By Kimberly Aglipay
Published on January 25, 2016

In early 2015, my parents and I visited the Philippines and stayed at my grandparents’ home in Quezon City in Metro Manila. The last time I had been to the Philippines was in 2008, when I was fifteen years old. My ties to Filipino culture were shaped almost entirely through my family since I was born in Canada and I can count on one hand the number of Filipino friends I have. I was eager to seek a sense of belonging in the Philippines, but I also knew that I would encounter challenges on the trip. One of my older sisters who had visited just a few months before warned me that Filipinos from abroad just stood out. She said I wouldn’t even need to utter a word. Strangers could tell that I wasn’t from there.

On daily trips to run errands or at the nearby shopping centre in Cubao, I would observe from my uncle’s truck how some of the locals dressed, and I tried to copy them by wearing casual outfits like them — jeans or shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. In spite of what my sister had told me, I still tried to blend in.

I learned that trying to blend in included keeping my mouth shut; I didn’t want anyone to know that I couldn’t speak Tagalog. When salespeople tried to talk to me, I just smiled and nodded back, quickly breaking away to find my mother or father. I felt like a child again, seeking out my parents to protect me from the unknown. I also found myself searching for others who didn’t look Filipino, which wasn’t difficult to do in a popular shopping district. This was because I felt strangely relieved whenever I spotted tourists, for I assumed that they likewise didn’t know the language, or that they felt as out of place as I did. But more than anything, I felt relieved that everyone’s eyes would be on the tourists rather than on me.

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Photo by Kimberly Aglipay.

On jeepney rides back to my grandparents’ house, I would cover my nose and mouth like everyone else, even though the fumes didn’t bother me that much. In fact, the smell of gasoline combined with the heat and humidity felt comforting to me, as it reminded me of my previous visits.

The first time we rode a jeepney after arriving in the Philippines, I sat in the front, near the driver. A jeepney fare is usually passed from passenger to passenger, with each person calling out bayad (payment) until it reaches the driver. When a little boy passed a fare to me so I could pass it along to the driver, I stared at the boy’s outstretched hand, afraid that trying to repeat “biyad” in my imperfect Tagalog would blow my cover. I took the fare in my hand and paused. I paused for too long, flustered with indecision. Should I give it to the driver? Do I have to speak? What should I say? My mom noticed my hesitation and motioned for me to the pass the fare to her. I did not dare utter a word.

Biyad po,” she said, quickly giving the fare to the driver.

I felt all eyes on me and my flushed cheeks. I felt exposed, my secret uncovered.

My parents were sympathetic. They had told me not to speak to the market vendors because they didn’t want the vendors to know we were all balikbayans, Filipinos who had emigrated to elsewhere, and in the Philippines only for a visit. I barely wanted to speak at all in public. I thought my parents felt ashamed that they didn’t pass on their language to their daughter. Keeping silent was my way of protecting them from judgment, too.

When I did have the courage to speak English in public, I encountered looks that ranged from wary and uncomfortable to curious. Maybe what they saw was my privilege — the privilege of having parents who were able to migrate to another country, the privilege of growing up in a well-off English-speaking country, and the privilege of traveling to the homeland as a tourist. But I did not feel privileged. I felt ashamed that I had not insisted on learning Tagalog from my parents. My parents wanted our family’s English to improve, but I felt ashamed that this came at the expense of our proficiency in Tagalog. I understand now that when my parents immigrated to Canada twenty-six years ago, it was difficult for them to adapt to life in Canada and simultaneously preserve our Filipino culture and language.

Kimberly and her mother in the Philippines. Photo taken by Kimberly's family.

Kimberly and her mother in the Philippines. Photo taken by Kimberly Aglipay’s family.

On one of our final days of our trip, my parents and I had bubble tea in Cubao. They wanted me to order for them. By then I had learned more Tagalog, and I was determined to continue to learn. I knew at some point I’d have to speak with strangers to improve. With some hesitation, I took a deep breath and walked up to the cashier. As confidently as possible, I used the few words I knew, and spoke in the Tagalog accent I was starting to work on.

Isa ng (one of) Taro, regular, tapos dalawa ng (then two of) pearl milk tea,” I said to the cashier, waiting for her reaction to tell me that my accent was off, or that I didn’t use a word properly. But the girl who took my order didn’t bat an eyelash. “Opo (yes), ma’am,” she said, and told me how much I needed to pay. I handed her the money and looked at the other people in line. No one was paying any attention to me. I breathed a sigh of relief, and looked around to find my parents. They were sitting at a nearby table, silently watching me as I re-gained a sense of pride, a sense of self.

Works Cited

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Kimberly AglipayKimberly Aglipay is a fifth-year student at UTSC specializing in Journalism, and minoring in Human Geography. She is interested in exploring the ability and privilege that comes with certain forms of travel. As a journalist, she has written about everything from municipal politics and crime in Toronto to fashion, beauty and the Canadian wedding industry. She has been described by her friends as passionate, caring, and always friendly. When she isn’t reading fiction or the news, she enjoys bad jokes, drinking tea, blogging and singing karaoke (horribly).