Friday, October 20, 2006

Coming to America

The promising sentiment that the United States of America is a nation of immigrants became ever more perceptible in the last several months when arguments on immigration policies started to simmer and inevitably reached boiling points. The lure of this proverbial land of milk and honey had beckoned millions of people across the globe to come and partake of the bounty since several centuries ago.

Like most people, I came to America to seek greater opportunity, "greener pastures" being the timeworn phrase to refer to this generations-old ambition. Although I did not belong to the lower socioeconomic stratum, my life in the Philippines could be better. In a developing country that leaves much to be desired in its social, political and economic structure, and where the underprivileged far outnumber the affluent, a commoner's day's worth of labor is oftentimes less than a day's worth of decent goods. Common people's lives are stories of daily survival - how one gets by each day, one day at a time. The first level of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs had nowhere been more palpable.

Providentially, my parents compelled me to take up Nursing in college. These times, being in the health care industry gives one advantage migrating to developed countries. It was an inopportune time, however, when I finally garnered my bachelor. The U.S. was struggling with recession. In effect, Philippine nurses scrambled into hospitals in the country creating a surplus of supply. Most of the new graduates found themselves in odd jobs and workplaces incongruous to their college education. Ties replaced stethoscopes over the necks of some. Others started to figure bills and coins over a counter rather than determine the number of gauze pads and surgical instruments over an operating table. There were those who opted to put up their own business. The rest, I included, went for further studies.

I eventually found work in the communications industry. My goal was fairly common as anyone else's when I started earning money. I set out to achieve three things: to provide myself the basic necessities of food, clothing, water and shelter; to buy a house, a car and a dog; and from time to time, to indulge myself and my loved ones. All that with my own hard-earned money. Not so much to ask for, is it?

But almost five years being part of the country's workforce did not entirely fulfill all three. Materialistic as it may sound, it felt utterly pathetic that I cannot even acquire all essentials with my own money. That being the case, I could not even begin to conceive being able to possess not only things I needed but also wanted. Auspiciously by then, things were again looking up - and overseas - for health care professionals. I decided to set my sights on a harbor I deserted a long time ago and prepared myself to leave behind the country that I have grown to love fervently despite its imperfections.

It was not easy to go back to Nursing as it had been almost a decade since I last read significant literature and, more important, nurtured another person's health and life. Armed with perseverance to make life better for me and my loved ones, and words of encouragement from classmates who have established themselves in different parts of the world, I read endlessly, underwent training diligently, and conscientiously reviewed and took all the necessary exams to become a U.S. R.N.

Now in the land of the plenty and still reeling from culture shock as of this writing, I feel astounded starting afresh in a strange world and making sense of this overwhelming new life as an immigrant. It is both a daunting and delightful state, like being left alone in a mansion of labyrinthine hallways, ornate stairways and massive doors requiring riddles to solve that will lead to rooms full of endless possibilities. There are so many things to do, plenty of places to go to, a multitude of people to meet, and an onerous amount of information to digest. I figured it best to take things as how most people went about life back home in my beloved country - one day at a time.

Thoughts about millions of immigrants that have come before me inevitably occupy my mind, and I could not help but ponder on my story and confess as to how it pallidly pales in comparison to those who came here for essentially more pressing reasons.

I read about this Rwandan man who escaped from ethnic cleansing and political oppression. He swam across the border to reach safety in Congo. Wanting to be as far away from his hauntingly harrowing past and imminently perilous present as possible, he settled in Austria and was able to come to the U.S.A. about three years ago and is now teaching human rights.

Another story is of a Tibetan girl locked up in prison since age 13 for the crime of peacefully professing her faith. After 11 years of incarceration, enduring beatings and harsh treatment, she has now found asylum in this land of the free and is a student, learning English so that she can speak out to more people about Tibet's cry for religious freedom.

And then there is this boy who was sneaked across the border from poverty-stricken Mexico for a chance at a better life. His American dream started to take flight when he was accepted into Harvard Medical School. Now a legalized citizen, he is a resident at a medical center in L.A. that provides health care services primarily to less fortunate blacks and Latinos.

Various people have individual reasons and personal stories of coming to America, but these different threads of dreams and desires all weave together to form a strong fabric of one cohesive design or purpose - to live free of the things that make our existence less meaningful and our lives less human.

I have not yet been to the Statue of Liberty but had heard and read about this epochal writing engraved at its foundation. One day I will find myself standing diminutively before that colossal and eminent symbol of empowerment and see with my own eyes, utter with my own lips and feel in my heart the words that have called upon many to make a new life for themselves in this new land:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
The tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


  1. piet, i fell in love with how you described an immigrant life as being left alone in a mansion. your innocence is so strikingly beautiful. ultimately, it is your strength and your power.
    cheers to what lies ahead for you!
    all the best,

  2. Thanks, Mitts. (,") Your words make my efforts worthwhile.