Photo Credit: Aaron Favila/AP/Shutterstock
At my high school graduation, everyone in my class cried except for me. Granted, we were a class of only 15, and maybe a few others didn't shed a single tear themselves, but I have a clear enough memory of standing in the middle of a small sea of white togas, my classmates embracing each other and their families, everyone weeping and puffy-eyed.
We were a class of 15 in a Philippine school in Riyadh, the Kingdom's capital city. At least half of us had known each other since childhood, and maybe that was why they were crying. Maybe they were overwhelmed by the poignance of it, of having shared years of our young lives essentially sequestered with these other people and now having to say goodbye so you could all move on to wherever your newfound freedom was taking you next.
Meanwhile, I was just happy to leave.
Filtered Through Red Sand
I call my parents a lot these days, and often when they answer the phone, they'll be in the middle of running errands. They show me bits and pieces of Riyadh today — its old landmarks, its wide roads lined with date trees — and I notice how the buildings look the same as when they were first built and how the light hits everything the same way, as though filtered through red sand hanging in the air.
It's funny how I've ended up romanticizing the exact same place I couldn't wait to leave as a young adult.
Growing up in Riyadh in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, I was both comfortable and uncomfortable, and to this day, I can't tell which one it was that I experienced more deeply. We lived in a sizable apartment. We had air conditioning. We had hot water in the winter. We had a car. These are all things that were and still are considered necessities in many parts of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, they were and still are largely considered luxuries in our native Philippines.
I suppose the privileges, while still privileges, compensated for the rest. Like the part where one of my biggest childhood fantasies was to be able to bike outside. Or how my mom and I couldn't go anywhere without my dad. Or how much I yearned to learn so many things, but the bookstores didn't have the books I wanted to read.
It didn't make any sense to me then. Today, I almost see it as a series of things offsetting a series of other things. The biggest offset being that my family had a chance to be together.
Leavings and Comings
In the '80s and '90s, a boom in employment opportunities in Saudi Arabia spurred Filipinos to migrate in droves. The cost of living was relatively low and gas was cheaper than water. The monarchy also did not impose taxes, thus allowing migrant workers to save more of their income.
These Filipino migrant workers would leave their families behind and move to Saudi Arabia to earn money that would feed their loved ones back home. Eventually, they might settle down in the Kingdom with their work visas. They would be allowed to have dependents, and so some would bring their spouse, while others would meet their future spouse there.
They would have children, who would grow up, and Philippine schools would soon be established where the children could finish high school. The children would move elsewhere to go to college, and sometimes, they would come back to the Kingdom with their own work visas. The cycle continues to this day, a cycle of leavings and comings.
Most Filipinos in Saudi Arabia didn't obtain citizenship, and nothing was truly permanent for them. Maybe that was partly why my classmates would be crying at our graduation decades later.
But in 1982, my father, who was in his 20s, didn't really care much about permanence, at least not in that sense. History was just about to happen, and he decided to take his chance.
More Than a Place
I wouldn't really know my father until we all moved to Saudi Arabia. It would be the tail end of spring 1996. And at the age of eight, with the dry heat burning through my nose, I would come to know this desert city as home, a home that would never truly be my home, but where I would learn instead that home, more than a place, is just where family is.
A few weeks ago, on another random call, I had a conversation with my parents about our life in Saudi Arabia. My dad asked me whether I thought my parent's decision to raise my brothers and me in Riyadh turned out to be the best decision for all of us.
I thought about not being able to bike to my music teacher's house. I thought about everything I could have learned earlier had I had the resources. I thought about not shedding a single tear at my high school graduation.
I thought about the many Filipino families out there, broken by distance - the leavings and comings - and how many of those we were spared.
And I said yes.