A while ago, I heard a joke: “What are an Asian American’s two best languages?….English and Spanish.” English, because many of us grow up here, in the United States, speaking English. And Spanish, because it is the most commonly offered and studied language in high school, where we are obligated to take a certain number of language classes to graduate. While I laughed, I also immediately identified with this statement. I finally felt that here, at least, in what even I consider a stereotype, I had found evidence of my “belonging.”
Almost immediately people began to comment on the “sad” truth of this statement, on the “great loss” that it was for Asian Americans not to speak “their own languages.” And I was reminded that belonging with Asian Americans meant, for many, not belonging with other groups (Asians, Americans, Asian Americans who speak Asian languages, etc.).
I am Filipina American, and I do not speak Tagalog. Don’t get me wrong–I would love to speak Tagalog. But when my grandfather finally arrived from the Philippines on a naval ship where he cooked for all the white officers, he decided to become “American.” Telesforo Rosario Quijano told everyone he met to call him Johnny. He stayed away from the growing Filipino community near the naval base. He married a white woman, a cook herself, who would prepare all the typical southern dishes for him: fried chicken, grits, chicken fried steak with gravy, etc. He never spoke Tagalog to his children, and rarely mentioned his past.
My grandfather died before I was old enough to recognize the importance of his story–to me and to this country. I don’t know if he ever felt like he “fit in,” that he had “made it” in the U.S. But for me, his most lasting legacy was my father, a dark-skinned man who spoke an unaccented English when he defended his fierce belief in American ideals, myths and dreams. As a little girl, I couldn’t understand why people would sneer “nigger” at us as we walked down the street of a town that still runs the flag of the Confederacy. Si mi padre es lo más americano que hay. I didn’t understand what the word meant, but I understood that it was meant to be an insult.
After my parents separated, I was raised by my white mom. Even though I had her nose, everyone would say that we looked nothing alike because my skin was a little more brown. And when I visited my dad, my skin was a little too white.
So no, I don’t speak Tagalog. No, I can’t roll lumpia. For most of my childhood I thought I was passing as a white girl living with her white mom with only my awkward-in-English last name to remind me otherwise. I understand that is a privilege that many people of color don’t have. But it isn’t sad. I haven’t lost a language and a culture that were never mine. I am not less (less of a Filipina American) because I don’t speak Tagalog. There are many of us.
I am Filipina American. I am here today because the United States occupied the Philippines, fought against and killed many Filipinos, and implemented policies that sought to recreate that country in its own image, according to U.S. needs and wishes. I am here because the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines made survival in that country that much more difficult. I am here, and who I am, because my grandfather chose survival in a country that did not always welcome him. Not speaking Tagalog doesn’t make me less Filipina American–it reminds me of the history that assures me that I am.