Love language Reflections: Support in times of Crisis

Man hugging woman, woman's head burried on his shoulder

by: Giselle General

My husband and I had a particularly challenging weekend sometime in June this year. As if the pandemic is not enough. In times of crisis or particularly stressful situations, people react differently. People’s reactions can possibly be categorized into the following: fight flight or freeze mode.

Similar to how we face a threat that is directly affecting us, people might react in the same way if there is a crisis about their loved ones, especially if we are directly involved in their daily lives. Some people are in “hyper solution mode” or “fight mode” running around getting things done, getting everyone together to act, and then after this adrenaline panic-solution mode, they get exhausted and worn out. These helper types, dedicated to support their loved ones, end up not realizing they need to care for themselves too.

There are some people who have intense outbursts of emotion during times of crisis, getting stuck and unable to provide tangible practical solutions to resolve the crisis at the end. I personally describe this as the ‘flight mode’ especially emotionally. However, in my opinion, there is value with how these type of people respond even if it may be off-putting at the time. They demonstrate the emotional impact, the reality and seriousness of the situation at hand.

Woman sitting and crying, and person's hands supporting her shoulder's comforting her back.

And there are people that are in silent mode, I would say is the ‘freeze mode’. Those who are too quiet or maybe two numb or lost, unable to determine a course of action. It’s not necessarily that they’re useless in the time of crisis, however, it takes prompting or direct, specific instructions to get them to do anything. Whether it is direction from the hyper solution-focused loved one, or being prompted by the emotional outburst of the others. 

Particularly for long-term relationships, I think it is really important to understand how our loved ones respond during times of crisis.

This is because different reactions or solutions would be more appropriate depending on the situation. If someone is in medical distress, it probably would be important to be more solution-focused at least until the severity of the situation is minimized. However, it is important to acknowledge the intense feelings that have come up because of the situation. Imagine your loved one being taken away by ambulance – there’s the peak emotional state and then there’s the crash afterwards. In many crisis situations, solutions, support, and follow-up is more of a marathon not a race. There needs to be diligent planning and follow-up and ongoing communication so that the problem at hand can be fully resolved.

The valuable thing about knowing your loved ones’ mechanism when responding to crisis as you can pick them up and support them during times when they are struggling. Some people struggle with displaying their emotions even after the fact, even when it’s safe, more appropriate, or even healthy to do so. Some people get paralyzed and unable to do proactive helping in the heat off the crisis and that can be detrimental as well. I think it’s important for people to have faced crisis situations to feel vulnerable enough and unpack their emotions afterwards. Being self-aware of one’s own tendencies are just as helpful.

Lined notebook with handwritten words, "Today, 1, 2, 3".

This is speaking from recent experiences. I think, or I hope, that I’ve figured out my own and my husband’s mechanisms when it comes to crisis solving. There will be times when he’s not willing to talk about it just yet and that’s okay. Sometimes disconnecting from the situation for a bit by browsing the internet is an okay way to provide yourself some relief. And it’s important to acknowledge that. He gently suggested a couple times for me to meditate because he knew that it would be helpful for me, and I honestly would not even thought of it if he had not brought it up.

It’s important for loved ones to not be judged by their coping mechanisms. It is also important to gently and lovingly nudge your loved one to get supports that you are unable to provide. It took me a while to acknowledge that sometimes I just need a talk therapy session with a professional to help unpack my emotions so that I can be less filtered in my language and be more candid in a way that works at specifically for me.

To be heard, understood, supported, and pushed sometimes, is really important to maintain our sense of perspective, sense of health, and nurture our ability to help ourselves and our loved ones. 

Relationship “Green Flags”

Woman leaning her chin over a book on the table, smiling and giving a thumbs up.

By: Giselle General

During one of the rare days that I was working in the office this past summer, I dropped by the office of one of my coworkers. He’s a few years younger than me, just finished university a year ago, and is about to pursue another important life milestone: moving out of his parents’ home and moving in with his girlfriend. He started as a volunteer five years ago so we have known each other for a few years and has heard of the relationship milestones that I had myself, particularly reaching legal common-law status with my partner, and afterwards, getting married.

I was teasing him a little bit, and giving some friendly warnings about how moving in together with your significant other is both exciting and unnerving. I told him that getting annoyed with little things such as how toothpaste tubes are placed in the bathroom sink or how a toilet seat or lid is set up will be inevitable. During the chat, I used a phrase I saw somewhere over the internet in the context of a romantic relationship which is “green flags”. When he told me that they assembled a piece of furniture and it went smoothly, I enthusiastically told him that is a relationship “green flag”. He said, he will use that term also moving forward.

In conversations about romantic relationships, “red flag” is a common and appropriate term. It is indeed important to be attentive to subtle and obvious cues, both verbal and nonverbal that can indicate something that is potentially problematic. But spotting positive signs is not encouraged as much. So I was thrilled when I saw the term “green flag”, I think on an internet meme somewhere. Oh, the power of internet, this time for good!

So here is a very introductory list of “green flags” in a romantic relationship.

  • Both parties are able to be patient and collaborative at the same time. Building furniture, especially from IKEA, is the ultimate test for this. Another way to test this is when cooking a dish together that takes several steps, like cooking on a stove, baking, assembling.
  • Understanding and respect of differences and limitations such as allergies, food preferences, physic endurance doing an activity, clothing colors or textures of objects they like or don’t like, and more.
  • Ability to communicate well, outside of romantic expression and having sex
  • Feeling confident and secure in one’s appearance when around them, there’s no need to fake it to impress
  • Experiencing a messy bodily illness or function in front of them, and they didn’t freak out too much and judged you harshly. This includes skin irritation, digestive issues, the flu, blood, etc.
Mother and a young son and daughter, sitting on a bad teasing and laughing together.

And here is a very introductory list of “green flags” in a family relationship.

  • Feeling at ease in their presence, whether it is an older or younger family member
  • Comfortable with making small requests, from unloading the dishwasher, cleaning the hair off the shower drain, or a car ride
  • Positive gestures done in the past is never used as blackmail material or as a guilt-tripping tactic
  • Able to share casual stories about daily life even if it may sounds like shallow venting

And another short list of “green flags” at one’s place of employment.

  • On weeks or days that are difficult, there is a feeling that the next day can be a bit better, and it does
  • Feeling productive most of the time
  • Having one’s direct supervisor and a few colleagues (not necessarily all of them) be understanding and sympathetic towards the ups and downs of your duties
  • Not worrying one time about salary and payday
  • Having functional equipment and honest efforts to fix something when something is broken
  • Being comfortable with whatever arrangements you make during lunch break

I have two sets of relatives here in Edmonton, two happily married couples whom I observed one action they both do, they address their respective spouses as “mahal”, as in the word for love (and also for expensive, haha!) in Tagalog. I really liked it. So with my partner and now my husband, we address each other as ‘love’. And it’s awesome!

My husband and I chat about our respective workplaces and I share little stories of work activities for staff, social gatherings, and upcoming changes. My husband says with an amused look “wow, your managers actually know how to manage.” Based on stories from so many people we know, we both realized that managing employees is not a skill that everyone has.

I think it’s a good idea to proactively spot ‘green flags’ in our experiences and interactions. It provides an opportunity for appreciation and gratitude, as well as motivation to learn, master and emulate those positive things. This is something that I will try to do more moving forward.

Love Language Reflections: Appreciating Each Other’s Yin and Yang

Black and white photo of a couple holding hands, photo focus on the torso, arms and hands.

By: Giselle General

Being “Therapist approved” is an inside joke that my husband and I have, which is a reference to the first time I went for mental health help in 2017. I shared to my counselor at the time the different gestures my husband does to support me, as well as his perspectives that are different from mine in a good way. And always, after each story, this counselor would say “he’s great, I like this guy!” After every therapy session I’d share this to him, and would say cheerfully “wow, I’m therapist approved!”

Recently, I booked another online therapy appointment with the psychologist I’ve been seeing for the past year. This time around, there isn’t a major issue that I needed regular appointment for, but more like an check-in and occasional help once in a while. It’s like going for a massage – but for my psychological wellbeing – going once every few months feels really nice!

As I described how my husband and I support each other, and how our personalities and priorities are complementary but different, this psychologist commented about how my husband and I seem to be a yin and yang of each other. A contrast that is drastic and obvious, but works so well together and creates a harmonious union.

It reminded me of a painting I made many years ago, back when we were still living in the condo. It is an abstract interpretation of how he and I were a yin and yang complement to each other. It looks like my younger self had observed that about our relationship already. My husband liked the painting to much that it moved with us when we bought our house. Now, not all paintings that I made are kept. Some end up getting donated to fundraising auctions for charities, or I paint over it with a different design. For a painting to stay here for more than five years, it has to feel really special to him.

Abstract painting of a yin and yang symbol that is altered, with handwritten scribbles in either blak or white pencil.

What does this yin and yang harmony as far as our relationship is concerned? Here are some examples:

  • I’m very achievement-oriented and strive for excellence, while he is content with being minimal and steady in achieving life goals
  • He has an amazing ability to be a long-time ‘couch potato’ sitting and watching TV or playing video games all day. I lose attention, and my bottom hurts after watching 1.5 episodes on Netflix, unless it is really interesting.
  • He emphasizes a lot on rest and relaxation, while I’m energetic and immerse myself in lots of volunteering and creative work
  • One example related to chores: I strongly dislike doing laundry, having to wait and time my day to move clothes from the washer to the dryer. But he is more than happy to do so. And then, he dislikes folding and putting away clothing neatly, which is something I am more than happy to do.
  • Our backgrounds and upbringings are drastically different. He is a born-and-raised Canadian white man, with a middle-class family, parents who raised him and stayed in the same home the entire childhood. I grew up in the Philippines, orphaned at a young age and had to function as a parent, immigrated to a new country and moved across cities and provinces.

I think it is not just personality, but encouraging one’s partner to look at things from a different perspective, so that each person has a sense of balance in life. It’s really great whenever he talks to me a few times a month to help me take inventory of all my volunteer activities, and making sure I don’t take up too much and overstretch myself.

Another important aspect is the acknowledging and accepting the differences, particularly if it doesn’t cause harmful disruptions in day to day living. For many years, our budgeting system is quite different, and as long as we are overall organized, it was okay if he used a specific software for budgeting while I used my bank’s online system. It’s totally okay if our office desks, which are next two each other, looks so different. His is really tidy, while mine has mini piles of stuff, from pens, my wide-open bullet journal, business card organizer, and our couple’s diaries. It’s totally okay if he has his clothes sorted in a pile of stackable bins, one of each type of clothing, while I have a closet where majority of the clothes are in hangers.

Close up of a couple mixing baking ingredients. One person hugging the other from the back.

It’s been six years since I looked at that yin and yang painting up close. I wrote words in black or white color pencil in the flowy parts of the yin and yang symbols. As I read the words, the passages are filled with eagerness and curiosity, affection and optimism. There were many phrases that are contrasting and complementary describing both him and me and our experiences: happy and sad, modest and proud, dark and light, straightforward and confusing, assertive and passive, generous and practical, gentle and blunt, he and she.

Love Language Reflections: On Not Buying Gifts

This is a fitting topic for my birth month! Gift giving is such as well-known gesture to showcase thoughtfulness, affection and meaning, but it can get complicated at times. Then the act of gift-giving is muddied with feelings or anxiousness, resentment, burnout or the pressure of expectations. That is when, in my opinion, the positivity stops.

May is also the month of Mother’s Day, so for the the first two weeks of the month, there’s a wave of relentless advertising about products and services that people ought to purchase to make mother feel special.

Man wrapping a gift box, tying the ribbon.

For couples, I suppose there are three occasions where it is usually expected, or anticipated, by people that they will receive a gift. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries (or equivalent) or Christmas (or equivalent). For quite some time know, my husband and I don’t buy each other gifts for every single holiday and birthday.

I didn’t always feel good about it, especially in the beginning. It’s something I gradually got used to, and eventually appreciated as I got older. The more I get attuned to the constant, and frequent ways of showing care, concern, commitment, and affection to each other, the material goods mattered less and less. Any day, I’ll take my husband saying “I love you” a dozen times a day, than a shiny piece of jewellery every anniversary that will surely collect dust.

We are not super materialistic to begin with and we are both independent in nature as well.. So when there is a product or service that we need, we don’t wait for the next gift-giving occasion, or make someone use their money to buy it. We research, check our budget if necessary, and make the purchase in a way that works best for us.

I needed a desktop computer, since I have only been using a tablet (that I can connect to a monitor) for the past five years. But I don’t need or want it to be completely brand-new. For this year, I got a “half brand new” computer, meaning, I inherited some of his computer parts that he needed to upgrade, got a new case and new components, and got my own machine for half the price! That was actually an experience we treasure, because going out to stores during the restrictions due to COVID19 is quite an experience.

The peace of mind and financial freedom is actually quite incredible. The holiday season every December is so relaxed, because there’s is no need to scramble to buy or make a gift.

One way I have given him gifts is through my arts and crafts skills.I’m fortunate enough to be a crafter, so many of my gifts for him are artistic, one of a kind and also practical items. I first made a quilt, using our old Tshirts as material. As the years go by and we cohabited longer, it became apparent that it’s easy to run out of ideas for meaningful and utilitarian gifts. The quilts and pillow cases seem to be doing well in terms of longevity. And now, while using these items on a typical day, he would exclaim how much he appreciates these gifts “made with love”. I would exclaim how long ago these items were made, and they unexpectedly became mementos in their own right.

Living room couch covered with a quilt and pillow cases that were DIY.

For my brother, over several years, I have been giving him cash, and that seems to work well. It would be in an envelope with a heartfelt message and the dollar bills. Due to COVID-19, I know that many businesses don’t accept cash as payments anymore, so I sent it as an e-transfer, and included my heartfelt message in the message box. He is the only exemption to the rule, and I think in some ways it still counts, since I managed to escape the agony of choosing and buying an item he may not like or use, but instead, give something that would really of benefit as a young man. Maybe, the love language in that one, is that I trust him enough to know the best way to manage his finances.

Love Language Reflections: Embracing the Mundane

I think there’s something that is always underestimated and undervalued in many kinds of relationships, not even just romantic ones but also when it comes to members of our family. It just the ability to embrace, be satisfied, or even be happy with the mundane day-to-day activities we deal with in our day-to-day lives and that we have to do with each other.

It is claimed that in many romantic relationships, or most of romantic relationships, there is the well-known so-called Honeymoon Phase when everything about the relationship and the other person is shiny, bright, enticing, and exciting. However since a romantic relationship will eventually become a family relationship, as in a household, as in people would be managing a household unit with all its chores, and expenses, and bills. Being comfortable with doing the tedious boring things while not killing each other is actually just as meaningful.

With my household situation when I was younger, particularly when I started living with my grandmother, I think there were a few of these mundane household moments that were really nice and I still treasure her to this day. The first time I learned how to cook rice, the first time and the future times that I am in charge of ironing clothes every weekend, when we were counting money every now and then so that we have enough to pay suppliers when we purchase the next batch of products for our store, and many other little things.

With my husband, in recent months and years including this weekend, these activities would include paying bills together, looking through this comprehensive chart of seasonal household chores to make sure that little things are not forgotten such as changing the batteries of our smoke detectors, cleaning grime off the stove, or emptying the fridge annually.

I remember within the first year of our relationship, the first time my husband and I assembled furniture together. I was told by a few couples in a joking way that Ikea furniture is the bane of many relationships. My brother-in-law just bought his townhouse and his dining room furniture just arrived but it wasn’t assembled on time before everybody else arrives for the housewarming party. We were asked to assemble it and would some communication and coordination, and the instruction manual and having the same tools that you need to assemble something like this, we’re able to assemble the dining table. This gave us a sense of pride! The fact that we somehow are able to tackle something as homely, and boring, as assembling new furniture is something we always remember as a ‘strength of the team.’

Most of the items that we bought for our new home are also second hand. So a lot of the items that we buy usually from Kijiji, involves driving to the other person’s house, trying to fit the awkward piece of furniture in the car or the trailer, taking it home and taking it out of the vehicle. And it’s really strange, but I consider these memories really simple but pretty fun.

I think that being able to deal with mundane day-to-day activities it’s a sign of a loving relationship. The ability to tackle little things is an indicator of how you will react and work together when big things cause a lot more trouble.

On the same token I think about my brother. He is my roommate now, he lives in the same house as me. Has his own household set up with responsibilities in arrangements with his girlfriend who also lives with us. And ever since we moved out of my relatives I think my brother and I are over all have a reasonably peaceful relationship living in the same home.

Honestly, I don’t have any specific tips or advice on what needs to be done in order to nurture such a positive relationship with the people you live with at home. I think that for people in romantic relationships, it’s something I definitely need to be worked on because it takes some time. And with any aspect of one’s relationship if a couple finds it important will be able to find a way to make it work. For family members however, that is a bit more challenging. I just hope it is something that people can look into and pursue.

Story Time: When My New Boyfriend and I Blocked a Bus Route

Summer 2010 was an exciting time. I was nervous but also thrilled that I started dating again. Admittedly, the fact that this guy was a friend of my most recent ex boyfriend was a bit unnerving; but we were both determined to give this new relationship a try.

Our challenge was, we don’t have our own place. I was a university student with a part time job living with relatives, while he was a second-year electrician apprentice living with his parents. One time I came over to his house and we spent time together in his room, only for his parents to come home earlier than we expected. It turned into me being introduced to his parents a lot earlier than we hoped. I’m just glad we managed to look presentable just in time!

                 So, we were searching for other places to have some private time together. My house is definitely out of the question, and I still felt awkward going to his place after the recent incident. We’ve done a few walks through River Valley trails which was lovely. There were lots of outdoor parks where people can go for a picnic and lie on the grass. But we wanted to do something more private.

                One Saturday, he picked me up and we drove around the Lewis Estates area. He said he was in the neighbourhood and was shopping for a condo. We drove around the neighbourhood and spotted what we thought was a road with a dead end and lots of trees around it. We thought, it’s a perfect space to spend time together. He parked the car at the end of this road that was more like a circle, then we moved to the back seat.

                After hanging out there for a few minutes, we heard the sound of an engine behind us.  It’s an Edmonton Transit bus! I realized in horror that we parked his car on the end of the road where the bus turns around to continue its route, and that we were blocking it! In panic, we didn’t have enough time to scramble to the front of the car and drive away. Instead, we tried to hide on the back seat, curling up on the floor.  We hoped that the bus driver thinks that someone just made a mistake parking their car on that spot and that it is empty.

After a few minutes, we heard the bus drive away. It looked like it managed to make the turn without any issues, despite a car that was in the way. We busted out laughing for a few minutes, collected ourselves, and then we drove off.

                It’s safe to say that this adventure motivated him to get his own place as soon as possible. Just a month after, he bought a condo in the neighbourhood! I gave him a toaster as a housewarming gift while a bunch of his friends bought a rice cooker and a sack of rice as a gift. As I’m Filipino, I ended up cooking and eating the rice whenever I’m over. I accompanied him to buy his mattress on a part of Edmonton he described as “Furniture Alley” along 135 Avenue and St. Albert Trail. I’m learning more about this guy and about this city as well.

                We had our wedding in the fall of 2019, after dating for over nine years. On occasion, when we get ready for bedtime, we talk about the earlier days of our relationship, lying on the same bed mattress we bough after he got his condo. We certainly haven’t tried making out in the back seat of his car again, but that incident of our car blocking a bus route created a memory of a lifetime.

Love Language Reflections: The Opportunity to be Silly

The space and opportunity to be free, vulnerable and silly and weird is a very valuable thing to give to someone you love. While most of my examples are more within the context of a romantic relationships, I think it’s just as valuable within family units or friendships.

“Um….you look like a confused penguin.” My husband told me one night, as I show to him how much I appreciate the new layout of our living room. I tried to point out that there’s room to practice dancing, and showed my awkward interpretive dancing skills, prancing from one end of the room to the other.

I’m one of those floppy inflatable thingies you see in car dealerships!” He exclaimed, as he walked to the living room wearing his bathrobe. He tucked in his arms halfway through his armholes, and started twirling the sleeves around while bending his torso side by side like a tree. Makes me laugh every time.

A few years ago I was living with a few relatives, where a family friend is also renting a room with us. While we were having dinner one night (and it wasn’t just the first night), he farted, and said “oops” with a giggle. I’m glad he wasn’t mortified. I’m glad that he felt comfortable to realize that he can do a slightly embarrassing, though very human, thing, and it’s not so bad. Not enough grounds to be outcast for sure.

My brother lives in my house and is essentially a roommate. Whenever we have an opportunity to chat in the kitchen, we’d hang out by the kitchen island. I appreciate how much as we grow older, we treat each other more like siblings, as opposed to the parent-child dynamic we had all these years. We talk a bit about current experiences and some past experiences. The language we use though, with inside jokes and unique way we combine English, Tagalog, and Ilocano words, is something that we can only share with each other. This includes talking about dumb things we have seen, heard or done in our younger years, or less-than-filtered opinions.

Only when I started living with my partner (now husband) and my brother, did I feel more comfortable with sounding silly when I talk. Being constantly on edge, and pressured to be a ‘good girl’ and a ‘smart and proper girl’ growing up, it can be difficult to just let loose. For anyone who lives with me now, including our roommates, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear me talking in English with a Tagalog accent, just like comedians, do, just because I can and I won’t be scolded for being ‘ridiculous.’

Ask anyone who has been pressured to be ‘prim and proper’ all the time, or to be in the best behaviour, and I bet they would say they feel more connected with someone whom they can ‘take off the mask’. I hope that this is something that every single person has.

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.

Language Barriers I had Before Even Immigrating

A common experience expressed by migrants to another country is the struggle with communication, both verbal and nonverbal, both in the professional and informal settings. Nuances of a language, intonation and context can take a lifetime to learn, so having to deal with a brand new vocabulary in a new environment is a huge undertaking.

It’s like riding a car on a slightly foggy and rainy day. Being in the car you get a sense of location and movement which feels reassuring, but it is a bit challenging to look too far ahead because what you see from all directions is just slightly obscured. And then, there needs to be the ongoing constant effort to at least maintain the limited sense of clarity by turning on the windshield wipers constantly and de-fogging the windows of the car. All, this, but mentally, and with words and interpretation of these words.

And then, there’s the disconnection, of acknowledging extra voices and interactions around as background noise. Sure, there is meaning that would have been interesting, but just really inaccessible. So you try to just let it flow around you.

The interesting this is, I’ve had these feeling even before migrating to the other side of the world. And it all began in the village where I grew up in the Philippines.

The only languages I know are Tagalog/Filipino, and English from school. Here’s the rub, the common language used in day-to-day life in the village is Ilocano, and the native language of the indigenous peoples in the area is Ibaloi. So, I would know some key vocabulary in these languages, such as the name of the indigenous special ritual is “canao”, and I know the swear words and expressions in Ilocano such as “anya met tennen”. But I was never proficient enough to hold a conversation in either language. I’m not sure whether my parents and the nannies we had made an attempt in the first place, I would have been too young to remember.

And then, I ended up living with my grandmother for a significant portion of my childhood years. Tagalog would have been her third language, so she is good but not a complete natural. When she gets upset and starts to scold me, she would speak in Pangasinense, which is not great, because it means I actually don’t know what she is upset about. Nagging in itself is not a horrible thing that parents or elders do, but understanding why would have been helpful. Whenever she has important conversations with my aunts and uncles, or gossiping with the neighbours, I am able to pick important words here and there to know what the topic is, but not what the details are. It feels like being a wallpaper but just a bit more aware than one.

I attended a pipe ceremony a few months ago here in Edmonton. After the formal ceremony was over and all the guests were gathered around having food, I ended up sitting beside the Indigenous elder who facilitated the ceremony earlier. We chatted about where we came from, and he shared really fascinating stories about Filipinos coming to North America even before the Europeans came. We ended up talking about languages, where I sheepishly admitted that I only know the national language in my country of origin. He said he can relate to the feeling of embarrassment, as it is similar to an Indigenous person in Canada knowing only English and none of the other native languages.

So, here in Canada, when I am in a court room of a lawyer’s Bar Admission ceremony and everyone is happily speaking in Nigerian dialect, that disconnect is nothing new. When I was in a Indian wedding and the entire ceremony was in Hindu, I relied on reading the body language and location of everyone else around me. When I’m in a group of people who are born-and-raised in this city, speaking in English, but making references to events that happened before I immigrated here, I know the limitations of what I can grasp and comprehend.

And that is because of the early, unexpected training. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. You look forward to the moment when they finally remember that you can’t understand, and then they engage you in the conversation. Also, it helps me empathize with my spouse when he is around my own relatives during gatherings with most, if not, all Filipinos. Maybe this does make me dream of having that universal translator gadget that they have in Star Treck. Google Translate has a long way to go.

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.