Sheltering in Place When You’re Half a World Away From Home
A photographer documented a week in her Chicago apartment, navigating the pandemic far from her family in the Philippines
One night, hours after Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered residents of Illinois to shelter in place after the number of Covid-19 diagnoses in the state rose to more than 1,000 cases, my roommate and I decided to watch The Big Sick. We thought a comedy would take our minds off the outside world. In the film, the protagonist’s love interest comes down with a lung infection out of nowhere, and doctors ask him if he consents to putting her in a medically induced coma. My roommate, Charlette, paused the movie and turned to me.
“I think I should get your parents’ contact details, in case of an emergency,” she said. My parents live in Metro Manila, Philippines, about 8,000 miles from where I live in Chicago. Normally, a scene like this wouldn’t prompt either of us to plan for a worst-case scenario, but there’s nothing normal about the world right now. I told Charlette the best way is to reach them is through Facebook Messenger, where we mainly communicate, but I also gave her their cellphone numbers. In return, I took her parents’ numbers; they live about four miles away from mine. Charlette then made a spreadsheet with both our parents’ information and sent it to our other Filipino friends who don’t have relatives in Chicago to fill out with their own emergency contacts. When you live thousands of miles away from your immediate family, you’re forced to lean on others who are within reach.
When I moved to Chicago from the Philippines in 2016 to pursue a master’s in journalism, many first-generation Filipinos who spent decades in the United States told me, “When you live in America, you will be independent, and you will learn to do everything yourself!” I’ve always known that, at some point, I was going to deal with challenges alone, like being homesick and finding my place in a foreign land. I never thought I would be facing these challenges during a pandemic.
The people physically closest to me right now are in the same boat as me: Charlette, who moved from the Philippines to Chicago in September 2019 to pursue a master’s degree in arts management, and my boyfriend, David, who came to the United States in April 2019 to work as a physical therapist. The three of us are among the millions of Filipinos who left the Philippines for better opportunities in the United States.
For the most part, life while sheltering in place with Charlette seems normal. We live in an apartment on the North Side of Chicago. She spends the day watching movies, cooking, and attending online classes, while I work from home unless an editor sends me out into the field. I see David, who lives a block and a half away, only when we shop for groceries together or drop off supplies for one another. As a physical therapist, he is still considered an essential worker and is treating homebound patients every day.
Recently, Charlette found out she had been exposed to someone in school who was in contact with a possible Covid-19 patient, so we decided to self-quarantine for two weeks. Since then, the two of us have been practicing social distancing at home. Loneliness and uncertainty are side effects of this pandemic; for people like us, whose immediate families are thousands of miles away, it is even lonelier. We cope by finding distractions and new hobbies, like cooking, painting, watching Korean dramas, and talking to our friends and relatives back in the Philippines. But despite the emotional toll, we consider ourselves extremely privileged.
Every aspiring immigrant knows their fate in the United States is uncertain. Charlette wonders how she will get by now that the economy is collapsing. “Does America recognize that I exist here? Does the government care if I go broke? Because for sure the Philippine government doesn’t care enough to think about me. They have enough problems,” she tells me. Even though she isn’t a U.S. citizen, Charlette pays taxes, spends money at American businesses, and pays thousands of dollars in tuition.
David, who spent years trying to secure a work visa in the Philippines to come to the United States, worries about what would happen if he gets sick. “I might not get the same amount of benefits as other people here,” David told me. “If ever, God forbid, I get into a situation, knowing I’m an immigrant and they prioritize citizens… it puts me at greater risk of not being treated.”
Why don’t we pack our bags and leave? The decision isn’t so straightforward. There are more borders now, and they’re more visible than ever before.
Logistics make leaving difficult. By getting on a plane, we would be putting ourselves at risk, as well as potentially carrying Covid-19 back to the Philippines. As a visual journalist, I would have to work outside if I went back home, potentially exposing myself to the virus and bringing it home to my parents. David and I also worry about future lockdowns that might prevent us from reentering the United States and resuming our work here.
Luzon, where our families live, is already on lockdown, which has made traveling from one city to another dangerous and almost impossible. People are allowed to leave the house only to buy essential goods or go to work. Public transportation has been banned, despite workers needing to get to their jobs. President Rodrigo Duterte recently ordered the police and the military to shoot whoever disobeys quarantine measures.
The health care system in the Philippines is unable to handle a pandemic. Hospitals across the country are already overwhelmed, and many private hospitals in Manila are no longer accepting patients. The United States ranks first in the Global Health Security Index’s assessment of countries’ health security and capabilities; the Philippines is 53rd.
The Philippines is home more than 109 million people and officially has 5,453 cases and 349 deaths as of April 15. The true number is probably much higher. Citizens have been demanding mass testing for weeks, but tests have primarily been going to asymptomatic politicians. They just started mass testing on April 14. “If I have to fight for my life, I will fight for it in America, because hospitals are more equipped here,” Charlette said. “The only possibility of me going home is, God forbid, if one of my family members gets sick,” said David, whose parents are nearly 60 and whose sister is a flight attendant. “I wonder what I would do, but I really can’t prepare for it. It’s not like anyone can prepare for this.”
I have always felt this push and pull between building a life in the United States and being with my family and helping my country. This is a force that moves within the diaspora. My friends and I call it “OFW guilt” — Overseas Filipino Worker, what we call those who leave our shores searching for better opportunities to provide for their families back home. “There’s an entire part of me that feels guilty for not being in the Philippines,” Charlette told me. We exist in two worlds. But as much as it pains us to be away, staying put and learning to support one another from afar seems like the best decision at this point.
“The most help I can give my family right now,” Charlette says, “is to not add to their burden of having to provide for me.”
As the weeks go by and time has become more emotionally taxing, David, Charlette, and I try to ease one another’s burdens by sharing meals, doing groceries together, venting to one another, checking in on our Filipino community through Facebook Messenger, sharing information with them through our group chat, and playing online games with them.
Still, there is an undercurrent of worry throughout the day. Charlette told me she has asked herself several times, “Am I ready to die in America? While I silently wonder, is this the day I wake up with a sore throat? What do I do if I get sick? Will I get a call in the middle of the night from a sick relative? Is the Philippine government protecting the interests of all Filipinos?”
Thoughts of home have a way of following us wherever we go. Both of my parents are over 57. I worry about what they touch if they go to the store; I worry about who they might get exposed to when they go for a walk; I worry about when I will see them again.
They worry, too. About a week before shelter-in-place measures took effect in Illinois, my dad sent me a message. “Plan for the worst-case scenario,” he said, nervous about racist attacks against Asian Americans.
Even though we talk almost every day, we don’t tell one another how afraid or worried we are. Instead, I send my parents information from credible news sources; they send me masks and lotion for my hands, which are raw from obsessive washing. I scour the internet for online grocery delivery services in their area; we both remind one another every day to stay home and wash our hands. After living here for almost four years, I’ve gotten used to eating meals with them through FaceTime; I’ve learned how to spend birthdays and Christmas alone. But ensuring my survival and my loved ones’ survival from afar has proven more difficult than battling homesickness.