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.

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.

Learn and Explore the City: Fort Edmonton Park

This is a quick overview, from someone who moved to Edmonton and didn’t grow up here, about a really neat city attraction that is historical, interactive, and entertaining: Fort Edmonton Park.

If I were to choose a phrase to describe it, the place would be a “living museum”, with actual old buildings from a time long ago in the city, complete with decorations and accessories from that time. Where there are actors who wear attires from that time, which can make visitors feel like they have traveled back in time.

My then boyfriend (now husband) and I went there for our dating anniversary, our second one, back in 2012. An idea we copied from a TV show is what we call a “superdate” which is an all-day date where one person from the couple plans all the activities without telling the other. And then, on the day of, the activities are disclosed shortly before going there. After a lovely lunch in a restaurant located in a local neighbourhood business plaza, and him buying a large stuffed giraffe too big to fit in the back seat, I told him that our next destination was Fort Edmonton Park.

Visiting the Park

Fort Edmonton Park is an reconstruction of how Edmonton looked like in its early days. There are four time periods that are represented: 1846, 1885, 1905 and 1920, showcasing how the city of Edmonton has evolved from a fur trading area, to how the first few homes and structures were built that is the starting signs of a village, to a city that is starting to grow and expand.

I personally wasn’t able to wrap my mind around what a fur trading building looked like until I visited the park for the first time. Seeing and touching samples the different types of fur was super interesting. I had used Bank of Montreal for my personal banking needs and was really amused to see an old tiny building with the bank’s name, indicating that it is one of the earlier banks in the city. Seeing old clothing and the structures of these homes and thinking about how people back then had to deal with the cold winter months, filled me with wonder.

There are other entertaining activities as well. There is an old train that visitors can hop on and have a tour of the entire area. There is a small theater that shows historical films, and there was even a photography shop where people can wear costumes and have a portrait taken looking like it’s from a hundred years ago.

I keep seeing digital posters for advertisements regarding events that take place when the park was closed for touring. The bus I take when commuting to work passes by Fox Drive that leads to Fort Edmonton Park. I ought to check out the annual Halloween event at some point, it looks really interesting. There are opportunities to have brunch or dinners at the Hotel’s restaurant all year long, and the food is pretty good!

In my opinion, every newcomer to the City, both the born-and-raised Canadians who came from other provinces, and those who landed from other countries and had made Edmonton their home, should have the opportunity to visit this location, ideally within their first few years. Understanding the context of what the city has looked like many years ago can help those who are new here, appreciated how things are today.

Learning History

While I feel like a broken record when I say “welp, that was NOT included in my ‘Welcome to Canada’ booklet”, it’s very true. There isn’t a lot of information about this city when I moved here. Fort Edmonton Park was a helpful way for me to learn and witness this. We don’t have a City Museum in a conventional sense, but I would say this is the closest one.

I was fortunate enough to squeeze in one elective class during university which was Introduction to Native Studies, and in 2017 because it was Canada 150 I learned a little bit more about Canada as a whole. I also took another elective class during university which was an advances English Literature class that discussed Canadian authors that describe the experiences of Asian people from 1900 onwards.

Now that I am learning more about the history of Indigenous peoples in Edmonton and realizing that Fort Edmonton Park has gaps, I’m relieved that the renovation will include an additional exhibit specific to this.

Booking Venues for Special Events

I didn’t know until I was a bridesmaid for a friend’s wedding, that Fort Edmonton Park is a lovely venue for a wedding and it is a well-known one, particularly in the summer. We had one of the old small churches in the Park as the location for the wedding ceremony, and then we had on of the second-floor halls of an old store as the location for the reception. While the bridal party was walking around the area for our wedding photos, we learned that there were two other weddings happening on the same day. We ran into another bridal party having their group photos, and we walked by the other wedding reception’s venue, hearing the lively dance music through the air.

I also thought that Hotel Selkirk is just a historical building that visitors at the park can tour, but as it turned out, people can rent the rooms, like a regular hotel! I learned about this during the wedding as well, as my friend rented two rooms as a waiting area for the bride and the groom’s wedding entourage. That was a lovely way to experience the city and this location, integrating historical structures with modern-day activities.

The website for the park is www.fortedmontonpark.ca/ . I look forward to the park opening again for tours, and experiencing it again with a slightly different perspective now that I’ve lived in Edmonton for a little bit longer.

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.

Volunteering and Community Involvement Review: Philippine Heritage Month

June has been officially declared as Philippine Heritage Month, for Edmonton, the city I live in, the whole province of Alberta, and the country! Events have sprung up that celebrate Philippine culture, providing means to get people to gather together and have fun. Edmonton is known to be a festival city, so it is not surprising that there are different festivities and activities to choose from. Here’s a quick overview of the events I knew about.

Last June 1, there is an indoor parade at Kingsway Mall. The format of the event is very much like the “Flores de Mayo” celebrations in rural towns and villages in the Philippines. “Flores de Mayo” is festival held in the Philippines in the month of May. It is one of the May devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary and lasts for the entire month, and such celebrations are not complete without a parade. For the one that took place here in Edmonton, everyone was invited to attend, wearing their most glamorous attire. After the parade, there was a program with various types of entertainment. According to the Facebook posts, it went well! I was so sad to miss it, and I hope to attend next year

And then, on June 8, there was Philippine Independence Day Celebration gala at River Cree Casino. It was another excuse to look fancy in my traditional Filipiniana attire I purchased a few years ago. I went on behalf of the Alberta Filipino Journal as I am a regular writer for them, and managed to get to know people and mingle. All of these are complemented with a great dinner, amazing performances, and a dance floor where almost everyone participated afterwards.

I literally danced like no one’s watching, in my Filipinana attire and with no dancing partner, it was no big deal. It’s nice to meet more people involved in the community here in Edmonton, especially those who have been here for many years more than me. Stories from the past of previous events and how they have bloomed to what they are today, is incredible to listen to. One thing I realized is that there are many organizations and it’s valuable to keep track of who is a part of which, since there is overlap.

On June 19, at the University of Alberta Myer Horowitz theater, was the film screening of a Filipino American documentary called Ulam:Main Dish. On that day, I had to run back to the house when I realized my tickets were on my desk at home, instead of my bag! The Myer Horowitz Theater is a great venue. It was such a coincidence when I was in New York City a few weeks ago, the restaurant owner of Kabisera said she knows some of the other New York Filipino restaurant owners being featured in the documentary. I really appreciate the panel afterwards, hearing from different Filipino folks in the food industry.

And then on June 22 and 23, there was the weekend long Filipino Fiesta (festival). I’m only able to attend the first day, and made my day more productive by volunteering to make sure that the parade around the park goes smoothly. It was a good decision and I’m so glad I did it.

The performances ranges from different traditional dances, pop and rock bands, a full-hour Zumba session, and some storytelling from long-time organizations in Edmonton and Alberta. It’s incredible to learn about Filipinos who have been here for forty years or more. A well-known musician Yeng Constantino came from the Philippines and performed during the “TFC Hour”. Her songs were an iconic part of my teenage years just slightly more than ten years ago, and my voice was hoarse after fangirling the entire time.

One thing to remember moving forward, is that these gatherings and opportunities are not limited to the month of June. There are numerous groups in Edmonton, some have existed for decades, that serve as great opportunities to meet with like-minded people or maintain one’s interest in an aspect of the Filipino culture. There are arts oriented ones like the Saranay Association of Edmonton, ones based on alma mater affiliation like the University of the Philippines Alumni Association, activity based like the Martial Arts Society and the Pinoy Zumba group or even regional ones like the Batanguenos Association. I hope that all newcomers to the country, or whichever country they end up immigrating to, manage to find the means to stay connected and engaged to their heritage while making a home in this new place.

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!

How to be an Ally: Edmonton-Style

By: Giselle General

When people are being asked to be an ally, based on what I have seen, it is usually in terms of these two:

  • asking men to support women in their fight for equality
  • asking straight people to support the LGBTQPIA2+ community

Being an ally resonates with me, perhaps due to my inclination to be helpful in whichever way I can.

The more I learn about the different ways that people are marginalized, the more I feel motivated to figure out how to do my part. Interestingly enough, in some ways I actually fall under some of these categories. If I would list a few, I am:

  • An immigrant
  • An orphan
  • A woman of colour

But at the same time, I fall under many categories of privilege, of being in the ‘majority’ so to speak. If I would list a few, I am:

  • Straight and cisgender (and I look the part)
  • Educated and literate
  • Able-bodied and neurotypical
  • An immigrant (because in some instances, Indigenous people have more challenges that I don’t necessarily face)

So, what does being an ally look like for me, especially here in Edmonton? Here is how I do it.

Educating Myself

It can be as simple as reading stories and news articles in my own time. I see the point in discouraging those who are already marginalized to explain themselves over and over about the hardships they face. Placing this burden on them can be quite re-traumatizing.

The Power of Social Media

I have curated my social media to help me be more informed and aware. A few recommendations I have are below. And many of these are local content which helps me understand contexts of what is going on around me.

Learning about Indigenous Issues: Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women, Rise in Solidarity Edmonton, CBC Indigenous

Learning about the LGBT community: Gary the Gay, Lizzy the Lezzy, Pride Centre of Edmonton, George Takei, Assigned Male Comics

Learning about challenges of people with disabilities: Voice of Albertans with Disabilities

The Principle of Compassion

From therapy, I was encouraged to be compassionate towards myself. I think it ended up being an ongoing positive cycle. That encouraging myself to care for myself as much as I care for others, resulted into being more caring towards others, especially those whose hardships I don’t (and will never completely) understand.

The next in my to-do list in the journey is understanding and applying practically what it means to stand in solidarity. I think when it comes to making positive change happen, there will be times when I will have to ask other groups to stand in solidarity with me, and that I will stand in solidarity as other groups fight their battles. I’m sure that there will be lots of opportunities to do either, which I’m looking forward to.