Their New York: Chaia
As she sat sipping bubble tea on her stoop in Elmhurst, Queens, Chaia welcomed me to join her. She began to tell me all about her experiences moving to New York City from the Philippines, and how the immigration has come to shape her life over the past nine years. The decision to move to New York was made by Chaia’s parents, who believed they’d be able to find a better life here. She explains that her father had difficulties finding work, and that he “tried looking for other stable jobs, but ultimately decided he wanted to move to New York because it has always been his dream to live here.”
Like many other immigrants to NYC, Chaia was shocked at the discrepancies between her perception of what New York would be as opposed to the real thing. The first thing that she pointed out was the weather. She recalls how in the Philippines, she “loved living in constant 80-degree weather where every night felt like a summer night. I hate winters in New York.” This is a commonly shared disappointment among immigrants, who have ever been exposed to such cold, snowy winters. She misses her homeland, which she found to be a much more inviting, communal group of people than the people she found here in NYC. She found the Filipino way of life much more appealing because “Back home, everyone was hospitable, families lived in one house containing at least three different generations, and the community looked out for each other.” In New York, on the other hand, “It’s dirty here and everyone’s rude.”
Although leaving behind gorgeous weather and kind communities for the cold, harsh world of NYC was very discouraging, Chaia explains how the saddest part of the immigration was the fact that she had to leave behind the breathtaking night sky. She says that she “was really bothered aboutthe light pollution, because [she] loved seeing the stars every night.” In Carl Velasco’s “Check Out New York City Without Light Pollution,” light pollution is described as “a phenomenon where too much light from Earth blocks out the visibility of certain stars.” This issue has become increasingly serious over the past few decades as more and more artificial lights take over the natural light of the sky, and prevent urban populations from seeing the beauty of the night sky that is found in less metropolitan areas. Velasco goes on to say, “In New York, the city that never sleeps, light pollution is as common as rats roaming the streets looking for food.”
As Chaia continues to describe the differences between her life in the Philippines and her life in NYC, I am blown away by her sincerity and her devotion to her home land. She tells me that when she arrived to the Big Apple, she “thought it was way too loud and way too bright. I couldn’t see the stars and there was no grass.” This was a huge disappointment to her, because she had become accustomed to the sights and sounds of nature in the Philippines. She describes the beautiful home she once had, and how she “used to have a huge backyard that was home to banana and coconut trees; we also had an even larger front yard with orchids, a fish pond, lime and guava trees.” With every description Chaia gives about her life in the Philippines, you can see her face light up a little more as she remembers the beauty that she was once surrounded by.
After she moved to NYC, Chaia lost a little part of herself. In the Philippines, she lived a very different life than the one she adopted here, and she often feels regret that she no longer lives the simple life she once did. She explains how in the Philippines, she “was into gardening with my grandparents, but outgrew it once I moved here.” This was especially difficult for her, because at one point, it was something that she enjoyed a great deal. Gardening was often the highlight of her day, and doing so with her grandparents made it even more special. She states her disappointment that in New York City, it’s incredibly unlikely to find open spaces that are available to garden, and that even if there was land, it wouldn’t be the same without her grandparents, who still live in the Philippines.
Moving to New York City is a tough transition for anybody, and it becomes especially difficult when you leave behind a life you love for one that can’t begin to compare. When she first moved to NYC, Chaia “lived on 70th street in Woodside. I lived in a two-bedroom basement that was crawling with roaches, bed bugs, and mice.” Not only was her apartment infested with insects and vermin, but “The rooms were extremely small, we had no living room, our freezer and oven didn’t work, we slept on a mattress on the floor, and the hallways weren’t even big enough to spread your arms out.” This tiny, sad location was a shocking transition from her lovely home in the Philippines. She explains that the awful hardships she was forced to cope with “was the cost of living in New York.” She reveals that her parents paid over $700 every month to live in this dirty, cramped space. This life was not anything like the one they were hoping to find here.
Chaia found a glimmer of hope in her neighborhood, which provided an incredibly thin, yet present silver lining in her gray cloud of a life in NYC. She lived in a little neighborhood called Little Manila, which she found to be pleasant, and explains that the best parts of the neighborhood would be “having the 7 train one block away and the multitude of Filipino restaurants around me (she later adds that the restaurants still overpriced their food). It made me feel like I was back home…slightly.” In “Woodside’s Little Manila offers a piece of the Philippines in Queens,” Marjorie Cohen explains that “Filipinos in the city know that when they’re homesick, Little Manila in Woodside, Queens gives them a jolt of the Philippines, thanks to the small businesses that line its streets.” Chaia found this location to be especially comforting due to the “50,000 to 70,000 Filipinos living in Woodside now” as Cohen later adds.
The comfortable neighborhood made Chaia’s transition to NYC life much easier, and she explains how it was the neighborhood that made moving here a little more worthwhile. She expresses that “the best parts about Queens are its diversity and multicultural atmosphere. Our cultures sort of blend into one melting pot. I never felt left out, or exclusively included. It felt like the Goldilocks’ region of New York.” So while living in a land that seemed to be riddled with bad weather, dirty vermin and rude people, Chaia discovered that the borough of Queens has created a more enjoyable atmosphere for her, as an immigrant.
As she began to explore Queens more and more, she found little things here and there that have made her change her first impressions of NYC. She tells me that she “was amazed at the view of the city, and at how people here live lavishly and carefree. The nightlife was even better because no store closed at a reasonable time. You can just go outside and you’re bound to find something to do within one block.” She reveals that such a lifestyle was pretty much unheard of in her town in the Philippines, and she found it to be amazing.
After a couple years living in Woodside, Chaia moved to Elmhurst, where she found a much brighter, happier existence. She left behind her cheap, dirty apartment as soon as her father was able to find a decent job, and they all moved into a nicer, cleaner apartment, which has drastically improved her outlook on NYC. She recognizes that Elmhurst, Queens is representative of America, and when asked whether or not she encounters a lot of diversity in her neighborhood, she responds “Now that I live in Elmhurst, Queens, I would proudly say yes. Queens represents every race, sexuality, age, you name it.” Unlike in the Philippines, America has become a hub of immigrants, which has created an outstandingly diverse population in all senses. Seeing as Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world, it gives its inhabitants an experience they’d never be able to find anywhere else in the world.
Living in America these past nine years has exposed Chaia to new, foreign ideas and ways of life that she had never before considered. She tells me that in Elmhurst, she “learned about more cultures and ethnicities that I previously never knew about. I find it ironic because back then, I never even knew what an Armenian was and now, I’m in a relationship with one – for two years already! My whole childhood I thought I would be with a Filipino, but nope.” Her exposure to the diversity of America has completely altered the way that she valued certain traditions and customs of her heritage, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Similarly to other people who have immigrated to America, Chaia has learned to broaden her horizons, progressing past a life in which her family dictates her future. She has learned to take the reigns of her life, and control her own destiny.
Nowadays, Chaia considers herself to be a true American, and adamantly opposes the belief that all Americans should look a certain way. She explains that “there’s this ridiculous misconception that being an American means you’re light-haired, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed. Even people from other countries tell you this when you ask them what an American looks like. That’s not true at all. Immigrants made this country the way it is today and I am as American as John Doe from Kansas.” She takes pride in calling herself an American, and is a strong advocate for the acceptance of immigrant populations as equally “American” as those who were born here.
Chaia’s immigration into New York has given her a unique outlook on the city, and when asked to give advice to other immigrants moving here for the first time, Chaia responds, “Have an open-mindset. This is where you can reinvent yourself and be whoever you choose to be. Nobody will judge you because nobody cares about you. In a city overflowing with 8.5 million people, find yourself and find those who would encourage you to flourish into the best version of yourself you could possibly be. You can do anything in this city and succeed. Do it.”
Chaia is currently a sophomore at St. John’s University in Queens, and she plans on living in NYC for the rest of her life. She has come a long way since her initial conceptions about this city, and now sees it as her home. She declares, “My New York is multicultural. My New York inspires people to be who they want to be and do what they want to do. My New York is unstoppable.”
- Velasco, Carl. Tech Times.“Check Out New York City Without Light Pollution.” Tech Times, 9 Apr. 2018.
- Cohen, Marjorie. “Woodside’s Little Manila Offers a Piece of the Philippines in Queens.” Brick Underground, 18 Dec. 2017.