SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Julie Getzoff

My Family’s TransPacific Voyage Home

I was born and raised in the Philippines, a third world country located in Southeast Asia. I do not go back to the Philippines very often; in fact have only been back three times since I migrated with my family to the United States nearly 30 years ago. My most recent visit to the Philippines took place 4 months ago when I attended my father’s funeral. On this occasion, as I find myself doing each time I go back for a visit, I am concurrently shocked and reminded by the stark differences that exist between the privileged, wealthy minority and the impoverished majority. It was something that existed back when I still lived in the country as a child, but being away from it for a period of time by living in the United States has allowed me a jarring perspective of this reality each time I encounter it.

My American friends that have never been outside of the United States have a difficult time understanding the class system and standard of living and lifestyle inequality that exists uniquely in developing countries. I would add that unless someone has had firsthand experience by having come from a third world country or having visited one of these countries, (like India, Mexico or the Philippines) the class system is truly a complex issue to comprehend. Not only is it difficult to convey the disparity that is present between the classes, but that to begin with, developing countries are already at a disadvantage because they do not have basic standard living conditions we take very much for granted in the United States. For example, in the United States, where we could go to any establishment and generally expect to find a clean, well equipped public restroom with toilet paper, soap and running water, this combination is considered to be a rare find in the Philippines. People have been known to steal toilet paper and soap from public restrooms and because of this, building owners have avoided risking the loss sure to take place by supplying their facilities with these essentials. It is common practice, therefore, to BYOTP or bring your own toilet paper when using the facilities. Unfortunately, facilities are found often unkempt and unsanitary as people tend to pee all over the toilet seat and floor. Often, because there is no running water, the toilet doesn’t get flushed and people are unable to wash their hands after using the facilities. This makes the difference of living conditions between the rich and the poor even more severe because although one may find these conditions all over the country irrespective of one’s class, one has an abundant source of alternate options available to him / her as a rich person, where the poor person is left to contend with the conditions as they are.

My family and I are extremely fortunate to come out of the Philippine class system on the privileged end. To be clear, unlike some friends we grew up with, we were not the filthy rich kind that had to be escorted by bodyguards all over town, but we were definitely privileged compared to the masses. I am the youngest of nine children and was somewhat sheltered growing up. We had a lot of help around us at home to include drivers, maids, cooks and nannies. My formative years included fond memories of a nanny I loved like my mother. Friends I grew up with had the same experience within their households, it was common for us to be close to our nannies and love them like our own mothers. Because I grew up in a sheltered environment, I was rarely away from my family at any given time apart from the time I was at school.

However, when I was about 7 years old, my nanny got permission from my mom to take me with her for her afternoon off. The experience was my first real encounter with the idea of being different. My nanny took me to a park where I played with a lot of children that did not grow up with the luxuries that I did. They were not like my friends from school who spoke English and Spanish in their homes but instead spoke Tagalog – the Philippine dialect that is considered by the upper-class to be inferior to English and Spanish. I immediately noticed that some of the kids had no shoes (something my parents would never approve of) but they played without restraint anyway. Because it is hot and humid in the Philippines, nannies would often be instructed by parents to readily have a bag of supplies replete with baby powder, washcloth, sanitizers and a fresh change of clothes for their assigned child, lest the child get sticky and sweaty from the heat and humidity. Although my nanny had my supply bag efficiently ready for me that day, I did not see any of the other kids being catered to in this manner. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking some of the kids looking dirty and beginning to smell from the sweat having run around in the heat. I took the public transportation for the very first time in my life with my nanny that afternoon. Riding the bus home I remember feeling terrified of being so closely scrutinized by all these strangers staring at me. It was as if they knew I was different but how they figured that out, I had no idea. Had it not been for the comfort of having my nanny so close to me the entire time, the afternoon would have been a nightmare.

While I was growing up in the Philippines, I remember my parents talking about moving our family to the United States. They did not talk about it as much when I was young but as I got older, I remember hearing them talk about it more. In part, the reason for the move was to be with other family members from both my parents’ sides of the family who had already migrated to the U.S. The main reason, however, was that my parents wanted a better future for us than what we would be stuck with if we continued to live in the Philippines, as underdeveloped as it was. Moreover, they were terrified of the rampant government corruption lead by Dictator President Ferdinand Marcos and the political unrest he and his cronies perpetuated.

I was born in 1971 and the following year, President Marcos declared Martial Law. Civil rights were suspended allowing Marcos to have complete control of the nation through his military command. As a child, I remember seeing soldiers with their guns drawn all over the streets of Quezon City and being ushered into the house quickly by my nanny before sundown. This is so that my parents would not be fined for allowing anyone within their household outside of the house beyond curfew time, which was whenever it got dark out. I remember being eerily aware of bad things happening to good people we knew because they were somehow suspected of going against the government in some fashion unbeknownst to these innocent individuals. One particular incident involved my sister’s nanny who had been employed with our family for 7 years. Due to a newsworthy article her father wrote, which was critical of the Marcos regime, she was immediately suspected of running with the communist party and was asked to pay steep fines to clear her involvement or be sent to prison. I remember hearing the hushed tones of my parents late at night as they talked about paying for Nanny Cora’s fines and the disgust they shared regarding the corruption and the injustice that permeated the land. Being in politics, my Dad predicted that things were going to continue and actually get a lot worse before things would start to get better. When Martial law was finally lifted in 1981, Marcos had been in power for 16 years and although the Filipinos were calling for his resignation, he continued to remain in power for another 5 years.

In 1983, his strongest opponent Benigno Aquino, who had been living in exile in Boston was shot dead upon his arrival to the Philippines. His widow Corazon (Cory) Aquino flew back to the Philippines that same year to lead the “People Power” revolution. Amidst political unrest and ongoing corruption practiced by the Marcos government, our family migrated to the United States in 1985. In 1986, Cory Aquino’s People Power revolution finally lead the Marcos’ into exile in Hawaii. The Filipinos rejoiced and elected Aquino as president.
Black polluted air signified everything wrong with the Philippines – the reasons why we left were entrenched in “black polluted air”: the deception and corruption of the government, the nationwide poverty and the soot palpable in the air leading to the revolution. This resulted in Dictator President Marcos and family’s exile to Hawaii.

Conversely, the fresh air that greeted us as we reached the United States was a sharp but refreshingly welcomed contrast and a foreshadowing of the wonderful changes to come from the land of milk and honey. As new immigrants we strongly identified The United States as the embodiment of all that is good and just. Immediately upon our arrival and as we disembarked the plane and went through Customs, our hearts filled with regained hope of new beginnings and a better and brighter tomorrow in this wonderful and abundant land of opportunity we now call home.

Although this move was supposed to be an impetus toward a more promising future for our family, our initial transition to becoming a regular American household was slow and awkward at best. As expected, we had to make a lot of adjustments regarding our lifestyle. In addition to my older siblings (ages 18-28) having to get accustomed to working for a living for the very first time in their lives, the biggest challenge our family faced was not having drivers and maids to wait on us hand and foot like they did in the Philippines. Below is an account of my Cousin Joe’s memory of our family’s transition.

I remember the summer my cousin Julie and her family stayed with us while her parents looked for a house to purchase in Northern California. Although I was born in the United States, I still had a lot of family that lived in the Philippines from both my parents’ sides. Although most of them have moved here since, that particular summer, my cousin Julie and her family migrated to the United States.
My mom and dad seemed really glad Julie’s family finally decided to move to the United States; although worlds apart, our family had always been close. They also did not like the corrupt Dictator President that had been running the Philippines for 20 years and were just glad more of the family got out when they did.

Julie and I really enjoyed hanging out for a part of that summer before they moved to their new house; which ended up being less than 20 minutes drive from our house. Cousin Julie and I were the same awkward age of 12 when they moved here and although she and I have always gotten along even on previous visits, Julie has always struck me as a little prima donna who was used to getting things done for her. One Saturday while Julie was out house shopping with her parents, I remember being particularly annoyed that my mom asked me to straighten up and vacuum Julie’s room for what seemed like the hundredth time that month.

In addition, she never helped out around the house; I didn’t even see her put a dish away much less wash dishes. I have had chores assigned to me since I was 5 and picking up after myself was expected at my house but whenever I complained to my mom about Julie, she just kept saying it was because of how Julie was raised. My mom kept telling me to be patient with my cousin because although she was accustomed to having people pick up after her, now that she was going to be living in the United States, she had to get used to picking up after herself and start doing chores around the house. That was going to be a big adjustment for her.

Indeed it was, but what a fantastic adjustment it has been!

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage