Sunday, March 07, 2010

A White Guy Speaking Tagalog

Some say that when you go to a country, you should try and learn its language. So, I decided to learn Tagalog so that I could speak to Filipino people. I began my study with all kinds of books on a Civil Defense base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There was some Filipino staff there, and I paid them to drill me and talk to me.

Tagalog is not an easy language to learn. Actually, I found it to be one of the hardest. The reason is a very convoluted grammar, particularly the verbs. These do not only have numerous prefixes and suffixes but also, infixes. And these double in several places creating words the length of an oversize caterpillar. You also have adjectives with numerous prefixes and suffixes. Up until today I have hard time using them all and prefer to simplify my speech as much as I can.

Then, many if not most sentences, are in passive voice, so instead of saying “Give me some water”, you say “Given by you to me (be) water!”. Almost regal- like. In the past , you would say, “Being given by him to me ( was) water.”, In a sentence, a subject and an object are hard to distinguish, and it takes time to unravel it. And when it is spoken at a machine gun speed, one gets lost quite easily. It took me over a year to get to a semi normal way of speaking and understand at least one half of what they were saying.

Good dictionaries are hard to find and when you read a text, and find an unfamiliar word, you often open your dictionary and it is not there. Also, most Filipinos are not good translators and when you ask them how to say this or that word in Tagalog, they, quite often, give you a wrong word. You need to ask many people and even consult online groups until you get the word right.

However; the rewards in the end of these tribulations are immeasurable. The way Filipinos view you when your Tagalog is fluent is like nothing I had ever seen in Asia. You become virtually like one of them and they start treating you almost like a Filipino. Abroad, they would immediately call me Kabayan- a “compatriot”. No Japanese or a Thai would say that, though even if I could speak those languages fluently. In a nation like the Philippines which is so ethnically diverse, Tagalog unites various ethnic groups and gives then some kind of common ethnic identity. The people are used to those who speak it with an accent because half of Filipinos do. So, a paleface with a big nose speaking Tagalog evokes a lot of endearment and the reaction is- “oh, even he participates in making our nation –one”.

There are disadvantages to knowing Tagalog as well, and I am not talking about your understanding gossip or what they say behind your back. This rarely bothers me. The main thing is- since I am possibly one of very, very few among the hundreds of thousands of white people in the Philippines who took the time to learn it, the Filipino people annoyingly reply to me in English and it takes five to six sentences and entreaties to make them speak Tagalog to me. When asking directions in Tagalog, I usually get an answer in English. So the daily Tagalog speaking to strangers here can be very frustrating. White people are not supposed to speak Tagalog just like a cat is not supposed to bark. Barking is for dogs; cats meauw. So, my daily goings to different stores, restaurants and other places is a constant struggle to have people just reply to me even with a simple sentence spoken in this Philippine language. The people who know you, do and are Ok; it is the strangers that I have problems with.

This can be a daily scene: I stop by at an internet café and talk with the attendant in Tagalog and her jaw drops. The other attendants turn around with dropped jaws as well and stare at me like I fell from the Moon. Then, a rather naïve battery of questions in Tagalog follows which is always more or less the same:

“Do you speak Tagalog? “

“What I am speaking with you now? Is it Bulgarian?”

“You are speaking Tagalog so well, but why? Is your wife a Filipina?”

“And you are speaking English, is your husband an Englishman?”

“Are you a priest?”

“ Not, not me, you mean a priest with a beautiful girlfriend like that?”

(A blank stare on their part while I declare my “patriotic” allegiance to the Philippine culture and tell them that I am now living in the Philippines and that when a foreigner comes to the Philippines he should try to adjust to the local culture and do things the local way just like a Filipino should do the same when he goes to another country, and why is it they’ve never thought of that and am I doing something wrong?)

“ Tama ka, tama ka” – “You are right, you are right”, and the nods follow.

As far as dating goes, a huge market of girls who cannot speak English well and who do not actively look for foreigners opens up. But, but, but, there is one caveat! You will now be also expected to go native in more ways than you thought.

You see, if you speak only English you will attract girls who are into Western culture, who want to learn American ( or Western ways) and who want to become even more fluent in English and who think that their lives will now improve in many ways by getting to know a “porener”, a “Kano”. They know that the ways of white/foreign/American people are different, and they generally do not expect you to act Filipino. If you are an American, they often want to become as American as you and will accept your shortcomings easily. After all, Americans once ruled their islands and they were generally well received and a huge percentage of Filipinos admires the US and wants to act American, associate with Americans, go to the US, be friends with you, and many girls would love to even tie a knot with you. It is probably one of the most pro American countries on earth. And since to an average Filipina any white (or even black person) is an American, the admiration and smiles extend to Brits, Scandinavians, Sudanese and even Iranians.

Now, the more you speak Tagalog ( or another Philippine language), the more you will be able to deal with the non English speaking sector of the population- the great masses of the working folks, the stratum that is not interested in foreign cultures but the one that is open to those who want to fit in and do things the local way. The sector is huge and your dating and friendship opportunities multiply by millions since this “market” is open only to those who speak the tongue and know how things are done here. But then, you will have to follow the Philippine way of life- which means- total respect to parents and elders, the girls you will be courting are now mostly virgins and they expect you to give them two years to say yes to your wooing endeavors, they will often ignore you and treat you coldly- the way many pretty girls treat their own Filipino suitors. A girl is not supposed to be easy. “You are now just like a Filipino, so I am going to treat you as one”. Which is, often, with smug disinterest and a mocking smile on her face.

Since Filipino people mainly form their ethnic identity based on the language they speak ( there are some 100+ here) they often say-“ He is a Tagalog, He is a Visayan, He is a Waray. He is Kapampangan”. The nickname “Tagalog” stuck to me, and people often call me- “Hey, Tagalog” when I walk by, especially if I am not in a Tagalog speaking province of the country.

I was also once in a Visayan- speaking region of Mindanao- in the city of Butuan, and I was speaking Visayan ( which is far less fluent than my Tagalog) to a group of people. A passer by saw that I was obviously a Westerner and asked them if I could speak Visayan to which they causally replied- “He is a Visayan”, obviously meaning it.

It was kind of pleasant for me to hear it.

There is a hiddent danger, too. If you are short and dark and of Mediterranean descent and speak Tagalog, you may run the risk of being mistaken for a greedy, bloodsucking Indian loanshark –in the Philippines, they call them “Bumbay 5-6”. These speak Tagalog, and are often hassled by cops and immigration and even the common populace who understandably want to beat them up or report them to the immigration office. So, while a tall white Nordic looking American who does not speak Tagalog will be treated with polite deferral, a short, darker American who speaks Tagalog can get harassed and asked to show his visa and even get beat up by a drunk “patriot”. And it is always better to speak English when talking with Filipino police as they will treat you with much more respect as well. Speaking Tagalog to them, on the other hand, may evoke frowns and all kinds of unnecessary questions.

I do remember those days when I could not yet speak the languages of the Philippines, and I think those days were not so bad. I naturally attracted people who wanted to hang out with me and who spoke with me shyly and with a great deal of admiration and in English. Learning Tagalog and Bisaya, later brought greater understanding and acceptance but at the same time, lots of annoyances of the most unexpected kind.

Sometimes, when I look outside, I enviously watch the dignified local Brits, Aussies and Americans, striding confidently with their heads up; who feel so comfortable in the Philippines, who speak only English and whose attempts to utter even one Filipino word are greeted with thunderous applause. They have girls hanging on their arms warbling to them in English, plenty of money and do not seem to have a care in the world. All of their Filipino friends are English speaking, and high class, and they seem to float up there with the elite of elites.

But I cannot unlearn what I have learned and I am now forever doomed to be some kind of encysted appurtenance to this society, getting a great deal of warmth and acceptance of a brotherly kind, but also treated as some sort of a freak; neither fish nor fowl.


James O. said...

Another fascinating post. Thank you!

BTW, any chance you could give us a list of links to your many previous articles, the ones before this particular blog?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the compliment,

But this blog is enormous! Just keep going to older and older posts and a lot of stuff will open up.
My other articles are mainly posts on forums of all kind.

Edward said...

Very nice blog. As a Filipino I am happy that you are interested in our culture and language. By the way the national language of the Philippines is Pilipino not Tagalog. Pilipino is a combination of every Philippine languages plus a little of English and Spanish but of course in Tagalog accent.

Truthfulinsights said...

While according to the Constitution and school curriculum the language is called Filipino, after you learn it and go out on the street, the man/woman will say to you; :Oh marunong ka pala ng Tagalog! They will call you Tagalog. In my 19 years of visiting this country only two people out of 100s called it Filipino.

E. S. de Montemayor said...

hi... maayo man nga kahibalo ka na maghambal sang binisaya o kun hiligaynon... you could always code-switch should the need arise... nanamian ko nga interesado ka sa lenguahe sang Pinas... kung may tiempo ka, masmaayo siguro kun makahimo ka sang Tagalog grammar/coversation book para sa mga kano based on a foreigner's perspective... who knows you might be able to sell it in national bookstore or amazon

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Martin said...

Tunay kang Pilipino! Sana ay naging Pilipino ka na lang. Daig mo pa ang ibang Pilipinong patuloy na nangangarap maging dayuhan. Mabuhay ka!

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Anonymous said...

naiintindihan ko ang pinagdadaan mo. huwag mong pansinin yung mga yun mga hindi kasi nakakaintindi. pero, kahit papaano at least kinakausap ka pa nila kumpara dito sa amerika may mas pasensya ang mga tao sa pilipinas na makipag usap sa mga dayuhang baluktot ang dila kung magsalita ng lenguahe nila. ngayon ko lang narealize na mahirap palang matutunan ang tagalog. pero ang hindi ko maintindihan ay kung paano naging mas mahirap ang tagalog sa ingles? mag kasing hirap kaya yung dalwa. i've been here in US for 8 yrs. and i'm still struggling speaking the language right. i mix up my articles alot. i'm still not clear on when to use "in" or "on" in a conversation like it took me awhile to realize you use "in" when you were "in" an accident but then "on" for situations like being "on" academic probation and not to mention the phrasal verbs. they're what kills me trying to learn the language. a verb in eng. could mean 50 different things depending on the word next to it

Anonymous said...

ay mali. di pala article ang mga "in" or "on" preposition ang ibig kong sabihin.

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