The only thing that really looked normal to me this holiday season was a video chat with my family on Christmas Day. I logged into a Facebook video call from New York while my mom and brother were calling from California. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews have joined other states from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Qatar and the Philippines.
The platforms we have used to maintain this tradition have changed over the past decades. Long before Zoom became the lifeline for staying connected during the pandemic, immigrant families like mine have had to rely on any available technology to stay in touch. Finding ways to reach long distances is nothing new, it is what we do in a diaspora.
This year, I found myself glued to the screen all Christmas morning, amazed at the size of my nieces, nephews and god children since I last saw them in person – which in most cases , has been going on for years. I mostly watched them grow up on screens.
Before there were apps like Skype, it was even more difficult for us to log in. My father moved from Manila to California shortly after I was born to create a life for us in America. Before my mom and I joined him, the only way my dad could see our faces was in the photos my mom sent him.
“Dad, I just want to show you my full set of teeth… and my dimple…” my mom scribbled on the back of a photo of me, two and a half years old. Another copy of this photo would end up in my very first passport.
Once the three of us, along with my US born brother, were in the US there were expensive and rushed calls with relatives in the Philippines on our landline. These calls sparked another frenetic phone game. You needed to house the household so that each person could have a moment to call. “Hurry up, tell so and so to pick up the phone,” yelled the one holding the handset. “It’s long distance!”
Skype was a game changer when it started offering free video calls in 2006. I remember logging in from the desktop computer in my parents’ room when I came home from college. There I saw my grandmother in the Philippines squinting to make out our faces on the blurry webcam image. Before that, just hearing her voice was an expensive luxury. Suddenly it was free – and I could look her in the eye while we chatted for as long as we wanted. In 2009, I had my own Skype account separate from my parents, and it seemed like all of my cousins, aunts and uncles did too.
Now I have a whole folder of apps on my phone that my family uses for free long distance calls. There are so many platforms to choose from that each of our calls tends to start with whether we are using the right app: will the switch to Viber or Facebook offer a better signal or will it be? it easier to use for seniors on call? ?
These calls have also merged seamlessly into in-person events. My mother’s family side has held a meeting on New Years Day every year since my mother was born. We’re a big family (my single mom has eight siblings), so it’s a big production. My mom rarely shows up in person, but she calls every year. The last time I attended the meeting, in the Philippines in 2014, my mother was still in California. I called it from my laptop and set it up on a table with a good view of the party. Other relatives overseas toured on cell phones that guests handed out.
For the first time in more than 60 years, the reunion has not taken place in person this year. I’ve always found it heartwarming to speak with my family on another New Years Day video chat, but I miss it nonetheless. The grief is always there when the holidays are over. He will be there when the pandemic ends. Coming home is not always as easy as taking a plane as an immigrant. There is a lot of paperwork and luck when it comes to crossing borders. And there’s still no app that lets me reach out and kiss my mom on the cheek, or pick up my nieces and nephews before they get too old for me to do.
For me, sacrificing physical unity for the promise of greater security in the future was part of growth. And while technology can’t completely bridge the distance between family members, it has made this separation easier to bear.
Video calls are now a standard way to connect with other family members who have scattered around the world in search of a future with greater possibilities. An essential part of our family calls is to help you find work abroad and settle in a new location. I have often heard it said that the Philippines’ main export is its own people. Its economy relies on more than 2 million foreign workers, many of them in health care, whose remittances represent about a tenth of the country’s GDP. The tiny archipelago nation is the world’s largest supplier of nurses – including my mother, many other relatives, and the UK nurse who administered the world’s first-ever licensed COVID-19 vaccine.
Finding opportunities away from home, however, comes at a cost. We perpetually miss our loved ones. There is a shortage of healthcare workers in the Philippines and a disproportionately high number of Filipino Americans working on the front lines of the pandemic have died from COVID-19.
Many people around the world have sacrificed time with their families and have turned to virtual celebrations this holiday season to stop the spread of COVID-19. For that, I am grateful, because it keeps my mom and other members of my family who work in health safe. There are other essential immigrant workers who are more exposed to the virus and who have for years delayed industries that care for the sick and the elderly and bring food to our tables – perhaps at the expense of be with family and friends while on vacation. A video call will never be as satisfying as sitting in the same room with the people we love. But it’s more than some of us have had in the past or have access to even now.
The photos my mom sent to my dad of me while we were still living in the Philippines are now neatly bound into a photo album. They remind us that ingenuity in immigrant communities is not just about finding ways to move forward. We’ve found ways to stay connected.