Even the most independent person craves a sense of belonging — within a family, a workplace, a community. It’s part of the human experience.
Seated over a cup of hot coffee in a cafe on Chicago’s south side, 56 year-old Anita Ong is thinking about country.
“I was born in the Philippines,” she says. “My parents were from China.”
“So! I am in between.”
Her words carry a bright tone, but her facial expression reveals resignation. She is taking me through the past, as though we are there.
“In between” because even though Anita was born in the Philippines, she doesn’t have birthright citizenship there. Instead, citizenship follows that of one’s parents.
In the late 1940’s, around the time Mao Zedong’s Communist Party was declaring victory over the Nationalists, Anita’s parents left China — her father first, then her mother.
“My father went to the Philippines because life was really difficult in his home town — a small rural area. And my grandparents were really poor.”
Anita is the seventh of nine children, all of whom were born in the Philippines. Along with her siblings, young Anita grew up in Laguna and Manila and attended Chinese school.
She had to be linguistically nimble.
“In the morning, we studied English lessons, and in the afternoon, we studied a combination of Mandarin and Fukienese (both Chinese dialects). At home, we spoke Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines) and a little Fukienese.”
To say she was a girl without a country is not far off…
I try to think of the long-term implications of this arrangement. How does one travel without a passport from your home country? How does one answer the question of nationality? What of the question of voting some day?
School of Life
Anita shares accomplishments with humility and brevity.
“In the Philippines, I ended up in medical school. I finished, and I did my residency in pathology.”
Upon completion, rather than a license and a medical practice, Anita received some bitter medicine. Suddenly, her career path appeared to be no more than a dead end. Or perhaps, an “in between” space. Since Anita was not a citizen of the Philippines, she could not practice medicine there.
“It was very frustrating, because when I was doing my residency, my teachers told me that I was a GOOD pathologist.” Anita hints that this was a new kind of praise, a new-found and certain aptitude.
Beyond the issues of personal identity and pride, there was a financial question that accompanied the news: How would Anita earn a sufficient living? While staying with her parents, Anita remembers thinking, “there should be something better for me than this.”
Her mother agreed and encouraged her to go to the United States.
“I had been living a very sheltered life.” Anita spoke softly now. “What would I do in the U.S.?”
Her sister was living in California, but apart from her, she didn’t know anyone. “I would be on my own,” she reflects. “It’s sort of scary.”
Anita boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles, traveling on a Taiwanese passport.
“If a person like me does not have a passport, you can choose either a PRC (People’s Republic of China) passport or ROC (Republic of China), which is a Taiwan passport.”
Anita has never lived in either mainland China or Taiwan.
She landed in California and visited her sister in Redlands for a few weeks. She remembers those first impressions with vivid detail. “There were a lot of citrus trees. I could smell the orange blossoms, and that was wonderful. I thought it was a beautiful place.
“Everything in America seemed to be bigger, grander and brighter.”
Weeks later, she made her way to the Midwest, specifically, the University of Illinois in Chicago. There, she would repeat her residency in pathology and add two sub-specialties.
“I realized I can survive.”
Despite cold urban commutes through dark Chicago winters, Anita felt at home — both in Chicago and in her area of medicine.
“I like details. I obsess with details!” she laughs. “Pathology has a lot of details.”
And in pathology, there is less patient contact, which also suits Anita.
“I like dealing with people sometimes, but sometimes I get shy. And sometimes, it’s a little overwhelming.
“Generally, we are in the background,” she says of herself and her fellow pathologists.
Intermingled with mention of microscopes and objective lenses, Anita says, “We have specimens. They don’t have faces, so in a way, it’s easier.”
Anita wanted to do this kind of work for many years to come. She wanted to practice medicine in the United States.
Her superiors wanted that too.
July 3, 2013
“Will it sound bad to say that I wanted to be a citizen of a country?” Anita asks me. “I wanted to be a citizen.
“Life has been GOOD to me here.”
Anita was working at the hospital when a woman called from a government office: Anita was going to be sworn in as a United States citizen on July 3, 2013.
“They usually don’t call people, but this was such short notice.” Anita is speaking faster. “She left a message on my cellphone and on my home, so it was like listening to the good news TWICE!” She is laughing now. “Actually, I listened to it a number of times!”
On July 3, Anita went to work, then left for the ceremony at around lunchtime. “I was so excited! So restless!”
In an ordinary room set up with rows of chairs, Anita estimated there were about 60 people, from about 30 countries. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke.
“Then there’s a portion of the program where they call the country.” People from that country are to stand at that time.
“And I was thinking, ‘Should I stand up for the Philippines? Should I stand up for China? Should I stand up for Taiwan? I should stand up for Taiwan, but then, would they have a slot for Taiwan?’
“They did,” she smiles. “So I stood up for Taiwan.”
As soon as Anita’s ceremony was complete and she was a U.S. citizen, she left the room and encountered a man distributing voting forms.
“The FIRST thing I did as an American citizen was register to vote!” Anita can’t contain her excitement. She has never been able to vote in her 56 years of life. “I can have the EXPERIENCE of voting. It makes me feel like I’m doing something MEANINGFUL. It is a privilege!“
Then she looks at me deviously.
“Do you want to know what my SECOND thing was?”
“I went to McDonald’s! My second act as an American citizen was to eat a burger!” she laughs. “I didn’t get fries though. I was feeling guilty.”
She went back to work that day as a citizen of the United States. “I was showing off my certificate, and some of my friends called me.
“I was so happy! Really. I was very happy. And now, when I think of it, I can’t help but smile!”
A friend asked Anita what she wanted to do to celebrate. Nothing much. She doesn’t like crowds. They talked playfully about eating hot dogs and burgers, watching the fireworks and buying red, white and blue carnations.
July 4, 2013
Instead, they decided to get together for a low-key movie-watching afternoon at Anita’s friend’s apartment.
“He said he needed to stop at the laundry room,” says Anita. “So we went down this corridor, and suddenly there were these people saying ‘surprise’! They were cheering!
“I was just so surprised and speechless for I don’t know, a few minutes, I was just standing there and laughing. I felt like I wanted to cry and laugh.
“It was such a heart-warming gesture. It was such a happy…” Her voice trails off and she wipes her eyes.
“There are so many people who care for me….”
Anita received symbolic gifts from her friends that day — a flag brooch, a necklace with a heart-shaped locket bearing red and blue stones, a shawl that is an American flag.
She also received a copy of the Constitution of the United States.
“One guest made copies of the Declaration of Independence and distributed them so everybody could read a portion of the document and discuss,” says Anita.
“I read the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.”
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary…”