The Process of Checking my Privilege: A Filipina-Canadian’s Perspective On COVID-19

At this rate, it would be just over three months since drastic measures have been implemented here in Edmonton to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Given my line of work, my tendency to get involved in the community, and how I stay connected on social media, I get to witness how different people react, respond, and adapt to the current situation.

Checking My Privilege

The first time I heard this phrase thrown around, it gave me mixed feelings. Since, in many ways, I am not part of privileged groups. I constantly heard about the many ways that women are mistreated (which is true), how migrants are disadvantaged (which is also true), and how my plight as an orphan is tragic and pitiful (which, let’s face it, is also true in many ways).

But after participating in a few activities that encouraged people to check their privileges in all aspects, I had a more complex perspective and better appreciation of the idea, including things that are most certainly beneficial and not everyone has access to for no other reason that location and circumstance. Here’s a short list:

Public Transit: The fact that there is still transit service in Edmonton is a huge deal, since in places like the Philippines, many people are unable to go around since all public transportation is banned due to the lockdown. On top of that, public transit vehicles here are buses, which a nice and large vehicles and there is ample space to spread out and stagger seats for passengers. The LRT is also still operational which is wonderful! And, the icing on the cake, is that for some time paying public transit fare is suspended during this time. That’s quite incredible!

Person wearing white shirt soaping hands with white bar of soap

Access to Information: The ability to read, write and hear, particularly information written in the English language, ought to not be taken for granted during this time. Most of the government announcements and health information is in English. This came to light after a fellow Edmontonian who is involved in the community, was asking for donations of printing paper so she can print information about COVID-19 in languages like Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. Another spotlight came from advocates for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, pushing anyone who product digital media these days to ensure that accessibility tools are the default. A volunteer in my office posted on Twitter, saying that being blind, info-graphics are useless, and photos don’t work well if there are no alt-text descriptions.

Uninterrupted Access to Utilities: I’m talking about water, internet, electricity and heat. I’ll say this over and over because it cannot be underestimated. It’s definitely more comfortable to stay in one’s home if these critical elements are in place constantly. From someone who grew up in an environment where electricity interruptions are normal, and when water is scheduled only to be available certain times a day, living in Canada where these are hardly interrupted still blows my mind. Think about this simple question: how can you wash your hands regularly when you don’t have constant access to clean water? I reflected on this on an earlier post, after visiting the Philippines and the homes I used to live in.

Government Benefits: Another term I learned a while back, that is highlighted during this time is the Social Safety Net. Applications for programs like CERB and loans for businesses, legislation to delay evictions for tenants are being passed on a faster pace than before. This is something to not take for granted and it’s always valuable to think critically on who benefits and who gets left behind. It’s incredible to witness both the praise and the criticisms of these programs. I think it’s a sign that people are being both proactive and vocal about how policies and programs affect them and those around them.

Back view woman looking at a laptop on a dining table

Having a Job, and the Ability to Work or Study from Home

Many office jobs can be done from home, and there are so many occupations that need to be done in person. The ability to smoothly switch over to working from home also depends on one’s current circumstances. There are many articles talking about inequalities based on region, internet speed available, having computers and laptop, and a privacy to join online meetings or classes with limited interruptions.

Our basement roommate just spoke to us as she was recently laid off, and given that she won’t be able to have enough money to pay rent, she is moving out by the end of the month (which is technically less than one month, as stated in our agreement). My husband and I stated that it’s not a problem at all, and we are sorry to hear about the job loss. She is moving back to her parents’ home when she won’t have to pay rent, and it is a stressful time for her. Stability through employment is something not to be taken for granted.

This is just a short list. I can go on and on. I think I’m writing this as an opportunity to express gratitude, count my blessings, and remind myself that as an individual, when these programs have gaps, there are many ways to fill them temporarily to help those facing a current crisis.

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.

Love Language Reflections: On Listening Without Judgment

Sometimes, we hesitate talking to the ones whose advice, support, and approval we value the most: our love ones. Whether that is our significant other, family members, or treasured friends, we are most afraid to be vulnerable to these wonderful people in our lives, because we are also afraid of judgment. A disapproving look or reaction from them would hurt so much more than one from a stranger.

The skill of listening without judgment is a very difficult one, and for our loved ones whose well-being we are very invested on, it sounds like not showing outward reactions is counter-intuitive.

I remember when my brother was dating someone who, looking back now, is not a great fit. The fallout of the breakup was pretty rough on him, he had to scale back the classes he was taking that semester. It took all of me to not tell him how he is “stupid” for staying or how “bitchy” she is for behaving like that. Making him feel like a failure is not going to help with recovering at his own pace and moving on. I told him more that once that in my first relationship in Canada I experienced through the exact same thing, the breakup was too much for me mentally, I dropped one class during the semester of winter 2009 and made up for it through an online course in the spring. By connecting what he went through with a similar experience I had, I aimed to not show harsh judgment for what happened. I hoped I achieved the goal at that time.

Just recently, I told my spouse about a dilemma I have at work. As someone who works in the nonprofit sector helping vulnerable people, gut-wrenching stories about people’s suffering is something I hear about all the time. As I shared to him my dilemma, I was very relieved that he did not mock me for my ‘over the top’ idea on how to possibly the client. He acknowledged how emotionally invested I have become for clients sometimes, emphasized the value of setting some separation between work and personal life, and suggested alternate ways to channel my frustration about the flaws of society.

A tactic to curb this almost-impulsive tendency to judge what we hear is to ask more questions. When our love ones vent about their situation, by asking them to rehash certain details, it can help them let off steam. It becomes evident that a reaction or advice from the listener is not even necessary.

Another thing I have learned, speaking of the idea that advice is not what they are seeking, is to actually listen to cues that prompt you to give feedback. Something like “what do you think” or “what should I do” or “any suggestions or thoughts?” And if this does not come up at all, perhaps they just want to vent. I think that people in general are more hesitant to say “I don’t need advice, just a listening ear and maybe a hug.”. Many times, this is actually the default. So I’m working on paying attention to this detail moving forward.

For my spouse, when I want to run something through him, I actually start by saying “baby love, I’d like your thoughts about something“. So, when I start my talk by jumping to the story, or even making complaining mumbling noises, he knows that all I need is a hug, a moment of sympathy, and a listening ear.

In many conversations, in many relationships we have, we take turns doing the role of the giver and the receiver, the supporter and the seeker for help. This form of love language is vital for all these valuable people in our lives, and also for ourselves.

The Bliss of Language-Switching

By: Giselle General

One evening, as I was taking the bus on my way home, sitting at one of the seats on the upper back level, I hear the person behind me talking to someone over the phone. This scenario itself is not new, but something caught my attention that made me smile.

He was language-switching. During the first three minutes of the call, he was talking in straight English. Then afterwards, he started speaking a language I don’t understand, but still, he has used certain phrases in English like “oh my gosh” and “yah exactly” and “only a few followers on Instagram”. I cannot remember much else of what he said in English, but one’s intonation indicates whether what the person is saying is a statement, a question, a story, or a comment. The tone of voice indicates also when the person is usually done speaking that particular sentence. Given that understanding, I was able to get a sense that over the next 10 minutes that I was seated in front of him, he eventually was speaking half the time in English, and have the time in the other language.

Given that I can speak more than one language, and that English is my second language, I totally understand the appeal, the convenience, and the comfort of language-switching. I’ve read a number of articles that lists different terminologies that don’t have an English translation. If the person you are speaking to can understand the hybrid statement that accurately gets your point across, it works out so much better.

Person speaking to a can with a string as a pretend telephone.

I’ve seen it myself in many occasions, especially with talking to fellow Filipinos here in Edmonton. The wary and shy look on their faces lifts up as soon as I start talking in Tagalog, which usually happens when I answer their question in the polite way, adding the word ‘po’, since that indicates that I know what that word is used for. When speaking to clients at our office after my cowokers call me in because they have hit a communication barrier they cannot overcome, there’s a sense of relief when I tell them, feel free to speak in English as much as you like, and you can switch to Tagalog anytime and I’ll translate it for you.

Having a communication dynamic that allows language-switching is also an indicator of how special your relationship is with that person. My brother and I do this on a fairly regular basis. Given that my spouse speaks only in English, and my brother’s girlfriend’s first language is actually not Tagalog, but Bisaya, I usually speak in English with them. With my brother though, I describe our language combination as “English with Tagalog with Ilocano expressions”. As in swear words, yes. It’s a more fitting array of language options for us, given where and how we grew up, and what we’ve been through.

My bet is that this is a common dynamic of every immigrant person, so it is not an unusual scenario. Just noticing this a few days ago made me feel nice which is why I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge it. It’s time to feel pride, not shame, at having a slight accent when speaking in English. I encourage people to start imagining “how many languages does this person speak?”. I think so far I know of one gentleman who speaks seven languages which is incredible! Being multilingual is a freaking superpower!

Getting Involved: A Review of the Insight Community Surveys

By: Giselle General

In this day and age, thanks to technology and social media, it seems to be very easy to share one’s thoughts and opinions.

This is a quick review of one of the ways I try to get involved in the community, through the power of technology, and why it is worth considering.

I would describe the Insight Community (weblink is https://www.edmonton.ca/programs_services/public_engagement/edmonton-insight-community.aspx) as an online questionnaire program run by the City of Edmonton. Every month, if you have subscribed, you will receive an email with a link to a survey, that answers questions on different topics that the City works on.

How Does it Work?

It’s an easy process. Anyone interested can go to the link and create an account which asks demographics related questions. And then once a month, an email arrives in your mailbox with the survey for the month, what topics it covers, and the deadline.

Email for the January 2019 survey, That’s quite a range of topics. The Opt-in is an opportunity to answer additional in-depth surveys on specific topics.

Why do I do this?

It’s relatively straightforward and easy. I also sometimes feel like I only find out about city issues or changes in programs, bylaws and procedures after the fact. When the shovels are on the ground for that infrastructure change, or the brochures and set and the staff has been hired for a program, it can be more difficult to tweak things around. Since the Insight Community Surveys are part of the public engagement process that city staff need to do, I feel like I am getting an advanced preview of what they are working on. It is also a great opportunity to learn about what is going on outside of my immediate neighbourhood, since sometimes there are also questions about upcoming city-wide infrastructure projects.

Some concerns I hear about the survey is the allegation that it is deliberately self-affirming. Another concern is that allegation that people who may not necessarily know about a topic are giving their opinions on it.

That being said, I personally try not to stress about these parts since it is something I cannot control, and I feel like there are adequate opportunities in the questions to provide written answers. If there is something that I really feel passionate about that is either not covered by a the current survey or that the survey cannot convey my opinions about it, I know that I can contact my elected representative though an email, letter, or phone call. Some lucky constituents may even have an elected representative who is also active on social media, and in that case they can be contacted that way as well.

So, go subscribe and spend a few minutes every month learning about the city and sharing your input! At least for me, these few minutes feel so productive, a time away from browsing for too long on social media, haha!

Love Language Reflections: My Grandma

By: Giselle General

The first time I read articles about the concept of love language, it was framed in terms of romantic relationships. Giving gifts, quality time, loving words, helping gestures, and affection, are definitely key activities that help and sustain a relationship between lovers. That definitely made sense to me. And the fact that people have different preferences also made sense.

Recently, I have seen some articles that talk about differences in communication, affection and discipline when parenting children. The idea that “people function and react in a variety of ways” is something that I have been hearing about more and more. Perhaps then, for other types of relationships, there may be a variability in love language as well.

Unless someone makes a real effort to, one cannot give what they never received. One cannot give what they didn’t know they can have.

The recent trip to the Philippines to visit family made me think about these a little bit more, specifically my maternal grandma, who predominantly took care of my day-to-day needs after my brother and I lost our parents and sister.

I don’t dispute, nor do I undervalue, the gestures and sacrifices that she and all my relatives have done. Having to take care of two orphaned grandchildren while grieving for the death of your own child, son-in-law, and grandchild takes a lot of work, planning, troubleshooting and sacrifice.

She seemed to think that I didn’t appreciate what she had done, what she has given. Conversations during every visit has a similar pattern. After berating me with these accusations of ungratefulness, she will switch topics and talk about the land we inherited from her, such as how the taxes, land titles, and selling them. My stunted communications skills around her, because of the lack of warmth and trust between the two of us, make it hard for me to persuade her otherwise because I just shut down. As a frustrated teenager, there was a time when I did flip out my elders, calling them out for not being warm, affectionate, cuddly and motivating. I mean, young children do need those in order to grow healthy, strong and secure.

Given Grandma’s poverty-stricken background, survival and stability is most likely a key motivator all throughout her life. This I learned from the stories she would tell me as a kid, a personal and history-based version of bedtime stories that parents read to their kids. I know that as she became older and started her family and her businesses, she gifted all of her eight kids including my mother as well as her siblings, with land, and that is kind of a big deal. My mother and her siblings also received one business such as a store, and had their post-secondary education paid for. I imagine that it took a lot of hard work to earn the funds for and I appreciate that.

Her diatribes include snide remarks about how “hugs and kisses” are not essential, and would proudly claim that she never spanked us for discipline or abuse. From a history-based, trauma-informed approach that I have started to embrace, I realized that her love language is providing tangible items that provide both short-term and long-term benefit. Since her own father passed away when she and her siblings were young, and suffered hardship from bullying and poverty, her standard of treating family members is simply the opposite of what she has experienced and that’s it. Unless someone makes a real effort to, one cannot give what they never received. One cannot give what they didn’t know they can have.

With all of these in mind, I have made peace with the lack of affection that I received, and I feel empowered to seek that out for myself through other means. Perhaps in time, maybe I will learn how to display even some level of affection towards her, if only for a brief moment of time, before she changes the conversation into more business-like topics, like land and legal paperwork. These tangible items, which do cost a fair bit of money, are her love language, and will likely dictate the nature of our relationship for the rest of our lives.