Leaving Home: Chapter 4

Benita’s Story

This chapter of the series is dedicated to my mom.  I would like to thank her for all the help she’s been throughout this entire project. She emailed out and collected all the questionnaires. She also wrote down my dad’s answers and was extremely detailed with her own answers, which made for an amazing story. And, of course, I’d like to thank her for making that scary journey in the first place. If it wasn’t for her and dad taking a chance and moving here, my life wouldn’t be as great as it is now. Thank you, mom! Love you!

March of 1979, Benita graduated from nursing school in the Philippines. She was 21. She soon learned that the job market in the medical field was saturated with nurses, causing a dearth of possible jobs she could find. It took a year for her to find a job after graduating. On a nurse’s salary, she couldn’t afford to buy a car, let alone a house. With hopes of “greener pastures” and job security in a country desperate for nurses, Benita decided to immigrate to the United States as a 24-year-old.

The immigration process itself, which spanned about 3-6 months, felt like it took forever. She went to a travel/placement agency and was robbed of $300 by an illegal recruiter. Her older brother pitched in $2,000 to help pay for the (legitimate) agency, plane ticket, travel items, and any essentials for when she would arrive in the states. After paying for everything, she only had $300 left of the $2,000 to hold her over until she received her first paycheck in America.

She left home with some essentials (clothes, 5 sets of new white nurse uniforms, 2 nurse’s caps, uniform shoes, a list of emergency phone numbers, and the $300 from her brother) as well as some other items to help her on her journey (a prayer book, a rosary, family pictures, and mementos from family and her boyfriend Ed). She only knew a handful of people in the U.S. before she moved: her older brother in California and her aunt’s family in New Jersey. She would be arriving in Texas, however, so she wouldn’t be close to either of them. Thankfully, the travel agency put another nurse on the same placement as her and they flew to and subsequently lived together in Paris, Texas.

She recounts her journey to the U.S. as a mixture of excitement, nerves, and sadness:

“I was… sad [to leave] my family and [Ed] behind. That was my very first plane ride! I was in awe: a huge plane with huge TV screens! I remember getting very anxious as the flight [went] on because of the other nurse traveling with me from the same placement agency. She [had] brought with her a ‘Texas Dictionary’ and was intently studying it. When we finally got to the hospital, I remember just smiling at the supervisor and HR director, not knowing what in the heck they [were] talking about. I also made sure I had my hair cut [beforehand], after being told a haircut here costs a lot. (As if my hair won’t grow.)”

Benita arrived in the United States in May 1982. It would take her eight years to finish the naturalization process to become an American citizen.

Photo Dec 28, 9 17 06 AM

Benita (left) and Nida (right) making ice cream in Paris, TX

From 1982 to 1984, she lived in Paris, Texas. Initially, she lived with the nurse she had been placed with, but then she moved into a 4-bed,1-bath apartment with friends Nida, Jo, and a third nurse whose name she’s since forgotten. She and Nida were working at the same hospital and had sought each other out, knowing that they had used the same travel agency. They became fast friends and moved to Dallas together two years later. Benita roomed with Nida until she and Ed got married that December. The three of them moved into a different apartment complex; Benita and Ed in one unit, Nida in one right across from them.

Moving to the U.S. was not without its challenges. Language proved to be the most difficult thing for Benita to cope with. Although she had learned English in school and watched plenty of English television, nothing could have prepared her for the way Texans speak. She had heard the American president speak and different American actors and actresses in Hollywood movies, but the Texan accent was practically a language of its own. Benita would stay away from the phone when she was on duty, fearful to answer it, worried that she wouldn’t understand what the person on the other end was saying.

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Being a nurse, she faced a unique set of culture shock: one of wastefulness. In the Philippines, as hazardous as the practice was, many medical devices and instruments were reused rather than tossed away. This included things like needles and syringes – which should have been one-time use only – that were washed and sterilized so often that the calibrations on the syringes were illegible. Pills were given to patients directly rather than with disposable plastic medicine cups and liquid medicine was served in a breakable medicine cup that was washed after each use. The practices varied greatly between the two countries, most likely due to the economic status of each. Filipino hospitals most likely were simply unable to afford to throw out their supplies.

“I woke up many times not knowing where I [was] and [couldn’t] believe I [had] really made it to the US.”

It also took some adjusting being made a charge nurse. Things like starting an IV were expected of charge nurses, whereas in the Philippines, only doctors started IV’s. Benita felt lots of pressure when she became a charge nurse.

Photo Dec 28, 9 20 00 AMSomething as trivial as grocery shopping surprised Benita. She was stunned to see all the grapes, apples, and not to mention chocolates. In the Philippines, the apples and grapes were only for those that could afford it or for special occasions like Christmas. Seeing them all in one place and for such cheap prices was a shock.

When asked whether she faced any adversity or discrimination based on her race, Benita said that actually quite the opposite had happened:

“We were the first foreign recruits in Paris [and] we were all interviewed/featured in the local newspaper and got invited to a carnival at the nearby city, Clarksville. It seem[ed] like the whole town [knew] about us, the 5 ft something, 90 lb something nurses in white uniforms. We were all charge nurses when we arrived.”

Since moving to America, Benita’s gone home to the Philippines three times. Once in October 1990 when her brother passed away, two months later for her sister’s wedding, and lastly in 2008 for her niece’s wedding.

Now, at the age of 57 and after living in the United States for over half of her life, Benita has no regrets immigrating. She would do it all over again in a heartbeat, knowing it provided a better life for herself and her family.  When asked what she would tell her past self before boarding that fateful plane to America, she said:

“Remember why you’re doing it, make the most of it, count your blessings. Not everybody is given the opportunity to come to America. Respect is earned.”

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