On true love and diets

My baby sister is in the throes of a new relationship. Seeing the way her eyes shine whenever she says his name, I can’t help but remember how I felt when I was about her age, getting to know someone special and exciting. I remember the uncontrollable smile spreading over my face, the butterflies in my stomach. But then, as the weeks went by, I also felt, rather strangely, a twinge of sadness. First time to hold hands, first tentative kiss—it’s a time of thrilling firsts that, unfortunately, will never come again. Love flares, then it changes, mellows out, and only time will tell if it’s the real thing, the kind that lasts forever.

Lots of people nowadays, I’m told, want true love as much as ever, but don’t really believe that it exists. I think maybe it’s because we’re reading all the wrong love stories. You know, the ones in which the characters are beautiful and young. They have their whole lives before them, and every day is a romance.

In real life, we get to find out if it’s true love at the end of the story, not at the beginning. That’s why in real love stories, the characters are usually old—or at least, no longer young. They have a weatherbeaten look about them, because they’ve been through a few storms. But, like this couple I read about this week, they stuck together till the end.

I think we need to tell each other a lot more stories like this.

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I’ve also been thinking about something else that’s rather more prosaic: diets.

A friend of mine who runs the kitchen at a conference centre gave me some of her expert tips on how to come up with healthy, affordable and interesting menus. So I’ve been trying it out, and I’ve found that a little time invested every week, going through recipes and making lists, really makes a difference. Now Mom and I know exactly what and how much to buy before even setting foot in a grocery store. And we’ve had some delicious, healthy meals, making the most of what’s in season.

I found some great printable templates here. There’s a variety of formats so you can choose what works best for you. I like this one from A Feathered Nest, which combines a weekly menu plan with a shopping list on just one sheet that you can take  to the grocery store with you.

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Another interesting article I read this week talks about media diets. What is your media diet? asks Publishing Perspectives. Hmmm. Never thought about it before. But you know how you start by looking at your diet when you want to start eating healthier? Scrutinizing your media diet could also have the same kind of benefit.

So here’s mine.

During the week I get the news and other items of interest by scanning my Twitter and Facebook feeds for updates from the National Post, Real Simple magazine, Mental Floss, and a few other publications and personalities. I’ve also started to regularly check out the “This Day in History” section of history.com.

I watch the occasional Ted Talk or documentary on the internet, but I rarely watch the news on TV and I never listen to the radio.

I subscribe to the print edition of the National Post weekend paper, which I read cover-to-cover on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. I also subscribe to the print edition of the National Geographic and Verily Magazine, which I keep in various handy places around the house so I can pick them up and read an article or two whenever I have a few minutes to spare. I also subscribe to the digital edition of Creative Nonfiction, but I’m finding that I don’t get nearly as much pleasure from it as from my printed magazines. So I’ve taken to buying up their printed back issues when they go on sale.

And yes, Publishing Perspectives, I still do end my day with a book. Actually I always have at least three books going: one for fun, one for educational or research purposes, and a spiritual one.

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit it: when it comes to media—especially printed media—I’m a bit of a glutton. But at least you don’t get fat from intellectual calories.

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Last but not least—I found a writing buddy! We’ve agreed to work together, not to critique each other’s work, but to keep each other on top of our writing goals. I’ve never been accountable for my writing to anybody except my editors, so this should be an interesting endeavour, and hopefully a fruitful one as well, for both of us.

It’s one of my goals to post something new here at least once a week. So thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

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.