Assimilation to larger American society: Language and the oft-cited Filipino colonial mentality

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I have been in Honolulu for almost 8 years now for a graduate program that has taken longer than I expected. It’s probably because I enjoy the sun and beaches of Waikiki or because of a PhD program that normally goes between 7 to 10 years. Anyhow, I am not writing about my gripes of the system – I am actually taking pleasure in it! I write about the perceived “colonial mentality” of Filipinos, especially when it comes to speaking Filipino (or Tagalog, as some would call the language).

I believe that if you’re reading this, you’ve had had an experience with someone (a Filipino or someone whose ethnicity is other than “American”) who wanted to pass him/herself as an American or to hide the strong Filipino accent. In Hawaii, where over 15% of the population is considered of Filipino descent, you would bump a kababayan in every corner of the islands. I am a regular bus rider and I encounter a kababayan as if I am taking a bus ride along EDSA. These encounters, for some us who are far away from “home”, should be considered a good thing. As the famous line goes, a home away from home. I, however, had several unforgettable experiences (that I am sure, you had too) with some of our kababayan. I would try to start a conversation in Filipino, but would be receiving a response in English, as though, the person does not understand Filipino. At first, I dismissed this as something that has to do with Ilokano speakers in Hawaii – if you ask an Ilokano in Hawaii if they are Filipino, some of them would respond that no, they are not Filipino, but Ilokano (the majority of Filipinos in Hawaii are of Ilocano-descent). However, as time went by, this experience happens again and again, even with non-Ilokano speakers. When my son was born, my wife and I decided that we will speak to him exclusively in Filipino. I guess, this was unsettling to others. A lot of times, we would hear comments like, “Why are you talking to him in Filipino, he wouldn’t learn English that way”. We would just respond with a smile, we’ve decided not to argue about it (not because of condescension but more because of our perceived futility in the argument).

In language acquisition studies, we’ve learned that children below the age of twelve can learn two or more languages. Toddlers exposed to two or more languages would take longer to learn speaking. That probably explains why single-language households will have a babbling two-year old, while a multi-language household will wait for a few more months for a toddler to chunk out 3-4-word combination. In addition, we also learn from these studies that an individual who has not learned a language by age twelve, that person would not acquire a language at all.

Anyhow, back to my encounters with Filipinos who refuse to talk in Filipino, it seemed like these kababayans were ashamed of being stared upon and asked whether they are Filipino. As a Filipino, this bothered me. Why couldn’t we have a conversation in Filipino? Why would they try to hide an accent when you could actually hear the three vowels that make up the vowels of central Philippine languages? I told myself that I will not respond in English if I know that I am talking to a Filipino.

As an anthropologist, discussions on colonial mentality came up as an explanation for this apparent distaste for one’s own ethnicity. After all, everything western is thought to be better; that being under colonial rule for more than 300 years is enough to diminish our self-esteem. As Raul Manglapus stated, “No wonder, after three centuries in chains… the tao… should lose the erect and fearless posture of the freeman, and become the bent, misshapen, indolent, vicious, pitiful thing that he is!” For most of us, this explains everything, we have somebody to blame for what shaped our perspectives, but are we doing anything to change this? Do we review our basic education curriculum to make the next generation prouder of their heritage? Do we reflect on our own perspectives whether we are also mired in this colonial mentality thinking?

I have to admit that blaming colonial mentality is the easy way out to justify my kababayans’ behavior. However, I do understand that our perspectives are shaped by our respective experiences. If Filipinos overseas choose to speak English, then, it’s their decision (for whatever reasons, which I think are valid). Language is only one aspect of our culture, and speaking in English (and trying to perfect the twang) would make Filipinos understandable to native English speakers, thus, would facilitate one’s assimilation to a wider American culture.

My assertion above was supported by papers written by my students with Filipino descent. Most of these students don’t speak their parents’ first language. They explain that they were encouraged to learn English instead of Filipino. Most of them however, are now reclaiming their heritage and learning Filipino or Ilocano at the University of Hawaii System.

As an exercise for introducing culture (I teach Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology to supplement my meager PhD fellowship), I asked my students to come up with a paper on food preference. As it turned out, all of these Filipino students eat Filipino dishes in their households. They wrote about dinuguan, balot, dog meat (not in Hawaii but when they went to the Philippines), kare-kare (which is probably of Mexican or Spanish origin because peanut is not native to the Philippines), and of course adobo (I was surprised that there was no mention of sinigang). They also wrote about how they were reared by their parents (in terms of food eating habits), which were easily recognizable as part of Filipino value system. After reading all the papers, I came to a realization that the Filipinos I encounter daily on the bus were not ashamed of being Filipinos, they wanted to fit in into the larger American society. They still practice Filipino values at home; they still instill “good” habits of eating; they still feed their children adobo.

Although there is still a lot of truth on blaming colonial mentality, I believe that it is not the only reason on the apparent degradation of Filipino-ness. As mentioned above, language is only one aspect of culture (though it’s more immediate than other aspects – you don’t usually see a Filipino father or mother cooking at home), and it is the main avenue in assimilating to a larger American society. Yes, we still need to revamp our basic education curriculum, yes, we still need to instill the importance of heritage to the next generation of Filipinos, but we have to stop blaming colonial mentality – that is the easy way out.

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