Living vs. Visiting

November 24, 2011 | Michael, DVM, Gawad Kalinga, AFS Interculture, Philippines

We speak of travel. Jet planes, exotic foods, language barriers, new friends, adventures, relaxation, personal fulfillment. We speak of home. Family, warm beds, a favorite reading spot, that inevitable stress, routine, inside jokes, history. And we speak of the blur between the two, but maybe not as loudly. This intangible cloud of travel meets home can take many forms, depending mostly on the person, but also time, spatiality, and culture.

A friend asked me before I left Ottawa some twelve weeks ago whether I thought of my time in the Philippines as ‘traveling’ or ‘living.’ I answered ‘living’ without hesitation, reasoning that three months in one place, especially if working and staying with a host family in this place, gives a person (me) enough time to adapt and learn about the culture to become at least familiar enough with it to be considered ‘living’ there. Furthermore, this person would lay down some roots, fall into a social pattern, network, learn directions, buy groceries, etc. No, my ‘living’ in the Philippines would not be the same as how I live my life in Canada, never. But, nonetheless, it would still be ‘living’.

Four weeks into my internship, I asked myself the same question. ‘Mike, do you feel like you are ‘living’ here or merely visiting, traveling?’ I hands down chose the latter, traveling. In a third of the time of my internship, I still felt like I was traveling around. I had made the friends, become accustomed to the food, knew my way around, even had learned some Tagalog. But, these actions still did not equate to living. I had the networks, but there was no foundation. The host family, but no history. The know-how, but lacking confidence. I was a visitor and everything was simply fleeting comfort.

I still felt the alienation more times than I would have liked. I missed my friends and family back home. There were still many less frequent or complex social norms that I hadn’t encountered or understood yet. And it all got me so upset! I kept asking myself when the ‘click’ would happen, when would I be living, because that’s what I’m putting in all this effort for, to feel at home, to understand completely, I’m sick of traveling.

I am very happy I can update in retrospect. You can be in a place without becoming that place. I’ve learned that. Just because I was in the Philippines, that did not transitively make me Filipino. Expecting myself to feel ‘at home’ in a place where it is impossible for me to lay down the roots, the history, the embededness in the time given was not healthy. Of course I would become more familiar with my surroundings, the culture, certain individuals. I would even grow to need some of these familiarities. But some instant switch between living and traveling does not exist, in my opinion. Rather, the creation of living or ‘home’ is a process which occurs over time. All is beautiful, but you can’t take it all with you, and it’s not all yours to take anyway.

I would never tell someone I lived in the Philippines for three months. I also would never say I traveled the Philippines for three months. I guess, as ambiguous as it sounds, I would have to tell people I was in the Philippines for three months. Yes, I became attached to people, places, ideas that I’ve only experienced here. Yes, my life, over time, became a series of routines (but still with many adventures to break up the routines, and routine in this sense does not automatically mean monotonous). But I cannot say I lived here or traveled here. What my time in the Philippines was, however, was foremost, immeasurably personally fulfilling.

So, I ask you, readers, to think to yourselves about what is home? What is the difference between living and traveling in an era of easy transit and mass migrations? Can such a distinction be drawn? Is living in a place quantifiable or can it only ever be a feeling one experiences over time?

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