a mother and daughter posing for a smiling portrait on a white background

My mother's journey as an overseas Filipino worker

With millions of Filipinos working abroad, one woman reflects on overcoming the distance that grew between her and her mother.

Angeli Gabriel and her mother, Marlyn Henning, take pictures after the family moves to Tennessee in 1999. Mother and daughter share similar haircuts and floral prints.

“You had pigtails and didn’t speak any English at all,” my mother says, telling me the story of our move to the United States. It was probably the thousandth time I’d heard this story, but I didn’t mind. My mother, like many Filipinos, is an excellent storyteller—very expressive. She’d emphatically move her hands, shimmy her shoulders, and even do impersonations.

But I couldn’t see any of that this time because we were talking on the phone. My only visual of her was the word “Mom” glowing in white text on my phone’s black screen. I could still imagine every motion she was making and every glint in her eye, as I heard her smiling through the phone.

These calls, where I’d envision my mother’s mannerisms from memory, are how many of our interactions go these days. Years ago, I moved to Washington D.C. for graduate school and work, hundreds of miles from my parents’ house in Tennessee. Trips home became more difficult and less frequent.

For my mother and me, distance has always been a constant. But as the decades went by, the veneer of normalcy began to fade as the sacrifices of my mother and our family in the Philippines came to the fore. (Why 10 million Filipinos work overseas.)

It is quite common in Filipino families for parents and children to live apart. Many parents travel abroad to places like Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, the United States—anywhere they can go to make a living—even by taking care of other people’s children. Today, an estimated 10 million Filipinos are working overseas. They send home an estimated $27 billion a year in remittances.

Of the many Filipino professionals that travel overseas to work, some of the most well-known are nurses. My mother is one of those nurses.

Our story began in 1955, when my mother was born in the rural town of San Jacinto, Philippines. Her father, a bus driver, was the sole earner in their household, struggling to make his earnings stretch and support his wife and six children.

The stories my mom tells about this time in her life take on a somber tone as she talks about family meals that only included rice, water, and salt. Her father would try to persuade his children to eat, constantly promising meat in their next meal, knowing that it was a promise that he could rarely keep.

But by the time my mother, the youngest daughter, was a teenager, my grandparents had saved enough money to invest in something that would change their future: sending my mom to nursing school.

Nursing was not my mother’s dream career at the time. As a teenager, she loved to draw and sew, and she even dreamt of a career in fashion and design. But my grandparents asked my mom to consider nursing. My grandparents had seen for other families that nursing helped provide the financial stability their family desperately needed.

They enrolled my mother in Lyceum-Northwestern University. My mom graduated as a registered nurse in 1978.

Then in 1983, after years of gaining hands-on medical experience, my mother joined the ranks of many Filipino nurses who came before her. She accepted an offer to work abroad, at Abdulla Fouad Hospital in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

She recalls the day she left for the job. At the airport in Manila, Philippines, she prepared to hop on a plane for the first time. Her father was sad to see her leave, and my grandmother cried incessantly. It would be a long time before they’d see their daughter again. (See millions of Filipino workers return home for the holidays.)

As part of my mother’s work contract, she could only return to the Philippines once a year. Each stint home lasted for about 45 days, enough to catch up on what had happened with family in the past year, before having to reset the clock and return overseas to work.

Like many other Filipinos working overseas, my mother sent the majority of her pay back to her family. Her parents needed her support as they grew older and as my grandfather became unable to work as much. Some of her siblings fell into financial hard times. While working abroad separated my mom from her family for years, it allowed them to leave a life of poverty and gain a better, more stable life.

Growing up, I remember seeing photos of my mom in Saudi Arabia. She would be posing with friends and co-workers, and she’d often wear either pressed, white nursing outfits or casual 80s wear that showed off her petite figure. But a few other photos had her posing in a large, flowing mumu—showing off a baby bump.

In 1986, she returned home to give birth this baby: me. I was her first child and the start of her own little family. But about four weeks after giving birth, per her work contract, she had to return to Saudi Arabia. (Follow Filipino workers as they figure out life in the gulf countries.)

I was left in the care of my mom’s parents and one of her brothers. They raised me as if I were their own, until they were granted an opportunity they couldn’t pass up: moving to the United States.

They then left me in the care of one of my mom’s sisters and her husband. I would grow so close to them that I’d call them “Mommy” and “Daddy”, rather than the usual Tita meaning aunt or Tito meaning uncle. I’d see their children, who were technically my cousins, as my brother and sister.

My aunt would send my mother cassette recordings of me talking or singing as a toddler. My mom said she’d cry every time she listened to them. And when she would take her yearly trip back home to see me, she was met with a baby that cried because she didn’t recognize her.

My mom knew that her hands were tied. She felt that she couldn’t leave her job because so many family members back home were depending on her. That was the responsibility she bore, even if it meant only being able to see her own daughter once a year.

This part of our story is one my mom doesn’t tell that often. But when she does, her usually animated demeanor fades. I hear a tightness in her throat as she tries to speak. When she talks about this in-person, the only thing I can really do is give her a hug, because this period in our lives was just one of several times to come when she and I were separated.

After a few years, when our family was in a better place financially, she decided to move back home. She knew she wasn’t going to find a nursing job that paid as well as the one she had in Saudi Arabia, but she was willing to make the sacrifice so that she and I could be a family.

But rather than staying in the Philippines, she decided to set her sights on America. Her goal soon came to fruition when she was given an offer to work at Physician and Surgeon Hospital in Midland, Texas.

It was like a dream come true: she would be sponsored to immigrate to America and have guaranteed employment. The catch: she’d have to work a certain number of hours and pass an exam in order to stay employed and in the United States; if she failed, not only would she be sent back to the Philippines, but she’d have to pay back every cent invested into her travels.

My mom decided to take that gamble and up the stakes. She only agreed to go if she could take her daughter with her. Her terms were accepted.

So there we were, on a plane to America. My mom was ready to start a new life with her daughter, dressed in pigtails.

But soon after we arrived to this new country, we were split apart yet again.

My mother needed to focus on her job. Our future and ability to stay in the U.S. depended on it. So, she sent me to live with family in Long Beach, California, where I was reunited with two familiar faces: my grandparents.

My grandfather was working as a janitor, and my grandmother stayed home to care for me. We went to church every Sunday, joining a Catholic congregation made up mostly of Filipinos. We also visited their senior citizen community center and catch up with other Filipino elders. I have fond memories of my grandparents on the dance floor, holding each other close, as they’d done for decades in the Philippines and now, in America.

Although life in the U.S. was not as easy as they’d hoped, they recognized how many opportunities it could still hold for me – even if it came at a cultural cost.

This was most evident in their determination to have me learn and speak English. They, along with my mother, believed that the best way to ensure this was to stop speaking to me in our native Tagalog and our dialect Pangasinan and to only speak to me in English.

At one point, I not only learned how to speak English, but I also learned how to pick up the phone and call my mom. I’d ask her, “Ma, why am I the only one here who doesn’t have a mom?”. According to my grandmother, I was frustrated by how my mom could never visit. I’d point at a U.S. map during a call with her and say, “Texas is there, California is here. See? It’s not that far.”

Years later, on Mother’s Day 1993, my grandparents and I parted ways, and my mother and I reunited. She had passed the requirements for us to remain in the U.S., and we were able to become a family once again.

I was sad to leave my grandparents, but this reunion did grow our family by one. While in Texas, my mom met and fell in love with a fellow nurse at the hospital, and she brought him to meet me.

Originally hailing from Oklahoma, my stepdad introduced me to another side of American culture. I have fond memories as a child, waking up to songs by the Beach Boys or George Strait playing from the kitchen. I’d find my dad, a burly, 6-foot-tall white guy, tending to homemade sausage gravy simmering on the stovetop. When he’d see me, he’d start doing silly, dad-joke-level dance moves—anything to make me laugh.

His lightheartedness was accompanied by a deep respect for my family’s struggles. He recognized the pain of my mother’s and my near-constant separation, and he did what he could to reacquaint us after years of being apart.

Change was afoot once again, but this time, we experienced it together.

We moved to Tennessee for my father’s job, and we ended up establishing roots in a small town called Fairview. Unlike Long Beach, which was a bustling town of grey, city blocks, Fairview was calm, quiet, and lush with green. Our first home there was nestled in the woods.

To acquaint themselves with this new town, my parents decided to partake in one of Fairview’s popular activities: attending the high school’s football games. But on their first visit, my mother recalls looking around the bleachers and noticing another difference from Long Beach—everyone at the game was white. Knowing that I would stand out in this community with my black hair and brown skin, she couldn’t help but wonder how I would fit in.

Turns out that my mother had nothing to worry about. Classmates took an interest in my background and life in the Philippines, and they and their families treated me and my parents with respect and kindness. I grew up virtually clueless that I was any different from my blonde, blue-eyed, and freckled friends. I even picked up a little Southern lilt.

While my mother and I were finally together again, establishing roots in this new hometown, we began to drift once again. The distance we’d encountered time and again in a geographical sense began to manifest itself culturally.

My mother developed expectations of me that were rooted in traditional Filipino values, whereas I had expectations of myself that were rooted in American values. For example, what she perceived as disrespectful behavior, I perceived as standing up for what I believed in.

Despite our cultural disagreements, while I was in high school, my mother decided to bring us further into the American fold by having us become citizens. When I ask her about this decision, she brings it back to opportunity. “At the time, you had to be a citizen to apply for scholarships,” she said. “I wanted you to have all the education opportunities.”

I remember quizzing my mom about U.S. history to help prepare her for the citizenship test. We’d often sit on the front porch of our house to do this. It was usually dark, since we’d get together after she came home from work, and we’d flip through the list of questions by the warm yellow glow of the porch light.

Who was the first president of the United States? What do the stars and stripes on the American flag mean? My mother, educated in the Filipino school system, had to learn another country’s history from scratch.

Then, in 2002, she took and passed the text, and we became American citizens together.

In addition to learning about U.S. history, my mom and I learned about one crucial component of becoming Americans: You must have the ability to handle the distance from your home country, from loved ones, and from yourself.

My mother took ten years to afford our first trip home, after that initial flight in 1991 took us further away from the Philippines in ways we never expected. She spent years apart from her parents, her siblings, and her own daughter, missing countless milestones in their lives.

Now in her sixties, my mother has scaled back the hours she works and spends her new free time with my dad and herself, having for the first time the space to reflect, appreciate, and heal from the many turns her journey took.

Although she and I are once again apart, with her in Tennessee and me in D.C., we do our best to maintain a closeness we’ve been deprived of for so long.

While it would be ideal to be by her side as she tells her many stories, watching her as she motions through the air and seeing the expressiveness of her eyes, something as simple as a phone call, where I could hear her smile resonating through the line, is still as priceless a connection.

All photographs used in this story are courtesy of the author.

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