Back in 2003 when nursing was perceived as very in-demand around the world, my mom and my then-employer persuaded me to take the course so that I can go abroad. Half-heartedly, I gave in and after passing the board exam, embarked on processing my papers to go to the United Kingdom. When my visa arrived, it finally hit me – I am leaving my family.
I am going somewhere far away on my own for God knows how long.
Getting in the plane and waving goodbye to the whole family who came out to send me off, I was torn. I tried talking to the other girls from the same agency during the trip to distract myself. When we got off the Etihad plane in London Heathrow, we were herded into a group and brought to a hotel in Hertfordshire, which was almost an hour away.
I’ve only ever been to Thailand prior to this so seeing the landscape of England for the first time amazed me. There were stretches of grassland, houses looked almost exactly the same in the neighbourhood, and buildings were built with stone and bricks instead of concrete and hollow blocks.
My work placement though was in Northern Ireland, and I lived in a big house with two other Filipino girls from the same agency as me but who have arrived months earlier. Our employer owned the house so everything was organised for us from the get-go.
I worked in a residential home for elderly people who were no longer able to care for themselves in their own homes. Aside from the three of us Filipinas, the rest of the staff were Northern Irish.
My Filipina colleagues and I were quite popular with the residents in the home. They always complimented on how we looked after them and were appreciative of how they felt our genuine care beyond the normal performance of our jobs.
We felt really sorry for those who were rarely visited by their families. We just couldn’t grasp that concept of abandoning your elderly family member and seeing them once or twice a year when you’re just a short trip away.
Despite its history of The Troubles, Northern Ireland has thousands of Filipino residents. In the small seaside town of Bangor itself where I lived, there were several Filipino families there that I’ve met and became friends with.
As is typical of Filipinos, there were always gatherings even for no particular reason. We would either visit somebody’s house or they would come to ours, which somehow soothed our homesickness.
Two years later, I left my job and moved to the south of Ireland, which is an entirely separate country. There was no physical border in between, and to travel between the two capitals (Belfast and Dublin) would take around two hours via public transport.
I still tried to visit my old patients in Northern Ireland a few times and it felt great that they still remembered me despite their dementias. My Filipino housemates have also moved elsewhere in England to start their own lives.
The whole island of Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Despite the north belonging to the United Kingdom and the south to the Republic of Ireland, the whole landscape is just spectacular.
I’ve never seen grass so lush and green, hedgerows everywhere instead of actual fences, and roads sheltered by trees on either side. No wonder it is called the Emerald Isle.
There are significantly more Filipinos in the Republic of Ireland, and most of them work in the health service. I got a job in a public tertiary hospital in Dublin and there are Filipino nurses in every single ward.
It’s great and fun, and my favourite time of the day will be during our breaks when we share our food and talk about home. We even have our official organization at work where we have events and activities throughout the year.
I try to go home every year to see my family in Pangasinan. That seems to be the time of the year that goes by especially fast. Balikbayan boxes are also a thing here, and one has to book early to ensure a December delivery.
Wherever there are sales and bargains to be had, expect a Filipino to be there stocking up on things to be sent home. Every single thing thoughtfully picked out for a particular family member.
We also keep an eye out for whoever is going home next, either to send something for our family or to ask to bring us back something from home. I’ve never imagined I’d be too excited to receive my package of tuyo or polvoron or even Lucky Me noodles from the Philippines.
There are Filipino and Asian stores here in Dublin but the products are sometimes not the same as those sold back home, not to mention the prices are hugely inflated. We also have a Filipino restaurant called Makati Avenue in the city centre and I go there once a month as a treat or when I’m just feeling homesick.
The Irish are a laid-back and family-oriented people, so they are quite easy to deal with. They love a good laugh and have a tendency to shrug away their problems. “Ah sure, it’ll be grand”, they always say. They have a huge love for sport, in particular football and hurling, the latter of which I have never even heard of before.
Nine years after I first left home, I am now married to an Irish national and we have two children who both go to school. I am still employed in the same hospital and going to work is like my social life because my Filipino friends are there.
Whilst I love my life here, a part of me has never left the Philippines. I miss my family, our home in Malasiqui where I grew up, the slow pace of life in the countryside, and even the chaos of Manila.
Will I return to my country? Absolutely. I would love my kids to learn the Filipino culture and imbibe our values. We are, after all, one of the happiest, most hospitable, most caring, and most resilient people in the world.