Orphaned by my mother’s tongue: A search for belonging

by on July 27, 2018

My mother is from the Philippines where the national language is Filipino, which is a standardized form of the Philippine language Tagalog. She grew up in the province of Negros Occidental in the West Visayas region where they speak Hiligaynon (known colloquially as Ilonggo), so Filipino is not my mother’s first language. Growing up in Germany, I was raised speaking German. Until I was eleven, I had never even set foot in the Philippines, therefore the country’s image in my mind, was solely shaped by either romantic documentaries or catastrophic news on TV, nightly calls by family members, and the food my mom and her Filipina friends made—as well as occasional remarks by German friends telling me that I smelled like rice.

In my heart I always wanted to belong. I think it’s very human. The German side of my family was never really close to each other so my longing for a close family was present throughout my life. I created this romanticized picture of the Philippines as the place where I could find this close family. As a teenager, I imagined that the only thing preventing me from realizing that picture was the distance keeping us apart.

My mother didn’t teach me her mother tongue so that I could assimilate better in a country with a German-speaking majority. My parents wanted me to speak “proper” German and didn’t want me to speak with a foreign accent. As a kindergarten kid, my mom used to read to me in English from books sent from my aunt in Canada. I used to speak English in kindergarten sometimes, but when nobody there understood what I was talking about, I complained to my mom and eventually the two of us stopped talking in English as well.

Later, in elementary school when I started learning English institutionally, other kids told me that my English was wrong in spite of the fact that I had some knowledge of English before formal English lessons in school. Of course, I spoke English with a Filipino accent and the German kids were unable to tell the difference between wrong and accented English. To give you an idea, numbers would be pronounced like this in Philippine-accented English:

tree to mean three
fibe instead of five
seben instead of seven

In the end, I learned English just like any other German kid and now have a German accent in my English that I’ll probably never completely get rid of.

My parents were not aware, that even though I learned German as a first language, I would still often be seen as a person from a foreign land simply because of my outer appearance and the stereotypes that go with it, even though I was born in Germany, speak German fluently, and am well assimilated in German culture with friends and habits. Of course many years after my childhood, I became interested with this “otherness” that the Germans repeatedly confronted me with. I imagined that once I found the “other” part of myself that made me foreign, I could fully live up to my identity. Maybe, if I were raised bilingual and had been taught German as well as Filipino (or my mother tongue Hiligaynon) growing up, it would have helped me to deal with my otherness differently. Kids who grew up learning both of their parents’ languages seemed to have less identity issues.

In Germany I didn’t like being asked: “Where are you from?” and being told “I think you look more [insert nationality here]”. I recall just having started elementary school and being asked over and over again where I was from. The answer “Germany” would usually not be accepted as an appropriate answer.

The assumed nationality I belonged to often depended on where in Germany I happened to be. In the more conservative northwestern region of Germany, I have experienced people saying “Nihao” (你好; Mandarin Chinese for ‘hello’) in my face as a joke or calling “Shing Shang Shong” after me on the streets. In Berlin, Turkish migrants would ask me about my nonexistent Turkish roots and other Germans would be confused by my racial ambiguity. An exception is the racially-diverse city of Berlin in Germany, where I feel safe being who I am, especially, because I have the chance of being accepted as a German since I speak the language fluently, which is—no doubt—a privilege. A lot of people there don’t look stereotypically German but are in fact local Germans.

After I completed high school, I went to the capital of the Philippines, Metro Manila, to further deepen my connection with the culture and ways of living. As a foreigner it is easy enough to get around in the Philippines speaking English, but I realized that I still did not feel quite as connected as I wished to be. My experiences were also manifested through confusion over my looks and language ability, but they differed from those in Germany. Due to the Philippines’ colonial history, white appearance is often associated with an upper class status. The Spanish colonial period in the Philippines lasted for nearly 400 years! It brought Catholicism, replaced the pre-colonial script Baybayin with the Latin alphabet, and established the elite colonial social structure. Spanish—as well as Chinese—families built the upper class, and up until now are among the most influential and rich in the country.

Colonial Spanish rule in the Philippines was followed by the USA, up until 1946 when the Philippines was granted full independence. The Spanish established formal education following religious orders and as part of spreading the faith of the Catholic church as their highest interest, but the Americans had different priorities. Every seven year old child was required to register in their nearest school and free materials were given in a newly established school system just like the American system: elementary school, high school and college.

English was the language of instruction in schools and so the colonial government of the US was hence able to teach Filipinos not just the English language but also about western values and beliefs which lead to the formation of a national identity. As of now, English and Filipino are considered national languages, while a proficiency in English is associated with the educated and upper class. Wherever I go, people are slightly more polite to me or become shy if I happen to speak English to them—a situation I witness even among my extended family there.

The inability to speak English and thus causing a language barrier is called “Nosebleed” in the Philippines. Once, practicing my Tagalog while shopping in an Ukay-Ukay (local second hand market) I was embarrassed for stuttering and explained to the saleslady that I was practicing, and she simply told me in Tagalog: “It’s good that you’re the one having the nosebleed, instead of me”, and burst out in laughter. It was so refreshing to have a genuine conversation with someone who could empathize with me, and I enjoyed being the one who was embarrassed for being the cause of the language barrier. I felt like I owed this feeling to all the Filipinos who were embarrassed for their bad English. These kinds of language experiences keep me going in my quest to learn Tagalog even better.

I have not yet practiced Tagalog with my Philippine family. The thought is still intimidating for me, especially since I am not able to communicate and connect properly with them in their language. I learned Tagalog instead of my mother’s tongue, Ilonggo, because it is nearly impossible for me to learn it with so little exposure. Almost all the TV programs are in Tagalog, and so are the official papers, and bilingual-English dictionaries. It would not be easier to speak with my family in Tagalog instead of English, but to be able to better connect with people in general makes me happy.

In a Philippine language, I can talk to more people, instead of being limited to speaking only with those with a higher education in English. Also, people would often become interested in why a foreigner decided to learn Tagalog, and I could tell them about myself and express my feelings.

Learning Ilonggo with Tagalog as a base is not as big a step as from English. But who knows, one day I might end up surprising my mom by speaking to her in her mother’s tongue.

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