Migrants’ Stories: Amidst a multi-cultural environment

By Twenty-one* (not her real name)

Posted at Jan 07 2013 01:11 PM | Updated as of Jan 07 2013 09:52 PM

Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 4" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from CEI (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana) or the Italian Bishops' Conference. The book contains a collection of 10 stories of the realities of migration as faced by Filipinos abroad and their family members in the Philippines. ABS-CBNnews.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online.

Nothing is going to stop me. I am getting married! Since the early 1980s, I have been coming to Australia. During one of those trips, in 1998, I met a man who was to become my husband. After the first meeting, we continued corresponding through the telephone, fax and email. He visited me in Manila twice and on his third visit we tied the knot. We got married in the year 2000. I packed my bags and did not leave a shoe behind.

This, however, did not happen smoothly just like that. While my future spouse was gathering pertinent documents in Australia, I was busy organizing every detail that will lead to the wedding ceremony – from the entourage, food tasting, and music, just to name a few. You could say that I was a ‘bride cum wedding planner’. There was also the engagement party called ‘despedida de soltera,’ a Filipino custom similar to a bachelorette party, which I had to plan and organize at the penthouse of a condominium, not to mention the actual wedding itself that would take place in a five-star hotel.

I decided to have the wedding service and reception take place in only one venue. My best choice was The Hyatt Regency. I must admit, it was easier to plan alone and just ask for the okay of my fiancé when everything has been finalized.

The most turbulent moment, however, was not on these occasions mentioned, but rather on my spouse/fiancé visa application. When my future spouse was back in Manila, we went to the Australian Embassy together for the interview. We arrived well equipped with proof of our constant communications to establish the authenticity of our relationship. A few minutes after the interview, we were requested to go to the counter to claim my passport. Then there was this jaw-dropping result which said that my application had not been granted. The refusal had been written on the Embassy’s letterhead but there was no stamp on my passport. Common sense dictated that when a passport was left unmarked on such an occasion, it only implies that there is still an iota of optimism that suggested I can appeal.

Modesty aside, I am the kind of person who, most of the time, see the glass half-full. This time, however, I just stared at a blank wall when I arrived home.

After analyzing the catastrophic inaccuracies that caused the denial of my visa application, I felt sad that they had enumerated unspeakable reasons for such a refusal: first, because I was not in the workforce; second, because I did not have close family ties; next was due to lack of personal funds.

Not in the workforce? Of course, I had already resigned from my job to prepare to live in Australia for good. Close family ties? I somehow had spells of paranoia that they might have put me under surveillance or paid a quick visit when I was not home. And lack of funds? Was that done in a raffle draw or they just tossed a coin? The officer did not even bother to ask how much money I had inside my bag, so what was that all about?

Will anyone please tell me what’s really happening here? Well, it’s about time to play Judge Judy to reach a verdict. I decided that I had to hit the keyboard when I get home. After printing the letter, I was so aching to have my dentist Filipina friend (who happened to be in Manila) read my work. She is an Australian citizen so she should know better. She concluded that perhaps I was too abrasive and there was the possibility that my papers would be sabotaged, and therefore suggested that I should edit the letter to make it more mellow.

I was simply asking them to explain to me point by point the reasons they came up with such an executive decision! My soon-to-be husband disagreed with my friend. He believed that the officer saw me through her Filipino eyes. Definitely, they were just doing their job. Possibly, my documents were filed with the dodgy ones. Or perhaps, the officer who reviewed my papers had already reached her quota. I can only surmise. Other Filipinas, I heard from the grapevine, will use marriage as a stepping stone to get to Australia, and maybe after a couple of years file for divorce when they become permanent residents.

I cannot blame them for there are some who just want to leave the country for greener pastures. For sure, there have been reports on this.

In the end, I did not change anything that I have written and proceeded to the Embassy without an appointment. I was so determined to kill two birds with one stone: give a wedding invitation to the interviewing officer and cleverly attach the letter of complaint. Naturally, the security guard would not let me in. I had to strategize for this. First, I had to display friendliness on the side while informing him that I will be handing over an invitation to an officer and leave as soon as I can. Second, in three sentences I narrated my life story in Tagalog to establish a so-called ‘bonding’. Third, I requested the security guard to please open the door. I must admit that I made quite an impression. I am not referring to the security guard but to the interviewing officer.

Within five days after I hand-delivered the letter, I received a phone call from the Australian Embassy. I was now requested to go for medical procedures in their designated health provider and return for a visa. Those days, most spouse/fiancé applicants were given at least two years waiting period. And that does not mean they can all leave the country. Next thing I knew, I will be boarding a plane to Melbourne in five weeks. Thus, the reincarnation of Gabriela Silang, the first Filipino woman who led the revolt during the Spanish regime in the 19th century!

Leaving my family and friends was not difficult for me because I am a spiritually strong, resilient and flexible woman.

With fast-paced technology, I did not see that this would cause a problem. I have done self-study in order to update my knowledge in technology to stay in touch. It was not too much of an effort because I love what I do. And now I can even listen to a number of Filipino news and jazz stations through my Tune In radio application. To counteract homesickness, I have to surround the house with iPod docks so I can listen to programs in my mother country, especially whenever I do chores around the house. Thank you, Steve Jobs! You really changed the way we live our lives today.

Looking for a job to which I am qualified, turned out to be such an ordeal. In Manila, I completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts major in Advertising, in an exclusive girls’ college. My last employment was in a reputable advertising agency, the head office of which was then in France. I was a coordinator for ongoing projects on television, radio, cinemas, special events and print media.

In October 2002, I had my school credentials assessed by the Australian agency National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition (NOOSR) which concluded that my educational background in the Philippines is comparable to the level of an Australian Bachelor’s Degree. With this on hand, I was still faced with bewilderment and disappointments. One humiliating episode was when there was no business establishment that accepted my application for a simple proof-reading job.

Majority of Australian companies are hesitant in hiring someone without an employment history. What was my first job in Australia? I was a marketing person for an ethnic television network in a shopping mall whose key person in Australia and New Zealand was my kindergarten classmate. It had a slim potential of being a permanent job for it was just trial-launching and the main office was in Sydney.

I was still unemployed during my second year in Australia. It was then when I realized that I needed to come up with option B and so I re-engineered myself. When I was in college, I attended an aikido class for a year. We were taught that if you resist, you will only hurt yourself. Instead, you must swiftly move in the direction where your attacker’s ‘ki’, ‘chi’ or energy is flowing so when he hits you, it will put him off balance. In life, that works wonders, too. To be able to destroy your enemy, make him your friend.

At this stage, I have been reading the papers and browsing in the internet for jobs. It appeared that the bulk of employment was in the medical industry and telemarketing. Okay, I must connect the dots. Being passionate with words, I opted to study Medical Terminology in a university, after which, I continued to do Business Administration, and ended with Certificate IV. We had three big exams where I hit 100 percent during the first and second tests and 99 percent in the last. Despite the altitude of my grades, I was still struggling to get employed. Though I was not finished with the course, it did not stop me from my job search everywhere possible, including outside the grocery billboards.

Eventually on Christmas Eve of 2003, in the midst of a friend’s funeral service, my mobile phone rang and voila! I was scheduled for an interview in a hospital.

For a few months, I worked in the reception area of the hospital. This time, someone I was working with was not happy with me. My colleague simply did not like me on a personal level. The case escalated. However, the supervisor offered an alternative position to this ‘new kid in the block.’ I could not imagine it, but my self-esteem then was touching ground zero.

It did not stay there for long because I was aware that I was on the right path but maybe, I just needed to shift a little. Unfortunately, I had to fly immediately to Manila. My mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and barely had days to live. She passed away few days after I came back. Alright, there is something I am going to get out of this that I need, my mind told me. After the trip to Manila, I was back to the drawing board. I listened to this little voice called intuition and accepted this alternative avenue that my supervisor presented to me. It has been nearly nine years now, and I am still in the same humbling job, having a ball. And yes, the Lord has His loving way of answering my prayers.

Each morning, I will always ask Him to use me for the furtherance of His kingdom. I know He manifests Himself through events and people we meet. Here I am now, having a wonderful sense of duty being a servant of the terminally ill patients. 

On hindsight, this job is helping me grow. It is sculpting my values, my emotions, and my heart. After working in an advertising company where I had to wear impressive shoes and clothes, my work now is far more fulfilling and liberating than the limelight industry, bar none!

Here in the hospital, I even get the chance to learn new English words and other languages during casual conversations with patients of diverse nationalities. I believe that if one expands his vocabulary, he is also expanding his life. Some patients and their friends or family who are with them while they are having their treatments love to do their crosswords and anagrams. Once in a while, I get to join them in between tasks. If I am not able to come up with the correct answer, I consider it as my homework. Yes, I am mad, especially because English is just my second language. Yet for me, that is enough motivation to acquire more knowledge.

In the midst of a multicultural environment, it seems that I am on a mini tour. I hear different stories of different patients from different places. Every working day for me is such a sacred journey. The feeling of connectedness is unbelievable. I feel that the longer I work here, the less judgmental I will become. We tend to share not just the stories but our emotions as well in this hospital. And that is what magnifies one’s existence. With chin up high, I can brag that nothing can get close to my relationship with them.

There was an incident when one of the doctors had to ring a patient’s mom so she could come immediately to the hospital. When she arrived on the scene, the medical team was surrounding her daughter for some intense procedures. It looked like she hardly knew any of them except for the doctor who rang her.

When she saw me walking in the corridor, she thought I was the only person whom she could connect to. Without further ado, I gave her a warm hug. She did not let go for about three minutes.

We surely had connected in a deep level of relatedness even with unspoken words. Surely, there was healing. Something ethereal had occurred. After a few days, when she and her revived daughter were walking near the lifts, the patient’s mom thanked me wholeheartedly for that hug that she felt she urgently needed.

Another hallmark moment in my workplace was during the time when I was giving cold drinks to patients. One patient commented, “You did not work this day last week and everyone notices when you are absent.” “I want to hear more,” I retorted. “You see, it’s like the sun. Everybody knows when it is not there,” he remarked.

That was too much to get me fueled up for the rest of the week and refueled even more each time I reminisce about that life-transforming conversation. When you earn it, you’ll really hear it! And when my woks and dishes pile up, I can’t help but remember moments like this.

Comparing the glamorous and unglamorous jobs which I had, I can say without a doubt that I can easily navigate the ‘why’ in life given my present job which is far more significant than my ‘what’. Meeting new patients each day is very challenging. I always see it as an opportunity to contribute something.

With this in mind, I am allowing the spirit of the Lord to work through me to touch troubled hearts. This is what I have always been praying for. I have learned that settling in another country may require a change in one’s thinking pattern to be able to blend. For instance, the color of my hair is sometimes enough to give one an impression that I cannot properly speak English.

In fact, I have a personal story during an elevator ride related to this, but I would rather not dwell on it and put a negative interpretation because it will be hazardous to my mental health. It is not right to feel offended every five minutes because that will develop into a habit. There comes a time when you do not have an option but to change your internal conversations. As Anthony Robbins said, ‘kill the monster while it is little.’

I have also learned that if you are in the midst of other nationalities, it is a mortal sin to speak other languages other than English, even when you are talking to your fellow countryman. But if I cannot help it, I must explain in the end but only to the right people. It will be because I would be three nano seconds more spontaneous and sometimes, more descriptive if I tell my story in Tagalog. I mentioned ‘right people’ because those who do not have first language and are closed-minded are the ones who have a greater chance of not accepting this. If that happens, I will not dare clear the air if they caught me. As my wonderful dad would say, ‘Do not waste your cannon on a toothless mosquito.’

Regarding my encounters on this global issue called racism, I must only let these racists be themselves. When my Filipino friends get easily offended on this department, I pity them so much. By now, they should have already come up with a formula in order to stay on higher grounds. Viewed from another perspective, the offender might not really mean what he has said or done. If he does, do not worry. Maybe that person is just dealing with private issues. He may even be experiencing ‘technical difficulties’ in an area in his life and does not want to ‘press 0’ to speak to customer service.

If timing permits, just inspire him to practice maximum tolerance next time around. In reality, hurting people hurt people. Inject humor so as not to add more injuries to his inner wounds. Take it from me. Humor is a powerful weapon which, I am proud to say, I consider one of my secret bullets to keep going.

I believe as a Christian that it is a very noble act to encourage somebody even when you are having a bad day. This, I believe, is a form of pure worship. Anyway, if a person has a problem with you, always remember that it’s his problem not yours. In the same manner, if you do not like what you see, you can always look the other way.

Migrating can be fun and exciting you know. After being enlightened on the complexities of migration, my advice is to ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33). The Lord is our refuge. He is our strength. It is joy that we must pursue not just happiness, for the latter wears off quickly. If you are doing the right thing, do not be afraid to apply for a visa with your head up high. And if things are not turning the way we want them to, there is always another way of making things work just like the commands in the computer. Live by design, not by default.

Surely there will be feelings of inadequacy but you can rise up and break the inertia. If you think you cannot make it, be creative and rearrange the pieces of furniture in your head until you feel safe and comfortable. Everyday above ground is a blessed day. Be thankful. Be alive while you are still breathing. Do not allow negative people to get into your bloodstream. Disassociate with disempowering thoughts. And always remember not to leave your sense of humor at home for shared humor can create amazing connections and can even save you in a lot of situations.