While little children are busy counting down to the day Santa visits their houses to deliver gifts, I have my own countdown as well. I countdown to the day I can touch my country’s soil, hear the honking jeepneys, listen to the symphony of Filipino words and bask in the familiar tropical ambiance I realized I missed so much. I countdown to the days I can use the words pa, naman, na, kase, kanina, bahala, lang, basta, have dinner with my family, taste my mother’s home cooked adobo and hug my parents like there’s no tomorrow. I countdown to the days I can go to the beach with my best friends, listen to their kwento face-to-face and be my weird self with people who understand my humor. I countdown to the days I don’t have to filter my Taglish tendencies, translate currencies, calculate how much tip to give every time I come out of a restaurant, constantly think about time differences, or be informed about the latest happenings in my country a week late. I countdown to the instant I can once again say that I’m back home.
But that won’t be for another 65 days.
I never really got a fair grasp of university life abroad until I actually lived it. For some, it’s easy to adjust. But I happened to be a part of the few that thought otherwise. For my first few weeks, I woke up everyday looking at the unfamiliar ceilings of my dorm room and suddenly felt this indescribable empty sensation. Reality sunk in: I was alone, without my best friends, without my family, facing this overwhelming college experience… all by myself (cue music). And it scared me.
I guess the prime suspect in this mystery of my sadness was probably because I was so clingy with the Philippines. I got homesick often: Skype and Viber were my favorite companions. You could only imagine how happy I was when I found out my campus was full of Wi-Fi. My eyes were glued to the pixels of my laptop or phone, chatting away with my friends and family back home (which was bad because it made me miss them even more.) When things suddenly appeared on my Facebook feed be it pictures or event promotions, it was sad thinking about the many moments I was missing out with my friends. And I guess I was also afraid of the idea that I might drift away from them. If I had stayed, I would have been in that photo, I would have gone to that event and I wouldn’t be missing out. If I had stayed, I might not have to be afraid of being forgotten.
The culture here didn’t help stop my clinginess either. As an international student, it’s hard relating to people who don’t understand the setting you come from or the things you know of. It’s hard connecting to people who don’t understand a big part of who you are. If I had stayed, it would be easier to relate and form bonds with people who understood my background, my humor, my ideals and my being Filipino.
I tried focusing my energy to what I initially came here for: my studies. But in the academic realm, I had internal conflicts as well. With the many opinionated, outspoken and audacious leaders, debaters, writers, science enthusiasts, and best students in one of the top liberal arts schools in America, I felt extremely inferior.
That first month in school was tough; I couldn’t believe I was going to have to endure about 31 more! But the good thing was it got better. It might have taken weeks filled with some loneliness, the occasional teary nights, numerous Skype sessions, and lots of feel-good food and I’ll admit that I still am adjusting, but with the numerous extracurriculars, engaging and exciting classes, and new people to come across, it was bound to get so much better!
I’ve experienced my first official football game and, although I didn’t understand the rules, I still had lots of fun cheering my school on with the friends I came with. There are always student-run productions every weekend so I get to support my schoolmates in their endeavors. I took a trip to New York with some of my best friends with the help of regular shuttles that Wesleyan provides. And I’m able to attend the many events be it themed parties, dinners, dances, barbecues, outing trips, concerts, open mic nights and other events every week. The problem isn’t finding out where to go; it’s deciding which one to go to!
The extracurriculars that are available have helped me as well. I’m now a part of the Wesleyan Student Assembly, the Pinoy club, the Fusion Dance Troupe, the Freeman Asian Scholars Association and the Class of 2017 Council. I signed up for a bunch of other clubs as well and I hope to be able to try new things in my stay here. We have about 150 official student groups that range from skiing to hiphop to Harry Potter to belly dancing and so much more!
The education here is amazing as well. Even though I felt inferior at first, I realized that the people surrounding me helped me grow and that’s what’s making the challenge all the more exciting. Because I’m in a liberal arts program, I’m able to try different classes that don’t necessarily have to count towards my major. I’m in a class called Taiko, which is Japanese drumming. I get to learn a little more about Japanese culture as well as have fun drumming it out with my classmates. In my classes, I’m also discovering newfound interests. My psychology class is even making me consider taking a double major! With the support from faculty and their openness with the students, it makes it possible to do.
I do still miss my family and friends back home but I’m finding ones I can be my weird self with little by little. Cliché as it may sound, my true friends will still be there for me no matter the distance, no matter the loss of proximity, no matter what. The people here may be harder to get to know, but once I got to know them, I was amazingly pleased. I met a Japanese person who has lived in Paris and Houston, a Taiwanese scholar who knows Chinese, French, and Thai, a musician who can play the saxophone, ukulele, guitar, piano and gamelan by ear, a person with two step dads and an autistic brother but still finds happiness in the beauty of photography, a Palestinian math genius, a British philanthropist who spent a part of her gap year working in a farm and a Filipino who knows anything and everything about Japan. These diverse sets of people from all walks of life make things more interesting. My eyes open to the realities of life and the beauty that the world has to offer.
I’m gaining more friends, learning through different experiences, challenging my limits and understanding more about the world and, of course, myself. I still can’t wait until my countdown reaches zero, but, at least now, I’m discovering happiness in every single day leading up to it.
Mikaela Reyes graduated from Philippine Science High School in 2013. She now attends Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT as part of the class of 2017.