Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong? That you were too foreign for here, but too foreign for there? Or maybe you felt like an immigrant more than anything else, even if you were born here?
This is the story of my journey with Tagalog and why I decided to reconcile with the language of my heritage.
I was born in New Zealand into a frequently travelling Filipino family. As a baby, my family lived in the Philippines, Tagalog was my first language. I was raised in the United States in my early childhood, which is where I learned to read, write and speak in English. We then moved back to New Zealand and I have been raised here ever since.
Early on, I had the impression that my family was ‘different’ in that we were not the same as other Filipino families. Both my parents had left the Philippines in the 1980s for scholarships to an English language university in Thailand. They were different to how other Filipino families were, having been exposed to other worlds longer. Touchstones of Filipino culture were separate from my family — we did not go to church regularly, nor were we religious. My family was not focused on festivals or community gatherings so much and we were not so close to our extended families compared to others. I was also not taught Tagalog; though my parents spoke it at home, they spoke predominantly in English. So, it would be natural, growing up in New Zealand, that I would feel a closer affinity to feeling like a New Zealander.
However, in claiming to be a ‘New Zealander’, I felt shunned. People saw me for my appearance as ‘foreign’. To most, what it meant to be ‘foreign’ and Filipino was in the form of jokes people would make about Asians, Filipinos who defended and worshipped authoritarian leaders, or child sponsorship commercials. It felt somehow disempowering when people associate your culture with being a place of kidnappings, political ignorance and poverty.
But when I went to the Philippines, I too was the focus of feeling out of place. My paternal grandmother would openly scold in public and complain that I did not know how to speak Tagalog. Even though I understand Tagalog fluently, I could not say anything without people mocking me saying “nosebleed!”, a Tagalog insult for not being able to understand English or the speaking speed. Even though I looked like everyone else and have the same ethnic origin, when people heard me speak, they would say ‘Ah! Foreigner.”.
This push and pull from the two sides of my identity made me give up on wanting to have a close association with the Tagalog language. Sadly, this is not an uncommon experience. Gatekeeping and bullying have been experiences of friends of fellow mixed identities, such as friends of Māori or Korean New Zealander or Chinese New Zealand descent.
It would take a later meeting with a mentor and the solidarity of other diaspora students to reconcile with who I am. The human rights situation in the Philippines is terrifying and Southeast Asia is in a critical time for whether they cling on to a dream of democratisation and protest, or if the region will succumb to authoritarianism of past decades. What is happening now, will have effects on the future of the country and millions of lives, so I had come to an uncomfortable but empowering conclusion: that whether I choose to or not, my heritage and knowledge of the culture, history and nuances would give me tools to act in situations of change that not everyone has, but that Tagalog would be the tool to do so.
Though it is saddening to know that areas that were once trading kingdoms are now slums, I feel empowered to know that I am a descendant from a line of seafarers and epicentres of anti-colonial resistance. My journey learning Tagalog meant that I also understood my heritage as someone of Austronesian descent, which helped build my sense of solidarity and learning for other communities as I noticed similarities in our languages. Tagalog, which has a Malay and Spanish influence, has similarities to Polynesian and Māori vocabulary. This way, I understood that if I, or other people of Austronesian background ever felt out of place, this was not a result of the culture I was from, but rather, the colonial divisions and markers placed on our diverse and beautiful cultures and the meaning to belong. Divide and conquer has then been internalised by communities who gatekeep, Being aware of this helps us become more inclusive of the many lived experiences of what it means to be Filipino for instance.
For those wanting to rediscover their heritage through language, my advice would be to learn language and culture, starting from a hobby. For me, this was history and film. Surround yourself with a support network, be open with who you are and your struggles. There will be others like you who will need you as a mentor as much as you have been mentored by others. The journey is difficult, but wanting to learn and knowing who you are is the first and most important step!