Not on the Dollar Menu
by Grace Malvar
"Naiihi na po ako!" I screamed at my aunt, who insisted that I hold my urine because if we left, we'd lose our place in the slow-moving line at the US embassy in the Philippines. We had been waiting there for almost 3 hours, and the line had only moved a couple of yards. Once we got through the swinging doors, I was sent to a white room where a lady asked me questions about how old I was, and other things I really don't recall. That almost 5-hour wait in line was just to get a piece of paper stamped. It was a visa to the United States.
In the early 1970s, before I was born, my mother worked as a registered nurse on a nursing visa in Michigan and Canada. She petitioned for a visa to permanently immigrate to the U.S. It took 15 years to get approved — she did not hear from the US Embassy until 1989, and by that time, she already a husband and four children. Perhaps it was because of the shortage of nurses in the U.S. that brought about this relaxation in immigration. I know others wait decades for their petition to get approved. Perhaps I should thank this dead president named LBJ who passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, way before I was even born — a law that had allowed my paternal grandparents to move to the States back in the 1970s — and my mother and her family to now move to the States as well. This Act dramatically changed the demographics of the United State, reversing historically exclusionary laws that limited immigrants from Asia to come to these shores.
My aunt took us to a crowded McDonald's a couple of blocks from the embassy. The restroom was putrid and dirty. After I returned to our table, my aunt left to use the restroom. I was to watch my little brother, while she relieved herself. It felt like forever until she got back. She must've stored up a lot of pee during those long hours we waited. I had a hamburger with ketchup. My brother had the same thing with fries. It was good.
It was all happening so fast. My mom's petition had been approved just a year ago. I wasn't sure whether to celebrate getting a green card. Green. That's the color of the dollar. I keep hearing "the Philippine Peso is weak compared to the U.S. Dollar". Maybe that's why a lot of Filipinos cheer when they see green. Except my "green" card was pink. Someone must have been colorblind.
We were taken to the airport. Our whole family was there, except for my parents and my two youngest brothers. I don't even remember being there when they left for the States in January that year. My brother, Joel, and I had to stay behind because school was still in session. I was in the fourth grade, and he was in second. We left the Philippines for good in June, when the following school year started.
I understood why I cried before I left, even though I was still an impressionable 10 year old who was told promises of seeing snow and Disneyland. I had a feeling I wasn't going to see my Lola or my cousins, or my Adings and tios and tias for a long time. My body somehow knew and it convulsed into sobs.
Mom was a nursing assistant at first when my family moved here in 1990. Actually she worked at McDonald's for a while, and doubled up as a nursing assistant at a nursing home. I did not understand why she had to go back to square one as an assistant when she was already a registered nurse in the Philippines. She had to take these exams to be recognized as a registered nurse here. She took it three times, and passed the third time. She passed the LVN test first. I remember putting up all kinds of positive encouragement for her, written on white bond paper: "Try and try until you succeed!" "You will pass!" We posted the papers all across the walls in the one-bedroom, cockroach infested apartment we lived in when we first came here. That apartment was so gross. My mom passing that test meant she could get a better job so we could move out of that nasty apartment across McDonald's. It also meant quitting that job. Besides, they don't serve rice at the McDonald's here in the States.
We looked forward to weekends, when we got the chance to get out of the apartment and go to garage sales. It was a validating experience when we found deals for a dollar, or even a quarter. A paper bag full of clothes that I got to choose? I would cheer for how far I could get my green to stretch. It's kind of embarrassing, but hey, that's my upbringing in America. We wore the most baduy (our slang for "bawdy") unfashionable things. I still do.
Grace Malvar is a first-year medical student at Harvard Medical School.