22, October, 2007. I bought myself a one-way ticket and I left the country I called home for 23 years. That year 2007, an extremely unkind year, put me through so much personally and professionally that I was a bit surprised to see myself still intact and in one piece. My heart was chipped... so badly. That for sure but miraculously, it was still beating. Well, it had to for I had made the choice to keep on living. I knew I must keep going even though I felt the weakest I had ever been.
I can still vividly remember that day and how overwhelming it was for me. Although I had travelled overseas many times in the region, this time was different. I was leaving everything that I knew and I had no idea when I would return.
I was the last person to board the plane because I had some issues with the airport police. Just as I expected, the police went through my luggage taking everything out for search. Finally he found the US dollars I carefully hid in one of the pockets of my luggage. (In a country where there is no international banking, many students have to smuggle out thousands of dollars to be able to pay for their school fees, living expenses while studying abroad etc.) He told me that the money was exceeding the limit that one could take out when leaving the country. I had to come clean finally and explained to him that the money was the fees I needed to pay to the university and I was a student. And that there was no way I could make the payment if I did not carry the money that way. Clearly, all he wanted was some bribe money. Unfortunately, I did not have money in my currency. He was being very difficult and threatening that my money would be confiscated. My heart was racing for I feared that I would not make it to the flight or, even worse, that to leave the country would become impossible and that my hard-earned money would get taken away.
“This cannot be happening to me! Not when I am feeling so emotional and fragile” It truly was more than enough to break me but I just could not show it. The police let me go in the end, because I pleaded him to go and ask money from my friend who was there nervously watching the scene from the glass window outside. I quickly packed up my baggage, signaled my friend to deal with the situation on my behalf (which he thoroughly understood) and ran towards the check-in counter. When I got there, the lady in charge told me that it was too late and she had already closed the counter. There I begged again with my already-breaking voice asking her to help. She looked annoyed but reluctantly checked my bag in. There was yet another problem, excess baggage situation. She demanded $125 dollars which, believe me, was a lot of money in my country. I knew my bag was heavy but I honestly assumed I would be able to get away with it using my usual charm and of course the mercy of the person in charge. After all, our people are known for their courteous manner and peaceful nature. No- not with her! She would not have it and kept asking for the fine. I appealed her to at least reduce the amount while explaining I was merely a student and I packed a lot because I would be gone from home for a long time. She simply said she could not do it. I had no choice but to settle the amount in cash as the plane was leaving. And… you could imagine how I as well just could not wait to leave, leaving all this behind.
As I learned that the plane had taken off and started disappearing into the clouds above, I noticed that there was something pressing in my chest making me uneasy to breathe. My body was shaking as if I had fever. My heart was dealing with a wide array of emotions: anguish, sadness, disappointment, tension, aggravation and helplessness. I needed to do something to get it all out. So I tried crying first but I simply just could not this time. I felt numb all over and my heart, my poor, poor heart, was in such a state that I could not even describe. One thing for sure though, it was working harder than ever before. I decided to write. I took out my little note book and things started pouring out all over the pages. One of them was a vow that I made to myself to not go back to my country as long as I could. I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. Within a few hours, I had left my country, my family, my career, my dear friends and my two most important relationships: one that I will always hold close to my heart and the other where I failed miserably and lost a great deal.
Kuala Lumpur became my new home for the next two years. The beginning was rough. Adjusting was not easy and uncertainty scared me. Studying and also working fulltime, I had very little time for myself. Growing up, money was never a problem in my family. Also, when I was striving out on my own, from my late teens to my early twenties, I had a good job that paid very well by our national standard so I never really had to worry about money running out …until that point. Surviving on the little salary I made from a teaching job I found, there were times that I prayed for the month to come to a quick end.
Things got better with time and I was no longer alone. I had someone and it was truly a happy time. He helped me get through my painful heartbreak by giving me something beautiful to look at every day. Gradually, I was able to leave my tumultuous 2007 behind. It, however, was a confusing time for both of us and I did not believe what we had was enough. I kept on searching. Searching for what? I wondered too. Maybe ..Safety? Assurance? Protection? Guidance? Or all of them? And, of course…Love? Yes, big love: the kind of love that I had not yet experienced. Is that even possible? Yes, it is because I found it. Unexpectedly and it eventually led me to my next move, the island.
In Malaysia, I did not make many friends as I had hoped but I did meet two important men who will therefore be very much part of my life until I die. I survived two accidents- a minor gas explosion that left me with some second to third degree burns on my legs and a hit-and-run motorbike accident that gave me a souvenir scar under my right eyebrow. My life in Malaysia was colorful indeed. No regrets and no complaints. Most importantly, I successfully finished my study in the field where my passion lies. It did not come easy so the victory was bittersweet.
Since my departure from my homeland, I have lived in a metropolis as well as on an island. I have learned to cook and become good at it. Two years ago, I had no idea (nor did I ever ponder?) how a raw chicken from a supermarket came to an edible stage on the dinner plate. Now I am baking lemon polenta cakes and I have mastered at least 50 dishes that make people go “wow” at the dining table. (Thanks to TLC, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson) I have picked up three new languages. Although they are still in developing stage, I hope to be fluent in all three in a few years time. Three years ago, I could count the times that I had been on airplanes but now I have lost count of the cities and towns that I visited. I have cruised the Mediterranean, swum in the Caribbean and witnessed The Carnival in Rio, among so many other unforgettable worldly highlights that I have been lucky enough to soak in.
When I was back home in my country, the mobile phone, popularly known as “The GSM”, was a luxury and something that only the rich and famous could afford. All you could do with it, really, was making phone calls, not even inclusive of other services like texting, facebook or going online. Nevertheless, our people took pride in being able to hold GSM flaunting it by talking so loudly on the streets so that other GSM-less people like me could see and admire. I started using mobile phone when I moved to Malaysia. My very first mobile was an old-fashioned Nokia, I still remember. My best friend, a beautiful Chinese girl, taught me how to text, save contacts, download ringtones and stuff. Coming from a land where mobile phones were considered precious, it was truly thrilling to be able to hold one of my own in my hand. From that to a much better Nokia with games and a built-in camera that took grainy pictures later on and then onto a Blackberry when I moved to Indonesia (A national favorite!) and… now my iPhone 4, I have come a long way. This boy who learned how to send text messages 4 years ago now can’t live without his iPhone. He has in fact become so dependent on this gadget. Once I was on a short daytrip out and forgot to bring my phone, I remember how lost and empty I felt the entire day. It felt like missing someone, just like that song “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. I was a mess!
My life has changed. It has changed for the better. Although most people would argue that four years is not really a long time, a lot has happened in my life. Fortunately, for me, so many great things happened. Now, I am in a place where I feel protected, respected and loved. Most importantly, I can truly be myself and not be afraid. I live a fairly comfortable life without having to worry so much or get stressed. I believe that happiness is one of the most overrated virtues but I can confidently say right now that I am doing alright. And that is good enough. Not to sound cliché but it is true that we all have to make choices in life and go through many changes. Only through these changes and choices, we grow. I have grown a hell lot. Leaving my country was the best decision I have ever made and only I know where I would have been if I had chosen “the otherwise”. I am now glad that I was able to press the restart button instead of the shut down when things got complicated.
Lately, there has been a lot of positive news coming out of my country. I have heard that the country is moving towards a better direction and some progress has been made. That makes me very happy and hopeful. Besides, the dark episode that I was going through when I left home seems a little too distant from where I am now. I have been trying so hard not to think about home so that I do not have to miss it. I rarely call home. I never write to my family or anyone else. But now I feel that it is about time. It is about time to go back to the place where I belong for the first time since I left. After all, what am I made of? I do miss home. I can’t lie. I do miss speaking my language and eating my food. Besides, I am curious to see how things have changed or rather remained unchanged. Dear old friends, the streets that I walked, my old apartment in the city, the places I used to frequent, oh...all of it. It’s funny! Who would have thought, definitely not I, that going back to such a familiar place like home would feel as if I were unwrapping a mysterious gift? I am filled with questions. Will it delight me or disappoint me? Will this homecoming be nostalgic and weepy like in the movies? Would I cry once the familiar warm breeze of my motherland wraps me up and sweeps me off as I land? How will my people back home react to this brand new me? Or am I still their jolly boy with a pointy nose who causes troubles? … I am indeed anxious but very excited to find out.
And…I guess I am ready to embrace what I had left behind four years ago all over again. I am coming home.