The multilingual Filipino

I finished my phone conversation with a silly grin on my face when I caught Nico* looking at me without disguising his curiosity.

“What language was that?” he asked.

The conversation was with my girlfriend from back home. We were sat having sandwiches outside the Fisher Fine Arts library in UPenn, where my friend and I normally studied. 

Visayan.” I said. “Why?”

“It didn’t sound like the same language you speak with Ryan.” he said, referring to another Filipino classmate of ours.

“That’s Tagalog.”

“But this language Cebuano–it must be your first language, yes?”

I confirmed, and he shot a grin back in triumph.

He said he knew because everyone always sound angrier in their own language. He said I certainly sounded angry, but knew I wasn’t, because I was laughing after every sentence.

“Unless, you laugh in anger in your culture,” he mused.

I thought about what he said for a while. He made a pretty good point. We are always nicer and more respectful in another language, saying everything in a more gentle, question manner, unsure of ourselves; like we become children conversing to adults once again.

Come to think of it, I do tend to take up different personalities in the different languages I speak. I feel more professional in English, more gentle in Tagalog and Hiligaynon, and I’m a foul-mouthed, warfreak, drunken sailor in Cebuano.

Being Filipino, I grew up to hearing different tongues–sometimes simultaneously–that it was the only kind of world I knew of. In my hometown, we spoke both Visayan, and our Muslim brothers Maranao; my father’s side spoke Hiligaynon, and my mother’s side Tagalog. You know my grandfather’s temper is on the upside when you hear cussing in Spanish, English is taught in our schools from prep to college, and French…simplyfrom dating a few of them.

Sounds impressive, but not really. This is not unusual in a typical Filipino household. The country, after all, has 7,000+ islands, 300+ dialects, with frequent movement and diaspora; long colonial Spanish history, and then raised by Hollywood and 80’s love ballads. With this hodge-podge history, it is already given for every Filipino-born to be multilingual (or bilingual at the least).

We don’t really think about the multilingual aptitude much. But when you go abroad and realize that most people speak only one language.

Some weren’t granted the opportunity or exposure to other foreign tongues and cultures. Some by choice and refuse to learn any other language. And some are just simply crippled by the convenience of being born spoilt into a culture that didn’t have the necessity (I’m looking at you, America).

Foreign peers compliment me at how ‘good my English is’, like I’m not supposed to get my v’s and f’s right. And then revel at how easily I can switch from one language to another. It’s kinda nice to show off once in a while, pretending it’s some sort of superpower.

The truth is, you don’t really need to be fluent in the languages–you just need to know enough. You only need to know ‘hi, nice to meet you’, ‘beer’ and ‘cheers’ in a dozen languages for them to look at you like black sorcery. Kanpai!

Nico, being European, was also multilingual.

And so I played around with the topic and shot back a question: “Nico, what language do you think?”

His blue eyes danced, like he had been expecting the discourse. “The German language is made perfectly for a thinking mind, I believe. The vocabulary is just so exact and concise, there’s little room for error.”

I shot back the question to myself. What language do I think? What language do I feel?

On formal and professional scenarios, English seemed the default. It was my rationalizing language. But in the social and emotional aspects, Cebuano is my preference. 

Especially when it came to bodily feelings, I feel I could better explain myself in my dialect. How can you translate gigil? Kilig? Binhod? Panuhot? Pasmo? Alimungawan? How do you translate them to English in one word, without giving people the context or comparison? The nuances of languages tell us how the people and culture are characteristically; and on this–it seems like Cebuanos are very attuned to their bodies and feelings.

Nothing is more satisfying than swearing in Cebuano. I would write some of my favorites down, but they might not make it out on print. Sometimes, the F-word just don’t cut it, you know? There’s just more meat in our dialect, it’s just so wrong , dirty and crude.Especially the B-words…

Ah, nothing beats the B-words.

Now that I think of it, when I need to make more rational and moral decisions, I should probably not process my thought processes in Cebuano.


The Filipino identity crisis

On my numerous trips, I’ve been constantly approached and asked where I come from. For fun, I make a game out of it to let them guess. Most commonly, I’ve been perceived to be Thai. I’ve also been thought to be: Singaporean, Nepali, Kazakhstani, and on rare occasions, Chinese or Japanese.

filipinos what do we look like
But never Filipino. When I tell them my real identity (like Batman), two reactions alternately happen.
Either: “Oh really? You don’t look Filipino!” they say it like a genuine compliment, so I say smile. But I couldn’t help but wonder what they really mean by that. What’s a Filipino supposed to look like, anyway?

Or: Utter ignorance. “Where is the Philippines? Oh wait, wasn’t that in the Bible?” During these times I sometimes wished we have something notoriously spectacular, like the Fidel Castro or the Angkor Wat or the Dalai Lama. Oh wait, a lot of people aren’t even familiar with these. Oh wait, we have Manny Pacquiao.

‘So, are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders?’  

A fellow traveler asked as follow up, seeking to ensue an intellectual debate.

This gets a little more interesting. Before I could answer, another one butted in: ‘Neither? They seem more hispanic or latino to me.’

To note, these were raised by people who were neither Filipinos, but Americans. As westerners try to lump us into a particular ethnic group, we become more alienated and confused. Hence the understandable Filipino identity crisis. In the first place, we never classified ourselves as such or such before. It is all a western invention.

The Philippines is a creation by Western colonizers to begin with. If the Spanish never came, force-baptize the natives and named our islands after a historically unimportant king, there never would have been ‘The Philippine Islands’ in the first place. Our islands would probably have been absorbed by Chinese civilization from the north, or be integrated into the Muslim Malay nations from the south. Who knows?

To get back to my nationality guessing game, there was only one person who got it right once. Once. A Slovakian Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque guy we encountered in Ibiza.

Wow, you’re the very first person who got that right the first time!” I said, really impressed.

“It’s not that difficult. You’re a tan Asian with very good American English. So there you go. Filipino.”
I was stammered, because now this includes another element to the whole equation: the Filipino Americanization. This is getting more complicated than I thought.

Geography 101


Geographically, we are in Asia. Hence, we are Asians! I cross-checked and consulted the world map and I confirmed that we are in the right continent.
Likewise, we love our rice to death. There’s nothing more Asian than that!
To be more specific about it, we are Southeast Asians, particularly, of the Austronesian or Malay0-Polynesian ethnic group. Identifying features include: short face, mild epicanthic fold, straight, black hair, and a happy, light-hearted disposition. Sounds familiar?
filipina girls

‘Orphans of the Pacific’

On the other hand, being labeled as ‘Pacific Islander’ is not entirely wrong, either. Historically, we used to be part of the Spanish East Indies, which comprised of Moluccas (Indonesia), Guam, Mariana Islands and the Philippines.

Our islands were once called ‘The Philippine Islands of the Pacific’. We are located in the Pacific Ocean; a tropical island paradise, 7,000 of it. Even if most of the comprising ‘Pacific Islands’ are 4,000-8,000 km away, we see plenty of similarities in physical features and culture among people in Guam, Hawaii, etc.

Filipino migration to Guam has been happening for several centuries– the Spanish were fond of exiling Filipino rebels and prisoners to Guam. The Americans continued the practice when they took over.

Kumusta / Como estas?

The term Hispanic is a broad representation of the people and cultures with historical linkages to Spain. This term commonly referring to her former colonies, although strictly speaking, it refers to the former Spanish colonies in Latin America.

After 333 years of colonization, we have a rich hispanic heritage. The native tsokolate and mais made its way to the Philippines after centuries via the Galleon trade with our latino brothers. We share our fervent Roman Catholic faith with other hispanic cultures; as well as our love for lechons, siestas and fiestas. Do you know that ‘Filipino time’ and ‘Latino time’ is exactly the same?

And who else do we share our enduring obsession with boxing and beauty pagaents?

Today, very few people in the Philippines speak Spanish, although many of our abuelos still do when they’re angry. A few Filipinos also claim Spanish ancestry. I’d like to think my aquiline nose and freckles proves some European descent. Disclaimer: I swear I’m more modest in person.

are filipinos hispanic?

So the whole debate was really much ado about nothing.Our islands have been a melting pot of cultures for centuries.It’s okay to be a little confused about demonyms assigned to us. Identity crisis have always been part of us, and maybe that’s why it was so easy for foreign entities to colonize us. Who cares if you identify yourself as Asian, or Pacific Islander, or even Hispanic? It’s all a western invention.



Old-school gangsta pirates in the Philippine islands

It is amazing how the Spanish walls, made from stone or quicklime with egg whites as mortar still survive centuries after, despite constant visiting typhoons and earthquakes. Cebu International Convention Center (CICC) wasn’t as lucky.

Old Spanish forts like Fort San Pedro and this one in Kota Park, Madridejos, Bantayan (pictured) might look like ruins to most people, but they served an important purpose centuries ago.



The old Spanish forts and churches were built so sturdily to protect the natives from kidnapping. Muslim raiders / pirates used to come at night and steal girls and boys to be sold off to slavery. Slavery was the biggest and most profitable industry during its hay days. If it weren’t for these forts our folks might have ended up in Slaver’s Bay and be one of Khaleesi’s Unsullied.

Speaking of pirates, the more famous pirates are those in the Caribbean Sea, such as the Blackbeard, Capt. Henry Morgan and Jack Sparrow, and that drink that destroyed my friends last Valentines eve.

My knowledge on pirates is still a bit limited, but I have read somewhere that pirates then rarely get gold and other valuable treasures in their expeditions. Pirate booty mostly comprised of items from trade ships: barrels of cotton, sugar, animal hides, rice and spices. Imagine that, Blackbeard the King of Sugar Smuggling. Not so gangsta after all.

Although pirates are now romanticized by movies and media, pirates are still just low life robbers stealing off from honest traders and merchants at sea.

(This is a reblog from my old blog in Tumblr blog back in 2012)