What It’s Like Growing Up Speaking 3 Languages
Growing up speaking three languages happens when one is raised in a multicultural household. This could mean that one's parents are from different cultures and/ or are immigrants so one has to learn a language used inside the house and one has to learn another language to communicate with the people outside of the household. There are benefits to this experience; you get to communicate with more people and you have access to more cultural practices. But there are also disadvantages; speaking three languages puts you in the middle of three cultures which could raise questions on identity and one's sense of belonging.
My Experience Growing Up Speaking Three Languages
Like many Filipino-Chinese kids, I grew up speaking Filipino, English and Chinese. At 2, the first language introduced to me at home was Chinese (Fu-Kien) since my parents spoke to me in Chinese. At 3, I started learning a bit of Filipino because my yaya spoke Filipino. Around the same time, I learned how to watch cartoons and started begging my dad to read fairy tales to me before bed so I learned English.
At 3, my parents sent me to a Chinese preschool where I received both English and Chinese lessons. Half the time, I sang nursery rhymes in English while the rest of the time I did in Chinese. Then, when I talked to my yaya or the janitors of the school, I spoke Filipino.
Then, from grade school onwards, I attended English class in the morning, and took my Chinese classes in the afternoon. When I'd get home, I’d talk to my parents in a mix of Filipino and Chinese while using a lot of terms in English.
This was the norm. I never thought much of it until I went to college and was exposed to people from other communities. I then realized that no, not everyone spoke in three languages at the same time. It’s not that I didn’t know they could not speak in Chinese, it just never occurred to me how our language was different.
Most Filipinos actually speak a unique language too; they call it Taglish, a mix of Tagalog and English. This was the language spoken everyday. Rarely do I find people who spoke one of the other exclusively. Such is the culture in mainstream Philippines.
So what then, makes me so unique, speaking 3 languages altogether?
What makes me unique is not just that I know how to speak three languages. Actually I know how to speak more, but I wouldn’t say the others are native to me. For example, I know how to speak Mandarin, but it’s not a language I would think in naturally. What is peculiar about me and other members of my community is that, in a way, we have three mother tongues which lead to a unique mix of English-Filipino-Chinese that now defines our unique cultural heritage.
You see, those who speak this blend of languages come from a unique background. Not only are they Filipino Chinese, that is, they have Chinese ancestry and are born in Philippine soil, but they’re also born from families that observe Chinese culture and use the Chinese language, attended Filipino Chinese schools and received their formal education in both English and Chinese, and went off to college where they used English primarily.
As a member of this community, I used to feel at home pretty much wherever I went as a child, ensconced in a world surrounded by people like me. But meeting people from other communities in college opened my eyes and led me to seek out my cultural identity.
As a teenager, this was challenging. For in the Filipino community, I was Other. But when I went to Chinatown where I thought I would be home, interacting with the vendors and workers made me realize that even there, I was also Other.
It took years of reflecting, of a cycle of embracing and of abandoning identity after identity I crafted to help me make sense of who I was. Whenever I tried to be more Filipino, my skin color and pointed eyes gave me away and made people treat me differently. In an attempt to reconcile with my ancestry, I went to China.
On that trip not too long ago, I thought I never felt closer to home. People didn’t treat me any differently and they didn’t give me a second look because everyone looked like me. It felt good not to stand out. But that joy didn’t last long. A little after my arrival, I had to talk to some people at the airport to help me and my family book a cab to our hotel. I was speaking in Mandarin but my knowledge of it was not enough to communicate as a native would.
From that point on, wherever I went during that trip, whoever I talked to, they pointed out something similar. “You’re not from here, are you?” I brushed it off and explained that I was hua qiao, someone whose ancestry hails from China but whose family left China long ago and sought to propagate in a different nation. I’m a third generation Chinese, I tell them.
They would then ask me about my country, the Philippines. Then, I’d tell them about what we do uniquely in the Philippines, for even there, where people looked like me, they were not like me. It hurt at the time to realize that where I thought home might be was not.
After that week, I came back to the Philippines, to Chinatown, with a bittersweet realization -- that the life of a person of many cultures, a person who speaks three languages, is to always be Othered.
It induces anxiety in me when I think of moments when situations have made my Otherness apparent. It was not too long ago when the Corona Virus broke out. Earlier in 2020, it was still called Corona then; and the virus was only heavily felt in China.
Prior to that, POGOs (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators) run by Chinese Nationals were already widespread in the country and the maritime dispute between Philippines and China over South China See has been ongoing for some years.
Photo By: Seaman Tomas Compian Photo By: Goran tek-en
I would be lying if I said I did not experience racial discrimination for I have, quite often. Having lived in the Philippines all my life, I always forget that to Filipinos, I'm not one of them.
But I’d like to talk about something I think is more sinister, the subtle discrimination between the Chinese and the Filipinos bellied in their languages. Although it may seem that the two cultures live in harmony, my experience has showed me that they have always been in tension, battling against each other in every given situation.
Tsaohuan, Huanapo, & Huankui
When I am with the Chinese, they discriminate against Filipino values. One only has to look at their language to find terms used to imply someone is of lesser standing. Tsaohuan, huanapo, and huankui are some of the most common terms one hears.
Tsaohuan literally means smelly Other and this term is usually used to refer to Filipinos; huanapo means maiden of a different culture but it’s a term used to call Filipina househelp; and huankui means a ghost/ beast, perhaps something savage and uncultured. These are terms one mindlessly uses in conversation, but when you examine them, they bellie the underlying prejudice in Chinese culture.
G.I., Intsik, & Chingchong
The Filipino language isn’t any better. Filipinos call the Chinese G.I., Instik, or Chingchong.
G.I. is short for genuine Intsik, a term used to call Chinese who come from mainland China. While the term seems innocent enough, it has been used derogatively colloquially amongst Filipino-Chinese circles to separate them from Chinese nationals.
Meanwhile, Instik is a Filipino term long used to refer to Chinese people; however, being referred to as one me, us, cringe because the term is an insult perhaps akin to that of calling a Filipino Indio. There are several theories as to the origin of this term; what the tales have in common is saying that the term comes from a misunderstanding between a Chinese and Filipino where a Filipino mishears a Chinese causing the Filipino to derive the term from a Chinese insulting phrase, perhaps something similar to “eat shit”. Regardless of the reason, we, Chinese, find Intsik derogatory.
And last but not least, in friendly conversations with non Filipino-Chinese, the Filipino call the Chinese Chingchong. The derogation in the term derives from an outright reluctance to accept the unique intonation of the Chinese language. This term is often used to mock the Chinese and while we laugh at it, we recognize the insult underlying this language.
Judgefloro / Public domain
So what does it mean to speak both Chinese and Filipino, to know these two languages like the back of my hand and acknowledge the prejudices underlying these two cultures which, for centuries, coexisted?
Neutralizing the Tension with a Third Language
In my case, I use English. In a time when being politically correct is of utmost importance, I find that using a third language to help neutralize the prejudices of these two languages has helped me come to a compromise where I can comfortably embrace the identity produced by the history between these two cultures in tension.
While many members of the Filipino Chinese community still use these words, I find myself actively resisting the prejudices these languages pull me into. It’s not a perfect setup; I don’t think there ever will be. I and my kind are the living testament that history isn’t pretty and the peace we have today masks decades of violence. But I would also like to highlight the strength both cultures illustrate in their survival through us.
In order to survive, my ancestors left China and its one-child policy in pursuit of better livelihoods only to stumble upon a Philippines at war. For several generations, my forefathers and foremothers worked themselves to the bone to provide a better future for their children, educating them with values brought from China and values adapted from the Filipino culture.
We’re the testament to this resilience, and for that I am proud.
Photo by Alisdare Hickson from Flickr
In our world today, so many people are like me. They may not be part of the same community as I am, but they also speak three languages or even more because they’re born from histories of struggle and resilience, of prejudice and survival, and they found a way to cope in order to keep on living. They found a way to build identities in this world that sometimes so desperately tries to put them in a box. We rise above these boxes and we are proof that cultures are not stagnant, that traditions can be fluid, and barriers can be bridged.
Photo by Studio Incendo from Wikimedia Commons
As I write this, wars are ongoing, and racism is far from dead. To all fellow individuals who feel Othered by the communities that should accept them, know that your very existence is strength. Don’t be afraid to speak your languages, even if it means mixing four or five languages together. That’s you. That’s who you are; and no matter the history that led to you today, you are beautiful and you are strong.
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