Let Me Guess, Nursing?: Addressing the Pilipino Stereotype through the Eyes of an English Major


"Let me guess. Nursing?"

Whether from the lips of family friends or relatives, I have heard this question and every variation of it. I bear the question with no scorn. My face does not flare up in offense, my voice does not become needles ready to deflate their hopes. In fact, with playful amusement, I expect the question. But, I can’t say they exactly expect my answer.

“Actually, I’m an English major.”

A few listeners accept it, embracing the potential of this unfamiliar path. The vast majority, though, cannot understand. Some try to hide their confusion. Others are not so delicate. The wide eyes brimmed with concern, the smirks laced with disapproval and – my personal favorite – the blunt, slightly outraged “But, WHY?”s. There are moments when conversations like these make me upset, but on most occasions I know where they are coming from.

I am twenty years old. I’m in college, working towards a degree to secure myself a future. These descriptions can be applied to anyone. They don’t indicate a pressure to enter any specific profession, that is, until I add one detail: I'm Pilipino. And immediately, the hues of the words change and my destiny becomes predetermined. My mother is a nurse manager, my father a hospital lab technologist. Both have dedicated their careers to medicine. And most of my titas and titos? Many of my older cousins? A majority of my Pilipino friends? They have chosen the same path. I know what expectations my race affords me, the footsteps each of my family members longs for me to follow in. So when I reveal that I am not pursuing medicine, I cannot blame the on-lookers and eavesdroppers for their puzzled glances.

Pilipino Nurses in the United States

If my experience as a Pilipina English major is not proof enough that most Pilipinos become nurses, I pose to you a challenge. Walk into any hospital, emergency room or medical lab and tell me that a handful or two of the staff is not from the Philippines or of Pilipino descent. It will be a challenge, I can almost assure you. But why is this? Why do Pilipinos seem to dominate the world of medicine in America? This trend is nothing new, actually. It dates back to 1903, when the Pensionado Act sent Pilipino nurses to the U.S. as government-funded scholars to remedy the deficit of healthcare professionals in the States. Four decades later, the Exchange Visitors Program of 1948 welcomed another wave of nurses from the Philippines. And only 17 years later, the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws allowed nurses to travel from the motherland to the States on tourist visas and adjust their status upon arrival. For the Pilipino, then, nursing has been more than just a noteworthy profession but a chance to come to the United States, to start anew while providing for their families back home.

Filipino nurses being inducted as new certified health workers in Pasay City, south of Manila, Philippines, 14 March 2011.

The Road Less Traveled By

Because of this history, nursing, for many Pilipinos, is synonymous with the sweet aromas of opportunity, familial prosperity and a passion to help others. So, it is no wonder why lab coats hang from our laundry lines and stethoscopes hide in our parents’ closets. Nursing is a road that a century’s worth of Pilipino men and women have walked and whose descendants continue to walk today. So where does that leave me? Where does that leave others like me whose ragged edges do not fit into the precut spaces of this “become a nurse” plan?

It is a common misconception among older Pilipinos to think that success can only be achieved in the medical field, while most other pursuits lack security. They don’t realize that an English degree is the leading degree in communications, business and international affairs. They tend to ignore that most liberal arts degree-holders possess skills in critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and written and oral communication, abilities employers hunger for. Not to mention, those who have made strides in the Pilipino community using a pen and not a syringe - names such as Luis Francia, author of Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago, Jose Vargas, journalist, filmmaker and founder of Define America, and Sarah Gambito, a published poet and winner of the Barnes & Nobles Writer for Writer Award. The options are endless, yet many traditional Pilipinos forget this. Therefore, it is the mission of Pilipino non-nurses to rebut the sneers and smirks of this skeptical older generation. Not with snide remarks or rolling eyes, but with passion and triumph. And as the amount of Pilipinos pursuing other interests grow, our predecessors will learn that we do not have be in a hospital to know the meaning of success, that “the road less traveled by” is one worthy of exploration and respect.

"I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two road diverged in a wood and I- I took the road less traveled by And that has made all the difference"

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

Photo Credit: Yahoo Philippines News

This Is How You Sing In Kapampangan: Pilipino Identity In American Context


Carrying itself over car horns and rowdy high schoolers was a voice singing an old Pilipino love song in the middle of 5th Ave. I slowed down my hurried steps to meet an elderly Pilipina woman with pink drawn on eyebrows, sitting on the side walk and holding a sign that said, “Homeless, anything helps. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

The song ended abruptly and I heard her call out, “Ai!! Pilipina!”

I’d been caught staring.

I smiled and walked over, eager to hear my kababayan’s story.

I learned that Pilipina, in her early sixties, was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a decade ago, with no family in the States except for a friend who took care of her through the duration of her illness. The cancer not only forced her to stay in America - isolating her from her family in the Philippines - but it also depleted her bank accounts entirely.

Now homeless, she waits on the street corners with a coin cup and rosary in hand, hoping to collect enough money for international calling cards and motel stay fees. She refuses to stay at homeless shelters where she had previously been robbed while she slept.

She told me this all very casually. Despite what happened to her, she insisted that God’s blessings outweighed whatever setback she had and all she needed was the friendship she kept for over 30 years. There was no doubt in her strength or her realness.  And after we exchanged names and parted ways, I heard her sing my favorite Kundiman.

I felt blessed to have met this woman who dropped tea, truth and perspective on my busy mind.

We are animals of context – if we have no one to compare one context to another, we have no idea who we are. I didn’t realize the gravity of keeping out of one singular context (be it singular in setting, type of people, location, etc) until I met this woman and was confronted with the stark contrast between Pilipino and American perspectives.

It’s not uncommon to meet a Pilipino with such humble positivity. Whenever I go to the Philippines, I’m both touched and envious when I see my family and their friends together. The feeling and atmosphere is distinctive and their approach to life’s daily troubles is one that I wish that my fellow Americans and I could adapt. More often than not, I see my peers react with nervous breakdowns, endless sub-tweets, burned bridges and bad decision after bad decision.

For now, I’m not going to look at their specific difficulties and just look at the way my family in the Philippines handles everything. For one thing, they are constantly aware that an excellent life is happening whether they are present for it or not – and every time they choose to be involved in it, to actively participate in an excellent life. If they feel like singing, they call everyone in the neighborhood to come over and sing with them over San Miguels and Marlboros. If they want to learn how to dance, again, they call every single person they know to come over and watch Mariel Martin's YouTube channel for hours until they get her "Heartbeat" choreo down pat.

And part of this decision to participate is being fully aware of what their problems are. They don’t try to intellectualize or find an existential meaning behind daily stresses. They all have a “I know what I know and that’s all there is to know” attitude, a branch of the controversial “Bahala Na” mentality - and it seems to be working for my family.

Truth of the matter is, we’re surrounded by people going through the same problems we are. The difference between Americans and Pilipinos, though, is that Pilipinos (at least the ones that I've met - I know this can't be said for everyone) are open about it—a family is getting through these troubles as oppose to an isolated individual. Friends are turned into family, and aren’t used as distractions from problems but instead they help get through them.


So with that, I implore you all to take a lesson from our kababayan and stop worrying about what’s polite. Stop keeping your ambitions, talents and troubles to yourself. Stop treating your friends and family as excuses for your unhappiness, unproductiveness, and inability to attain your goals. Stop wasting your time creating distances that aren’t there. Because an excellent life is happening, and a family is there waiting for you.

Photo credit: Josh Cole