Coming home

Reina Reyes
Each of us will follow his own path – many will settle abroad, others will continue to drift from one place to another, and some will find their way back to the Philippines

Physicist Reina Reyes

One of the perks of being a scientist is the opportunity – indeed, the requirement – to travel. Recently, I went to Germany for two weeks to attend back-to-back scientific meetings. First stop was Munich for the collaboration meeting of the Dark Energy Survey.

Then, it was Heidelberg, a 3-hour train ride away, for a conference on the latest in galaxy formation research. This was my first trip to Germany, and my first time to visit the Max Planck Institutes in Garching and Heidelberg. Every day brought new ideas, experiences, and interactions. This trip was specially memorable for being intellectually, culturally, and socially stimulating, in seemingly equal measure.  

Strolling along the cobbled streets of the old town (Aldstadt, in German, as I quickly learned), I imagined I was retracing the footsteps of Dr Jose Rizal. My tour guide for the weekend, a fellow Atenean and PhD scientist, showed me where Rizal lived and pointed out that he wrote the final parts of “Noli Me Tangere” there. He was 26 then, five years after he first arrived in Spain.

It struck me, yet again, how this revolutionary piece of work would not have existed, and indeed Rizal himself, as we know him, had he never stepped foot in Europe.

More than a hundred years hence, I’m inspired to write about our modern-day ilustrados. They are what I will call “Third Culture PhDs”, or TCPs – Filipinos, like Rizal, who left the Motherland to explore the other side of the world – from East to West, South to North, Third to First.

Like their 19th-century counterparts, they ventured out to gain the most advanced knowledge, where it is available, and their lives are changed by the journey they have taken, profoundly shaped by their intellectual and geographical paths.

My name is Reina, and I’m a TCP. I grew up in Manila (graduated from Pisay, then Ateneo), then left to pursue graduate studies in Physics (first in Italy, then in the US.)

As a result, I identify as a child of the Orient, but actually became an adult in the West. Although I’m not one myself, I can relate to Third Culture Kids (TCKs), who were raised in a culture outside their parents’. Many of them spent their childhood moving from place to place. For them, “home” is not a straightforward concept; for me, it is becoming an increasingly nebulous one.

Having an outsider’s “third culture” brings with it its share of challenges, as one can easily imagine. Less apparent, but just as potent, are the distinct advantages it can bring. For example, most TCPs and TCKs gain the ability to to speak – and think in – more than one language, and develop a heightened cultural intelligence and sensitivity.

These are valuable – and highly-valued – skills in the interconnected global world we live and work in today. And this is only scratching the surface. For me, being a TCP brings with it the power to break down traditional barriers, external and internal. It brings the gift of perspective, of the unnatural instinct to not take anything for granted, of the capacity to see the ordinary with fresh eyes. Ultimately, it enabled me to be the rare young fish who can tell how the water is – for this, I will always, and every day, be thankful.

When I travel, I meet fellow TCPs wherever I go. Just like OFWs, we can be found in every continent. There are hundreds of us, studying and working in universities and research labs across the US, Europe, and Asia – and our numbers are growing by the year.

Each of us is different, but we share a common experience that tie us together. All of us had to deal with a twofold culture shock. To be successful, we needed to adjust not only to the local culture (be it East Coast, Bavarian, or Japanese), but also to the distinctive culture of academia.

This experience inevitably changes us, in most cases, for the better – our minds are honed, our work ethic disciplined, our horizons broadened. Most importantly, like the 19th-century ilustrados, 21st century TCPs learn first-hand that things don’t have to be “the way it has always been.”

For Rizal and his comrades, the inescapable conclusion was liberty for indios. I often wonder, what will it be for us?

Each of us will follow his own path – many will settle abroad, others will continue to drift from one place to another, and some will find their way back to the Philippines. Each will have her own reasons for returning, but, as before, all will have shared challenges to overcome – but that is for another piece.

As for myself, I look forward to going back – not to return to the home I left, but to start on the one I’m going to help build. –

The author was previously featured on Rappler as “The Filipina Who Proved Einstein Right“.  This is part of a Move.PH series #PinoyAko and the first of Reina Reyes’ blogs for Rappler.  She can be reached on Facebook or by email at

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