Pauline, 24, arrived in the UK when she was only five, but still faced quite some challenges as an immigrant from the Philippines. Nowadays, she holds a successful job in her dream sector, tech, and shares how she got there, and how you can too.
“We got to Manchester Airport after a long flight. My father, my twin sister, and I. I noticed a woman walking towards us with a smile on her face and I held my sister tightly. We didn’t know who she was. ‘I am your mother, Gemma,’ she said.”
“It was tough not having my mother around for the first five years of my life. It was strange not recognizing her when I moved to the UK, she was just a familiar face,” Pauline said.
Pauline’s mother grew up in a very poor part of the Philippines, where she would struggle to get food and water, so she wanted to change her life.
Therefore, she studied to become a nurse, even if that wasn’t her passion, because it meant there were opportunities to go abroad. She eventually got a job in the UK, and took it straight away.
“This was a difficult decision because my sister and I were just born. However, my mom really needed to take this opportunity, so we stayed in the Philippines with our dad and extended family.”
Gemma worked in the UK for two years by herself, living in a small flat, experiencing snow and cold weather, nothing like the Philippines.
But then, she managed to get her family to the UK, and even if Pauline didn’t recognize her, what mattered was that they were reunited!
“My mother is my biggest inspiration. Her work ethic, moving to the UK not knowing English, and working to create a better life for her family are things that make me want to do better myself.
That resilience, motivation, and determination are difficult to match. Every time I’m struggling, or I have a little inconvenience, I think about what my mom had to go through.”
Pauline’s first years in the UK weren’t easy. She remembers vividly when her mom told her she was going to school there, and she was terrified. In her first day of school, Pauline had never seen so many white people.
Also, she couldn’t speak any English. Some kids tried to play with her, but Pauline didn’t know how to communicate. Her sister took the first step and quickly made friends, but Pauline couldn’t, she was too anxious.
“Talking in English when I was surrounded by Tagalog (a regional language in the Philippines) was weird for my brain, so that is why I still have quite broken English.”
Eventually, Pauline picked up certain words and, by the end of the year, she could have a conversation in English.
Her parents also helped by talking in English at home. However, this made another problem arise. Nowadays, Pauline understands fluent Tagalog, but struggles to speak, so she just replies in English.
“Over the last two years, I’ve been trying to relearn my mother tongue, because it’s annoying that I can’t speak it and it makes me feel like I lost a bit of my culture.”
This is called ‘Receptive Bilingualism’ and it affects a lot of second-generation immigrants.
The following Tik Toks explain this phenomenon:
“Sometimes, I don’t know where I belong, because I really identify with Sheffield, where I grew up, but then sometimes I’m on a bus and there’s someone overly racist to me and I definitely don’t identify with it.”
In those situations, Pauline leans more towards the Philippines, but then she finds difficult to connect with other Filipinos when they speak to her and she can’t reply.
“It’s been an identity crisis for me, I don’t know where I’m really from.”
Even though Pauline has studied in the UK since Year One, it was difficult to fit in at school. Other kids would pick on her because she was different.
Pauline started getting picked on in Junior School. Because of her Filipino tanned skin, her curly hair, her knocked off teeth, and her chubbiness.
“Kids were really mean, calling me Ugly Duckling. Also, whenever we had class pictures taken, people would point out that I looked weird and I was often called a dark version of Tracy Beaker.”
“I genuinely didn’t enjoy going to school sometimes because of that. I went through a phase I’m not proud of, from Year Eight to Sixth Form, where I used to try and be as white as possible.”
To get rid of her tanned skin, Pauline used umbrellas during the summer, would hide away at home when it was sunny, and would only go into the shades.
She also didn’t like having dark hair, because most people at school had blonde and bright hair. So, Pauline went down this rabbit hole of dyeing her hair blonde. Turns out, she had bright orange hair because the dye didn’t work.
“I would even use excessive makeup because I wanted to cover everything. I hated my skin colour. I hated my hair colour. I hated my eyes. People would even do the ‘slanted-eye racist gesture’ to me.”
This affected more than Pauline’s look, it was also attitudes. There were things British people did that she would try to emulate but fail, because it just wasn’t her.
“When I look back at those photos, I get emotional because of everything I did to myself. That was little me wanting to fit in and just be accepted.”
This continued up to Year 10. Then, everyone got serious with exams and backed off. Pauline now looks back at it as something that made her grow.
“When I look back at my bullies at school, I want to thank them, because they taught me how to be resilient.
Whenever something goes wrong in my life, I think it will be ok because in a few years, I’ll look back at this, it won’t last forever.
I’ve also learned to be kinder. People said all sorts of mean things to me, I’ve heard it all, so I could never say a bad word about someone’s hair, their features, anything like that.”
During this time, Pauline kept everything to herself, not even her parents knew. It wasn’t until the end of Sixth Form that Pauline opened up.
“They had no idea what had been happening, so it was really emotional, telling them I hated everything about myself because of people at school.
However, once I told them, they were really supportive and told me I needed to love myself for who I am. That led me to embrace myself a lot more at university.”
Now, it was all worth it because Pauline has been working in her dream role since 2018, building her own website on the side, Pawlean, and has been doing public speaking about things she is passionate about.
Pauline’s true passion is tech, ever since she was eight. But as a woman and an immigrant, she didn’t succeed in it without a fair share of setbacks.
“I actually didn’t even know you could have a career in tech until my second-year of university, when I found Code First: Girls, a non-profit enterprise that teaches women across the UK how to code.
When I was doing GCSE Computing, people would bully me because I was a girl. They would tell me I should be in textiles, and to get out of that class. I started to think that maybe I should.”
She therefore decided to go into the medical field, and took her university degree in Biomedical Sciences, but when she read an email from Code First: Girls, Pauline knew what she wanted to do.
They were offering a six-weeks-long coding course at her university. Pauline had never met a group of women who could code, so she jumped onto it, and it changed her whole life.
Pauline promised her parents she would finish her degree, though, as they were worried tech would not pay well. But, with a lot of struggle, she did get into a BT graduate scheme, then worked there as a Site Reliability Engineer, and now she is working as a DevOps Engineer at Sky.
“There’s a lot of barriers in tech, being a woman one of them. But then, when you’re an immigrant, that’s another layer of complications, assumptions, people doubting what you can do. I wasn’t taken seriously for a long time.”
Firstly, people immediately assume she’s Chinese, and many times, because of her face, they don’t expect Pauline to speak English.
“I’ve had comments like, ‘Your English is really good,’ when I’ve been here for 15 years…”
And sometimes, people take a second look at Pauline to see if she’s truly capable, whereas if it was a white woman, they probably wouldn’t give her millions of instructions to follow. They would just trust her.
There’s also this stereotype with Asians that they’re all quite passive, just accept things as they are, according to Pauline. People expect you to do things as you’re told, and Pauline would rebel quite a bit at BT, being vocal about her ideas, so people would be shocked.
“So, just remember, if I can do it, as the Ugly Duckling in school, you also can. Just be yourself because companies are not looking for a carbon copy of whoever’s already working there.
Bring into every company the culture from your home country, and your personality, because that is sometimes what people need.
Especially in tech, we need more people from different countries, different cultures, because we must build products that work for as many people as possible.
Don’t try to be like everyone else because sometimes that’s what dulls your sparkle, and you don’t want that.”
You can learn more about Pauline’s achievements on: https://paulinenarvas.com/
My inspiration: Ruby Ibarra
“Ruby is a Filipina singer. She sings about her struggles as a Filipina woman in a sea of white people in America. In the USA, there is a lot of racism towards Filipinos, because a lot of us go there to be servants. It’s really tough on communities there, so she sings about how she has a lot of power because she is connected to her roots. It’s really inspiring to hear someone be loud and proud to be Filipino as I’ve spent a good chunk of my life being ashamed of where I was from.”
Words by Inês Santos
Photos provided by Pauline Narvas