Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ellis Island

for the first time since i came to America last September yet, today i felt that i am finally in the real America, its heart and soul, that is, not its flashy accoutrements.

because of a wonderfully perfect sunny yet cool day today, despite dire weather forecasts of a rainy, even a stormy day, tito tony suggested to my sister, honey, and i that he take us to Liberty Park, to join in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferry tour. we quickly agreed, although i had my private reservations.

these days, i have just been wanting to stay home and read, or surf the net and do my emails, or watch movies, not really go out and/or socialize-- just clock time until we go home again. so, half of me hated being pulled away from home this morning, but im glad i let the other half agree to the tour.

before getting there, tito tony even suggested that we skip the Ellis Island tour (he said most tourists aren't familiar with Ellis Island anyway) and just stay on the ferry to go straight to the Statue of Liberty. but once there, honey and i decided to step down anyway and explore it, just out of curiousity's sake.

Ellis Island is where around 70% of immigrants to the United States were processed, before it closed in 1954.

as soon as i stepped into the hallowed front hall of the Ellis Island Museum, and was greeted by large black and white pictures of immigrants in the 1880-1924 peak immigration exodus, along with sample artifacts of the kinds of luggage they brought with them-- i was just suddenly overwhelmed with feeling and i choked with tears.

my first thought was, "oh my god, B's ancestors must have stepped into this same hall too almost 100 years ago!"

as i explored the 3-storey museum, from listening to the very dramatic rendition of the tour guide, to my own wanderings in and out of the many exhibits all over the three floors, reading the quotes from Ellis Island immigrants interviewed in the mid-1980s during the Island's restoration as well as listening to taped interviews with some of them-- i cried quietly even as my heart broke, realizing the struggles and suffering all these immigrants from different countries had to go through even as they pursued their fragile hopes and dreams.

the Filipino Diaspora isn't as unique as i've always thought and felt it was.

of course, intellectually, i understood that many people from all over the world immigrate to other countries, especially America, to build a better life for themselves and their families, but it never hit home for me, until today.

i learned that basically, regardless of race, creed, sex, age and background, all immigrants who came to America before shared the same stories of leaving families and precious histories and cultures behind because of extreme poverty, deprivation due to totalitarian governments, atrocities, war... and they made America the great nation it became (until recently).

i was struck by one quote i read from an Italian immigrant who said (paraphrased): "They told us America was paved with roads of gold. When I came to America, I found out 3 things: there was no gold, it was not paved, and we were expected to build the roads."

i saw America with newer eyes, with a newfound respect and appreciation for its people who built it. i am saying this in contrast to my developed anti-American sentiment from my college activist anti-U.S. bases, anti-U.S. imperialism days : ), which was itself a 180-degree turn from my childhood adoration of Hollywood America as the land where all dreams came true.

in the end, as i shared this insight with honey, i truly felt and understood now too when i also said, "the American government is not the American people."

until today, whenever family and friends would tour us around sights and monuments and memorials, i was curious and interested, but still distant and detached. my attitude was, "okay... hmmm... interesting... and then?... so what?... or, hohum... next please..."

until today, i never really felt like i was in America, but just in another developed country, with all these interesting sights and foreign-looking people to see and interact with.

until today, i merely tolerated being in America.

at the end of the tour, in the lawn outside the Museum, honey interviewed me on video with the cam she brought while we were waiting for our ferry back. she laughed when i said, "I am proud to be an American now, even if I'm not an American!"

when we got home, she told tita melvi, "today, Manang (me; Ilonggo term of endearment for "older sister") just fell in love with America!"

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