Put Aside the Holiday Blues: We’re Thousands of Miles Apart on Christmas But Still A Family

by Edwin Quinabo

Migration, even for the best of reasons, can have bitter-sweet consequences at times. From Hawaii to the US Mainland or the Philippines to Hawaii, Filipinos tell their stories how planting new roots in their new adopted cities can have an impact on their Christmases while apart from the life and family they’ve left behind.

Sisters Lana (Moanalua H.S.) and Megan (Kamehameha Schools Kapalama) Quinabo left Hawaii after high school to attend college on the mainland. After completing their master’s degree (Lana in education, Megan in business marketing) they both have decided to stay in California and New York, respectively.

In the late 1980s, early 1990s, the term “brain drain” — when young, talented residents leave the state in search of greater opportunity – was first started to be used as Hawaii’s top high school graduates increasingly chose to attend colleges on the mainland.

Fast forward some 25 years later, Hawaii students deciding to leave for college on the mainland is approaching almost one-third of all Hawaii high school graduates. In 2014, 29% of Hawaii high schoolers picked a mainland college to attend.

In 2010, almost 8,850 students, or 72% of all first-time undergraduate Hawaii residents, chose to stay in Hawaii for college. By 2016, this number had decreased to just under 6,500 residents or merely 62% of new college students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics.

But education experts believe the number of Hawaii students’ going to the mainland is actually higher because the US DOE’s count does not track Hawaii college students transferring to the mainland or Hawaii students who took a break from a local school then resumed college on the mainland.

Going full circle. For Hawaii’s Generation-X Filipinos (40 through 57-years old), their millennial children (24-39) leaving to broaden their opportunities away from home is acutely familiar. Why? Most Filipino Gen-Xers’ parents came from the Philippines to the US in the late 1960s through 1970s for precisely the same reason why they’re children are leaving —  it was also to seek a better life.

Gen-Xers can recall vividly their parents talking about how much they were missing their grandparents. Their parents made long-distance calls, sent remittances, and visited the Philippines frequently to ease their homesickness.

And during Christmas time, homesickness or the holiday blues takes on a sharp discomfort for just about all who have left home, no matter if their decisions to move away was the best choice for their career, personal growth or romantic life.

First Christmas away from family and home
“My first Christmas when I couldn’t come back home to Hawaii was in my sophomore year at Whittier College in California. It was rough,” Lana recalls.

“That year I was working through the holiday season to save money for my study abroad in Europe program which was in January. My parents wanted to teach me how to work for something I wanted. During the winter break I had to leave the dorms. It was cold. I thought about our family Christmas traditions in Hawaii, putting up the Christmas tree and our family gathering with cousins, aunties and uncles, grandparents. I cried and felt alone,” said Lana, who now lives in La Habra, Orange County, CA.

“But I felt comforted because that year I spent Christmas with my aunty Olivia [originally from Moanalua Valley, Oahu] in Ladera Ranch, Orange County, CA. It was my first Christmas on the mainland. It was very different. We had to dress up in formal attire and there was a formal table setting with a set menu. Our Hawaii Christmas is more casual and potluck style,” Lana recounts.

Her aunty Olivia left Hawaii for California after graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the early 1990s. She wanted her children Victoria and Caroline to know their grandma, her family and the beauty of Hawaii so they’ve spent many holidays in Moanalua and Waikiki. Even after grandma had passed away and as busy as the girls are now in medical and engineering school, Olivia still manages to pull-off a family trip to Hawaii regularly.

Megan described her first Christmas away from family while at Manhattanville College in New York. “My first Christmas from home was one of the hardest things that I had to experience since moving away. I remember I Facetimed my family at home during their annual Christmas dinner. It was an interesting feeling that I had, I can only describe it as ‘Happy-Sad.’ It was so beautiful to see everyone smiling, enjoying food, and being together; however, it just made me feel sad because I was not there to join in the fellowship. At that time, I was on vacation in Las Vegas, but not even that could cure the holiday blues I was feeling then.”

Megan lives in Westchester County, NY and has been away from Hawaii about eight years.

Lana and Megan have been able to come back home every year for Christmas except once.“The good part now is because I’m a teacher, I’m able to utilize our school breaks to go back to Hawaii. I don’t have to take a vacation,” said Lana.

Both Lana and Megan will spend Christmas on the mainland with their boyfriends this year but they’ll be in Hawaii to ring in the New Year.

Hawaii’s out-migration of locals
Besides Hawaii students leaving for the mainland (due to a desire to experience life off island and a perceived limitations of academic resources within the state) there is high migration among Hawaii’s general population to the mainland as well.

According to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO), in 2018, 67,293 Hawaii residents moved to the Mainland, or more than 4.5% of the state’s total population. Since 2006 up to 2017 (with the exception of 2010), more Hawaii residents moved to the mainland compared to mainlanders settling in Hawaii.

The mainland has become a more attractive place to live for many Hawaii residents because of Hawaii’s high cost of living, pricey real estate, and a lack of job opportunities matched with workers’ skills, according to a UHERO study.

The top states Hawaii locals choose to move to suggests they are moving for economic opportunities because of the large economies of these states. The top four destinations for Hawaii locals are California, Texas, Nevada and North Carolina.

The effect COVID-19 has had on Hawaii migration has yet to be known until Census Bureau releases state-to-state migration data during the pandemic period.

Experts believe the pandemic will drastically stem the flow of migration between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii at least temporarily. There is the public’s fear of getting infected on the Mainland where the pandemic is worse in many parts of the country than in Hawaii, especially in states like California and Texas, destinations that are popular among Hawaii residents, according to UHERO.

As normalcy returns and the pandemic becomes more manageable, experts say the out-migration trend of kamaʻāina should return to pre-pandemic patterns.

How this will play out in the long-term in the way of perpetuating Filipino Christmas traditions, cultural experts point out to the long history of Filipino diaspora. For the most part, Filipinos will carry on their culture wherever they are in the world.  This has been shown to be true in the long arc of Filipino migration which is constantly evolving.

The parol’s popularity (Filipino Christmas lantern) outside of the Philippines is an example of “cultural” migration. The parol shines bright each Christmas across all continents where Filipinos reside, from the U.S. and Canada, throughout Europe and the Middle East.

From the Philippines to the US
Grace Larson, Hilo, business owner, left the Philippines in 2008 to be with her husband in Hawaii. She considers Hawaii her adopted home, where she started her family, raised her two children along with her husband.

Before the pandemic Larson said she would visit the Philippines once or twice each year. But she’s only been home for Christmas once in 2014 when her dad had a terminal illness.

A Christmas tradition for balikbayans (someone originally from the Philippines going home to visit) is to bring large boxes full of gifts. “Before going home to the Philippines that Christmas, I had already sent my LBC balikbayan boxes two months ahead of my departure date so that they would be there before I arrived. That Christmas I was happy to hand out in person gifts to my family and friends.”

Larson recalls crying her first Christmas away from home when she saw her neighbor’s decoration of the word “Joy” which happens to be the name of her sister whose birthday is on Christmas Eve. As far as passing on to her children Filipino traditions, she said she’s tried. “I wake them up at 12 midnight for our Noche Buena,” she said.

Noche Buena
Noche Buena is the Filipino tradition of celebrating a Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally, Noche Buena takes place after the Misa de Gallo or midnight mass. 

For the Quinabos, Noche Buena would last the entire Christmas Eve. They’d reserve opening presents and attending mass the morning of Christmas day.

Their Noche Buena menu typically would be a mixture of local Hawaiian and traditional Filipino food. The Filipino foods – lumpia, pancit, bibingka — are normally prepared by Lana and Megan’s aunty Marline who learned these recipes from their grandmother Remy.

Part-Japanese and part-Hawaiian, the Quinabo sisters would incorporate other local Hawaii traditions for their holidays.

Working abroad for many years, Christmases on foreign lands
Ludmina Svetlana, originally from Pasig City, Philippines, is a healthcare worker living in Washington State, U.S. The last time she’s been back to the Philippines was in 2018. She’s been wanting to go back to visit but the pandemic has posed challenges.

“I want to go home for Christmas but I can’t due to travel restrictions and my work/company protocols that could compromise my ability to go back to work when I return to the U.S. With the pandemic and patients, and hospitals at high capacity, this also makes it difficult to go home. I really miss Christmas celebration in the Philippines. It’s definitely more festive. It’s also a good time to meet up with my family and friends in such a festive season,” said Svetlana.

Her first Christmas away from home was spent with her brother living in the U.S. But she has since moved to a different city and now spends her Christmas with friends. “I still carry over the tradition of having dinner on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), but we go home before midnight so the kids can open their presents at their own homes.

“This is a tradition that is very new to me, opening Christmas gifts on Christmas morning. This is to keep with the tradition of my Caucasian boyfriend. They practice this because Santa ‘delivers’ gifts at midnight. In the Philippines, however, we open our gifts right after Noche Buena,” said Svetlana.

How does she deal with homesickness? She said playing Filipino Christmas songs helps whenever she’s away from home during the holidays. “I am blessed to be a part of a Filipino group here in Washington. We get to play the silliest games, party until 3 am and everyone speaks Tagalog so I feel like I’m back home.”

Vladimir Marquez, originally from the Philippines, has been living abroad for work for more than 10 years. He is currently in Singapore.

In the beginning years while away, each Christmas Marquez would go back home but admits it became financially challenging. When he was able to return he would bring pasalubong gifts-souvenirs or every-day things that’s needed for family and friends.

“Aside from the fact that I’m used to being away for Christmas at this point, I call my family through Facebook Messenger or Facetime to greet them and tell them that I miss them. Just seeing them smile on Christmas makes all the hardships and distance apart worthwhile,” said Marquez.

Studying abroad in Australia
Jemary Coleen Tantido, Pasig Philippines, is pursuing her Master’s in Social Work in Canberra, Australia, where she says there are huge opportunities in this field. She’s been away for about two years now and last saw her family back in 2020.

“Originally, I had planned to go home every holiday but unfortunately, the pandemic happened. Australia has been strict with its state borders since 2020. Even though border policies were eased this year, I still can’t go back for the holidays because of my visa status. Being in the Philippines for the holidays is a huge deal for me since I love spending Christmas and New Year’s Day with my family, my partner and friends,” said Jemary.

On her first Christmas away, Jemary said she felt homesick most of the time. “I felt mixed emotions since it was a new experience for me.” Like last year, this Christmas she will spend it with her aunt and friends in Australia.

To help ease the anxiety of being away for Christmas, she is in constant communication with her core support in the Philippines.

“I’d say reassurance is my coping mechanism [for the holiday blues]. When I hear certain people assuring me that everything will be fine, and that we’ll be having a better Christmas when I’m back home, this helps. The time will come when I’ll be home and finally be with my family during the holidays, but for now, we cannot stress about things that we can’t control,” said Jemary.

Beyond the holidays
Both Lana and Megan said homesickness never really goes away and lasts beyond the holidays. Technology like Zoom, Facetime are “huge tools” to stay connected with loved ones miles away. Using frequent flyer miles also makes it easier for family to visit, they say.

Gen-Xer Marlin Martin, Ewa Beach (aunty of Lana and Megan) explains that millennial Filipinos who are moving away have it easier compared to their grandparents who emigrated from the Philippines.

Before the unlimited and face-to-face communications of the internet, Filipinos of the Boomers II generation (58-67) had to communicate with their parents seldomly by phone that had to be time restricted due to expensive long-distance charges, she said.

Travel to the Philippines (with or without frequent flyer miles that never existed then) was close to and often above $1,000 per person. Compare that to today’s roundtrip tickets from mainland U.S. to Hawaii that averages about $650 per person.

Still loved and connected
Martin said, “Even though we are apart during the holidays, we’re all connected and love each other.  My parents – who left the Philippines in the 1960s to come to Hawaii for better opportunities – they never felt disconnected to my lolo and lola.

Just as my parents felt, we all feel just as close to our family in this younger generation living on the mainland. We’ve been raised to love our family wherever they are. Whether they come home for Christmas or they spend it away from Hawaii, it is the same. We are in each other’s thoughts and hearts. Love transcends distance.

“Sometimes our children will branch out and be on their own. This may be the hardest part as parents.  We must let go and let our children lead their own lives, even if it means a life away from us,” said Martin.

“In a way, Christmases are that much more special now because if we are lucky, we can be reunited with our loved ones for a few more days in the year,” she said.

Larson said, “today, with my growing adorable kids, Christmas now in Hawaii is beautiful and happier. My wish this Christmas is the best of health for everyone and may we continue to enjoy life itself, which is God’s precious gift to mankind.”

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