Connecting with My Uncle on LinkedIn

When my mom asked me to write my uncle’s LinkedIn profile, I knew it was more of a command than a request. She was already holding his resume in her hands. The two pages that summarized three decades of Uncle Amor’s work experience had tattered edges, a yellow tint, and the smell of old printer ink. It was the only testament to the career he had left behind in the Philippines.

I skimmed over it and shrugged.

I had little interest in a foreign relative I barely knew. I only agreed to Mom’s request knowing that in our Filipinx household familial duty trumped all things, including my apathy.

While the Digital Age came with many benefits, it burdened me with being my family’s tech support. Mom, still absorbing my lessons on copy-and-paste, recruited me to help her oldest sibling by turning his resume into a digital profile, triple-checking his English, and rewriting his bullet points in the best light possible. These were my job responsibilities his American-born millennial niece.

Now in his early fifties, Uncle Amor had been petitioned by my aunt to move to San Diego. There, he lived with her and worked as a caregiver to her husband — a patient in a vegetative state after a tragic surgery. My Tita Amy entrusted him with this role in spite of Uncle Amor having no healthcare experience. In our culture, any source of charity — be it cash, hand-me-downs, or a paying job — was reserved for family first.

While my aunt’s situation undoubtedly called for support, everyone knew that Uncle Amor’s caregiver role did not amount to a career. It was a mere stepping stone before he forged his own American dream. He talked about his ongoing job search and the San Diego sunsets whenever he’d FaceTime my mom. With his mind already on the horizon, he was eager to prove to white employers that he was a good hire — an immigrant equipped with work experience and a solid education. He figured the best way to do that was through LinkedIn.

Civil Engineer: Assisted in the design of civil and structural works for sewer disposal, roads, school buildings, baseball fields, parks and recreation, condominiums, townhouses, residential houses, and subdivisions.

It’s not uncommon for second-generation kids to barely know their relatives from the homeland. We’ve heard of them. We’ve visited them. We’ve made small talk with them. In all of these interactions, at least one of us was guaranteed to be jetlagged. We don’t exactly know them.

Beyond the details of his resume, I couldn’t list more than a handful of facts about my uncle. He had a wife, three kids, and his own business in Manila. Mom and I would visit them there every five years. Between my inability to speak Tagalog and his reluctance to speak English, our conversations were limited to pleasantries. Although I addressed my aunts with the Tagalog term tita without hesitation, I never called him tito. My tongue never grew acquainted with that title.

Uncle Amor followed in the footsteps of his father, my Grandpa Amador, also a civil engineer. The similarities in their names foreshadowed a career that seemed destined from the start. My uncle committed to this path with an engineering degree from Mapúa University. A few clicks on LinkedIn revealed that this institution was an elite engineering school in the Philippines. Then, I caught myself making a typo as I entered my uncle’s next civil engineer role into his profile. This employment wasn’t in the Philippines but in Guam. His history as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) began at an early age, around the same time as the now ubiquitous OFW lifestyle took shape.

Around the 1980s, Filipinxs hoped newly elected officials would bring an end to the economic downturn that had stemmed from the presidency of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, best known for his widespread corruption and brutal martial law. While politicians struggled to bring prosperity back to the country, the Filipinx people went to work. Thousands upon thousands took matters into their own hands, going overseas to support their families and stabilize the economy. Such responsibilities remain on the backs of countless OFWs who compose the Filipinx diaspora up to this very day.

Building Administration Officer: Supervised, monitored, and directed support functions needed for day-to-day operations, such as in-house or contractual building, equipment repairs, and maintenance.

It was as if I could feel the disdain in my grandparents’ omnipresent voices as I typed out my uncle’s career change. Going from civil engineer to building administration officer was a notable shift, especially through the lens of Asian culture where you’re presumed to be either an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, or a nobody.

As a fellow nobody, this first curve in Uncle Amor’s winding road comforted me.

Shortly after graduation, I too walked away from my business degree and the first job that came with it. I traded in the pivot tables and cost-per-clicks that came with being a junior media buyer for the headlines and creative briefs that came with being a copywriting intern. This career change, composed of stepping down in title and jumping across within the ad industry, couldn’t have been more difficult to explain to my parents, both lifelong nurses who needed convincing of my business major alone. Still, I knew in my bones that writing had felt natural ever since I was an eight-year-old poring over an essay on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by far more natural than any mandatory finance class I took.

To gather more context for my uncle’s career change, I turned to a reliable source: my mother. As I developed more interest in the details beyond his resume, I figured she would be the perfect person to paint the bigger picture in relation to his career. An even bigger question formed in my writerly mind: Who was Uncle Amor, really?

“I don’t know,” Mom shrugged. “He’s… my brother.”

“Really? I had no idea.” I pushed the issue, watching her shift in her seat.

“Uhm… he had a lot of friends… he liked beer…” Her voice trailed off as she pondered, knowing the details should be deeper for her eldest brother. Her kuya. However, between being six years apart and living on opposite sides of the world, Mom and her brother rarely crossed paths. His arrival in the States had prompted her reacquaintance with Uncle Amor — just like me.

When I pointed her to the handful of job positions that came after his civil engineer title, my mother scrolled through without paying them much mind. My uncle himself lasted no longer than three years with each of those employers. It was his eventual entrepreneurial path that Mom recalled the most when it came to her brother’s work. Uncle Amor had taken a page from the millennial handbook and started his own company in 2000. Mom explained how he’d distribute clean water to families and small companies in Manila. This was a much sought-after service in the Philippines, where safe drinking water and hot showers were understood as privileges rather than rights. Entrepreneurship was a far departure from engineering, but he seemed content in his decision having had run the business for over ten years. I smiled as I typed out this role, feeling pride both for the work he did and for the relative I was beginning to understand.

Operations Manager: Managed technical operations and conducted regular inspections for all ongoing projects. Prepared estimates, quotations, and technical specifications of projects including project studies of construction assignments.

A solid LinkedIn profile is a good starting point for immigrants, but it’s likely only a good starting point. Many overqualified Filipinxs, who’ve uprooted their lives to work in foreign countries, are forced to take any job they can find once employment proves to be difficult.

After his stint as a caregiver in San Diego, my former-engineer uncle took a position as a laborer at a chemical plant in suburban Illinois. A former classmate referred him when his own job search resulted in few to no leads. When I asked Mom about Uncle Amor’s role, she avoided eye contact and said little else other than that he mixed cement. While I knew he had experience in construction and operations, my heart sank at the thought of my fifty-six-year-old uncle’s American Dream beginning with arduous physical labor.

Compared to most OFWs in their twenties and thirties, Uncle Amor resumed his overseas career later in life. After becoming a father in his forties, he was motivated to provide for his wife and three children. Like most parents, he envisioned a life for them that involved high school diplomas, family vacations, college acceptances, big career moves, and all of the expenses that came with it. He was willing to do whatever it took to give them that life, and in the Philippines, that often meant leaving — your partner, children, and former job titles. He was no longer an engineer or even an entrepreneur. He was an OFW, along with two million other Filipinxs who moved to the United States in 2013, hoping to find work and to send paychecks back to their families. The gravity of this choice didn’t dawn on me until I witnessed the solitude in my uncle’s new American life.

In Illinois, Uncle Amor employed the help of FaceTime, Messenger, Whatsapp, and any other device that could make the distance between him and his family bearable. When it came time to brave the frigid Midwestern winters, he’d FaceTime my mom in New York to ask for cold-weather life hacks and down coat recommendations. She thought nothing of it when he mentioned back pain. He said it must be the weather getting colder, his job getting tougher, his body getting older. Then, when he noticed weight loss, nausea, and yellowing in the whites of his eyes, Mom knew a bigger reason hid behind his symptoms.

Owner and Operator: Founded and maintained a water distribution company that supplied clean, filtered water to people living in Mandaluyong within Metro Manila. 

This is where his LinkedIn profile ends.

Uncle Amor experienced the emotional burden of his cancer diagnosis alone. He had no family members by his side as he learned about his carcinoma, his six-month prognosis, or his chemotherapy regimen. Until my uncle endured his life’s most vulnerable moment alone in a foreign land, I hadn’t understood why people called the OFW lifestyle a sacrifice. When he told my mom the news, she flew him out and moved him into her spare bedroom to support him during treatment.

Those days, Mom drove my uncle to chemotherapy, visited my dementia-ridden grandmother at the nursing home, and worked twelve-hour shifts in the emergency room. When she managed to find the time, Mom made room for hope. One weekend, she drove all of us up to Bear Mountain to catch the tail-end of fall, a mythical season that Uncle Amor never had the chance to experience. The stress should’ve been palpable given the people in the car: a man with cancer, a woman with no memory, an around-the-clock caregiver, and an anxiety-ridden daughter. Instead, we all felt beholden to that November day.

Lush oranges, yellows, and reds reflected in my uncle’s eyes as he gazed at every bend on the horizon. The look of wonder on his face reminded me how cancer made every moment both beautiful and finite. While Mom and I geared up for a trail, Uncle Amor insisted he’d stay behind to watch my Grandma Connie. Although he had to brace his lower back as his tumor made its presence known, his composed expression made it seem as if he was simply happy to stop and stare at the scenery around him. For a brief moment in his American life, he could admire this foreign land that had promised him so much.

Coming back from Bear Mountain, we stopped at a supermarket for groceries. When Mom asked her brother if he needed anything, he showed her a small pot of face cream.

“Are you serious,” she scoffed. “Just put some lotion on your face.”

Ano? Hindi pareho yan,” he told her. His healthier self flashed before us as he puffed his chest out in defiance. I didn’t understand what he said, but his body language suggested that he called bullshit on my mom’s substitute. The man had standards.

I was taken aback by my mom’s rebuttal. Just buy the dying man some fucking face cream, I thought to myself as they bickered like kids in the toiletry aisle. I see now this argument was my mother’s relentless hope. Her twenty years as a nurse and her brother’s six-month prognosis were suspended by the chance that he’d live another day. Another day to fight like siblings. Another day to watch the fall leaves turn. Another day to make up for lost time.

“You know, lotion does feel kinda weird on your face,” I said.

“Oh, see that!” My uncle grinned and switched to English as we teamed up against Mom.

She rolled her eyes and bought the face cream.

While we waited for her to bring the car out front, Uncle Amor and I watched my grandmother and talked with our groceries in-hand. He thanked me for setting up his LinkedIn; I said it was nothing. He asked about my job; I asked about his family. As our topics dwindled, Uncle Amor set down his bags to again tend to the strain on his back. He forced a smile, his cheekbones jutting out on his once plump face. As we stood in silence, I decided to say something far too bold for a niece he hardly knew.

“I’ll be there for them,” I said. A brief pause. I worried if I overstepped my boundaries, but the gentle yet contemplative look on my uncle’s face allowed me to continue. “Your kids, I mean. Me… Mom… whatever happens, we’ll be there for them.”

I didn’t know what else to say. Neither did my uncle. Like most of our conversations, we were out of words. And then, just as we settled into our silence, Uncle Amor said what he could.

“Thank you,” he nodded.

Uncle Amor was faced with a decision midway into his chemotherapy regimen. He could fight through his waning state and complete his remaining rounds of chemo. Or, he could spend what might be his last Christmas with his family in Manila. My uncle weighed the options between a chance to prolong his life and a chance to reunite with his wife and children. By then, I knew my uncle well enough to know his verdict: it was time for this OFW to return home.

Mom held onto the hope that Uncle Amor would return to the States for his upcoming rounds of chemo, but several FaceTime calls made it apparent that her kuya was losing his battle. She gazed at the screen only to find a man she barely recognized, weighing less than a hundred pounds and struggling to speak. She blinked away tears as she put away her iPad. “At least he’s with family,” she smiled.

One night, I dreamt of my uncle’s frail body, unable to shake the image of him. He sat on his living room couch in Manila, his face gaunt, his color fading. Then, he took my hand, suddenly standing up as a restored version of himself. A tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, a slight slouch, and a shy smile, just as he appeared in the LinkedIn profile I had made for him. We walked out his front door, into a park with tree-lined paths, along a paved road that wound through rolling hills. Then, I looked over my shoulder and he was nowhere to be found. I looked around search for him, only to see a dragon in the sky. I woke up hoping the dream was some sort of sign. My Uncle Amor would emerge from his battle, rising as strong and invincible as a dragon. But then, I got a text while I was standing in front of the tree-lined paths of Central Park. He had died that morning surrounded by his wife and three children.

Diasporic stories like Uncle Amor’s are glossed over too often. The sacrifices of OFWs are prevalent, which allows for them to be misunderstood as ordinary. In fact, there should be nothing ordinary about leaving behind your life for the sake of a paycheck and dying in the process. OFWs deserve to be celebrated for everything they are. In my uncle’s case, he was an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a Pinoy who stopped at nothing to provide for his family.

The next day, Mom and I made a routine visit to see Grandma Connie in her nursing home. We proceeded with caution, knowing how her dementia would distort the news of her eldest son’s death — subjecting her to forget the event in minutes, only to remember it over and over again. My mother and I treaded lightly with simple conversations as we side-stepped the topic on everyone’s mind except my grandmother’s. In a lucid moment, Grandma Connie asked about her first-born child. “Where’s Amor?”

Mom looked at me, a subtle headshake signaled the secret we were meant to keep.

Grandma Connie still looked to us blankly for a response.

“He’s working,” I replied.

Grandma Connie smiled, relaxing back into her bed. “Oh, mabuti siya.”

Rather than focus on his death, she was thankful for his life and his ambition as a working man who provided for his family. The pride filling her expression inspired me to do the same. I refused to let his final moments as a patient overshadow his identity as a man, a father, and a ­provider. I kissed my grandmother’s forehead and smiled back at her. She knew exactly who her son was, and now, so did I.

The Eye Exam

“You’re not African American?”

He stares. “Not at all?”

He squints. “Not even partly?”

The Long Tail

My parents speak fluent English, and my Taiwanese is pretty well close to fluent, but some things cannot be communicated.