In Pursuit of Happiness, #10: Three Valentines

One of my favourite pop culture depictions of Valentine’s Day comes from Frasier.  But in the real world, Valentine’s Day can be a pretty tough deal for a lot of people – arguably a tougher one for those of us who are single, but I’d say it’s just as rough for people in couples depending on what kind of relationship they have and/or how each half of it views the (most useless) holiday itself.

I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, whether or not I happen to be in a relationship when it rolls around.  In fact, in each of my past long-term relationships, I’ve only actually spent one – count ’em, one – Valentine’s Day with the other half.  All the others were spent miles apart from Whichever Guy I Was In A Long-Distance Relationship With At The Time. 

Add that to the fact that I’m already snarky and jaded to begin with, and you’ll see why I’m not a fan of the day…and probably also be confused as to why the three things making me happy this week are three Valentines.

So I might as well start explaining myself.  Enjoy!

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Valentine’s Day this year kicked off for me a day early, as I went to see Deadpool with one of my best friends. Yes, he’s really “just a friend,” but the reason why he’s one of my Valentines is because he’s pretty much always there for me when I need him, no questions asked, and he’s one of the few people in my life with whom I can spend most of a two-hour road trip in silence without it being awkward or weird…even when I serenade a Timbit with some cheesy 80s hair ballad.

You see, love takes on all kinds of forms and friendship is a form in which we find it in abundance, and he’s one of the truest and dearest friends I’ve ever had.   We understand each other perfectly in our mixture of Franglais and Meme-Speak. It’s a unique language we’ve constructed over five years of friendship to the point where, whenever we meet in the crowded lobby of the downtown cinema, I have to text him and say, “I’m here. Where exactly are you, because I can’t wander through this place shouting [your totally embarrassing nickname that I gave you and use so often I sometimes have to stop and make sure I still know your real name].”

If that’s not a reason to make one of your best friends your Valentine, I don’t know what is.

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Like many Filipinos who grew up during World War II, my grandfather has always had a great affection for Hershey’s, especially Kisses, and Spam. I think it’s because that’s what the Americans had with them when they liberated occupied territories. Regardless of the reason for his love of the stuff, I know that the reason why I think of my grandfather whenever I eat a couple of Kisses is because for as far back as I can remember he’s always had a bowl of them on hand.

I love my grandfather and I miss him dearly. He moved in with us after my grandmother passed away, and he came to Montreal with my parents to help my mother care for my father. While he was here, though, he didn’t just support my parents: he really supported me through some very difficult moments in my early twenties. It was really hard for me to say good-bye when, after my father passed away, my grandfather had to move back to the West Coast for his own health.

However, thanks to technology and the fact that he’s the most technologically literate senior I know, I’m able to keep in touch with him. We text on iMessage or message chat on Skype almost daily, and at least once a week we use FaceTime to say hello and share a coffee.

Even if all I can say is one or two lines on any given day, I always make sure I tell my grandfather that I love him. He’s getting on in years and despite his apparent longevity I know I won’t have him forever, and I never want to say a last goodbye to any of my loved ones without having said, “I love you” one last time when they could hear it.

On Valentine’s Day this year, I found a handful of Hershey’s Kisses in the cupboard and decided to treat myself. And of course, they reminded me of my grandfather, so I hopped onto Skype and quickly tapped out a message: “Happy Valentine’s Day! I had some Kisses and thought of you, so does this make you my Funny Valentine? I love you!”

His response was, “Happy Valentine’s Day to you too, sweetheart. Thank you for thinking of me. I would love to be your Funny Valentine. You have made my day.”

Yeah, here’s a tissue for you too.

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I wished another man a Happy Valentine’s Day after making plans with my grandfather to FaceTime sometime this week – this time, a longtime friend of literally half my life and one of a small handful of people who know exactly what I looked like as a teenager (and probably has photographic evidence of it that exists nowhere else now). He lives pretty far away and he always has, but that’s never really stopped us from being able to close the gaps with what we’ve got in common.

He never forgets my birthday and always sends me lovely messages during all the important holidays, and when I wished him a Happy Valentine’s Day this year he shared a fun fact with me about February 14 in his country: over there, that day is also the feast day of Saint Trifon Zarezan, the patron saint of all things to do with wine.

“You’ve just made this day so much better for single people,” I said. “I knew there were reasons why I still like you.”

“I thought it was because of my blue eyes.”

“…they’re brown.”

“Just checking to see if you knew.”

“Don’t be a troll.”

“…and you have lovely eyes…they are awesome, especially with that smile.”

“What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing.  Just wanted to tell you that.  You are a pretty girl and you should hear it more often.”

Now, I can be very self-deprecating and I can’t take a compliment about my looks if my life depended on it. I had a very long “ugly duckling” phase and while all the lovely women in my life are pretty good at reminding me that I’m not ugly, I’m not one of those girls that gets complemented a lot by guys about my looks – my ability to drink half an Irish rugby team under the table, yes, or the fact that I’ve got a great personality, but never my looks.

Bra-burning feminists can torch me all they want but given that I can probably count on one hand the times outside of a relationship where I’ve been complimented on my looks, I’m not above admitting that it more or less makes my entire week when a guy tells me he thinks I’m pretty and ought to be told so more often…especially if he happens to be somebody who knows exactly what I looked like in raccoon eyeliner, oversized band shirts, studs and piercings, and a permanent sulk.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #6: Appointment Television, Healthy Living, and Writing Letters

Appointment Television: At a certain point in my early adolescence, my parents cut the cable to our family room TV. Given that the overall cable viewing schedule of the household was limited to news, educational programs, and family-friendly TV shows, I didn’t really miss it. My classmates would fill me in on what was currently happening on TV anyway when we should have been conjugating irregular French verbs or solving for X, so I never really felt like I was missing out to the point of being culturally irrelevant.

I really got into British programming during university thanks to my parents finally re-entering the current century by installing a dish as well as online streaming services like Netflix, but as a working full-time double major undergrad I didn’t have much time to really expand my TV schedule beyond the few tried and tested classics of my youth and the new shows I really got into in between semesters.

And even now, as a two-job working stiff of a gymrat, I don’t have a whole lot more free time for TV – which is more problematic now than it used to be because missing out on all the new shows and not having a regular time slot for friends to catch me up means I actually do run the risk of being culturally irrelevant insofar as television is concerned.

Praise the Lord, then, for Appointment Television. It’s a podcast all about the TV you should be making time for, and because it’s produced by a trio of hardcore television watchers (my lovely friend Margaret H. Willison and her co-hosts, Katherine van Arendonk and Andrew Cunningham) it means that it’s a trustworthy source of a variety of recommendations, information about TV I really should know more about, and explanations as to why some shows really are as important for society as their fandoms say they are.

Take the segment “TV vs TV” for example, in which two shows of similar premise, style, and production are put head-to-head on trial to determine which is the better production. In fact, the first episode of Appointment Television included this segment and put Star Trek: The Next Generation against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Now, I would have kept listening simply because Margaret is on this podcast but the fact that Andrew and Katherine were able to succinctly explain the differences between two separate series of a complex universe with a hot-blooded fandom in a way that I, a staunch non-Trekkie, was able to kind of get why any iteration of Star Trek has cultural relevance is what really got me hooked from the get-go.

The other segment I really love is “TV Book Club,” which has broadened my viewing scope because I just don’t want to be left out of anything these guys think is cool to watch. After experiencing Terriers and Black Mirror because of Appointment TV (in retro-listen, as I jumped on the bandwagon after the podcast was already well on its way) I’m now current with the podcast itself as well as with the current TV Book Club series, Bunheads.

Go check out Appointment Television now. Seriously. You’ll thank me later.

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Healthy Living: After the holidays it’s always tough to get back into the routines of everyday life, but I’m so glad that I’m finally resettled into my usual rhythm of working out, eating clean, and giving it all 100% to continue my transformation.

I’ve written at length about why this new lifestyle is so important to me and if you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’m one of “those” people who post workout selfies, food photos, and hashtag the holy crap out of words and phrases like transformation, girlsworkouttoo, legday, cardio, workout, girlswholift, gettingfit, eatclean, homemade…and so on and so forth.

After years of constantly making unhealthy choices (physically and nutritionally as well as emotionally and spiritually), I stand here in 2016 as somebody who is done with toxic living on all those levels. I’m so much happier, stronger, and wiser now than I ever have been before – and especially than I was this time last year.

My daily hour at the gym is one of the few I have on any given day that’s entirely all to myself that doesn’t involve sleeping, so I tend to try and make the most out of it.  I’m actually getting to a point in my journey where I can legitimately start pointing out all my “gains” – namely those “booty gains” (I’m telling you now, women who look good in yoga pants do more lifting than yoga) – and where people I’ve known for a while  are pointing them out to me.

2016 is already shaping up to be full of new fitness challenges and goals, and new milestones to work towards every day.  I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity and the means to take control of my health and wellness when I did because now I can’t imagine having ever made it through the last year with the self-empowerment I’ve gained and all the support my gym family gave me.

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Writing Letters: Those of you who drop by on a regular basis will know that another part of my 2016 Resolutions involved writing letters to anyone and everyone who would ask me for one. The first person to officially take me up on this offer was one of my friends from Job2, Frederique. She and I were hired at Job2 in the same group back in 2011, and she’s never been anything but an awesome friend. I’m so glad that the first piece of mail in my letter campaign was for her; she was my first real friend at the store when we got hired and she is such a joy to know.

I’ve got a few more letters on the way to other people who have given me their addresses and I hope each envelope contains in it as much joy for those recipients as the one I sent to Frederique. Handwritten letters are one of the greatest little pleasures of my life. Whether it’s writing them or receiving them, I love how letters are tangible evidence of the connections between two people and two places. I write these letters in the hope that something I have to say could touch a life, and therefore make two lives all the more better for the sharing of one talent.

My offers to send you handwritten letters still stands and will continue to stand into the foreseeable future, so please don’t be shy to let me know if you’d like one!

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That’s all for this week’s instalment of “In Pursuit of Happiness.”  Keep on finding the happiness in the little things around you, and I’ll be back soon with a proper post – I promise!

“There is no greater agony than an untold story inside you.”

((Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings))

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I had a crazy dream last night:  I was eaten up by a giant leather-bound book in a Hogwarts-like library.

Two interpretations surfaced over the course of the day.  Dame Margaret H. Willison thought it was a reminder about a “monstrously overdue library book,” while I wondered if perhaps my subconscious is telling me to start my novel already.

The thing is, I’ve never had an overdue charge on my library cards — so perhaps my subconscious is trying to get my started on my Giant Writing Project.

The thing is, in my family saying you can write is pretty much like saying you can breathe.  We all have our own unique way with words, but we can all write eloquently in the styles for which we have a knack. Add that to the inescapable fact that we are descended from the family of José Rizal – hero of the Philippines, father of nationalism in Southeast Asia, and the man who penned the novel that started the uprising against Spanish colonialism in the Philippines – and it’s probably easier to understand now why none of us has ever been able to actually write a book.

I mean, come on:  with that kind of legacy, you’re never quite up to snuff even if your magnum opus isn’t meant to be the catalyst to nation-wide insurrection.

In my furiously-scribbling family, I’m the free spirit narrator who’s trying to find the meaning in everyday occurrences (hence my tagline, “Chronicles of the Significant Human Experience”) because that’s where I believe the best stories lie.  I know there’s a novel somewhere inside me; I feel a twinge every once in a while that urges me to sit down and, as Derrick Jensen said:

“Tap a vein and let it bleed onto the page.”  

Considering the fact that Hemingway also shares a similar view on what a written work actually is (he’s the one who said that bit about how writing is just being able to bleed whilst seated at the typewriter, right?), it’s pretty easy to see that writing anything noteworthy is more complicated than knowing what words mean and how to string them together into a sentence.

Writing in order to capture something truly meaningful and significant is one thing, but writing in order to convince others that one’s perception is worth considering as truly meaningful and significant is a different beast altogether.

How do you write something that the world can relate to when you stand on the opposite side of so many boundaries?

How to you write a story that people will want to read when hardly anyone is even interested anymore in the real lives happening all around them outside of their iThings?

Hence, why I’ve been focusing on this blog lately more so than the novel I’ve been trying to write for years.  Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it is also immensely beautiful and always worth telling — and somewhere in all these lives I’m trying to share and connect, I’ll find the thread that will turn into the yarn of that blasted, elusive book hiding inside my soul.  And once I find it, I shall wrestle it into submission and give my blood to birng to life whatever characters it may cradle inside.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #5: FlipFolding, Besties, and Instagram

FlipFolding: Okay, so for those of you who watch The Big Bang Theory, you’ll probably vaguely recall a very early episode in which Sheldon Cooper is folding his T-shirts using a handy-dandy device. Known outside of TV-land as a FlipFold, its makers claim to have tested this domestic tool on toddlers and husbands to ensure that it can be easily used by anyone to turn an Everest-sized mountain of laundry into neat piles of folded garments in minutes.

I am not a fan of laundry at any stage of its life cycle that doesn’t involve me wearing it, so of course as soon as I saw that episode years ago I had to have one. And after an equal number of years hinting about wanting one and whining about its absence from my life my best friend finally delivered this Christmas by giving me my very own bright yellow FlipFold!

I have already gone crazy with this thing. Pretty much as soon as I took it out of its packaging, I was already going to town on the swirling vortex that used to be my T-shirt drawer. Before retiring for the night I spent about ten minutes folding all my old work T-shirts into neatly uniform (haha, get it? Uniform…*cough*) piles that can now be easily packed away into storage boxes to make room for more T-shirts to go crazy with on FlipFolding. 

This weekend has essentially been all about gleefully exclaiming that I am the proud owner of a FlipFold and I am definitely not done singing this thing’s praises.

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Besties: Which brings me to the second thing that’s making me happy this week, which are my best friends. Of course, the one who gave me the FlipFold is totally winning this week (just kidding; I don’t keep score but if I did she’d definitely be leading the board right now!), but I’m very blessed and lucky to have a small handful of wonderful best friends as opposed to countless acquaintances.

From watching me flip out over a FlipFold to taking care of my fat cat over holidays to giving me lifts home after 10PM to being there when I’ve had a bad day and just need to vent, my best friends are true gems and I love them all dearly. They’re reasons that I get up in the morning and I treasure every moment of time I spend with them.

I’ve been fortunate to have enough time to go around each week for these wonderful people and I love that there’s always enough time to make significant, meaningful, and warm memories that I’ll cherish until we’re all old and grey. The mere fact that they all put up with my incessant request for “bestie selfies” already makes them significantly wonderful human beings.

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Instagram: Speaking of selfies, my Instagram feed is notorious for having a “#pointless #selfie” every couple of days. Keeping in tandem with my efforts to turn Tweets into meaningful connections (hello there, @MrsFridayNext and @LolaBlakes!) I’m trying to use Instagram to build similar connections to people who post more than just pointless selfies all day long.

So, yes, I’m not one of the billions who follow any permutation of Kardashians or their accompanying baggages. I’d rather spend my scrolling time on people who make social media worthwhile.

Enter @naturalhealthmomma, who I encountered on Instagram when I first began my journey towards wellness and wholeness in my life through working out, eating clean, and loving the little moments.

Known off-screen as Sara, she’s a wife and mother whose story of motherhood, clean living, and faith somehow brought her into my Instagram feed. I’m not questioning what the universe wants me to get out of reaching out to Sara, because so far all it’s brought me is inspiration for cleaner and healthier living, faith in what seems to be impossible, and joy in being given the opportunity to glimpse the ups and downs of her journey.

What began as a diagnosis for PCOS, coming off synthetic hormonal control (aka The Pill), and a long haul of medical procedures resulted in twin boys, Rocco and Maximus – and they became her inspiration to venture further away from the chemically saturated world of the 21st century and into a cleaner, more natural, and homegrown lifestyle.

Sara’s blog over at www.lovelifenaturally.org is full of recipes and ideas to help you get started on your own journey into the world of clean living, and her Instagram account offers you an intimate glimpse into the way she’s chosen to implement these concepts in her family’s daily life.  While we’re all aware that social media and Internet portrayals of our lives are the “best face” we present to the world, I honestly feel that Sara’s web-based documentation and presentation of her life encapsulates the genuine goodness that “living and loving life naturally” can offer.

Go check out her stuff and, until next week, don’t forget to find little bits and pieces of happiness in your own lives!

The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.

Failing to fit in

I’m really into all things TED right now. I listen to TED Talks on my daily commutes and while I’m at my desk I listen to episodes of TED Radio Hour instead of music. One of the TED Radio Hour episodes I keep going back to is called “Playing with Perceptions,” and I think it’s because I can identify so deeply with the issues raised therein.

Canada is known for its diversity. We’ve all heard Canadian culture being called a mosaic in comparison to the so-called melting pot of the United States. The faces of Canada’s citizens, permanent residents, immigrants, and refugees represent numerous nations, as well as all the cultural and ethnic diversity they bring along with them. And because Canada is a nation whose inhabitants seem to celebrate, you’d think we’d all be used to it by now – used to the fact that there is no typical “Canadian” face, or that the Millennials are riding off into the sunset in intercultural/interracial/interwhateverPCtermyouwanttousetodescribteit pairs, or that non-white people in this country are doing the same activities and pursuing the same careers as the white ones.

Ultimately, you’d think that this whole multiculturalism thing would have made us all very aware of the different ways people come into Canada and become Canadian. And as a result of all this variety and the political correctness and politeness for which we’re apparently internationally famous, you’d think we’d be well-informed and educated enough to talk about the subject without offending anyone, inadvertently or otherwise.

And then conversations like the following happen:

“Wow, your mom is gorgeous! But why don’t you look Chinese? Is your dad, like, white or something?”
“Well, see, we’re actually not really Chinese. I mean, we have a Chinese ancestor somewhere I think but we’re actually mostly Spanish and Filipino.”
“Oh, cool! So do you speak Filipino with your mom at home?”
“No, we speak English at home.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.”
“Does your mom have, like, a really thick Filipino accent? I always find Filipino accents so fun to listen to!”
“No, she doesn’t really have an accent…”
“How long has she been living here?”
“We came over in –”

“Wait, you were born there?”
“Yes.”
“But you are so Canadian!”
“…what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Like, nothing racist or whatever – just, like, you’re so not ethnic. I would have never guessed that you’re not Canadian.”
“I am, though. I’m a naturalized citizen and I have a Canadian passport.”
“I thought it was like, super hard for refugees to get into Canada right now though. How did you become a citizen so fast?”
“We emigrated in 1992, and we weren’t refugees.”
“…so, wait, like – you can get a visa to come to Canada and be a permanent resident even if you’re just, like, a maid or caregiver or handyman or whatever?”

I’ll stop there and continue on in my own words – because yes, as you’ve probably guessed, this was a conversation that happened a few days ago between myself and an acquaintance. I do take offense at being seen as the daughter of a domestic worker and a menial laborer – not because I have anything against domestic workers and menial laborers (in fact, I have a deep respect for them) but rather because it simply isn’t true – and because sometimes people don’t want to hear that. 

And yes, I also take offense partially because I believe that applying that kind of narrow perception to an entire demographic is just another form of marginalization.

There have been other instances in my life in which I’ve found myself under social scrutiny on the basis of my biological, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Workplace discussions about things like food or holiday traditions or politics have often, for me, devolved into being put under the white-Canadian microscope through which I am studied with ogle-eyed fascination. Getting set up on blind dates with white guys by well-meaning friends always involves a casual remark that I look so different from other girls they’ve dated, and maybe that’s because “well, you’re exotic, right?” One blind date, upon being told I come from a Filipino family, delightedly told me that he loved dating Filipino women because “you Asian women are all so smart and hardworking and dedicated to your men, and now Asian culture is more open to white people so now you get to share that with us white dudes.” (I’m dead serious.) I have been presented to parents of more than one former love interest with surprising expediency, and the ensuing dinnertime conversations often became a civil and courteous, but nonetheless cutting, cultural cross-examination.

Basically, every time I feel totally Canadian somebody comes along and reminds me that I was not born under the Red Maple Leaf, and they were prodded to that point by their assumptions about non-white Canadians and immigrants.

These conversations reminded me that, while I do hold Canadian citizenship, travel across borders under a Canadian passport, pay taxes, vote, and even paid for part of my university education with a Canadian Forces scholarship, I’m still a visible minority. And being a visible minority means my face only tells part of my story. My non-Caucasian face keeps the chronicle of my life permanently open to the public on just one chapter – and yes, I’ve met many people who won’t bother reading the rest of the book or, at best, skim over the other parts but still pin their concept of my identity on what’s written on my face. My face means on some level, I will always fail to fit in because somebody will be making an assumption about me based on how I look…and that the assumption will often bear little semblance to the truth.

But failing to fit in means I become more like myself each time, which is what I realized when I head Heitan Patel’s TED Talk.  And then I realized that instead of reacting with indignation, silent or not, to what people say about me based on my face, maybe I could share my story instead.  Maybe instead of wishing that certain kinds of people would open their eyes and see the world without privileged first-world blinders, I could use what I know and what talents I have to contribute to the conversation that would eventually lead to clearer understanding across all these divisions.

As far as Filipino immigrants go, my family was extremely lucky. We were lucky in the Philippines because we had social, financial, and educational advantages that the majority of the Islands’ population does not have. We were lucky when we left because we were able to come over as an entire family unit – two parents and five children – which is the exception to the norm of third-world migration; furthermore, we were landed immigrants which meant that the entire process becoming permanent residents and then citizens took less than ten years. And we were lucky in Canada because we spoke fluent English when we landed and my father was able to find work in finance which, with help from my sisters, put food on the table, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and a little extra every once in a while to have fun.

This is not the story of every Filipino immigrant – nor is it the story of every other kind of immigrant that comes to Canada. Like I said, we are the exception to the norm of third-world migration. Back then we were the “One Percenters” of our demographic, yet much of my young life was spent in denial of being Filipino because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my Caucasian, Xth generation Canadian classmates. (For example, my mother is fond of repeatedly telling the story of how I, as a three-year-old, turned my nose up at a plate of white rice and adobo, proclaiming, “I want hotdogs for dinner. I don’t know about you, but I am Canadian.”)

But now that I know better my family’s immigration story does not shame me. It humbles me.

It humbles me because when I read a similar chapter in other faces I see in this city, I know that there’s more to the story than just the lines on their faces and that each story is unique. It humbles me because I am reminded that immigrants bring more than just outward indications of diversity when they land: they bring experiences and stories that often go untold or ignored, even in a country constantly praised for its openness and multiculturalism. It humbles me because their smiles and their eyes gently remind me not to forget where I came from, and that even though I’ve moved from the “immigrant” demographic to join the ranks of citizens, I am a contributor to the same chapter of Canadian history as they are.

It humbles me because as a naturalized citizen who grew up Canadian from Filipino roots, my branch of the family tree will span across many divides – social perspectives, ethnic backgrounds, cultural traditions, and even the Pacific Ocean itself – as it grows.  And part of that growth is accepting that my face will always be non-Caucasian and using the ensuing moments of marginalization, regardless of how or why they transpire, to make the voice of my cultural and ethnic background heard in Canada’s narrative.

“Out of the womb of nature” in the middle of Kentucky

I’m currently in Ohio visiting my sister and her family on a short Labor Day Weekend vacation. Sure, Ohio might not be the most glamorous of States to visit, but I love coming here nonetheless. A visit to my sister’s West Chester home is everything a vacation should be: relaxing and refreshing, with good food and better company in abundance.

Yesterday we took a family road trip two hours south into central Kentucky, and on the way down we saw a wild turkey, some white-tailed deer, and a turtle crossing the I-75 (who we thankfully did not see lying belly up on the Interstate on the way home). We finally arrived at the Mammoth Cave National Park with an extra hour, having forgotten to take into account a one-hour time difference, and so had the opportunity to explore more than we’d anticipated.

Now, the surrounding countryside on the surface was a sight to see unto itself.  Being raised in the Fraser Valley gave me an appreciation for the great outdoors that I’ve carried with me into the concrete jungle where I’ve resided for the past seven years, and getting out of the city is always my favourite way to spend a long weekend.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough, but with landscapes like these all over North America, that could change soon…

The view from the trails above the caves.

The view from the trails above the caves.

After a quick picnic lunch and a ¾-mile nature hike, we piled into one of three buses alongside 130 other guests, drove four miles out into the wild, and descended 280 steps on a narrow metal staircase into the world’s biggest cave system.  Over 400 miles of cave systems have been explored underneath nearly 53 000 acres of densely-forested land, and as we walked ever lower into this “grand, gloomy, and peculiar place” on the “Domes and Dripstones” tour, I felt like we were entering a new world entirely separate from our own. Though adequate light sources few and far between – set up mainly to illuminate the more elaborate and interesting rock formations and features – we filed through the tunnels at an easy pace, congregating in three separate cave chambers to learn more about the caves and the park’s history from our fearless leaders, the amusing duo of Rangers Jason and Jeff.

This was probably the most amount of light we got down there.

This was probably the most amount of light we got down there…

...while the rest of it was more or like this.

…while the rest of it was more or less like this…

...and, more often than not, like this.

…and, more often than not, like this.

Even in these spacious caverns the lights were dim, and in one of them the Rangers turned the lights off entirely so we could experience the total stillness and utter darkness of the caves as they were before man came with firelight to illuminate their grandeur. According to the park’s lore, in the early days an explorer was left behind by accident in one of the chambers and was found nineteen hours later sitting on a boulder banging two rocks together. When praised for his clever thinking to use sound to guide his team back to him, he explained that it had been more for his benefit than anyone else’s: the total silence and darkness had been enough to drive him crazy.

I can believe it. What I’m still trying to wrap my head around is that some people were intrepid and daring enough to venture down into places like the Mammoth Caves with little more light than what’s afforded by a Zippo.  But nonetheless I’m glad they did, and the two-hour trip to the grand finale was well worth the careful stepping and occasional fumbling in near to total darkness.

The Frozen Niagara feature of stalactites and stalagmites at the end of the tour took my breath away. It’s one thing to see these formations in photos or in documentaries, but to experience them in real life is almost indescribably amazing and downright cool. There was so much to take in from that one section of the tour, and if we could have stayed down there longer it would not have been long enough for me to take in everything I could have. Alas, with the buses waiting at the surface to take us back to the visitors’ centre, I had to pull myself away from that underground display and ascend back into the light of the surface world.

Heading down into the

Heading down into the “Drapery Room” once we reached the Frozen Niagara formation.

Looking up from the bottom of the

Looking up from the bottom of the “Drapery Room.”

Just outside of the

Just outside of the “Drapery Room,” on the way back up to the surface.

It’s hard to imagine any degree of beauty or creation existing so far away from the surface where humans are best suited to life. But the wondrous subterranean landscapes of caves proves that beauty not only exists but truly thrives even in the dreariest, darkest places – and their surprising closeness to home reminds us that once you’re able to see beauty in the dark cold depths, you’re not as far as you think from the light and warmth of a beautiful day.