STORIES

Speaking in tongues

I've really only felt alienated by language when I have to resort to pointing at pictures on a menu, or more often than not, a number, since there is no more depressing and aggravating feeling than not being able to communicate when you're hungry. I've been fortunate that I've had the propensity to learn other languages, so traveling isn't so difficult until the words become things that look like other things in which case we all resort to pointing. Sometimes, not even at the menu, but at what looks good enough to eat, and with no bargaining power. 

At the end of the day though, food crosses linguistic barriers; there is no other way to take the satiated, post-prandial sound of content, where you're "in a good place" -- just a sigh, and maybe a mmmmm to go along with it. 

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There was no lingua franca in my household growing up. Tagalog, or Filipino, was spoken freely around the house. English too. Sometimes there'd be a dialect or two thrown in there -- Cebuano, Kapampangan, the stray Ilokano every once in a while. Sometimes Spanish if someone wanted to reminisce. In school, outside of our requisite Filipino class, they emphasized learning in English (we learned using phonics), whether it was in our Reading or Science or Art classes. We learned church Latin even though it wasn't necessary, something that would come in handy in high school and the SATs. And little did I know how much Spanish was actually in modern Tagalog, reflected in the deep colonial history of our country and in all aspects of living. 

In the house, the words for rooms, furniture, and the social relationships were all Spanish in origin: the sala for the living room; the lamesa for the table; hell, even the maid was called yaya, the old Spanish word for nanny. Even the food reflected this as all sorts of Spanish words pervaded the kitchen. Most importantly, it's what I use to lean against my slowly degrading Tagalog since I have nobody in New York to speak it with -- recently, my mom called my Tagalog baluktot -- bent, twisted, out of shape.

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My brother and I continued our multilingual paths as way to challenge ourselves. It started when my brother picked up a little bit of French in Grade 7 and he needed a speaking partner. I studied Spanish formally throughout high school and well past. My brother took up Italian in community college and I would tag along (because, duh, nerd), and eventually, we would find our way in the same Portuguese department in Berkeley, perfecting our conquest of the Western Romance languages. 

In truth my brother and I learned languages as a way to speak in secrets, in that twisted way where we talked smack about somebody right in front of their face without them knowing. My mom would be continually impressed that we would speak in other languages (as if we would be the ones showing off), while in fact we would be making fun of someone's breath that smelled like farts, in a language of our choosing. In Italian, fart is scoreggia; in Spanish, pedo; and in French, cutely enough, pet

 Farts are funny in every language.

Farts are funny in every language.

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 Guch mal, mein älterer Bruder!

Guch mal, mein älterer Bruder!

To this day our linguistic conquests continue. My brother lives in Germany and now has to interact with his co-workers in German, and I've been a member of a Japanese ceramics studio where I've had to speak to the obaachan in my very limited Japanese after a few lessons. What used to be silence has developed into a smile, an offer of tea, and a laugh for a bad pun, the equivalent of a dad joke.

In the studio, when I speak my very broken Japanese, the ladies are impressed with how I speak, though in fairness they should know that I feel the exact opposite. The Japanese have a great sounding word for persevering and trying your best that they tell me often when we speak about my studies. Gambatte, they would say, and in my head, the Spanish word gamba pops up, meaning shrimp; I picture myself a tiny shrimp swimming upstream, yearning to be understood by wiser old women who have plenty to impart but a language away. 

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One of the few times where language has proved difficult was the time I last saw my half-siblings. They grew up in Cebu, speaking a dialect I have little contact with. My half-brother and half-sister both went to a Chinese Jesuit school, exposing them to another language that I don't know. When I spoke to them, I could tell they had a different way about speaking -- they were more reserved, a little more cautious. My being away had little to do with that. My not speaking their language had something to do with it. But as it was happening, I couldn't figure out how they would parse my being there. Being a continent and an ocean away had taken over what was my Filipino experience, and their hopping an island had changed all of our childhood commonalities to few things. 

It's funny, their knowing Chinese and Cebuano -- I always joked that if they ended up learning Arabic and Korean that we could travel almost anywhere since we could always swing Russian or Hindi, this dream of us siblings roaming the world, eating our way through. 

The word for sibling in Tagalog is kapatid, which coincidentally enough stems from the word patid, meaning separate, unconnected, discombobulated. Sure seems accurate enough to describe where we are as siblings: far-flung, distanced, apart. 

 My half-brother, smiling more than half his face off. 

My half-brother, smiling more than half his face off. 

 My half-sister, looking more than half like me. 

My half-sister, looking more than half like me. 

The word for friend, though, is kaibigan, which stems from the word ibig, meaning both love and intent, a wanting, a desire. At the end, that's hopefully where I'd like our relationship to be. I like to think I've gotten there with my older brother. But my siblings don't owe me anything, let alone if I know when or even if they want a relationship with me.

My older brother is an ocean and a continent away, and we've shared plenty of moments and experiences where we're sated, full from the belly laughs and agitation that comes with brotherhood. As for the rest of my siblings, though, here I am pointing at the menu, hungry for something meaningful.