Our esteemed national heroes once envision of an impossible dream in their quest for a united Filipino nation. Since then, our national leaders valued the importance of building a “national language” for a multi-ethnic country such as ours. Language is indeed a necessary requirement for nation-building and its imaginings. I had the same aspirations in my twenties after I graduated from college; and the same idealism after obtaining a master’s degree in Manila. I once asked, “Is there a fair, common language” for the Philippines?
Such questions became more tenable and much relevant when I took my higher studies eight years ago in Japan. I can still remember when I first arrived in Fukuoka City of Kyushu Island (somewhat the Mindanao version of Japan) in September 2009. My university was located in the hot-spring capital of Beppu, Oita prefecture. Even with a very small population, I started meeting Filipino students just for the sake of perhaps reaching some sorts of point of (dis)agreement. Most of them are from the Luzon Island which means I had to make good use of our national language. I met quite varied Filipinos, some were nice and cool, and some were just too self-pretentious while others were cold to death. But not to generalize unfairly, this has been a common occurrence not only in Japan but even in meetings, conferences and international conventions elsewhere. In fact, despite the diversity, I envied other foreign students (e.g. Indonesians, Thais, Koreans, Chinese, among others), considering their huge population size in our university, such that they can immediately gather around for some small chats or form a bigger crowd with their fellow compatriots as the need arises. In all its fairness, quite a larger degree of this “tiny” Filipino population fully understood my predicament and they themselves agreed that there is an immediate need to “re-conceptualize” the “Filipino-self.”
My supposed pet project of establishing a Filipino circle did not materialize; it was basically aborted by full discouragement. Instead I was drowned with my identity loss. And so, I went out a bit from the “inside of the box” to discover the real, true meaning of life. Eventually, I met the dangerous, dirty, difficult and even the most demeaning part of Japan. Sadly, with these “D” encounters, it was unavoidable that in one way or another, a Filipino (more of a Filipina) would always be entangled with its web of complications. If James Hollifield speaks of “double disadvantages” for women-foreigners, for Cebuanos and other regional ethnic groupings, we have “triple layers” of disadvantages (if not, advantages): first, as a foreigner, we have to speak in English or in Japanese; secondly, we have to speak in Filipino or Tagalog to be understood by all other Filipinos as well; and the third layer is reserved for women-Filipino-Cebuanos (Japan as perfect example of a sustained feminized Filipino migration). Again, as you may perhaps ask me, “What the heck is this guy ranting about?” Here’s the crux of my argument: 1) the lost Filipino identity and the “subjugation levels” of Cebuano (and even from several other ethnicities), and 2) the possible way out – the genuine “Filipino-ness”; drawing strength from all the vernaculars as E. San Juan would have it achieved.
Hence, since my university represents quite myriad nationalities around the globe, I had to converse in English regularly, if not Japanese, in my daily undertakings. Most often than not, a “pressure mood” put me at the pedestal, such that many of my acquaintances were saying: “yeah, Filipinos are great English speakers,” but not me and “not everybody,” I often responded silently. I often shy away from public debates and/or forums. I am may be timid in communicating with others, lest taming a crowd, but I perfectly know where my confidence is – when I speak in my vernacular language, my mother tongue, Cebuano. After quite some time, I met a Bisaya who talks in Cebuano and it gave me a sense of freedom to use my language – I was liberated at that very instance. I shared these observations when a Japanese student from Osaka, interested in Filipino language, interviewed me. At the end of our conversation, I explained then: “A multicultural university like what we have here, is similar to what constitutes my country: a multi-ethnic and a multilingual society. And the challenge is to recognize that the Philippines is not a mono-ethnic country, it’s not a country of Tagalog people alone.”
What is the deal with the North-South divide anyway? At a seminar-conference in Kyoto, an Australian asked me where I learnt my English; “it’s kind of a combination of British and North American,” she said. I didn’t tell her, I was just listening to the BBC radio the whole time that day and that sooner or later, the borrowed accent would just fade away. She exclaimed that she met quite few Filipinos who can fluently talk in English like me (In my mind, are you kidding me?) I mean just a few months ago, a Filipino student “from the north”, chuckled and said “para kang si Pakyaw” with my accent (“you are like Pacquiao” – referring to Manny, the popular Visayan boxer speaking with a hard tongue). The Australian lady didn’t know that I castigated that “northern guy” with the following response: “What’s wrong with my intonation, or is there peculiarly wrong with your notion of language? Are Manileños simply that rude like you?” Needless to say, though I was not re-invoking regionalism then, the reality still goes on and on.
Against the backdrop of this “verbal hygiene” phenomenon, I realize that English and its colonial roots, has been embedded within my very existence and that I unconsciously “switch it on” when confronted with the necessity to utilize it. As E. San Juan contends, “English became the privileged language for individual success, prestige, and acceptance.” The very reason why Filipina domestic workers, amongst many other Southeast Asians, are regarded with utmost importance by employers from East Asian/Northern recipient countries to countries of work in Europe and the Middle East, it is surely because of their very good English-speaking ability. Yet, not all Filipinos like me are amenable to this one-sided justifications. In Japan in particular, English is not a major requirement in most ‘low-skilled work’; it is rather Nihongo (Japanese) proficiency that makes one “saleable” in the 3D labor market or in “3K” jobs: kitsui (demanding), kitanai (dirty), and kiken (dangerous).
On top of this anti-immigration sentiments within most host countries, coupled with stringent anti-foreigner leaning polices, to counter this reality, a growing number of Filipino organizations were established and sustained not solely because they represent the motherland; it is rather obvious because they primarily came from similar ethnic beginnings or regions. Cebuanos, Dabaweños, Ilocanos, Bicolanos, Kapampangans, are just among the major examples. One major reason for organizing with fellow ethnic group is that it minimizes the “subjugation” to a certain extent than working with Filipinos who speak the dominant “national” language. To explain this dilemma, looking back, at the onset of American colonialism, Tagalog became the language of the local-ruling elite (as directed by their colonial masters and Manila as the center of power) to impose certain control over the general populace. As time went on, such tacit acquiescence of subjugation to Tagalog or Filipino of other major ethnic languages became the norm then. Nevertheless, it is also a known fact that in the present, many of Tagalogs abroad and elsewhere are also calling for unity and progressive change in the Philippines while being conscious of this reality too. It is just a matter of having to recognize the importance of each ethnic groups and their efforts, instead of just trampling them over another.
Back in Oita, Kyushu, while putting on the line my organizational experience in practice back then, I utilized the most modern tool for communication, online networking; I hesitantly started a Cebuano (Bisaya) group on Facebook. I was desperately looking for myself and my study respondents too, simultaneously. I was informed that this southern city of Japan is being flocked by Filipinos “from the south” in the Philippines (Davao and Mindanao). Not before too long, the Facebook group started growing rapidly and in a few months, a new organization was established in 2011. They named it, “Support group for Oita-Bisaya Association – United Filipinos in Japan” (SOBA-UNIFIL Japan) and still finding its lot till the present. Though leaders come and go but the very essence of organizing among themselves made the impossible, possible then.
Indeed, at the end of this entire “ethnic-bickering,” if not “language debates,” the experience I had with my fellow Visayan-Filipino compatriots taught me a very important lesson: never underestimate the power of language. It reminded me of the revolutionary mantra that the success for achieving a certain goal for change in the struggle of all disadvantaged groups of the world against their “subjugators” lies not with the divisive “dominancy” of one culture (if not language) to another. It is more seen in the united effort and arduous commitment of people working for change. It all begins with the enlightened consciousness of all members or people in a society to liberate themselves from their oppressors – finding their identity through recognition of their diverse ethnicity as well. Just as the so-called “Arab Spring”, at least for now, the call for a “fair, just language” is still a work-in-progress; it must begin somewhere else, albeit, perhaps online. (davaotoday.com)
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us; and the world will live as one. – J. Lennon
Andi, owing to the Japanese Romaji version of his Katakana nicknameアンディ, is a loving husband to a wife, a teacher, researcher, political analyst, and a community development specialist. He finished his PhD in Japan and has travelled extensively around East and Southeast Asia.