Trusting the journey

One of the constants in my life has been, and I hope always will be, the lovely cacophony of different languages spoken by my nearest and dearest. Even though English is my mother tongue and that of my parents, I still grew up to the almost sing-song quality of the Tagalog my parents, older sisters, and extended older family spoke.

Going to school in English and French alongside a myriad of foreign exchange students and being a young pioneer of internet music forums added new sounds and writing systems to this wonderful confusion: English from the United Kingdom and Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand have mixed with Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Bulgarian in my ears over the years.  And they’ve all been interwoven with my own English, French, and (albeit limited) Tagalog in my mind into a warm blanket for my heart.

Being exposed to so many different cultures through these friendships, along with all the books I ravenously devoured in my spare time, awakened my sense of wanderlust at a young age and I’ve been longing to travel ever since. And finally, after more than a decade of such yearning, I’m finally able to do something about it.  The problem is that there are too many places to go to – a good problem to have, I know – especially with a Canadian passport, but at some point plane ticket prices start creeping even higher.

Choices needed to be made, and I’ve finally made them…and come September my well-worn boots will stir up the dust of older lands when I set foot in Sweden and Ireland. More than a decade after first messaging them on online music forums, I’ll finally be able to bother some of the humans I love best in this world right to their faces.  (Sorry in advance, guys.)

In all seriousness though, life is all about the journeys we make. Internal or external, it’s more than just about getting from Point A to Point B.  It’s about experiencing to the fullest what’s in between Point A and Point B, and if you have to take some detours along the way that’s not always a bad thing.  The scenic route always leaves lasting memories, after all.  As long as we keep making our away, eventually we’ll arrive precisely when we mean to and as the people we were meant to be when we get there.

The current leg of the adventure of my life has been a long one. It’s lasted a few years and the last two have been particularly fraught with uncertainty and worry, life-changing events and realizations, and daily struggles with my personal sense of identity.  In the last few months, I’ve had to throw a lot of things out the window, especially particular opinions, prejudices, and beliefs whose origins I could not discern.  Did these views come from me, or from others?  Were these things my true views, or did I adopt them in order to be accepted?  How authentic was I really, and how much of my identity was made for me by someone else?

Doing my internal spring cleaning has led to new discoveries about what I’m really made of and therefore who I really am. As a friend of mine told me once, “Trust the journey.”  And to me, the first step on that journey was learning to trust myself enough to start over from scratch.

I am a free spirit. To be happy, I need to know that the final decisions of my life come from within me and are made under circumstances where I feel totally informed and totally free to choose in the first place.  With this comes a personal need for openness to curiosity and exploration, to informing and educating myself about the world beyond my social bubbles, and to forging my best self out of what I have learned in this process.  I know my foundation intimately – what it is made of and where I stand on it – and I know it is sturdy enough to build a new self upon.

I also came to realize that I am made with a wild heart. A wild heart takes in and learns to cherish every experience.  A wild heart loves passionately and lives exuberantly.  A wild heart cuts all of the strings that would keep it flying in circles but still carries what’s necessary for the journey.  And a wild heart can’t be broken.

Transitions. Changes.  Growth.  A better version of myself, discerned from looking and listening inwards, that can stand firmly upon any physical ground because the internal foundation is strong and well-made.  The road rises up to meet me, and I am on my way.

 

 

“But song, no wealth can buy.”

Something that tends to surprise new people in my life is that I was an award-winning musician in my youth. I played and sang in just about every iteration of musical ensembles in my high school, performed and ranked at high-profile national and international festivals, and took theory so that I could arrange and eventually compose my own music. I can read and play music in any clef and key signature, tell the difference by ear between classical composers, and see all the different parts of any song in sheet music form scrolling through my head if I shut my eyes and listen closely.

While performing music has, regrettably, fallen to the wayside in my adult life, none of this would have transpired if as an adolescent I hadn’t been a diehard metalhead with two bossy older brothers and very few friends.

I was actually sort of voluntold to take up the bass, as my brothers were already shredding away on their Jacksons (a midnight-blue Warrior named Layla and a black Randy Rhoads V dubbed Freya) and I was informed that if I wanted to jam with them I had to learn something that wasn’t lead or rhythm guitar. Our days as the Patridge Family Gone Metal were short-lived and we only ever did rock the high school gym, but as far as first steps go I’m pretty happy with where this particular instance of being bossed brought me.

The first bass line I ever learned by heart was from “Bed of Razors” by Children of Bodom. Using Guitar Pro 2.0 on an ancient laptop and the top four strings of my oldest brother’s abandoned five-and-dime six-string, I holed myself up in my room for hours on end until I could play along in real time to the song itself.

When I finally bought my first bass – a black LTD B-50 that I named Henkka after my COB idol and would later customize with ever-changing homemade decals of skulls, runes, Celtic knots, and grim reapers – I moved from the woodwinds to the rhythm section in concert band and joined the jazz band as well. I was encouraged to try the upright bass, known to some of you as a double bass or contrabass, and fell in love all over again with my instrument of choice. I loved that antique upright with its rosy finish and real band of ebony (exposed by a horrific chip from the time the tuba player clipped it with the U-bend of his brass noisemaker), its age and craftsmanship explained by the “Made in Czechoslovakia” stamp just discernible through the sound holes. And by the time I graduated in 2008, I played on three basses, having acquired a black-and-white Fender Jazz as well for the purpose of having an electric bass whose sound was more suited to jazz band and jazz combo than my so-called “axe” of a B-50.

Metal was my first love on the bass and it always will be, but learning to read a new clef and being exposed to all kinds of music really expanded my knowledge and skills as a young musician and, if anything, made it easier for me to play metal well. Whenever my short-lived career in music comes up around the dinner table, my mother always says that my fingers flew all over my instrument and that I seemed to unconsciously dance to the music. Those fingers played for so many hours daily that until now there are no prints left on the tips of my picking digits, and I still unconsciously move to music I really enjoy, even when on the first listen.

But I’m writing about all of this to tell you more than just the story of how I was a musician, once upon a time.

My dedication to music in my adolescence was born of an anger at an adolescent environment that rejected me, and an endless craving and need to be recognized as good at something so I throw myself defiantly back at whoever said I wasn’t good, thin, pretty, cute, or cool enough to be accepted.

If I was better at playing music than they were at playing sports, then I could walk into school every day with my head a little higher than it would have been without music. If I could say, “I can read and write English, French, and music,” then I wouldn’t get hurt as much by the other smart people in class who always teased and made fun of me if I got even one point less than them on a Math or Science test. If I had the best strings, straps, and amps that I could afford on my own dime it didn’t matter that my parents couldn’t afford name-brand clothing for me to wear to school. And from early-morning jazz rehearsals to concert band and music theory on alternating school days to nonstop activity on heavy metal internet forums, every way in which I encountered music in my adolescence helped me build myself up as an individual while also building up a small handful of friendships with other musicians which have lasted to this day.

And to this day, there’s music for every single one of my moods and emotions, with the exception of 2015. Last year pretty much the only time I listened to music was at the gym, but every song I had on my workout playlist was chosen to keep me in an upbeat, hard-hitting, go-get-em attitude because that’s what I needed to do: stay upbeat, hit back hard when life punched me, and be proactive about getting what I wanted out of the time I’ve been given. I will still howl into a hairbrush along to Bon Jovi when I feel empowered. When I am frustrated and angry I will still plug into Children of Bodom to channel the raw emotions. When I miss my father more than usual the only thing that eases the pain is Brahms’ “Lullaby.” When a long Montreal winter gets me down, I will play Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Summer” until I’m upbeat again. Hallowe’en is never Hallowe’en unless I play St-Saens’ “Dance Macabre” at least five times and Christmas is never Christmas until I’ve gone through my favourites by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The theme from Pacific Rim will always pump me up for a workout, Iron Maiden will always put me in a mood to read and daydream, and some songs will always make me remember the good times I shared with people who gave those songs more meaning for me. And whenever I find myself in a mood without appropriate music, well – as you know from the last two posts, there’s always a judgey-ass music nerd of a friend to help me out with that.

The Andrew Solomon quote I’ve chosen for this post’s featured image speaks to me on so many levels, and mainly because forging meaning and building identity is exactly how I survived high school, too. Instead of trying to create talents I did not have to be able to do activities I loathed simply because those were the popular past-times, I found meaning in developing the talents I was given in ways I enjoyed. And then I built an identity for myself that didn’t conform and couldn’t be hurt, an identity that kept me practicing through hours that my peers passed without me and then put me up on a stage where I was untouchable.

I was not meant to be a musician forever and I was not meant to find either my entire life’s meaning or my whole identity in being one. But for the time that I was in peak musical form, being a young musician gave me reasons to think big and dream bigger, and ways to make something of myself in an environment in which I was supposed to remain a nobody. A performing and award-winning musician I may no longer be, but music still means as much to me now as it did back then and who I was will always be a part of who I have become.

Everyone at high school graduation can throw their cap and say they did it, but I don’t think that everyone can say they survived. Doing it is still hard because it still comes with challenges that require a measure of strength to overcome – I’m not denying that and I’m not belittling the achievement. I know everyone has their own moments of difficulty and their own hardships to bear, but let me tell you from experience – as a teenager it’s hard to see that when you’re the one who’s always excluded.

So doing it, while hard in its own right, is very different from surviving it. Surviving means that in order to overcome your challenges, every day you have to find something worth getting up for, and then find enough strength and true grit in yourself somewhere to fight through the day. It means every morning brings with it the additional challenge of mustering up the courage to even start the day – especially after a sleepless night when you’ve been kept up by wondering if anyone would miss you the next day if you weren’t there.

I speak from experience – and because of music, I survived.

Unmasked, unguarded – and somehow, still safe

We all have secrets and guilty pleasures. It’s a broad spectrum, but we all fall somewhere on it. We think that keeping secrets is a way of holding on to the things that make us authentically individual – truly ourselves – but of course there are secrets we never tell because we’re afraid of them taking over our lives by permanently altering the way others perceive us.

But regardless of what our secrets are and why we choose to keep them, we do so to the point where we hide a huge part of who we are from even the people who know us best.

In my particular case, my nature is so introverted and then further encased in a shell that it’s inherently difficult for me to open up to anyone. This means that when I do confide in somebody it’s because I feel safe with them, and I don’t expect to be hurt by the person in whom I confide the secrets that hurt enough already.

People constantly surprise us and the ritual of confiding in others is a prime opportunity for us to be reminded of this fact. Exhibit A: you tell the same thing to two different people in more or less the same fashion, but they’re both going to react differently – and that will tell you a lot about who they are and maybe even what you are to them.

I once told an ex about the particularly harrowing nature of one of my previous relationships. I trusted him, loved him more than any other person I knew, and wanted him to really know me, and I wanted to demonstrate all that by opening up and telling him things I had never told anyone else. Eventually, instead of bringing us closer together it pushed us apart. My story – and some of the most defining moments of my life that it included – of who I was before him became, I think, fodder for his insecurity, jealousy, and minor prejudices. It got to a point where I did not feel whole standing in front of him; instead, I felt torn apart, over and over again whenever he asked me for reassurances on the subject, and eventually felt incomplete – like I was less of a person for having made mistakes in my past, and now had to tilt at windmills to prove I was worthy.

A couple of weeks ago, I told the same story again to another person – a good friend this time – during a particularly rough and emotional day. It was one of those situations where things just came out and I realized at the end of it that I had pretty much emotionally exploded all over somebody and told them a secret that I had sworn to never tell anyone ever again. It had cost me one close connection and for a few minutes I was utterly terrified that my unintentional and unfiltered blurting had just cost me another one. (Oh, and did I mention I did this over text? Way to go, right…)

“And now I have the horrible feeling that if I was standing in front of you right now, you’d be looking at me in an entirely different way, and I’m hating myself for that,” I said quickly, as it had been a minute or two of text-silence.

“I don’t see you differently. We’re two friends who are telling each other things and being open. It would take a lot to change my opinion of you,” came the response.

I suppose my friend really meant that, as we’re still talking as we’ve always done, and maybe even perhaps on slightly more familiar terms now.

One story, two different people – and two different reactions whose juxtaposition made me realize that I’m too hard on myself and think too much about what people might be thinking.  And that realization caused me to see that not letting anyone in might protect my heart from pain, but it also prevents my heart from experiencing joy.

Anyone who’s had this kind of experience – this unexpected acceptance by one person when the same situation resulted in rejection by another – will tell you that it’s difficult to say how it feels to know that despite revealing something so deeply hidden, you are still cared for and still seen as a whole person worthy of time and attention.  You feel a kind of unexpected joy at the equally unexpected relief of not being the only one who knows something that weighs so heavily on you.  You feel like a person again because another human has accepted you, warts and all, and will still be there for you.

I’ll probably always be guarded. I’ll probably always need my shell, and I’ll probably always be very cautious about opening myself up to another person. But it’s nice to know that I don’t always have to hide – that I can be safe enough in somebody else’s presence so as to be vulnerably open and totally myself with them. It’s nice to know that in at least one friendship I don’t have to wear masks or pretend I’m a little less flawed, that I am accepted entirely and can therefore be exactly who I am and express exactly how I feel.

After all, while the truth sets you free – “this above all: to thine own self be true.”  And by being open and honest, I am being more of who I really am, and I have once again been surprised by joy.

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.