I made the journey from Penang, Malaysia in 1974, to train in East Ham. I always wanted to be a nurse and follow in my aunt’s footsteps. It was easy to get into the country in those days. The English people didn’t want the jobs then. I didn’t mind which branch of nursing I would end up in: I was so eager to leave, to spread my wings. I don’t know why, maybe it is in the genes, my father left his country (China) at age 19, and I guess that was in me. Becoming a nurse meant I could see England. We saw movies like My Fair Lady, Oliver Twist and I wanted to see it for myself. I was so excited for this adventure, there was no time to be scared about leaving home. I only had a one way ticket so there was no coming back.
I wasn’t very close with with my mum and dad. I felt like an outsider because there were seven siblings, and I was raised by my grandparents. There wasn’t much of a relationship there so I was eager to leave home. Through letters, I found out that my mum and dad were worried about me. They wrote to me via my sister, three times a month – she wrote the airmail letters because my mum and dad did not know any English, and I didn’t know how to write Chinese, because I went to a Christian convent school.
I remember my first impressions very clearly. It was 5pm in the middle of April. Quite dark and the buildings looked so ugly. We landed at Heathrow and it was crowded and so overwhelming. And it was so cold, coming from thirty something degrees to under ten at that time. It was totally different from what I expected! The hospital buildings didn't look like a hospital at all. Then it hit me that I was all by myself.
I was very lucky that in my class of over 20 pupils, we had only three people that weren’t Malaysian! In that respect I felt like we were at home because we cooked together, ate together, especially chicken curry and rice. That’s why there was no culture shock until we went onto the wards.
And then, racist remarks were aimed at us, which we didn’t realise were racist, we thought it was a joke, like, “Do you still live in the treehouse?” That kind of thing. They thought we were very primitive and some of the English people did not like foreigners to attend to them, no matter how good you were at your job.
I am quite adaptable to different situations. So with English culture, it was just about learning: it slowly got into you. Before you know it, you have the English way of thinking and doing things – like queueing up – that needed getting used to! In Malaysia we just rush to get to the bus, to the train, in those days you had to queue for everything. It was good in a way because it was disciplined, but we Malaysians are impatient!
I wasn’t really homesick as I was quite busy. I was adventurous and went out exploring when not on duty or with friends a lot. I only had a one way ticket, and I didn’t want to think about it too much.
I'm still here because of one English man that I met at a disco over 40 years ago. We had two children and that was it - and the rest is history. As my parents got older, we tried to visit every year with the children to see them. My only regret is that I wish I had been able to travel the world with my certificate, but then I met my future husband and that was the end of my travelling dreams!
You can never give up your birth country as your home. It was never home for me here. Malaysia is where all my siblings are, although my sisters are all over the world, but my roots are there. I still miss the food! It is my family that I miss most. Especially as you get older, you want to be near to be near them. I’m very proud of my journey! To leave home at 20, and with a one-way ticket, not knowing what is in front of you and knowing that you can’t go back – that was quite frightening. Thinking back through this journey, I have achieved a lot of things. One of my proudest moments was having two wonderful children.
I don't think the NHS would have survived in the 1960s and 1970s without foreign students coming in to do the work.
After working for the NHS for 5 years, mainly in A&E and in the private healthcare sector for over 30 years, I’m now retired from nursing completely. In those days, it was all hands on and practical, not like now with tons of paperwork. We had a matron who was very strict. I enjoyed working at the A&E although it was hard work. At the weekends, you might work all through the night non stop. There were football hooligans fighting amongst each other and the police, they would come in at all hours. Then there was abusive behaviour. The best moment was when you would see patients stabilise and send them to the ward, or home – feeling that you have done something for them. There wasn’t so much emphasis on paperwork – as long as we did the work well and the matron was satisfied, that was it. That’s why we could party all night long!
Now, I’ve started a new career as an entrepreneur, which is quite daunting because it is out of my comfort zone, but I love it. I retrained myself as a complementary therapist, I make skincare products, candles and soap and sell it online. I make sure to always live in the moment and enjoy the moment. I had two beautiful children. One of them is no longer with us. Therefore we just live and enjoy life to the full in the moment because we don’t know what’s round the corner.