This past August marked my tenth year living as an expat. I still remember the trepidation of leaving everything familiar behind — my family, friends, career, home. My fear was attenuated by the notion that living abroad was temporary, that I would return. But having now lived in five additional countries, the notion of returning home is a little more complicated.
While I was born in the Philippines and grew up in California, over the last ten years home has also been Italy, Germany, Argentina, Bulgaria, and now Hong Kong. As an expat, the nearest close relative was usually thousands of miles away. Therefore, I came to learn to define my relations in non-familial ways. With each move, friendships with people on the other side of the world or across an ocean became normalized.
Being part of what novelist Pico Iyer calls a “transcontinental tribe of wanderers” has afforded me opportunities to venture into the unknown and glean several insights.
Italy — Work to Live, Not Live to Work
My first overseas job was in Italy. I remember arriving at Roma Termini, stepping into the hot August sun. Vespas, the symbol of Italian freedom, zoomed by. I could hear the rhythmic cadence of Italian chatter as if an orchestra were playing on the cobblestone streets. And I smiled with disbelief: this was my new home.
Italians enjoy the simple pleasures in life: a plate of pasta showcasing one or two fresh ingredients, a gelato on the Spanish steps, and, of course, una passeggiata, which translated in English simply means “a walk.” But this is not the march of a New Yorker determined to reach a destination in record time. It is an aimless amble that physically takes one to an unforeseen place and mentally to worlds one hadn’t known existed.
As a linguist, early on I learned that language and culture are inextricably linked, so I made every attempt to learn Italian. I went to language exchanges in basement bars where Italian speakers sat on one side of the room and English speakers on the other. With complete strangers, I would speak Italian for five minutes then switch to English for five more.
Che fai per lavoro? What do you do for a living? Perhaps it was my broken Italian, but this question was almost always met with surprise. From my Italian partner I would instead be asked what music I liked, what hobbies I enjoyed doing, and where I was from.
In those days I was used to wrapping my identity in my work; the way in which I contributed to society was the primary factor in determining who I was. But in Italy, I learned that one works to live, rather than lives to work. Italians aren’t defined by what they do but by what they enjoy doing and who they love. Perhaps living within a palimpsest that reveals 28 centuries of history helps to keep things in perspective.
Germany — Admitting and Learning from Past Mistakes
When I lived in Rome, my roommate was a German woman. When I told her I got a job in Bonn she laughed and said we were living opposite lives: she had left Germany to come to Italy and I was leaving Italy to go to Germany.
My roommate recounted how, having grown up in Germany in the 1970s, a full quarter of a century after World War II had ended, she still had a hard time reconciling her individual and national identities. As a child, it had been a crime to wave a German flag.
For me, Germany was currywurst, Oktoberfest, and football. Germany was Feuerzangenbowle, a traditional drink where a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on fire and drips into mulled wine, and holiday carols when the nights were long or bike rides along the Rhine with stops at Biergartens for Radlers when the days seemed endless.
But when I visited the Holocaust Memorial situated at the former location of the Berlin Wall, where the “death strip” once divided the city, I couldn’t help but think that if I had been standing in that exact spot 70 years prior, I would have been sent to my death simply for being me: a gay Asian man. This, too, was Germany.
So how does one live knowing his or her ancestors committed crimes as atrocious as genocide? I learned from living in Germany that we must face our past; we can’t hide from it. We must admit our mistakes and learn from them. We must tell the stories not of the victors but of the oppressed.
In 2014, Germany went face-to-face with Argentina in the World Cup. I was in the Schwarzwald witnessing history in the making. After Germany defeated Argentina 1 to 0, people were dancing in the street, car horns honked, and German flags waved in the air. The scene would have made my roommate back in Italy cry.
Two days later, I moved to Argentina.
Argentina — The Power of Storytelling
When I arrived at Ezeiza, the international airport of Buenos Aires, I remembered the instructions of my German friends who’d asked me to put on my German jersey on arrival and take a photo featuring something—anything—Argentinian and send it their way.
I’d left my jersey in my carryon during the Lufthansa flight but made sure to get through immigration before attempting to commit such a heinous act. As I was waiting for my luggage to arrive, I boldly changed into my German jersey. Having crossed the hemisphere to South America, it was winter in July, so I quickly and not-so-boldly covered it up with a jacket.
Luggage in hand, I queued to cross customs. In line, I turned and saw a billboard honoring Lionel Messi, Argentina’s revered striker. That was the moment. I unzipped my jacket, proudly showcased the jersey, and took a selfie in front of Messi’s determined eyes. The Germans in line cheered. The Argentines shook their heads in disbelief.
On the other side of customs was the new teacher liaison, an Argentine woman, who woke up extremely early in the morning to pick me up from the airport and bring me to my new apartment.
“Bienvenidos, Josefino. How was your flight?” she asked, then scanned the jersey that I had forgotten to cover back up. The smile disappeared from her face. “What are you wearing?” she asked, “The wounds are still raw.”
I quickly fumbled to zip up my jacket.
“I’m going to leave you in the airport. You’ll need to find your own way,” she insisted, as she started walking away. Luckily, the teacher liaison turned around, we laughed, and she gave me a ride all the same.
That incident haunted me throughout my entire time in Buenos Aires. It was moments like these that taught me the power of storytelling. Stories are the bridge into another’s psyche and soul. They teach us perspectives that we may never or can ever live ourselves.
Stories also preserve memories. In 1977, Azucena Villaflor de Vincenti and a dozen other mothers marched on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. Each of these women told the story of their children that had disappeared—los desaparecidos—during the Dirty War. Some 30,000 children went missing in the span of 10 years. Many of them were never found, but the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continued to protest against the violation of human rights and to keep the stories of los desaparecidos alive. That tradition continues even today.
Bulgaria — The Value of Traditions
Somewhere in my teens, the word “tradition” became a pejorative term. Perhaps it was the fear of being different from my American friends that made me push away my Filipino traditions. Perhaps it was the Catholic church that renounced my gayness and anything different from the traditions it espoused. Perhaps it was just a young man trying to create a new sense of independence.
It was my time spent in Bulgaria that showed me the true value of traditions. The lands of Bulgaria had once been the battlegrounds of ancient Thracians, Persians, Celts, and Macedonians as far back as the 6th century BC. In the 9th century, St. Cyril and St. Methodius developed the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used by over 250 million people today. Bulgaria is steeped in history and proud of its traditions.
At the beginning of the year, we started with a full-school assembly in the amphitheater designed after the Plovdiv Roman Theater. The ceremony of the flags kicked off the event with the oldest and youngest students of each country holding their national flag. We sang our school song and performed the traditional Bulgarian Water Ceremony, spilling water from a copper pot in front of the door for good luck.
On the first day of March, a month personified by a grumpy old lady, Baba Marta, Bulgarians celebrate the start of spring by giving Martenitsi—red and white bracelets or pins, to their friends and family to congratulate them on these new beginnings. Upon receiving one, it is worn until the first signs of spring—the sighting of a stork or a new blossom on the tree—after which you hang the Martenitsa like an ornament on a tree.
Bulgaria taught me that what I once equated with mindless customs of a long-gone past were actually important. Traditions remind us to reflect on what matters and honor virtues like humility, diligence, and freedom.
Hong Kong — The Fight for Freedom
It can be easy to forget atop Victoria Peak or under the neon lights of Lan Kwai Fung that the freedom one feels in Hong Kong was hard won and can never be taken for granted.
On July 1, 1997 Hong Kong officially reverted to Chinese sovereignty, ending 156 years of British rule to become the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China. Under Chinese rule, HKSAR is meant to have a high degree of autonomy until 2047. But critics would argue that has not been the case.
When I arrived in 2018, I wasn’t aware that the political climate in Hong Kong was primed for its largest protests the following year. Under the pretext of the Chan Tong-kai case, a man who was accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taipei, the HKSAR government decided to amend current laws so as to extradite Chan from Hong Kong to Taiwan. Around 2 million Hong Kong residents protested the bill, arguing that it would destroy the firewall between Hong Kong and China, where fair trials are not guaranteed.
The protests continued into 2019 and 2020, disrupting public transport systems and shaking up the cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong. Who knew that the disruptions caused by the protests would be minor compared to the infamous moment in January 2020 when the first case of COVID-19 was announced? No doubt the context of COVID-19 defined every aspect of society, not only in Hong Kong but globally.
In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests against police brutality and ultimately racism that reverberated even here in Hong Kong. As an Asian-American gay man, these incidents forced me to reflect on the ways in which I have been discriminated against by society, as well as the ways in which I have benefited from being in positions of privilege.
Hong Kong has taught me that, whereas freedom seems like a right that should be guaranteed to all, for so many it is not. It is the duty of those operating within the dominant culture to ensure that it is.
A New Definition of Home
In literature, we find comfort in narratives that follow what Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s journey,” the trajectory of a character who crosses into an unknown world only to return from the experience completely changed. But what about those that don’t return, those that find comfort in the unknown world? After ten years overseas, my narrative no longer drives me to return home. Instead, I’m looking to physically expand its definition.
Josefino Rivera, Jr. (@josefinor) has 13 years of experience in international school settings: California, Rome, Bonn, Buenos Aires, and Sofia. Currently he is the Learning Activator at the American International School of Hong Kong (@aishongkong), serving students and faculty from EC-12.