Three a.m., Philippine time. In what should have been my first reprieve from jet lag in the last 31 hours, I wake up on the floor with a start and realize I am sad.
At first, it was like discovering a tiny, fat, awkward creature sitting on my chest, and the only words I managed to mouth to it were, “How long have you been there?” Then the sadness turned into an embattled mesh of vines and long-legged sprouts, its roots effectively hidden from plain sight, no matter how hard I tried to dig.
Since coming home from a five-week exchange program living the American dream, my phone had been buzzing nonstop, notifying me that 20 other Southeast Asians may physically have returned home but were very much in fact still existing thousands of miles away in Omaha, Nebraska.
“It would have been lunch time back in UNO now. That’s probably why I can’t sleep.”
“Guys, the shuttle of Sonesta will leave anytime now!”
It was interesting – almost heart-wrenching, really – to see a bunch of adults deliberately playing a game of make-believe in what would now be four days of denial that the YSEALI program had truly come to an end. In their own ways, these friends have expressed their goodbyes and their thanks and their longing online: poems, sad posts, throwback photos. The ongoing YSEALI UNO Mavericks chat is proof enough that we were still reluctant to let go.
Personally, I had always been the checklist girl. Do it, check it off, move on. Everything must come to an end. It always made me feel quite guilty of the fact that I could easily let go. Endings brought me a sort of catharsis, but tears in the eyes of friends would stop the sigh of relief forming at the tip of my lips.
So that was why I could not really find the words to say to the tiny, fat, awkward creature on my chest. Why was it here in the first place? Why wake me up at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m.?
Was it the meeting I had with my business partner, where I developed the fear that I would never be friend-material to him? Was it the fact that two days into my job, I was asked to pack my bags once again to embark on road trips and flights around the country to face angry media men? Was it the fact that the dirt and pollution of my cities – my cities – pained me as I mentally longed for US streets and sidewalks and traffic signs to materialize in the Philippines?
Was it the fact that I had to fumble around my coin purse this morning, trying to forget how to count in dollars and remember jeep and tricycle fares in pesos? Was it the fact that I once again blended into a sea of bodies in pursuit of work and a living for their families, whose blank stares cared nothing for the fact that I was a thousand miles away from YSEALI?
The creature blinks its eyes, and holds up the root of the vine.
There, I said it. At 3 a.m., Philippine time, I woke on my floor with a start because I missed YSEALI.
I had never been woken by an intense longing before. How special these last five weeks must have been to find the secret crack into my heart. I did not realize that my already-full luggage managed to fit Southeast Asians and Nebraskans and other nameless, kind Americans – their faces reminding me that the Philippines no longer looked the same to me as it was 35 days ago when I left it.
How strange and new and wonderful my homeland – and the world – seemed to me now. In the face of longing, where do I place myself when I am neither here nor there? Where do I place myself when I realize that my heart is broken, but that it has broken into a million shards and has scattered across oceans and mountains and cities?
Friends, I think that if you look in your luggage carefully enough, you might find that a beating piece of my heart has sneakily made its way into your pockets. If you do, please pardon my messiness. Keep it, and keep it beating.
For this Filipina finds herself in tears this early November morning, but finds solace in the fact that pieces of her broken heart are safe in the hands of a YSEALI family she dearly loves.
Rise and shine, my loves.