The year was 2004 when I left the Philippines for Xi’an, China. I had a job waiting for me in the Xi’an International Studies University as a Foreign Expert, who had to teach subjects like International Politics, Mass Media and Oral English. I had no teaching experience, I do not speak the language and I do not know anyone in China.
It was sheer guts and courage that led me there. I was getting tired of shuffling from one office to another production house with work that was on a ‘per project’ basis or what we call ‘raket.’ I finally got fed up with being a ‘raketera’ and left the Philippines to go back to a stable job, which meant a paycheck twice a month.
A stable job, with free accommodations and the promise of adventure, what more can I ask for?
My first few weeks in China were hell. The Australian girl, Chris, who found me on the net and got me the job, had what she calls ‘good or bad China days.’ When I got there, I had 14 days of bad China days, straight. I couldn’t cope with the language barrier and I was already discriminated being an Asian and not a white foreign teacher. Can you imagine the horror of going to a restaurant and staring at pictures of food that you can’t even picture the ingredients? Or having to say niu nay or milk in 20 ways and yet the waitress doesn’t seem to get it?
I was crying almost every night. Wondering whether I made the right move or not. Wondering what would happen if I go back home and how to explain to the waiban or foreign experts office that I need to turn back on my contract. But gradually, I learned a few phrases with the help of friends, co-workers and a phrasebook. Ni hao ma? How are you? Xie xie. Thank you. Zai jian. Good bye. Dui bu qi. Sorry. Rang yi xia. Let me pass. Deng yi xia. Wait a minute.
Phrases turned into sentences. Ni jiao shen me ming zi? What is your name? Lei bu lei? Are you tired or not? Leng bu leng? Are you cold or not? Chi fan le ma? Have you eaten?
And finally I am able to carry conversations in Mandarin. Together with my trusty translator, ‘The Pocket Interpreter,’ I braved the markets, department stores, book stores and even talking to my students and co-workers. If I don’t pronounce it correctly, (Mandarin is a tonal language with 4 tones that are not distinct to me at all) I just point to the characters on my phrasebook.
To improve my grasp of the language, I even got a copy of Pimsleur Mandarin, repeating mandarin phrases and sentences while washing the dishes or sweeping the floor. And soon, I fell into a routine. Teaching for some days, going out and shopping for some days, dining out with friends, traveling in and around Xi’an and speaking in Chinese for at least a couple of hours in a day, everyday.
But that wasn’t all. I learned how to use the washing machine, cook rice without using a rice cooker, budget my finances (and even paid my Mom for my pamasahe!), and lived as a single independent girl. And for my first Christmas, I even sent a small balikbayan box for my family back home.
I missed my family, but the internet has made it so easy to connect with them, that I hardly notice they’re not with me or I’m not with them. I also missed a lot of local food which I tried to recreate, albeit unsuccessfully. The few Filipinos that I would meet on the street (Xi’an is a small city and does not attract a lot of foreign workers, unlike Beijing and Shanghai which are big cities and provide more opportunities) would make me want to approach them and talk to them. I become conscious of the fact that I missed my country, even with graft and corruption, typhoons and coup d’etat. Miss na miss ko ang Pilipinas, that every little piece of news about it airing on CNN, BBC or CCTV, would make me drop whatever I’m doing and run like a madman to the television
I was living in China, learning how to be independent, speaking a new language, immersing myself in a new culture, collecting friends from all over the world and enjoying every minute of it. I left my country for work, but I found a lot more than a regular paycheck to feed me.
I found myself and realized that I can live in a new place and feel at home, most of the time. Leaving my country opened my eyes to a lot of new, exciting (I was able to travel to a lot of provinces in China, from the capital to its borders and even the southernmost island of Sanya) and sometimes scary (I witnessed in broad daylight, nuns marching in protest about the brutal attack on religious people, gatherings of rebellious nature are not permitted in communist China) things. Experiencing a new culture gave me a deeper understanding of the world. Discovering new perspectives outside the box helped me become a better individual. And leaving the country enabled me to appreciate my country all the more (freedom of the press is a farfetched idea for my mass communication students).
People leave the Philippines all the time, for work or school, for family, for a change of scenery or a better future. Some return and some don’t. They may have found their place or not. But whether they do or not, you leave and take with you a lot of things. Lessons learned and lost, or friendships gained and forgotten.
I went back home in after 2 years, a wizened woman, I think.
I will probably leave the Philippines again, in a couple of years or more, to discover another place and taste other flavors. But I think I shall return, once again, because after all and everything, this is home.