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As a mixed-race woman, losing my mother's language estranged me from my Filipina heritage

October 31, 2018 1:00 pm

“Why is she calling you ‘Auntie’?”

At seven, I was used to this question. My younger sister had just joined my school, and when she saw me across the playground she shouted her usual greeting, unaware that this wasn’t usual for anyone else. I sighed and trotted out a well-rehearsed speech to my confused classmate. “No, she said Ate (Ah-tay),” I explained. “It’s what you call your older sister in the Philippines.”

My classmate frowned for a moment. “Oh. That’s weird,” she sniffed. “And we’re not in the Philippines, anyway.”

I felt a familiar resentment rising up inside but swiftly pushed it down. I had gotten in trouble already for lashing out at the classmates who made fun of me for not fitting in. That night, I told my parents and my sister that everyone thought I was her aunt, and that it was embarrassing. I don’t remember if it was me or my parents who told my sister not to call me “Ate” at school, but she stopped using that term altogether soon after. This wasn’t the first or last time I would abandon my mother’s language. She is Filipino, and my father is White British. She spoke Tagalog and English, teaching my sister and I both languages from birth. I still have memories of joyfully shouting the songs our mother recited to us, either on the way to nursery or during bathtime. I just no longer remember the words.

My sister and I are both white-passing. As I grew older, I realized that my having a different skin color to my mother not only bemused people, but was a problem for them to solve. Strangers glanced a little too long at my mother and I when we walked to town, especially if I was speaking Tagalog. It was only years later, when a cashier mistook my mother for my nanny, that I understood. They couldn’t comprehend why a little white girl was speaking some unknown foreign language, likely taught by “the help” who escorted me.

Looking back, I know that I had already started to inter shame about how my mixed heritage made me stand out. From the minute I started school, every aspect of my upbringing drew stares from other children as I referenced food, people, and places they had never heard of. I apparently threw a tantrum during my first school lunch, demanding to know why there wasn’t any rice option when it was a staple of my meals at home. And it was at school that I first met real, tangible resistance to my bilingualism. Soon after I began, the teachers contacted my parents. The staff were worried about my language skills. I was “mixing up words” in class, occasionally substituting Tagalog for the “correct” English words.

I was confusing the other children, they said.

The teachers didn’t always understand me, they said.

It would hurt my ability to read and write in English, they said.

That last one was the deciding factor for my mother. She placed a high value on education and self-sufficiency, and from that moment, we didn’t speak or sing Tagalog together anymore. Instead, my mother doubled down on our English practice to counteract whatever damage she thought she had inflicted with her own language. She would make my sister and I watch local news and weather bulletins to increase our English vocabulary. We had to read as much as possible, including newspaper articles and letters, to get familiar with different types of writing.

The more I immersed myself in English, the more alienated I became from Filipino language and culture. I had already felt a bit like an outsider because I didn’t look like the other mixed-race Filipino kids. Losing Tagalog meant I didn’t understand the language of our families and family friends, which only added to the sense of distance.

Angie Wenham

Oddly enough, the school encouraged me to attend Language Club, an after-school program where we would learn basic French. I remember feeling confused: if knowing another language would hurt my English skills, why were we supposed to learn French? The only conclusion I could come to was that being bilingual wasn’t the issue; speaking Tagalog was. Nice, white-European languages presented no problem in white schools. But Asian languages, the kinds I saw ridiculed on television comedy shows and films as I grew up in the 1980s, presented a threat.

When I was eight, we visited the Philippines for a month. I watched in awe as my cousins fluently switched between English and Tagalog. Eventually, I started to recall some words and even managed to form a few sentences—I was happy to speak with my cousins in Tagalog, if only in pieces. Once we returned to England, however, the words faded away once more. The chasm between me and my mother’s culture grew every day, and language became a barrier between us. At home, she would often talk on the phone with other Filipino friends who had emigrated to the U.K. with her. They always spoke Tagalog, laughing and gossiping loudly with sounds I couldn’t begin to form. She looked alive in a way she didn’t when she spoke English.

We visited Manila again when I was 12. I experienced culture shock this time, unable to feel at ease in a country I could not fluidly communicate in. I hid away whenever anyone spoke Tagalog, relying on my mother as a translator. My Lola, or grandmother, didn’t speak much English and I remember us awkwardly smiling at each other, unable to express much else. Later, when she came to visit the U.K. for a holiday, we again resorted to the smiles and nods we had used during my last trip to the Philippines, and I again relied on my mother and visiting aunt to translate for me. On the day she was returning home, my Lola turned to me and smiled. I was preparing to smile and wave when, in halting English she said, “It was lovely to see you!”

She gave me a huge hug, and I looked at my dad in confusion. “I thought she didn’t speak English,” I said.

He shrugged. “She can understand a lot, but she doesn’t speak much. It’s not easy for her.”

That night, I cried. Part of me knew I had not tried to learn even basic Tagalog before the visit because of my deep-seated sense of otherness, and more simply, because I was worried about getting it wrong. For some reason I also had the expectation that my Filipino relatives would make the effort to speak English. My Lola indulged me, practicing that phrase to get it right. What was my excuse for not doing likewise? School may have started it, but I continued avoiding Tagalog with intention. Doing so ensured I didn’t have to deal with my mixed-race identity, my otherness, and what that meant to me.

I often described myself as English, which is my nationality, but would add—almost reflexively—“half-Filipino.” People were surprised. Sometimes, I’d catch a glimpse of panic in their eyes. They thought they knew how to talk to me, and now I was something else. I would defuse their concerns and potential hostility by showing what a good, safe English person I was. I’d say I was born in England and couldn’t speak Tagalog, joking that I only knew the swear words. I looked like one thing, and instead of resisting the expectations of others, I conformed to the one thing. I wanted so desperately to fit in at school and university that I jettisoned part of who I was.

The guilt I felt about this realization remained, causing me to reach out in small ways. I tried to read more about what was happening in the Philippines so I could keep up with what might be affecting my family. For all its sins, Facebook did allow me to reconnect with relatives I hadn’t seen since they were tiny children, and who now had lives and children of their own. I slowly began to remember how welcomed I had felt with our Filipino friends and family. I was the only one who ever thought I was half anything, instead of being both Filipino and British.

When I got engaged, I had to plan who to invite to our wedding. I wanted some of my Filipino relatives to be there, as well as the Filipino family friends I had known growing up. I also wanted to give a speech, and tried to think of the best way to thank my family, especially my mother. On my wedding day, we thanked everyone who helped us get to where we were. Eventually, I turned to my mother. I felt the weight of my friends’ and family’s stares as I stuttered, “Salamat po (thank you very much),” bowing my head toward her.

My Filipino relatives and friends cheered and applauded. My mother beamed, surprised. I asked myself, later, why I had wasted so many years not learning Tagalog if just one phrase made her this happy. My mom asked me after if I was going to practice more Tagalog. I answered honestly that I would try.

It’s been three years since then and progress has been slow. But I’m getting there by keeping two goals in mind: that one day I’ll be able to have a simple conversation in Tagalog with my mother so she can speak with her daughter as her mother spoke with her. Just as importantly, I want to teach Tagalog to the children I have some day, so they can feel closer to every part of their heritage. If any school tries to suggest I do otherwise, I will have several strong English and Tagalog swear words for them.