I was recently reading an article talking about the ‘dark side’ of being an expat. In that article it focused on the sentiments primarily of expats who are (a) still in their 30’s and (b) living abroad for the purpose of a college education. That’s a different fish than the typical expat who comes here to the Philippines. I don’t want to overly generalize, but I’d say it’s a fair statement to say that when it comes to the Philippines, most expats here are looking at early retirement. The expats mentioned in the article are primarily younger students.
And so all of this brings me to the question in general, “Where is ‘Home’ for the expat?” In my own case I answered that question before I’d even left the States. I made it up in my mind that come hell or high water.. the Philippines would be my new home. Even if my aspired romance did not pan out, I would stay. Even if there were challenges, I’d adapt and stay. Even if it took me years to learn the language, I’d stay. For me, the Philippines is my new home.
But in one regards there is something of a ‘dark side’.. more of what I would call a ‘trade-off’ when it comes to charting a course for yourself that takes you geographically away from your homeland. It is that, usually, you cannot convince all your friends and family to come along with you.
Yes, there is a trade-off in taking off for a life abroad. In exchange for the adventure, better retirement, innumerable pretty girls, fantastic beaches and tropical lifestyle.. family and friends usually choose to stay put several thousand miles away. That means all those things you took for granted; meeting up for bbq’s, birthday parties, weddings, births, lunches and even funerals, you will not be able to share those with your loved ones in person unless you take the long flight back.
Now, technology is great and come a long way. Between Skype, email, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.. keeping ‘in touch’ has never been better or cheaper. I imagine back in “the old days” of standard (expensive) phone calls and postal snail-mail.. it must have been even more of a chasm to deal with for expats choosing to live abroad. And yet, not even Skype can take the place of a real hug or looking your family in the eye over dinner. It’s just not the same. It’s better than nothing, of course. But it’s like having Taco Bell instead of your Mom’s home-cooked Mexican food.
Now, some ex-pats have solved this issue by simply living with one foot in both worlds. I know one expat who spends two months in the US with his adult children every six months. That’s a great solution if you can afford the air-fare and don’t mind the air-time traveling. But even he told me that when he’s in the US.. he misses his Filipina wife and children who are in the Philippines. And when he is in the Philippines, he misses his children in the US. His Philippine children need to stay in school and have some sense of routine, so he usually travels alone between both countries every six months. But I wonder if that really solves anything since he’s missing one family or the other year-round anyway.
I suppose in the case of some expats, maybe they leave their home-country with not a lot to leave behind. Perhaps they are alienated from their children to begin with and have nothing ‘back home’ to miss in the first place. But I’d say for most of us we have parents, children and long-time friends we will miss to a varying degree while living on the other side of the planet. And they miss us as well, so it’s not easy for them either.
When I announced to my family that I planned to make a permanent move overseas, the reaction from my family was overall very supportive. My children took the position, expressed by my eldest son, “Dad, you were always there for us while we were growing up. Once we turned 18, we took whatever path we had to in order to find our own happiness and goals. So now, you’re free to do that as well.” My Mom.. well, on the one hand she told me what she has told me my whole life whenever I made a big life-decision; “What I want for you, is that you are happy doing what you’re doing. If this is what it is, then just be careful and be happy wherever you are.” But I knew that inwardly she wanted me to stay in Southern California. We are a tight family and visit or call several times per week. To make things a little easier before my departure, I stayed with her for about 9 months while I got things in order and to spend lots of quality time together. Since arriving here, daily phone calls on MagicJack have reassured her that I wasn’t going to just disappear off the edge of the earth. My brother, on the other hand, actually became violent and abusive at the news of my travels. Telling me I “..had no business moving so far away” and that there was no future for me in the Philippines. My direct response to him was, “No, there’s no future for YOU in the Philippines. But me, I’m going.”
I guess that is what causes us expats to make fairly quick friendships with each other when we meet abroad. Despite where we came from originally, we know each other’s sacrifices we had to make in order to find out what was waiting for us in a land far away from all we’d ever known. We have a commonality that is rooted in a huge life decision. Sometimes our new expat friendships are ones that last for years. Other times, it’s simply an understanding when you pass each other on the street. This has happened to me many times but I remember one time in particular. I had been on a bus from Bogo all day and was tired of sitting. So rather than catch a taxi right away in Mandaue, Cebu, I decided to begin walking towards the bridge that led back to my home in Mactan.
Walking all the way home back to Basak seemed pretty crazy, even for me. It was getting dark and the distance was about 3 to 4 miles, perhaps even further due to where I was in Cebu. But I figured I’d catch a taxi when I got tired. Before I knew it, I’d reached the actual bridge and decided I’d walk it since I’d been wanting to do that anyway. I got some cool photos from the bridge and kept on walking as I stepped onto Mactan on the other side. It soon got dark and I was still about 2 miles from home in Basak. I was walking along a stretch of the street with only one streetlight for about a four block length. Everything else was dark.
As I approached the light I could see that there was a figure of a man walking toward me, also on the same side of the road. As I got closer, I could tell by the silhouette of his clothes and backpack that he seemed to be a fellow foreigner. It looked like we were going to pass under the streetlight at the same time. Sure enough, we did. When he got to about eight feet in front of me I looked him in the eye. He was a Caucasian man, American, about my build in his late 50’s with short hair. Kinda looked like a cross between Richard Gere and Steven Spielberg. As we passed we both had our guard up initially but, in that last moment we each kinda half-smiled as we passed each other. We each gave that ‘Pez’-nod of the head and had an understanding.. that it was good to see another fellow expat out on this dark, foreign soil so far away from home.
And, as it turned out.. I did end up walking the entire way home that night. Took me four hours, but I was determined to do it.
Do I miss ‘home’ back in the States? Not really. I do miss my family and some close friends though. Some days more than others. But I’m very happy here in the Philippines and my resolve is as intact as it ever was. I was asked about a week ago, “Are you sure you don’t have any doubts about deciding to live here?, now that you’re out in the jungle and everything??” “Nope,” I replied, “..if anything I’m all the more sure that this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
A few months ago I went to Chicago Joe’s during the daytime to catch a boxing match on the big screen between the local hero, Manny ‘Pacman’ Pacquiao and Mexico’s favorite, Juan Manuel Marquez. The fight took place in Las Vegas, Nevada. So, before the fight.. there I was. In the Philippines ready to watch a bout between the local Philippine hero-demigod of boxing and his arch-rival from Mexico. Now, I’m a Hispanic who was born and raised in the US. My ex-wife was from Mexico. I have a lot of good memories from Mexico so.. I was a bit torn even up to the beginning of the fight as to who to root for. I finally decided to go with Manny. But before the fight began, in order to properly represent and give homage, the national anthems from all three nations; Mexico, Philippines and the US were sung prior to the fight. I was busy making progress on my burrito I’d ordered during the first two anthems and then got up for some napkins. When I heard the Star Spangled Banner begin.. it stopped me dead in my tracks.
Wow. I just had to turn around and give it my complete and undivided attention. Someone was talking to me and I completely ignored them. It was that riveting a moment. I’m not one to wrap myself up in the flag. In fact, I’ve been known to criticize any new US legislation or politician I didn’t care for in a very public way. But it’s because I do love the US, imperfections and all. It’s that location on the planet that is home to my family and friends. It is where my grandchildren will hopefully find their future in the years ahead. Hearing the Star Spangled Banner when you’re an American thousands of miles from home is a unique experience. I am sure others have had similar experiences with their own national anthem when they hear it abroad. For me, it totally caught me by surprise.
Personally, being an official expat has been one of the most exciting, adventurous and exhilarating chapters in my life. It does come with this trade-off though. I don’t think there is anything in life that is “for everybody” and living abroad is no exception. Some people love it and others, they are booking a flight back home within 6 months. I don’t blame them. At least they tried. As for me, home is physically here in the Philippines, even if a big part of me remains connected to my home country.
(The US National Anthem from an earlier Pacquiao-Marquez fight..)
Henry “Reekay” V.
About Me.. In 2011 I made the decision to move to the Philippines within a year. Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat. (Mactan, Bohol, Panglao, Moalboal, Dumaguete, Bacong, Boracay, Cebu) I recently spent the year living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
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