"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 was born in Switzerland but I am originally from the Philippines" to "I am a Filipina who grew up in Geneva, Manila and Vienna."
As the years went by and I had the opportunity to live in many other 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 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, length-wise at least, 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 find myself 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 and mesh with our environment; but at the same time, they made sure to teach us all about our cultural background, celebrate our traditions and honor the history and Greatest of our country. More importantly, if I were asked to name the one thing that 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 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 new generations who grow up abroad –– a lot of them are even cousins and good friends of mine -- do not speak the language. A few do not even understand it at all. I do not blame them because it is clearly not their fault. Notwithstanding, and 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 often 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 necessarily need to speak Pilipino." First of all, it is nonsense to think children will be impaired because they learn different languages at the same time, not to mention that it is underestimating their abilities. After all, it is at that age that one absorbs the fastest. The point is that the only way they can be taught Pilipino is through their parents and they will learn the local language by being around others anyway. On a second note, 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 the next generation is that parents simply do not care enough. Are they not proud of being Filipino? Or do they consider their children not Filipino because they were born and/or raised abroad? In any case, 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!) -- in the end (or rather, in the first place), it is your language as well. It should be passed on like genetic code. So I reckon that if parents do not push enough, then it will be the child's responsibility to make the effort. After all, it is never too late to learn a new language, even more so if it is your own. You might not have lived in your home country but it is no reason (or excuse) to forget where you come from. "He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination" –Dr. Jose Rizal.
Language is the doorway to acknowledging and understanding legacy – your identity. And the best thing about mastering the language is that people will praise you for it -- especially because you grew up abroad.
- Best of both worlds
Naturally, one must admit that growing up as a Filipina abroad was not always all roses. It could be quite tricky at times. You are Filipino but you live here. And when you are in the Philippines, you are that Balikbayan (a Filipino visiting or returning to the Philippines after a period of living in another country.) i.e. not entirely from here. Then, you wonder who you really are and must find ways to define – describe – yourself. But in time and with experience, as mentioned above, I learned that it is truly by appreciating my origins i.e. my own language and culture first -- my forefathers' –– that enabled me to create who I am. It all starts from there; and without a hint of a doubt, it will get you wherever you desire.
Meanwhile, I perceive what is so great and special about living in a foreign country: by exploring the country I grew up in and subsequently the places I have been to; I grasp that all these factors forge my entire being as well. Again, I am a proud Filipina but I am also beyond borders thankful for having been given the chance to be abroad. All these years I have spent in lovely Switzerland and every time I moved to a new city or country, I made sure to learn the language, get to know the culture and fit in with its people as well. It is equally important. In the end, I manage to mix both: I am Filipina and I blend in. Having the best of both worlds is a treasure, never a hindrance. Where do I come from? Lucky to be able to give such elaborate answers. This diversity is the new breed of Filipinos and I will make sure to pass it on to the new kids on the block.