Saying goodbye to Manila and braving America alone
“Why?” The question was thrown at me for months after I’d revealed that I had applied – and been accepted – to graduate school in the United States.
Depending on who was asking, it meant, “Why leave Manila?” or “Why go back to school?” But what many of my family, friends and colleagues really wanted to understand was why I was giving up a growing career in media to disappear into distant Boston.
Unlike most folks who pursue further education abroad, I wasn’t a fresh college grad. I wasn’t struggling to find work. My parents weren’t pressuring me. I wasn’t a scientist or a doctor to need an extra degree. I was a radio jock co-hosting an afternoon program at a popular Manila station. I worked as a sideline reporter for the Philippine Basketball Association. I hosted events and even contributed to a well-known teen magazine.
It seemed unfathomable that I would want to leave.
“It’s a quarter-life crisis,” my friends and I joked. This was after I received the letter from Northeastern University welcoming me into their master’s program that September, and after I decided that I would go.
I was terrified, of course: I would be leaving all I ever knew and loved to live halfway across the world in a city I’d never seen, to learn to become something I wasn’t 100 percent sure I wanted to be.
But scared as I was, I knew – for sure – that I would go.
The question was why. Why risk failure, when Manila offered a much better rate of success? Why risk loneliness, when Manila was home to friends and family? Why was I so ready to spend time and money on something so uncertain?
Despite making up my mind, I didn’t have the answers back then. I just knew that staying meant giving up an opportunity I couldn’t yet articulate. I was hounded by a sense of restlessness and urgency that I couldn’t explain. So instead of racking my brains, I followed my instincts, packed my bags and left.
That was 9 months ago, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t looked back since – I’ve looked back plenty. But I haven’t regretted the decision for a second.
Out of comfort zone
Boston has been, if not quite home, a great place for me to transition from a wide-eyed Manila girl to some semblance of a woman. For almost 25 years I lived with my family. I had a car that I drove to school and later, to work; we had household help to do the chores. I was comfortable and sheltered and more or less happy.
Living here and being out of my comfort zone has taught me more about myself than I’ve ever had the chance to learn. Imagine my amazement when I found that I could – without any special training – maintain a one-bedroom apartment, do my own laundry, commute to wherever I wanted to go and even cook (though it seems almost disrespectful to say my messing around in my tiny kitchen is “cooking”).
I’ve also shed a lot of self-consciousness: It used to be I’d have to psych myself up just to ask people for directions. Now, not only have I kept up long conversations with people I hardly know, but I’ve also talked to total strangers about the intimate details of their lives – things such as why they’re in so much debt, when they realized they were gay and what happened the first time they were arrested.
(So yeah, I’ve more or less overcome the asking-for-directions thing.)
And I’ve been traveling! Who knew I could do that so easily? Since August, I’ve been to New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, the Bahamas and Spain; and I’ve taken buses, trains, boats and planes to get there. I’ve met and spoken at length with artists, economists, teachers, ex-cons, lawyers, human rights advocates – even a Spanish transsexual sociologist. I’ve befriended Ph.D. candidates, engineers, bartenders and traders.
More importantly, I got to know journalists: People who not only love what they do and believe in the value of their work, but who also kick major ass doing it. They’re the ones who, just by being who they are, convinced and continue to convince me that this is what I want to do for a living.
Home has changed for me, too. Ironically, while out here I’ve kept up with news, read commentary and discussed Philippine politics and economics with peers. I never used to do that. Being away makes me feel responsible, like I have to know my country’s people and situation so I can represent them to others intelligently and well.
Part of it is training to be a reporter: “We journalists have to know a lot about a lot,” a favorite professor of mine likes to say. That means reading everything I get my hands on, talking to people, asking questions, going to places, trying new things.
But part of it is also the feeling of having done the impossible. I mean, I did it. I moved. Just because I wanted to. Just because it felt right to take that chance. And coming out here flipped a switch: The world was illuminated, and it’s both vaster and more accessible than I ever imagined.
So now I get why I left. I wasn’t just going back to school; I was finding a way to enter a new and different society. I wasn’t wasting time and money; I was seizing a rare opportunity. And I wasn’t leaving a growing career in media; I was taking a bigger step in the same general direction.
I didn’t know it in August, but I was hungering for a change in perspective. I needed to refocus the lenses I use to see my world. Travel and living abroad in a completely unfamiliar landscape has done and continues to do that for me.
I’m facing a lot of uncertainty in the months to come – I don’t know if or when I’ll find a job, where I’m going to live after my lease ends in August or how I’m going to pay rent. But I wouldn’t trade any of it – or the last nine months – for anything. My world is bigger now than it ever was and it grows every day.
I’m sure I can’t ever regret that. – Rappler.com
Jessica Mendoza is a former radio DJ working to get a master's degree in journalism. She loves writing, coffee and the pursuit of new places - not necessarily in that order. She's currently an intern at an international news site in Boston. Follow her on Twitter: @_jessicamendoza