I looked up, my teacher leaned down and said outright “maybe you can help me get a visa to Canada.”
I sat there, stunned, unable to really understand or comprehend what she had just asked me. It was the first time I had heard the word visa used outside of needing to pay with a credit card.
I was a week into my new school in the Philippines. When I got back into the car after school, I turned to my sister who was much older, and asked “what is a visa?” She quickly explained what it was. I decided not to say anything about the inappropriate comment made by my teacher. I thought it was a one off, I would discover it would be a constant ask.
A few weeks into this new life, my Mother began a panic. She went through my wardrobe and fussed. I had no idea what she was fussing about. She carefully had bought me 2 cotton dresses before leaving Ottawa, I had never owned a dress, but apparently they were now wrong. I was quickly driven to a dress maker, where I was measured and shown designs, but my input wasn’t needed. My mother simply chose for me. I was not interested in dresses, I was uncomfortable with the idea of a party dress. There was a rush put on the thing.
When the dress came in, my Mother smiled and clapped, proud of herself, and handing me a box. I opened it. It looked like our old neighbours cat had puked up a very white puff ball of tulle. It was absolutely ghastly. I was completely horrified.
It was announced we all had to go out to a formal function. I was ordered to put on the puff ball. I later found out that the puff ball was made to go to functions.
I was so skinny, that the puff ball dress made me look skinnier. My legs looked like twigs sticking out of a snowball. Both my brother and sister tried not to laugh, but my sister was stuck in a horrendous turquoise dress, and my brother had to wear a suit for the first time. None of us were happy.
We all marched out to the car, attempting to get into the personal car, but told to get into the official one. An old baby blue Mercedes from the early 1970’s. It had leather seats that were so old and stiff, you could feel every coil. They were slippery from the wax that the driver put on it each week. The 5 of us packed in like sardines. My brother and sister had to hold onto me because as the car moved, the leather made me slide down the seat when it met the fine tulle. We had no seat belts to hold us in, safety was not an issue when this car was new. My Mother kept fussing with her outfit. She was holding onto her purse, her knuckles were white. My body started to itch. I was so uncomfortable in the dress, I knew I was getting a rash. the more I fidgeted, the more I slid down.
As the driver slowly pulled up to a massive hotel, the massive lion statues stood on either side of a highly polished brass banister, with velvety red carpeted stairs. It was just about the grandest entrance I had ever seen. I could see my Mother tense up, my siblings and I looked at each other. We had no idea where we were, or what we were supposed to do.
My Father sat stoically in the front, waiting for the car door to open for him. My Mother sat like a statue of nerves, my brother leaned over and was about to open his side, when my father said “stop”. All at once, all our doors opened at the same time. The doormen of the hotel had run out, and in unison opened our doors. There was a lineup of people going up the stairs. I had no idea who the heck all these people were or whey they were standing there. My Father said “thank you”, then gestured for my Mother to go first, as my brother tried to hop to it. My father gently grabbed his arm, held him back as my sister and I jumped out of the car. My father nodded and told us to follow my Mother. None of us had any idea what was going on.
We walked into the lobby of all white marble, and the hotel seemed to be in high alert. A older gentleman with the a formal barong came forward to greet my Father warmly. He greeted us all with warmth and like all Filipinos, charm. People were falling all over him. I had gathered he must me important. I just didn’t know how important.
We were led into a private dinning lounge where his family was sitting. We were having an intimate family dinner with him. I was rather excited, it was going to be Chinese food. My favorite.
As we sat down, the cokes were waiting for us. I was shocked, his wife with perfect hair and makeup, emeralds the size of eggs hung on her earlobes (I later learned that what I thought was fake jewelry, was in fact real, size mattered in these parts). Mum detested juice and pop for us. I was usually only allowed to drink milk and water. I soon discovered old rules won’t apply to new formal settings.
The first dish came out. Fish egg soup. I thought I was going to die. My Mother gave me the face “eat it, and don’t let on you don’t like it.” I wanted to cry. The smell was so foul. I sat there in an awful party dress… I ate it, reluctantly. knowing I was making faces. My stomach started to gurgle. I had to excuse myself. I got to the bathroom and threw everything up.
When I came back to the table. I heard an awful noise. The hissing and crying was so loud. It was drunken shrimp, being prepared at the table. I knew this was a delicacy. I sucked back my coke. My brother looked on in horror, my sister tried really hard to hide the look of green. Apparently, all of us were feeling the fish eggs in red broth wanting to come back up.
My Mother raised her eyebrow again at me. I tried so hard. But at 10 I just wanted to cry.
Dish after disgusting dish came out. the last: birds nest soup. I had excused myself so many time to vomit. My Mother hadn’t noticed, she was so worried I would be offending someone. Instead of my getting the soup, I was given a plate of sweet and sour pork on rice. Our lovely hostess looked at me and winked. I took a deep breath and smiled with such relief.
When we were all done. Our hosts gave us all hugs, like we were old family friends. My Father was happy, and my Mother was relieved. My brother and sister looked green. We discovered our table manners had passed the test, my Mum was pretty strict, but we had no idea how to hold a conversation, and small talk was all new.
As we got back into the car. My Mother chastised us for our face making, saying it was embarrassing, we had to work on our poker faces. Then announced as a backup to all the food we threw up, she made sure our cook at home had burgers and fries for us. When we got home, I took off the awful confection and got into my pj’s, my whole chest, neck and arms were angry with a rash. When I came downstairs, my mother was horrified, and realized she and my Father had asked a lot of me, but we had all been invited and she had no idea what the protocols were, this was all new to her.
I ate the burger and fries happily. I was rarely ever forced to make an appearance to any formal function again, unless it was at church, school, or in some cases, we were specifically requested. My Father quietly bought me another dress that didn’t give me a rash, and my Mother declared loudly that I was very allergic to sea food, so I didn’t have to eat it ever again.
Stepping into the life of an ambassador’s daughter, was a contrast. When my father was just part of the embassy, people didn’t go out of their way to ask me for favours. They didn’t ask to be invited to receptions, which was a horrifying trend with some teachers and friends. I felt caught between worlds. I went to school with the richest and most elite locals, my parents were invited to exclusive events, yet, we were very much civil servants. We couldn’t afford weekend trips to Hong Kong to shop, or when we wanted to learn to ski, and trip to Switzerland for private lessons, I did not own diamond earrings the size of my fist at the age of 10. while friends got Cartier watches for their 12th birthday, I was happy with my swatch. Yet, I was very aware that my teachers would trade good grades for visas if I could, but obviously, I could’t. It was always a hard balancing act, as my Mother has always claimed, the best supporting actors in the world are Ambassador spouses and children, because they can never be themselves, and they are never the main event, they are there to prop up the leading actor, in this case, my Father.
I have to give my parents credit, I was allowed to be a kid. My parents although strict for safety reasons, they tried to put burden on themselves. My Mother later on, would exit the spouse thing, and decided to be a teacher abroad. She also formed a small group and attempted to change legislation in Canada to modernize our Foreign Service, she thought that if spouses were to have a role abroad, they needed to be paid, there was not going to a be a 2 for 1 deal.