Tina Austria: My unforgettable landlady and friend
By Heidi M. Pascual
It was bitter cold when I first set foot in Washington, D.C. in early November 1987. My body wasn’t used to this
temperature because I came from a tropical country. I was trembling as my hands and feet started to freeze, even
before I stepped out of the airport. My no-lining cotton blazer covering a silk dress was definitely no match to the
frigid temperature that obviously required a thick, blanket-like cover.
But I was on a mission, so I knew I had to adjust to whatever season it was going to be. I was tasked with
representing my country as an international fellow in the United States Congress for 10 months. It was an honor not
every Filipino — man or woman — is blessed to receive in his/her lifetime. For a woman who came from a poor,
squatters’ area in Metro Manila, it was an accomplishment to just reach America. To have reached it with all-
expenses paid for by Asia Foundation (an American agency), it was better than best.
After a three-day orientation for new congressional fellows in San Francisco and a thorough reading of our
training manual, I was confident I was going to make my country proud. My “yes, I can” mode was turned on so high,
that I already had a strategy on how to land a “job” in the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives or
the Senate. But I was miserable the first few days. I had no family, relative, friend nor acquaintance in this part of
America. No matter how hard I tried to ignore feelings of isolation and severe sadness, I cried my heart out whenever I
thought about my three young children back home, which was every day. It was the first time I would be away for a
long time, and although I had made sure my children were taken care of by reliable relatives, I was gripped with
sadness, especially at night.
Eventually, I convinced myself that I must rely heavily on my ability to survive and connect to people. Since I
had faith in people’s natural kindness and understanding, I was sure to meet the right people who could help me
make this once-in-a-lifetime experience worthwhile, and keep me from losing my sanity. I was billeted for three days
at Dupont Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the office of the American Political Science Association, our host at D.C.
The hotel’s greeter, named Lito, was a tall fiftyish-year-old guy from the Philippines. I was so happy and thankful to
meet a kababayan (countryman) in D.C. Once we talked about my circumstance — that I had to look for an apartment
to stay for 10 months while doing my fellowship at the U.S. Congress — Manong Lito (Manong, an Ilocano word
meaning “older brother”) suggested that I meet his sister-in-law, Tina Austria, who lived alone in a big, nice house in
Gaithersburg, Maryland. He said Tina would be a perfect landlady for me because she’s also a Filipina who shared
my values and that she’d treat me like family.
Tina was easy to like. She welcomed me right away and treated me like a younger sister. I became part of Tina’s
family, most of whom lived close by. Tina was considered the “matriarch” of her family, although she wasn’t the oldest
of the brood. She was the first to immigrate to the U.S. in the ‘60s, worked as a nanny/housekeeper in the home of a
Philippine Embassy official, while completing an accounting degree at Washington University in the hope of getting
a better job. She did land a good job, and years of hard work allowed her to realize her American Dream. She
succeeded in getting her brothers and sisters and their respective families to come to the U.S. in the ‘70s, and all of
them had stood on their own — some owned homes — when I arrived to stay with Tina. Every weekend and on
holidays, Tina would take me to her family and we would chat, laugh, and eat good food. We would go to retail
outlets and yard sales and find tons of toys and stuff for relatives “back home.” I really felt part of her family, and was
so grateful to have met them.
Tina was my teacher in ways that were very special to me. She taught me how to adjust to American life —
taking public transportation, choosing healthy food, learning how to answer when ordering fast food, and
understanding American practices and behaviors that might have seemed offensive to the Filipino sensitivity. We
shared stories and plenty of good times. In her basement that served as her little gym, Tina introduced me to regular
aerobic exercises using Kathy Smith’s videos. I lost 16 pounds after six months of “training” in Tina’s gym. I took with
me that acquired love for exercise in years to come.
I’d say that my Congressional Fellowship experience, beyond the learning activities in the Capitol, became truly
significant and unforgettable because of Tina. Tina and I continued to keep in touch even after I returned to the
Philippines, although not as often as we would have liked. My work in the legislature under the Cory Aquino
government became increasingly intense, as the People Power Revolution’s impact started to wane. Tina lost her
former job, but was hired by a realty firm right away. Both of us were just too busy to write letters (e-mail was not yet a
mainstay). However, we never lost our connection. When I immigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘90s, I wrote Tina right
away. Again we shared stories through mail and holiday cards — of successes in our families, failures in relationships,
sadness for the passing away of close relatives (due to sickness or accident), and some happy news as well, including
weddings and new additions to our families. The Internet has been a wonderful means to connect to each other more
often than ever.
Early this year, Tina told me that she was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder in August 2007 and that she was
undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. The bad news shocked me as I cried in front of my computer in search for
answers. “God, how could you allow this to happen to Tina?” I muttered to myself. “ She’s a very good, caring person
who really helped so many people!” The reality of that moment truly broke my heart. Tina was very close to me, even
if we were apart. I emailed Tina right back and promised that I would visit her in the summer. I did. Tina and I spent a
day at the Capitol Hill, sharing stories — our life stories — that have changed with time. Our circumstances are
different from when we first met 20 years ago. But to me, Tina has not changed a bit. I will forever love her as my
friend … my landlady when I was in D.C.