived to this country still malleable, and so had the privilege of growing and learning at the same speed as our American-born peers. You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of a foreign accent in my voice. Inevitably, our naturalization was layered and complicated, and thus is our experience.
For months before our travels, I had gushed over the idea of coming “home”—of being somewhere I felt I truly belonged.
I have only been back to the Philippines twice after moving to the States when I was four, and while each visit only spanned a few weeks, they were transformative. At 13, I was met with a bittersweet mixture of long embraces from strangers who called themselves family. “Do you remember me’s?” turned to disappointment at my “No’s.” I was keenly aware of my inability to utter a single phrase in the mother tongue, sitting in silence with cousins who could kind of, maybe, speak English a little, and the all around shock and awe at my otherness. For months before our travels, I had gushed over the idea of coming “home”—of being somewhere I felt I truly belonged, of existing in a place where I wasn’t a minority. But when I was finally immersed in the culture I was confident I owned, I had never felt more foreign. It was the first time I really felt I was American, and it was difficult to swallow. In those few weeks, I tip-toed around the edge of engagement, afraid of diving in for fear of drowning. The result was acting like a big, American brat the entire time.
My past visit had left a taste of resentment in my mouth—for both cultures I felt a part of and an outsider to all at once.
I aimed to be less so on my next visit. For my college graduation gift, my parents sponsored my solo trip back home. Emboldened by the past four years of exploration and growth, I was determined to reclaim my roots on this journey. I was equipped with a far deeper understanding of my dual identity, and while I hadn’t come to fully embrace it yet, I had learned to try and work with it. My past visit had left a taste of resentment in my mouth—for both cultures, that I felt a part of and an outsider to all at once—and I was coming home to confront it all.
I was a bull in a china shop everywhere I went. I had become even more American! My mother’s aunt—with whom I was particularly close, after spending a significant amount of time together in the U.S. during her lengthy visits—seemed constantly frustrated with me, from my refusal to wear anything but spaghetti straps, to the amount of rice I consumed, to how I wouldn’t let any of the store clerks get anything or put anything back for me. Modesty was not my kind of etiquette, and we both came to terms with that on this trip. I was not there to quiet the American part of myself.
I held Lola’s hands tightly, and tried to memorize the lilt of her laugh, the softness of her eyes.
Nor was I there to keep my Pinay side at bay. I jumped in, no fear. I ate everything. I spoke to everyone, trying my best to find common ground despite the language barrier. I tried to pronounce words in Tagalog and was not embarrassed when I failed to get it right the first time. I laughed loudly. I sang without hesitation. I reconnected with a cousin in Manila; we went out drinking and discovered a shared restlessness—we were inseparable the rest of my time in the city. I stayed at my Lola and Lolo’s (my grandmother and grandfather’s) house in Bicol, which they built themselves, and raised 14 children in. I held Lola’s hands tightly, and tried to memorize the lilt of her laugh, the softness of her eyes, fully appreciating this force of Filipino life that had led to so many others.
For a few minutes, I did not worry about which way I was teetering.
Those three weeks were nothing short of a whirlwind. I traveled a lot: I took buses, and jeepneys, and tricycles. One night, after a long day of travel and more quality time with family, one of my Titas had her boyfriend take me back to where I was staying, a few towns over. He gave me a helmet as I climbed on the back of a motorcycle, and geared up for a half-hour ride through Bicol. I was grateful for the ride and the cool night air. The road ahead was mostly empty with just a few cars and motorcycles buzzing by, but the sky… The sky was littered with thousands of stars and not a single cloud to obstruct them. Being that there were so many, they felt so close; and I felt as if I could merely extend my arm, run my hand through them and cause a ripple. In that moment of clarity, I felt my heart rise and my stomach warm—I felt as if I had found that sweet spot on the tightrope between my cultures. For a few minutes, I did not worry about which way I was teetering: I was simply there, and nothing else had felt more like home.—Maria Carreon