I am a first-generation Filipino-Canadian, and that’s a lot of responsibility.
My family and I immigrated to Canada in 2001. We walked out of the airplane terminal hungry, aching, and tired. Winnipeg’s airport had their logo plastered on every window and airport pamphlet. They even had a small arcade and play structure on the second floor. Children gathered around the arcade machines as their parents pored over flight documents.
My hands clutched a children’s colouring book and a four-colour pack of crayons from our flight. I covered a photo of jungle animals almost completely in green, especially the hippo. I named every animal and scribbled a quick life story above each of them. I knew each story by heart back then, but I can hardly remember the details now. I loved storytelling and found every excuse to write.
My dream was to become an author. Even at eight years old, I was determined to get a foothold in writing. I hugged my colouring book like a prized possession as I walked through the airport.
“Picturing for the remembering,” Mom said. She always said that to convince my siblings and I to take photos with her. We stood in a hallway between the bathroom and a random waiting area.
My father wanted to commemorate our 18-hour flight from the Philippines to Winnipeg. He held his point-and-shoot camera up to one eye, squinted, and yelled, “Smile!”
Mom and Dad had a way of recording every moment on camera, even the mundane ones. I hated getting my picture taken, but this moment was an exception. This flight was my family’s first time on an airplane and our first time moving to a foreign country.
I was the second child to thirty-something-year-old parents. They had left their family, friends, and jobs behind for what they hoped was an opportunity at a better life.
Migrating to Canada was my parents’ dream. They believed it would improve our family’s chance of finding good jobs. I thought following your passion was enough to find fulfilling and stable work. I didn’t understand that as a first-generation immigrant, I had to ensure my family’s well-being — even if it meant giving up my dreams. To my parents, becoming a writer wasn’t a good plan. They did everything they could to guide me to a “financially stable profession.”
But I wanted to become a writer — and my parents didn’t understand how badly I wanted it.
The Early 2000s
Before coming to Canada, my parents earned a middle-class income in the Philippines. Mom had worked as a federal government accountant commissioner. Dad had been an information technology specialist for Pag-IBIG Fund, a government-owned corporation. They were able to afford two nannies, one to watch us kids and another to do chores. Before we moved, I didn’t have to do anything more than be a kid.
Once in Canada, my brother, sister, and I took turns washing the dishes and setting the dinner table on weekdays. My short frame barely stood over the kitchen sink, so I used a step stool. I always left the dishes too soapy; my mom had to rewash them.
On weekends, we helped Mom haul laundry to and from our apartment’s laundry room. There were two sets of washers and dryers on every floor. Our 16th-floor apartment sat at the end of the hallway, beside the emergency stairs.
Our apartment building, stood directly in front of Central Park in downtown Winnipeg. The building, like others around the community park, mostly housed immigrant families — many of them were my neighbours, classmates, and friends.
Eventually, Mom and Dad grew frustrated at our worsening financial situation. Keeping up with my chores and schoolwork was the only things I could do as a child to ease my parents’ worry.
I considered my mom and dad to be strict parents. Everyone had to come home at the same time daily. We slept at the same time, at 8 p.m. on the dot. Our parents told us to sleep even if we weren’t tired.
The three of us kids shared one bedroom. We waited until our parents shut their bedroom door. As soon as they settled down to sleep, we closed our door and worked on our art.
I cracked open a new page in my journal. The blank page stared back at me, waiting for me to pen my next great creation. My youngest sister, Giselle, worked on her drawings for our comic book about a girl with magical powers. My older brother Alvin sat cross-legged on his bed playing his Game Boy.
There were times I forgot to close the door right after our parents fell asleep. When my dad caught us awake past bedtime one night, we quickly jumped back into bed.
“Stop playing and go to sleep,” my dad said and slammed our bedroom door shut behind him. Dad worked early the next morning.
But I wasn’t playing. I was practicing my future craft.
My parents’ priority was to provide for our family, but their university education and work experience from the Philippines didn’t count for much in Canada. They had to start over. Mom and Dad worked short-term, menial jobs while attending evening courses.
Nearly every night, I peeled open a can of sardines in tomato sauce and poured its entirety into a bowl. I dumped a heaping pile of hot white rice onto a plate — this was breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I ate it because it’s all we had.
After I ate dinner and completed my homework, I opened my journal again and continued writing.
My family and I moved out of 411 Cumberland after my sister graduated grade school. I shoved my toys, clothes, and notebooks into one box. It felt like I had plenty of stuff, but it barely covered my new room.
I’d never had my own room before. Even when we lived in the Philippines, we shared one king-size bed and a bunk bed between the five of us. Our nannies slept in the guest bedroom. We were cramped, but it was normal — I thought all families lived like that.
We moved into a two-storey character home, and my brother started his first day at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute shortly after. Giselle and I joined my brother a few years later.
Throughout high school, I stuck to my studies and after-school clubs. I’ve always been introverted, but the extracurriculars I took made me look like a social butterfly.
I joined the human rights club, Youth in Philanthropy (YiP), and track and field every week. I earned a spot on the honour roll in my senior year. I wanted to show Mom and Dad my drive and determination — and I needed to do it fast. University application deadlines were coming quickly, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy with the schools my parents chose for me.
Mom wasn’t afraid to drop hints. Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities sat on our dining table. It was open to a page about nursing programs. I dragged the Filipino Journal’s latest issue over top of it.
I grew up reading Winnipeg’s Filipino community journals. Mom and Dad tucked copies of the Filipino Journal and Pilipino Express News Magazine in plastic bags between cartons of eggs and loaves of bread.
Mom would run her fingers over every sentence, the newspaper ink dyeing her fingertips. The journals featured the month’s latest Filipino wedding anniversaries, festivals, or debuts.
In senior year, I applied for my high school’s Career Internship Program. If you were chosen, you were given a three-week internship in the job of your choice. Students were also taught how to write a resume and cover letter. We even staged mock interviews.
Ms. Hansen, the Career Internship Program supervisor, handed me the internship application form and smiled at me. I wearily smiled back. I filled out the form but left the occupation section empty.
“Filling the occupation part doesn’t mean I’m stuck with the job forever, right?” I asked.
She laughed a little and shook her head. “Of course not. It’s just an internship.” Ms. Hansen replied. “You’re just trying it out.”
I signed and completed the form. Now all I had to do was wait for my internship placement.
The industrial-sized hose hissed as it blasted dirt off the pots and pans. I’d been standing over the sink for almost an hour. My fresh white apron was heavily soiled even though it was my first day wearing it.
Ellice Café & Theatre slowly finished its lunch rush. Inside the kitchen, prep cooks began chopping ingredients for the dinner service. I felt a nudge on my shoulder. Another prep cook placed even more dirty dishes in the sink.
I wished I had written “writer” on the internship form instead of “culinary arts.” I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but in every decision I made, I thought about my parents and our past hardships.
Thankfully, washing dishes made the time pass quickly.
“Do you like working at the restaurant?” my dad asked. “Are you going to be a chef now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe? I’m just trying it out,” I replied. “I think I –”
“You can always be a nurse,” my mom said, cutting me off mid-sentence. I didn’t want to have this conversation again. I picked my plate off the dining table and headed towards the stairs.
“I want to be a writer,” I said, turning around to face my parents. We stayed there in silence.
“What kind of job can you even get with that?” my mom asked.
I grabbed a Filipino community journal and pointed at its front-page article.
“I can be a journalist,” I said in reply. “It’s what I want to do.”
Of course, I understood where my parents were coming from. To them, jobs like nursing were more stable than a communications job, but I couldn’t give up on my dream. I still wanted my parents to be proud of me, so instead of folding, I haggled.
We fought over my future up until my first day at The University of Winnipeg in 2011. We were still arguing four years later after my brother graduated from Red River College’s Business Information Technology program. It felt like a ceasefire was impossible.
Giselle, my younger sister, is the academic one. She consistently earned the highest grades in her classes. She took two AP courses in high school. Giselle gave my parents exactly what they wanted: One of their children was finally a nurse.
After a long shift, Giselle took her coat off, revealing her crumpled nursing scrubs underneath. Her thick black hair was messed up from the bus ride home. She pulled her glasses off and wiped them on the cuff of her shirt.
It was a little past six o’clock in the evening. Our family had started dinner without her again.
“Why is it so busy today?” she said as she pulled her badge off. The badge detailed Giselle’s full name and her job title, registered nurse.
Giselle works at Deer Lodge Centre. She says she enjoys her job, even though it can get hectic. My parents were able to convince her that nursing was the right career path. Long days and overtime work are things she expects.
“I think it’s just been kind of passed down through generations that nursing is a stable job,” said Giselle. “They see it more as the most financially stable job, so their kids don’t have to struggle.”
I graduated from The University of Winnipeg in 2017 with a three-year BA in Developmental Studies. It wasn’t the degree I wanted, but it made my parents happy. Their smiles and sighs of relief were worth it. After years of arguing over university majors and course loads, we finally found common ground.
“Congratulations!” my cousin Christina commented. She’s a registered nurse in the Philippines and usually the first to reply to celebratory posts. My dad posted a photo of us in front of The University of Winnipeg on Facebook. Dad simply captioned the photo as “Alyssa’s Graduation.” It didn’t take long for the comment section to grow.
“Congratulations po Tito Arnold, Tita Rose & Alyssa!” my cousin Marissa, who is also a nurse, commented on the post. Soon, many more extended family members shared their congratulations. I peeked over Mom’s shoulder as she continued reading comments. Almost everyone who commented congratulated my parents. I knew my dad tagged me in the photo. Maybe my relatives forgot to tag me in the comments, I thought.
Then I realized: Graduating university wasn’t my accomplishment alone. It belonged to my parents, too.
I sat near the dining table and shovelled pieces of my graduation ube cake (or purple yam cake) in my mouth. I had eaten that cake many times before, but it tasted sweeter that day. My other hand flipped open another page of the Filipino Journal. Every page celebrated the Manitoba-Filipino community’s accomplishments and celebrations. But there are so many that don’t make it in the journal.
I noticed that Filipinos are in all types of industries, including healthcare, business, and politics, but only a handful of us are in communications. I didn’t grow up with communications role models the way my sister had nurses to look up to, like my cousins Christina and Marissa.
I got up and rifled through our newspaper box. There are Filipinos in the communications industry, but I had to look for them.
Role models in the communications industry
Randell Mauricio and I are both immigrants.
He and his family migrated to Canada in 1989. Randell said he’d always been a shy, introverted kid but found confidence through theatre and videography.
“My parents realized [my creative side] since I was a young child,” said Randell. “You can ask them to put on home videos, and it’s typically me singing or dancing.”
After graduating from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2009, Randell landed a casual part-time sports news anchor position at CTV News Winnipeg. After only a few weeks at the station, he got a call from CBC Manitoba. They wanted to hire him as a full-time reporter.
As a CBC reporter, what he covered changed daily. Some days he reported heartfelt human-interest pieces, and on other days crime. CBC’s The National even featured his stories.
Today, Randell is the vice president of client success at WorkerBee.TV, a video content marketing company. He works with clients instead of in front of the camera.
“The reason it was an easy transition for me from CTV to CBC to what I’m doing now is it’s still related,” said Randell. “There’s a lot of creativity in what we do. We’re in video marketing, video communications, [and] that spells creativity.”
Randell shook my hand as he walked me to WorkerBee.TV’s front door.
“Have you met Chester Pangan yet? From CKJS 810 AM?” Randell asked. “He’s a great guy. You should speak to him.”
Chester Pangan is the production manager and weekday morning radio host for CKJS 810 AM’s radio show Good Morning Philippines and Saturday radio show, Tunog Pinoy Pang-Sabado, which means “Sounds like Saturday” in Tagalog.
A week after contacting Chester, my phone’s email notification sound rang. Chester seemed like a busy guy. I didn’t expect him to reply at all.
I quickly scrolled through my phone as I struggled to find Chester’s email reply.
You can come in around 11 a.m., Alyssa. Let’s just meet here at the station. Just park out back and buzz through the side door, and we’ll let you in. See you on Saturday. Take care.– Chester
A blizzard tore through the city the day before. Thick stacks of snow completely covered the path leading to the side door. I almost got lost. Chester’s son, Justice, led me to the radio station booths.
Chester grew up in the radio business. His dad is a host for one of the largest broadcasting stations in Pampanga, Philippines — RW 95.1 FM. He also completed a degree in mass communication from Angeles University Foundation in the Philippines.
“I didn’t really need it because I had so much experience from working at the family radio station,” said Chester. “I pretty much had a job, but I did it anyway.”
Chester immigrated to Canada in 2001 and started working at CKJS shortly after. He’s been with the station ever since.
“You got to love what you do,” said Chester.
More role models
Life these days
After getting accepted into the Creative Communications program at Red River College in 2018, I was on my way to reaching my goal of a career in communications.
It was a little past midnight. My school project partner and I had created a Facebook Page to promote our podcast “Because It’s 2019.” My eyes slowly shut as I pressed “share” on our Facebook post. It was my third day in a row with less than six hours of sleep.
“I like your podcast,” my mom said at dinner the next day. I looked up at her with a puzzled look on my face.
“Oh yeah. I heard your podcast, too,” my dad said. “I like it.” I had no idea how they listened to the podcast.
I quickly checked my Facebook notifications. I had promoted the podcast to everyone on my friends list, including my parents. I only meant to send the post to my classmates and friends.
“I sent your podcast to my friends, too,” my mom continued. “They liked it. Maybe you can get a job in radio.”
Manitoba’s labour forecast reports show that communications and arts-related jobs are on the rise, including journalism. Authors and writers have 300 new job openings between 2018-2024. These numbers are still lower than jobs like healthcare, but they get better every year.
What changed my parents’ minds were labour statistics like these. It reassures them I have a future in the communications industry.
My parents didn’t argue this time around. They know I’m capable of attaining a financially stable job — even though it’s not nursing. Mom and Dad are in my corner now.
I’m a few weeks away from starting my professional communications career. I think the Filipino community represents a large number of immigrants in Manitoba, and we are also creatives. We are a community of talented dancers, singers, writers, and photographers. I’m glad I took a risk and pursued my dream to work in communications, and I know my younger self would be proud of me, too.