This is my immigrant story.
I‘ve been married once before. It didn’t last very long and it didn’t end very well. That will need to be a story for another time. The only reason I mention this is because when he decided it was over for him, I found myself in this country, with no home, little to no money and nothing more than whatever I had in two suitcases. I was lost, confused and filled with shame. I had left Manila with so much hope and everyone knew I had no plans to return and was fully intending to spend the rest of my years in San Francisco in happily married bliss. It didn’t quite work out that way. I was stuck in California, temporarily staying with my then sister-in-law who herself had no idea why or how everything turned out the way it did. Both his family and mine were in shock. I have friends in California that I hadn’t seen or spoken to much and I decided to see all of them as a distraction. I spent the next 3 months staying between her place and other friend’s apartments trying to figure out what my next move would be.
My former sister in law’s apartment served as my home base as I moved up and down California trying to get my things out of my ex-husband’s apartment. He refused to let me back to “his” apartment so I had pick up my things from my father-in-law’s house. I didn’t have any immediate close family in the west coast so I had nowhere to go. I discovered new friendships during this time and reconnected with such amazing people who were supportive and patient with me. My mom, who felt the need to get me out of there, reached out to her sister in New York and asked her for help. My aunt immediately reached out to me and offered to pay for my ticket to fly to New York and stay with her and I accepted. I went to Las Vegas to see one of my best friends to spend some time with her before flying east since I didn’t know when I’d be able to visit again. I was 26 years old, I had just left my whole life in Manila and my husband just left me. At this point, I was just riding the wave and going wherever it decided to take me. I landed in New York City on October 7, 2008. It was meant to be temporary. Just until I figured out what my next steps were. I had no clue this city would become my home, where I would find love again and discover friendships and connections with people I never would have found elsewhere. But the road to this point wasn’t exactly easy.
So I finally got here. But I was still heartbroken, had no money and despite my aunt being extremely generous with her home, I knew I couldn’t keep spending my days watching TV and eating everything in the kitchen. I avoided going out since I had no money to spend and if I did, I would wander a few blocks around her apartment in Queens. After several weeks of this, insanity was adding to the heartbreak. Outside of family, I only knew two people in NYC, a girl friend from grade school and my ex from college. My ex found out what happened and understanding my need to do something, suggested I get a job waiting tables in the city. Just so I can make a little money and have something to do everyday. I had never waited tables in my life and knew absolutely nothing of city life but I was desperate for a distraction. I had been crying in the shower a lot up to that point. I met up with him and one of his friends one day in December and armed with several photocopies of my resume, we walked around the east and west village. We went door to door asking restaurants if they were hiring. After two hours of walking, I got a job at a now shuttered vegetarian restaurant on 7th Avenue. They knew I had no experience but they had just opened a month prior and needed help. My luck was picking up.
I worked at that restaurant like a dog. From open till close most days. I started making a bit of money. But I was also commuting between my Aunt’s apartment in Queens and the West Village. She didn’t live near the subway and I needed to take the bus to and from the station. When my shift ended late at night I would often find myself standing inside a bank to get away from the bitter cold because I had just missed the bus and it ran once an hour after midnight. On some nights I would walk 30 plus blocks home from the station in knee deep of snow just to get to bed only to wake up and do it all over again. A few weeks of this and I knew I needed to move somewhere within reasonable commuting distance to the restaurant. I had met a few people and found myself roommates in a 4 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. But a certain date was coming and a decision still had to be made.
There is something I haven’t mentioned yet in this story. Everything I’ve told you so far happened under a 6 month period. Six months is the maximum length of time a person with a tourist visa who visits the US is allowed to stay in the country. My 6 month time limit was almost up. I needed to decide if I was going to leave before the visa ends or to stay. I had just reconnected with family members I hadn’t seen and made lots of new friends. I had never had an apartment that I was personally responsible for before and I was making money and paying my own bills. I was on my feet and I was feeling more myself again. My apartment was feeling like home and the people surrounding me knew little of my old life. I felt like I had pressed the reset button.
I don’t need to tell you which choice I made, you wouldn’t be reading this now if I had left all that and flown back to Manila. Call it unlawful presence, call me undocumented or an illegal immigrant, that’s what I was for the next 4 years. I couldn’t get an ID, open a bank account or get a non-cash paying job since I had no papers to show for myself. I had no credit and couldn’t get a credit card so I had to work with whatever cash I brought home from waiting tables. The restaurant I worked at soon decided they couldn’t pay me under the table and I only worked for tips. The kitchen staff was nice and they always fed me. I’d “visit” work sometimes even on my day off just because I knew they would feed me and that’s a meal I wouldn’t have to spend on. Money was hard, I cried a lot and questioned my choices but I soldiered on. I had made my bed and I had to lay in it. I worked at the restaurant until I became a nanny and kept that job for the next few years working for different families. But I constantly kept asking myself how long I could keep doing this.
I stayed single for 3 years since my separation. I went on no dates and had zero interest in a relationship. To be honest, I enjoyed this time very much. I learned a lot about myself in those 3 years and allowed myself to heal. I learned more about what I want and would not tolerate in my next relationship if I ever got to that point. I also knew the only way I would be able to obtain legal status in the US was through marriage. I had this worrying thought that if anything were to happen to my mother in Manila, that I wouldn’t be able to see her without leaving my life in the US permanently.
So I went online and reluctantly signed up for a dating website. Online dating wasn’t as common as it is now but I knew my introverted self was never going to meet someone the regular way. Two weeks later, I met Vien. Our story is better shared another time. My divorce wasn’t finalized until about a month after I met him. That was 3 years after my ex left me. I told Vien my situation soon after we started seeing each other so he knew what I was looking for. He was surprisingly open to it. A year later we were married and about 6 months after that I received my permanent resident card. Yes it was a green card marriage but it was far from a fake relationship. Whenever I’m asked how Vien proposed I always end up squirming and responding it was an agreement rather than a proposal. We’ve been together 7 years now which is the longest relationship either one of us have ever been in. New York City standard of living is expensive and we struggle with money more than we’d care to admit but we’re in it together and we make the most out of it. I finally became a US citizen in December of 2017. I applied for citizenship mostly out of a desire for the right to vote after Trump won, more than anything else.
I’m glad my first marriage ended, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, with him, living my best life.
I posted a 5-part series on my Instagram feed @theaccidentalbohemian sharing details of how I came to live in New York City. This is a compilation of all five posts.