Filipina Elsewhere: Bea Pantoja

Read the series introduction.

You may know Bea from the gorgeous The Dalaga Project. Here she talks about uncertainty, London winters, food markets, and writing about a Filipina secret agent.

Take it away, Bea.
I added emphases (boldface type, italics), links, and photos throughout the text.

Name: Bea Pantoja
Current Location: London
Age: 28

What was your job back in the Philippines? 
I was a digital editor/freelance writer, mostly in beauty/lifestyle.

What are you doing now?
I'm writing a biography about Magdalena Leones.

Magdalena Leones.
Photo from here.
She was a Filipina secret agent who carried funds, crucial supplies, and intelligence through dangerous enemy territory in Northern Luzon during World War II. She was only one of five women, and the only Asian, to receive the Silver Star (the US Army's third-highest military decoration for valor) for World War II.

Her story fascinates me because she grew up and fought in a crucial period of Philippine history, when notions of nationalism and cultural identity were being put to the ultimate test. As a Filipina who mostly grew up abroad, I feel like her story is connecting me to the history I never knew--and, perhaps, the history that many Filipinos were never taught. For example, everyone knows MacArthur promised to return, but without agents like Magdalena Leones risking their lives to establish a connection to the outside world, he would have never been able to fulfill it.

Where/what did you study?
I'm still a graduate student at City University London, studying Creative Nonfiction Writing. The course gives students the opportunity to work on a novel-length work of creative nonfiction, which for the purposes of the course serves as an umbrella term for different genres. Aside from biography, other classmates are working on memoirs, investigative journalism, travel writing, and historical nonfiction.

Why did you decide to study/work abroad?
I was very lucky in that my parents could still sponsor my education, and over the years I realized I really wanted to focus on writing. City University offers 2-year MA writing courses (most universities only do 1-year MAs), and my boyfriend lives and works in London, so studying in London made the most sense to be able to follow my *~dreams~* and my *~heart~* at the same time.

Besides, I was in personal and professional limbo at the time, so returning to a more structured environment helped pull me out of that. It's certainly a privilege, one I feel both relieved and guilty to have, to be able to say, 'Hey, I want to put writing first, and I want to do it in one of the most amazing cities in the world.' But you certainly don't need to do it to write!

What was your biggest challenge when you went abroad?
In my experience, uncertainty was and continues to be a huge part of it. It's no secret that a lot of that is tied to immigration status.

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow visa issues, work restrictions for international students, how long you can stay after graduation, finding a job after graduation, finding a job as a student, etc. Especially as the UK's policies are always changing.

That's why I think at least before studying abroad, especially in the UK, you should have a clear sense in your mind of why you are studying abroad. Are you hoping to get work experience abroad? When (*whispers* or if) do you plan on coming home? Because, as a Filipino, unless you are in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines or medicine/nursing, the odds are stacked against you being able to find work after graduation. It's fine if all you have to worry about is yourself, but when family and partners are affected, it makes forward planning a little more stressful.

Oh, and winter. London winters aren't as grim as Scotland and Northern England, nor as violent as winter in parts of North America, but the continuous dreariness and early sunsets (3:45PM in the heart of winter) can really be tough to bear. On the bright side, you feel less guilty for staying in so you can catch up on writing! And you learn to appreciate the warm days; there's an almost collective exhilaration when the days lengthen and the trees bloom green again.

And what was the best thing that happened to you?
Honestly, I think stumbling across Magdalena Leones' story has been the best thing that's happened to me. Before I knew about her story, I was struggling for topics. I was convinced I was going to write about jelly. "Like jam?" my friends asked. "No, like jell-o. The wobbly stuff." "What about jelly?" "You know, just like why it's there and stuff." My tutor said I was "absolutely mad." Let's just say my state of mind at the time left something to be desired.

But 2016 was certainly the year of Realizing Stuff (thanks Kylie Jenner!). Researching Magdalena's life has given me focus and purpose and direction in a life of uncertainties. Her story challenges me as a writer, because nonfiction is an interpretation of reality, but I write to escape reality. Of course, there are still nights I lie awake thinking, "This is crazy. What am I doing?" Then I'll grudgingly realize that without this work, I'd be even more adrift.

Oh, visiting Europe for the first time is up there. I've done short trips to Spain, Italy, and Prague and each has been more amazing than the last. I hope one day I can do extended trips, but the great thing about being in London is the convenience of visiting Europe over the weekend. Well, for now. We'll see how Brexit changes things.

If I were to go fly to where you are, what would you say is:
    the best place to eat? 
I love food markets! There's one for every occasion. Of course you have the bigger ones like Borough Market and Camden Market (open on weekdays), Broadway Market in London Fields or Maltby St. Market on Saturdays. Shoreditch and Hackney usually have seasonal hipster street food markets with bars. And of course, the Christmas markets around the city are bursting with roasting meat, warm cider, and mulled wine. I would say just look up what food markets are open at the time of your visit, though the first three mentioned are regular fixtures.

Broadway Market.
Photo from here.

I don't eat out enough to recommend many restaurants but Dishoom is pretty good, and has the best chai I've ever tasted (it's spiced and full and rich without any saccharine sweetness). Oh! And for afternoon tea--if you have the budget, definitely book an afternoon tea at Sketch London--it's an experience. For something more budget-friendly, the tea at Original Maids of Honour at Kew Gardens includes a Maid of Honour tart, a Tudor pastry that was allegedly one of King Henry VIII's favorites--like, he stole the recipe and locked it up or something. Worth the trip. Plus, you can walk off all the starch at the Royal Botanic Gardens!

Sketch London's Afternoon Tea set.
Photo from here.

High tea set from Original Maids of Honour.
The Maid of Honour tarts are in the foreground, next to the cuppa. (They kind of look like egg tarts no?)
Photo from here.

    the best place to visit?
If you're prepared to walk, I would do as much of Central London as I can in a day by walking along the Thames on the South Bank, starting in Westminster and moving east. You'll see a lot: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben; the London Eye (though I'd pass on riding it); Southbank Centre, Tate Modern (sit at the coffee bar on the top floor and have a coffee overlooking St. Paul's Cathedral, and Millenium Bridge), Shakespeare's Globe. Stop at Borough Market near London Bridge for lunch, then keep walking until Tower Bridge. Then you can cross Tower Bridge to see the Tower of London. Then, if you still have time/energy, head into the City of London, where St. Paul's, the Bank of England, and office buildings named after kitchen appliances and penises await.

The Coca-Cola London Eye.
Photo from 

    the best thing to do?
Honestly though, the best thing to do is explore London by foot, if you can (London is also a very accessible city). Walk whenever you can, and wherever you can. You'll find yourself stumbling into a hidden mews lined with stone houses, light spilling onto flowerpots crowded on a Juliet balcony. Or you'll find a stretch of quiets green around a church, seconds away from a busy street, that may or may not have a small graveyard too, if that's your thing. Walk Regent's Canal west towards Camden and Regent's Park, or walk it east towards Hackney and Victoria Park. Walk down the South Bank. And no matter what, don't forget to stop at a proper pub. All the better if it has food!

Will you return to the Philippines? Or will you stay abroad? Why? 
I'm going back to the Philippines for an extended research trip early next year: hoping to meet some of Magdalena Leones' family, visit the places she lived and traveled, and also visit other important WWII sites. Then back in London to finish the course. But in the long run, I'd love to be one of those authors whose bios end with a line like, "She divides her time between England and the Philippines." I miss my family too much to not include the Philippines in some way in my long-term plans. But then again, uncertainty is the biggest challenge. We'll just have to see after my course is over!

Your #1 tip to those thinking of studying/working outside the Philippines:
Try to set some expectations of what you hope to get out of the experience before you apply, but leave yourself some room for change. Definitely set some goals before you go of what you want to accomplish by the end of your course. Do you want to gain experience that will help you get a better job in the Philippines? Or pursue further employment/education where you're going? If it's a creative degree, do you want to build your network? Finish a project? Find funding? Why this course?

Knowing these before you apply for a course can help; for example, if you want to go to the UK and know you want to come back right after, you might be eligible for the Chevening scholarship. But if you're trying to get a job after your course, you may have to start hustling months before your classmates, because it's just that much harder when you're an international student.

Talk to the university about what resources they have for international students--if a school doesn't have a dedicated department proportionate to its IS population, that might be a warning sign. Talk to other international students about their experiences, especially at the schools you're looking that.

But on the flipside, if you decide to pursue it, embrace the new experiences! Explore your city/place as best as you can. Respect that cultures may be different, but try not to 'hide' your Filipino-ness just to fit in (though, perhaps hypocritically, I've still not found the courage to fry bangus in my apartment huhu).

As an international student you are always saying hello and goodbye; find some constants in your life, whether these are people or hobbies or habits, that ground you.

And, most importantly, before you pay for something, always check for a student discount.

Thank you, Bea!
(I asked each interviewee to send me a fun/wacky photo. I think this is the very picture of fun/wacky. Haha!)


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