Mariel from Ilo-Ilo, Philippines

Abigail Calumpit

MHC Seminar 150: People of New York City

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to New York! In roughly twenty minutes, we will begin our descent to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The local time is 8:35 PM, and the temperature is 70 degrees. Please keep your seatbelt fastened until the plane has arrived at a complete stop. Thank you for flying with Cathay Pacific Airlines,” the loud speaker announced.

A buzz of laughter and light conversation ensued. Unlike the half-excited, half-nerved immigrant families who were traveling to New York for the first time, Mariel was unfazed by the bright city lights and towering skyscrapers that seemed to graze the bottom of the plane.

It was April 26, 2010. Keeping her eyes locked on her human anatomy textbook with a highlighter in one hand and a pen in the other, Mariel was determined to memorize the different types of femur fractures before the plane’s wheels could touch the ground. With the national nurse license exam being less than one month away, Mariel was convinced that she could not afford to waste a single second on things that were irrelevant to human anatomy.

Mariel was your textbook country girl. She was born and raised in the countryside of IloIlo, Philippines. She is the eldest child and the only daughter to her mother, a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), and father, a civil lawyer. Detracted by the relatively backward advancements in medicine of the Philippines as well as the insufficient pay for the tedious workload, Mariel’s mother looked beyond the comfort of her home and into the famed light at the end of the proverbial tunnel of opportunity. Despite having children and a relatively stable job, Mariel’s mother nevertheless made a resolute decision to immigrate to New York City, even if it meant that she had to go alone.

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Typical housing in upper middle-class neighborhoods of Ilo-Ilo, Philippines

Since Mariel and her two brothers had already developed friendships and close connections with their neighborhood and the community, Mariel’s parents agreed that forcing Mariel and her siblings to move to an unfamiliar place would be an unfair and burdening responsibility to place on their young children. “I asked my father why Mom didn’t bring us along with her to America,” Mariel said. “He told me that he didn’t want to make us go through difficult changes, especially at an age where we couldn’t have comprehended the complexity of immigration.”


So instead of bringing the whole family along with her, Mariel’s mother immigrated by herself while the rest of the family stayed at home in Ilo-Ilo City. Since Mariel’s father worked as a civil lawyer, he would be able to take care of the family as well as fund his wife’s expenses in the United States during her time as a medical student. “My mom’s dream was to work with medicine in America. The only problem was that she had children and a husband to leave behind,” Mariel shares. “We also weren’t in a place of financial security, so my mother leaving was definitely a high-risk, high-reward circumstance for the family.”


So ever since she was seven-years-old, Mariel and the rest of the family would pay their mother a visit in New York by taking yearly vacations to the United States. “Ever since I was seven when my mom petitioned us, we would just go around for vacation, go to places, and spend time with Mom here before going back to school in the Philippines.” They would spend their summer vacations at New York under the immigrant visa, which their mother petitioned for as soon as she became a green-card holder.


For the next fourteen years, Mariel and her brothers would live double lives, enriching themselves with the American lifestyle, food, and culture during the summer and attending school in the Philippines for the rest of the year. She recounts back to her first experience visiting New York for the first time, “When I was little I was so fascinated with the tall buildings since we don’t have those back in the Philippines. I was even more amazed at the variety of food available here compared to the Philippines, where we only had Filipino food.” Eventually, she would develop a bicultural identity that amalgamated from her trips, allowing her to be just as fluent in speaking English as she is with her mother tongue — the Filipino language, Tagalog.


So while the rest of the passengers marveled at the postcard city scenery that glowed from beneath their seats, Mariel was rather deep in thought about something else: after 14 years of flying back and forth, this was her very first time buying a one-way ticket to America. She was now 23 years old and she would not be returning home any time soon; this was her life now, for better or worse. She felt her face and hands heat as a hodgepodge of feelings ranging from anticipation to outright unease brawled for domination.


Shortly after the plane landed, Mariel stepped out of the airport and immediately felt a cold, biting wind that only emphasized its stark contrast to the sunny, humid weather she had so lovingly treasured back at home. However, Mariel already knew that this was but one of the many things she would have to get used to about a life in New York.


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JFK Airport busy and crowded 24/7

However, no matter how many times she has visited America, Mariel still finds herself unaccustomed to the restlessness and the seemingly unceasing buzz of busyness inthe city. With the streets so crowded with honking cars and rushing pedestrians, the stores and restaurants filled to the brim with hungry customers, and the buses and trains bursting at the seams with tardy workers, time always seemed to run short here. And so, with just one foot out of the airport, Mariel finds herself already swept away by a wave of restlessness that is the force of New York City.




Lamenting her province’s relatively simpler and quieter life, Mariel felt a pang of homesickness, which was briefly followed by a pining to return home. “Back in Philippines, people were more laid-back,” she reminisces. “Here, I feel like they’re always too busy to spend quality time with each other.” Already, the differences in weather and setting sent Mariel on a deep longing for the relaxed environment that is IloIlo, where everyone spent their days freely as if each hour lasted as long as a day itself.


As Mariel waited in line for a taxi cab to bring her to her mother’s condominium flat in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she smiles at the sight of a man, face wet with tears, reuniting with his immigrant family.


Mariel knew she was at the extremely fortunate side of the spectrum when it came to the immigration process. It wasn’t difficult at all for her to obtain and renew the immigration visa, since she had been traveling between countries at such a young age. However, the only condition to maintaining such a visa is that they had to pay yearly visits to the United States, lest they lose it. Doing so meant the family had to spend a considerable sum of money.


Regardless, Mariel was reminded by her fortuitous disposition as compared to most immigrant families, and so, counts her blessings with the Lord. If she could bring only one thing from Philippines, it would be her unconditional love and dedication for her religion in Christianity. “I have heard many stories from my friends of their family members who left for America. They all say that they change their mannerisms and their accents to conform to the American culture, but the one thing they hold on so tightly to is their love for God,” Mariel recounts.


Reminiscing the first time she ever stepped foot into New York City, Mariel remembered her first impressions of the city. As a seven-year-old she recounts being intimidated yet deeply fascinated yet with the skyscrapers that seemed to pierce through the clouds. She was even shocked with the wide array of cuisines available in the city that she bawled at the thought of not having enough years in her lifetime to try each restaurant.


But not everything about the city pleased little, gullible Mariel. All of the soap operas and traveling documentaries had portrayed the United States as a very rich country. So New York City being the financial capital district of the world led Mariel to buy into her fantasy of New York as being a place where heaven meets Louis Vuitton. She imagined the streets being paved with gold, the trains would levitate from its tracks, and the people would all be adorned with designer brands and expensive jewelry.

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The number of homeless people in NYC is alarming


That was not the case. In fact, New York City was far from it. Mariel was completely at a loss. The city was filled with trash that polluted street corners, the pungent smell of urine that draped across the floor of each train cab, and homeless people who lived out of frail cardboard boxes and torn blankets. Encountering so many homeless people in a short amount of time was eye-opening for Mariel. “It’s baffling that even though we’re living in the richest country, there’s actually so many homeless people in the city and a lot of crazy ones, too,” she said with perceptible disappointment.




But over the years, Mariel eventually embraced the flaws of New York City. Her nose no longer flinches to the charming scent when passing by a homeless person. She grew to appreciate the festivities of each holiday and enjoyed the liveliness and commotion of national festivals that ran across 30 blocks of the city. New York’s accepting attitude towards things that were different. She even grew to appreciates the changes that occurred around her neighborhood in Spanish Harlem.

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Mariel’s flat in Spanish Harlem

Her favorite places to go to in New York City are Times Square and Central Park. In Times Square, Mariel claims that she can do so many activities. She likes to walk around going into shops aimlessly while admiring the buildings and the billboards, and eating different kinds of foods. But since there’s always a lot of people in Times Square, it can sometimes be a hassle, especially during the peak season of shopping and touristy events. Mariel is also keen to Central Park for its spaciousness, very much the polar opposite of Times Square which can often be suffocating and overwhelming. Mariel likes to stroll around the park and appreciate the beauty of nature, as it helps her feel relaxed and at peace. “I feel like it’s an escape from the hustle and bustle of New York City,” Mariel describes. “I’m glad that they made an open space within the city like they did with Central Park. Very much like Times Square and Central Park New York is like a yin and a yang. They are both good but they also have bad things to it, I guess. I believe that it describes New York perfectly: it is a multifaceted city, that being loud and busy as well as quiet and relaxing.”


Yin-Yang of New York City

Fast forward to present time, eight years after her fateful landing in JFK. Mariel is now a head nurse at Bellevue Hospital, working in the cardiac telemetry department. She continues to live with her mom in the Upper East Side, where she did not witness many perceptible changes. However, according to her mom, the neighborhood has changed for the better, becoming safer, housing many more condominiums, and having much more diversity in its residents.  She is an avid food hunter, testing out new restaurants of every ethnicity each week. Mariel regularly comes out to Central Park to relax on a rock and read for pastime when not in work. Even though the head nurse has certainly made herself comfortable in the city, her loyalty to Philippines does not falter one bit. “Even when I travel to other beautiful countries and make a better life for myself in the richest country in the world,” Mariel reveals with a warm smile, “there is still no place like home.”