Coronavirus heroes: I thought Filipino nurses were ‘sellouts.’ I was wrong.

I used to look down on my Filipino family for falling so easily into a stereotype. It took a crisis for me to see they are doing necessary work.

When I was growing up, if you had asked me what I thought about nursing, I might have said it was a “sellout” profession.

A sellout, to a punk teenager like me, was the worst thing a person could be. Selling out meant that you lacked authenticity and imagination. You followed the herd. You were a cliché.

You have to understand: I come from a Filipino family. It’s common for Filipinos, both immigrants and their children, to be nurses. In fact, Filipinos in New York City are “practically defined by that single occupation,” a New York Times article said. There are about 150,000 Filipino nurses working in the United States — and Filipinos make up 20% of the nursing force in California.

The relationship between the United States and Filipino nurses extends back to 1898, when the Philippines became a U.S. colony. Soon after, the Army began to recruit Filipinos as nurses. The government offered scholarships to send nationals to the states to study, and some of those who studied nursing returned to the Philippines and helped set up and manage the 17 nursing schools established there between 1903 and 1940.

I didn't want to be a cliché

My mother came to America in the 1970s through my aunt, a nurse. I was expected to follow a career path similar to my forebears: something secure, respectable, decently paid. It’s not like I didn’t have choices. I didn’t have to become a nurse like my aunt. I could be a doctor like my uncle! But I didn’t want to follow the herd, to be a Filipino cliché. I didn’t want to live in the world of security and respectability. I wanted to be a writer — an artist.

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I confessed my ambitions to my father, a respectable engineer, one day in a bookstore.

“A writer?” he scoffed. “Look at all these books. There are already too many of them.”

To my parents’ disappointment, I did end up a writer. I started out as the reputable sort: a journalist. I had staff jobs, health care and a function my parents understood. But these days I’m a freelancer and I’m working on a memoir, which is to say, I have become an artist: undistinguished, ill paid and insecure, in every sense of the word. (Not a cliché at all.)

Nurses and medical workers react as police officers and pedestrians cheer them outside Lenox Hill Hospital, April 15, 2020, in New York.

In this pandemic, like many artists, I’ve been struggling to find inspiration in my work. I know art is important — after all, without writers, filmmakers and musicians, what would we all be doing during the quaran-times? But I can’t help but compare my relatively uneventful days, spent brooding over a laptop, with those of a group I had once so thoughtlessly dismissed: nurses.

Selfless, necessary work

I see my friends and relatives in the Philippines and in America posting images of themselves on social media, preparing resolutely to do battle on the front lines. I see videos of people around the world cheering medical workers as they leave the hospital. And, perhaps most touchingly, I see stories of nurses becoming like family to their isolated patients.

A group of Filipino nurses visit Arvin Temkar's mother, Daisy Perez, seated, in Mandaue City, Philippines, in November 2013.

I’m reminded of a difficult time a few years ago. In 2013, my mother, while visiting her hometown in the Philippines, found out she had cancer. It was bad. Stage 4 bad.

I went to the Philippines to be there for her. By this time she was worn out and weak, confined to a wheelchair.

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I wanted to do something for her, something useful, but I mostly just sat around helplessly while my Filipino relatives, the nurses and the doctors, took care of her. They read her charts, counted out her pills, wheeled her oxygen tanks in and out. One aunt, a retired nurse, came from California and stayed for months, sleeping on a couch by my mother’s bed. On my mom’s 62nd birthday, a group of nurses from the hospital came to our family home to celebrate. (This turned out to be another parental ploy to shape my future: Many of the nurses were single, as was I.)

My mom died of a heart attack suddenly and unexpectedly 10 days after the party, on the day I arrived back in California. I am still Facebook friends with her nurses.

As a writer, I consider myself part of a tradition, a lineage of people I look up to and admire. I can say the same of the Filipino profession of care. It is not simply a cliché. It’s a legacy I can be, and am, proud of.

Arvin Temkar is a writer and photographer in Atlanta. Follow him on Instagram: @arvintemkar


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