On Identity and Why I Stand Ashamed

A disease is on my tongue.

I like to think it came from the brown dubious water bottled after “three stages of purification”, the eventide breezes sultry with exhaust fumes, the soil blooming under my fingertips, the flecks of my country. Nurtured by years of indulgence and backed by centuries of blood—oh, there was never any hope for me, really. I was fed the bane of my homeland with my mother’s milk and it has festered in my mouth ever since, the corruption in the hollow of my throat, death tucked somewhere in the depths of Broca’s area. I cannot speak the words of my country without evoking—with each stumbled phrase, every scattered flutter of my tongue—the oppression of my land. You say that’s the plight of every conquered nation, the struggle of every developing country emerging tortuously from years of colonial rule, and perhaps that’s true. But you live safe in the white glow of your privilege while I know only my pain, and I insist on telling the story of how in my tongue and in my veins I am the conqueror and the conquered. I am Filipino, and this is my story.

I was born in the United States, the land of promise and freedom (the land the soldiers came from when they burned our villages and raped our women. Why do they let us read those books, the bitterness of our forefathers? Better ignorant. Better safe. Better to live not knowing the disease flows thick and fast. Oh the days when I did not know!). My father had joined the US army in his youth (irony of ironies) and so had been granted citizenship—but the land was calling, singing him the siren song of home. And so he returned to the Philippines, taking his wife and children with him. I was six at the time, but already it was too late, too late for us all. Because he had it badly, my father. The discrimination that tainted his years in the US may have embittered his heart, but it only strengthened the corruption: don’t let them know it, don’t let them hear it, don’t let them be it. The inflections on their tongues will only mark them out as outsiders. The lilt will only show they are inferior.

Teach them English.

And so we grew up with foreign soil filling our mouths, spilling out of our teeth, swallowing up our thoughts. “Bahay Kubo” was only a game other children played (common children, browner children—oh god, we had it badly), and aswang haunted other nightmares, because the tales we heard only ever shivered with the Big Bad Wolf or the Wicked Witch of the West. We heard Western music, read Western books, thought Western thoughts—at any rate, as far as were able, and I assure you we did try very, very hard. And what did they do, my teachers, my friends, my neighbors—the strangers walking on the streets we disdained from behind tinted car windows, every commercial blasted by our TV, every piece in the goddamned newspaper? Did they upbraid us, did they rail at us for the tragedy of our great and awful forgetting—did they warn us of the sickness that spread with each beat of our hearts?

Hah!

You forget—I was infected by the sun and soil, the rain and clime of my homeland. We had it badly, yes, and everyone else had it worse and worse. A land of conspirators, that’s what it is! Of aides and abettors, our streets soaked in the poison of it all, the legacy of droplets first sprinkled more than five hundred years ago (the Spanish told the chieftains they came to trade. To trade!). It is deeper in us even than the shallow corruption of our government set up (by foreign hands) less than a hundred years ago, than the perennial itch to bribe our policeman. And so every Filipino class I ever took (“Filipino”! The mockery that masks the tragedy perpetuated by the title of our national language, an extension of our grand forgetting, the secret byword of suppression, whose only concession to the thousands and thousands of tongues rooted in the soils of our infinite islands is to take a few letters from their alphabets and append them to the speech of the Tagalogs, the group favored by our foreign friends) was an exercise in my teachers gleefully seizing the opportunity to show how proud they were of their little pupil who garbled their own—her own—speech; how easily they forgave her for an ignorance that she could only be admired for, the little thing; how cheerfully they hoped she would continue to speak English—how merrily they cherished the disease. (It is not their fault. In a land whose national author spurned his own tongue in favor of the conqueror’s Spanish to pen the books we honor as the national piece of resistance literature—how could the disease not fester? Oh irony of ironies! Resistance indeed!)

And so is it surprising that I was proud?

Because I was proud. Proud, proud, ridiculously proud—of a mouth unblemished by a language that I positively detested the sound of, whose every syllable grated on my ear with its lurking threat of muddying the loam of my carefully cultivated garden of English. I could do nothing else than scorn its choppy rhythms, its incomprehensible pronouns, its laughable literature that was ashes to the golden melodies of the English language, that had all the weight of Shakespeare and Eliot and James and Woolf behind it.

(Could I have had it worse?)

But now for the cure (so late, you say? No, that is a bitterness we will not speak of).

Because when I moved back to the US—well! It was all nothing. All my life I had fought to be Western—and I had won. They could not tell, you see—no one could, not coworkers or new friends or strangers —that I was from another country.

That I was Filipino.

And every:

“But you don’t sound (look) Filipino!”

And:

“But you don’t have a Filipino accent!”

And:

“But surely you grew up in the US!”

Was a sharp and fierce and new dagger in my heart.

In a single stroke, 26 years of life and love and pain and sorrow was erased.

Because the soil and sun and rain and people and—and even words—that only now did I realize were as much me as the tears beading in my eyes and the blood sticky in my wounds and the crinkles in my smile were apparently hidden from everyone else–were invisible, invalid, imaginary. Gone. The disease was brought before my eyes in all its glorious state of corruption, and those foreign words tasted hollow in my mouth, and life felt hollow in my heart, and I fought back with a new ferocity I had not thought myself capable of. And I declared to myself and to all the world (and I wonder sometimes if people find it funny, how quick I am to explain, how eagerly I rush to say)—I am Filipino. I grew up in the Philippines. My blood is still warm with the heat of the sun that shines in my tropical land and at least my ears are flush with the sounds of my native Tongue. And in my resumes it always says: Skills – Languages: Filipino (native speaker).

But could I write this essay in Filipino?

Could I say any of these things in Filipino?

Oh, oh, I have a disease on my tongue. But why should I lie? It is in my hands, that began too weak to snatch at the right words (how do I—they—call a tree? My god, what is the word for language? What if I wished to say—heart?) to pen on paper. It is in my eyes, too clouded by far for MgaIbongMandaragit. It was expelled too late in my heart, that only now wishes, fiercely, painfully, oh god, brutally—to know and to know and to know, as deeply and unconsciously and immediately as I know the smell and feel and chaos and heartbreak of my land, the words of my country.

But it is too late.

I was taught too early the shame for those words, for that language, for that culture—for that country.

A disease is in my body and in my soul and I will never be cured.

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