At first mention of the language barrier, it doesn’t strike me what he’s actually saying. It’s an almost foreign concept: his having real trouble just talking with his parents. But it’s the heart of his story, a story about the isolating power of a lost mother tongue and an education spent retrieving it.
— The Education Issue: Studying Chinese to Reach His Parents
The Washington Post
Years ago, I made a promise to myself that I would learn Tagalog one day. For so many reasons. When people read my work (and they are open-minded), they positively comment on how I interweave the Tagalog with context, with melody, as if the word is like an object of the scene, a character too. What they don’t realize is that I’m working with the Tagalog as they are. I’m grappling it with my own fingers; I’m trying to understand it, too.
I don’t speak a word of Tagalog or Ilocano. I butcher my ‘mother’ tongue whenever I try. When my husband tells me all these stories about his mother’s childhood in the Philippines and remembers she peppered “hawak kamay” in their conversations growing up, I get jealous. I just didn’t have that growing up. There were no stories about childhoods in the homeland–only secrets and the want, the need, to return. Whenever my grandma was angry with me, she would switch to Tagalog, and I knew the level of her rage from the shrill of her voice or the twitch of her eyebrows. A cascading wall of sound. Tagalog, to me, has always been emotive, like images replaying on a screen.
This emotiveness is why I call the grandmother of my stories: “Lola.” I didn’t call my grandmother ‘lola’ growing up. I called her ‘grandma,’ ‘grandmother,’ or ‘mama,’ and most of the time, it was Mama. But that Filipino sense of kapwa, endearment, reverence, and torrential love, guilt, and attachment isn’t epitomized in the word, ‘grandma.’ The specificity I need comes with the use of lola, and it’s why I choose, stubbornly, to name her: Lola Pacing. Even if that’s too many names (according to one fellow workshopper last summer.)
It’s taken me a long time to learn how to interweave Tagalog into my writing, and to be honest, I’m still learning. A few years ago, when a Filipino writer (not a Filipino American writer–and yes, there’s a difference) read my work, he criticized the way ‘us’ Americans ‘screw up’ the mother tongue. He then muttered something in Tagalog, and though I had no idea what he said, I knew what he meant: you people have no idea what you’re doing. I said nothing in response. In fact, I think I agreed with him, nodded my head quietly. Back then, I had no idea what to say, how to defend or believe in the stories I needed to write.
But what I now know is this: there is a story here–many, many stories–about losing that ‘motherland’ language, losing that culture, the language barrier between child and parent, the void of understanding, the want of understanding, the want to be ‘seen,’ and it isn’t just an ‘ethnic’ story, it’s bigger that. And this is what most of my stories hinge on, that back-and-forth pull of not knowing who you are, or where you come from, but wanting to return there no matter what.