Expat Realities: Is it the Journey or Is it the Destination?

Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Photo by Kounosu/Wikimedia Commons)

Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Photo by Kounosu/Wikimedia Commons)

Now that we have reached retirement age and are about to begin a new phase in our lives, the eternal question of expats confronts us – do we go home to where we began, or do we stay where we are now?

For those who haven’t been away for too long, the answer is unequivocal: Yes, we are going home. To stay.

That was my answer too, deep into my expat years. Now, when the reality of a reverse upheaval, aka repatriation, looms large -- too large sometimes – the thought of ripping out roots once again the way I did it 27 years ago is no longer as exciting or appealing to my senior brain and creaky bones.

For the many who have grown roots in their adopted country, the answer is not that easy.

Do we, or don’t we?

We meet up with old friends and after the usual catching-up ritual – what ailments, what medications have taken over our daily lives, who have died, who are dying, who should be dead tsk tsk, if only -- we settle down to confronting the big question as we chew on our bibingka and slurp our halo halo in an effort to blunt the burden of decision-making.

And after a dozen or more get-togethers, none of us has really come up with a definite answer, although the consensus is that the six-months-there-six-months-here arrangement seems to be ideal; at least for now when we’re still able to travel long distances, endure long plane rides and afford the ever-increasing airfares. But we all know that this strategy is finite – eventually, health and finances will diminish and we’re back to the question of where we will stay put, although by that time we probably won’t have options anymore.

We hear from those who have gone home, their stories about how leisurely their lives have become with the househelp, the dollar going a longer way, the heavenly food, the beaches, the vacation spots, the music, the unclocked hanging out with friends, and our mouths water with envy.

But then as we go home for a spell to test the waters we are also confronted with the dark side: The horrendous traffic and the unrelenting pollution in Metro Manila; the heat; the bureaucracy; the inefficiency; the toxic politics; the lack of health insurance; and the relatives who look at us as walking, breathing ATMs. And we falter.

Do we, or don’t we?

Perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps the question is not a do-or-don’t but rather a why-and-where.

Why is it that we’re even allowing ourselves this dilemma when we can unequivocally decide that the US (or whatever country we are in) is home, the Philippines merely a vacation place? Why is the tug of the homeland still a potent force in our consciousness that we can’t ignore?

Is it the actual return to our country of origin that appeals to us, or is it our natural restlessness, our need for new beginnings (or the imperative of endings) that pulls us away from our currently settled lives?

The next question then is where – where do we go next as we continue to pursue the adventure that began decades ago when we uprooted ourselves from the comfortable and familiar to try a new life? Is it time to move once again, to the next part of our voyage until we reach the point where our road leads us back to where we really belong?

When questions like these percolate within me, I always revert to a poem that has guided my thoughts ever since I learned about freedom, resurrection and reinvention.

Always keep Ithaca on your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal,
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years,
And to anchor at the island when you are old,
Rich with all you have gained on the way,
Not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage
Without her you would never have set out on the road.
--“Ithaca” by Constantine Cavafy (1911)

May we all have the chance to savor our personal Ithaca some day. When we are ready.

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino