Monday, May 23, 2005

in a strange land

I like new places. I may not like the trip itself (I go crazy over long stretches of just sitting down and end up mutilating whoever is next to me) but I like being wherever "there" is.

In a different country, especially when I'm there for the long term, I take on the mentality of an adventurer. No one knows me, which means I can be whoever I choose to be - which could be exactly as I am, a little different or a completely new creature.

Armed with a street map, I navigate the subways, MTRs, trains and walkways of the new city, exploring as deeply as I dare in a outward spiral, an eye out for bookstores, museums, restos and odd knickknacks. I practice the odd placement of the foreign language's syllables on my tongue and make a fool of myself as I ask directions. I puzzle out the exotic signs and advisories. I order snails or cubed blood or gelatinous pig cheeks and guzzle unknown brands of soda, flavored water, coffee, tea, juice and strange cocktails. I am a stranger in a strange land and there is so much to discover, so much to taste and smoke and listen to and feel.

After a few weeks or months, when I become familiar with the city, knowledgable with its bus and ferry schedules, able to surmise streetsigns and converse with cabbies, order meals like a local would with the appropriate inflections, when I have an established routine of work days and quiet nights, then I lose the earlier infectious desire to explore.

I buy my groceries and stay home, boot up the computer and play games or write, or watch films subtitled in the languages I can decipher. My vagabond yearnings give way to thoughts of Manila, of home and of the people I love.

I'm me again and yet somehow different, and I am struck by an acute sense of longing, wishing to exchange the routines I developed in a foreign country for the more deeply entrenched daily patterns of my life in the country of my birth.

By then, my tastebuds rebel, and the new quest I embark upon has adobo has its ultimate goal. I treasure Filipino language films, movies I wouldn't bother to watch at home, as if they were gold. I scour the internet for news, equally delighted by the latest political shennanigans and the juicy artista gossip. I download Filipino love songs by Basil Valdez and Nonoy Zuniga and sing them relentlessly. I call family and friends just to hear and speak Tagalog, happy to hear the sound of their voices over the expensive minutes. I look for the Filipino expats I ignored during my initial elation at being in a new place, just to trade stories, experiences or simply to talk and feel I am not alone.

And when this bout of homesickness repeats and repeats itself, growing stronger with each occurrence, I know my heart will give in soon. Eventually, I book a flight home, for a visit if my assignment is not yet done; for good, if I have a choice.

When I'm back home, I marvel at the traffic and pollution as if some part of me actually missed it and smile at the chaos that is my city, my Manila.

I may live in another country, even put down roots there and call my house a home -complete with all the trimmings that create a Filipino oasis - but the wanderer in me always, inevitably, finds a reason to retrace my steps, across train tracks, subway routes, interstate turnpikes, and trackless oceans, back to where I started.


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