I'm on my office computer now, on the tail end of another lazy day. I just finished my last project, an innovation trends study for airport retail. My boss is currently on a business trip, and since we're all partners-in-crime here in our small office, I'm basically free to do anything I want. Normally, I'd be on another tab right now, scrolling down an endless Facebook newsfeed and right-clicking "Open in New Tab" for every story I find interesting, which eventually leads to 50 new tabs and the next few hours flushed away. Repeat ad infinitum. I indulge in this strangely therapeutic madness whenever I'm bored, but today I strangely have an itch to write, something I haven't really felt in months.
I've been working here in Shanghai for more than seven months now. I'm generally satisfied with my work (although the pay could be a lot better) and I know that I've been blessed with a wonderful opportunity to work in a small company with a big brand prestige, meet interesting people in the Chinese and European business circles, and engage in my ideal line of work which are innovation and consulting. Moreover, it's the experience of working abroad which I really find enriching. For better and for worse, the unprecedented freedom I'm experiencing here has changed me. Facing unknown expectations, adapting with foreign coworkers, finding my place, doing my own chores... This is Real Life 101, and I'm definitely learning a lot both inside and outside the office.
I was going through some of my old blog posts earlier, and it's funny to see how idealistic, romantic, and existentially restless I was back then. I have changed a lot since then, but in many ways I'm still the same college self who wrote all those entries. I found it especially funny when I read an old entry entitled "Boredom and Escape", where I rant about how bored I was in a dull semester with an unending barrage of homework and how much I wanted to escape from it all and live a free life somewhere else.
Well, here I am now, and I've come to realize that living abroad is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.
The freedom I'm experiencing here is certainly refreshing, sometimes even empowering. I can choose to do things by myself without the shackling comforts and parental impositions I experience back home. I just love the feeling of waking up on a Saturday morning and knowing that I could shape the day into whatever I want it to be. I take my notebook and iPad, walk to the nearest metro station, and ride it to a random stop. I feel like eating pizza and pasta, so I walk into an Italian cafe. I stay there the whole afternoon downloading the latest apps and reading a book I've always wanted to read. As I gorge on carbonara and sip a hot cup of espresso, I think about what I want to do the next day. I feel like playing basketball, so I text some friends to meet at the Fudan courts the following morning. I receive some replies, along with an invitation to drink at a bar near Xintiandi after dinner. Since I had nothing else to do that night, I reply yes. This is the life. The life I've always wanted.
Only when I stopped being a student did I see the underside of the independent lifestyle, and how tiring and lonely it can sometimes get. During my first year here as a student, all I had to worry about were what new places I would visit in the weekend, where to have dinner, how to spend more time with friends. Everything else was taken care of. I guess many people hold on to the student life because it holds the sweet spot between freedom and set direction. You're free to meet, learn, and do what you want, yet there is already a present structure to follow.
Working of course is a different story. I have to wake up early, care about how I dress and act in front of coworkers, and finish tasks I couldn't care less about for the sake of impressing my superiors. Work doesn't end when I leave the office, as I have to worry about my visa issues, rent contract, unwashed dishes, groceries to buy, and a ton of other things my local coworkers won't have to worry about.
I also realized that living abroad means learning how to cope with the changes that happen all the time. One day you spend every waking moment with a tight group of friends, and the next day they just go back to their homes on the other side of the world, and you don't know the next time you'll see them again. Most of my friends have since left Shanghai, and these days I spend my weekends either reading and Skyping in my room or aimlessly roaming around Shanghai's glitzy streets. I rarely felt it during my carefree student days here, but now it's sinking in.
I miss home.
I miss the stable life where relationships aren't as fickle as Shanghai's weather. I miss freely playing basketball in our backyard and not worrying about groceries and laundry. I miss eating isaw and Chickenjoy, watching ABS-CBN, and driving to SM to escape the heat. Most of all, I miss listening to my parents' stories and laughing at my brothers' latest misadventures in school.
Why does the grass always have to be greener on the other side? The sentiment struck me as hard as DOT struck the social media airwaves: It's still more fun in the Philippines. Beneath the sweltering heat and grime, the broken street lamps and meandering traffic jams, the Philippines is a charming country - a colorful hodgepodge of American, Spanish, Chinese, and indigenous influences, a place where no hardships can ever stop people from smiling, singing, and helping out a friend in need.
I always naively thought that living abroad was an easy ticket to happiness and a golden pass to accomplishment. My life plans have always been built on the premise of going to another country. Now that I'm almost two years into it, I realize that it's not as clear-cut as I had thought. Yes, my stay in Shanghai has led me to a cool job, a bunch of wonderful people, and some of the most exciting moments in my life. But most importantly, it led me to the realization that there is no such thing as a greener pasture. It had to take eighteen months and over a thousand miles, but now I'm beginning to see all the great things I've taken for granted about my country. As I count the days before I go back to the Philippines, I realize that there's no other place I'd rather call home.