Feeling out of place in Manila? Try speaking its language

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Manila, image from Wikimedia Commons


When I first read the headline of Raul Dancel’s article, Back home in Manila, and feeling out of place, I eagerly began to read it. Finally, I thought, here is an insightful article written by an actual journalist who can give voice to the feelings I have had about my hometown for so many years. Because, you see, if I’m going to be honest, just like Mr. Dancel, whenever I am back home in Manila I also feel out of place.

I am a Metro Manila girl through and through. My parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins, were all born and raised there, and so was I. I lived 21 out of my 30 years in Manila, never leaving the island of Luzon until I was 16, or the Philippines itself until I was 20. Given such a long history with the place, I should know my hometown like the back of my own hand, but the fact is, I don’t. This is because those 21 years I spent living in it were all very sheltered years, where my experience of Metro Manila was largely limited to Caloocan City, where I grew up, and Quezon City, where I went to university. I was a young student living with my parents, with little means or desire to truly get to know the city of my birth.

I graduated from college in April 2005, and in a few months I was on a plane taking me to a new country in a new continent, where I was to begin a new phase in my life. For a year I did my Master’s degree in Salamanca, Spain, then I spent the next six years working for a PhD in Barcelona. This was followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in Oxford, where I find myself now.

I have been living in Europe for almost a decade, and about halfway in, something changed. I was on one of my visits to Manila when I realized that my hometown had become a stranger. My old haunts were gone or completely transformed, and the city seemed much louder, more crowded. I felt, dare I say it, out of place.

To be fair, this is as much my own fault as Manila’s. I may have grown up in the Philippines, but it was in Europe that I matured. In the past decade, I adapted to a European way of life, and I never acquired the skills one needs to live as an independent adult in a sprawling Asian megametropolis. I have never learned how to drive, for instance. This is not a problem at all in walking cities like Salamanca, Barcelona and Oxford, but in car-centric Manila, this is a serious disadvantage. I would find it very difficult to adjust to Manila if I had to move back there, but I would feel exactly the same way if I had to move to Los Angeles or Bogotá.

I agree with Mr. Dancel that there are certain things in Manila that need to be changed. Manilans really should expect their city to be much safer than it is, and they deserve a much, much better transport system than the one they have now. But, as a linguist, what I take issue with is the writer’s negative stance towards the one thing that has always made me feel at home in my hometown: the language.

There is no greater joy than to arrive in Manila and revert to the language patterns of my youth: to leave behind the rhythmic cadences of the British accent to once again hear the one-tap r’s and unaspirated t’s of Philippine speech, to use old, familiar vocabulary and marvel at quirky new local coinages. It pains me to see the Philippine English expressions I am trying to codify in my daily work as a lexicographer being described in the same terms as grave societal problems like traffic congestion and unsafe drinking water.

I wonder though, if Mr. Dancel were in a KFC in New York, and the American cashier insisted on saying to go the same way the Filipino cashier in the Manila KFC insisted on saying take-out, would he have stood his ground as firmly, clinging on to his Singaporean take-away? Would he have gone around in Vancouver saying ang moh and tapao, expecting Canadians to understand him and feeling discomfited when they did not?

If there is one thing that all Filipinos should learn about the English language, one thing that is more important than subject-verb agreement or avoiding dangling modifiers, it is that it is a language that is spoken all over the world, and as such has developed a wide range of varieties, each with its own distinctive pronunciation, syntax, and lexis. Not one of these many varieties is intrinsically superior to another. To be globally competitive, Filipinos should be cognizant of this fact, and use it to their advantage. But the first step to doing this is to recognize that they themselves speak a unique variety of English, one that they should embrace, not reject.

True global Filipinos are not those who have successfully gotten rid of their Filipino accent to adopt a much more useful foreign one, but those who know how to adapt their speech so as to better communicate with those around them. I see this all the time: Filipinos in Spain who speak fluent Spanish at work but go home and start speaking Ilocano as if they had never left Ilocos; Filipino-Americans who talk with a West Coast accent, yet pepper their sentences with all kinds of Pinoy words; Filipino call center agents who can talk to their clients with a clear British accent but, as soon as they hang up the phone, go back to their own native accent with the greatest of ease.

Global Filipinos know that when in Singapore or London, you can perfectly well look for the loo, but in Boston or Chicago, you need to ask for the restroom, and in Hong Kong, the washroom. And when in Manila? They know how to say comfort room, and proudly!

Unlike Mr. Dancel, what I admire most about Singaporeans is not their clean streets or their perfectly stacked HDB blocks or their “Singapore etiquette”, but the way many of them persist on using Singlish even with their own government’s efforts to stamp it out of them in favor of supposedly “correct” British English. They hold on to Singlish as a point of pride, as a way of expressing their cultural identity even as they use a language imposed by a colonial power. If only Filipinos can view Philippine English in the same manner, then we may more easily find our place in the world, and not feel so out of place in our own country.

So if you are a returning Manilan and finding your hometown a stranger, why not try speaking its language? You may find that Manila is not a stranger at all, but a welcome old friend.