Everyone in your family claims that they speak or at least can converse in English, right? No question, we’re the proud, brown bi-lingual, island people from Asia and our people and country have surely capitalized on this gift. Philippines has been coined as the Capital of Call Centers in the World and many businesses in America boasts of their customer-centric Virtual Assistants from the Islands.
So, it makes sense when asked, “do you need an interpreter?” after calling America your home for a few years now, that you answer back with a glaring stare. As if questioned if you knew how to read. You feel insulted.
Surely, I’ve come across Fil-Americans that felt relieved by this inquiry, but they are not the norm.
The feeling of insult some of us feel is understandable. If you went to school in the Philippines, the medium of instruction for most subjects, including Math, Science, Religion and Literature are all in English. The subjects of Filipino and Sibika (Social Science) are taught in the native language where materials used in class were produced by local writers but everything else were imported or written by foreign authors.
I remember returning to the islands with a twang English accent after just spending a year and half in the States in middle school, my classmates and teachers seem amused. Even though I was behind in Math and my mom had to hire a tutor for me to catch up, I was a bit more popular with my peers because I sounded more smart with my new found accent ( I have lost this accent since & speak with my Pinay accent with pride 😊). Usually, the more affluent students are in a school or neighborhood, the more English is incorporated in the former’s curriculum. Rich means educated. Educated means speaking English.
The Successful Filipino Immigrant
There are many reasons why speaking English in our culture is reinforced. Who does not want to be perceived rich and smart?
Not me, you answered? If you preferred not to be the last person picked in class for a science project grouping, it’s important to you.
The need to belong runs deep in our veins, across culture and defies generational differences. Deep down, we all want to be accepted and loved.
This is true for your parents who wanted to arm you with an easy life of friends, and heaven forbid, you be bullied because of your Pinoy accent.
Among other things, it felt good to our folks to show off their English-speaking children to their neighborhood friends from the barrio (village), as proof that something came out of their sacrifice- a well-educated child by our cultural standard.
Many of our parents bravely left the comforts of their close-knit island life in pursuit of economic relief or growth. Although some may be filled with excitement on the promise of a cold weather, higher pay, educational advancement and affording “stuff” to send back to relatives left behind.
The price to pay for these gains, do not take away the journey of lost our parents had to face.
Indeed, it is painful for our parents that….
After completing a college degree in the Philippines, they had to work as a housekeeper at a 4- star hotel…
Growing up with house helpers, that they had to learn how to do the laundry and cook, while managing to keep 2 jobs to be able to pay the monthly rent…
They’ve lost their social status, a craft they’ve tried to perfect all their life. Your dad was called “sir” everywhere he went but was a “nobody” in America…
They’ve lost close, physical connection to relatives and friends they grew up with…and so on.
You might think these things are superficial or that your parents are shallow to place such value on status, social belonging and connection.
You might be right that they probably need to learn a thing or two (as we all do).
But in truth, the pain of these losses is as real to them as having to prove your Filipino-ness, absent of knowing nothing (or little) of your native language is painful to you.
You might find it intriguing that Filipino-Americans born in the motherland work hard to lose their accent while you struggle to simply say, “Walang Anuman” ( your’re welcome) without a hitch.
Forgiving Our Parents. A Gift to Yourself
When you find it in your heart to acknowledge your parents’ losses and struggles to uproot themselves to a foreign land, you might find that what seem intriguing to you or even detestable seem to make sense.
Why they want you to do well in school better than anyone else,
But couldn’t care less showing up at your PTA meetings in school-
Why it seemed like they didn’t care about the shinanigans of your day but was quick to scold you for showing up late for an after-school pick-up.
Why they emphasize that you focus on your studies but expect you to balance school life and potluck invitation with family and friends-
Why teaching you the native language was not a priority or the preference for anything foreign including a well-educated, articulate child means everything to them.
Finding Our Way Back
Some of these value systems certainly must evolve to accommodate the needs of the time, the needs of the young, and ultimately the need to sustain healthier relationships within ourselves and the families we care about.
Please understand that acknowledging your parents’ story does not mean agreeing with them.
It means coming from a place of forgiveness of what seemed cruel might have been an intent to protect, or even to show a type of affection you’re not accustomed to.
Forgiving your parents means forgiving You for thinking that you were less than what you truly are made of.
It means Never apologizing to anyone that you don’t speak the language and proving yourself harder to anyone who seem to question your legit Filipino status.
It means looking upon your parents with kinder eyes. In the same way, you hope your own children would look back upon you with all your shortcomings.
It means moving forward and knowing that learning about your heritage is a life-time process.
You can choose what you want to learn now. The world is your classroom.
This is the way to finding your way back and beyond.
May you traverse this journey with open arms and be confident in your ability to find You.