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Thursday, 9 August 2007

Reverse Culture Shock

Home will always be home, but your return will still involve some adjustment. Therese Ng describes her experience adjusting back to living in the Philippines.

Personal Essay: Coming Home
Contributor: Therese Ng, New York University, New York

I had been living in Manhattan for exactly one year and eight months when I announced in April 1999 that I had decided to return home. By this time, I had completed my Masters in Publishing at New York University and, after some months of internship and part-time work, was Internet Marketing Manager at a publishing company in the city.

Everyone, of course, asked: WHY??

I resented that question. Why didn’t they say, for example, “Oh, good for you" or "I'm so happy for you"? It felt like I had declared I would give up everything to sail around the world on a handmade bamboo raft.

In most cases, it must have been just a benign, curious question. But the thing is, I myself had no logical answer, doubted my own sanity, was afraid I was making a big mistake. My cousins, living in the throes of the American Dream in Long Island and in Silicon Valley, asked why. My interpretation: why, when you can be like us? My New York friends, former classmates, other Pinoy grad students, colleagues at work, apartment building neighbors, asked why. My interpretation: why, when we can all be living the life in Manhattan? People in the Philippines, still reeling from the Asian economic crisis, asked why. My interpretation: why, when there’s nothing here for you?


I’ll tell you why.

Because I was exhausted living in the city. Because I was always running after buses and subways, never had enough time, was often cranky. Because of laundry, bathroom cleaning, HMOs, telemarketers, the long walk home. Because by April 1999, I was just waiting for the next thrill to come along (new Broadway play, another trip out of town, cool restaurant to try) and make it all feel worth it again.

Because my lease was about to expire, because my company would have had to sponsor me if I’d wanted to stay, because I had gotten sick of plastic furniture in my apartment and kept dreaming about real bookshelves, chairs, tables, a sofa (!). Because staying any bit longer, therefore, would have meant staying for a very long time. Because even before I left Manila, I knew I didn’t want to stay a long time.

Because of a long-distance relationship that I thought deserved a better chance. Because of family and friends I wanted to see more than once a year. Because I wanted my vacations to be from home and not to home. Because I cried each time I boarded the plane back to the US.
Because I wanted to feel I was making a difference, and I felt that in New York, all the difference had already been made. Because I felt that the greater adventure was not in my cramped Hell’s Kitchen apartment or in a Park Avenue office, not in Village bars or any of the places New York had to offer, but in making a place for myself where I really wanted to be.
Because the biggest reason I wanted to stay was because I was afraid there would be nothing back home, and what kind of lame reason is fear?

To everyone who asked, I gave some version of the truth that I felt would be most acceptable to them:
“Because of my boyfriend.”
“Because I couldn’t stand New York anymore.”
“Because I want to help my country.”

So they nodded, and I went home.

I didn't realize how overwhelming "returning home" was going to be.

Some of the nightmares were logistical: fixing bank accounts, getting a credit card and a cell phone line, dealing with traffic, renewing my driver's license—things that I had gotten used to as being easy to do in a country with established systems.

There was no getting around these challenges, but I had lived here all my life before New York. All I needed to do was relearn to live in the Philippines without being maimed by bad drivers or bursting blood vessels dealing with customer service reps and waiters. I have relearned the following, for example: that waiting a week instead of an hour won't really kill me; that being nice gets you further than being professional; to ask for the manager whenever there's a problem because most employees are not equipped to handle crises and this is not their fault; to conclude whenever I'm sideswiped on the streets that the driver probably needs to rush home and pee really badly, so I shouldn't get a coronary from road rage. It's a different system, but there's a system nonetheless: one that relies on empathy, kindness, personalities, using your network, appealing to another's emotions, recognizing authority, and most important—being patient.

But also, I felt unexpectedly alienated and misplaced. Months and months later, I still hadn't completely unpacked. My balikbayan boxes cluttered the house, and most of the stuff that managed to make their way out sat for weeks on sofas, tables, and piles on the floor: my trusty old telephone, textbooks, the overcoat I got at Burlington Coat Factory that I brought home "just in case," a thick sheaf of bank statements, even my school notes and papers. I couldn't bear to throw or give anything away. At the same time, I couldn't place them anywhere because neither could I get rid of old things in my closets and on my shelves to make room for the new acquisitions.

When I talked about this dilemma with a nun from my old high school, she wisely saw what I couldn't and told me, you shouldn't be afraid of throwing things away. The things that matter will always be with you.

I never did make that superhuman effort to finish unpacking in one blow. As weeks passed, books slowly got put on a shelf, a place was found for new shoes, hundreds of photos were filed away in albums, and my pots and pans found their way to the kitchen.

So things just happened. One day at a time.

I lost most of the weight I gained from all those American portions. I opened the necessary bank accounts, bought a cell phone and learned to text. I even learned to rock climb. Eventually, a job at a publishing company found me. The routine was comforting, the work fulfilling, and the people wonderful. Got a local credit card, bought a car, eventually felt like I was part of the Philippines again. It felt like I was unraveling a tightly wound self and allowing it to come loose.

Two years later, when work started to make me unhappy and the call to do something on my own reared its head, I remembered that I once had the courage to leave New York and everything that it promised. Surely this one would be simpler, and it was. I am now working for myself and am living into the life I had imagined for myself when I decided to come home. So far, even though I never could find a place for my trusty New York telephone and still can't bear to give it away, I am happy.

In my head, there is another story, though. I imagine another me who stayed in New York instead of coming home. Her story? She bought real furniture and finally got herself a decent apartment with a doorman and an elevator. The rent takes up almost half her salary, but it's worth it and makes all the difference each time she comes home after work. The breakup with her boyfriend was awful and she cried for months. Work is work: she gets praise, an annual raise and a promotion every few years. She sometimes loves what she does, she sometimes hates it, but really—however she feels—she knows she needs the job to survive.

She loves New York because of rollerblading in Central Park, the museums and shows, the freedom, the energy, the friends she has made, dimsum in Chinatown, the great New England clam chowder, shopping on, the New York Times weekend paper, and the efficiency of the system. She's glad she stayed, glad for the person she has become and the things she has learned.

She also has in her mind a story about me, the person who returned home, but that story she imagines is nowhere near as good as what really happened.

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