Before my first day of first grade, I remember my mother explicitly telling me, “From now on you are not to speak Tagalog. Americans only speak English.” As a seven-year-old, I didn’t understand the urgency in her request, but I sensed the edge of fear in her voice. There was something threatening and shameful about speaking another language. On a nerve-racking day such as starting first grade, refuge was found in the familiarity of those who looked and spoke like us. The Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking students spoke to each other excitedly. A few of us leftover kids sat in solitude, hovering over books or wistfully watching the other students play. Then, a Brown boy tapped on my desk. I looked up as he asked me something in a language I wasn’t familiar with. I responded enthusiastically to what was likely a mundane question with a mixture of Tagalog, English, and gibberish. We looked at each other and, within a split second, smiled, both of us realizing that we were in the same boat.
My great-grandmother was Chinese, which I discovered during my visit to the Philippines when I was in elementary school. During the only interaction I had with her, she asked me to learn Chinese. “No one will remember that we have Chinese blood, and it’s important to me that you learn it,” she explained in Tagalog. It was a confusing and daunting plea, but an appeal that compelled me to investigate the depths of my identity.
It wasn’t until my last two years of college that I honored her request. Despite attending class every day, spending evenings and weekends with a tutor, and watching Chinese dramas while practicing writing characters, it was next to impossible for me to absorb the language. I ended that final quarter with a C+, technically due to an abundance of extra credit. Regardless of how laborious it was to get through the classes, learning the language was a goal I was committed to achieving for my late great-grandmother.
I took solace in knowing that I was on my way to the Philippines—to something more familiar.
In 2016, after several attempts at planning a trip to the Philippines, I finally booked a plane ticket to visit family and added a short stop in China. In the grand scheme of things, I truly knew nothing about China. From getting a taxi to checking into a hotel, even making small talk, all of the hours spent studying Mandarin escaped me and joined the spirit of my great-grandmother, who had very little connection to her Chinese background. Devastated at the loss of connection to my great-grandmother, I realized that the only strand of connection to Chinese culture was through her, and she was no longer around. I took solace in knowing that I was on my way to the Philippines—to something more familiar.
About an hour away from Manila, in the province of Palawan, my partner and I arrived in the small, quaint town of El Nido, where the weather was perfect and the town was in a frenzy preparing for Christmas. As I walked through the narrow streets, I heard local dialects. As someone who grew up listening to Tagalog, I was spellbound by the myriad of different pronunciations of familiar-sounding words. Though I was slow to reply in Tagalog, I was able to communicate with locals, even with my limited knowledge. It was instinctual, an ability that even years of Mandarin couldn’t prepare me for when I was in China. As I immersed myself in Palawan, I silently thanked my great-grandmother for encouraging me to pursue this soul-searching journey in the first place, and I allowed the words from my native tongue to flow naturally.
My partner and I stayed in a little apartment above a travel agency, which conveniently was the same agency we used to book island tours during our visit. From lounging on the beach with slushy alcoholic drinks to walking through the local markets, nothing was quite as breathtaking as immersing myself in the grandiose beauty of the different islands in El Nido. Even as a writer and communicator, I was unable to articulate how moved I was to be within proximity of such exquisiteness. Enraptured by the majestic scenes while traveling from each island, I attempted to ask the tour guides in Tagalog what life was like living on the island—but of course, the words were difficult to find. “Ito ay maganda dito!” (“It’s beautiful here!”) I stammered, with such sheer enthusiasm that the guides were able to smile and nod in agreement. In an attempt to connect and break through the barriers of language, culture, distance, and a long history of colonization, the shared love of our land transcended all of it. I had so many questions I wanted to ask and comments I longed to share, but I was only able to form the simplest phrases in Tagalog. “Dito gusto mo ito?” I asked, wondering how anyone could possibly not love living in such a beautiful place. Our main tour guide, a dark Brown man with a cigarette in his mouth at all times, responded in English, “Of course, ma’am. This is my home.”
Near the end of our trip, we decided to take a motorbike to a nearby beach. After well over 40 minutes, it dawned on us that we were lost. We stopped by a roadside convenience store to ask for directions. Refusing to use English, I asked a teenage boy for directions in my best broken Tagalog. “Excuse me po, nasaan si Nacpan Beach? Kami ay nawala,” I said sheepishly. I was unsure if I pronounced each word correctly and also felt embarrassed that I openly admitted that we were lost. Being lost felt like I was disclosing that though my dark skin shined like everyone else’s in this land, I was still not from there; I was not like you.
As we sped by other motorbikes toward the the beach, I leaned back slightly and inhaled, detecting familiar hints of salt in the air.
But as he gave me directions and as others from the convenience store joined to volunteer their help, my heart swelled. For so long I had struggled with the idea that my native language had been stripped from me, taking with it a piece of my identity. For many years, I resented my lack of ability to speak Tagalog and directed it toward my mother, convinced that she personally had prevented me from embracing our native language. I know now that the act of sheltering me was out of protection, shielding me from the realities of racism, discrimination, and prejudice—out of hope that I would remain ignorant of these matters for as long as possible.
After receiving directions to the beach, I smiled and profusely thanked the locals for their kindness. “Maraming salamat po!” I said excitedly, reminiscing about the seven-year-old who was a little too eager to communicate with her classmate. As we sped by other motorbikes toward the the beach, I leaned back slightly and inhaled, detecting familiar hints of salt in the air—a familiarity that provided, at long last, a sense of belonging. Being a Filipina in diaspora is fraught with many issues, which include colonialism, religion, colorism, sexism, displacement, and more. It is an identity that is fluid and evolving but also embraces our ancestors and elders as a method to hold closely what it means to be Filipino. Being Filipina is a complicated identity, but we continue to resist and reclaim parts of it the more we embrace its complexity.