Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lingua Diaspora

My Haitian friends and colleagues at the hotel I work all fluently speak Creole. Of course, you're probably saying to yourself, what else would they be speaking? People who migrate, carry with them their language and culture, right? I thought so myself. One day at the lounge, I asked my fellow concierge what life is like in Haiti. His reply? "I've never been there!" This elicited a "Really?!" from my lips. "But you speak Creole so well. Is this what you speak at home?"

"Yeah. Our parents use it at home on us. Why?" He found my question amusing.

"Wow," I defended myself. "Filipinos born and raised here hardly ever learn how to speak Pilipino…"


"Seriously. Most of them can understand bits and pieces of it but for the most part they can't speak it to save their lives; they just understand it a little bit. In all honesty, I have yet to meet a Filipino who was born and raised here in the US who knows how to speak Pilipino fluently. Could be I just haven't met any yet, too. But the ones I have, don't."

Our conversation got me thinking about the veracity of my hypothesis. And made me wish I had paid attention many years ago as a freshman at De La Salle University in my LANGSOC class.

I learned Pilipino only when my mother moved us back to the Philippines when I was twelve. My childhood was conducted entirely in English simply because my American father didn't want me learning any other language. He thought it would confuse me. Or give me a Filipino accent. Eventually, I did learn, I never got confused, and I speak English like I'm from the Midwest, devoid of regionalism. (Fairly recent studies though suggest that the Midwest accent may not be neutral, but I digress…)

My Pilipino though is another story. As a VO in Manila, Tagalog ads were always a challenge. "It's too twangy." A producer would say to me from the other side of the sound booth. So I would do several more takes before walking out of the studio with a sore tongue and mouth from exerting different muscles (It's a linguistic fact).

Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I would always feel embarrassed when my mom would accidentally let out a Tagalog curse word or yell out a part of the female body as an exclamation from either A) a surprise, B) pain, or C) anger. It made me feel that my skin was as brown as hers and that no matter how white I sounded, my complexion would always make people think I "talked funny" like my mom.

For the most part, my childhood was colorblind. Sure, kids thought I was Chinese because I looked "oriental" but I was always accepted as just a regular American kid who happened to have a nice permanent tan. Only once, was my "difference" ever put on display.

It was the fourth grade and a new kid had just enrolled at Peninsula Elementary. He was a boy from Cebu named Arthur who had just migrated to Portland, OR. Unlike me who spent my whole life – up until that time – in the US, Arthur had an accent. Kids wondered out loud, "Why does he have an accent and you don't?" Neither of us understood why but there was an attempt to have us two Filipino kids "communicate in our native language".

"Come on, you guys! Say something to each other in your language!"

"Um, my language is English. What am I supposed to say, 'hello'?" I was irked.

"I'm from a different place in the Philippines. I'm from Cebu. She doesn't speak my language. It's different." Arthur explained.

"Just say anything! Like 'hi' or you know, whatever you use to greet each other in your language!"

Our teacher joined the class in prodding us. "Do you have a basic phrase at least to share so everyone can hear?"

I was uncomfortable but turned to Arthur questioningly. He asked me if I knew how to say 'how are you'.

"'Koo-moo-stah' is all I know," I said.

"She really doesn't know how to speak," Arthur concluded. "All she knows is 'how are you'."

"I told you guys!" I exclaimed.

I tried hard to avoid Arthur because I didn't want to be labeled like him, "different", "speaks with an accent", or "funny looking". My seven year-old mind cruelly didn't want to be friends with the one person whose complexion I shared in a sea of white and black. Here and now though, thirty years later, I am constantly looking for a Filipino face in the crowd. Whenever I do, more than just 'kumusta' comes from my mouth. And if for some reason, God decides to give me a husband and more kids, I'll make sure they grow up speaking both their parents' tongues.

written at the park while waiting for kyera's class to end

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