My friend Valerie once told me my apartment is too neat and tidy it almost looks like no one lives in it. “It looks like a showroom or something you’d see in a magazine,” she blurted out. “Not a pillow out of place, not a dirty dish in the sink. No sign of life.”
She even said that if I added one of those picture frames that come with the standard photo of a newlywed couple, no one would have a clue that I actually lived there. We both laughed at that time but right after she left, I carefully scanned the room and noticed that I’ve indeed made no personal mark in my own space. Not a pillow out of place. Not a dirty dish in the sink. No sign of life.
Was I deliberately living a dead life?
This realization rang loud and clear especially coming from Valerie, an expat from France who had been living here in Malaysia for only two months but whose cluttered apartment looks like she’s been living there for at least ten years. Stories and memories outlined every corner of her place while mine looked like it was up for sale. And this was already a little over a year after I moved to Malaysia.
When I found out I was to be expatriated to Malaysia, I distinctly remember telling myself that this was just a temporary set up. No need to drop anchor here, Paolo. Just stay afloat. A year later, there I was, still afloat, living in a temporary set up. Somehow, my anchor stayed tightly wedged in the Philippines.
Some would say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with staying deeply rooted in your homeland no matter how far you are. It’s an admirable quality, necessary even. In my case however, it sort of held me back, hindering me from fully settling in. You’re just temporarily floating here, Paolo.
This is probably why my apartment, even after a year, looked like it was owned by some fly-by-night drug dealer ready to scramble at the first hint of a police siren. Somehow, I stopped myself from totally unpacking my life—literally and figuratively—and made no effort to personalize my place or make it feel more like home, using the impermanence of my situation as justification. It seemed as if I always had one foot out the door, reluctant to leave any trace of permanence—or proof of existence even.
My trip to department stores only involved purchasing small stuff like a bulb or a spatula. I never gave the bigger, more expensive items much thought to avoid the hassle of having to pack and ship them back home. But where was home? The real issue was that I had a vague idea of where home was. Was it in my room back in my parents’ house? Or was it in this rented serviced suite?
Traveling often for work didn’t help much either in fostering a sense of grounded reality—more so in a foreign land, which I was supposed to call home. Constant travel loosened whatever grip I had on local life, disrupting not only the development of a regular routine but also the cultivation of deep interpersonal connections. I was a transient who felt nothing more than a foreigner. I saw personal relationships as having the same lifespan as my work visa.
Don’t get too close, Paolo. You’re as flighty as a pirated DVD vendor. It became the perfect reason to push people away (or have some friendships renewable on a yearly basis).
I accompanied Valerie one time to shop for more house stuff and was in awe at how much effort she put into making a home of her place. I was in awe mainly because she was assigned to work here for only a short six months! And yet she took the time to buy paintings, rugs, throw pillows, a linen cabinet, a bread maker, a paper shredder, and a Christmas tree. She even would have bought a mini trampoline had I not stopped her. I was impressed at how easy it was for her to grow roots.
“Why are you so stuck up, Paolo?” she once asked me. “Life doesn’t have to be perfect for it to happen. Believe me, it just does,” she said. Words of wisdom from someone who managed to get two boyfriends within that short span of time. How can anyone open up that fast? Valerie just plunged right in while I stayed stuck on a precipice, vacillating whether to jump or not.
When I had to move to a different apartment, my landlord, who came to collect the keys, was shocked to see how I managed to keep things exactly the same way as when I first arrived and asked whether I ever moved in at all. No sign of life. “Are you sure you lived here?” he joked.
It was a simple question but one that pounded heavily in my head. Have I truly lived here?
It caused me to examine my life and recognize the things that were holding me back.
It may have taken me more than a year to stop harboring the concept of having two homes, but I managed to one day just pack whatever belongings I still had in Manila and store them in boxes, declaring (mostly to myself) that I’ve officially moved out. I finally jumped.
Valerie was right. Whether one expects it or not, life happens and it persists wherever you are. You meet people, gain new perspectives, and test the strength of your character against different situations. Before you know it, you suddenly find yourself unpacking bits and pieces of yourself and letting the mess lay where they may. And just like that, a part of you is buried deep in a place and if you’re lucky, you’ll even leave a mark—somewhere or on someone—to prove that yes, you’ve lived.
It’s now been five years since that seemingly innocuous visit by Valerie (who has since moved to China and is probably speaking perfect Mandarin by now) and I can truly say that the anchor that once tethered me to the Philippines has somewhat relaxed its restrictive grip. Or perhaps the rope has just gotten a bit more flexible over time, expanding my comfort zone. Either which way, it has given me more stability knowing that I can and will thrive anywhere I am.
I still live in an apartment with empty walls, mind you. But that has more to do with the lack of time to decorate rather than a reluctance to truly inhabit the place. No more fly-by-night drug dealer tendencies, Paolo.
In fact, I recently bought my first local art piece to add some life to my place—a charcoal rendition of trees. Trees! Yes, those sturdy living things that stay firmly planted on the ground and yet never stop growing and expanding.
My subconscious was clearly telling me to do the same. Live. But stay grounded…somewhere.
And even if my initial reaction was more like, “how am I going to pack that art piece when I leave?” I bought it anyway, because until that day comes, this is where I’m planting myself for now and this is home—yes, with dirty dishes in the sink from time to time because life doesn’t have to be perfect.
It just has to be lived.