Emigrating to the UK from the Philippines in 1971

I have recently being exploring the idea of living without money. This has led me to volunteer in 3 different places in Spain. I have used the workaway system to find the places. At the moment I am in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain not far from Guadix. Today it is raining so we can’t work outside and I have been asked to write down some impressions of my first days in England after coming from the Philippines to work as a nurse in 1971.

Getting on a plane in Manilla

I first traveled out of the Philippines on a one way ticket 47 years ago. Like other economic migrant workers/travelers, a working visa is a surefire way of securing a kind of travel experience completely different from a normal short term holiday. I first got the idea of emigrating to England from the landlady of my bedsit in Manilla.  The  fees  necessary for the organization of the emigration to the UK was substantial so I had to obtain funds based on the ownership of a 2 hectare paddy field belonging to my family.   I paid an agency 4000 pesos to organise my flight, work visas and job in England. The flight from Manilla to Heathrow took over 24 hours and included a stop over in Hong Kong. I set off from Manilla on a hot and sweaty afternoon and arrived in England on a freezing cold Spring day on the 28th April 1971. I was with 2 other Filipino girls all in possession of work visas as nursing auxiliaries in a geriatric hospital in Maldon, Essex.

Most graduates or student nurses from my country looked to the outside world for jobs that offered higher pay than what they would normally get in the Philippines. Although the country is rich in mineral resources it is kept in poverty due to its colonial status in relation to the United States of America. The government in power at the time was headed by Ferdinand Marcos Sr and he was only looking after the interest of foreign investors who saw the country as a source of very cheap labour. Hence Filipino workers started emigrating as construction workers, domestic workers, nurses, hospital workers and other sorts of hospitality workers. As a neo-colonial country under United States of America most of our educated Filipinos went to the USA looking for greener pastures. From the late 1960s to 1970s the hospitals in England were recruiting nurses from countries like Jamaica, Philippines, China and Malaysia. Hence for the first time in my life I came across the country called England, my new country to be.

We were met at the main door of the hospital by a kind Nurse Barrett, the night nurse on duty, at 11:00 at night after getting off the last bus from Chelmsford. I felt the cold was going through my bones on that night we were walking from the bus stop to the entrance to the hospital. Nurse Barrett took us to the Villa, the nurses’ residence. There was excitement and nonstop talking till 1 in the morning meeting the other Filipino nurses (Linda, Gillian & Aida) who were already working in the hospital.

Looking after the elderly

The following day we met Miss Judd the matron of St Peters Hospital in Maldon. I found the matron very genial and helpful. She welcomed us and went through with us important things we needed to do like registering with the police station in town, our work schedule. One nurse was tasked to show us around, where to get our clean uniform and where to take dirty uniforms back, the canteen and other important aspects of the hospital. After a day of rest from traveling we started work the following day. I was assigned to work in ward P3, women’s ward where most of the patients were elderly, some suffering from dementia, some arthritic and some with general elderly ailments. I found the patients very sweet and friendly. Compared to the library work I left in Manila, my work as a nurse which included personal care of the patients, i.e putting them in the bath, bathing them, or giving them a wash in bed, getting them out of bed and putting them to bed at night time, was much harder physically though emotionally and socially rewarding. The salary was three times more than what I was getting as a Teacher Librarian in one of the big public secondary schools in Manila.

It was exciting and really nice that my co workers in the ward were so friendly and helpful, from the Sister (the nurse in-charge of the ward), the staff nurse and other nurses to the ward orderlies and cleaners. In the canteen the English food wasn’t too bad, the roast meats were tasty but a lot of the vegetable were overcooked. As a bonus a cleaner called May, and other orderlies, always saved us some food from the trolley, although we were not supposed to eat in the ward. They said that it was a crime to throw it away. The Friday fish and chips was always a treat although I found the fish a bit flat in taste compared to the fish we had in the Philippines. To begin with the food was so different from the food back home. In the ward I worked with another Filipino nurse, a Chinese nurse (Dunmok), a Jamaican nurse (Duncan), an English nurse (Kathy), Sister Cornelius, Staff Nurse Downes and Nurse Barrett.
When we were out in town we were greeted enthusiastically by our new friends/workmates if we happened to meet them in the streets. We were invited to our new friends’ houses for tea and taken to the strawberry field to pick our own strawberries. Generally I found people friendly and helpful but occasionally I came across people who reacted strangely to our presence in town.

Being used to living in Manila where there were always people about when I went out of my house, I found life in Maldon very quiet especially at night. When the shops closed there were very few people walking in town. The opening times of shops also had to be borne in mind when planning activities. The shops in the Philippines were always open late at night. I found life a bit lonely in my new country compared to life in the Philippines. I thought of my friends back in the island of Catanduanes, my original home. The warmth and joy I felt when I was in the island, surrounded by family and friends. Just being happy, nothing to worry about.

A typical street in Catanduanes

People in the Philippines are normally spontaneous but I found my new life in England becoming structured and rigid as we had to fit into our own new schedules and that of our workmates and new found friends. I missed my family and friends back home. After 6 months I suffered from headaches. My doctor prescribed me some anti depressant pills but after a while I stopped taking then because they made me feel worse. I never went back to the Doctor and instead resolved to look after myself properly.

I found the system in my new country much more efficient than that of my home country, and found the people seemed more disciplined than the people I left back home. On the surface, there seemed to be less corruption and bribery compared to the situation in the public offices in the Philippines. I don’t blame the Filipino people for being what they are as that’s what happens when people have been dominated by another country. Colonialism really messes up the natural evolution of the people’s way of life and how they organise themselves in their own country.

The landing of the Spanish expedition to Sulu by Antonio Brugada.

In 1521 Spanish ships led by Magellan came to the Philippines looking for gold (which they found loads of!) and spices. They brought with them the bible (their version of God!) though we already had our own belief systems in nature. Thus followed 450 years of Spanish domination and mistreatment of the peace loving Filipino people, facilitated by the introduction of Christianity to the islanders. In the north of the Philippines, the mountainous areas, where the Spaniards were not able to penetrate, the Filipino people were able to retain strong traditions and authentic characters.

Previous to the arrival of the Spanish ships Filipino people were already trading with the Chinese, Arabs and Indian people. With a strong resistance from the native people Spain was finally overthrown by the Filipino people only to be dominated by another country, United States of America. The 1898 treaty of Paris, Spain ceded Philippines to the United States of America for $20 millions.

I stayed living in England and made it my home I eventually got married had 3 children did many jobs such as taxi driver, librarian etc. It has been an interesting journey. I have returned to the Philippines on several visits over the years.

Luckily I obtained a British passport in 1997 and hopefully my documentation is in order. Thankfully I am not in the same boat as the people from the Caribbean who are now being threatened with repatriation back to Jamaica after 45 years of paying taxes in the UK.

I feel sad that the need to escape from economic hardship has meant that people had to leave their family behind, young children being forced to grow up being apart from their parent or parents in pursuit of money to survive. I found that people just want a happy and fun life, free from problems.

I thought there must be a better system than the money system that rules our world now and that is what I would like to explore now.

The rain has stopped. Now we can go back outside to weed the strawberry beds.