I’ve been on a journey of being a global nomad for almost 4 years now. I have experienced changes in myself that were predictable and expected. Then, there were these changes that happened unexpectedly.
My mother tongue is Tagalog — the official language of my birth country, the Philippines. When I moved to the U.S. at the age of 13, that all changed. English replaced Tagalog as my primary language of use — even in my thoughts which once were spoken in Tagalog were now happening in my head in English. This is the assimilation process for an immigrant. It changes you dramatically and innately.
Even though I remained fluent in Tagalog, I opted to speak in English with my parents who retained the language. I often felt embarrassed speaking in Tagalog with my parents in public, trying to avoid being seen as a foreigner who didn’t belong in the U.S. Hence, I have steered far away from my mother tongue believing for the rest of my years in the U.S. that it was a curse that could lead to my downfall within the hierarchy of a racial caste system that places white culture and norms on the top tier.
In the very deepest and darkest part of my mind, I wanted to fit in and pass as “white” as much as possible and that entails completely disassociating myself from my mother tongue. The only exception I made to this was when I visited the Philippines, and even then, I reluctantly allowed myself to speak Tagalog, fearing that upon my return to the U.S. my accent might come back — I didn’t want it to. That would be embarrassing at my job full of lawyers or in courtrooms where I often have to argue in front of the judge and my peers.
During my years as a prosecutor at which time I spent tremendous amount of time arguing and speaking in public spaces such as courtrooms, I was proud of successfully eliminating my accent and in mastering English well enough both orally and in writing so I can pass as white or even as a black person, or really, to pass as “U.S. born.” I steered away from the “otherness” at the expense of my own mother tongue.
It worked. Many of my peers and friends assumed I was born in the U.S. I secretly applauded myself for a job well done. I never had to be ridiculed whether discreetly or overtly about my accent. I was fitting in and succeeding more easily as I lessened the burden associated with my identity. Despite succeeding, I felt empty and lost.
Who have I become?
Because of my many travels and the inevitability of my becoming a global nomad, time came when my mind shifted drastically from pride to shame.
You see, after over 30 years later, my mother tongue never left me although I pushed it away for the entire time I was in America. These days I look at what I’ve done as a complete embarrassment and an affliction of a colonized and whitewashed mind. I’m not proud of it. I did it as a way to survive and for self preservation in a country where I discovered that being Asian and an immigrant are not a blessing, but a curse.
Now, as I write this and no matter where I am in the world, I realized the biggest mistake I made with my mother tongue.
Being Filipina with an accent is beautiful.
Speaking my mother tongue is even more beautiful.
The language is as sweet as the Spanish and Quechua that I hear in Peru or the Mongolian and the Kazakh languages that I grew accustomed to in Mongolia. Or the Swahili that I hear from my friends in Tanzania and so forth. I’m often surrounded by broken English or English spoken with accents and no longer by the American version of English that I aspired to master. I lived in the hypocrisy of my colonized and whitewashed mind admiring the languages and accents of other cultures while shaming my own. I became engulfed in regret, for those times I was ashamed of my mother tongue, I was in essence ashamed of me, of who I was. In that shame, I was also shaming my parents and siblings for who they are.
My mother tongue was a gift — it’s the food that nourishes my identity and my soul. In the end, I can live without America but I CAN NEVER live without my mother tongue. Yet, I treated it as a poison in my life — worried that it would damage me in some way compounded by my brown skin.
Obviously, I cannot undo what I’ve done. But looking forward, traveling and nomadism made me see my mother tongue for what it really is — it’s a gift from my home country to allow me to belong, that no matter where I am in this world and how long I have been away from the Philippines, Tagalog will always afford me some form of ‘home,” especially when other languages including English fail to allow me to be who I truly am.
This morning and like every morning now in the past few months, I have been hearing myself talk in Tagalog -to my cats, at my neighbors or anything that comes to view that compels me to think or speak — part of it is happening now in Tagalog. And because I don’t converse in English as much as before given I have to speak in the local language of the place I happen to be, I hear my accent more often now. I never expected this shift to happen. But, I don’t mind it.
The best part is I no longer feel embarrassed. I’m finally free from the constraints brought forth by America’s xenophobia and racism. I no longer have the need or want to aspire to be white. I will survive my world regardless. It felt like a homecoming to finally be me — a multicultural, multilingual, nomadic American.
To be Filipina is to be an American.
I smile and feel joyful to be reunited with my mother tongue. Thank god she never left me. I was too afraid and powerless then to recognize her importance in my life. With her back again, wherever I go, I now know that I will always belong. I’m home with her for good.