Notes of an Expat

By Angeli Savas (Essay)


Home Never Leaves You

The waters of the Atlantic are freezing, but the call of the crashing waves is too impossible for a two-year-old to resist. My son, Isaac, runs towards the sea, stopping short at the shore and waiting for the forming bubbles to kiss his tiny legs. Occasionally, when the waves are too towering and look like they would swallow him, he runs back towards me, but once his fear subsides, he always hurries back towards the endless excitement that the sea provides.

There was a time when he needed me beside him as he chased after the waves, but nowadays, he rushes towards it as if reuniting with a dear old friend. If he is in any way like his mother, once he leaves home, there would be no turning back. No news for a few weeks, and the only way to find out what he is up to is by scouring for scant information from social media sites. The infrequent calls would bring tears of relief, his stories with fascination and pride. His visits will be few and far between, but like the prodigal son, would be welcomed with a fattened calf.

But wherever life takes him, he will not be far away from home, that collection of happy memories that will remind him how much he is loved. Of the hands that held him but never held him back. Because home never leaves you. You take it with you wherever you go.


Dreams of My Mother

She was twenty-two when my mother heard my awakening call to the world. Before she finished her college degree, she ran away with my dad on an eight-wheeler truck, a final escape from the home she had not chosen to grow up in and a final goodbye to a better life she had once dreamt about.

I was twenty-one when I packed my bags, armed with a degree that would be my passport to a greener pasture. But when I departed, I left a home that was my shelter from life’s injustices and my garden of youthful dreams.

During the first eight years of my existence, we lived in a farm in the outskirts of town. We didn’t have electricity or running water. We cooked our meals in a pot over three rocks and pieces of charcoal that took ages to light. We took our bath in an outhouse made of four poles with a big drum of water we had to fill from a pump.

But we were not poor because we had nutritious food on the table every day. On our birthdays, we had lechon and two-layered cakes with a variety of dishes courtesy of the free-range chickens and the muddy pigs in our backyard. We had everything we needed and more. We had love and security given by the people from whom we needed it most.

Mama introduced me to the magical world of books which defined my outlook in life—fairy tale endings, Jane Austen leading men, and American dreams. She made me memorize and recite poems in front of any audience which eventually became to my college auditorium. She nurtured my early talents in visual arts which led me to magazine lay-outing and photography. She even encouraged my non-existent talent in dance, music, and theater to both our disappointment which taught me early on to choose the battles I should fight.

When she eventually went back to college, Mama finished a degree in elementary education and became a teacher in the most competitive primary school in our city. She coached almost every contest there was from school to national level, and rarely would her students fail to bring home the bacon. Naturally, she brought her competitive streak home, and we were expected to be nothing short of the best.

Mama demanded a lot from us her kids, more than she did from her students. We always aspired for the gold medal, and the more we brought home, the more was expected from us. I rebelled when I started high school, when I finally left the four corners of the school where she teaches, and eagerly pursued my own “averageness.” I succeeded in that I managed to nearly fail all my subjects and lose out on the chances to join any interschool competition.

I thought I would rejoice when I saw her disappointment or snicker when I watched her beg me to sort out myself. I didn’t, but by then I had already sunk too low on my own web of intricate lies and had too little confidence left to believe I could ever resurface to regain my life.

It took a serious illness to mend our broken bond, when I began to question the purpose of my existence and found the answer in a fulfilling relationship with God. Papa became my inspiration, Mama my strength. I completely turned over a new leaf.

Surprisingly, once my parents freed me from expectations, I began to realize the best of my potentials and became my own rival. I accepted and expected nothing but the best, an attitude that brought me to highest pedestals, although occasionally it would be taken against me. My parents couldn’t have been more proud, and I couldn’t have been more fulfilled.

Before I left the security of our home to venture into the macrocosm on my own, Mama told me that when she gave birth to me, she also gave birth to a dream she lived with her every breath: the dream that her children would have the life she never had. A dream I have since vowed to live with her.

So when I left my hometown to pursue a career in Makati, I was living Mama’s dream of finding myself in a world where no one knew me and discovering that I am still the same person. When I flew forty-eight hours across the globe to accept a job opportunity in Gibraltar, I was living Mama’s dream of earning amounts of money I had never thought I could and realizing that it could not replace the comfort and warmth of the people I love. When I boarded planes, trains, and buses to places I had previously been to in my books, I was living Mama’s dream of seeing the world with more than my eyes and yet ascertaining that no, there is no place on earth more beautiful than home.

Across the seas in another continent, on a trip to the Eden Project in Cornwall, I came face-to-face with the memories of my childhood home. I remembered the reliable nipa hut that took different forms and shapes throughout the eight years we lived there. I remembered the bougainvillaea shrubs in the backyard that served as a pretty background in most of our photographs. I remembered the scampering chickens, the crowing roosters, and the restless pigs that became our playmates and friends.

But most of all, I remembered Mama’s dreams, planted in my childhood and constantly watered with care—dreams that I am now living and I am determined to let her experience when I can finally afford it.


While Bathing in the Sun

There are a few things I’ve been doing in my adoptive country that I have never done in my homeland, and one of them is to bathe in the glorious sun until my skin colour turns chocolate brown, just the way my British husband likes it. (I know, that sounds so sleazy!) The reason is simple. In most Asian countries, the Philippines included, sporting my now deeply tanned skin would have been akin to inviting stones be thrown at myself.

Colorism, or “prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same racial group,” is an ugly affair that has haunted me for most of my life. As a child I had been bullied and made inferior just because the colour of my skin was a few shades darker than everyone else’s. As a teenager I drowned my fear of taunts by wearing clothes that exposed as little skin as possible, staying indoors most of the time, and making friends with books instead of people. As an adult I was forced to smile when told I am a “black beauty,” even though I found the term deeply insulting. It made me feel that my sort of beauty was so second-class it needed to have its own label. But it was something I just had to live with because in my culture whatever is different can be made into a butt of jokes.

That is why I find it a travesty whenever I see or hear of fellow Filipinos raising arms against perceived racism—over an American with Filipino genes losing out on a song contest, the Daily Mail demanding stricter measures in ensuring only qualified nurses should work for the National Health Service, a BBC comedian highlighting child labour in the Philippines, or comments describing Manila as “the gates of hell” in the latest Dan Brown novel. But when prejudice happens domestically, no one bats an eyelid. In fact, celebrities are being defended over rape and gay jokes on primetime TV. And a television series was made frontlining a dark-as-soot child with flat nose and unruly hair (remember Kirara?) that was sure to make any dark-skinned child’s life hell, as it did mine.

No, I’m not saying we shouldn’t protest against any form of racism abroad, perceived or otherwise, because that is what living in democratic societies is all about. What I am against is the double standard, that we say it’s not all right for other people to be prejudiced while we are in their home turf but we can be as prejudiced about them in our own country and we are perfectly within our rights to racially discriminate our own countrymen.

So yes, you could say I had a lucky escape when I first reluctantly became an overseas Filipino worker who was eventually sucked in by the Western way of life. In Britain, for all its reported (because I have never experienced it firsthand) prejudices, it is illegal and unacceptable to make racist remarks or even an inference of it. Only in the last few years have I learned to undo years of psychological damage to my self-esteem brought about by my unlucky draw at the genetic lottery of life. Only now that I have finally embraced this outermost layer of my being and not let it define my self-worth. I became plain beautiful, not chocolate or vanilla. I was finally “normal.”

But where I came from, it is still a non-issue that holds back those few of us who are categorised this way from being able to see ourselves on the same level as everyone else. As a society, unless we admit there is injustice, we cannot start the way to equality. We cannot change what we cannot see.


It’s Not Always Sunny Here

We woke up late this morning with the sky covered with thick fog brought about by the humid easterly levante wind blowing across the Mediterranean.

On most weekends, we head off to explore the quaint little villages perched above the mountains of Andalusia or stroll along the beach towns dotting the Costa del Sol. These kinds of days are well-documented in our Facebook posts, eliciting countless likes but very few asking what our idyllic life is really all about.

For we do not live in paradise. Occasionally, on days like today, we plunge in despair. That feeling of being trapped in between the rock and the deep blue sea (the same views we see from our balcony). “Going nowhere, going nowhere,” like the lyrics of my all-time favourite song, “Mad World.”

Someone in our expat chat group made a controversial statement that “Andalusia is a land of broken dreams.” Not everyone agrees, of course, but it is certainly a sentiment that more than a few would share.

Most of us who were brave enough to leave the security and comfort of our lives in Britain have come here with a few dimes and a bag full of dreams. Those who were lucky enough would never go back, but there are also countless others who do not make it.

Andalusia is one of the poorest regions in Europe, with 35 percent unemployment rate. Most British expats who attempt to relocate relies on the job opportunities that Gibraltar provides. But with the open European border and strict rules on public sector jobs only for the local population, there isn’t a lot to go around. Even when you try, public sector jobs and opportunities are not alike from country to country. Despite your experience and qualifications and most probably because of your British passport, it is an uphill battle.

The lack of job prospects can dampen the spirit of even the most resilient individual to the point of disheartenment. The blue skies and bright sunshine, instead of giving us joy, reminds us that our state of permanent holiday is no longer fun but a burden. That sooner or later we have to decide whether here is still where our dreams lie or if we have actually left it buried underneath the palm tree we planted in the garden of our own little house in Hillsborough, near our beloved football ground overlooking the park where we used to feed the ducks. Where life was cosy, albeit without the cheerful skies that the Spanish coast provides.

This gives us comfort at least to know that if ever we have to go back, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. That we have a home and plenty of friends to welcome us back.

Meanwhile, by midday, the wind has changed its direction and the sky has cleared up, becoming an empty canvass. From our balcony, we can see the brightly coloured umbrellas dotting the shore as our beachfront urbanisation began filling up with holidaymakers frolicking with the glistening sea amidst the strong smell of fresh fish cooked by the heat of the sun. Tonight, once the simmering temperature cools down, we will be heading off to another feria to drink in the cultural spectacles of the Spanish life we have come here to enjoy and will then remind ourselves that we must live for the moment.

Despite the ups and downs of the expat lifestyle, we can still take pride in the knowledge that we have the courage to chase after our dreams and perhaps, when it comes to it, the strength to admit that the grass isn’t really greener on the other side.