What I Learned From A Decade of Being Away From Home

The other night, I dreamt I was back in the Philippines, visiting.  I was walking in the same halls I used to walk when I taught in University.  There were the usual groups of students seated on the floor, by their professor's door, waiting for consultation hours to begin.  It was the same dimly-lit and almost claustrophobic faculty center which I used to call my office building.  It was far from being ideal, but it was home to me, and represented a job I loved and truly enjoyed.

My old office building

Image by:  Ramon FVelasquez

I knew I had to go to the Department of Sociology office and say hello to whoever was there.  In my dream, as it is in reality, I knew I had been gone for too long.  I was anxious, extremely apprehensive to grab the door knob and enter the room.  I can see through the glass window that there were four staff members huddled around the front desks. Towards the back, I can see our Department Chair (from ten years ago) quietly and busily working at her desk. There was no turning back now.  I had to go inside and hope for the best.
You might be wondering why the apprehension over what seems like a straightforward visit to a past work place.  You see, my leaving this workplace was a very abrupt and unplanned one that wreaked some havoc for my colleagues.  In 2004, I went to the U.S. just for vacation, but ended up opting to stay because I got engaged and eventually married. Saying that it was all unplanned, unexpected and all too sudden is an understatement.  I had a teaching load all set for the coming semester, but with me suddenly going AWOL, my classes naturally had to be redistributed to other teachers.  I'm sure none of whoever took over my load was thrilled, and probably cursed me under their breath. I accept that and will forever apologize for that.  The only consolation at the time was that, when I placed a long distance call to my boss, the Department Chair, she was fully supportive of my decision to choose heart over work. She expressed genuine happiness for me and made me feel that I shouldn't worry about anything at work.  And for that, I will always be grateful.  

So back to the dream.  I finally mustered the strength to actually enter the office.  The staff was surprised but I remember being glad that they still remembered me.  Well, at least the old timers.  There were new faces who I haven't met before and who, I can tell, didn't really care who I was either.  

Then I walked closer to my boss's desk.  She was looking down, busy dealing with a stack of papers.  I called her name and gave her the warmest smile an anxious person could produce.  She lifted her head and all I remember was feeling relieved.  She greeted me with a smile, stood from her chair and walked over to give me a hug.  I hugged her tight, as if to say 'Thank you', for all her support and simply for understanding the decisions I made ten years ago.  I saw another colleague / mentor and then came more hugs and some brief "hellos" and "how are you's".

Amidst all the conversations that went on in my dream, one thing stood out for me.  I remember that after telling my boss about how life has been since I moved to the U.S., she said, "Well, if you ever decide to come back, our doors are open here at the Department".  Of course I know this is all wishful thinking on my part, given that I have been out of touch with the academe all these years and that my previous ambition of pursuing a European doctoral degree has long been foregone that it's now beyond resuscitation.  In any case, I was truly moved by the offer and opted to lie to myself and accept it as more than just a polite ending to our conversation.

However, there was a voice inside me in and outside of the dream, that I can't drown out.  It was a realization that gripped me and demanded my complete submission this time.  

"I don't belong here anymore."

I may have called the Philippines home for three decades.  My people are there, the roots and the very core of my identity and consciousness.  But ten years ago, I stood at a fork in the road and chose one over the other.  Each path offered totally different options, different consequences, and in that one choice, a multitude of ripples were born.  When I reached out to open and walk through one door, I forced shut the other.  And the farther I went, and the more steps I took, the more firmly my feet became planted on the event horizon of this universe, pulling me deeper and deeper into this chosen life. Whether I'd like to admit it or not, I've gone past the point of no return.

This week, I celebrate my tenth wedding anniversary. It has been ten years since I chose to permanently live in the United States and give up a secure and familiar life in the Philippines. I suspect this milestone had a lot to do with spawning my dream.  In my dream, as well as in reality, I see that everything I left ten years ago has changed. The work position I vacated is now filled.  My contemporaries have all advanced in their careers. Even the students I once taught and groomed for certain future careers are now occupying positions of authority, possibly even surpassing where I was ten years ago.  It's not exactly the most comforting realization.  Feeling left behind, losing status and a sense of relevance, and getting overwhelmed by a sense of being out of place can be depressing.  

But my story can't be written simply this way, with my eyes focused on how the world I've left has drastically changed and seemingly left me behind.  The truth is, and maybe even more importantly, I know that even I have changed. It's impossible not to.  I know there are things I once desired that I no longer do; things I found acceptable that I now won't tolerate.  I am stronger where I was once weak; and more jaded toward things I had much zest for. A lot of the colors and patterns that defined me before may still be there.  But the shades and configurations might be different now.  After all, this is what the passing of time does to each of us.  We get transformed. And in this process, we need to find a way to mourn the Self we have shed, be at peace with who we've become, as well as forgive ourselves for believing that the world we've left behind has chosen to remain the same and has just been waiting for the gift of our return. Life flows with or without us.  It needs not our consent.

Amazingly, I have found comfort in this dream.  It has brought to the surface my guilt over abruptly leaving one country and life, as well as my sense of peace over choosing another, the one I live now.  

This is what a I chose and who I am now: a wife, mother, blogger, struggling writer, social media fanatic, a Filipino in the United States.  I may be a former academic but honestly don't think I can go back to desiring that life for myself anymore.  It's a life I have given up on when I chose to migrate to the U.S. I mostly belong here now, but this present life does not demand that I surrender my bond with my homeland.  It only asks that I let go of dreams that have withered, and even illusions that are impossible to attain and compete with, in order to make space for planting new dreams and welcoming new adventures wholeheartedly.  This is it.  This is my life now and all it asks is that I be TRULY present in it.

The Past is sealed and no longer has any space for you.  But the Present does, and the Future is eagerly awaiting your graceful entrance.




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