“The Little Immigrant”

Do you homeschool because your family tends to relocate often?  Or do you tend to move quite a bit because you homeschool?  We are neither a missionary (technically) or a military family but we homeschool and we have found ourselves uprooting the family time and again the past few years. IMG_3629IMG_0137 Call it what you will, the pursuit of greener pastures, a desire to start with a clean slate, a quest for adventure, or restlessness, we have simply been able to possess some freedom to leave the place where we were and move where it made sense (or sometimes not).

En Route to VYR 2000

On our way to Vancouver as immigrants, October 2000

It was 15 years ago that our young family of four first moved to Canada as migrants.  In the almost decade of our stay in North America, we resided in two different provinces (British Columbia and Alberta), the relocation triggered by a government job opportunity.  Three more children thereafter, we decided to move back to the Philippines temporarily for a few years. Last year, we headed back for my husband to continue some studies and for our oldest child to prepare for university in Canada.

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Back in Vancouver after 4 years in the Philippines, July 2014

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Most recent move from our temporary place to a more permanent home in British Columbia, July 2015

Tagaytay 2000

Oldest when she was three, Tagaytay, Philippines 1999

Looking back, there have been quite a few disadvantages to our not staying put.  Thankfully since we homeschool, the issue of severing ties often did not hit our children too hard. Quite the opposite, our relocation and settlement in different places resulted in stronger family ties.  There are some things though that resulted from our moving around that I cannot help but call to mind with regret. Mostly, these things had to do with the difficulty of having to start all over (whether at work, in church, with relationships) or of not being able to establish something (friendships, job seniority, real estate appreciation, proficiency in a sport or musical endeavour) throughout a long period of time. Thinking through the benefits though, I probably would not have it any other way.  Moving back to the Philippines allowed my children to experience their own culture which has become foreign to them, having spent most of their early childhood abroad. This provided them a deeper understanding of our unique identity. Encountering new experiences (even just weather-related!) and exposure to new people have given them a wider and richer view of the world. In a children’s book by Eric Carle, the Hermit Crab must venture out into the huge ocean floor when his shell became too small for him. In the same way, I have seen how our moving has allowed us to grow as we faced the challenges brought about by change.

My older children acknowledge that the experience of living in different places has truly enriched their lives and has helped them mature as persons.  Following is an essay entitled “The Little Immigrant” by one of my daughters.  This piece, one of her first AP English Language and Composition assignments, is meant to be a literacy narrative.  As she expresses herself, it clearly shows how our family’s journey has helped shape who she is and how she views the world:  

At a young age, I became keenly aware of words. As a three-year-old immigrant to North America who spoke only hearty, broken English, I wondered at the duplicity of words, their secrets, their magic. I toddled out the airport doors to be greeted not only by my first autumn breeze, but also by words that bewildered me more than the cold. Only a flight before, I had understood all of them. Here I could catch only distressing bits and pieces. The cold was tolerable, even pleasant. But the words. How had they changed?

Lay Over to VYR 2000

Just landed the Vancouver airport with one-year old sister, October 2000

Of course, three-year-old immigrants do not find it difficult to learn good English. Within a month, the stubborn Tagalog words that had peppered my speech disappeared. I learned to keep them off my tongue and store them away in a back corner of my brain like summer things stored away for the winter, to be brought out again when they are useful.

When I turned four, the question of whether I would attend public school arose. Mother was hesitant. She feared the school systems and the children whom she believed ran wild and preyed on meek immigrants like myself. And so my parents decided I would stay at home. When I desired to learn how to read, write, and do arithmetic, I would so at the breakfast table. It wasn’t long till I asked for reading lessons to commence. As my English grew, so did my love for the books Mother read to me: Winnie the Pooh, the Wizard of Oz, My Father’s Dragon. Every time she opened a book and turned to our last page, I would hunch close to follow her finger pass by the black markings from which the stories came. I remember leafing through the pages myself. How was the magic drawn out from the markings? They bewildered me as much as the airport words had a year ago. I still remember my first lesson with Mother “to learn to read.” I remember seizing a chair at our worn-out breakfast table and perching myself on it precariously and expectantly. Mother only smiled at my earnestness and placed a black, mysterious book before me; she told me that once I had finished all the exercises within, I would know how to read. Quickly, I tore open the book.I expected quite confidently that all the secrets of the written word would rush out and reveal themselves to me like magic. I was disappointed. There were no rushings or revealings. There were only oversized markings jeering up at me. As I fingered the pages, a hand of realization seemed to strike across my tender cheek with savage force. Learning to read was going to be slow and painful.

My eagerness became impatience. Every day, I struggled through the black book, stumbling and stuttering through the lines. I still remember the sweat on my brow, the clenched fists, the murderous glances at Mother as she promised me that one day I would read like she did. My desperation to read grew so deep that I began eyeing the books I had loved before with a tinge of hatred. When would I ever conquer them? And then I did it. One day, I finished the black book, and I could read. With the aid of a footstool, I returned the hated volume to the highest bookshelf I could manage. Never again would I need it; from now on, every book would reveal its secrets to me.

In time, my untainted love for reading was restored. Nothing delighted me more than to pick up a volume, install myself in an armchair, and enter another world. I visited the library constantly; I read morning, noon, and night. I read while eating my cereal, while riding in the car, while lying in bed, even (my mother tells me) while brushing my teeth. I would perhaps have read in the bathtub if she had let me and if I had been brilliant enough to discover a way to keep the pages dry. But as I grew older, the books thicker, the words longer, and the authors older, I grew arrogant.

One afternoon, I managed to notice the librarian’s gaping mouth as I returned Great Expectations and told her that Pocket was really a much nicer guy than Pip. With some difficulty, she stopped gaping and asked me how old I was. I told her, she gaped again, stopped, smiled weakly, and said that eleven-year-olds who read Dickens were extraordinary indeed. I came home fully contaminated by my arrogance. I believed myself to have now fully exhausted the magic of words. But I was wrong. I still could not truly read. I did not understand. I did not know it yet, but I was still the immigrant struggling to make sense of the words.

When I turned thirteen, my family returned to the Philippines. I found my home had become foreign to me. And for the first few months, I feared it. I feared its heat, its cramp and dangerous streets, and most of all, its people. My people. A people I seemed to no longer belong to. I cringed when strangers spoke to me or questioned me in a language that I understood but could no longer answer in. I cringed every time the telephone rang, knowing that I would hear only words of a language no longer mine. I offered my people only empty laughter at jokes I could not understand, and they only nodded weakly in agreement to my English statements about the weather. Confused and displaced, my thirteen-year-old self wept unbidden tears into my pillow every night of those first months. People dismissed my emotion as merely the angst of adolescence. And perhaps it was. There comes a time when a child begins to truly see the world – its beauty, ugliness, truths, and falsehoods. And for a time, it is too much for him. So he weeps, screams, laughs, and whispers. This happened to me. I saw the world differently. And now all felt dangerous, frightening, unknown. I had not, however, forgotten my books. Indeed, in their imaginary worlds, I found refuge from my own. But I found escape only temporarily. For one day, I began to truly read.

I was working through To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoying it immensely. The world Scout painted seemed so wonderfully different from mine. But I began noticing things. I noticed that Scout’s world in the beginning was comfortable and innocent, just as my earlier years had been. But I also noticed that Scout’s world gradually changed as mine had. Scout met beautiful and ugly people who differed from her in colour and culture and whom she at first feared or hated. But by the end of her story, Scout came to a simple, beautiful conclusion that wrung my heart: “There’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” I then realized something important about books. Books did not only create imaginary worlds. They said something important about the real one. Books were not merely the product of imagination. Real people wrote them, people who lived on the same earth I did and who saw the same things I saw. They were written by people who laughed, wept, smiled, frowned. Through an imaginary world, these people hoped to say something important and beautiful to the real one. Books were not only magic. They were real. 

Not a year ago, my family and I were enjoying the holidays in the countryside. It was a wonderful vacation from the heat and pollution of Manila. One morning, I decided to enjoy the precious, cool mountain air and take a horse ride around a few trails. There was one condition; I was to have a guide, a hired gardener of the resort. Manong was a short, wiry man with an ancient, weather-beaten face. His English was as broken as my Tagalog. And so naturally, we made a fine pair. He fortunately had both a hearty sense of humour and a precious broken grin that showed his few teeth. I did not mind our laboured conversation; I had grown used to such. But then we began to speak of the unlikeliest of things – a Book we had both read. I had read it in English, and it had changed my life. He had read it in Tagalog, and it had changed his. I had memorized it in English, and he in Tagalog. Sheepishly, but with a hint of a child’s pride, he asked if I would like to hear some passages he had memorized. Too surprised to speak, I only managed a smile and a nod. I sat in my saddle, listening to this gardener recite chapters I knew in a different tongue. He and I were different. He was old and I was young. He had lived by the work of his hands and the sweat of his brow, while I had never worked at all. But the same pages had spoken to me and to this small, dark man. Through books, we understood each other. Through books, our realities met.

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Countryside break at Mount Makiling a year before our return to Canada, February 2013

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