Dressed in the spiffiest cobalt V-neck sweater, or in his own words, “asul na panglamig,” is my father unwinding to his soap operas after a long day in the office, which isn’t very far: he telecommutes. Rarely has working from home stopped him from yielding to outward respectability. He takes his job seriously, “I am a software engineer and [was] promoted as a systems manager of the company.” And with such a title that has taken over a decade to reach, sweatpants are simply inappropriate, even in a home environment. It’s hard to imagine that someone like my father, who has spent years traveling and dressing for corporate-level jobs, would refrain from the assuaging convenience of wearing a t-shirt and plaid pajamas. However, for past generation immigrants, as my father’s life has trotted, convenience has not always been an existent luxury; instead, immigration entails a plight of many trials.
Born on January 10th, 1968, in the dewing air and overlapping sounds of roosters and tricycles of Pangasinan, Nicanor A. Montemayor was a province boy. Not just any province boy, but one with a street market butcher for a mother and a hustling “Jeepney” driver for a father. Montemayor is the third eldest of nine children, which some of whom have also grown and left the nest, flying to different parts of the world: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Malaysia, Nigeria, Singapore, London, and Canada. It’s almost as if an immigration gene runs prominently in the family, because in a sociohistorical sense, such a trait has definitely emerged within the Filipino culture. For Nicanor, the ontology of his immigration was nurtured through attaining his Information Technology certificate at The Systems Technology Institute in 1988 and further developed in 1989 at the University of Luzon, where he completed his B.S. in Accounting. By 1990, he had moved from the provincial farmlands of Pangasinan to the urban-manufactured opportunities of Manila to fulfill a collegiate tutoring job. This brief six-month position provided him the opportunity to train as a Business Specialist and meet the nursing students on campus. “I got a lot of girls,” he jokingly reminisced. However, not so long after this win-win situation, an earthquake devastated Luzon, reducing work opportunities for him and his family. Fortunately, the immigration gene had fully matured in knowledge, and in late 1990, Montemayor took the lucrative opportunity to work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as a Computer Operator. By the age of twenty-three, my father was officially one of the thousands of diasporic Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) that supported their loved ones through remittance.
During his time of continual growth as an IT in the Middle East, Montemayor—thanks to a mutual friend—found love: my mother. Initially, it was a distant love across the seas; they had never met in person. Annie Herrera was a ruddy-cheeked twenty-three-year-old Sunday school teacher in Pangasinan. He, a few months older, was prospering in a desert land, taking on a managerial role of a Data Coordinator. Above all, they became writers for each other. Insouciant to their global disjunction, they formed and maintained a relationship through amorous letters, reciprocated every two weeks. Coming from a millennial world of real-time messaging, I skeptically asked my mother, “Were you ever worried about not getting a response?”
“No, because even back then, your father was so in love with me,” she bragged.
I’ve only heard the retelling of their unique, young love several times. My favorite part is when, after having written enough words to fill the sea between them, Nicanor Montemayor finally makes his way back to the homeland in 1993 to take Annie Herrera out to their first date, and shortly after, her hand in marriage. Sometimes I wonder: if it wasn’t for distance, would they still have had that magnetic eagerness to wed? Well, from time to time, I witness this unceasing eagerness when my father asks about my mother, as she does for him, and I’m assured that they were bound to one another.
The issue of distance has always been evergreen within the Filipino American community. UC Berkeley professor of Ethnic Studies, Dr. Ronald Takaki, theorizes that this historical distance (i.e. diaspora), prevalent in Filipino families, is a matter of “push and pull” factors. For the first wave of Asian American immigrants in the 19th century, the domestic adversities in their homeland pushed them towards the allure of high-demand labor in the US-colonized islands of Hawaii. And in the dawn of the 20th century, Dr. Takaki explains that Filipinos were “pushed from the Philippines and pulled to America by ‘extravagance.’” With this ‘extravagance’ in question, I had asked my father about his preconception of America prior to immigrating:
“America is a land of milk & honey. That’s what they say,” he shared.
“Why is that? And who said so?”
“Well, from almost all of the people that I heard coming from America, […] my relatives, my aunts, immigrated here in the US in the 1960s and they’re saying it’s nice to be here.”
After a process that he recalls “very easy,” Montemayor, in July 1999, got to see this celebrated “land of milk and honey” for himself. This process was answering to the US demand for computer specialists, which lead to an interview with an employer and concluded with attaining his H1B visa. To my surprise, this was so easy that when I asked my father how his move affected his family (now referring to my mother and my four-year-old self), he said:
“It didn’t affect much, because, after three months, I was able to bring them over with me, here, in the US.”
“Just three month?”
“Yep, you can actually bring them at the same time, but I choose to come first to see how it looks like and prepare for a place,” he said.
We had lived in an upstairs apartment in Brentwood, California. In retrospect, it was small, but as a kid who had come from an even smaller home of cinderblock walls and cousin-filled rooms, the apartment was just as good as any mansion. I remember seeing our bathtub, the first bathtub I had ever seen: “Wow, we have our own pool?!” We were happy, together. It had seemed that Montemayor was well on his way to the American Dream:
“My dream is for my children here to settle in the US.”
“Has this perception of the United States being a land of milk and honey changed?” I asked.
“It has definitely changed after two, three years when I [had] arrived here, after that 9/11—you know—things happened in the New York Trade Center.”
“Can you go into detail with that?”
“So, the so-called ‘milk and honey’ that I was looking forward, isn’t really—you know—true for me at that point because I lost my job and it was so hard to find a job for me at that time.”
He continued, “So the whole economy collapsed and that impacted my employment here in the US”.
A few years after the collapse of the Twin Towers, Montemayor was left without a job and with no choice but to send his family back to the Philippines. However, it wasn’t solely because of the upset of his financial stability that forced his family to return. He recounted:
“That was the situation. It was so hard to find a job so the family had to go back for a ‘vacation,’ because I lost the job, their visas had to be revoked because I had no employer that time. I [moved to] Concord, California. It was a house and I rented a room and shared it with a friend.”
For nearly two and a half years, Annie Montemayor and her three children, all under the age of eight years old, lived in a cul de sac entombed within the metropolitan of Manila City. My parents had never imagined that they would be in a long distance relationship again, only this time, instead of romance, they spoke of necessities, budgeting, the children, and if they’d be together for Christmas.
It came as a surprise that after navigating through his career field with so much success, Nicanor Montemayor had no legal power to keep his family with him. If anything, he fitted the “model minority” stereotype, a paragon, even: Asian American, excelled in academia, studious in the workplace, and soft-spoken under pompous management. With these highly-desired qualities honed, it had seemed as if my father’s immigration process was surely over. On the contrary, it was far from the end, and for many Asian immigrants, it rarely is. While the model minority stereotype has been disguised as a societal accolade for Asian Americans’ (supposed monolithic) success, it exists as a pretense that Asian Americans, like my father and my family, have already been accepted in the United States as equals within legal and social levels. Through my father’s situation, immigration becomes more than a finite travel; rather, it’s a continual process through legalities and assimilation—this type of migration is far greater in time and tedium than some transpacific flight. I understand that for Filipinos, immigration is a constant that exists through generations, and it always will be, as long as America remains to be the richest source of milk and honey. The United States of America will continue to grow as a land of immigrants, and surely, but sadly, the Philippines a land of prospective ones.
In 2004, Montemayor recovered and was well-established in a new company and saved enough money to fly his family back to California. He has come to believe that a distinguishing force behind Filipinos from (i.e. white) Americans is that “They [are willing] to work extra hours because they are saving money.” I understood what he meant—this sense of responsibility. He continues to hold himself responsible; every month, he financially supports both sides of the family living back in the motherland. Statistics illustrates this cultural obligation in reporting that OFWs reached a record-breaking $26.93 billion in remittances. Every morning, my father migrates down the stairs, through the living room, and into his office, which is really a daily microcosm of his earlier years of becoming American. Telecommuting is really just a metaphor for the ambition behind Filipino immigration: working from ‘home’ for people at home. After all the life he has lived, I asked Nicanor Montemayor about what he wants to be doing ten years from now. He said, “Well, mama and I will be traveling the world […] that’ll be my plan.” And I hope he does sojourn through many places, not because he’s obliged to, but it’s always been in his blood.