Think you have conyo problems? Try being a Filipino-Italian who grew up in Canada, Switzerland, and the Philippines
Pass the babae, please.”
Across the dinner table, my cousins stare at me like I’m from outer space. “What?”
“The pork! Pass the pork.” My cousins lose their minds. One spits the Coke he’s drinking onto his rice; another laughs non-stop and mimics falling out of his chair; the last facepalms, mouths “Oh, my God,” and just leaves the table. My tita tries to scold her kids and stop herself from laughing at the same time, the net result of which makes her look like she’s having a seizure.
They’re laughing because I used the wrong word twice. Babae should’ve been baboy. (It should’ve been ulam to begin with.) I’m embarrassed because I think I pronounced babae wrong. No one passes the pork.
See, as a half-Filipino, half-Italian who grew up in Canada, Switzerland, and the Philippines, I am guaranteed never to belong to anything, anywhere at any time, forever. This didn’t stop me from at least trying to fit in, which is why I’ve found myself in dozens of ridiculous situations like the one above. But when I moved to the Philippines for good five years ago, I decided to stop trying— specifically, I stopped trying to speak Filipino—and it was one of the best choices I’ve made.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Living in Toronto at age seven, my life was like the wet dream of a United Nations SecretaryGeneral: I had a crush on a Greek girl, rode bikes with my Jamaican neighbors, and had enough diversity in my pick-up hockey games to represent the full visual spectrum. This changed when I moved to Geneva to be closer to my mom’s side of the family, and got crushed by a double dose of Swiss and Swiss-Filipino culture shock.
The Swiss aspect was tough but not unfamiliar: Canada’s other national language is French, and my idol was a French-Canadian hockey goaltender named Patrick Roy. But when I met and began living with the dozens upon dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews of my mom’s family that all talked, acted, and consumed differently than I did, it became extremely clear to me that I wasn’t like them.
My mom never taught us siblings Filipino or introduced us to songs or shows from her homeland, so the extent of my Filipino cultural consumption was getting grossed out watching Dolphy eat janky food like dinuguan on Home Along
Da Riles reruns. My cousins, sensing weakness, immediately boxed me out. They delighted in teaching me the wrong meanings of Filipino words, laughed at my mispronunciation of said words, and refused to speak to me in English for days on end. When they were feeling especially vicious, they’d combine French and Tagalog into Fragalog (probably the weirdest combination of accents in existence) to double up on the languages I didn’t understand. The little that I did pick up was greeted with sarcastic praise.
Still, I desperately wanted to be part of the club. These people were supposed to be my blood, and they were pecking me to death like an albino jackdaw. I’d get so discouraged that I’d swear off ever trying to speak Filipino again, only to attempt slipping in a word here and there a week later and hoping it would pass without incident. When I moved to Manila as an adult, the cycle of being ridiculed for trying to speak Filipino was continued by my friends and officemates until I swore it off for good.
YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US
My family moved to Vancouver after that and it quickly became apparent that while I wasn’t Filipino, I was also definitively not anything else. My high school experience was a bit like being a mudblood at Hogwarts, except when you put on the Sorting Hat, you find out that every house is Slytherin. I used to joke that I was “all slurs to all people:” I’ve had Filipinos call me “wop,” Italians call me “flip,” Persians call me “chink,” and the Chinese call me things I couldn’t pronounce. It was possible to socialize and date across the divide, especially with the second-generation kids who were born in Canada, but these core groups were largely set in stone.
Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism. Unlike America’s melting pot, which encourages ethnic groups to assimilate into American culture, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act states “multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry, and have a sense of belonging.” In reality, what this means is: “When I walk home from school, I have to watch out for the Italian gang, the Serbian gang, the Korean gang, the Vietnamese gang, the Persian gang...” and so on. The adults of these communities do business almost exclusively with each other and the kids normally marry within the community. (I dated several Chinese girls in high school and, without exception, their fathers refused to acknowledge my existence.) Couple that multicultural spirit with the fact that whites are a minority in Vancouver, and the result was that high school cliques broke cleanly along ethnic lines. It’s the kind of environment where the Hong Kong Chinese wouldn’t be caught dead fraternizing with the Mainland Chinese.
It’s strange to me how the ignorance and racism of ethnic groups often manifested directly— racism with intent, as if my existence posed a threat to theirs. That kind of racism is usually perceived as the province of white people, but for
me, it was mostly the opposite: The generic Euromutt whites were the only group to let me into the club. I think this is because white culture isn’t exclusive; anyone can partake of it freely because there’s no gatekeeper checking your credentials at the door. I could talk to my white friends about the same shows, movies, and music and I could commiserate with them about our similar family lives (divorced parents), whereas the ethnic nuclear families were usually intact (but strained and unhappy).
I found the racism of whites to be just passive ignorance, limited to not knowing and not caring to know about any culture except their own. Case in point: when school would start after summer vacation and people would swap stories about what they did over the break, I learned quickly to make sure that my stories about visiting the Philippines weren’t too “exotic.” Any mention of picking and eating mangoes right off the tree or hacking open a coconut with a machete was met with universal derision. Still, the homogenizing reaction of whites to open displays of ethnicity was avoidable with practice. To me, it was preferable to being constantly made to feel that I didn’t belong with the ethnic groups I wanted to belong to. Almost all of my close friends in Canada were white.
All of this changed when I moved to the Philippines for good. Among other reasons, I thought that fully immersing myself in the country and its culture would finally grant me access to the “Filipino-ness” that had been denied to me over the course of my life. But my last ditch attempt to go native ended like all the others—with laughter.
I saw my first job in advertising as the perfect opportunity to swing for the fences. I picked up Rosetta Stone to learn Filipino at home and committed to speaking as much of it as I possibly could. I was confident that my officemates wouldn’t give me a hard time. After all, it’s childish to pick on someone’s differences and they weren’t kids. My interviews were in English, which I expected because I knew English was the business language here, but I looked forward to practicing my Filipino in day-to-day conversations.
I've had Filipinos call me “wop," Italians call me “flip," Persians call
me “chink," and the Chinese call me things I couldn't
At my first business meeting, my boss introduced me in English to business partners of our company and followed it up with a long joke in Filipino, which I couldn’t follow. The room broke into laughter, and not wanting to be the only one standing there silently, I laughed along with them. My boss put me right on the spot: “Em, why are you laughing?! Did you understand?” I hesitated and the room burst into laughter again.
My peers, while kinder, had a hard time suppressing their grins when I mispronounced and used the wrong words. While I was learning the language much faster by dint of eavesdropping on conversations and figuring out the context from the English loanwords, I quickly started erring on the side of caution and limited myself to English verbs and Filipino nouns—a style of speaking that got me teased for sounding “conyo.”
I began to get bitter over the situation a few months into my job. I knew that my officemates weren’t being intentionally cruel—there was no malice in their jokes—but I was frustrated that my attempts to be the same as they are were always met with a reminder of how different I was. Every time I hear someone mispronounce or misuse an English word, I imagine how they’d feel if I laughed at them. I felt like Einstein’s definition of insanity: getting my hopes up for a different result by doing the same thing over and over again.
What’s more, I noticed that my fluency in English is a huge advantage: Formal business communications are always in English, as well as the advertisements I serve to the public. I’m not handicapped in my day-to-day dealings because English is so pervasive. While I’ve been trying so hard to be like them, the culture has been shifting to be more like me.
There was no “straw breaking the camel’s back” moment, but I eventually gave up on speaking fluent Filipino. The way I speak has settled into a mash-up that steals my favorite bits from both languages, which perfectly matches me. My family visited from Canada recently and they commented on how I don’t sound like they do anymore. My accent has changed, but no true Filipino would mistake it for a local one. Instead, how I sound reflects what I am: An awkward collision of two cultures. I have a life’s worth of proof that yes, I am different, but I’ve learned that it’s not a weakness. Ironically enough, my choice to move here and claim my heritage is what made me realize I can make my own.