The scariest part of moving abroad

One month after I moved to Madrid from Manila, I got a text from Mom.

“Dad is gone.”

I was at an evening Spanish class when I found out. The teacher was asking me in front of the whole class what my favorite flavor of ice cream was. “Cual es tu sabor favorito de helado?” I happened to look down at my phone.

I looked back up at the people in the classroom. All eyes were still on me, waiting. I could feel my brain starting to short-circuit.

“I don’t know how to say it in Spanish,” I began. My answer was simple. I was just about to translate it. But that mental beam had been thwarted and was suddenly dispersed now. I couldn’t summon it back.

“I like a really good vanilla in a rich chocolate coating,” I said, thinking of how I was never unhappy to see a Magnum bar. The teacher translated for me. I repeated what he said and instantly forgot the words.

I still managed to socialize for a few minutes after class. I’m not sure why I stayed. Maybe I wanted one last breath of normalcy before I was overtaken by the inevitable; to be in the company of people who were bouncing off each other about lighter matters. Maybe I took pride in having no need for hysterics; in being strong and put together. We talked about languages; about how unless you were a native English speaker, the pronunciation is hard to learn. “In Spanish, the words are spelled exactly as they sound,” the Venezuelan school owner was telling us. “If you tell me a word I don’t know, I can easily type it in Google. But with English, how are you supposed to know that the word ‘knowledge’ starts with a ‘k’?”

Finally, I stepped out into the rain and got a little lost on my way to the metro. I ran into one of my classmates. “Take care,” he said.

I descended the steps into the subway. That’s when everything that had been waiting to sink plunged. Heat rushed to my face, water to my eyes. I cried silently all the way home.

When you move to a different country, people will constantly comment on how brave you are. They will ask you if you weren’t afraid of a new culture, a new language, making new friends. But none of the “new” scared me. What broke my heart and engulfed me in a tidal wave of emotion was losing the old.

I wished I could freeze my entire life back home: my family, my friends, my dog. Make them stand still in time so that when I did visit, I would have missed nothing. My parents and my dog wouldn’t have advanced in age. My friends wouldn’t have built relationships and undergone life changes that could possibly take them away from me. My neighbourhood yoga studio wouldn’t have closed due to the pandemic.

Fear of the new is projected. Fear of losing the old is very real. I wanted so badly for my freezer fantasy to come true. And I knew I wouldn’t get it.

I have a friend who recently moved to New York from Manila. Three years ago, when I had just landed in Madrid, she was on the phone with me asking all the questions that were keeping her from leaving.

“Are you not scared that your parents might die while you’re away?”

“Of course I’m scared,” I told her. “But what am I going to do? Live in Manila for the rest of my life? Grow to silently resent them? Perhaps have a part of me that longs for the day they ‘set me free’ by no longer being around for me to cling to?”

Making the moves I need to make and living with the fear of losing them. It’s not a pain-free choice, but it’s what feels right. It’s where I feel love and freedom and the grace of dealing with reality coexist.

My dad didn’t set me free by dying. I had always been free. I had always been loved.

I no longer wish to freeze my life back home. Life abroad alters me significantly every few months. If the life I left behind waited and stayed exactly the same for me, it would no longer fit upon my return. This is certain. But if in its own parallel lane, it changed with me, sure many things would be lost. Many things have already been lost. But it is only here that there stands a chance that some of it might still fit. That we might be able to meet each other at a time when we are both new and old.


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