Memoir Writing Reflections #1: The Brain is a Marvel

by: Giselle General

This year, on top of everything else my husband and I drastically changed, I added one more to the list. I finally started working of my first memoir, my first full-length written work. The initial plan was to publish something right around my 30th birthday last year. That got derailed by two major things: COVID and running for public office during a pandemic.

This is to account my initial reflections on this journey and observing my mind, both how it works when it comes to motivation and getting organized, and from a mental health standpoint as far as memories and triggers.

I had to check my email history and digital calendar to confirm the timeline. When you don’t have a full time job, the pace of time feels so strangely elastic and oddly compact, depending on the time of day. In early September, I took a chance and applied for the Horizon’s Writing Circle, a writer mentorship program. I recall being so nervous outlining my bio as an artist, feeling like a fraud. I suppose I had a few essays and got paid for it. I’ve been blogging for a decade and been an ethnic paper columnist for five years. But will it be enough to deserve undivided attention from someone who actually published multiple books?

I applied for the program in early September and in early October I got the confirmation that I got in the program. How exciting! I arranged a meeting with the author mentor in mid-October. Just like the other mentorship programs I participated in, I had a very clear goal in mind and I needed their advice to make it successful. When I outlined my goal, the summary of the memoir and the tangible deliverable, my mentor was excited. But it didn’t hit home for me until I hear her utter the words “Yes, I’m very positive that by the end of our mentorship period, you will have a first manuscript.” That felt so real, so tangible. It’s remarkable.

This is a precious time and opportunity, I have to everything I can to make the most of it.

This sparked a flurry of motivation in my mind and my heart. I made an outline of all the different chapters and themes of my life using blank MS Word documents. In a few minutes I had 40 blank chapters. Whenever inspiration strikes as the cliche goes, I would open a file and either type the entire story right there, or write short phrases of the smaller stories to write about. As of right now, I’ve been doing this for just two months, and I’m halfway through, over 20 chapters that looked decent enough to be scrutinized. Done is better than perfect, I tell myself over and over. It frankly didn’t feel like much, but when I say to people out loud, their reactions remind me that 20 chapters in less than 60 days is noteworthy.

Some days when I write, my brain somehow forgets to tell my body to breathe. After the keyboard clatters for a few minutes as I tell a heartbreaking experience, I’d suddenly gasp for air. Only then do I clearly look at the words on the screen, and tears would roll down my face. I thought that being triggered would be more melodramatic and fiery than this. I guess I was wrong.

In early December I had a dream that I wasn’t happy about. In my dream, somehow my father became alive in my current life as an adult for just one day. I was frantically giving him a tour around my home and around Edmonton, filling him in on what he missed for the past 23 years. The day doesn’t end, I don’t know what rudely woke me up into reality. I laid in bed, my eyes angrily boring holes in the ceiling as the tears silently fell. I know that this is from my consciously digging up memories and putting them on paper, or in this case, the computer screen.

Damn it, brain! Why do you have to do this to me? This wore me out mentally more than the other times I got emotional while writing. I spent the next week not writing anything new, just updating the grammar of the earlier chapters I wrote.

While dedicating time and energy to write, I had to juggle other priorities as well. There’s truth to the saying looking for a job is a full-time job. Taking the time to diligently search for opportunities that fit my experience level and salary range and writing a thoughtful application, that takes effort and a mental toll. I try to switch it up during weekdays, a few hours on job searching, an hour or two on writing, then some time for chores and volunteering.

This is how I remind myself that being unemployed doesn’t mean I’m useless. That I’m still improving my skills, using the ones I have, and making a positive impact around me in different ways. Sometimes it looks like the homecooked meal I made and a clean kitchen sink. It can look like being present at a board meeting and being efficient in all the items we discussed. It can look like a piece of artwork I finished for the home and two memoir chapters done in a single day.

Activities not related to writing or career help me stay grounded and balanced. My husband actively finds video games that a very beginner-level person like me can handle, and he is very kind and diligent when we do levels together where he had to do about 70% of the work. It’s pretty sweet of him. Whenever he plays video games that he streams to his audience online, I hear him talk about me and share fun updates about ‘the wife’. I sometimes chime in on conversations and his audience seem to enjoy it. Our group of friends have organized a weekly movie night, just like what they did regularly a decade ago. My friend asked for my help with pet-sitting and it’s quite fun being a dog and cat auntie. It’s actually nice having a cat on your lap being cozy while reading one of the books my mentor author lent me about writing techniques.

My suicidal ideation has never left my mind, but I am able to keep it at bay for the most part. It’s not by feeling more optimistic about the world – there’s too much obvious evidence that people and systems are harmful and selfish and problematic. It’s by keeping a little bit of hope that what I do matters to a small extent and it affects people positively, whether it’s just myself, my immediate love ones, or those who gets affected by any of my community service work. And that’s enough for now.

Like Father, Like Daughter: We Both Have Metal Dentures!

As an attempt to convince his kids to take dental health seriously, I remembered my father, when I was a kid, basically telling us “don’t be like me!” He had metal dentures for the top of his teeth, and he during one of these conversations, he would take them out of his mouth and show them for us to have a closer look. I don’t recall any other details about what happened to his teeth that he ended up losing a few of his adult teeth and him needing to have dentures. He was too focused driving down his stern advice: don’t eat too much sweets and brush your teeth every night, or else you’ll lose your permanent teeth and that would be bad.

I knew he meant well, but back then there’s an issue as far as people’s perception of dental care in the Philippines. Since dental care is something you pay out of pocket, when you don’t have the means, so-called preventative care and checkups are out of the question. You would go only when there’s a toothache that is so unbearable pain or only to pull out rotting teeth.

In 1999, shortly before my family got into the fatal vehicle accident, I vaguely remember my sister telling me that she went to the community dentist on her own for the first time. That she was nervous and also proud that she went. At the time, both she and I are starting to see many of our adult teeth forming.

And when the accident happened, well, medical check-ups of any kind went out the window. Asking for permission, and for money, for medical and health related reasons was tough. My grandma would mock me and scornfully ask “did your father’s side relatives make you ask? If they want so badly to do things like dentist checkups form you, maybe you and your brother should move and live with them instead!”

2007 was a chaotic year for many reasons but January was pretty rough. After coming back from New Year’s vacation from the father’s side relatives, I asked the mother’s side relatives, who I live with, if some of the suvivor’s pension money can go towards a dental checkup. This infuriated my uncle and grandmother and my brother and I got punished severely. That’s all I have to say about that for now.

It was soon very obvious that two of my froth teeth were really rotting. Since dental care is cheaper in the Philippines, they were extracted and I got my new dentures less than a month before my flight to Canada on August 2007.

During university I managed to get a few check ups and fillings done for my teeth because I managed to stack my benefits. I learned that my benefits from working retail at Future Shop which covered 50% of basic procedures, plus the 50% covered from being a university student, completely took care of the cost. Perfect for a broke university student!

When I visited the Philippines in 2013 with my then-boyfriend, since I knew dental work is still cheaper and I was unemployed, I got a replacement for my dentures. I was sold to the fact that the one with a metal plating will be more sturdy than the plastic one. I was pretty irritable for a good chunk of the trip for other reasons so it was a stressful experience. The metal base had to be adjusted a few times so it stops cutting through my gums, but it was all good ever since.

After I got used to my metal plated dentures, that’s when I remembered that my father had a metal plated one as well! I whispered a little prayer then, apologizing that unfortunately I didn’t manage to keep all my adult teeth. From then on, my dental care routine has improved dramatically. I told myself, I’m the adult now and I can take the reins moving forward and take care of the teeth I have left.

When we moved to the neighbourhood my husband grew up in, he convinced me to go to his dental clinic so that we have the same dentist. Remarkably, my husband only had one dentist for his entire life, since he was a child! When Dr. Chin retires, I bet it will be quite an adjustment for him. Maybe my husband can reach 40 years old first before that happens?

The first major dental surgery I had was 2015, when I had ALL my four wisdow teeth pulled out at the same time. The bottom two are impacted, meaning they are not coming out properly and are kinda stuck, causing pain, risk of mis-aligning the rest of my teeth, and potential infection from hard to reach areas that I’m not able to clean properly. Again, huge thanks for work benefits covering the cost of all that.

These days, I go to the dentist at least once a year for a full checkup and cleaning. Even after we moved from my husband’s neighbourhood to a different location, we continue to go to the clinic of his childhood dentist. It’s funny that I seem to be more diligent with booking my appointment that he was. When I sit on the patient’s chair and the dental hygenist gets started with their work, I have to remind myself to ask “oh! I have dentures, should I take them out now?”. Then they would put it away neatly wrapped in tissue and inside a paper cup.

Every appointment I would ask my dentist to check on my dentures. At this point, I would have this metal one for almost a decade now. Whenever I ask, how are they looking? Are they falling apart? Should I get them changed? So far, the dentist keeps saying that the dentures are still in good shape and for as long as they are comfortable I can keep using them.

Maybe in the future, when I am in a position to have a positive impression on a child, let’s say being an aunt or grandma, maybe I can do the same technique as my father did. Maybe I can pull out the dentures, grin widely to show the missing teeth, and say “this is what happens when you don’t take care of your teeth. Do you best to care for them and brush them always!” While I wasn’t able to fully follow my father’s advice, those were due to childhood circumstances outside of my control. Maybe when I give the strict cautionary tale, with the support of the adults in their lives, the kids these days will be able to follow through.

The Last Birthday Gift I got from My Parents

Closeup of a child wearing pink pyjamas holding a yellow birthday gift box.

By: Giselle General

It was May 1999, and my family is planning for another set of birthday celebrations. As my brother and I are born on the same month, and less than two weeks apart, the family is not very keen on having two large-scale parties so close to each other. In our small village in Philex Mines in the Philippines, birthday parties usually consist of inviting dozens of neighbours and their entire families, the adults and the kids. So it is a big affair.

My sister is a year and a half older than me and a bit taller. Her love of sports made her pretty fit and athletic. Also being the oldest, I imagine that even then, my parents were already either asking her help for more mature things, or she started being privy to information that wasn’t passed on to me or my brother.

My parent’s closet in their bedroom has four shelves. The top shelf was too high that I cannot reach it. Even climbing on top of the first shelf to boost me up wasn’t enough. I’m unable to cling onto the edge of the top shelf, let alone stick my arm further to search for whatever is inside.

Like most siblings, my sister loves teasing me. Well, it’s more of a back and forth really. She loves to give me jump scares, hiding on a hallway or behind the door and as soon as I walk by, she would jump and startle me. I tease her about being afraid of the dark, that whenever the electricity shuts down and it’s pitch black, she’d shriek and grab my arm for dear life.

It looked like she knew ahead of time what our parents bought me for my birthday. She said that as a surprise, our parents tucked it at the very far back of the top shelf of their closet. I thought, darn it, they are smart!

Their bedroom is not always open so I knew I had to be swift if I wanted to find out what it was. Apparently it was already gift wrapped so it should be easy to spot. But try as I might, I still haven’t grown tall enough to climb up and reach.

Then a week before the birthday celebration, my sister said that she’s positive that I will like the gift they got for me. But apparently, our parents moved it to a different cabinet. Disappointed, I stopped searching around altogether. The birthday party is just a few days anyway.

Then it was the day of the party! It was pretty fun as always, with our neighbourhood friends – both kids and parents – enjoying the treats and the balloons and just getting together. It was my turn to blow the candle for my cake, a green and white pandan-flavoured cake like I requested. Then it was my brother’s turn. Since he is still pretty little as it is his fourth birthday, my mother held him as he tried to lean on the cake to blow his candle.

And then finally I got my gift! It was a skipping rope (back then we call them Jumping Rope) and I was indeed delighted! My sister sheepishly told me that actually, our parents didn’t move the gift away from the cabinet. She just thought saying that will make me stop snooping around and ruin my own surprise.

That skipping rope was well used and well loved over the next few months. In our house it is the only one we have that is factory made, with the fancy colorful rope and plastic handles. My sister, her best friend, and I would spend afternoons trying to beat each other’s records for the most amount of jumps in a row. Sometimes they would show off by skipping barefoot. That never appealed to me – I had to wear flip flops at least.

And then a few months later, the accident happened, the one that killed my sister and both of our parents. Since I had a fractured skull, I was prohibited from doing any physical activities. I never saw that skipping rope ever again. I was also stopped from returning to the community Martial Arts class our parents registered us for.

I thought about it for a while as an adult. For some reason I’ve felt reluctant to get myself another one. Perhaps in my mind, it seems like it’s something only for little children. Despite seeing ads and videos of people doing skip rope in professional gyms, it didn’t resonate with me.

Four skipping ropes and two small hand weights on a gym floor

But all that changed this summer, right after I resigned from my job. I finally bought myself one, one of those sleek, athletic looking ones from the gym equipment section of the store. To my relief and delight, the rope is adjustable. I have the height of a 10 year old child so I was a bit worried it would be too long and awkward for me.

The first time I tried it again it was awkward. Since about six years ago I started suffering from plantars fasciitis and I had to be more careful when my feet land! I had to make a dozen attempts to get the rhythm right as well. After a few days, skipping rope felt comfortable and delightful again! A goal for my summer being unemployed is to recapture how life was like when I was a kid, to have a leisurely summer again. With the other activities I did, plus the skipping rope, that goal was achieved!

The Life-Changing Impact of School Choirs in My Life

By: Giselle General

Humans of New York is a Facebook page I have been following for the past decade, with is compelling and artful way of capturing people’s portraits and their stories of the subjects, usually narrated from their perspective. A series of posts not too long ago talks about a subject that was dear to me, children’s and youth choirs. It was a story of the founder of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

Music, particularly singing in groups, was a regular part of my own life starting in elementary school. I would say it is my first ongoing experience as a child learning how it’s like to contribute something to a collective whole. Usually the settings are religious, where students from every grade level take turns being the main choir for the monthly Catholic mass at school. I learned then the phrase “singing is twice praying” which I find compelling to this day, even if I don’t regularly go to church. There is something deeper, spiritual, and elemental about music, and even more so for me, when the sounds come from my own body, my own breath, my own vocal chords.

I continued this musical journey through the Catholic Youth Ministry student group in my first two years of high school, still in the village where I grew up. By then, it has been three years since my parents and sister died, and I’m very well set in my ‘parental’ and provider roles for my brother and myself. Home life was not a place of ease and acceptance. Being part of the Youth Ministry choir was great way for me to maintain some sense of age-appropriate exposure and belonging, one of the few ways I felt like an actual teenager.

When I moved to a high school in the nearby city, I was too intimidated to join the Performing Arts Club of my new school in the city, but I did join the Liturgy Club. That involved a lot of singing in the daily church service from 7 PM – 7:30 AM before the morning bell.

“Hear me Jesus, hide me in thy wounds that I may never leave thy side. From all the evil that surrounds me, defend me! And when the call of death arrives, bud me come to thee. That I may praise thee with thy saints, forever!

When I came to Canada at 16 years old, I joined the school choir for Holy Cross high school in St. Catharines Ontario, during my only year in high school here, Grade 12. It seemed like an easy, seamless way to be part of a club. I can already sing in English and despite not being able to read music, I can follow along once the instructor plays the piano and demos the notes. The first song I learned is O Canada which was really cool. It meant I was years ahead in preparing for my citizenship ceremony, haha! On top of religious songs, I also learned how to sing pop songs in a choral setting. I learned how to be the backup melody while our vocalist Danica would sing the main lines. This one I remember well, which is Apologize by Timbaland.

Danica our lead vocalist: “I’m holding on your rope, Got me ten feet off the ground. And I’m hearing what you say, But I just can’t make a sound. You tell me that you need me, Then you go and cut me down, but wait. You tell me that you’re sorry, Didn’t think I’d turn around and say.”

The other students, including me throughout this entire verse: “Ooooh, na na na. Oooh na na na.

Staying after school on Thursday afternoons, sometimes also Tuesdays, was something I really looked forward to then, because I was not used to the way things were in Canada with school being done at 3 PM. It felt way too early and I’m usually at home alone after school. It opened remarkable experiences and opportunities for me, such as performing in front on a baseball stadium in Toronto and me taking the yellow school bus for the first time. And also, getting a loyalty award at the end of the school year for being involved in the choir. This has significantly helped in my adapting to life in Canada, followed by discovering the Filipino-Canadian Association of Niagara and its cultural youth dance group.

When I moved to Edmonton and stared university, I considered auditioning for the choir, but got intimidated by the fact that the members are likely music majors, so those with superior vocal skills who are planning to make this their career. As I went through the motions of completing my university degree, the show Glee came about. I thought the show was entertaining and fun and cool. While in this case, the choir is more of a show choir and is flashier, I’ve seen glimpses of what reminded me about what high school choirs, and high school clubs in general, can provide to young folks going through one of the most transformative stage of their lives.

I got teary-eyed when I watched one of the performances of this youth choir featured in Humans of New York, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The combination of the vocals of the performers and picking up the distinctive sound of youth, especially for the male students who seem to have just started puberty. Seeing how many of the kids are way shorter than their instructor/ conductor, and seeing how animated they are singing their parts.

My youth choir experience was something I personally cherish in my younger years. It kept me out of trouble and at the same time, helped me reconnect to my actual age and stage in life, that I was an actual kid who is still growing up, not saddled with adult responsibilities such as earning income and being the parent for me and my brother. When they are run well, youth choirs can serve as a bridge between kids of different backgrounds, provide structure, motivation and fun in a balance way for growing minds, and open opportunities for those who lack access in their own homes.

Thank you to all the adults that help manage youth choirs and other music-related programs and make them a success!

Book Review and Thank You Letter: Motherless Daughters, The Legacy Of Loss: by Hope Edelman

By: Giselle General

In an attempt to fill the gaps in support and knowledge from my ongoing therapy, I was seeking out additional resources to help with dealing with the pain and loss of being an orphan. While my therapist wasn’t able to point me to an local support group, I found an adequate starting point.

I just finished reading the book Motherless Daughters, The Legacy Of Loss: by Hope Edelman. This is a Thank You Letter and a book review for the person who recommended this book, a remarkable woman in Edmonton named Mimi.


November 29 2021,

Dear Mimi,

Thank you for your lovely invitation to go out for lunch a few weeks after the outcome of the Edmonton Municipal Election last October 18. It was wonderful to chat with someone who experienced many of the things I have as a first-time elections candidate, as someone who is a person of color, and a woman. You shared many stories and insights that will help me as I go through my emotional recovery after not winning this election.

On top of the political commentary and stories, you kindly asked important questions about one challenging reality I have, as someone who doesn’t have a mother figure in my current life, and as someone who hasn’t had such a person for a very long time.

If my memory served me right, you actually haven’t read the book yourself, but you shared to me that Motherless Daughters was a book recommended to you a while back. I believe you said that you’re not the self-help-book-type. I was overjoyed though, since self-help is a book category I read on regular basis. Thank goodness an E-book version was available through the Edmonton Public Library, and I started reading in on nights and weekends when I have spare time.

The book was written and researched by a woman whose mother died when she was young, a teenager, and it involved numerous interviews and questionnaires from other “motherless daughters“. I liked how the book chapters outlined concepts bases on topic, such as navigating womanhood, romance, family, motivation and self-worth as a motherless daughter.

My favourite was how the book outlined key differences in terms of impact, depending on the child’s age when the mother passed away. I was eight when my mother died, together with my father and sister. Old enough to remember who they are and to know that life will never be the same after the deaths. Too young to do basic household management functions on my own. Too ill-equipped to grieve but not immune to the need of it.

It was a tough read, where every paragraph hitting me hard, shedding a light in very dark corners of my scarred soul, revealing wounds that never really completely healed. Especially in the first five chapters, it felt like every third paragraph made me cry, the vision of a child in her brokenness that was never acknowledged, and was just hidden away for so long. The stories of the other women and the commentary from doctors and the referenced resources, are both haunting and illuminating.

While distressing and unfortunate, I learned that it is actually normal for people to freak out when they reach the age of death of their same-gender parent. I thought that being fatalistic, catastrophising is a unique issue I am having due to election stress. Seriously, for the last six months before the election day my mind was telling me relentlessly “If I lose in this election, I have three years left to prove my worth. If I am not able to accomplish something profound and remarkable, my mother’s sacrifice was worthless. I don’t deserve to outlive her, and ending my life then is the right course of action.” I cannot rationalize it then, but yes, I was measuring my life and worth based on a very specific number, 33 years of age.

Now, there is huge comfort from realizing that this is a common occurrence. That subconsciously, people can be neglectful about their lives, or in the case of those whose mothers died of suicide or addictions, the adult “motherless daughter” ends up replicating those behaviours. It comes from wanting to grasp any way to find a connection with the mother that died too soon. So this is something I have to seriously watch for between now and 2024, that I don’t harm or kill myself, either by suicide or self-sabotaging my wellbeing.

Chapters of the book outlined how motherless daughters like me are stunted in our development, pushed to maturity and independence too early in some ways. But we are also stuck in childlike tendencies and yearnings in other ways. Instead of feeling inferior, I felt liberated by this. This paved another path of acceptance, and also pride, that my childlike mindset has not affected my adult life in debilitating ways.

For me, knowledge is power. I imagine it comes from my need for control from needing to look after myself (and my brother) at such a young age. I cannot describe how relived I am in realizing a few things:

  • That I will likely grieve again, in cycles and waves, for the rest of my life. When I reach womanly milestones, I would then yearn for a mother’s presence and guidance. Like during my first period, potential pregnancy and childbirth, menopause, even being a widow, financial and career changes, and many more.
  • A few time and age-related stages will be particularly difficult, such as reaching the age my mother died (which for me is in three years), giving birth, and when my child/ren reaches my age when my mother died, which is eight years old.

This is a huge blessing that came at a perfect time. Did you know that just a few weeks ago, during my therapy session right after the election, that I told the doctor that I need a very specific support group for people like me? He was sympathetic and understanding but the referrals provided were too broad for what I am seeking. This is the next closest thing to a support group and it worked really well as a starting point. I’m super grateful for the recommendation, as this has officially marked another journey of my healing from trauma, unpacking the fallout of being an orphan.

When I was too Shy To get Involved

closeup of a female student carrying books while standing on a sidewalk with parked cars

by: Giselle General

When a child is labelled as an ‘honour student’, that comes with significant implications. There is a barrage of positive traits that are associated with it: intelligent, well-disciplined, capable, confident, admired, role model. The positive associations can also be a heavy-handed set of expectations.

In the Philippines, the English word “transferee” is used to describe students who were new to the school and didn’t start first grade or freshmen year in the school. Growing up in a small mining village with a single school where everyone knows everybody, being a transferee is a rarely-used label.

And then, I became one of those students. Halfway through high school, I moved from the small village to the nearby city.

silhouette of a person walking alone

The move was unnerving for many reasons, and one of them for me is navigating academic achievement and extracurricular involvement. My younger self knew that schools are the same everywhere, that well-performing students get awards and recognition and benefits such as scholarships. The schoolyear stared in June and it wasn’t until November (so about 5 months in and more than halfway through the school year) when I started getting involved again in school clubs.

There were so many things to get used to in this routine. I never had to travel through public transportation every single day, two trips, to go to school and back. It was three years since I lived with my younger brother, and I was living alone in my house-and-business-building dwelling, my sari-sari store, for about a year. It sounds strange to say but I had to get used to living with people again. My brother and I are back to having the mother/father/sister dynamic that we had, only he’s 10 years old and I’m in the midst of puberty.

During the first few months, my priority was knowing names in the school, and within a few weeks, I was successful in knowing the names of my classmates, both first names and last names. The school was previously an all-boys school, and part of the culture was for students to call each other by their last names, since there’s too many students with the names John, Alexander, Anthony, Mark, James, Carlo, etc. The tradition carried on with the female students. So yes, I had to get used to be called General by students during casual conversation. In the early morning before class starts, I hear often “hey yo, General! can I copy your homework?

Two clusters of board game pegs, one cluster with 6 light organge pegs and one brown peg by itself.

But I didn’t join any school clubs right away, because I was still afraid of going home late. I was fearful or unsure on whether the elders, the legal guardian, is aware of the challenges and realities of high school students living in the city. We don’t have a computer at home, so even something as simple as submitting a printed report requires going to an internet cafe in downtown Baguio and it requires a lot of organizing. These city kids seem fancy and wealthy and carefree, and I don’t know how to fit in.

Eventually I was able to articulate, although awkwardly, why I didn’t join clubs. “I feel too shy to go”. My uncle, Tito Roy, who was a teacher in the school, snapped me out of it in his own way. He said how ridiculous that is and told me to “just go and give it a try’.

That really paid off because it opened multiple opportunities for me to feel the same way as in my former school, get involved, achieve things, and have a mental escape from the horrors at home that were about to happen the following year. Managed to be the valedictorian for my graduating class even if I was there for just two of the four years of high school.

As an adult, I think there are times I still feel like this. I found a fancier, but perhaps more appropriate term of it. ‘Imposter Syndrome’. There is a daunting feeling of feeling like an outsider for a multitude of reasons: because of being new and in an unfamiliar space, and being uncertain of one’s ability to be a positive impact in that space. I think the last thing that people want is to be perceived as dead weight or an inconvenience.

Has this feeling gone away? Not completely. I’m participating in the community in ways that I haven’t heard my elders or friends do: help at an election campaign, offer to be a columnist for an ethnic newspawper, submit a writing proposal for a heritage-focused digital writing project, registering to join a board of directors of an organization. So many times I feel a bit lost and unsure navigating these situations. One advice I heard that helped is this: everyone is just trying to wing it. Another one I’m trying is to approach things with curiosity. Instead of thinking “oh man I don’t think I really get what is going on here”, to think “hmmm, what is going on here and what new things I can learn?”

The shy side of my is likely still there, and it’s not the worst thing. A key lesson I remembered from therapy is that “feelings are information”. The feeling of shyness and uncertainty is simply a sign of being new in a situation, experience, or dynamic. And it can be handy in embracing, learning and growing.

Story Time: When I Chased Around My High School Principal

Four high school students in uniforms, standing in front of the classroom by the blackboard,making silly hand gestures.

Halfway through high school, I had to move to Baguio City, Philippines from the mining village I grew up in that was an hour away. The adjustment was a bit rocky, from having an actual travel commute from my home to the school, being hands-on again with caring for my little brother, and living with my grandmother and my cousin. It was a drastic switch from living alone to living with people.

I was motivated to do well in my new school, the prestigious “Boy’s High” in the city. We were the first batch of co-ed students for the school and it feels like being observed with a microscope all the time. It was an awkward adjustment for everyone, from teachers, the upperclassmen, and students. Seeing students with long blouses, vests and skirts as uniforms was a new sight, as well as female students taking leadership positions in various extracurricular activities.

When I found out that there was a school newspaper, I was thrilled! I joined right away, the new student who is a bit older than some of those who have been part of the club for a few years since their freshman hear. My first task, interview the high school principal for an article. Sounds intimidating, but sure, let’s do it! For context for non-Filipinos, students have a heavy sense of respect and fear of school teachers and administrators.

Our school’s layout was unique, with a road cutting between two areas: the main campus, and the annex campus. When the school switched into a co-ed format, enrollment numbers increased and as a result, a new building was built. The principal’s office is closer to the entrance of the school, on the main floor of the first building of the Main Campus area. My homeroom classroom is also on the main floor but on a separate building, one of the only two classrooms across the open basketball space that housed the chemistry lab, the library, the medical clinic, and the nurse’s office.

I prepared my questions and walked right into the principal’s office, tried to ask politely and in English, on whether I can interview the principal for the school newspaper.

The office secretary told me to come back a few days after during the lunch hour, about 12:30 PM, so that there is some time when I’m not in my class for us to speak. I came to the office and her secretary said that Mrs. Robles is not available, she might have forgotten our meeting, and for me to just try to stop by the same time the next day.

And then, the third time around, I managed to see the principal in her office but she was not available for the interview. She looked at me and said, “you are a determined student, Miss General”. I wondered then if she ever had a student relentlessly ‘chase after her’ before. So we found another mutually agreeable time to have an interview, and I managed to complete my article for the school paper.

This was my primary way to adapting to the new school, immersing myself in academics and extracurricular activities, an attempt to replicate what I used to do. It paid off in many ways, from graduating as valedictorian, getting asked to compete on behalf of the school for competitions which meant a day off from school, free fancy food, and a default 100% score on any quizzes I miss while competing, and a sense of value in myself.


Story Time: The Moment My Brother Landed in Canada

A long-awaited event was finally happening. It was September 2011. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) was away in the US for a festival named Burning Man, and it was just after the long weekend so things were busy at work and school.

And, my brother was finally arriving to Canada!

The sponsorship application processing took about two years total. And since his application process was identical to mine (Family Sponsorship for Orphaned Family Members), I knew how to help and the process went smoothly. After all was approved, there was a catch. He had to fly to Canada, his first time in an airplane ever, all by himself.

As much as I’d love to fly over there and pick him up, it just wasn’t feasible for me as a student with a part-time job. I also had to spend money to get items set up for him: the actual plane ticket, a phone, computer, a winter coat, his bed and linens. I gave him as much prep as I could and I told him “if I can do it, you can do it too”. I tried to arrange everything so that he lands in Edmonton in the evening, I get to personally pick him up from the airport, and help him get settled in before I go to work the next day.

However, we had a bit of bad luck the night before. Due to the very long lineup for first-time arrivals him and the very short time between flights, the poor kid was stranded in Vancouver. My cellphone got a call from an unknown number and when I answered, it was the voice of an older Filipino man asking for me. When I confirmed who I was, he said “I’m with your little brother and he would like to speak to you”. I was thrilled that he is already in Canada, but he told me, in a slightly anxious voice, that they have to stay at the airport overnight and have an early flight to Edmonton. He and this gentleman and his wife were on the same flight and are sticking together.

It definitely reminded me of myself during our connecting flight in Japan when I was immigrating to Canada. We didn’t miss our connecting flight thank goodness. However, it took about an hour of walking and taking a mini-train to go from one part of the airport to another. My carry-on luggage was a poorly made bag and was very heavy, and I was heartbroken for having to come to Canada and leave my brother behind. A group of adult women saw me and encouraged me to tag along, after they found out that I’m going to Canada, just like them. Going back to my brother, I was relieved that they were kind enough to look after this anxious young man.

I was grumpy when I came to work the next day at the retail store, as I had an opening shift. My plan was to come home early the night before, meet him at home, go for an early shift the next day so I can go home early as well. I was anxious and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see him right away as soon as he arrived in Edmonton. As we prepared the store for opening, I told everyone who would listen that the flight got messed up and my brother is still on his way.

It sounded like my relatives decided to take him right away to my work right upon arriving. My workstation is visible upon entering the double sliding doors, so the moment he walked in with my relatives, I spotted him.

Puberty is quite unnerving! When I left, I was still a few inches taller than him, as he was 12 years old and I was 16. When he arrived, he was 16 years old, and a few inches taller than me. Not only that, his voice dropped a lot. I heard it a few times over the phone and over Facebook video calls, but it’s still a bit of a shock hearing in person. He was still pretty skinny, just like I remembered when I left. That changed pretty quickly after living in Canada just for a few months.

I squealed in delight and hugged him, a bit of an awkward exchange and most definitely not professional by any means. Our store manager saw the exchange. I’ve talked about this moment for a very long time, so he knows what this means to me. At about 11 AM, just two hours into my work shift, he let me take the rest of the day off.

This was almost 10 years ago, and my goodness has time flown by. There had been challenges along the way, but I hope that I have given him something that eluded both of us for a while. A peaceful, stable home, where he can live in comfort and ease, as he figures out how to be an adult in this day and age. I don’t think I’ll ever shed away the mantel of my role as a mother/father/sister/brother, but he’s in a good state now.

Love Language Reflections: On Continuing Your Elders’ Hobbies

Both my grandmother and my mother were pretty skilled with sewing. Perhaps part of it is because sewing is taught in schools, during the class called Home Economics and Livelihood Education. I know of countless people who claimed that the lessons from these classes, which are taught from Grade 4 to High School, didn’t quite stick. But then, it is something lola and mama continued on in their adult lives.

Lola (grandma) learned advanced levels of sewing and dressmaking from a vocational school she went to right after high school. It proved really handy as she ended up having eight children, and she spent a lot of time making clothes for them. I guess you can describe these clothing as ‘bespoke’. She was also an entrepreneur, setting up several shops that sold various household items. So, her kids get to pick the fabric they want from the store inventory, and she would make these one-of-a-kind pieces of clothing. I heard she these days, she continues to do this making simple clothes such as shorts and skirts for great-grandkids.

My mother, at least when we were much younger, would also make us clothes. I have a particular memory of her making this beautiful dress for my sister’s dance performance. In our village, schoolchildren perform regularly in school and community events, large group dances that are colorful and festive. After my brother was born, life got a bit more busy, and the sewing machine was stored away and was used more as a decorative coffee table, covered by a nice tablecloth and displayed in the house.

The sewing machine now fulfills many roles in my life. There’s the practical and utilitarian side, since knowing how to sew can help fix clothing and make them last longer. Hand-me-downs and thirfted items, worn by other people who have a different body size become an almost perfect fit for me. There’s the creative side, where a beautiful dress that doesn’t fit my chest anymore can become a beautiful sleeveless blouse, or the collection of old t-shirts can become a quilt for the living room, and the bedroom.

And then, there’s something else that I didn’t quite realize until now. It’s the “positive feeling” of continuing an inter-generational legacy. Perhaps it’s the same feeling that people get when they end up loving the same type of music as their elders, or mastering the same recipe that has been passed down onto the generations.

It’s strange because neither one of them actually taught me how to use the sewing machine. In my mother’s case, I was too young, and then she passed away so soon. During all those years I lived with my grandmother, it was she who was at the sewing machine, not me. And when I would bring home the sewing projects I have made from school, she would even scold me for how I badly did them. But I have been on the receiving end of her sewing handiwork. She would go to the old family home and take several bags of clothes that my aunts use to wear, and then she would tailor them to fit me. I have enough dresses go to to church and to go for Wednesday non-uniform days for an entire year without repeating a single outfit. Grandma would tell me which daughter wore each hand-me-down item that she was tailoring to fit me, and she would also complain about how some of the dresses are just too small for my larger frame.

Now I’m doing similar things. From making rags, to hemming pants, to making a personalized apron for my spouse and lots of quilts and pillow cases. He seems pretty thrilled about the opportunity to have uniquely designed items in the house. These DIY-made linens and clothing, he describes them as “made with love”. He is thrilled that between the two of us, we can prolong the usability of pants and shirts, as it fits right along with his tendency to save money.

This method that provided an intriguing combination of partiality, usefulness, resourcefulness and creativity, these women in my life have passed down to me. I guess that is in my way a way of homage, of acknowledging some kind of legacy.

Story Time: My Mother and the Sharply Folded Paper Airplane

The creative streak in my nuclear family came from my mother. She was a fan of decorating the home, reconfiguring the layout and the furniture to maximize the small two-bedroom apartment that houses a family of six, the parents, the yaya (nanny) and the three kids. It is evident from her elegant handwriting and her signature, and how she is in charge of helping us kids with art related school projects.

She told us the story of how she initially went to university to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce degree and switched halfway through to take Architecture. She can write and draw with both her left and right hands, which was a blessing since my brother, the youngest child, ended up being left-handed.

My father worked as a supervisor for the Safety Department of the mining company, in the village where we used to live. As a result of his job, and perhaps, his love of recycling, he would bring home stacks of paper from the office that we end up using as scrap paper. Most days, he would use these scrap paper to help us with our 5 o’clock study habit. He would take our notebooks where we had a new lesson for the day, craft a simple one-page “exam” to help us test our knowledge, and hand it over for us to answer after we do our homework and read these notebooks. Every time there is a major exam in school, he would compile all these daily exams and it comes a longer practice exam for us to work on. A pretty smart system if you think about it.

As any parent would attest, kids love to doodle and do other fun artistic activities, just to explore and let their imagination run wild. Thanks to the endless supply of paper from our father, finding materials for this purpose is never an issue.

I have a very specific memory of my attempts to fold paper airplanes and make them fly. With the awkward way I fold them though, they would either unravel or would not even leave the dining table after I try to launch them. My four year old self got discouraged. Then my mother reached out, grabbed a fresh sheet of scrap paper, and showed me step by step how to fold a paper airplane. She mentioned how making the edges of the paper meet but not overlap is important, that pressing firmly from end to end will help the fold stay in place. Her airplane was this thing of beauty, of precision and elegance.

She shared another trick to see whether you made a good airplane. The tip of the plane has to be pointy, and she demonstrated this by poking my nose with her airplane. It was sharp and also ticklish, and made me burst into laughter. She forgot about making it fly, as she proceeded to chase me around our dining area, trying to poke me again with the tip of this precisely assembled paper airplane.

The laughter and the teasing usually came from my father, as all our relatives, neighbours and family friends would attest. He is definitely the comedian in every setting, having a joke ready for everyone he meets. This makes this encounter with my mother something worth cherishing, a break from her “persona” as the stoic, workaholic, dedicated and strict one.