Life in the Fast Lane


My "Filipino-ness"

By 4:52 PM , , ,

I was born in the Philippines and grew up here my whole life. But as a child, I looked different and acted differently from my peers. While everyone had black hair, mine was light brown. While their skin color was tan, I was almost white.

In kindergarten, the few friends I made were like me in the sense that we all spoke English. At home, our language of choice was English simply because both my parents were raised that way. I didn't understand Batibot (our local version of Sesame Street) because I only knew a sprinkling of Filipino words. If you popped in a Betamax tape of Care Bears or My Little Pony, however, I would feel right at home.

My parents believed that I'd come to learn Filipino anyway in school because of the subjects taught and because of the friends I'd eventually make. Which did happen. In the third grade, my closest friends were Filipino speakers and I learned to not only understand everything they were saying; I could actually answer them. It felt liberating and I started to feel like I was an actual citizen of this country.

However, the exclusive girls' school I went to was known for producing Engliseras (English speakers). Most of the girls who studied in this school were and still are from the upper rungs of society. This is probably a cultural phenomenon, but in the Philippines, when you're from those social classes, chances are, you spoke better English than you did Filipino. Thus, my English improved and my Filipino likewise improved, but more in a "scholarly" setting. I knew Filipino because we had a Filipino grammar subject and because we also learned social sciences in Filipino. I spoke Filipino at home to our househelp, to my swimming teammates since we were all from different schools, and to people I encountered in supermarkets, malls, or on the road.

Then I went off to university and I was exposed to more people from different backgrounds, upbringings and, literally, different parts of this country. Naturally, I had to switch my language button to Filipino in order to relate to people. But this was where stereotyping often came into the picture.

Here, when English is your first language, and you often mix it up with Filipino words in a sentence (i.e. "You're going to make me inis", which simply means, "You're going to annoy me!"), you're labeled as "conyo". It's nowhere near as nasty as its Spanish counterpart, but the word, to borrow from, is a "semi-derogatory term for people who seem to be high-class and vain or conscious about their social status and speak in Taglish1 or broken-Tagalog2 mixed with English". It can be pretty disheartening, if you take the word seriously, to be told that because you're made to feel like you're an outsider of your own country. Like you can't assimilate.

And that's what I had to deal with on the first day of my college life. I was stereotyped as "conyo" just because my first language was English. Add to that the fact that I looked "foreign". Friends would laugh at my attempts to speak to them in straight Filipino because "hindi bagay sa 'yo" ("it doesn't suit you") even if I could very well do so. This made me feel somewhat ostracized from a number of would-be friends and I chose to befriend those who were more fluent in English. Just so that I wouldn't be laughed at or mocked.

At work, things changed. My co-workers were from cities and provinces from all over and I was a minority in the language department. I had to prove time and again that I wasn't that "conyo" girl they perceived me to be; I had to show them that I could adjust and be part of the system.

I did just that.

I felt my tongue changing slowly but surely. I started to feel that my brain was more capable of thinking in Filipino as opposed to always translating. My thoughts would tumble out in Filipino and I even started to speak more Filipino at home than English, much to my parents' surprise.

My college friends were likewise surprised when they finally heard me speak in straight Filipino months after I started working. Gone was the "conyo" girl they once knew, they said. I noticed then that whenever we would meet up for dinner, they felt more at ease with me. They could curse all they wanted in Filipino and they could laugh about stupid jokes without having to think that I would feel out of place. In short, I felt like I started to belong in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes, however, I still get judged. I was asked the other day if I've ever eaten puto or bibingka (local delicacies) for breakfast, just because I happened to be eating a ham and cheese sandwich. I slip up and mispronounce a few words on occasion and I get laughed at.

But despite these slip-ups and those times I have to stop and think of the correct translations for certain words, I feel that I am very much a Filipino. However you define "Filipino". English is still and will always be my first language and I'm not ashamed to say that because I can also speak the language of my ancestors. Quite fluently, at that.

Language is a tricky business. It's an integral part of who we are as individuals and it probably says a lot about our background. But it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of how we define a person. A Filipino who happens to speak better English than Filipino doesn't necessarily connote superiority (in terms of education or literacy). By the same token, a Filipino who isn't an English speaker doesn't translate to him being "more Filipino" than the other guy who would say, "that's so kapal" ("that's so mean").

I may be more "western" in terms of language and upbringing, but this doesn't diminish my Filipino-ness in any way, shape or form. I serve my country in any way I can and the uniquely Filipino values that I grew up with are what I carry today.

I'm a Filipino through and through and I'm proud to be one.

1 Taglish, to borrow from Wikipedia, is "a portmanteau of the words 'Tagalog' and 'English' which refers to the Philippine language Tagalog (or its liberalized official form, Filipino) infused with American English terms".
2 Tagalog, the main dialect of the Philippines in its earliest days leading up to the Commonwealth era (1930's), became the basis for identifying a national language. Filipino then became the unifying national language in the 1980's as it embraced more than just Tagalog words; it accommodated western words, such as Spanish, as well as more letters in the alphabet (i.e. f, j, c, x and z, which weren't in the original alphabet).

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  1. Denise Michelle L. LimNovember 9, 2010 at 5:33 PM

    One's being Filipino can never be measured by his or her ability to use the language. A lot of men and women who boast of being able to use the language to perfection, unfortunately, cannot be said to be true Filipinos. Some Filipinos who were brought up the way we were or who grew up outside of the Philippines, although unable to use the language perfectly, are sometimes even more Filipino in deed, when it matters most, than those with a golden native tongue.

    I am a witness to your Filipino-ness having known you for most of my life. I have experienced similar events and while it may get extremely frustrating, I will never deny the FIlipino that I am and the upbringing that I will always be proud of. I know you will continue to do the same. Let not the acts of the ignorant and small-minded dishearten you. Use these experiences to grow more as a Filipino. *hugs*

  2. You're right. There are lots of non-Filipino speaking Filipinos abroad or here who do justice to their being Filipino more than their Filipino-speaking brethren. On the other hand, there are also some Filipinos who refuse to learn the language (or limit their knowledge) because they think that knowing English makes them superior.

    At the end of the day, regardless of the language we're comfortable with, what's important is that we stay true to who we are and the blood that ebbs in our veins.

    Thanks for those encouraging words, dude! You are always appreciated. :)


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