Filipina Elsewhere: Rhea Alba

Read the series introduction.

I remember interviewing Rhea so many years ago for this broadsheet I used to work for. I met her in person only once or twice after that, but I always found her online posts a source of grace and radiance in an otherwise gloomy Facebook News Feed. Haha! Here she talks about her desire to learn, experiencing "reverse culture shock" while still in the Philippines, ending up in a job in London that seemed to have been created just for her, and finding love (in a not so hopeless place).

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

Name: Rhea Alba
Current Location: London, England
Age: 32 (ata [I think]... haha!)

What was your job back in the Philippines?
Started my career as a newsdesk assistant for a broadcast station but found myself volunteering in Mindanao and Bradford, UK. After that, decided to shift to another field. Been a Human Rights/Development worker for the last 10 years.

What are you doing now?
Currently working in the same field, with a London-based organization that promotes the rights and welfare of seafarers and their families worldwide.

Finding this post was actually a happy accident. I initially had my qualms about moving to London because I might have to start from scratch career-wise. I was also very particular about finding a job that is in the same field and still connects me to my beloved country.

In the job description posted by my organization, they were specifically looking for someone who is: (1) Fluent in Filipino; (2) Has a human rights/welfare background; (3) Preferably, has some understanding of the maritime industry and associated problems.

I really felt that JD was written for me because: (1) I’m Pinoy, and Filipino is my native language; (2) I was a campaigner for Southeast Asia, and was working for the largest global human rights organization before moving to London; (3) I am the proud daughter of a Pinoy seafarer (and I have half a dozen relatives who are also seafarers), so I grew up having a decent sense of the industry's challenges.

Because majority of the seafarers working in the world are Filipinos, the org needed an officer who can respond to its large Pinoy clientele. I guess I was just really lucky! I had a month to enjoy being a bum but immediately got my right to work here, in a job that I enjoy!

Where/what did you study?
I love learning, ehem. Lest I look like a total geek (for disclosing all the courses/schools I’ve attended), here are the most formal ones:

-       BA Journalism + MA units in Community Development – UP Diliman, Philippines
-       International Humanitarian Action – University College Dublin, Ireland and Ruhr Universitat Bochum, Germany

Why did you decide to study/work abroad?
Even as a child, I’ve always been curious, and I guess my parents kind of encouraged that. I grew up hearing my mom, a former public school teacher, encourage her students to always challenge their beliefs, explore and broaden their horizons, wherever they may be. My dad, who comes from a family of fisherfolks, told me stories of how he became a seafarer because he wanted to learn what was "out there" and explore the world for free.

Combine those two influences together and voila---the product is an itchy-soled and curious me, haha. However, the whole idea of studying or working abroad wasn't immediately the obvious path to take for me. Back in the days, no frills flights are not yet in vogue, so traveling was, in my mom's words, a "pang can-afford lang" activity [an activity only for those who can afford it]. I did travel a few times domestically, but f I remember correctly, I was already in my 20s when I did my first trip outside the Philippines to Singapura, as a post-grad treat from daddy.

But then I got selected for a youth exchange program where I lived in Mindanao (to do feasibility research with banana, rice and coconut farmers) and Bradford, England (to do interfaith/interracial work and help establish a British-Filipino radio show). Not gonna lie---when I first came home after the intense program, I experienced a bit of reverse culture shock. It was strange, because on one hand, I felt like I was closer to my "true" self (e.g. despite brushes with racism, I never hid and was always very vocal and very proud about being Pinoy). On the other, living abroad made me realize that there is so much that I still need to know/understand/accept/contend with (e.g. I thought I was a fairly patient and decent person, but I once got into a massive verbal spat with a teammate after we got lost while trying to find our way to a Pinoy binyagan [christening] party in the middle of West Yorkshire, England, all for the love of free lechon---how mature!)

In short, this experience changed my life completely. When I came home to the Philippines, I knew I needed to see, do, learn more. I was already bitten and infected by the travel bug, for sure! A "friend" even told me how I seemed "happier", "less manang [old maid]" and more "liberated" (?!) about my worldviews after the program, which he thought was odd, considering that I wasn’t necessarily in the prettiest or most touristy of places.

Let’s just say after I’ve seen a slice of the world, after encountering different people and learning about their hopes and fears, after I’ve discovered that there’s more to the colors white and black, there’s no looking back!

What was your biggest challenge when you went abroad?
At first I thought it would be culture shock, but not really. I remember talking to my mother-in-law one time, about how she survived the big challenges associated with moving from Ireland to Austria. She simply replied: “I’m Irish, just as you are Pinoy.” She was so smug and adorable about it that I couldn't help but laugh---because I knew exactly what she meant. I’d like to think that we Pinoys have a neat, built-in feature in our genes---we just know ‘how to roll’ regardless of where we are ;)

But if I were to really choose something, I think the biggest challenge boils down to being homesick.

I miss my family and friends! I also miss being away from the country I love (made worse by that creeping, powerful feeling of helplessness about reports on what’s happening there now). Honestly, I don't know how to react whenever people say that "oh, you're so lucky you're now living/working abroad". I don't discount that and I truly am thankful for having this opportunity but I feel super sad because deep inside, I can't wait to fly back to the Philippines again---it is and will always be home.

And what was the best thing that happened to you?
My curiosity and the desire to learn were fulfilled (this is still happening everyday). I would also like to think that my exposure to different types of challenges abroad made me more street smart, more humble, braver, because...well, walang choice [I have no choice]---essential skills to survival!

Oh and I found LOVE (in a not so hopeless place, haha!) When I first arrived in Ireland, I was suffering from a rather nasty dose of heartbreak and homesickness that I almost gave up my scholarship, packed my bags to go home. Imagine if I took the easy, comfy way out, then I wouldn't have been able to meet the love of my life in Ingo!

If I were to go fly to where you are, what would you say is:

the best place to eat? One thing I love about London is that it offers tons of choices. Generally, it’s a frighteningly expensive place to live in (transport, rent, etc.), but you’d be surprised about the many food options where you can economize.

People say that fish and chips used to be the "national food" of the UK, but this was allegedly overtaken a few years ago by the Chicken Tikka Masala (given the country’s British-Indian heritage). For a more modern take on this and other Bombay dishes, check out Dishoom at King’s Cross. Cool interiors, yummy and reasonably priced food. I think their black house daal is to die for.

Chicken curry from Dishoom. Photo from here

You can’t come to London (or the UK) without visiting a proper pub, so hitting Churchill Arms, which has a chock-full of Winston Churchill memorabilia and beautiful, floral façade, is a must. At the back portion of the pub, there's even a Thai restaurant (don't ask me why but the food is also good) if you are a bit unsure and would still like to pair your beer/cider/what have you with something filling from Asia.

The Churchill Arms. Photo from here.
Churchill Arms interior. Photo from here.

I still have The Ritz on my list for proper (but unapologetically expensive) English tea, but if you’re on a tight budget, you can’t go wrong with M&S and other Groupon or Wowcher hotel deals!

Afternoon tea at The Ritz. Photo from here.

the best place to visit? Outside of the usual touristy places—Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, London Eye, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, etc. (no judgment! they’re not regarded as major landmarks for nothing), of course King’s Cross and the Warner Brothers Studio if you’re a Potterhead like me!

the best thing to do?

-           It depends! Are you a... culture vulture?

o    Definitely see a West End show, if you’re a fan of plays or want to groove to show tunes. Must admit this is where I sink quite a bit of my salary in... this is my guilty pressure. And of course, I’m extra proud when a kababayan is on stage!; OR

o    Visit one of London’s free museums---and this city has A LOT! Residents and visitors are spoiled with so many choices. And since I’m kind of a museum freak (I love em big and small, hehe) sharing some of my favorites: V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum, home to the largest museum of decorative arts and design in the world) and Tate Modern, which is the national gallery of international modern art. If you’d like a more manageable size, I highly recommend Dennis Severs House (not free but superrrr worth it) for the "still-life drama" and amazing sensory experience (like seriously, they even recreate ‘scents’ from a certain period in each room!); Sir Jon Soane’s Museum (beware the lonnggggg queue, took me and Ingo about 3 hours) to check out this neo-classical architect’s insane collection and imaginary ‘monk’ friend.

Victoria & Albert Museum.  Photo from here.
Soane Museum. Photo from here

-       Self-confessed "shoppingera" [shopper]? Liberty London. The building itself is beautiful! Inside, they were even able to preserve "period elements". Do check out their furniture section (if only to admire the nauseatingly expensive but gorgeous pieces), buy a piece of their printed fabric, dig your hands into the quirky piles of haberdashery, but not to be missed (for me), is their scents section. Where else can you get yourself scented candles that imitate the smell of a newly-printed book, laundry room, and even wood shavings! Weird? Impossible? Sniff the place out and you will know what I mean.

Liberty London. Photo from here.

-       Foodie? The different borough markets around London offer reasonably-priced (as long as you don’t do the whole GBP to PHP conversion!) specialty fare. Other hip places include Angel/Shoreditch, Hackney, Brixton, to name a few.

Would you consider returning to the Philippines? Why?
Ohhhhh, D-E-F-O!!!

Hell, even my husband also wants to live there! After several months of searching in the Philippines, we had to throw in our job search towel because we couldn’t find one that matches his experiences and skills. But hopefully, someday, someday... guess you can say it’s still part of our big dream! And why not? It really is more fun in the Philippines!

Your #1 tip to those thinking of studying/working outside the Philippines:
For my advice, I'd have to quote Mandela: "May your choice [whether to work or study abroad] reflect your hopes, not your fears."

Thank you, Rhea!


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