My migration story: Why I left London and came home

I had this almost two-year-old draft of the story of why I went to London. I couldn't seem to finish it probably because I didn't know what the story really was. 

Until two movies helped me get there. The first was Never Not Love You, starring James Reid and Nadine Lustre and its migration strokes. The second was Crazy Rich Asians.

It was always that simple. I went away to vie for Asian representation in the western world. Why I came back is a story I'm still coming to terms with, but maybe finishing this draft will help.


Mayfair is where you take anyone who has impressed upon herself that London is the city of flash and extravagance. The light bulbs on the letterings of The Ritz outside Green Park station do not even have to be turned on. You know that it's luxurious, and that you can never afford it, but it's nice to know you're nearby.

If you walk along Piccadilly, especially if you do it every day, you will make out a friend in the bell boys of hotels like the Hilton and Sheraton. Some are black, some look like Eastern European.

You never say hello to them, you just remember their faces, give an acknowledgement nod and a shy tight-lipped smile. Sometimes you wonder if they remember you at all, and hope they are not thinking of you as you are thinking of them: similar sad faces that tell you they had probably not come to London for this, but here they are.

The Newton House is where I found myself a job, beside the Hard Rock Café and right in the smack of the grandiose of Victorian Palaces that bear the blue marker indicating it was once the residence of somebody famous, or glass windows that intimidate everyone below the 20k salary range.

My first few months since relocating to London mid-2016 had been starkly different; I was all the way down the East End, only reachable through the Overground that feels so detached to the reality of London tubes.

I was on a 1/4 scholarship for a masters at Goldsmiths, supposedly one of the best schools for humanities. The getting there was hard. I battled with years-long intense mid-career crisis, with the thought of London always at the back of my mind.

I went to England when I was just 11 years old, and my story from that year is exactly what a teen Asian, who could barely speak in English going through high school in outskirts England, would have. It was terrible. I had one to two mandatory friends (as high schools would always have that one to two girls who always assume the role of being nice to the new Asian kid), some kids hid my homework once, and there was an abundance of rolling eyes whenever it took me long to figure out things in that whole new, terrifying world I was suddenly living in. 

So I went home after a year, defeated. But I grew up, made something of myself, and treated England as the country that never deserved me.

But mid-career crisis always has its way of tweaking stories – maybe I needed redemption, and where else to find that but in England?

And so I went in 2016, with the minimum scholarship I could manage but credentials that I thought would say, hey England, and the shadows of all those kids who made fun of me when I was 11, look at me now.

Two months into my masters, however, the expensive cost of living in London and an international education were beginning to feel less practical. So I quit and looked for a job.


There was intense pressure, mostly self-imposed, to find a job that would match what I had left in Manila. My last coverage was in Davao City for our anchor’s one-on-one interview with the president-elect, where I was briefly textmates with the presidential daughter.

Months of looking for a writing job took me nowhere, and wouldn't it be sad if someone went to London – the land of the mighty pounds – and earn nothing?

It took a lot of humility to settle. My friend got me a job to help build a keyword-friendly travel agency website for basic wage. On weekends I worked as a call center agent for a startup health app, where one time a rude lady told me: You’re just the woman who picks up the phone!

There was intense pressure because it was difficult for me to accept that I was falling into the same narrative. I was supposed to be part of the new generation that goes abroad out of choice – a part of that elite statistics.

I resented having to tell the same story. And I carried that resentment with me each day that sometimes I made a big deal out of small things.

When a landlord preferred only Europeans for a room for rent, I was furious (I have an indefinite leave visa!). Everytime a job rejection comes in the mail, I was furious (You didn’t even talk to me! It’s my exotic surname isn’t it?). The day I re-edited my resumé so that my IELTS scores would be highlighted on top, I was furious (I speak English fluently goddamnit!).

My travel agency boss decided midway to take me out of the website and make me his runner for the Saudi visas he processed. One day, a woman came into our office to get her visa.

“Are you from the Philippines?”


Excitedly, I followed up. “Is it my accent?” The accent thing had become my favorite conversation starter. Pia Wurtzbach was reigning as Miss Universe. She has the quintessential Filipino accent that I also wanted to have, despite many people saying I sounded American. (This was England, Asians sound American.)

“No. It’s just that it’s Saudi, many Filipinos work there.”

I then stirred the conversation so that I could say I was a masters student at Goldsmiths, though at the time I no longer was.


FLEET STREET. Fleet Street in London is the bastion of journalism in England. I would pass by whenever I can, keeping a dream in my pocket of one day being deserving of being there.

FLEET STREET. Fleet Street in London is the bastion of journalism in England. I would pass by whenever I can, keeping a dream in my pocket of one day being deserving of being there.

I hated the way that it made me feel – ashamed to be boxed into that typecast at first. Then, slowly, painfully, I began to feel ashamed for trying to distance myself from that identity.

Many Filipinos who work in Saudi are domestic helpers. As years went by, this identity spread around the world. Why was I distancing myself from it?

Some days I had to go to Kensington in Chelsea, the rich part of London where I always took the same trains and buses as the Filipina nannies. Once upon a time my mom was that woman I saw with the white children, talking on the phone in that distinct Tagalog accent that almost always felt like torture.

Every Filipino working abroad, whatever their jobs are, is a hero. A typecast is nothing but affirmation of the Filipino grit and determination.

But it was not what I came to London for.

Yet there I was.

There was intense pressure because I had a lot to prove – to the people back home, to my family, to new friends in London, but mostly to myself.

I wanted to rewrite my migration story, and it broke me that I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried.

Coming home

Since coming home in 2017, whenever people asked why I came back, I would tell this version: I missed the news; the Philippines was going through a tumultuous transition period and I wanted to be part of documenting it.

That’s true, of course. The other side of the story is that I had this grand ambition to be one of the first in my family to go abroad without compromising my career choice. In a broader sense, I wanted to be among the Filipinos to raise the bar of how the rest of the world sees us.

But I failed.

The scene in Crazy Rich Asians that made me cry was when Eleanor Young (the Chinese) told Rachelle Chu (the American-Chinese) of her disapproval of the American's pursuit of personal happiness, whereas the Chinese that she knows would set that aside for the greater good of the family.

I cried because my London ambitions were always anchored on my personal happiness, my personal aspirations, whereas all the overseas Filipino workers in my family always prioritized the greater good, and in the process, built the life that I now enjoy.

Whether crazy rich, dirt poor, or middle class, Asians know sacrifice. Filipinos, in particular, have always worked so hard that we are disoriented by, or almost repulsive to, the concept of personal happiness. It’s a cross to bear, but also an intrinsic trait that has made us who we are.

So why was I so stuck on my selfish ambitions?

I once told my friend from Ireland that sometimes I felt like I was being ungrateful. There were many people who certainly told me I was. I had an office job that paid well, I had a home, and a visa that many people would give literally everything for. As James Reid said in Never Not Love You, I was living the f****** dream!

My friend told me this: Our history of colonization and years of migration have cultivated a collective mindset of being less than who we are. We have been made to believe there’s only so much we deserve, and so much we can achieve.

So we say thank you for what is given us.

But our dreams are not defined – worse, limited – by other people, and certainly not by other races.

I wish to live to see the day of Filipino migration that isn’t out of necessity, but out of an ambition to see and conquer more of the world.

Many Filipinos are now on that path. They are also my heroes.

I didn’t get to be one of them, but I am overjoyed to be home. –

Read other migration stories by the author:


Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.