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The Loneliness of Being in a Foreign Land

...is something that I wouldn’t know anything about. If I were a bird, I would be either the Philippine sparrow – which does not migrate – or the homing pigeon – because I always need to find my way back home.

If I think of travel at all, it is always for a visit; not something that would mean staying away for good. I will never say never because one never really knows even at my age; but up to this point in my life, I have not even remotely considered living away from these beautiful islands of ours.

But there are those who do...

At the end of the day, it is just getting used to where one lives and having to make do without the jeepney, sometimes without rice, household help and the countless little things that we take so for granted in this country.
Over lunch after Sunday football earlier today, we listened to a former player of mine talk about life in the city of Adelaide in Australia where he has lived for the past year-and-a-half. He is back just for the holidays.

Those of us in our cosy little group were keen to hear about life Down Under; and he was more than willing to oblige.

His stories were not dissimilar to those of others who became part of the Filipino Diaspora – migration fuelled by the quest for a better quality of life, being forced to take odd jobs just to get started but already starting to feel the unmistakable benefits of life in a developed country.

State subsidy for his little boy arrived automatically. The peace and order situation is excellent. The transportation system is efficient. Jobs that the educated ignore here pay well. The parks are safe, clean and well-maintained.

Just being in Australia is already a source of optimism. Indeed, just as in America, dreams can come true for those who are prepared to swallow their pride and work hard in whatever the capacity.

The owner of the restaurant where he works part-time is something of an inspiration. A Filipino like himself who migrated to Australia some four decades ago, the owner started life Down Under collecting trash which he would, in turn, resell.

From such humble beginnings, he now owns three Italian restaurants and several other flourishing businesses.

This former player of mine has the same sort of pragmatism and single-mindedness of purpose that can one day see him build a similarly successful life for himself and his family. He told us that he was not averse when he first arrived in Australia to distributing pamphlets from door to door because the pay was more than reasonable.

While he and his small family currently live in a small flat, he and his wife plan to apply for a loan that will enable them to purchase their own house soon. Especially when he qualifies to hold a permanent job, he and his wife will be able to deal with the expected amortizations before they can one day call the house their very own.

In the Philippines, of course, a couple can work themselves to the bone for an entire lifetime and still not be able to afford a house or other simple amenities that those in First World countries take so for granted.

It is the desire to avoid this trap, I suppose, that makes migration such an attractive option for those with the means to leave.

Yet, while this former player of mine gave us first-hand insights into an alternative life, I noticed that he mentioned several times how lonely it was living in a foreign land.

People work all day long, he told us; and at the end of each day retire to their homes to watch television and do the housework. Or they hang out at some pub or hotel lobby or participate in sports.

The neighbourhood streets are often deserted; starkly the opposite, as everyone can surely imagine, to what the average street in the Philippines looks like after hours.

The malls are closed for the weekend, also quite the opposite of what things are like here in the Philippines when the malls are busiest on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

“I give myself at most twenty years,” he told us, “then I’m coming home!”

This amused me and told him so. I have heard others say something similar before; but then these same people stayed in foreign lands for good. I guess it is all about when the roots break out from underneath to start burrowing into the ground.

When the roots take hold, that is when – I suppose – the loneliness, if it does not completely go away, becomes at the very least bearable. It is not about forgetting that one is Filipino but more the understanding of and continued immersion in cultures of foreign lands that enable those who migrate to get on with their lives.

At the end of the day, it is just getting used to where one lives and having to make do without the jeepney, sometimes without rice, household help and the countless little things that we take so for granted in this country.

And the little matter of family, unless the entire family migrated as well…

On the other hand, what do I really know? I'm just the Philippine sparrow.

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