Living between two worlds can be difficult at times but Lillian Cui Garcia has found a way to merge them together.
From Cebu, Philippines to Terrace, she spends six months a year in each place to be able to give back and learn from the people there. As a retired teacher, community worker and author, she says she’s glad to hold onto both lives and continue to do her work.
“It’s so amazing to be able to live in two places in one year, a lot of people don’t get that opportunity. They leave home but never come back to it,” Garcia says. “My first culture, the Filipino culture, really complements my teaching because I cannot divest myself of that… but it makes for an interesting discussion when I talk about Canada.”
Growing up in the Philippines, Garcia says she was privileged to be born into a family that was able to provide food for the table and have toilets in the house. At school, her classmates would often come hungry with nothing to eat throughout the day.
Her father was the production manager of a cement company but her family never let that wealth get to their heads. She remembers her parents sharing their food and acknowledging the beggars on the streets, instilling a very important life lesson in her.
“My mom always told me that when it comes to the poor, to remember that they want food,” she says. “I always had that in my mind, that my poor classmates didn’t have the same privileges as me.”
Garcia met her husband Anecto in university, bonding over the same curiosities towards the world. She graduated with a B.A. in Social Sciences and M.A. in Anthropology from the University of San Carlos in Cebu. Although she loved her country and was eager to help it, when her husband suggested they move to Canada — it was an easy yes.
“We both share the same goals, I think it helps that we look at the same things in the same manner… and [we wanted to] be traveling,” she says of her husband.
When Garcia was young, she had done an exchange in New York where she had learned English and how to navigate the Western culture. She says her host family was very welcoming and patient, which led her to have an open heart whenever people would judge her on her accent or where she was from.
Moving to Edmonton in 1978, Garcia quickly found her footing. There, she found work with the Alberta provincial government as a researcher and policy analyst.
Then in 1994, as the Albertan economy was declining, Garcia’s husband was offered a job teaching culinary arts at Northwest Community College (now Coast Mountain College) in Terrace, but Garcia was hesitant. She knew it was a small place and was worried there wouldn’t be anything for her to do professionally. She just had to trust that things would work out — and they did.
“I was fretting every day, like oh my god, I’m going to be dependent on him forever,” says Garcia with a laugh. “But before I came to Canada, I had 10 years of teaching experience in the Philippines… so I thought, I’m not a scaredy-cat.”
Wanting to challenge herself intellectually, she began taking courses at the college and her professors saw great potential in her determination.
Eventually, she transitioned from student to teach social sciences courses at the college. Garcia says she loved teaching and had a lot of fun with her students by putting the textbooks aside to hold dynamic discussions instead.
For 17 years, she saw a parade of students come through her class door. She says it was a touching gesture when previous students would remember her years later at the grocery store and she began to realize the impact we each hold as individuals.
In 2012, Garcia with Anecto felt a strong homesickness for the Philippines but as retirement came knocking, they also realized how much they loved Terrace after years of making friends and creating a home. They didn’t want to choose one place over the other, and decided to equally divide their time between the two.
When they made the first transitional move back to the Philippines, they knew they had returned with more knowledge and experiences to make a change for people there.
Creating a charity foundation called the Roberto and Vicenta Cui Foundation, named in honour of Garcia’s parents, they were ready to help Cebu’s poor after witnessing how giving the Terrace community was.
“Our whole life has been a heaven-sent, to be in a rich country [like Canada] but to still think they could do something to help the less privileged,” she says. “And here they were helping, and I had this idea.”
Today with donations coming from their dear friend Norma Kirby, a retired professor that helped Garcia in her teaching journey at the college, they run three different programs that include a soup kitchen at Garcia’s childhood elementary school feeding 200 children. They also distribute food to people on the street and are working towards constructing public toilets in “squatter areas.”
“Here in the Philippines, for many poor people, having a toilet is luxury. And many of the assaults, especially against women happen in alleys during the night time because there is no private facility,” she explains, adding it’s been a complex project with lots of government barriers but they managed to install three toilets so far.
Garcia says it warms her soul when she hears how grateful people on the streets are for their help, especially in slums deemed “dangerous and criminal.”
“Once, there was this really mean-looking guy on the streets, all burly and whatnot, and my husband hands him a snack pack,” she recalls. “The guy looks up and says all that he can give him is his blessings. We live for that.”
During their recent time in Canada, Garcia says they were having trouble with the internet router when someone was sent to fix it. The tech worker immediately recognized her as his teacher from college and was overjoyed to tell her how much he enjoyed her classes.
Reflecting on that conversation, she realized she wasn’t done teaching.
“He said that I was everybody’s favourite and I thought, look at me, a mere slip of a woman, an ethnic woman with an accent dealing with students as bright as this guy was, and he remembers that I did well,” she says.
She says she always knew she was capable of writing a book but had put it off as she pursued other directions in her life. With a wealth of experiences in two different countries, she wanted to share her journey as a teacher in hopes that it would inspire many more to look beyond their comfort zones.
This year, Garcia published her memoir A Teacher Between Worlds. She dedicates the book to many people that helped her to get where she is today, including the student who summarized her life’s meaning in that unexpected home visit.
“You have to be humble and recognize that these students, whom you are supposed to be teaching are actually as smart as you,” she reflects. “They’re good thinkers and will help you flush out issues that sometimes you lack to see.”
Garcia, with her husband, is now focused on making their foundation sustainable so that it can carry on even after they’re no longer around. She says being in their home country reminds them of where they started from and they hope to finally make it the better place they once imagined it to be.
“We love being here, there’s good food, good people, and life is good,” Garcia says with a smile. “It’s always nice when you have the sun too.”