Canada·First Person

What I discovered after 450+ family Zoom calls during the pandemic

It could have been disastrous, but Filipina Canadian comedian Alia Ceniza Rasul says daily international Zoom calls with her family have brought them closer together.

For families like mine separated because of immigration, the pandemic has strangely brought us closer together

Filipina Canadian artist Alia Ceniza Rasul has chatted almost every day of the pandemic with her immediate family who live in Dubai and Philippines. (Alia Ceniza Rasul)

This First Person article is the experience of Alia Ceniza Rasul, who moved to Toronto from the Philippines as an international student. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

"I have bad news," my dad ominously said on a Zoom call. Apparently the 16th-century astrologer Nostradamus had predicted the pandemic — and it came true. "He also predicted something worse ... a zombie apocalypse!" My brothers and I started to giggle and my dad's serious face broke out into a self-satisfied grin, knowing that he had just made his family laugh. 

That's a snapshot of our family calls, and this kind of playfulness is new for us — a product of committing an hour or two to a "Family Zoom" every day since the world went into lockdown. 

My mom declared that we would video chat every day as a family for our mental health. And we did. I missed a handful of days over the past year, and we've had some tense conversations, but I've really come to appreciate them.

This was something that would have not been possible in the "Before Times."

With the Philippines being one of the biggest exporters of labour, it is pretty common for Filipinos to have different family members living and working in different countries. I live in Toronto, my mother lives in Dubai and my father and brothers live in different parts of Manila. The time difference between each city makes scheduling a nightmare, and the idea of giving up two hours of my day in the midst of hectic work and school deadlines for a family chat was a ridiculous proposition. 

The pandemic changed that. 

I moved to Canada as an international student at 19. I have lived here for just over a decade. In that time, my interactions with my family devolved to occasional small talk and video calls were reserved for special occasions like birthdays. In my mind, that was the natural way of things. As an immigrant, it's part of the difficult choice you make when you pursue opportunities elsewhere: you leave people and relationships behind, locked in a specific time bubble.

For years, Zoom was the only video conferencing software my mother had access to in Dubai so we were already saying things like "Oh! You're still on mute!" before it became the norm. 

Prior to 2020, videoconferencing felt like a strange reminder of how far away I was from loved ones. I didn't enjoy it and avoided it. Now that it's been normalized, the distance I used to feel is gone and now my family is as close to me as my neighbour is.

My family has learned that when my dad gets into the groove of storytelling, we're in for a laugh.

"I think Nostradamus knew these things because he is a time traveller," my dad continued. 

"Which time do you think he came from, pops?" I asked, playing along. 

Without hesitation he responded, "Why, the end of times of course! He came back to try to warn us, so that we could live better lives."

Watch the Rasul patriarch telling his bemused family about Nostradamus, the pandemic and zombies.

It's hard to look at the state of the world, specifically with the pandemic, and say that this is a better life. 

But I have to confess, I am living a better life because of our daily calls. (Thanks, Mom.)

My biggest revelations from my family calls are simple ones. First, any storytelling is healing. After a week of daily Zoom calls, we quickly ran out of the small talk, so we started to tell each other stories about our days, and eventually we grew comfortable enough to give each other counsel ("Yes, you have enough plants now"), celebrate small wins ("I finally bought a bookshelf today") and other everyday family things like helping my youngest brother with his homework ("I don't remember school being this hard"). 

My second revelation is that families need to play. Making time to be silly seems so indulgent in a world where productivity reigns supreme, but making my parents and siblings laugh has been more rich and fulfilling than anything I've experienced in the last little while (and I make people laugh for a living, as a comedian). We are the closest we have ever been as a family, despite being miles apart. 

Reflecting on my life in the "Before Times," I remember being intensely lonely. This is difficult to admit because I am grateful for my life in Canada. I didn't realize this complex ball of feelings had been festering in me this entire time. If I had the time machine of my father's Nostradamus, I would go back and tell the 20-year-old me to get on board with the Zoom thing sooner (and also maybe invest in the stock market a little). 

I am still wrapping my head around the fact that I had been missing out on a great source of support this entire time. No matter, at least I have it now, and I intend to carry on with our family Zooms in the "After Times" and beyond. So bring on the zombie apocalypse, my family and I will be ready to Zoom about it.

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Alia Ceniza Rasul is a Filipina comedian and storyteller based in Toronto. She recently published her first poetry collection called “Super Important Filipina Thoughts.”


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