In the Filipino poem Sa Aking Mga Kabata — or, To My Fellow Youth — José Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, reportedly wrote, “One who does not treasure his own language is worse than a beast or a putrid fish.”
Historians question whether Rizal actually wrote that poem or not, but the meaning still stands. To be clear, although I understand most of the language, I don’t speak Filipino. If someone were to talk to me in Filipino, I would carefully respond in English, hoping my inner translation was correct. But the fact that I can’t speak my own native language — and that my national hero would have called me a stinky fish — has remained a blemish on my identity and a stain on my record that I wanted to hide.
To say that I moved around a lot as a kid is an an understatement. My mother’s job took us around the world, from Canada to China, by way of the Middle East and Poland. I never stayed anywhere for longer than four years, so I ended up experiencing a multitude of other cultures.
But somewhere along the way — with the many ups and downs of a typical teenager’s life — I lost a little bit of my own.
Disconnecting from my heritage
Back in my hometown of Tuguegarao, I felt cut off from my family and other close relatives. As someone who identifies as an introvert, I already did not feel like striking up a conversation, but the fact that I did not speak the language spoken around the dining table made me shy away even further. If I wanted to say something, like how my day was or what my thoughts on current affairs were, I felt weird and I would retreat. It didn’t help that I barely saw my family, since I was always abroad.
In Canada, I was enrolled in a French immersion school and learned an entirely new language. According to my mom, it was around the same time that I forgot how to speak Filipino. I wasn’t around many other Filipino people, and my community was almost entirely made up of people from other diasporas. Though I did make some Filipino and half-Filipino friends, they didn’t speak the language either. As a result, I wasn’t able to speak Filipino that often except to my mom and the occasional acquaintance.
Fast forward to 2009, I was living in the Philippines again for the first time in six years. A week before the flight, I thought everything would turn out okay. I was simply going back, right? ‘Home is where the heart is,’ or so the adage goes. I should have felt better; I should have felt comfortable about seeing my own people; I should have felt happy about returning to a place called ‘home.’ I was dead wrong.
I knew from experience that it was hard to start a life in another country, at another school. But this time was different. Going in, I expected to be normal, to blend in to the sea of people who looked like me. That didn’t happen, as almost immediately, I was met with a reverse culture shock: everyone was communicating in a language I did not know, my schoolmates teased me for being the only new kid that year, and middle school stressed me out.
Eventually, I moved again. At the height of animosity between China and the Philippines, I was a high school student in Shanghai. In the confines of the school walls that were covered by academic freedom, we were taught to be expressive with our culture. I would regale my English teacher and my friends with passionate stories of my past. But outside, I felt the need to hide my identity; I didn’t tell anyone outside of my small community that I was Filipino.
Overcoming a self-made barrier
Throughout the years, I taught myself to try better to re-immerse myself in my culture, even though I wasn’t living in the Philippines anymore. I broke out of my middle school shell and tried to converse more with my cousins and grandparents. Even though I wasn’t speaking Filipino, I realized that it wasn’t a prerequisite for getting to know the rest of my family. Armed with that understanding, I became more comfortable back home.
I took it upon myself to read more news about my homeland. I found that the Philippines has become polarized in the past couple of years, with the election of controversial figure President Rodrigo Duterte. As my political beliefs began to form and mature, I began to engage more with my country’s history.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m obsessed with television shows. I remember bingeing How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls for days on end, but when looking for new avenues of experiencing my culture, and I decided to try watching Filipino shows — or teleseryes, as they’re more commonly known. Even though they were mostly clichéd and predictable, I was hooked. Anything that had James Reid and Nadine Lustre, like On The Wings of Love, I had to watch. Funnily enough, I started picking up phrases and expressions here and there, and began to speak to some friends in a weird mix of Filipino and English.
I still don’t speak Filipino. I still tend to be a little shy around family and other members of my community. But I’ve started to be more open about my cultural roots, and that is the most important part. I’m only 19, and my heritage is like a tapestry; it takes a while to weave, and it continues to take shape to this day. In the end, I’m proud of where I come from and the process it took to get here.