Homesickness had always been a foreign concept to me. I lived away from home when I started high school at age 14. When I started going to university at 18, I moved back home, though I never let my mother hear the end of my ideas about renting out an apartment for myself that was closer to campus. I guess this is where I say that I love being away from home – I love being outside of my comfort zone, and I love the feeling of not knowing anything, because this means that I have so much more to discover and learn.
Being born and raised in the Philippines, I grew up with the “Western Dream,” which is essentially the idea that everything is better in a western country – the four seasons, the reliability of public transport, and the abundance of opportunities. In my family, the Western Dream had always been about the opportunities. From a very young age, my older brother and I were taught the ins and outs of writing a resume: we were taught to work as hard as we could, and to work towards the success we wanted for ourselves. We were taught to strive to do everything we could to get where we wanted to be. In early 2016, where I wanted to be was in another country to finish my degree. On 17 July 2016, I first stepped foot in Australia to do exactly that.
I gave my friends back home a week’s notice, I packed my bags, and I just left. When I got to Australia, everything was exactly how they said it would be – the cold of winter, the bareness of the trees in the fall, the energy of summer, the bloom of the flowers and the bees of spring. Let’s not forget the reliability of public transport and the abundance of opportunities – the world was my oyster, and I had no plans of going home anytime soon.
Even the way the sun shone was different – the good type of different. There were parks with actual grass, where kids actually played at. You could tell the stark difference between the bustling city, where half the people were rushing to their nine to five jobs in power suits, and the quiet suburbs, where people walked at a slow pace while kids cycled on the footpath on their little bicycles. There were trees everywhere, the houses had front yards with gardens, and gates were practically non-existent. The fences, if there were any, were only as tall as my legs, and I’m a pretty short person. The crime rate? Lower than you would ever think possible.
About a year later, I found myself surrounded by friends who had in such a short time already become family. I found myself used to having a lot of pizza and pasta for daily meals. I found myself only eating rice when it came in the form of sushi. I found myself saying “how’s it going,” “cheers,” and “yeah nah, you’re alright.” I even caught myself saying ‘banana’ weird – which my friends caught and said that I was starting to sound a lot more Australian.
It’s funny thinking about it now, because it was also in the same period when I started longing for home. I questioned why I even left in the first place. I watched as my friends back home made plans to see each other in our group chats, where my only contribution was a joke of, “Yeah, I’ll be there in an hour, I’m hailing the plane now.” I’m not going to delve too much into this because it’s harder to write than it is to read, but I guess it can be summarised by saying: I reached the point where the only place I wanted to be was in my bed, in the scorching heat of the year-long summer back home.
Thing is, when they told me about the beauty of the other side of the world, that was all they told me – that it was beautiful, the air was better, and it was just how it was in the movies. Don’t get me wrong, it was. It is. However, no one told me just how much of home I was going to push into the back of my mind. No one told me that I wasn’t going to have anyone to call on the night that everything dawned on me.
I wasn’t waking up at 8am to the sounds of the morning news and my family having a morning chat before work and school with the smell of garlic fried rice, coffee, and dried fish fresh in the air. I wasn’t sneaking back home at 2 in the morning, after a day at uni that led to a night out, trying not to wake my grandmother. My grandmother always woke up, and I had to sit through a lecture about how girls shouldn’t stay out that late. I wasn’t spending my lazy Sundays across the street from my house at our sari-sari store, hanging out all day with our neighbours’ and their helpers.
It dawned on me that in the hopes of having a better life, I completely disregarded everything else. My mum always told me to be careful not to romanticise things. I guess I should have listened.
I wasn’t told that my features were going to be described as exotic. That my accent was going to be very distinct, but that the longer I stayed, the more my Rs disappeared. I wasn’t told that I was going to be asked how I kept my skin tan. That some would call me lucky to have the colour of my skin, while I remember in grade school how much I wanted to be lighter.
In a sea of steaks, breakfast wraps, and a variation of toasties, no one told me that I was going to constantly crave for street food – fish/squid balls, isaw, Betamax, kwek-kwek. No one told me that I was going to miss the sounds and the sights of street vendors, peddling taho early in the morning or balut and chicharon late at night. No one told me about the pride and the relief I would feel the first time I cooked adobo and it tasted exactly like how the women in my family made it. No one told me especially how jealous I would get when my family decided to have a random gathering and bring 20 lbs of crab on the table with fried shrimp, fish, and pancit.
I had no idea that my love for Starbucks was going to be overturned because ‘Starbucks coffee isn’t real,’ (head’s up to anyone who has a love for Starbucks though – it really isn’t real coffee).
I had started missing out on my two baby cousins growing – no one told me about that. I didn’t know that they had to get used to me again when I visited. No one told me about how the very thing I hated about living with such a big family—with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—was going to be the thing that I would long for the most. I didn’t realise that there was no time to be bored back home because there was always something to do, always someone to be with. I wasn’t told that the only way I would realise how full my house was would be to leave it.
No one told me that I was going to get lost in the dream. No one told me that in my darkest days—no matter how hard I tried—the company of my new friends would never be enough. That I wouldn’t even want it—that I would need the words of my friends back home, and that even a “How are you,” from them would make me feel better. I didn’t know that the first holiday season that I would spend with friends would be here, and that amazing as it was, it would only make me miss home more. I took for granted the traditions of blasting Christmas carols in October and keeping the Christmas tree up until March. I took for granted the month-long Christmas celebrations where we bounced from houses of family friends to houses of distant family. No one told me to cherish it. No one told me that I was going to look forward to a two week visit home.
I had no idea that the months back in the new country after a visit home would be the most excruciating months of the year, and that there was nothing I or anyone else could do to make it better but to keep pushing through each day and let it pass.
I knew even less that meeting a community of Filipinos, being invited to their home, and feeling the warmth of being around them all in one day would have such heavy repercussions. That I would decide to decline their future invites because it hurt too much to leave.
It should have been clear to me that building a new life and making brand new memories were synonymous to not having any shared histories. That there was always going to be a huge chunk of me that none of my newly formed family was ever going to understand and connect to, and that this in itself was going to be hard to reconcile.
I didn’t know that in the pursuit of fitting in, I would unconsciously conceal the part of me that made me who I was. I wasn’t told that there would be instances where I would almost even deny myself of who I was, where I was from, and what that meant.
I wish someone had told me that there were going to be days where I could only ever think about how lonely it gets.
One thing I always get when people find out I flew here on my own is, “Wow, you’re very brave.” To some extent, I would agree. I do agree that it takes quite a lot to decide to leave the only life you’ve ever known to build a new one, but I would argue that it takes a lot more to commit. To stay because of the prospect of a better future for yourself, your family, and your country, when every inch of you wants to feel the pollution and the humidity in the air and the harshness of the sun. To stay because you don’t want to be the person who keeps running. To stay because amidst everything you miss about home, you can’t deny that you now have an entire village of people in a place that was once foreign to you; and to stay, because in being far from home, you’ve finally built a connection to who you are that’s stronger than it ever was before.
So, here’s to staying, because no one told me that it’s possible to find yourself again; to keep growing, and to keep yourself intact while living a life away from home.