STORY BY: DONNA ROBLES
PHOTOS BY: MIAMI ABDULAL
Picture this: A 15-year-old high school student who just moved to the U.S. from the Philippines is having a conversation with one of her teachers. He asks her what she wants to do in the future, and when she says she wants to be a writer, his response is this:
“You’re Filipino. In four years, you will come back and tell me that you are going to be a nurse.”
I was that 15-year-old. I was confused at first when he said it. It took me days to realize what he meant when he said it, and I was mad. I wanted to go back to that teacher and yell at him, but instead I just went on with my life. But I never forgot about that incident.
And now, six years later, his words are no longer new to me. The moment people find out I am Filipino, it is as if there is an automatic connection telling them I am someday going to be a nurse or work in the medical field. It is as if my ethnicity dictates my career choice.
I am Filipino, but I did not choose to pick up a stethoscope. Instead, I chose to pick up a pen, paper and my recorder. I choose to tell people’s stories instead of diagnosing patients and getting their vitals. Each time I mention my ethnicity and my major, it is as if people are judging me for the path I chose; it’s as though I am a disappointment to my own motherland and I am less of a person because of my choices.
But why is this kind of stereotyping so common to people of specific ethnicities like me? Why do people automatically assume I’m studying nursing? Why not liberal arts or singing?
The generalization that Filipinos are nurses did not come out of nowhere. It actually started after the Spanish-American War in the Philippines.
Let’s go back in time a little: The Philippines have a long history of colonization. We were colonized by Spain for over 370 years, from 1521 to 1898; hence, our Hispanic last names and features for some.
After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States gained power in the Philippines. The Philippines have become a part of the U.S. territory.
“Part of this is that they put in an educational system, a public education system, that’s modeled after what’s in the U.S. This is where Filipinos know English,” says Linda Maram, an Asian American Studies professor at Cal State Long Beach.
“In terms of nursing, there were two things that happened: One is that the U.S. came in and set up vocational training, nursing, for Filipinas, not necessarily because the Philippines needed it but because the U.S. considered this to be an important training. Because what’s happening in the U.S. is that fewer women are going into nursing schools because by this time, universities opened up certain majors that were originally closed to women,” Maram says
“So women are now going into other majors other than the gender-based ones. So what’s happening at the turn of the 20th century is you have a decrease in white women in the U.S. going to nursing schools because they have other options for majors. And at the same time, the Philippines is a colony of the U.S., and the U.S. wants to set up an education system, so it set up nursing for young Pinays.”
Time and time again, I have been discouraged to pursue writing as a career. My own parents tried to convince me to choose nursing. Teachers -- and even strangers -- have tried to discourage me from majoring in journalism. But each time I was told that I should be a nurse, it only made me want to write more -- maybe to annoy these people, but more likely to prove them wrong.
How do we stop this stereotyping that says all Filipinos will become nurses?
According to Maram, it is hard to stop because it is rooted in our culture. Personally, I think that breaking the norms and calling people out are the most effective ways of “breaking” this stereotyping.
When I started working for my community college’s newspaper, I wrote stories about the tobacco ban in all California community colleges and CSU campuses, and about Los Angeles Unified School District high school graduates getting a free year of community college education. The free year of community college education story was my very first front-page story.
When the newspaper was printed, I picked up a copy, visited my high school and gave it to the teacher who told me I would come back to tell him I was a nurse. He read the article I wrote and told me I did a good job.
Then, after I reminded him of what he said, he apologized. I walked away feeling good—not because I’d been validated, but because I’d stepped out of the box where society tried to put me.