Feb. 13, 2023

UCalgary Alumni's version of Modern Love (part 2)

Short little love stories that are tender, quirky, sweet and sad
Modern Love
Three love stories sparked by a haircut, coming out and unimaginable grief Getty Images

You don’t have to be a fan of Modern Love (what began in 2004 as a column in the New York Times has spun off into an empire that now includes a podcast, a Netflix series and an abridged column dubbed Tiny Love Stories) to enjoy a few random love stories that are connected to UCalgary. Today, Valentine's Day, you’ll find three little love stories that are tender, quirky, sweet and sad.

Take me as I am, whatever my length of hair

The journey began with one simple act: a haircut.

Well, OK, it may have started earlier — more precisely, the path to self-love began in high school, when Priyanka Minhas realized she had to get a grip on her anxieties.

Fed up with her fear of classroom presentations (she often worried she might throw up in front of everyone), and crumpling under familial pressure to be the “golden child” — to be the perfect example for her younger brother, to be an academic star for her immigrant parents — Minhas sought out her school’s guidance counsellor and, as a result, began journalling.


“It became, and remains, my reset,” says Minhas, BA’22, a UCalgary psychology grad. “Some people go the gym, or play Cod or go for a walk. When I get stuck, I journal. And, frankly, I journal so I don’t get stuck.”

A devout believer in loving yourself first, Minhas’s epic moment at the salon took place during her first year of studies at UCalgary. Up until this point, she had only ever opted to trim her locks once every six months; in fact, Minhas’s hair was long enough that she could actually sit on it.

“But it felt like it wasn’t only my hair,” she explains. “My mum loved my hair . . . she would put oil in it, brush it, tell me never to cut it, that it would never be the same again.” 

But then she did. Snip. All 14 inches of it, pounds of black, glossy hair — more than enough to donate to Wigs for Kids, which Minhas did. Happily.

“I remember coming home and seeing my grandmother’s shoes at the entrance and thinking, ‘Oh no, I’ve messed up,’” she says with a laugh. “I walked slowly into the living room and there was my grandma, who actually gasped. And then my mom surprised me . . . she began touching it and said it looked nice.”

Some animals moult. Snakes shed their skin. Minhas cut her hair. And, in that process, she shed her identity as an obedient, high-achieving daughter for another, still-forming persona.

“Honestly, it may sound trite, but I felt like I had lost 20 pounds,” Minhas says. “I had bounce in my step and then, oddly, I began getting rid of other things that I associated with negative energy. Some old friends. Some bad habits.”

Somehow, that very act of defiance and the rejection of her former self that had been moulded by others’ expectations, gave Minhas the power and focus to become very intentional, deliberate, in what she wanted.

She began journalling in her happy place (a sunny spot on the fifth floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library on UCalgary’s main campus), making new friends, setting boundaries at home, learning self-compassion, seeking a Punjabi therapist (who helped her understand her parents and their perspective), removing herself from TikTok, and not checking her phone first thing every morning.

“It’s been a long journey of not liking myself, and I still have to manage my anxieties, but I know who I am now, and what I want and what I stand for,” Minhas says.

“I will never again be reduced to my marks, my hair, my job, my ambitions.

“It’s not that I don’t want lasting love,” says Minhas. “I do. But I’ve come to believe that you can’t choose who loves you — but you can choose to love yourself.” — As told to Deb Cummings. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Coming out, but hiding in (no more)

For eight years, they locked their secret away.

Away from their workplaces in Abu Dhabi, away from their families in the Philippines, away from their friends.

Working in a Muslim country such as the United Arab Emirates means anyone who is in a same-sex relationship has to be “very, very careful,” explains Nick Gonzales.

“We couldn’t hold hands in any public place, we had to tell our landlords we were just friends or cousins. You see, we were both on temporary work visas which meant they could have easily deported us if they ever found out. And we needed the money.”

Coming Out and finding love

Still — even 18 months after relocating to Calgary — Gonzales will sometimes forget the freedom and security he feels in this foreign land and, out of habit, will sidle away or drop his partner’s hand.

“Less so now, but certainly that’s what happened for the first few months,” he says. “Sometimes, I still pinch myself and think how lucky I am to be here, that we don’t have to sneak around, that we feel no shame.”

Both Gonzales and his partner, Marc Salonga, grew up in the Philippines where they took years to come out to their families as a couple.

“Every time we went home, we would stay in separate houses and just meet on neutral ground,” recalls Gonzales. Then, in 2018, their status became official within their family circles and, he says, “both our mothers became instant BFFs.”

But their clandestine double life continued. On holidays, they got to be out, as a couple, but back in Abu Dhabi, where they worked, they would scramble back into their charade. Then, finally, Gonzales was accepted to Bow Valley College in Calgary as an international student, but had to leave his love behind.

“It was a gamble,” says Gonzales. “Would Marc follow me? Would his visa be accepted? Would our love survive?”

Three months later, Salonga arrived in Calgary and the two soon found themselves adjusting to the freedom they found in Canada: No more lies to landlords, employers, doctors, shopkeepers, bankers or friends. Gonzales later became an executive assistant with the board of the UCalgary Alumni Association.

As for what the perfect Valentine’s Day date looks like, Gonzales says, slowly, deliberately: “It doesn’t have to be fancy . . . I’ve always loved stargazing, wherever we’ve been. Of course, the stars in the sky have been rearranged in Calgary, but so has my life . . . my love.” — As told to Deb Cummings. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hope and healing in the stars?

Content warning: The following first-person essay deals with the topic of suicide. 

How can I share what loving you was like in only 600 words? An impossible task, I fear, but let me begin . . . at the beginning. Although we were both students at the University of Calgary, we didn’t actually meet there, but at Denny’s, over an Oreo milkshake. An odd place for a love story to begin, but that’s where this tale — of laughter, warmth, resilience and grief — began.

I still remember standing in your backyard in what felt like minus-30 weather. While I was desperate to rush to the car, you stopped me after I had taken a few steps.

“Look at the stars,” you said. “Do you know which constellation that is?” Standing in the cold for 10 seconds longer than necessary during a wintery night in Calgary felt nearly impossible. But, like always, you stopped me in my tracks and made me notice what was critical.

“Woah, that is beautiful,” I said, and the shivering stopped. The moment was fleeting, and I didn’t revisit it again until the day we lost you. I’ve spent months trying to remember. Was it Orion’s Belt? The Big Dipper? Maybe it was neither.

When love is found in grief

Now, I wish I lived in that moment with you a little bit longer. But back then it seemed there was always somewhere better to be, some exam to study for and lots of life ahead of us.

Your funeral was on a gloomy Sunday, one week after you died, and a few days after what would have been your 29th birthday. I remember the day vividly, and your dad spoke fondly about the night you were born. Venus was in the sky.

You and I spent most of our nights surrounded by telescopes. At the time, I didn’t know that those moments would find their way back to me on the days that I missed you most.

My family bought me a telescope. I didn’t ask for one. I didn’t even think about using one, but they knew. They knew it was how I kept you close — looking up at the sky every night in search of Venus, the moon or the constellations.

They miss you, too. Mom searches for you in the voice of new friends and loved ones. My sister remembers your constant back-and-forth banter — you both did have the same love language. My brother thinks of you most when he pushes toward his dream of becoming a physician — and hopes that, someday, in his practice he will see the signs that we missed in you.

I now know that love find itself in small moments. Mom peels me oranges every night to make sure I’m eating enough fruits, and I stay there with her. My sister fixes my frizzy hair for me on humid days, and I stay there with her. My brother tells me he loves me before he leaves, and I stay there with him. These moments linger because of you.

I found love and support in an astounding number of people, some who knew you and some who didn’t. Most of them didn’t need to know you personally or profoundly to know how your loss left an unshakeable hole in a life that should still have you in it.

I want you to know that I don’t worry about losing you anymore. The grief reminds me. It helps me cherish the moments that mattered most with you. I remember your favourite puns, the pictures you’d send of your “outfit of the day,” your love of silly socks and rock music, and your favourite bright-blue raggedy sweater that you refused to throw out, even though the seams were coming apart.

The grief houses you in the same way that love does. Every day I look forward to the moments that you find your way back to me. Not only on the difficult days, but also on the days full of warmth and gratitude.

Randip Dhaliwal, BN’18, a PhD student at UCalgary, wrote this letter for a loved one who tragically died by suicide in 2021. Following his death, Randip found support in fellow UCalgary students who helped her form The Care Corner, a group that aims to change the narrative around mental health, trauma, death and grief. UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy runs various workshops on grief and loss that target students, faculty and staff. But a helpful worksheet on this topic is available to all.

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