Blog on Hiatus – Giselle is Running for Public Office in Edmonton!

Woman in business suit standing in front of the entrance of Edmonton City Hall Council Chambers.

Exciting news!

I will be taking a break from posting regular content on the blog. 2021 is a hectic year as I pursue an adventure that is new in a sense (because this is the year of making it into reality) but at the same time, is half a decade in the making.

I am running for public office, for the City of Edmonton’s municipal elections, as a city councilor candidate for the district I live in, which is ward sipiwiyiniwak in West Edmonton, the current Ward 5 that with additional neighbourhoods from Ward 1 captured as well. The pronouncination is like this: silent yi, as in see-pee-wee-nee-wak. The campaign website is here! https://www.gisellegeneral.ca/

So is this website going to be the campaign page? No. It’s just that there may be longer breaks between posts. I might post a blog or two in case I decide to procrastinate (haha!) but it will be less frequently than what I do now.

Where’s the campaign information? Right now? It’s not ready. Once it’s ready, they will be posted here. However, on my personal Twitter account https://twitter.com/gisellegeneral I am posting personal perspectives on the campaign trail so far. Once the campaign accounts (both website and social media) are set up, I will post more content about policy and platforms.

How are you feeling? So far, overall okay. There are stressful, isolating, overwhelming moments yes, but so far, most things are figure-outable if you know what I mean. Part of my goal is to demystify the campaign process for the average Edmontonian, to showcase what it takes. I want to show the trials and tribulations of being a first-time candidate, in order to inspire participation from my fellow average Edmontonians, to inspire my fellow Filipinos to care a bit more about municipal politics, and smash some glass ceilings along the way and bring forward perspectives that seem to be typically overlooked when it comes to polity. It would be nice to be the first Filipino-Canadian city councilor in Edmonton, or at least someone considered a very strong candidate who aimed to reach that goal as hard as possible. I am running against the incumbent again, which is consider an additional, usually insurmountable obstacle, but as Barney Stinson says in the show How I Met Your Mother, “Challenge Accepted!”

I hope that the articles I posted here in the past are helpful or entertaining. And if you live in Edmonton, I hope to see you on the campaign trail – mostly electronically because you know, it’s still a pandemic.

The Privilege of Work Benefits

By: Giselle General

As the end of the year is approaching, I double-checked my Health Spending Account (HSA) which is part of my benefits as an employee of a nonprofit organization. I’m pleased to see that for this year, I have used up about 75% of the total allocated funds for a wide range of services and products for my health and wellbeing. I bought hand braces for my hands to deal with my carpal tunnel and nerve issues, and for physiotherapy appointments early in the year.

Then when the pandemic happened, I tried to book a few online appointments with my psychologist which worked really well! At the earliest opportunity I booked massage therapy appointments again, almost once a month, because my furniture for my working at home arrangement is okay but not ideal, causing issues with my arms and shoulders from poor posture. Filing a claim to get reimbursed is a smooth and easy process thank goodness.

Living in two different parts of the worlds, for almost half my life in each country, has given me an opportunity to observe the vast differences when it comes for companies compensating and caring for employees.

I grew up in a remote village that was dominated by a single industry, mining precious metals. Workers of the company were given benefits such as a home, with utilities included, free schooling for the kids (elementary and high school) and a medical clinic. These incentives makes sense, because working for the company requires living in that location all the time. This is why when I was younger, thinking of these items as expenses didn’t occur to me. There are also trucks and buses that transport the employees to and from the mines and other facilities and then to waiting sheds that are a few steps away from their home. I knew that these were additional perks in addition to the salary that the workers picked up twice a month.

It wasn’t until my parents passed away (which included my father, the employee of the company) that I realized that there was a specific exchange taking place here. As my grandma and I settled into the store we owned and integrated our living quarters there, I became aware of other bills that people have to pay, such as electricity and water. I was permitted to continue to go to school that was meant for the children of the mining company’s employees. This is because we are still part of the community as an independent business owner, but there were some additional administrative school fees I have to pay.

person's hand catching a medicine pill being poured out of the bottle.

In my recent visits of the Philippines, I’m learning that more of my relatives are working for call centres. It’s a growing industry over there. Many of them were thrilled of what they will be given such as higher-than-average wages, and health benefits to cover hospital expenses and prescriptions. Having a fund to tap on to pay for medication is a huge deal because it’s not common. Regular medication or treatments for illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, or kidney troubles is financially burdensome.

Another type of employee benefit I observed in the Philippines is recreational trips, and company-wide outings. It seems like the attitude of ‘work hard, play hard’ is commonplace for companies with demanding responsibilities. A cousin who is a year younger than me told me stories of very busy periods at their work, where they practically sleep in the office for a week straight in order to meet a deadline, as in with sleeping mats and dinners provided by the company! I thought to myself, once it hits 10 PM, how productive are their workers really, when having to work for the rest of the night? But it looks like that’s the way it works there. And then, after this grueling time period, a weekend is scheduled for the entire company to have a trip in a resort to have fun in the beach, with picnics, swimming and more. For companies that employ majority younger adults, who are motivated by adventure and have the stamina to pull all-nighters, it seems to be a workable arrangement.

Being an employee here in Canada was a learning curve for me. I admit I was reluctant to maximize my benefits as I don’t completely understand what that entailed. The first time I tried to sort out the details of using my work benefits to go to the dentist, and I realized that I don’t have to pay a single penny after the procedure, was shocking to me. For so long, growing up, I felt fearful to seek dental care, to the point that two of my adult teeth were damaged so badly they have to be extracted and I wear partial dentures ever since. This has motivated me to have a predictable and positive dental health moving forward.

After moving into our house where my husband connected me to the dental clinic he used since he was a child, my dental appointments are regular. One year I had to have a major procedure, taking all four of my wisdom teeth, with my work benefits and my husband’s benefits, I didn’t have to pay a cent for the procedure and the prescription painkillers. It’s incredible!

Retirement contributions was another learning curve for me too. I remember being told that after passing my probation period that my paycheque is going to have another rows of numbers in the document, explaining the amount that will be docked out of my pay for RRSP contributions and how much my employer is adding as well. I remember in the personal finance forums online that this is a common topic when it comes to employee benefits.

Closeup of a woman's face and shoulders, while lying on a massage bed getting a shoulder massage.

Finally, I gradually got into using benefits for paramedical procedures. The first time I went to therapy for my mental health, it was free of charge because I obtained services from an nonprofit specifically helping people like me – sexual assault survivors. At first, there was only insurance company we use to claim expenses for these procedures, until it was separated and we had a Health Spending Account, which covers expenses for a wide range of things such as physiotherapy, massage, psychologist, and a lot more.

Coordinating benefits packages and coverage between my husband’s and mine took a bit of initial work but now it’s very seamless. I felt really good about being able to partially pay for my husband’s eyeglasses, as he needed a prescription starting last year. As a couple we now tap into each other’s benefit packages when we officially became common-law a few years ago.

With all the current conversation due to the current pandemic, these conversations are at the forefront of many working people. One’s paycheck usually goes to major expenses and if there are any benefits it helps ease the financial burden on some of those purchases that meaningful but never prioritized.

It goes without saying that I feel fortunate to still be employed at this time, and even more blessed and priviledge to not only benefit from these work benefits, but to also acknowledge the wide range of options that are out there.

Weathering the Pandemic’s Stormy Atmosphere: A Filipina-Canadian’s Perspective on COVID-19

This will be one of the several posts I will likely write about my personal reflections regarding the pandemic. My thoughts are pulled in different directions and I’m hoping to write about different parts of them, one at a time.

At this rate, it would be almost a month 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.

This is one emerging theme in my mind since the beginning, and as of this time, which is early April. It is my unavoidable tendency to compare this time to the typhoon season in the Philippines.

The Philippines gets at least a dozen typhoons every year. Since I was 16 years old when I moved to Canada, I have lasting memories of the disruption that this season causes every single year. The last few days of warm summer around the end of May, getting ready to go back to school in June, with the anticipation that in about six weeks, at least a few days of school will be cancelled because Mother Nature’s wrath is too much for safely walk or drive to school, work or do a lot of activities.

When school is cancelled, you stay at home and try to stay occupied. When school is cancelled because of a typhoon, it’s also very likely that access to utilities will be interrupted. In my very young memories (and I mean, really young, when my parents and sister were still alive), I recall memories of playing with my sister with a deck of cards, under candlelight on the dining table. Or we can convince our parents or nanny to very briefly knock on the apartment, right across the all, to see if my sister’s best friend, Ailea, wants to play. We’d then invite her to play house in the bedroom that we share.

Even dressing up to stay protected was a norm: from ensuring you have an umbrella that is less likely to flip and break into pieces, to letting it go altogether by making yourself waterproof with a raincoat and boots. Well, at least dressing up for the weather is also something that needs to be done in Canada, particularly during the fall and winter.

My mother, running a convenience store, is an essential business because people do need to buy food, and candles, diapers and medicine. After they passed away, my grandmother and I ended up being the storekeeper that has to keep their doors open, while making sure that the strong winds don’t knock over our display shelves of products, and our roof stays intact.

In short, having life disruptions, being home-bound, and experiencing numerous cancellations of regular activities is something to be expected, like the seasons.

In comparison, there is not a lot of reasons that massive disruptions happen particularly where I live. I’d say in Canada, there can be disruptions (that cause cancellations of events and evacuations) due to wildfires and floods, but most people don’t prepare for that every single year. I imagine that for many, this is part of the reason why the current changes can be quite stressful.

My feelings can be summed up as concern, uncertainty, but not crippling fear. I guess there is something to be said about getting used to something. Being home-bound because of a pandemic might not be 100% the same, but the tangible impact has enough parallels.

The experiences in the Philippines helped build an emotional foundation to help manage this. In fact, by comparison, this is significantly more comfortable! From making sure that one’s home is in order as much as possible, paying attention to the media and any directions from goverment officials, waiting out the worst part of the storm, and eagerly looking foward to when things go ‘back to normal’, being able to do this in a healthy way is key to riding out this particular storm.

My Financial Costs to Volunteering

The time and energy that it takes to volunteer in a meaningful way is something I anticipated and embraced. I mean, that’s the whole point. To receive little or no financial compensation for doing something that is interesting and helpful to the community at large. It gives opportunities to meet different types of people, learn information and perspectives that are not always available within one’s home or work environment, and have a fun time making a project or goal a reality.

However, there are two items that I didn’t quite expect, which turned into actual additional expenses. These are travel and food costs.

Overall, I’d say I have a decent grasp of my finances, where the dollars go, how much, and under which category. As I grow older and have reached a level of stability in my life, I’ve managed to aim a certain quality of life that I’m satisfied with, hit savings targets and enjoyed the process, and find ways to be savvy with expenses. That being said, as my list of volunteer activities grew, there are times that spending a bit more to travel around places or to have a quick bite is inevitable.

As a non-driver, public transit user, who attends meetings and activities outside of “regular” transit hours, the cost of ride hailing services do add up. I’d say 90% of my taxi, Tappcar and Uber trips are related to a volunteer or community service activity. Whenever possible, when heading to the location I try to take transit, and then only take a cab going back. However, traveling from downtown Edmonton where I work, to the very far edge of Edmonton farther west from Anthony Henday, it’s just not feasible. It’s a hefty car ride as well. Such trips would likely be $40 one way. I’ve done this a few times, and given my duties in this particular volunteer board, it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

Since I started using his budgeting software and system a while back, I do have the tools to answer this questions with actual numbers.

For another board I volunteer for, the main office is on the south side across the river, around the Scona area. When the weather is good and I can leave the office from downtown 45 minutes ahead of time, taking a bus and walking for 20 minutes (if the weather is good and the sidewalks are not slippery) is feasible. Otherwise, it’s a $20 cab ride to get to the meeting. And then, since the meeting ends pretty late, no way can I take transit going home. Fellow board members had kindly offered a ride sometimes, for which I’m grateful for. However, when that is not an option, that’s another $20 minimum for another trip. One volunteer meeting, $40 expense, but I get a nice dinner, so there’s upsides and downsides for sure.

For one board I am a member of, our sub-committee meetings usually take place in restaurants. Typically it would be a bar in downtown Edmonton. Sometimes there would be two of these meetings in a month, and that’s where the expense can add up.

I was worried about this when my husband helped me put things in perspective by asking a simple question. “Is it within the budget?” Regardless of what prompted the expense, there is comfort in knowing that the expense is anticipated and that I do have the resources to allocate money for it. Since I started using his budgeting software and system a while back, I do have the tools to answer this questions with actual numbers.

I’ve managed to find a workaround to make sure this doesn’t break the bank too much. As far as eating out is concerned, I have given up on my “solo restaurant dates” that I’d have once a month. So, that’s one less restaurant meal I spend on. Whenever there is a meeting in a bar, depending on how hungry I am, I started ordering appetizers half of the time, instead of choosing an entree right away. A board member started teasing me and say “looks like you have a thing for poutine!” when he noticed that for several meetings in a row, I’d get the same thing: iced tea and a poutine.

Regarding travel costs, it looks like I spent $1,500 on cab rides last year and $1,100 in 2018. That jump is definitely directly correlated to the additional activities I’ve been attending. But I have zero car expenses because I don’t drive. This expense is the additional one I have on top of my bus pass. Thinking about how much people spend on their cars, helped me put this in perspective.

I realize that having to spend a few dollars in addition to sharing one’s time and energy while unpaid is too much for some. But I hope that for some who have a bit of financial flexibility, that it would manageable to give just a little bit more. And seriously, the conversations I have outside the actual meetings, when at the restaurant chatting while waiting for everyone else, or during the carpools after a long board meeting, they are just as meaningful as the actual volunteer activity we just had.

How Romance and Community Service Intertwine

By: Giselle General

My significant other is born-and-raised in this city we call home. He hasn’t experienced living anywhere else, not counting the times he had to go out of town for work, his travels, or when he came with me to visit and tour the Philippines. Staying in those places are temporary and that was very clear, and at the end of that short timeframe, it will lead to going home again to Edmonton.

While in my case, I grew up in a small mining village in the Philippines, and even continued to live there after my parents and sister passed away. It was unexpected circumstances that prompted me to move to the nearby city to finish high school, and then I was told I’m moving to another part of the world. When I came to Canada, I thought that I will be able to build relationships and set roots in St. Catharines, Ontario, when an abrupt move to Edmonton changed things again.

We had conversations about our future. and it is established that we will be in Edmonton for the rest of our lives. This is not something I wasn’t “over the moon” about exactly, but I’m not actively opposed to it either. It is a good city to live in, with decent opportunities and ways to have an enjoyable life, and I get the benefit of being with people who have lived here for much longer than me. I know that for some couples, location and mobility are key factors in their relationship, and I’m more than happy to be swayed by his desire to build roots here, or in his case, keep and grow the ones he already had.

I guess it is good to do things from a place of love. Because I associate my spouse as being part of this city, I feel more inclined to actively love and care for this place as well.

I told him, if we are going to live here forever, might as well do something to make improvements or keep the good things as they are. In my younger years, getting involved in clubs is something I always enjoy. It is pretty rewarding to be part of a group, with a positive and productive goal, even if it sucks up part of one’s spare time. Turns out, finding ways to do community service here is very easy, given that there are lots of choices. In fact, it can be too easy to get overwhelmed!

That is what inspired me to volunteer for the community league. It is pretty neat that there is a formal organization, that has a structure, funding mechanisms and established processes, for people whose affiliation is just one thing: that they live near each other and want to do good things for their neighbours. It has been three years since I started volunteering, and my spouse and I have a specific tasks that we diligently fulfill.

That is what motivated me to find my happy medium of getting involved in my cultural community, and with the city at large. He knew that writing and journalism is an interest of mine, and he cheered me on when I started writing columns for a provincial cultural newspaper for the Filipino community. He has even helped me with topics or phrasing, when the annoying ‘Writer’s Block’ hits me at unexpected times.

Being conscious of how your significant other navigates your city can encourage you to speak out in ways you haven’t anticipated before. For example, my spouse was very concerned about the changes in the transit system because of how it will affect me, as someone who does not drive. While a typical person who drives might not care as much, he was inspired to answer the online surveys, come with me to the in-person engagement sessions, and half-jokingly asks me whether we should sell the house so I get the same frequent bus access that I currently have.

The River Valley System of Edmonton is a huge part of our relationship. A few of our first dates consisted of walking through these beautiful natural trails. A longer hike is an annual tradition for us. Naturally, when we discovered that there is a formal organization that focuses on preservation of the River Valley, I considered participating. Oh, if only I have more hours in the day! Or maybe, there will be an opportunity or schedule when this will work better in the future. For now, when we are wanting a more casual date, we’ll continue to use this network of trails and doing our best to be responsible users of this incredible natural resource. We are subscribed to the newsletter of this conservation society, and we try to keep up to date on relevant news and research.

I guess it is good to do things from a place of love. Because I associate my spouse as being part of this city, I feel more inclined to actively love and care for this place as well. I hope that more people feel the same way about where they are living right now.

Story Time: A Memory of My Father, With Chocolate, Milk, and Basketball

Given the recent victory of the Raptors not too long ago, which is a huge deal for basketball fans, me trying to not eat too many chocolate bars recently, and having trouble sleeping some nights, I thought of something that my father and I used to do when I was a kid. Late night basketball with chocolate bars.

It involves this particular brand of chocolate bar. Do they even sell these in Canada? I actually don’t think so. I can’t seem to remember the last time I saw one in a store. Typically in corner stores, grocery stores, vending machines, and pharmacies, I would see other ones like Resse’s Cups, Coffee Crisp and KitKat, but not this one. The next time I see one I’ll buy it right away.

Crunch chocolate bar. This blog is #notsponsored by the way, haha!

As a child, I’ve always been afraid of breaking the rules. I get really anxious when I am unable to do what I was supposed to do, especially if that rule is supposed to be a good thing. Say, for example, sleeping at night so that I am well-rested and ready for school the next day.

On more than one occasion, I would wake up in the middle of the night, between 11:30 PM and midnight, and I would try to get off the bed I share with my sister, and try to not step over our nanny who is sleeping on a mat at the bottom of our bed. I’d try to get to the living room of our small apartment and would usually see my father, lying on the couch, watching NBA. Based on the few paraphernalia we have a home, I vaguely remember him being a fan of the Chicago Bulls.

Anyways, younger me would anxiously approach him and in a very sad and scared voice, tell him that I couldn’t sleep. That I wanted very badly to fall back to sleep but just couldn’t. To my relief, he would not scold me for getting up. Instead, it became a special opportunity to spend some time together, just him and me, the middle child.

We would even have a snack together. And somehow, almost every time I’d get up this late, there is a Crunch chocolate bar in the fridge. We do sell it in our small sari-sari (convenience) store that is a 15 minute walk away from our house. He would grab it from the fridge, nice and cold and crisp, break it in a few pieces before opening the packaging, and he would hand me a small piece while he eats one until we finish it up. We’d do this in companionable silence, while watching the basketball teams trying to shoot one more time, trying one more dunk.

Sometimes I get another treat. In the Philippines, powdered milk is more common than fresh milk, as it is cheaper and it lasts longer. You can keep a tin or a box on your kitchen counter for weeks or months with no issues. There are brands of milk that is recommended for school children, toddlers, and of course, infant formula. At around this time, my little brother is a toddler, and there is a can of powdered milk my parents bought especially for him. The funny thing is, he hated that milk so much. He pretty much preferred the cup of coffee with powdered creamer that my mother drinks. As soon as he saw our mother with a cup, he’s just go and grab it. My parents freaked out at the sudden motion, since a child getting scalded by hot coffee is not a fun scenario.

Anyways, regarding powered milk, I love it so much! Powered milk of any kind, I’m all for it. Since we both know that the milk will go to waste because my brother doesn’t drink it, my father would make me a glass. The typical formula to make it warm enough for kids and ensuring the powder get dissolved: you pour 1/4 cup of boiling water in a cup, pour the powdered milk, usually two tablespoons, a teaspoon of sugar, stir what’s in the cup so far, add room temperature water until the cup is 3/4 full, and stir again.

Around closer to midnight, my father would encourage me then to try to go back to bed. And it usually works. The next moment, I’d be hearing the voice of either of our parents, waking up both my sister and me at 6 AM to get ready for school. Some of the time, when their calls are not enough, our father would yank the blankets off, resulting to me and my sister whining a little bit before getting up.

I think that many of us have memories of seemingly small interactions with the adults in our lives. It’s interesting to find the more adult language to describe the scenery, dialogue, and the feelings that our childhood selves have. I wonder if because the fact that my mother, father, and sister passed away many years ago, that these memories are still here, perhaps a subconscious way to hold on a part of them in my life. Writing out this story is a really good experience for me, so I might do more of it in the future.