Moved: Manila - Toronto - Kenya

Makes: Living Hyphen magazine and writing/communications

One of my favourite things about Justine is that she’s happy to point out her own faults while she’s trying to make the world aware of its own. Whether it’s calling out her own problematic behaviour while talking about travel as an Asian woman or being open about her outdated preconceptions of Africa, her candour inspires you to think about your own behaviour. The communications and marketing strategist is an advocate for social change, with her experiences working and living across different continents fuelling her work in diversity and representation. It’s also created an acute sense of self awareness that’s evident from the onset of our interview. She shares her Filipina roots, her Canadian upbringing and her journey to understand her questions around home, identity and belonging.

Where did you grow up and how has that shaped who you are today?

I was born in Manila, Philippines but left when I was four to Toronto, Canada where I’ve spent most of my life. In hindsight, I spent very little time in Manila, but this is critical for me to mention because those first four years and the few summers I spent there afterwards, were incredibly formative. It rooted me to the Philippines and our people, culture, and traditions.  My Filipina roots have everything to do with who I am today and there is no aspect of my life that it does not touch.

But really, to say that I grew up in Canada would be more accurate. I was raised in the suburbs just outside of Toronto - first in Scarborough, then in Markham - and if you know the Greater Toronto Area, you know how ethnically rich and diverse these suburbs are. Growing up in such a multicultural environment has shaped the lens through which I view so much of the world. I grew up with friends with roots from all over the world and every day was like a glimpse into new cultures and traditions that were so vastly different from mine, but that also held so many of the same values.

I don’t think I appreciated this at all growing up because back then, it was just a given. It was my every day and I knew nothing else. But having seen more of the world as an adult, I realise how unique and special that childhood was and how that fertile ground nourished the seeds for my work as an advocate for diversity and representation today.

You had questions around identity that led you to go back home to live in Manila back in 2011. What was that about?

Growing up, I never felt particularly Filipino. My family never really adhered to cultural traditions or kept up with the larger diasporic community the way many other Filipinos did. That always made me feel like a watered-down version of what a Filipino is supposed to be.

But of course, I am also undeniably Filipino. Despite having spent very little time in the country, I have always felt this magnetic pull towards this place where I was born and where all my family was born, towards this heritage that I so proudly wear on my skin...that IS my skin.

When I graduated university in 2011, I became enamoured with our history, devoured books by our national writers, and longed for this place I so often called “home”, but never actually, physically was. And so I went back. And I decided I would stay for longer than the two weeks that my family usually allotted in the summers for visits. I stayed for three months and did an internship with an advocacy organisation while I was there in an attempt to “live like a local” and feel more at “home” in this place that had always eluded me. I thought maybe going on my own terms meant that I could finally find some answers to the questions that I’d been asking about my hyphenated Filipino-Canadian identity.

And did you manage to find any answers?

It’s complicated! But speaking honestly, I left that trip with more questions than answers. And it left me hungry to learn more about who I am and where I come from. I wrote this blog back in 2011 when I got back from my trip and I’ll let 21-year-old Justine answer this question for you:

“This trip has been in every sense a journey...not just an exploration of some country, but of my roots. On so many occasions during my time there, I felt national pride for a country I've barely spent any time in. Yes, I was born there and am, by blood, a Filipina...and yet, I've spent my life in Canada and for the past nearly two decades, that has been my home. It's an odd feeling. When I read José Rizal's books (our national hero), look into the faces of the people, look out into the country's natural landscape, travel through the madness of its streets, I can't help but feel such a strong affinity for and kinship with this place…

I'll never forget the time we were watching Manny Pacquiao's fight and the Philippine national anthem came on. Naturally, everyone rose to their feet. I don't know why but it took me aback...I've never had to get up for any other anthem but Canada's before. And I didn't know the words...I've only ever known Canada's. I am Canadian after all. And yet, as I stood there watching and listening to the people sing the anthem, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmingly patriotic. And it isn't just patriotism either, there's this familial feeling too where everyone, even strangers, becomes your Tita, Tito, Kuya, or Ate (aunt, uncle, big brother, or big sister).

It's like I've stumbled on to these unvisited corners of myself...and what a surprise to find them miles away from "home" (now a fluid word). And it's even more perplexing to hold on to these pieces and not know quite yet how and where to fit them all in the bigger puzzle that is myself…”

So no, I didn’t really find any concrete answers. But I think that was the point. It led me on a more nourishing path where I would spend the next few years embracing my culture from a diasporic lens.

What did that entail and how did that experience impact you?

I didn’t know it then of course, but that trip back home to the Philippines was the very start of my journey in creating something of my own. I spent the next few years ruminating over questions of identity, home, and belonging, and reaching out to various people of different diasporas to learn more about their experiences and cultivate community.

It led to my creation of Living Hyphen - a journal that examines the experiences of hyphenated Canadians – that is, individuals who call Canada home but who have roots in different, often faraway places. I launched the inaugural issue just last October and it is jam-packed with short stories, photography, poetry, and illustrations from artists and writers all across Canada hailing from over thirty ethnicities, religions, and Indigenous nations. The breadth of representation is something that I’m so proud of!

After so much soul searching, I had finally created the space that I had been hungry for all my life, a space to safely navigate all the beautiful contradictions of being a part of multiple places, cultures, and peoples - and most importantly, to do so in community and in solidarity with so many other wonderful humans!

Beyond this experience with your homeland, you’ve travelled quite extensively and I know that has informed so much of your professional path. Tell me/us more about your experience between and across cultures and how that inspires your work.

I first got a taste of the sweet travel life after my second year of university when I spent a summer in the Czech Republic. I was taking a summer abroad course in European politics where we would spend four days in the classroom and for the rest of the week, we’d hit the road to different cities and countries around Central Europe to continue our learning.

For the first time in my life, I saw my textbooks come alive. I wasn’t just reading about these places where monumental political agreements were signed, where wars were waged and battles fought, where kings and queens ruled, where inventors and artists and writers lived – I was there seeing it with my eyes and feeling it with my fingertips.

Since then, I’ve travelled to more countries than I can count and, as cliche as it may sound, travel has really opened my eyes to the world and to myself. I learned the importance of cross-cultural exchange in creating empathy and building connection. I learned that our perceptions of people and places are formed by the media who feed us a very narrow slice of reality. And I learned that these people and places are never really what they seem and the only way to really know and understand is to go there yourself.

For these reasons and more, I knew that travel had to be a part of my career. And I was lucky to have found a job - a passion, really - working for a non-profit called Operation Groundswell (OG) that so perfectly aligned with my values around travel and my belief in its potential to create deeply meaningful change. OG facilitates experiential education programs around the world that focus on various social justice issues. As the Marketing and Communications Director for over six years, I was responsible for finding and encouraging youth to step outside of their comfort zone and to turn the world into their classroom just as I had many moons ago!

As a frequent flier, what’s another place that has opened your mind or nudged a shift of perspective?

I travelled to Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda with Operation Groundswell back in 2013 and it was my first time in “Africa”. I say that in quotations because travelling to the African continent comes with so much baggage, with so many assumptions - many of which I carried myself. Although I knew that these were all rich, nuanced, and distinct countries, I still carried deep-seated and one-dimensional pre-conceptions about this region.  How could I not when I grew up with World Vision commercials with poor African children with flies in their face and heard almost exclusively of this continent’s destitution, disease, and dangers? Media portrayals of people and places wire prejudices inside all of us.

But of course, landing in Nairobi was nothing like I had seen on TV or in the movies. It was just like any other cosmopolitan city in the world. But really, it was more impressive. I learned that East Africa is actually a hotbed for technology and innovation. As I explored and spoke to more locals, I learned that this region was actually leapfrogging the West in technological advances. Mobile banking was already old, tired news in Kenya by the time Canadian banks started hopping on the trend. But you’d never know it based on the headlines that make it in our newspapers.

It was then that it really clicked for me how significant my role as a marketer for the travel industry -- and as a storyteller, in general -- really is. My experience travelling through East Africa shaped so much of my subsequent years at Operation Groundswell. After that trip, I knew that we had to level up our marketing and communications. We had an opportunity to tell more nuanced and ultimately more compelling stories about the places that we visited and its people, and we could not squander that chance.

From the images we used to promote our programs to how we wrote about the communities we were partnered with on the ground, I actively worked to shift the narrative of what we usually see in the media about the “developing world”. I actively worked against flat caricatures and instead strived to tell the more accurately complex, contradictory, and beautiful stories that better reflect these people and places.

What was it like travelling through East Africa as an Asian woman?

That was another education in and of itself. Beyond the West’s conception of Africa, this trip also showed me Africa’s conception of Asia and Asians. Asian stereotypes abounded in my interactions with people. I can’t tell you how many ching chongs I had to politely smile and shrug my shoulder through.  Everywhere I went people would start karate chopping at the sight of me. And honestly, the majority of locals I spoke to could only relate to me through the filter of Jackie Chan movies.

And how could they not? Asian representation in the West is so limited as it stands, why would it be any more diverse in Africa? And so just as “Africa” is flattened for North Americans, so too is “Asia” for Africans.

This trip showed me so clearly how each and every one of us have such narrow conceptions of each other - and how that is all primarily shaped through the media that we consume. It brought to life Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, on so many levels and across so many intersections.

As someone who works in travel, what have you found causes the most transformative experiences? Any tips for how readers can have deeper/more meaningful trips?

I am a huge advocate for slow travel. I like to take my time wherever I am, and I absolutely detest rushing from one place to another. I am the kind of person who will take her sweet time getting ready and having breakfast in the morning, who will spend her day getting lost wandering the streets and end up missing the key cultural or historical sight entirely.

For me, the magic isn’t in any particular landmark or museum or historical sight, but in the everyday ordinariness of a place. It’s in observing how the locals go about their days, how they pace their lives, and where they spend their time that I derive the most joy in my travels. It’s like peering into something so intimate and vulnerable, and I find so much beauty in that.

You can follow Justine’s journey on Instagram and Living Hyphen here.