When I think of social media today, a multitude of images fly through my mind. I see publishing news and writer friends sharing advice on Twitter. I see friends and cousins all around the world sharing beautiful moments and the meals they learned to cook from scratch on Instagram. I see updates from all the people I’ve ever shared my life with on Facebook, be it my best friend from kindergarten, my teammate in my college journalism class, or my titos and titas in the Philippines all gathered together around a huge table filled with food and a karaoke machine in the corner. (And sometimes the occasional ex-boyfriend I wish Facebook would stop reminding me of.)
It’s ever-present in all of our lives; to share, to communicate through, to just want to be a part of. How did we get here? To answer this, I had to think all the way back to nearly the beginning of my life.
Growing up in Southern California, I remember how hard it was for my parents to find work when we first arrived. It was 1981 and I was only 2 years old, my brother only 4. We didn’t have family in America, and very few friends. But my parents were persistent, they were educated, and they were lucky.
They eventually found work, but it still wasn’t easy. In order to live and raise a family in a new country, having to start over again, and especially in a part of the country known for its high cost of living, they couldn’t just find a job. My parents had to find two jobs and work both, each of them. Because of that my Lola Rosing, my mother’s mother, flew to California from the Philippines when I was 6 years old to help raise us.
I always regarded my Lola as a strong woman in her own right. She woke early and worked all day. She taught me to cook and study hard. And the only thing she ever asked for were stationeries and phone cards. That struck me as odd when I was younger, but I understand it now. She was plucked from her life willingly to help her daughter and her family get settled in a new country. All she wanted in return was the ability to speak to the loved ones she left behind.
Filipinos have always been a social people. Culturally, pamilya and kababayan remained close and supported one another. Maybe that has to do with economic factors, taking care of each other in times of need. Certainly, though we knew few people in California, we found ourselves gravitating towards communities where other Filipino families lived. My parents reconnected with their childhood neighbors and I grew up calling them tito and tita, their kids my cousins, though we weren’t blood related. Because that’s exactly what they gave us as we struggled in this new world, a sense of family we needed to endure the hardships.
Or perhaps it is more of a religious factor, the Catholic ideals of honoring thy mother and father and loving thy neighbor a fundamental factor in our lives. St. Athanasius Church in Long Beach, California became our parish. My brother and I both attended grade school there, and our family attended their mass every Sunday at noon. It was like a second family, a built-in community where we knew we would always be welcomed and supported, accepted and prayed for.
There’s nothing more important to us than family and camaraderie, and staying in touch with all those we care for is how we maintain our community. And as peoples of a diaspora, it also calls upon our desire to be accepted, our yearning to belong when everything else in our lives was unfamiliar.
Do you remember passing notes to your friends in school, carefully doodling along the edges of your Hello Kitty stationery with your multi-colored gel pens? Or hand-making a birthday card complete with scratch-and-sniff scented stickers and wallet-sized class photo of you to mail to your cousin in the Philippines? This is how we stayed in touch; this is how we reminded our loved ones we still hold them dear. And as we grew up and the world and technology grew right along with us, we never stopped showing them how much we loved them. But now instead of colorful stationery and handmade cards we use social media.
My Lola used phone cards back in the '80s and '90s, but today Filipinos stay in touch through Facebook and Instagram, and apps like Viber and WhatsApp. Now, social media gives us the opportunity to remain tethered instantly and globally. At the moments in our lives when we dared to dream of a better life, when we chose to leave our homes in pursuit of more opportunities, the rise of the internet gave us the opportunity to remain in a community of support we so desperately clung to and needed. It has been integrated into our traditions of family and home by keeping us together no matter how far away we may venture.
It no longer matters how many miles span between me and the cousins I rarely see. It doesn’t matter that their day begins 13 hours ahead of mine. Social media allows me to talk to them, to follow along in their adventures and daily lives, even reminds me when it is their birthday. And that is why I believe a social media tradition has and will continue to span the test of time and adversity. We need it to, specially today in a state of global health crisis, when staying in touch virtually has come to temporarily replace physical proximity. We will stay together and support each other. Because while we work diligently to chase our American dreams, social media now assures us that we no longer have to do so alone.