My mother’s journey as an overseas Filipino worker

Angeli Gabriel and her mother, Marlyn Henning, take pictures after the family moves to Tennessee in 1999. Photo courtesy of author.

By Angeli Gabriel/nationalgeographic.com – “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.)

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