Monday, April 14, 2008

United Colors of Thelma

"Puerto Ricena?" The guest smiled at me as I waved hello.

"No", I smiled back as I continued walking. "Filipina!"

I get this a lot. The choices are always that I'm from: Puerto Rico, Panama, Thailand or China, or a mixture of any of the above, but never the Philippines. Unless it's a fellow Filipino asking me where I'm from. Even then, there is always doubt in the asking.

I often make the same mistake. My heart skips a beat as I tentatively ask, "Are you from the Philippines?..."

"No," came the reply one day from the pretty girl with brown skin and long black hair. "Indonesia." She smiled.

But the one thing that I am never wrong about is detecting a Filipino accent. My years in broadcasting trained my ears to discern my fellow comrades in radio and TV commercials. "That's Rey." I would declare at my car radio while stuck in traffic on EDSA as the Mitsubishi ad came on. "May has yet another ad I didn't get hired for…" I would continue when the latest PLDT commercial played. "And this one went to Lily…" I would announce as a Pamper's commercial aired. It's a gift I have not been able to use since arriving in the US last September. This knowing-who-it-is-who-did-the-ad trick of mine.

What I do get to use this skill for is in knowing when I'm speaking to a Filipino either in person or over the phone when I call Dell, or Capital One, or the Orlando Sentinel, or Sprint… The first thing I ask is – "Pinoy (or Pinay) ka?" After which, I proudly launch into my second tongue and conduct my side of the customer care call 95% in Tagalog. Depending on the company, the poor rep is sometimes not allowed to speak in our shared tongue, so they politely tell me so, to which I say, "Okay lang! (That's fine!) Ako na lang ang mag-Ta-Tagalog para sa atin dalawa. (I'll speak Tagalog for the both of us.)" They always laugh. Having once been a Training Manager for Customer Contact Centers in the Philippines, I know how tough their jobs can get so now that I'm on the other end of the phone, I figured the least I could do is let them hear a kindred language.

The Voice Talent in me has nearly mastered a New York accent courtesy of one of my colleagues who was born and raised in the Bronx. When I'm on a roll, Edwin tells me I sound pretty good. I don't know if I could keep it up consistently in Manhattan though should I decide to pass myself off as a local when or if I get to visit. I am absolutely sure though that I can say "cawfee" just like Fran Drescher.

The hotel is the perfect place to hear accents and to learn the most basic greetings in at least four languages – Creole, Spanish, Russian and English. What amazes me is how similar Tagalog and Spanish are. Words that I never realized found their origins in Spanish now play in my ears in a new way.

"Como esta?" is merely the longer version of the Filipino "Kumusta?" The phrases go on. We greet each other in the hallways in each others' languages. "Kumusta ka?" comes at me from an African American face. Or I'll smile a reply to my Latino friends' greetings, "Muy bien!" Or "Todo bien!" in Portuguese.

It's all good. Soon, I will learn more than just hi's and hello's. You never know where life can take you. Another language or two can always come in handy whether in person or on the phone back home with a customer service rep who just might find it amusing to hear a caller half way around the world speak his native tongue.


Yen said...

I get, "Are you Mexican?" or "Are you hapa?" a lot. The first one, I answer, "No, nacio de las Filipinas." For the second question, I say it in English. Haha.

I'm glad you're blogging on a (somewhat) regular basis. I've been wondering about you! =) I hope Florida continues to treat you well. (Tama ba? Nasa Florida pa ba kayo?)

Karla said...

Hi, I'd like to get in touch with you about a blog feature. I write for a Pinoy arts and culture site. May I know your e-mail address please? I can be reached at

Thelma said...


so good to hear from you! yup we're still in orlando... for now. i'll start posting more frequently now that i have *mobile* web!

yehey. =)

will stop by your blog to see how you've been. Hahaha. Cyberlife talaga!

Thelma said...

hi karla! i sent you email. let me now if you got it. thanks!