Mika Mamon is one of our most highly qualified and experienced nurses working on the NHS frontline. One of our pandemic heroes that we cheered and applauded but who, as life returns to a new normal, doesn’t necessarily feel overly wanted or respected.
“I’ve written songs about the experiences of people from different backgrounds in the past and one of the tracks on my forthcoming album, ‘Invisible’ has an upbeat dance vibe but the lyrics sum up the fact that it’s how many of us feel.”
Mika is almost buried in a huge soft sofa in the lounge of Gisborough Hall where we meet for afternoon tea. Fitting, as she is tea-total. Dressed casually and modestly she is not at all like her on-stage persona, which is a mix of Bjork and Kylie Minogue, but she is pretty, slim and chatty. We start with a round-up of her life story so far as we nibble on tiny sandwiches.
She was born and raised in the Philippines and moved around with her parents, two brothers and grandma following her father’s military postings. “Dad was in the frontline of the war against both terrorism and drug production in the south of the country and we were never safe. There were a lot of people trying to kill him and I almost got used to armed assaults on our home, though you never get over the sound of gunfire and bullets ripping through your bedroom”. She actually laughs at this and apologises for laughing because it isn’t really funny for a child to be shot at as they sleep, but that’s just the way it is for so many across the world.
When he left the military, they moved north and eventually settled in Iloilo city where she DJ’d for Kiss FM and sang with her musical family. Her mother was a classical pianist, father a swing singer, and brothers a drummer and bassist. The local live music and karaoke scene soon helped her overcome a natural shyness and she learned how to win over an audience with her take on (mostly) 80’s ballads and soft rock.
“Music was always my release. Life wasn’t easy, especially when my father left the military and became ill. There is no NHS and we had very little money. Often we had to choose between eating and taking the bus the ten miles to school.
“I always did well at school though. My mother was a very strict disciplinarian so that was partly it. But I loved learning, especially English and music. I managed to get a scholarship and trained as a nurse to master’s level before coming to the UK in 2005. That was a shock. I lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne when I first came here and I thought everyone was foreign but they were just Geordies”. She laughs heartily almost spilling her tea and apologises. She apologises a lot for nothing in particular. A trait we’ll come back to.
Mika started in care home management before joining the NHS where she currently works at James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough. I ask her how she finds British culture.
“Very mixed. Much more blended than in the Philippines but with an undercurrent of a kind of suspicion, a wariness. Reservation mostly, but people are generally friendly and helpful. And I love public services here. I know people often might not appreciate it but the way people are treated and supported by the state should be treasured.”
How is life as a Filipino here?
“It can be hard. Some people have very fixed views. The comments and suggestions about desperation to find a rich Englishman, being bought online and jokes about my appearance, height, or my oriental features hurt. Many people make jokes. Most of them are not funny. I write about some of it in my music but I prefer positive songs.”
“As well as being verbally and, on one occasion, physically assaulted in public over the years, mostly for looking what they thought was Chinese or Thai, people make assumptions all the time. At work, family members will often ask questions about a patient’s condition of anyone white, but not me. They assume that, because I’m Filipino, I’m an assistant or something. They’re not shy of saying so either. Even doctors wanting to discuss a patient will do that. Many times they’ve asked to speak to someone senior when I’m the nurse in charge. That hurts as well. I’m an old hand here. I’m not a trainee any more!’ She laughs again and looks about 17, so maybe there is something in that I suggest.
She laughs once again, “Thank you, you’re very kind. But in those situations, when I tell them, they still don’t trust me. In the recent pandemic, Filipino staff were the worst affected and people wondered why. If I was to be asked, I’d say it’s because we were initially pushed more into the frontline without PPE (personal protective equipment) and were the last to be considered for shielding. It certainly appeared that way to me and there was a lot of online chat amongst Filipino workers across the country saying the same. Likewise, when staff get sent home early or need a break, it’s rarely the Filipino workers. For me, a lot of that is changing. A new manager can make all the difference when you feel able to speak up and know you will be supported. Others may not be so fortunate.
“I’m often not sure if this kind of behaviour is inherently or unconsciously racist but as my producer, Daniel, says, ‘if it looks like chocolate, smells like chocolate and tastes like chocolate; it’s probably chocolate’. I like that way of thinking. It helps me when I doubt myself. I can trust my instincts.
“I wrote Stand Together Apart at that time and there was a surge of media interest initially, a lot of it trolled with racist comments and things that just wouldn’t have been said if I’d been English. I was contacted by newspapers, TV and radio stations who loved the track and the cause. It made front page news and was featured on radio, but many of the reporters backed off when they found out I was a foreign worker. I was watching British people fundraising by singing cover songs getting lauded, quite rightly, but I was being ignored by so many. It was this that made me write the ‘Invisible’ track I mentioned that will be on my album when it comes out next year.
“The Black Lives Matter campaign, whatever the origin, and the subsequent anti-racism messages will help, I hope. But we have a long way to go in this. Particularly with unconscious bias but also blatant racism. It’s not just Filipino staff. Most, if not all, of the foreign workers I have spoken to about this in health and care services have similar stories to tell. They are definitely valued differently by management and the public. They may not have the same opportunities or support to progress in their careers. At the upper levels of our organisations we’ve done great things to break the glass ceiling for women. I wish we could say the same for minority ethnic communities. They are still so under-represented.”
She meditates on this a moment before smiling (and becoming a teenager) again. “Let’s change the subject a bit. After ‘Stand Together Apart’ I wanted to come back with something positive and upbeat. I wrote Holiday Romance to cheer myself up as well as everyone else,” she admits. “I hope now we can all put that behind us and bring back an optimistic mood, particularly amongst those of us in the health and care world who need a boost. If this helps in a small way, then I will have achieved what I set out to do.”
The video is out now on youtube and features footage from holiday destinations across the globe but with a couple of small secrets. “The song is about those fleeting holiday romances people have that seem to be over before they’ve even begun,” Mika explains. “Not that it’s happened to me. I’ve never had that. I’ve never been on that kind of holiday. It’s just storytelling for anyone who has been lucky enough to do that.”
The video vibe is an exotic summer holiday party and features romantic scenes from around the world but Mika’s scenes were shot at Cattersty Beach near Skinningrove.
“I live next to the Cleveland Way and, whilst Skinningrove might not seem to be the most exotic location, it is an absolutely beautiful gem of an area and under a summer sun is perfect.”
So what’s next?
“I will keep talking about equality but I’m not evangelical about it. I will continue to include my experiences in music but that won’t be my entire focus. Also, I think everyone in the music industry wants to safely return to live music and I’m looking forward to performing to an audience. Hopefully in the coming months we can start to sing and dance again. In the meantime, we’ll need to be safe and patient. Probably next spring at the earliest I think so I’m going to concentrate on writing and recording. I’ve also accepted a small role in Slider Records as part of their A&R team, helping artists collaborate and publish their music so, as well as a full time job as a nurse, I’m never bored.”
We chat more about the recording sessions with Daniel Hunt and Carl Pemberton who people may remember from the chart-topping duo Journey South. She clearly loves the studio process.
“I watched Journey South on X-Factor when I first arrived here and Carl was a bit of a crush. I’d never tell him that so please don’t print it!” The laughter returns and she glows a little red. “Although it may be better that he reads it than I have to tell him, I suppose. He’s still a handsome lad but happily married with two boys of his own and he’s been too much of a bossy boss in the studio so now he’s just my Sensei.” The laugh makes another appearance and it’s infectious.
She is recording weekly and hopes to release a track every month. Her current works in progress, in addition to the ones already mentioned, include an indie-vibe ‘Never Give Up’ message to two school friends currently battling cancer which she hopes will show her support for them. “The track is a collaboration with an amazing rap artist, Sayiboy from Phoenix, Arizona. I love the fact that artists can now collaborate with people all over the world. That’s really at the heart of my music.”
We finish tea and chat about inconsequential and unrelated things. Only her slight accent gives away the fact that English is a third language. It seems very natural and she has clearly adopted local culture and some of the phrasing. She talks about the other things she loves; walking along the cliffs on the Yorkshire coast, Adama Traoré, online shopping, and devouring documentaries. The Karate Kid spin-off series ‘Cobra Kai’ is what she calls her dirty little secret.
As we make to leave she apologises again, this time for talking too much. I mention that is what an interview is for and she laughs again and says sorry again. I ask why she does that.
“It’s a trait that I think I picked up early after starting work here. I was very much treated as the bottom of the food chain, regardless of my experience and qualifications, constantly challenged in a way the British staff would not have tolerated. It’s something that a lot of foreign workers here do. It’s a hard habit to break, but so are racial stereotypes. Like I say, the world has a long way to go. Maybe music will save us.”
Maybe she’s right. Let’s hope…
Holiday Romance was released in September 2020 on all major streaming services from Slider Records.
Find out more at www.mikamamon.com.