I left my life, my school, my friends, and everything I knew behind when I was eleven. My parents were refugees from Vietnam, escaping the mistreatment of the communists. They snuck away on a small boat and sailed for seven days on the open water of South China Sea. I was born in a refugee camp in Philippines with poor conditions and corrupt camp officials who pocketed donation funds for themselves. My parents were struggling to feed themselves. At the time, my entire life revolved around getting out of the ditch. Most Vietnamese refugees around us were leaving the camps with an opportunity to seek asylum somewhere brighter, better. United States, Canada, Australia, it doesn’t matter, anywhere was better than the camps. It usually took 2-3 months, our case took 15 years.
When my parents escaped the refugee camp, we created a life for ourselves. We joined a small and close-knit community of Vietnamese refugees in a city called Ilo-Ilo. That city is everything I knew in my life. Slowly, we gave up on the idea of going anywhere else. I made three close Vietnamese friends and all my classmates. My fondest memories were made here. We would take weekend trips as a group to go to the beach, the zoo, the mountains, etc. We slept outside on the sand, listening to music, and looking up at the starry night sky. We had birthday parties where all my friends attended and gave me presents! I was in a dance group and sang in competitions in school. Christmas was the best time of the year, because we would all go to the central park to look at Christmas lights. Everything I knew was here.
We received notification of our case status approved to immigrate to the States. My parents were overjoyed. They said our lives will be better, that we will have a future. I looked around me, what was so bad about our lives? I don’t remember much of what happened during the weeks after that. I was eleven. I didn’t fully realize what was going on. Before I knew it, we were on the plane on our way to America. I missed my friends, my teachers, my school, my life.
Fast forward ten years. I graduated college. I made closer friends. I made a set of brand new memories. I have come to love the United States. I also became a traveler, but the Philippines still held a magical place in my heart. I wanted to return, see my friends,… and to say goodbye. When I had the chance to go back, I didn’t hesitate to but the ticket. The country where I was born and raised was something like a mystical dream to me. I was so nervous on the flight there. I spent my life thinking about what I would have done if I had the opportunity to say goodbye. Now that I was coming back, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
The air was the same, the food, the landscape, the school, the beaches were the same. Same country… but different people. Our close knit community broke apart after we left. People moved, went to school, got jobs elsewhere. I revisited my old schools, my old home, stores I used to buy snacks from. People whom I used to bond deeply with are now completely different. The playground I spent so much time on was smaller and emptier. I realized the country has moved on without me. Overwhelmed with nostalgia and sadness, I could only wis that I had appreciated my childhood more at the time. I struggled to keep my mind in the present, reminding myself that I had my friends with me. I needed to be in the now. I had wanted to show my friends my home country. The past is the past, and I can’t change that.
I made my peace and goodbyes with my past. I met new people, made new memories, and learned to love my birth country all over again in a different light. Filipino people are the kindest, most adventurous people I’ve ever met. Having only met for about ten minutes, we had jumped on a pickup truck of a group of Filipino backpackers and had the ride of our lives! What adventures? … to be continued another time. 🙂