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Expat students: Home at last, and angry

Expat students: Home at last, and angry


This article was first published in 2015 in Issue 9th of TFEM. The author, Ryan Edward Chua, was a broadcast journalist for ABS-CBN television network in the Philippines. In 2013, he was awarded a Chevening scholarship and spent almost a year finishing his master’s degree at the City University in London. He is now based in Hong Kong working for Bloomberg LP.

On the evening I arrived in Manila after a 19-hour flight from London, the vehicle my family rented got stuck in the middle of a heavy traffic, taking us several hours to get to our house. Nothing could have made me realize then that I was indeed home.

The next day, I went around the city I missed for almost a year, commuting like I had always done in the past. I was excited to board the MRT when, after almost an hour of waiting for the next train, a coach derailed at a nearby station and operations were suspended. I went out of the station to ride a taxi instead, but the first one I hailed refused to take me. The driver of the second charged twice the standard fare because he would have to pass through heavily congested streets. It also rained hard that day, and many streets were flooded in minutes. Indeed, I was home.

Nearly a year ago, I was a wide-eyed newcomer in central London, marveling at the beauty of the surroundings and the speed at which I travelled from the airport to the city centre riding the tube. It was the beginning of my journey as one of 11 Filipinos chosen to study for a master’s degree in the United Kingdom under its government’s Chevening scholarship programme. I fell in love with the city the moment I stepped out of the underground train station, forgetting how I cried from Manila’s airport to the plane as I thought of family and friends I will not be seeing for a long time.

I had always wanted to pursue further studies abroad, and London was the perfect place to do it. After months of anxiously waiting for the results of my university and scholarship applications,

I finally found myself at a pub with a view of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, trying to finish a large serving of fish and chips and drinking English tea with milk to keep myself warm. It was exhilarating and for a time, I forgot about home.

Although I received a monthly stipend, I lived the life of an ordinary Londoner, trying hard to limit my spending to have enough funds for paying bills and taking public transportation, which I did most of the time. I walked whenever possible. At one point, I left my dorm in central London because the rent was very expensive and transferred to the relatively cheaper eastern part of the city. I also found haircuts too pricey, and so I decided to just have my hair shaved off to minimize my trips to the barbershop.

Living on my own also required doing almost everything alone, from shooting and editing video reports for class and bagging my groceries to preparing my own meals and washing my clothes. It was challenging, but I felt proud seeing myself become more independent and responsible every day.

My studies also brought me face to face with some of Britain’s difficult realities. As a postgraduate student of journalism, I had to regularly produce stories for class, going to places that tourists would probably never see: the dark corners in the West End where homeless people found refuge amidst the biting cold, streets where those who could not afford London’s cost of living held protests, and houses where abused domestic workers gathered in
solidarity with each other.

Like in the Philippines, I lived a simple life in Britain and met ordinary people in my search for stories. The UK became real to me, no longer the wonderland I romanticized. Despite the realities I saw and experienced, I still thought ordinary life in Britain stood in stark contrast to life in my own country.

Life in the UK was comfortable even if I was not well off. I enjoyed an efficient public transport system that made me blame no one but myself whenever I was late for class. Aside from riding buses and trains, I walked long distances most of the time, not only because London’s streets are clean and friendly to pedestrians, but also because I felt safe. I was never worried about getting sick because the National Health Service provides free healthcare. I rarely had to buy bottled water because tap water is safe to drink. Internet is fast. Rules and laws are strictly followed, so much so that I could never enter a pub without an ID showing I’m over 21 years old. Rich, poor, Conservative or Labour supporters, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender—everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and has the same rights.

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On Aug. 11, days after I submitted my dissertation and marked the end of my studies, I left London and said goodbye to all these comforts. I was happy to be home. But seeing that the situation has barely changed was disheartening. Old problems like the heavy traffic that welcomed me on the night I arrived were still here and even seem to have gone worse. I felt sad and disillusioned.

Most of all, I was angry—and I believe this is the most important thing I gained from living in another country.

Living abroad for several months and going back home was enough for me to feel disgusted again at the ugly realities ordinary Filipinos like me continue to face. Growing up in the Philippines and working as a journalist for half a decade, I had already grown tired of those problems and begun seeing them as normal. At some point, they were no longer news to me. Being away even briefly, however, enabled me to look at them with fresh eyes and reignited my anger.

As a journalist, my job is to tell stories, many of which have to do with society’s ills in the hope of finding solutions. I believe that my renewed anger will help me do a better job. Instead of making me want to leave home, my anger has refueled my desire to stay and do something, and reaffirmed my belief that this is where I am needed.

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