By Euzette Fermilan
“Nobody told me it’s not just a giant leap to the world of Victorian manors, cobbled streets, or anything like ‘from books to reality’. Rather, it’s a massive shift in my soul, a divided identity.”
People move to other countries for several reasons, either for work, for asylum, or for a family reunion. Mine is the latter.
Although the reasons are different, many immigrants' struggles are quite similar. When you leave your home country and live in a new one, you either belong to both or between. And nobody told me it’s not just a giant leap to the world of Victorian manors, cobbled streets, or anything like ‘from books to reality’. Rather, it’s a massive shift in my soul, a divided identity.
Along came the immigrant blues, feeling neither here nor there. Or whatever they call it. I’ll say it’s being in that space where many ineffable emotions live. At first, it’s raw and unfamiliar, so you perceive it’s only you who have access to it. The profound sense of isolation, loss of identity, confusion, and the magnificent feat of belonging to, or fitting in. Within my first year of sharing the immigrant space, I got married, got pregnant, and eventually became a first-time mom. It’s quite a depiction of opening a life box of chocolates, everything at once. If tears were akin to rainfall in summer, then mine are pouring in delightful quantities. Of course, who would shun the beautiful promises of new beginnings?
“Her accent is a stubborn compass always pointing / her home.”
—Denice Frohman, ACCENTS
When people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from the Philippines, and often, right after that, they compliment my English or my accent. During these casual talks, I usually wear my raconteur hat and share brief and informative stories about my culture, language, and country. On rare occasions, it expands to the time of Spanish colonisation, and even folklore. And that Tagalog, despite being the Philippines’ national language, is the least I use. I lived in the region where people speak in Surigaonon or Cebuano on a daily basis. So, within that brief interaction, I’m glad I shared some interesting things about my home country. May those random talks, albeit short, illuminate others about their Asian neighbours.
Once, an elderly man in the shop commented, “Oh, I thought you’re from Spain.”
I replied, “No, I’m not.” I smiled and moved on with my day in nostalgia.
“We carry names, stories, memories of our villages, / fields, boats.”
—Wang Ping, THINGS WE CARRY ON THE SEA
It’s always wonderful to see places, shops, or even streets that have the same name as someone I know back home. And just like that, a portal to the past instantly opens for me to revisit them. When I’m with someone, I can’t help but narrate these memories with gratitude and pride.
I always carry memories of turquoise waters and white beaches. Also, the tropical sunlight dappling through the leaves of coconut trees, the seaweed scent of the sea, and the vessels that take people to and from the city. My favourite part was looking at the sky while sailing as the sun rose slowly. The vast sea appeared to be so tranquil and mirror-smooth. As a child, I remember how I sometimes hated those flying fish that broke this momentary vision of a glass sea. I carry with me the village where kids in my generation played on the streets and rice fields. Rain or shine, we’re always good to go. Some time in summer, beneath the full moonlight, my friends and I played a local game called ‘buyan-buyan’. Buyan, a Bisaya term, can also be directly translated into English as "the moon".
“And for those who understand such things, the stars were sending messages: / You will leave the village where you were born / and in another country you’ll become very rich, very powerful.”
— Louise Glück, MIDSUMMER
As humans, we always long for something. And in order to arrive, you need to leave. It’s the journey itself that offers us endless possibilities. As well as a great understanding of life, cultures, languages, and so on. To me, that is power.
I wish someone had told me before I moved abroad that I should take caution with the person I’d become. Acquiring new pieces of life’s puzzle (a series of learning and unlearning) leaves no one the same as when they first found them. Thus, others are quick to judge, especially those who never leave their comfort zones. They brand anyone who has learned to set healthy boundaries as someone who has changed or forgotten her humble origins. In fact, it’s the other way around. Since I came to the UK, it’s as though I became the metaphorical Lazarus; like a miracle in their eyes, I now exist. To them, that’s my power.
Along with these realisations, I move forward in my new life. Like in Glück’s words, “but always you will mourn something you left behind, even though / you can’t say what it was.”
“No Madonna and Child could touch / Her tenderness for a son / She soon would have to forget …” — Chinua Achebe, A MOTHER IN A REFUGEE CAMP
Since I live abroad and became a mom myself, I’ve learned to be more empathetic towards others, especially my fellow immigrants. Any news or immigrant stories of resilience, survival, and death will always haunt me. It terrifies me to know that there’s only a thin line between the search for a better life or employment and the search for asylum when it comes to safety.
When the war in Ukraine broke out in February 2022, I was in Poland. It’s the most uncertain and fearful I’ve ever been. Suddenly, I fear for everything. I fear for my life, for my family and friends, and for the entire world. My mind couldn’t stop reeling in some horrifying scenarios of ‘what ifs’. I even recalled the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and The Boy In Striped Pajamas, or the like. Even though I only understand a little Polish, I watched national news on TV during that time. Of the many overwhelming news stories, I remember one that truly made me stop in my tracks, and since then, it has stayed with me. A stuffed toy was caught on camera lying down in the middle of the street. It must have fallen down or been abandoned, and whoever that cameraman was, he did a great job of capturing human interest. My heart, for instance.
I felt the terror despite only watching the chaos on TV. Upon seeing that stuffed toy, I felt so deeply. The child must have brought that toy as they ran for safety. Kids usually become anxious or upset if they lose their favourite toy. Thus, my heart aches for that, too. I offered a silent prayer, hoping that all those who were fleeing could make it to safety.
Later that night, my stubborn thoughts didn’t silence me. Thinking about the huge numbers of refugees in the country, I ponder what the future holds for them. I contemplate the refugees all over the world. Say, you have escaped the war, but not reality. Refugee camps are not always in favourable conditions. The hot or cold weather, food, people who eventually get sick, and many other concerns. I can’t fathom the struggles, especially for parents with toddlers and newborns. Imagine if any of them dies to illness and no immediate access to proper healthcare. There’s nothing much you can do except, like in Achebe’s lines:
“She had bathed him… / A little daily act of no consequence / Before his breakfast and school; now she did it / Like putting flowers on a tiny grave”.
My heart continues to mourn for the lives lost during the war, most especially those precious little ones.
It reminds me to be more grateful for everything I have. Taking into account that those who are here have their own unique stories to tell, stories of survival and belonging. Stories of finding new identities while maintaining old ones. They help me find solace, knowing I’m not alone in the diaspora. I want to carry them with me wherever I go. And no matter what, I persist in living my life full of hope, beauty, and meaning.
About the writer
Euzette Fermilan is a Filipino born-poet and writer based in UK. When her domestic demand is low, she is found reading or rereading important nothings, writing, or wandering about. You can follow her on Instagram @euzette_and_write.