On the Pains of Relocation


Over the last few weeks, I made two new acquaintances who very quickly informed me in the course of our initial conversations that they were leaving the Philippines early next year to migrate abroad. In both cases, there was a sense of excitement—particularly the kind that comes with the anticipation of a completely new life.

Both encounters reminded me of my own move to Singapore nearly a decade ago. I was in my early twenties and utterly intoxicated by the idea of such a hugely life-altering change. Geographically, the relocation was hardly dramatic (in those days, flying to Singapore took just slightly longer than flying to certain parts of the Philippines). But in almost every other area, it was an abrupt shift: a new career, a new industry, a new culture, a new lifestyle . . . as far as the day-to-day aspects of my life were concerned, everything was just massively different.

And maybe it was because I was just so enraptured with the idea of the move that I didn’t understand my experience those first several months. Intellectually (which was the only sense that mattered to me in those days), I was thrilled with the shift—thrilled that I was living abroad, in one of the most dynamic cities in the world, working for a prestigious company that was paying me a lot more money than I frankly knew what to do with for a job that all my peers would have envied. But, I can’t say I was happy (at least not those first several months). I just felt so . . . lost and disoriented and dislocated. The people were friendly, the language was accessible and the streets were navigable, but everything just felt completely . . . alien. On some nights, I would find myself crying into my pillow—and I would be perplexed by my grief. 

It would take me years to understand that what I’d felt during those months was simply loneliness. I wasn’t homesick—I was lonely, and it was the first time in my life that I’d actually felt it, being literally all alone in a foreign country bereft of anything and everything that was achingly familiar. It was such a strange, novel and bewildering sensation—and completely unexpected given how I understood myself then—that I misdiagnosed the situation entirely. Until today, I still shudder at the memory of those bleakly melancholy days, the weekends I spent wandering around on foot or on buses, trying to lose myself in books or in music or in mind-numbing routine.

Things did get better for me—got good enough actually that I fondly remember my time in Singapore as one of the best periods of my life—but I sympathize with anyone who may have to go through what I did. In many cases, what our minds tell us is good for us may not sit very well with our souls. Hopefully, just hopefully, my two new friends are more sensitive to theirs than I was to mine.

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