A ‘Barong’ In a Closet of Coloured Shirts

by Aljo Quintans

 

When I first learned that I will study in the UK, few of the things that worried me are: first, what if I won’t have friends; second, what will I do when I miss my family; and third, will I still be able to eat a ‘legit’ pork sinigang (sour-based pork soup). [I know it is quite weird to put sinigang on that list, but my true friends know – sinigang is life.] Essentially, I am concerned of the things (and people) I will leave in my home country, afraid that I might lose some of it – and/or a part of me.

Embracing diversity: My international house 

As soon as I arrived in the UK, I was promptly astonished with the country’s diversity. I can still vividly remember how a student volunteer from my University, a Vietnamese, picked me up from the airport, and assisted me to the coach, with a Pakistani driver, to take me to my accommodation. He was very kind. He chatted with me all throughout the travel (that’s how I learned where he came from as well as our driver’s) that I abruptly forgot all my first day jitters. When I got into my house, I was welcomed by my Indian landlady and was immediately introduced to my housemates – there were six of us, a French, a German, an Italian, an Indian, an Indonesian, and me, a Filipino. 

In the beginning, I was not very sure how to approach my international housemates. Coming from different countries, as international students in the University of Manchester, it would be quite obvious that each one of us has different personality. From there, I learned my first lesson in the UK – to always be yourself. I started mingling with my housemates, talking about our own countries and sharing our individual backgrounds.

I consider living in my accommodation, a wonderful blessing. I got along with my housemates so easily that we enjoyed travelling together as well as having movie and game nights. They have instantaneously become my best buddies. As such, I would like to urge you that if you will be a student in a different country, such as the UK, and if you would have the choice to do so, live with foreigners. It will be an extremely fulfilling experience. 

Among other things, my housemates and I are fond of eating together. Coming from various parts of the world, our dining table would always look like a buffet in an international society. Indeed, food is a big part of a country’s culture and an expression of one’s identity. Of course, I cook Filipino dishes for them, and thank God, they (always) love it. Cooking and sharing Filipino food to my housemates is not only a time for socialisation but most importantly, a way of engaging them to partake in a little bit of culture and traditions that we have, and that we are proud of. (Note: they love my adobo and sinigang.)

Truly, my relationship with my housemates not only made my stay in the UK a lot easier, but it also inspired me to do the same outside our home – in the University.

Diversity in the University: My international friends 

Studying politics and development studies in the University of Manchester meant having classmates from all walks of life (i.e. civil servants, NGO workers, environmentalists, sociologists, and economists, among others), from around the globe. As the only Filipino who went to Manchester from my scholarship, I had a hard time looking for fellow Filipinos in the University. This may have obvious disadvantages (a point I will elaborate a bit later), but for me it is a great opportunity – a chance for me to meet new people and make friends with brilliant scholars from all over the world. Maybe I am an optimist, but take it from me, it is always useful to look into the positive aspect of things.  

In all the time I had, I used it to network with my fellow scholars from my scholarship (i.e. Chevening) and build friendships that are destined to last a lifetime. As such, I found good friends from Antigua and Barbuda, Hongkong, Indonesia, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Japan, and South Africa, among others. The process has been very rewarding as I get to learn their culture, history, and practices whilst, most importantly, I also get to share with them our own Filipino traditions and antiquity. 

To say, however, that having Filipino friends is no longer necessary, is implausible. 

Expanding my Filipino network: My old (and new) Pinoy friends 

As I mentioned earlier, I came in the University as the only Filipino from my scholarship which meant I had no instant constant companion and a talking buddy – a person I can freely communicate with, especially in my own language, particularly when my English has ran out (hence, the ‘obvious disadvantages’). This, nonetheless, did not stop me, and so should you, from finding a network of Filipino students in the UK, which I believe has an inherent value, not only for my stay in the UK, but for the enrichment of my Filipino identify in itself, as someone belonging and relating to a certain ethno-cultural context. 

First, I continued engaging with my old friends who happen to be studying in the UK as well during the same year - making plans with them, visiting them in their universities, and exploring the UK together. Also, I constantly communicated with my fellow Filipino scholars, my new mates, studying from different parts of the UK, discussing the different issues that we face, here in the UK, and especially back home. It’s the simple gestures of watching your favourite Filipino TV series and celebrating birthdays with each other that makes you feel at home, far from home.

To end, I must conclude that to worry (in the beginning) is human, but to try not to worry is divine. After almost eight months of staying in the UK, I found that yes I can make a lot of new friends by simply being who I am, without losing my old friends back home. I may also miss my family (a lot), but I can create new relationships that will make my entire stay in the UK worthwhile. (And yes, we can still have ‘legit’ Pinoy food in the UK by shopping ingredients at local Asian stores and following recipes online.) Finally, I have a reason to believe that we can never lose who we are – that being a Filipino will always be in us – but we can always improve, and grab every opportunity we can get, to be better versions of ourselves, for our own and for others.