A Fish Out of Ice

Stargazing was not just a favorite pastime that both relaxed and entertained me while I agonizingly waited in my home country for the approval of our immigration application to Manitoba. It was a ritual of hatching that dream to fruition.

On good nights, I enjoyed my time in our balcony, watching the heavens passed me by, while the stars winked at me invitingly, never in a hurry, unmindful of the clouds that raced past them. Penetrating thoughts came to me: What lies beyond those stars in the deep, dark universe? How vast is all that outer space? What’s an astronaut’s life like? The more I thought, the more those thoughts got scary. Migrating to an entirely different and a faraway place is akin to embarking on a journey to the Unknown. I had images of scenes from the pages of   “Little House on the Prairie” flashing through my mind, and wondered what the settler-families were up to themselves in their covered wagon as they traveled a long time ago in the past.

With advancing age shaking my self-confidence, I found comfort in the dreamer in me, exciting and convincing myself that the stars had already foretold my destiny. I strongly believed that my family and I would be fulfilling our Canadian Dream in Heaven’s Time.

As the stars beckoned, we braced ourselves for the Long Haul.

Born and lived in a tropical island country in the western Pacific, we were filled with both excitement and fear about resettling in the land of ice and many things nice. Will we be like fish out of water even if our homeland is an archipelago with more than 7,100 islands (depending on the tides)? Here we were, off to a journey to the prairie land of opportunity, as vast as its eye-popping 110,000 lakes icing up in winter!

The demographic contrasts were so astounding we could not help, but think how our emigration would somehow help tilt the balance of space. We had hoped to create some valuable breathing space for four persons in a dense population of about 100 million (number 12 in the world), crowding in  300,000 square kilometers of land area, and add more warm bodies to some 35 million (ranked 37th in the world), sparsely distributed in over 9.9 million square kilometers of territorial space. To illustrate better: two Philippines can fit in the province of Manitoba, whose enclave totals more than 600,000 square kilometers for a scant 1.2 million population, and still leave lots of elbow room and fresh air in the process.

Numbers, like the infinity of the universe out there, can overawe. Every time I gazed at the stars to search for answers, they glistened, and I tried to listen.

The upshot of this narrative was literally 30,000 feet in the air, as we, a family of four, rode our first intercontinental flight, pinching ourselves in disbelief that we were looking down on postcard-perfect Christmas villages as our Air Canada plane made its descent to our transit city of “Winterpeg.” A warm welcome from unbelievably supportive Filipino friends, who gathered to meet us, was simply overwhelming amid a backdrop of flurries. The sight of a row of prettily weathered houses on treed Inkster Street and the winter breeze stirred me back to reality. Everything seemed ethereal for a Piscean like me. Surprising myself, I blurted out that I had already seen those houses in my dream!

More than we can express in words was the gratitude we felt for the accommodation we got from our host-couple friends who welcomed us heartily in the warmth of their home in the quiet southeastern city of Steinbach, which was to be our second home away from home.

With all its amenities, the city is unique because of one cab or two plying their routes. There are no buses or trains either. My winter boots that landed me on black ice one time were still my best mode of mobility then. Did I travel back in time?

But the people, oh, how kind they are! Strangers will readily greet you on the street; their friendliness going a notch higher in their eagerness to help in small and big doses. I walked a distance to shop for groceries in a nearby convenience store. A car stopped by and offered me a ride home to our rented unit. She could not bear to see me clutching three bags of groceries as I trod carefully the snow-covered sidewalk. Surprised, I did not know whether to accept or politely decline. I hopped in her car even if my house was only two blocks away at that point. She dropped me off and made a U-turn. Awesome!

I got a job taking care of two German-Canadian toddlers, who called me by my first name. I was shocked. My culture required us to give respectful terms of addressing older people, such as Aunt Tess (even if you’re not related to each other), followed by the symbolic kissing of the hand. But, respect is shown in many other ways. I got used to it.

The kids were as much surprised as I was in how culturally different we were from one another. I happened to stand with my back on a brown door to the four-year-old girl’s astonishment, “You and the door matched!” Another time, I was teaching both her and her two-year-old brother a hand song when she stopped midway, and with eyes wide open she exclaimed, “Look, one side of your hand is white, the other is dark.” The words were not the right comparatives, but the discovery taught her that people have different, wondrous skin shades, much like the autumn leaves around her.

Hence, I learned that my ethnic color will not let me blend easily with my new surroundings, if I wanted to camouflage myself. But that is not the point of adapting. Canada is a multi-cultural country, built by immigrants who stand on fair footing, despite their ethnic differences. Being different is enough reason to adapt well. Here, everybody is encouraged to retain their individuality. Language proficiency in English or French, though, is crucial in how successfully one can adjust. My English may be good enough. However, learning some local expressions and adjusting intonation may allow me greater ease in interacting well. I noted how Canadians say a lot of “eh” in an interestingly wavy tone in their speech. Back in my home country, we punctuate our sentences with “eh,” too, but in a different way.

With all its sights and sounds, this adventure is a journal in progress, as if I am in a Time Machine of sorts. What stands out is the wealth of artifacts that the people here treasure, keeping alive their history in their everyday life: vintage vehicles that are still road-safe, kitchen utensils and countless collectibles that have been preserved in excellent condition up to this time. What remains Greek to me, however, is…curling, which I still associate with a salon thing. As for angling, I am still perplexed why, after hours of waiting for that all-important bite, an angler will shout for joy, after which carefully take out his catch only to throw it back into the lake. Lucky fish!

One unforgettable experience that we, as aliens to an icy landscape, will never forget was the instance when we got ditched last winter on the stretch of Caledonia Road in Ste. Anne at the height of a blizzard. Arriving on the heels of typhoon “Haiyan,” which was, historically, the strongest typhoon ever recorded, on landfall at 315 km/h, a blizzard even stronger than 60 km/h would be a sweetheart. But the ghostly snowstorm encounter on an unbelievably starry night, with icy winds hissing at ground level like J.K. Rowling’s “Dementors” out to suck you, had me and my husband bundled in the car, after futile attempts of shoveling our way out of that situation, surrendering all our cares to the night sky, and begging for angels to rescue us. They did come. A teenage couple in a truck came from the long road behind and towed us out, and before we could give a final wave of ‘thank you,’ disappeared in the darkness.

Mystified, we could not believe what had happened. One moment, I thought we’d end up like frozen mooneyes. With chills petrifying, the starry night gave us hope and a chance to bounce back with resiliency and humor. After praying, we entertained ourselves by describing the star formations. And I always had trouble looking for the Little Dipper in the north sky, reminding me that even with rolls and rolls of toilet paper, I still sorely missed my plastic dipper in the washroom back home.

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