It is exactly ten years ago today when I boarded a Cathay Pacific plane going to Taiwan to work there for two years.
It was April 4, 2004, when I cried all the way from home to airport. I left my children in the care of my mom. I was not earning much as a government employee and the debts I incurred to finance their education was piling up. I had no other option but to suffer the pain of separation, the birthdays, Christmases and New Years alone in a strange, cold, country with only a handful of English speaking citizens. I had to be strong, I had to fight back the tears. It was to ensure my children would get the education they deserve.
|Me (in the blue shirt) with my work mate Rosie|
What did I gain from this experience? I learned 10 things.
1. I learned to be stronger. Living in place so far away from home, I learned that there is no one else I can depend on but myself. I had to teach myself to fight off the loneliness because it only made me lose focus on the reason I had to leave home.
2. I had to be content with speaking with my kids once a month. Long distance charges are expensive. NT$300 for a 45 minute call. That would mean 600 pesos for a call. I had no access to a computer, so I had to make do with the monthly call and the weekly letter.
3. I learned a new language. In Taiwan, there are only a handful of people who understand and speak English. The younger generation take up English classes after school, however, the adults rarely speak it. Because of this language barrier, I had to learn how to speak their language - Mandarin. Wo ke yi jiang zhong wen!!!"
4. I learned to live on authentic Taiwanese cuisine. I discovered vegetables that I never thought could be edible. I learned to live on less soda and more tea. I had to give up on the best beverage I have always enjoyed - coffee, for the sole reason that it was so expensive. I enjoyed going to their markets where I could buy fruits at a very low price.
5. I learned to really pray. There are very few Catholic Churches in Taiwan. Going to church every Sunday was not an easy option. I spent some quiet time every day to speak with God. My daily prayer was to ask for strength and to keep my children safe from sickness and danger.
6. I learned to watch their local shows (including the news) in Mandarin. I almost lost contact with what was going on in the Philippines and in the world. I tried my best to understand what the newscaster was saying, given the handful of words I learned in Mandarin.
7. I learned to cut my own hair. Getting a haircut is as expensive as NT$500. Since that would equate to a significant amount in pesos, me and my friends learned to give each other a decent haircut.
8. I learned about their customs, their beliefs and Chinese festivals. Chinese New Year their biggest celebration. Weeks before the Lunar New Year, all families do their spring cleaning. This is what most foreigners look forward to, because the Taiwanese throw out their old stuff and replace them with new ones. This is the time that I got a CD player, a shoe rack, and clothes from neighbors who did not want them anymore. Then they have the Mid Autumn Festival. This is a time for family gathering. Usually they set up the barbeque grill and stay up until very late basking in the beautiful glow of the full moon. The Ghost Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar Month. The Taiwanese honor their departed relatives and prepare meat and wine as an offering to them. It is believed that for a month, the spirits come back and roam around with the living.
9. I learned that in order to survive being harassed, I only have to learn 5 Mandarin phrases by heart. These 5 phrases are "Bu!" (No!), "Wo bu yao" (I don't want), "Bu yong" (never mind/not necessary); "Bu ke yi" (not allowed) and "Zou kai!" (go away!)
10. I learned what "cold" really meant. Winters were cold. I had jeans over sweatpants over long johns. I had to put on a jacket over a sweater over a shirt over a tank top. To protect my face when going out, I had to wear a face mask to cover my cheeks, nose and mouth. I wobbled around like a snowman. I enjoyed it though.
I came home on March 27, 2006, a day before my youngest son's grade school graduation. It was the best day of my life, to finally be with my children again.
On my first night home, I woke up to see all three of my children watching me sleep. I asked them why weren't they in bed and they said they just missed me.
The most heartwarming thing they said to me that night was "Mama, please do not leave us again."
I never did.