A friend from Asia sent me a message on the second day of 2021, asking me about my thoughts and plans as another year in the Gregorian calendar unfolded. As I sat in my room in Leuven, a small university city in Belgium, my head went for a quick appraisal of how in reality 2020 turned out to be versus the expectations I set during the last New Year celebration.
When I left my Philippine comforts five years ago for Europe, I was convinced about my innate hopefulness with new years – regardless of the imminent fact that occasionally, life-situations always make a turn to some unfortunate routes. But with Coronavirus pandemic’s advent, the world made not only a turn towards somewhere unfortunate but also to some place uncertain. While seemingly there is still a possibility to overturn the repercussions of the “unfortunate”, the uncertain puts one in a void of continuous unknowns and indefinites. Such standpoint posits a certain loss of status and confronts one with unclear futures. An example is the current job opportunity landscape in Belgium since February 2020 until the present. A lot of friends and acquaintances lost their occupations. I knew people who had to give their businesses up. I talked with Belgian locals and non-locals who are trapped in the limbo of job seeking and applying. All these encounters means that many are fighting over for places in a market that is collapsing.
While I mean no disregard to the fact that the pandemic’s economic repercussions led many people with diverse backgrounds (including Belgian locals) on brinks of joblessness, I still find it harder for people with non-European backgrounds who doesn’t speak any of Belgium’s national languages at a disadvantage. Based on recent experience, most job seeking sites and openings require a working permit and the skill to speak/write either Dutch, French, or German. On luckier finds, a vacancy might even ask an applicant to speak and write fluently in all the three.
These “standard” requirements subtly reveal Belgium’s and its (professional) job market’s pre-existing exclusivity against non-locals. Undeniably, one can learn the languages and acquire proper permits to stay, but these standard requirements entail time and resources. For non-Belgian and non-European expats who are always at the mercy of bureaucratic apparatuses of acquiring legal papers before acquiring residence or practicing their respective professions in Belgium, time and resources are always not on their side. Time and resources are both limitations, means by bureaucratic apparatuses to discourage outsider opportunity seekers.
The coronavirus is a medical crisis, but its effects on the society goes beyond its homeopathic facets. As societies struggle to adjust to the unprecedented systemic shifts brought about by the pandemic, the human imbues this natural phenomenon with its innate nature to survive – a tactic that requires elimination. Non-Belgians’ and non-Europeans’ (and non-local dialect speaking jobseekers’) position in this “surviving crisis” situation is one which stands on states of precarity. The situation places such precarious bodies in the first elimination row as disposables.
When Sara Crew (2020) from The Bulletin interviewed clinical psychologists Lisa Classen and Marie-Thérèse Kastle from Brussel’s non-profit Community Help Service (CHS) and asked if there are any particular pandemic difficulties experienced by the international community in Belgium, they said that the challenge is more on the “feeling side” (Ibid). They explained that when expats realize their actual distance from home in such uncertain times, it brings along feelings of difficult isolation. While I agree to the notion of isolation, the responses whitewashed the concerns of professional expats who came to the West to advance their careers. It overlooked the practical aspect of surviving in a host country still rigid towards its relationship with its international communities.
Here, “uncertain” becomes an existential concern to the non-Belgian and non-European expat: Will this end? What will happen to me now? What will happen to me in the future? Am I acceptable enough (more so stay) in this foreign land? Now that I am here, what? - all of which are questions of dread towards one’s purpose, value, and meaning. The uncertain becomes a colossus standing in front of the precarious expat – a giant strengthened by exclusive bureaucratic apparatuses constructed to save a few. Regardless if one goes through, above, around, or even under it, defeat against uncertainty seems inevitable.
Realizing that I am currently in the same existential limbo, another question formed in my head: How does one outlive uncertainty?
With the question, I snapped out from my appraisal of 2020 and the recent new year celebration. I was back in my room, looking at my phone – still empty of response from my end.
“Honestly, I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe, stay alive?” I wrote him back.
Staying alive. A bittersweet rumination – one that’s both hopeful and precariously uncertain all at once – on starting another cycle of an unknown future.
Article and Photo by Jay Albaos
The Bulletin. 24/03/2020. Surviving stay-at-home: Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus crisis. Crew, Sara. https://www.thebulletin.be/surviving-stay-home-looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-crisis. Accessed on January 4, 2020.