For my mother’s 60th birthday, I told her the least I can do is be there. She appreciated the sentiment, but said “it’s fine” if I missed it. After all, I’d already visited her in Manila twice in the last year: first for my stepdad’s 75th, then again for my 27th. I flew from New York each time, rationing vacation days and working from the homeland as best I could.
Besides, she said, I had plenty to do, with my book, my apartment, my new job. She didn’t expect me to put my life on hold. But 60 is a big year, I said. I owe her this one. Indeed, I owe her a lot.
Sure, I was there when she started chemotherapy for breast cancer. But I wasn’t there for Mother’s Days, Christmases, or when she buried her parents. My mother, in contrast, has been there for everything. Most recently, she called from her family’s hometown, where an aunt of hers had just died. As her cousins booked emergency flights to the Philippines from Australia and Canada, my mother was the one to arrange the funeral.
I wish I could be there, I said. She offered the familiar, immigrant-motherly “it’s fine.” It’s a phrase full of understanding, with only a tang of guilt. As immigrant kids, we know which trips we can’t make, obligations we can’t fulfill. My mother moved back to the Philippines after I finished college, after she set me up for “a better life.” When she brought me to the US, she left her friends and support system and restarted her career from the bottom. She spent 10 years separated from my stepdad and fought with me as our hormones raged (menopause for her; puberty for me). We learned how to live in the US together, all for that “better life,” the refrain of immigrants like us, the ones who had the option to freely chase the American Dream.
By circumstance, I belong to a group of first-generationers primed to do better than our parents. That was the idea, that we’d have a shot at opportunities they never had in the Philippines — or India, or Brazil, or China. Once, my mother told me that I’d wound up living her own dreams. In Manila, she’d wanted to work in media, but her mother had insisted there was no money in it. Now, at 27, I make more than she ever did in the span of a career as old as me. She was proud.
But I felt guilty for having more than enough when, with today’s cost of living in New York, it never feels like enough. I felt undeserving of the freedoms my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins and second cousins, would never know. I have “a better life” only because my mother placed hers at the American altar. That tang of guilt is how my own immigrant privilege tastes.
Not to say that first-gen kids don’t put in the work. We use that sense of obligation as fuel. It powers an innate craving for momentum, to always move upward and forward, to deliver on our parents’ investments. It’s in our schematics, a fail-safe in the engineering of those “young, scrappy, and hungry,” as the song goes. Whether we flip that switch is up to us.
My friend Delia, for example, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, jots down every new project or promotion in a log of successes, “a paper trail,” she calls it, of her perpetual progress. Julia, a second-generation Brazilian, regularly calls her mother and makes a point to downplay her struggles in favor of the week’s wins, assurance that the immigrant investments seamlessly yield rewards. And when Krutika, an Indian immigrant, moved into a one-bedroom in Brooklyn, she described it as her “starter apartment.” I reminded her that, for some people, this is a forever home. We clutched each other’s wrists as we confronted our privilege. This class mobility, the chance to be what our parents couldn’t, they gave us this gift with the price tag still attached.
I have “a better life” only because my mother placed hers at the American altar.
To take advantage of such a gift is how we make our parents proud. In their eyes, we are the immigrant ideal — documented, educated, upwardly mobile, and well-versed in the respectability politics they taught us. Be excellent and play along. Don’t make a scene, don’t bite the hand that feeds us. These are the terms of our American life, a mortgage for which our parents signed. And in turn, we pay them back as best as possible.
Now that I can, I’ve treated my parents to dinners, resort stays, his-and-hers massages while I waited by the pool. But historically, my payments have been in the more classical currency of piety and obedience: attendance alongside them at Sunday mass, silence at a family function when someone praises Duterte or “doesn’t see the big deal about Trump.” As an adult, I so rarely see my parents that one of the greatest gifts is to simply not cause a fight when I do.
But none of this will break even, not on the countless dollars spent, uncounted hours invested, untold labors taken. We can hope to, but will never fully balance their books. It’s an unpayable debt. That’s how love works. Our parents will always put our happiness before theirs. The terms were established early, from the moment they decided to cross continents and oceans for our sake. One thing we can do is to live our lives well, whatever that might look like, and be sure to share it — to create “a better life” for our parents when we spend ours with them.
Plane tickets from New York to Manila haven’t been very affordable lately. And I only have a couple of days off work, which means that, were I to go there for my mother’s birthday, it might only be for a long weekend, given the 17-hour flights each way. Still, I asked my mother if she wants any pasalubong, gifts I can bring back for her, if I can make it.
No, she said, she has everything she needs. She was speaking Immigrant Mother; the translation: The gift would be for me to be there, with her. It’ll cost me PTO days, almost a thousand dollars, and over 30 hours airborne, just to see my mother.
To weigh these options is a pain and a privilege. I think of my fellow immigrants without such freedoms — the families who have been kept apart by discriminatory travel bans, forcibly separated at the border, tear-gassed as they fled their homelands to seek safety, all by a country that recognizes me as one of its own.
I acquired my citizenship by naturalization — a term that’s always struck me as peculiar, implying I was “unnatural” prior to becoming an American. But my acquisition of citizenship was passive; my mother was the one who paid thousands of dollars, took a US civics test, and pledged allegiance to the flag. She did it for herself and in my stead. I was 17 at the time, a few months shy of the age cutoff that would’ve required me to take up the process on my own.
That I was only naturalized by extension makes me feel vulnerable. The president has proposed to end birthright citizenship by executive order, to revoke the constitutional right of a child born on American soil to American citizenship, regardless of their parents’ citizenship or lack thereof. Depending on who you listen to, the order is either a worthy goal or constitutionally unlikely. Either way, it’s had the same effect on immigrants in the US as most, if not all, ideas that have come out of the current White House: fear.
I am not attempting to place my fear and vulnerability in the same register as the one experienced by the undocumented and their families, by refugees and the stateless. Nor are their challenges the same as mine, which are emotionally fraught, but not at all life-threatening. Separation may be a common denominator, but it’s apparent that not all immigrants are treated equally by the systems of power in which we operate. My point is that I, as an immigrant of privilege, owe much, not only to my parents, but to my fellow immigrants — full stop.
It may seem like a settled immigrant’s obvious duty, a gesture of basic human decency, to act in solidarity with migrant workers, parents, and children, whose pursuit of opportunities unavailable in their homeland is a goal we have in common. But the protection afforded by documentation and blue passports can cloud the vision of those who believe in an American meritocracy.
Now, at 27, I make more than my mom ever did in the span of a career as old as me.
Among older Filipino Americans I know, there’s a belief that they, who performed the immigrant gymnastics and worked for their papers, are the deserving ones. That bootstraps mentality is an attitude in line with historic Asian American conservatism, especially that of conservative Chinese Americans. All our hardships, they think, only to see rules relaxed, exemptions made, costs mitigated for others and not them. I don’t sympathize, but I understand their position. They fear that their efforts to get here will be deemed insignificant after the fact. After all that, they ask, what was the point?
But there are a lucky number of us who are the point, the rewards of that investment. My problems, an embarrassment of choices, are good ones to have, proof my mother’s bet on my future paid off. In addition to the freedom I have of paying her back, of sharing my life with her, other immigrants can benefit too from the privilege I, and others like me, wield.
We have the resources to fight for the rights of all immigrants, to reflect the same spirit of selfless compassion our embattled parents possessed when they were advocating for us. We must use the citizenship we have, what we received by pure circumstance and luck of birth, to speak, to march, to vote in the best interest of families that are more like ours than they are different.
It’s not an easy task. Especially for someone like me, an immigrant indoctrinated to take the path of least resistance, to literally resist seems to go against the grain of my upbringing. It was the code my mother and I followed when we first came to the US as a matter of survival. But now that I’m no longer just trying to get by, I’m working to replace the instinct to keep my head down with one that says to speak up, to pick the fights I was taught not to pick.
“He promised ‘America first,’” a relative reminded me. “Isn’t that a good thing for America?”
“No, Tatay,” I said. “Not my America.”
As immigrant kids, our debt to our parents is limitless. But we can look outward, too, and find ways to pay it forward, to honor the investments made and risks taken by immigrants who’ve all sought that same thing our forebears did: “a better life.” It’s the least we can do. It’s what we owe our fellow immigrants, the parents who came before, and all those who come after. It’s what we owe each other. ●
Matt Ortile is the managing editor of Catapult magazine. He is writing an essay collection, forthcoming from Nation Books. Previously, he was the founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines and the global publishing lead for BuzzFeed International. He has written for BuzzFeed Reader, Into, Self, Out, and Details, among others. You can find more of his work on matthewortile.com and on Twitter @ortile.
This story is part of a series about debts of all kinds.