the rest is still unwritten

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

From Where I Sit: One Student Many Voices

I wrote this piece for the Hamilton College newspaper: the Spectator. It was published on April 8, 2010. The section, From Where I Sit, features articles on the experiences of International Students. Enjoy!

I was born to speak many languages. Growing up in a developing country, a post-colonial one at that, I was inundated by the pervasive and destructive mentality that the idea of the foreign other was always better: foreign movies, foreign goods, foreign tongues and foreign husbands. Growing up in the Philippines, both English and Filipino were spoken in my home. Our house was run by a general—I mean an actual military general, a prominent and politically active one. So the need to master the English language was tantamount. My siblings, cousins and I, as the grandchildren of this man, should convey the dignity of our lineage through everything in our carriage, including our appearance, our manners and our speech. Blah, blah, blah.

In the Philippines, it's not just what you say or how you say something that matters. Even your accent could be used as measurement of your prestige. From the way I spoke English, one would assume my gender (feminine), what school I attended (the expensive International School), how much my parents earn (less than they think) and how much my family is worth (to me, much more than they can imagine).

The term slang is given to the 'American' accent some Filipino English-speakers have (or fake). It's classy. When one is slang a direct connection is made—that person has the means to travel abroad, attend prestigious American/International Schools, or better yet—they grew up stateside. Fil-Am. Am-boys and Am-girls. Growing up speaking English, and attending the International School Manila for seven years, here I am: slang.

But you know what's really funny? At Hamilton, the assumptions continued. Accents are relative. My slang accent at Hamilton translates to having no accent. So it was always assumed that I was from any one of these places a) New York City b) LA or c) Hawai'i. Wrong.
"Oh, I grew up in Manila."
"You're so fired."

But like I said, I was born to speak many languages. Not only am I linguistically ambiguous, but the language of my gendered performance blurs the edges of my identity as well. Growing up, I was taught a very Masculine vocabulary—one I never mastered. My pidgin performance of gender was often reprimanded. Feminine gestures hushed like cuss words. My mom would comment on my imperfect slang. It was too sing-song-y. Emphasis and vocal flourishes are not part of the Masculine vocabulary. Talk like a boy. Forget about mascara and stilettos.

But you can't forget your mother tongue. My home was run by military men, but my female cousin and I were raised by women—Mommy, aunties and an ever-changing squad of nannies. It's like my Masculine grammar was learned in the classroom, but my Feminine words were learned in the playground. My Valkyrie protectors in effect taught me to speak Woman. In more ways than one, it's my mother tongue.

As English was preferred to Filipino, Tagalog specifically, so Masculine was preferred to Feminine. It was expected—no, demanded—that I speak English and Masculine only. I tried it for a while: BO-RING, and honestly, a little depressing. In time I was ready for high school. It was the time when boys became men, and girls became women. What would I become? What should I speak? English became literature and Tagalog was reserved for gossip.

Throughout high school and now here at Hamtech, I've learned many things, but the most important lessons really were not learned in class. It's this thing called life—living, I mean, really living—that teaches you so much more. I've learned that regardless of how we speak, we all have something to say, we all have stories to tell. Somehow, I managed to muster up the courage and just speak. Speak to my friends, eventually to my parents, speak to the world. Once I started to speak, I simply became.

Now, the language I speak—words, accent, gestures, mascara and everything—let me tell you honey, it's pretty damn romantic.

1 comment:

  1. i can relate! neither of us choose where we would be born! you just gotta accept what God/life gives you. You're right its not the language that define us.. Its what we do and choose of becoming! all my life i thought i was living the perfect life. Its the life i wanted but as i grew older, I've come to realized that it isn't the fairytale i thought it was. writing this now i would trade my position with anyone! i would rather be with my parents than living in a different country where people classify you by the color of your skin and accent; getting the education my family think is most important! don't get me wrong i love my family. they want what's best for me! but its not what i think is best for me!
    i love your blogs.. finally, someone who i can relate with!