Sunday, June 12, 2011

Never without you

"He who does not love his own language is worse than an animal and smelly fish." - Dr. Jose Rizal

Growing up as a Filipina abroad can often feel like being a contestant on a quiz show. Yet in comparison to those kind of shows where the participant is required to give one exact answer only, I sometimes need to think twice before answering the very simple question: "So, where do you come from?" My replies, depending on the situation, range from "I am from the Philippines" to "I am a Filipina who grew up in Geneva" to "I was born in Switzerland but I am originally from the Philippine Islands."

As the years went by and I had the opportunity to live in different countries, the answers became more and more elaborate. I am a Swiss-born Filipina but lived in this and that country for a certain period of time and I am currently residing in... People either get very intrigued or tired, depending on the conversation, by the time I finish the second sentence. It would be nice to keep the answers easy and short, but the bottom line is that I feel like I must mention every single detail for people to really understand who I am.

Despite the fact that my explanations frequently varied, it dawned on me that something remained the same all this time. I am Filipina. Because no matter which destination I have been to, where I am right now and wherever my feet will take me; I always took pride in my heritage and my ability to share where I come from with people around the globe.

In truth, it is because of my wonderful family -- in particular my parents and my grandmother -- that my roots play such an immense role in shaping and defining my identity. My parents quickly understood that living abroad could make things a little complicated since my siblings and I were going to grow up abroad. Of course we needed to fit in with our environment but at the same time, they made sure to teach us our cultural background, help us remember our traditions and know all about the history and Greatest of our country. More importantly, if I were asked to name the one thing I am so very proud of, I will definitely say that my family did us right by teaching us Tagalog.

  • The importance of language
One of the most significant topics that Filipino parents who emigrate must deal with is the importance of language. They stand before a crucial decision: Will we teach our children Pilipino? This question might appear trivial to some but it is a harsh reality that a number of parents do not go the extra mile to teach their children Pilipino. Indeed, many of the next generations who grow up abroad -- a lot of them are cousins and good friends of mine -- do not speak the language. Some do not even understand it at all. I do not blame them because it is clearly not their fault. In any case, to be completely frank, I find that fact abominating and simultaneously, I cannot fully grasp why this occurs. Usual reasons -- or dare I say excuses -- I hear are "My children could get confused if they speak French, German, Swedish or Russian at school and Pilipino at home" and "They do not really need to speak Pilipino." First of all, I believe it is nonsense to think children will be confused because they learn different languages at the same time, not to mention it is underestimating their abilities to learn. The point is that the only way they can be taught is through their parents and they will learn the local language by being around others anyway. After all, children are gifted and fast learners. Secondly, how could people feel like their children do not need to learn the Pilipino language? What happens when they fly back home and wish to communicate -- in particular with elders who do not necessarily speak English? 

The only valid reason I can find for not educating youngsters is that parents simply do not care enough. Or is it maybe because they are overwhelmed by their own yet 'complicated' language? Are they not proud of being Filipino? Or do they consider their children not Filipino because they were born abroad? I feel strongly about this subject not only because my family taught me just how important it is to be fluent in Pilipino but because I, myself, assume it is a pity to not even speak the language of your parents (even if it is only your mother's or father's!) -- it is your own language in the end. I reckon that if your parents do not push you enough, then it is your responsibility to make the effort. After all, language is the doorway to acknowledging and understanding your legacy. It is something you can take pride in, it is an asset you must value with your whole heart. The best thing about knowing the language is that people will praise you for it -- especially because you grew up abroad. Once more, you might not have lived in your home country but it is no reason (or excuse) to forget where you are from.

  • Best of both worlds
On the other hand, I must admit that growing up as a Filipina abroad can also be quite tricky at times. You are Filipino but you live here. You wonder who you really are and must find ways to describe it. But in time and with experience, I learned once again that it is by appreciating your origins i.e. you own language and culture first that enabled me to discover who I am. "He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination" Dr. Jose Rizal. Meanwhile, I perceive what is so great and special about living in a foreign country: by exploring the city you grew up in and the places you have been to; you grasp that these factors forge your entire being as well. Without doubt, obviously, I am a proud Filipina but I am also very thankful for having been given the chance to be abroad. All these years I spend in lovely Switzerland and every time I moved to a new city, I made sure to learn the language, get to know the culture and fit in with its people as well. I am assured that it is equally important. I am extremely lucky because I manage to mix both: I am Filipina and I blend in. Having the best of both worlds is a treasure, never considered a hindrance. In the end, this diversity creates the new breed of Filipinos.



  1. This is a very thought provoking piece Nicole, it should be required reading for parents. While I cannot claim to relate to what life is like for someone of one nationality living in another country I do believe children should be taught their native language as well as a second. All children should learn a second language. I wish I had learned another language as a child. I speak some Spanish and a little German but I am not fluent in either.

  2. Thanks a lot for your feedback and sharing,
    And I will look into it too. Will send this essay to some parents :)

    have a great day! cheers!