What am I doing here?
CAMBODIA IS not a common destination of Filipino expatriates and workers. While it is true that Phnom Penh, its capital, is like some cities in the Philippines and that we look so much like the locals, Cambodia is a very different country.
And I will have to highlight its language here, really. Khmer is just probably one of the hardest to learn! I have to do sign language before I can buy a can of sardines. I have to act out the gestures of eating to order fried rice, or of washing clothes to make the store owner know that I need laundry soap. It’s like learning my abakada again, or a little more than that.
To make things harder, I am working in a publishing company putting out a daily newspaper. I am passionate about journalism, but it is such a huge challenge to be in a communication environment where you barely understand anything. I thank God and fate that I was assigned to the international news section. I get to choose and edit stories that I can comprehend.
Basically, my work ends after I distribute all the news articles to translators. But no, there is much more than researching and editing. I am responsible for everything that is published in the eight-page section. I can’t just say “I didn’t know about that” when errors are found after printing. Every day is a battle between “I don’t understand because I am a foreigner” and “I should understand because this is the very reason I was hired” mindsets. And I clearly know which one should prevail.
But every time I get exhausted from the pressure and the sometimes frustrating communication gap, or get a WhatsApp message from my boss asking about some serious (what’s minimal in ordinary workplaces is a big deal in publications) mistakes that should have been prevented, I think about why I got here in the first place.
It was a sudden and unplanned move. But it was necessary. The job offer came less than an hour after I quit my first job. I received an e-mail from the employer while I was still crying over the dream I had just let go. But despite my fear of the uncertain, I accepted the opportunity. I bade farewell to my old life.
I got here when I was 22, with some emotional and spiritual baggage attached to “indirect” financial pressure on me. I did not have the time to curl up and break down. I was not even able to think about how fast things were going because, what’s the use? I had to gather myself and act like a real grownup.
From looking for a cheap apartment to proper budgeting of limited resources to dealing with people whose culture and language are so different from mine to missing home, I was faced with so many changes that I had to confront and survive. But that is what this whole journey is all about, isn’t it? Changes—and growing through them.
It has been a year and two months since I arrived in Cambodia. Being here might not be the best moment of my life; it is not even part of the I-want list I wrote in a formal theme in sixth grade. But coming to Cambodia is the greatest and most mature decision I have ever made.
Despite the occasional “please let me go home even for a week” drama, I am loving the life Cambodia has offered me. It did not just give me the job that has somewhat helped my family back home; it also gave me freedom to learn new things, to conquer fears, to fail without regrets.
I learned to stand on my own feet without crutches, knowing that I should. I picked up pieces of myself I left lying on the floor for months because I can’t be too broken here. I learned to trust my judgments on people and things, and take all the blame when I am wrong. I went through trial-and-error moments on directions, cooking, buying stuff, and making significant decisions. I realized that it is through trying and failing that I am learning when and how I am making things right.
This small country has given me a wider and higher platform to stand on so I can have a clearer view of things. Here I am trusted with big things, but I am not afraid to express doubt or question rules. I learned the beauty of being confused and eventually getting the right answers. I am given room to reexamine who I am and who I want to be, while leaving some space for fragments of who I was before I came here.
Cambodia has given me many chances to be open to people, circumstances and life itself. I have discovered that kindness and sincerity are but two of the most beautiful things one can give and earn—like being handed a cup of noodles and jackfruit in my first week because my colleague knew I had not eaten lunch; like being always offered a ride when the company driver does not answer my calls; like being invited to weddings because they want to share an important tradition.
All these have been done without too many words. They do not speak English; I do not speak Khmer. But I guess there is no need for long talks. I have seen and felt how amazing Cambodians are merely through their nods and their signature “Okay, okay, go, go.”
I will be staying here for several months more before the contract ends. There are still a lot of matters I need to resolve—personal dramas, pressure at work, financial constraints and family goals. There will be more tears and self-against-self or self-against-others arguments for sure. I am happy nevertheless. I may be a little scared of what’s coming next for me after this. But for now, I am ready to continue what I have started here and finish it with pride.
Honestly, it still puzzles me how everything happened so swiftly that I sometimes forget some of the details. It still makes my eyebrows meet when I try to recall how I landed here just 18 days after I received the e-mail, how I did not notice that it has been over a year already, how I have started making real friendships despite the language barrier, how I managed to survive not having my family around when I felt troubled, how I have slowly accepted that I can’t go back to the life I used to have, and how I am getting emotionally better most of the days.
But I guess it is not really a question of how all these things happened, but why.
So: Why am I here? It’s God’s gift.
Short note to God: Thank you for the two kababayan who are the only ones I laugh with over Vice Ganda’s jokes. They are part of the reasons I am surviving the OFW life. Awkunh ch’ran (Thank you very much).
Agnes Alpuerto, 23, works in a national newspaper in Cambodia.
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