My childhood was the original Fear Factor

contributed to The Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments

Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail

Some time ago I read that iodine and alcohol are not recommended for treating cuts and scrapes because they can be quite caustic on raw, broken skin.

This major scientific discovery came a few years too late for me. My mother used copious amounts of both substances on my four siblings and me in our time. When I showed the article to Mom, she sniffed and said, “So? You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

I thought back to when I was four years old, playing in the backyard while my pet rooster Charlie strutted nearby. Despite repeated warnings from my mother, I tried to get Charlie to eat grain from my hand. Now I know that roosters can be quite aggressive – another discovery that came too late. But you must understand: Charlie was my pet. I had watched him grow from a fluffy yellow ball of feathers to a handsome young rooster. We had always had an amicable relationship. So I was totally unprepared for the hissing, angry beast that suddenly flew into my face, clawing and scratching.

I don’t remember the actual attack. I do remember my mother shrieking curses at Charlie, then scolding and dragging me into the house. I had shut my eyes tight, a reflex which probably saved them from Charlie’s claws, but which also prevented me from seeing my mother brandishing the iodine until I felt her dousing my face with it. I don’t think I started crying until then. The pain was excruciating. Finally I opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror. My face was covered with blood and iodine. I thought I was going to die.

But yes, Mom – I’m still alive. So are all my brothers and sisters, though it’s a miracle we survived our childhood. We all learned how to treat our own cuts and scrapes fairly early in life. We knew that at the first whiff of blood, Mom would appear, vampire-like, with either the dreaded green bottle (alcohol) or the dreaded brown bottle (iodine). So we cleaned ourselves up quickly and quietly, without fussing, crying or fainting. What Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and more importantly, it wouldn’t hurt us. That is, unless we died of gangrene or blood poisoning. But we figured that if infection resulting from our inept first-aid measures didn’t kill us, the pain from Mom’s vigorous scrubbing with her favourite antiseptics would, and we all agreed that blood poisoning was the easier way to go.

Sometimes when I’m at the pharmacy I find myself looking wistfully at all the fancy first-aid products that have been invented: no-sting antiseptics, soothing ointments and multicoloured bandages. What’s more, they seem to come with the moms to match. You know the type. “Come on, honey, take this itty-bitty pill for Mommy,” they coax.

My mother would stand over you and say just two words. “SWALLOW IT.” And you would. You wouldn’t dare gag, either.

The truth is, my childhood was the original Fear Factor. The only difference was that there was no prize money at the end. If there were, I’d be a millionaire by now, because there were challenges at every turn.

Take dinner for example. We’re Filipino, and we eat some pretty weird food. Most dishes I disliked as a child I’ve actually grown to enjoy, but to a little kid, Filipino cuisine can be intimidating, to say the least. (You try choking down blood stew, or whole fish with all the bones still in it, or squid cooked in its own ink.)

But even more intimidating was – you guessed it – my mother, looking at you across the table. She didn’t have to say a word in this case, but you knew what she was thinking. “EAT IT OR ELSE.”

Did I eat it? You bet I did.

I may not have won any prize money for facing up to these challenges, but I have learned a few things that will probably go a longer way than any amount of riches.

First, what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you stronger. I don’t know if I’m as strong as my mother, but I do know that if I have to do something difficult, all I have to do is imagine her saying “DO IT” – and I take a deep breath and go for it.

Second, my mom’s love may be tough at times, but it’s real. If she’s hard on me it’s only because she loves me and believes in me. So I’ve learned not to fight her when she’s pushy, because chances are she’s pushing me in the right direction.

Third, I’ve learned that all things eventually come full circle. Mom cut her hand the other day, and she asked me to help her clean it. I went for the no-sting antiseptic – yes, this is what we use now. It lives in the medicine cabinet right beside the bottle of alcohol. Although she hardly uses alcohol any more, I guess Mom thinks her household wouldn’t be complete without it.

I couldn’t resist saying, “I’ll get the alcohol.”

Mom said, “No! This … isn’t a wound for alcohol.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What exactly is the kind of wound for alcohol?”

She smirked. “Your wounds.”

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What is a mistake?

For months I’ve been puzzling over the question, sometimes until my head hurt. I’ve read books on the psychology of mistakes, journalistic mistakes, life-altering mistakes, history-changing mistakes. I’ve listened to stories people have told me about the mistakes they believe they’ve made, and for their courage and honesty I will be forever grateful.

Still, after all this, I don’t know if I’ve come any closer to understanding what a mistake really is.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a mistake as an act or judgement that is misguided or wrong. But I’ve found that everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a mistake.

Donald A. Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, makes a distinction between slips and mistakes. According to him, slips occur when we are fully aware of the correct action and intend to carry it out, but somewhere along the way we accidentally make an error. This is what happens in the case of typographical errors, for example. “Most everyday errors are slips,” writes Norman. “Intend to do one action, find yourself doing another.”

Mistakes, on the other hand, are errors that are the direct result of conscious, incorrect decisions. “Mistakes result from the choice of inappropriate goals. A person makes a poor decision, misclassifies a situation, or fails to take all the relevant factors into account.”

Another author, Bill Fawcett, starts by setting out the criterion he used to compile 100 Mistakes that Changed History. “To qualify as a mistake, the error has to be something that the person making it knew better or should have known better than to make. Being outwitted is not a mistake; doing something so stupid that any reasonable person would know it would cost you the battle, your kingdom, or your life is a mistake.”

While I found Fawcett’s book to be quite enlightening and informative as well as entertaining, I find his definition of a mistake rather murky. Does the mistake, then, lie in the outcome of an action? In other words, if something you did had a bad or unexpected outcome, could you claim that it was a mistake even if you knew better than to do it in the first place?

I had a lively discussion about this with a colleague of mine, who said emphatically, “It’s not about outcome, it’s about intent. Kissing a woman you thought was your wife, but turns out not to be your wife, is a mistake. Kissing a woman you know is not your wife is not a mistake.”

I agree that some things are clearly black and white, and substituting “I made a mistake” for “I did something wrong” is the weasel’s way out after being caught in the act: the adulterous spouse, the corrupt politician, the cheating athlete. “I made a terrible mistake,” said Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in an interview 25 years after he had to give back his multiple Olympic medals because he was caught doping.

But what about those times when we try to do something good, only to have it backfire on us? Or those times when something we’ve done that we thought was harmless has consequences we never even imagined? Are these what we could call “honest” mistakes? And why do we have to qualify some mistakes as honest? Is there such a thing as a dishonest mistake?

My head is starting to hurt again.

***

Is it still a mistake if the unexpected outcome is a happy one? Someone told me this story: a man from the Ivory Coast left his fiancée to study in New York City. While he was gone, she had an affair. When the man came back and found her pregnant with the other guy’s child, he decided to marry her anyway, and to bring the child up as his own. Many people likely thought it was a mistake on his part, that it was far more than she deserved. But he did it anyway, and eventually took his wife and her baby girl to live with him in New York City.

On September 11, 2001, that baby girl—now school age—felt sick, and her father decided to stay home with her. So it happened that he did not go to work in his office at the World Trade Centre that day. His “mistake” ended up saving his life.

***

Mistakes can also change the outcome of a person’s life by changing his or her character. One woman told me she regretted not standing up to her bossy older sister when she was younger, especially after one particular incident which left her doubtful of herself and her ability to make her own decisions.

One thing that most people do seem to agree on is that mistakes are valuable—even necessary—for personal growth.

“Mistakes had to be made for me to see that I wasn’t untouchable. That I wasn’t invincible,” said one woman.

Out of all the people I talked to, only one said she thinks the adage “learn from your mistakes” is a trite dismissal of somebody else’s personal, painful, and perhaps damaging experience. “Sometimes it’s not so easy to see what you could possibly learn from all that mess,” she says ruefully.

***

I suppose that in the end, a mistake is something that you think will bring you joy but instead brings you pain. Sometimes we bring it on ourselves; other times we are the unwitting cause of events that unfold beyond our control.

But whether we are culpable or not, and whether the mistake is big or small, I think that if you wait long enough, it can bring you something else, one more thing you didn’t expect or foresee—not pain, not joy, but a lens that allows you to view both pain and joy in unexpected ways.

“Sometimes I feel like my life is just one big mistake on top of another,” said one woman, musing on her marriage. “And then I look to my side and I see this little imp of a monster lying next to me and somehow the mistakes seem less….less grave, less tragic, less of a mistake, because something beautiful came of it.”

A map to the treasure house

Memory is the treasure house of the mind. ~ Thomas Fuller

I once watched a movie, only to get the sneaking feeling, quite near the end, that I had seen it before. No matter—I couldn’t remember the ending, so it wasn’t spoiled for me.

The movie was Identity, and it all takes place in the darkest and deepest recesses of one man’s mind. I see the coincidence only in retrospect, because I have a horror of losing things, and the thing I’m most terrified to lose is my mind. Now, I think the nightmare is coming true. Ask me what I did last weekend, or what my postal code is, and you might just get a blank stare in response. At home, I put something away and then spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to find it a week later. I go to the grocery store for one specific thing, and emerge an hour later with two bulging bags, neither of which contain the thing I came for in the first place. In conversations, suddenly my mind will come to a grinding halt and refuse to yield the proper term for what we’ve been discussing. This handicap gets pretty embarrassing at parties, when I’ve just been introduced to someone but can’t remember his or her name a few minutes later.

National Post columnist Jane MacDougall writes, “I used to have a titanium memory. … It now appears that this faculty has rusted up or even vanished. What has happened? Is my memory now a sieve?” So I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, I know that memory lapses like these are quite normal for most people. But knowing that my problem is not unique does not make it any less inconvenient or frustrating.

Neither does it help that I’m turning 40 soon: the point of life which, in my imagination, resembles the peak of a mountain, where you can stand for a moment, marvel at how far you’ve come, enjoy the view, then go downhill the rest of the way—the key word being “downhill.”  In a book called In the Palaces of Memory, author George Johnson talks about “graceful degradation”—the brain’s gradual deterioration over time. For a technical term, it’s a pretty turn of phrase. It makes me think of a white-haired granny on a vine-covered porch, peacefully rocking her way into oblivion.

But since I’m nowhere near ready for granny-hood or oblivion, there’ll be no peaceful rocking for me. I’m determined not to give up my memory without a fight. And since knowledge is power, I think the first thing to do is to figure out just how memory works. If I could do that, then maybe I will also learn what makes it not work—and how, if possible, to halt or even reverse the process.

~

The workings of the human mind have fascinated scientists for centuries. Archaeological evidence reveals that trepanation (drilling a hole into the skull to expose the brain) was performed as early as 10,000 BC. Hippocrates speculated that the two halves of the brain could function independently, a phenomenon he called “dual processing.” Leonardo da Vinci dissected and drew the anatomy of the brain, in search of “the seat of the soul.”

Today, there is still a lot to learn about the brain, so much so that Allan Jones, CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, describes it as “an unexplored, undiscovered continent…the new frontier.”

Think about it for a minute. The brain contains 86 billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to up to 10,000 other neurons via chemical and electrical connections called synapses. From what I’ve been able to understand with my decidedly non-scientific brain, these neural connections are what enable us to store information in our brains, and to form memories. A short-term memory is first formed and stored in the hippocampus. If the biochemical changes that occur result in a strong enough connection, the short-term memory lives on to become a long-term memory, and goes off to live in another part of the cerebral cortex.

I was also surprised to learn that there are different types of memory. (Or maybe I already learned it in biology class—I simply can’t remember.) There’s episodic memory, which records past events. It’s like a feckless boyfriend: sweet and fun to be with, but tricksy and unreliable. There’s also semantic memory, which holds everything we know about the world: facts, meanings, concepts. Nerdy, but useful, and to a large extent, dependable.

Our different kinds of memories are intertwined, but because they operate in different parts of the brain, one can fail while the other keeps on trucking. This was demonstrated in the case of Henry Gustav Molaison (a.k.a. HM), who in 1953 underwent an operation to quiet his epileptic seizures. Both his hippocampi were removed, and with them went his memories of everything prior to his operation, as well as his ability to make short-term memories. In one subsequent test, he showed he could remember how to draw a star, even if he couldn’t remember the day-to-day process he went through to learn how to do it.

~

So far, I’m fascinated with everything I’m learning about the brain—but questions remain. How do I strengthen my synapses so that my short-term memories can have a shot at longer life expectancy? Should I start taking gingko biloba or ginseng? Or should I stop eating sushi? One friend tells me that memory loss is caused by the presence of toxic metals in our bodies. He recently had all his dental fillings removed, and claims he’s never felt more mentally alert. Particularly menacing is methyl mercury, which tends to accumulate in all fish, but especially in predatory ones. It’s absorbed through the digestive tract and slips into the brain, where it makes itself at home.

“Effects of methyl mercury on infants and children,” counsels one website, “can include a decrease in I.Q., delays in walking and talking, lack of coordination, blindness and seizures. In adults, extreme exposure can lead to health effects such as personality changes, tremors, changes in vision, deafness, loss of muscle coordination and sensation, memory loss, intellectual impairment, and even death.”

Yikes. It’s enough to make me consider drastically reducing my intake of my favourite toro belly.

~

Even without the help of mercury, memories apparently can be erased, shaped and changed with the simple power of suggestion.

In his book Quirkology, psychologist Richard Wiseman describes the experiments of Elizabeth Loftus and Kimberley Wade, who used altered photographs to trick people into changing the memories they had, or to make up entirely new memories of things that never happened to them.

“The work shows that our memories are far more malleable than we would like to believe,” Wiseman writes. “Once an authority figure suggests that we have experienced an event, most of find it difficult to deny it and we start to fill in the gaps from our imagination.”

“Memory is a construct, not a videotape,” agrees George Johnson. “Presented with the same event, different brains will pick different features to put in their memory structures, and they will build them in different ways. It depends, in part, on what is already in storage. Over the years, memories will get pushed together, the arrangements will shift and change.”

The malleability of memory is even celebrated in poetry and prose. “Memories may be beautiful and yet / What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget,” goes the Barbra Streisand classic. And in his essay, “Looking at Emmett Till,” John Edgar Wideman writes, “We depend on memory’s capacity to hold many lives, not just the one we appear to be living at the moment.  Memory is space for storing lives we didn’t lead, room where they remain alive, room for mourning them, forgiving them.”

~

Grappling with her own memory challenges, Jane MacDougall discovered Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th-century German psychologist whose wisdom stands to this day. “According to Ebbinghaus, the trick to retention is something called over-learning. Over-learning is simple: keep doing something until you can do it perfectly again and again. And again. This, or a huge emotional charge, is the only way a memory gets delivered to deep storage.”

So there you have it. Doing something over and over again until you perfect it—that sounds a lot like learning, a lot like working, a lot like living. And huge emotional charges? I’ve had a lot of those in my time, and I hope there’s a lot of them still left in store.

In the meantime, I guess I shouldn’t get too worried, because my long-term memory is just fine. It’s like a locked safe—a treasure house—for everything that is precious and important: beloved faces, past laughter, my nephew’s darling baby toes.

And who cares if I can’t rattle off my postal code on demand? I’ll have you know I still remember the license plate of the guy I had a secret crush on in high school, and I use it now as a password that no one will ever be able to crack. I still know all the lyrics to a hundred songs, and the words to all my childhood prayers.

Even the idea of one day losing my mind has become a little less frightening. The other Sunday in church, my parish priest told a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s who was a regular attendee of the Masses he said at the nursing home where she was a resident. Most of the time she seemed lost and locked away in her own world, but always at the moment of Consecration, she came alive, and recited the words along with him.

“They were words of remembrance, of healing, love, and lucid grace,” he recalled.

I figure we can all work at storing away words like that—words that have the power to bring back our memories and ourselves out of the dark.

Postscript: 17 September 2013

I just came across this ‘op-doc’ in The New York Times: 56 ways of saying ‘I don’t remember.’  It contains a short video of a man with Alzheimer’s, which sounds frightening, but is in fact quite beautiful. In the words of the author, “It is the chronicle of a man who, though he may have lost his memory, his relationship to the past and his command of language, still retained his wit, his sense of humor, his scholarly demeanor and the bearings of a deeply poetic soul.”

The terrible twenties

In her TED talk, “Why 20 is not the new 30,” psychologist Meg Jay urges twenty-somethings to make the most of what she calls this defining decade of their lives, instead of treating it as an extension of their adolescence. “Claiming your 20s,” she says, “is one of the simplest, yet most transformative, things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world.”

It’s a rousing talk, in every sense of the word: it can inspire, but it can also raise ire—mostly the ire of twenty-somethings, judging from the comments on the TED talks website. (“The 20’s are the best years of your life for fun and self exploration. LIVE IT UP!”) There was also this word of consolation from a (presumably) older viewer: “The only thing that matters is being true to yourself, loving yourself and loving those around you. I promise you that if you do those things you will figure out what YOU want and your life will fall into place.”

As a thirty-almost-forty-something, I find myself sympathizing with the twenty-somethings—even as I’m nodding my head in complete agreement with Dr. Jay.

I remember my twenties with painful clarity. The sinking feeling as you realize, “Gee, when I was a teenager, I thought that by the time I was this age, I’d already have travelled to Europe/finished college/gotten married”—you fill in the blanks. There’s the feeling that you’ve stepped across an important threshold…and you have no idea where to go next. And to cover up all this uncertainty, there’s that brash bravado you put on, which tricks only yourself into thinking that you’ve got it together, girl.

To make things even more interesting, when I turned twenty I was still a new immigrant to North America. It was as if I had stepped off the boat, not onto dry land, but into an ocean of perplexities, and I was still trying to navigate this new and very different way of life. I was lucky enough to find a retail job almost right away, which was great for my finances but not so good for my shaky ambitions. “Wow,” I thought, “here I can earn money without getting a degree first.” I thought the way before me was clear: work hard, help my parents support the family, and bide my time until “my life fell into place”—which for me meant meeting a guy, getting married, and having children of my own.

After a couple of years in retail I managed to get into office administration. And, at work, eventually I met a nice guy: charming, intelligent, well-educated, cultured, articulate. We shared the same faith and the same deeply-held beliefs about marriage and family. Oh, and he was single, too. The only other thing he needed in his life was me.

But how to convince him? After spending a lot of time, energy, and feminine wiles on the problem, without getting past the friend zone, I decided to enlist the help of another colleague. A sort of unofficial mentor, he critiqued the bits of writing I did for a local newspaper and encouraged me to start using my real name at work instead of my pet name. Now, he listened intently as I explained my problem. Then he nodded, patted my hand, and promised to take the young man out to lunch and to try to find out what he thought about me—using the utmost discretion, of course.

A week later found me back in my mentor’s office, ready for a blow-by-blow account of the lunch they’d had. I learned that the object of my affections had readily revealed he was not particularly keen on settling down with anyone just yet. That’s okay, I thought with some relief. That means he isn’t interested in anyone else. At least I didn’t have to compete with anybody.

But then my mentor fixed me with a piercing gaze. “Alright, that’s enough about him. Let’s talk about you.”

Me? What about me?

“Yes, you. What does Maria have to bring to the table in this relationship—in any relationship?”

I was completely taken aback. Was he implying that I was in some way inadequate, that I wasn’t good enough?

Turns out that’s exactly what he was getting at. What I had done in life so far to make me a desirable partner?

And in a gentle but no-nonsense way, he helped me see the answer: nothing much at all. It didn’t count that I was an autodidact, an avid reader, a hard worker. There I was, in my mid-twenties, with no university degree, no passionate interests, no ambitions. I had a gift for writing that I was only now starting, very hesitantly, to develop. In other words, I had done nothing to increase, to use Meg Jay’s term, my identity capital.

I will always be grateful to that colleague for being not just a mentor, but a friend who wasn’t afraid to tell me the truth. The truth hurt—but it spurred me to action. I decided to go back to school, do more writing, make new friends, acquire more role models, more skills, more good habits. I learned to compete with nobody but myself. I’m still working on it, still trying, still learning all the time. And I’ve ended up on a path that has strayed very far away from my early dreams. It’s a life I never expected, but it makes me happy every day, because I know that I’m doing more than just what I want to do—it’s what I’m meant to do.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story. For now, let me finish by saying this to you twenty-somethings: don’t let the advice of older folks get your backs up. They have the benefit of experience, which is why they’re willing to give you the benefit of the doubt: that you’re smart enough, strong enough, and old enough to set your own course in life. Make their faith in you count.  Make your own decisions count. And don’t be afraid to compete with yourself—you’ll never know where you’ll end up, or how far you’ll go.

Language lessons

An edited version of this essay was published under the title “Found in translation” in the June–July 2013 issue of Verily Magazine.

One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man. ~ John Berger

Soon after I moved from to Montréal from Vancouver last fall, I signed up for French classes, deciding that learning the language would be a good way to start feeling more at home in my new city. For seven weeks, a dozen of us—each from a different country, each with a different story—talked and laughed and learned together, under the tutelage of our occasionally crazy but very gifted teacher, Nicolas. Thanks to them, I just know I won’t be able to hear or say the words catastrophe and beaucoup-beaucoup-beaucoup without thinking of our evenings together in our cramped little classroom.

Learning a new language, I’ve found, not only enriches you in all the obvious ways—it also helps you appreciate the ones you already know. I got a CD from my aunt in the mail a few weeks ago. Most of the songs are in Tagalog, and I’m finding myself listening to them over and over. Even if English is my first love, and French the language of love, there are some movements of the heart that just cannot be expressed adequately in either. But in Tagalog, the language of my childhood, the words strike chords that resonate far back and deep down to the very core of who I am.

I wasn’t always this appreciative of my mother tongue. I grew up speaking both English and Tagalog, but the former was always my language of choice. My favourite TV show was Sesame Street, the books my mother read aloud to me came from the States, and when I went to school, the medium of instruction was English. I devoured British and American literature, and started winning school prizes for English essay writing.

When my family and I left the Philippines for Canada after I graduated high school, I told myself that at least, unlike many immigrants, I already spoke English. I landed a retail job fairly easily, but to my dismay, my customers constantly asked me to repeat myself. It was humiliating, not to mention bewildering—wasn’t I speaking fluent English? Why didn’t anybody understand me?

Then and there, I made a vow, à la Scarlett O’Hara: As God was my witness, I would never be misunderstood again.

So began several months of hard work to get the accent and colloquialisms of Canadian English just right. I learned to flatten my a’s, round out my o’s, and tack on the occasional eh at the end of my sentences. I learned to call my sneakers runners, not rubber shoes; to say I was going to the washroom, not the comfort room or toilet, and to refer to my humble paper napkin as a fancy-sounding serviette.

Because I don’t look typically Filipino—most people think I’m Chinese—it became even easier to let others assume I was Canadian-born. I knew I’d succeeded when people began to ask me, “Were you born here?” instead of “Come again?” I’ve done it, I thought. I’ve arrived. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, never stopping to consider that in acquiring a new accent, I was at the same time losing my old accent, and therefore a part of myself.

I also started becoming critical of Filipinos who insisted on speaking Tagalog or their own dialect to each other and to their children. We are in Canada now, I reasoned. They should speak English. How will they get ahead otherwise?

I had no idea then how insufferable I was becoming. I also have no idea how my opinions and assumptions about my fellow Filipinos got turned around so that I finally realized I was doing them all a great disservice by judging them solely on the merits of the language they chose to speak.

I think it was a gradual process, drawn out over several years as I wrote feature articles for a Filipino-Canadian magazine based in Vancouver, a job which put me in contact with so many interesting and inspiring men and women. Once I started listening to the stories they told, it no longer mattered what language they used for the telling.

I met Larina, who came to Canada in the early 1980s as a young wife, mother, and doctor. While attempting to obtain her license to practice medicine in British Columbia (BC), she encountered many obstacles due to the fact that she was a woman and a foreigner. She eventually became one of the first doctors in BC to become trained and certified in the relatively new field of addiction medicine. Together with other doctors, she is pioneering protocols for the implementation of province-wide addiction treatment.

I met Angelica, a nurse who organizes medical missions to the Philippines. I met Randy, the artistic director and choreographer of a performing arts group founded by young Filipinos born or raised in Canada to promote and preserve authentic Filipino dance, music, song, and drama. I met Jay, an entrepreneur who co-founded one of the first coworking spaces in Vancouver.

I met Erie, an educator who reads stories in Filipino dialect to children, and Jane, recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for her work with Migrante BC, a non-profit organization dedicated to the welfare of Filipino immigrants, permanent residents and temporary workers in British Columbia. These women, along with mural artist Bert Monterona, are strong proponents of the notion that arts and culture can serve to provoke discussion about social justice.

When I interviewed this last group, they were hard at work on a mural along with several youth members of Migrante BC. From different parts of the Philippines and a range of professional backgrounds, with varying dates of arrival in Canada, they share one thing in common: the immigrant experience. In the murals they paint, they tell their own stories.

I remember being particularly fascinated by a a ghostly figure hovering in the background of one of the mural panels. Cracks stretched across her wispy body and featureless face, and her silhouette was outlined by a dotted white line similar to those drawn around murder victims on TV police shows.

“That’s the identity of this woman,” explained one young artist, pausing in her brushwork to point out a figure facing sideways with her arm outstretched. Overhead, an air plane soars. “She’s leaving her old self behind. So she has to build not only a new life, but also a new self.”

A new life, a new self. But at what price? Staring at that figure, I thought, This is my story, too. And I started to understand how much I’d traded away, so many years ago, for my new Canadian identity.

Recently I heard someone laughingly relate an experience he had at a Tim Hortons coffee shop. “There I was in this little Canadian prairie town, and I walk into the Tim’s and the whole staff is Filipino. None of them could really speak English. I ordered a double latte and got a mint tea.”

There was a time when I would have laughed along with him. Not any more. I turned around to face him. “Filipinos will go anywhere there’s a job. They adapt pretty fast, too. No English? Not for long.”

When I think now of that nameless Filipino woman I defended, I realize just how lucky I was to be able to speak English as a new immigrant. The truth is, English is an indelible part of me. It’s the language in which I speak, write, dream, and pray. And Canada is my home now. But I’ve discovered this past year that it’s never too late to learn a new tongue, nor to dust off an old, half-forgotten one, and to use it again.

More importantly, I’ve learned, as if for the first time, that Filipinos are amazing. It’s estimated that 2.2 million Filipinos work overseas. Some are lucky enough to emigrate with their families, but many must leave spouses and children behind. They are hard-working, creative, innovative, courageously optimistic, generously loving, and unfailingly cheerful, even in the face of the worst trials.

I’m proud to know them, and I’m proud to be one of them. No matter where I live, what citizenship I claim, or what language I speak, these are my people.

Mother fairest

Mom&HarkinI moved across the country to be with my mom last summer, after my dad died. She lives in Montreal, and after a few months I actually managed to find a job, despite my lack of French, so I guess I’ll stick around a while. Mom is happy to have me here, and I’m happy to be here for her. We have family dinner every night when I come home from work. We go grocery shopping at the market, try new restaurants, stroll around the Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday mornings.

Occasionally I invite friends over for dinner with us, and everyone has a great time. Inevitably, whenever I see my friends again after they’ve met my mom, they say, “I love your mom. She is so cool. She’s so beautiful.”

Yep. I know my mom is beautiful. I’ve always known. My dad loved telling the story of how he fell for my mom like a ton of bricks, after she simply smiled at him one day in the university corridor, and said hello. Looking at my mom, it isn’t hard to believe that’s all it took—a smile and a word. I used to watch her put on her make-up and get dressed to go out—a ritual that never failed to fascinate. When she was ready, she’d squirt on some perfume, pick up her handbag, and my dad would whisk her away to some mysterious and grown-up destination. I couldn’t wait to grow up myself, so I could do all those things and be like her—even if I also knew that I looked nothing like my mom, who is tall (for a Filipino), slender, and white-skinned. I, on the other hand, was short and round as a dumpling (still am), with skin deeply brown from playing outside in the tropical sun.

Mom’s favourite book and movie of all time is Gone With the Wind. I was nine years old when I read the book, and even younger when I first watched the movie. In my mind, Mom and Vivien Leigh/Scarlett O’Hara became intertwined, like Scarlett’s idea of her mother Ellen and the Virgin Mary. Both Mom and Vivien/Scarlett were beautiful, but somehow unapproachable. You could love them, admire them, even revere them, but you could never get too close.

Scarlett’s mother Ellen was a benign and gentle presence, but my mom was a force to be reckoned with. She didn’t hesitate to pour alcohol on my scraped knees, made me eat whatever was put on the table, and spanked me when not even a certain look in her eye could stop me from misbehaving. I had a curfew well into my teens, and when I didn’t do well at school, she would demand to know the reason why. Very often, especially when I was a teenager, she exasperated me, infuriated me, drove me to tears. I remember once telling her, “You make me feel ugly.” I was sixteen years old, that time in any girl’s life when looks matter the most. It’s also the time when you are fully convinced that you are in fact ugly, and even if it’s likely all in your head, it isn’t any less painful. So making me feel ugly was the worst accusation I could hurl at her, and I chose it and aimed it with deadly purpose. I meant it to hit home and to hurt. I believe it did.

I’m not sure exactly when I stopped holding my mother apart in fearful awe and started glimpsing other sides to her I’d never known were there: her shyness, her sensitivity, her quirky sense of humour. Maybe it was when I stopped wishing, with one half of me, that I was more like her, and vowing, with the other half, never to become like her. I stopped pitting myself against her and started putting myself in her shoes. What was it like, I started to wonder, to be married and pregnant with your first child at nineteen years old? What was it like to have your parents and sisters move half a world away? What was it like to uproot yourself and your family and start over in another country when most of your friends have settled down and started enjoying the fruits of their prosperity? Would I have made different choices, or done any of the same things any better?

I think I’ve gotten to know my mom a little better this first year without my dad. We’ve spent a great deal of time together, just the two of us, and I’ve had the chance to ask some of the questions I’ve always wanted to ask her. We laugh a lot, and when we need comfort we can do that for each other too. Mostly I think she’s doing alright, except for those moments when she suddenly becomes profoundly conscious that she is alone. Her sorrow is our sorrow, too, and we all miss my dad terribly, but only she has lost the love of her life. Of all the kinds of pain, that must be the loneliest.

Once she talked about feeling the double weight of the family on her shoulders. It’s a new and different dimension of loss: not only was my dad the love of her life, he was also her partner and helpmate. Now, the responsibility as head of the family rests on her alone.

But I think she’s stronger than she thinks she is. I listened to her, two days a widow, giving consolation over the phone to my dad’s sister who couldn’t come to the funeral. I’ve watched her this whole past year step up gamely to do things she’s never had to do before, like take the car for tune-ups and tire changes, deal with accountants and bank officers, pay the bills. I’ve seen her deal with people and problems with more compassion, serenity and optimism than I could ever muster.

I’ve always known my mom was beautiful. But now I’m finding that there are other kinds of beauty, and that the most important kind isn’t always the most obvious. I suppose I’ve also become more comfortable in my own skin. There are times when I still find myself feeling ugly, but I know that nobody is to blame for that (except maybe my hormones). I know I didn’t get my mom’s looks, and that’s ok. I sincerely hope I got some of the other stuff, the stuff that counts: her big heart, her inner strength, her faithful love. But only time will tell. In the meantime, I still have a lot to learn. That’s ok too, because Mom can teach me.

 

The tradition of reading

One of my first memories of my mother is of her voice reading out loud to me, and of her hands holding up the book and turning the pages. I remember it was a book of nursery rhymes, and my favourite began, The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea / In a beautiful pea green boat. / They took some honey, and plenty of money / Wrapped up in a five-pound note. I remember the two of us in her big bed, with the wind blowing in through the jasmine vine outside her window and wafting us with scent.

One day, when I asked her to read aloud to me as usual, she said, “You can read it yourself.” Taken aback, I said I couldn’t read. She put the book in my hands and said, “Try.” So I did. And to my astonishment—I could. I could read!

After that, there was no stopping me. I devoured all the books I could get my hands on. My parents had a fairly well-stocked bookcase, and they joined countless buy-a-book plans to get us the World Book Encyclopedia, a set of Childcraft, and the Time Life series on great civilizations and on art. I read fairy tales and folk tales, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden. The Little House books. The Secret Garden. I read Gone With the Wind when I was nine or ten. Then on to the classics: all of Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery. Jane EyreThe Diary of Anne FrankLorna DooneRebecca. In high school I went through an unfortunate period of teen romance books, but those led me to Barbara Cartland and other historical romances, and finally, in a roundabout sort of way, back to the classics: Jane Austen, the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot.

Occasionally I liked to read ghost stories that kept me up at night (and I still do) – imagining all sorts of sinister reasons for every sound in the dark. The Woman in Black, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and more recently, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. A short story called The Yellow Wallpaper still sends shivers down my spine whenever I think of it.

I started sending books to my nephew when he was still quite young: they were the easiest things to wrap and send by mail. And of course, in my reasoning, no other gift could bring more pleasure. My sister also started reading to him early. Together they’ve gone through the Chronicles of NarniaThe Hobbit, and all of Harry Potter.

Now, to my great delight, he’s reading the books by himself. The King in the Window, and The Neverending Story, which my sister tells me he couldn’t put down, and took with him everywhere. How well I know the feeling!

It’s been a bit of a challenge to find him the sort of books he would enjoy—somehow I don’t think Little Women or Little House would go over very well. But it’s a challenge I’m happy to meet. For his birthday I’ve found Tom’s Midnight Garden. Before I give it to him, though, I’m going to read it myself. It’s been years since I last did, and I remember being captured, along with Tom, that summer midnight when the faulty grandfather clock in the story strikes thirteen. It will be like getting re-acquainted with an old, long-lost friend.

And once in a while a book comes along, and although you’ve just met, somehow you know you’ll be friends for life. I found such a book just the other week: The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s sitting on my desk as I write, as we both wait for a time when I can finally pick it up and give it my undivided attention.

Because you see, books—I’m firmly convinced—are like people. They can be wonderful company. They tell you stories, make you laugh and cry, give you good ideas, advice, and inspiration. Some of them can change your life. Just one of them changed mine—that book of nursery rhymes. If my mother hadn’t read to me, who knows what I would have ended up doing. But she did, and what adventures I’ve had, ever since I first set off in that beautiful, pea-green boat.