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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Ragay

My Mother’s Tongue: A Wish from a Fil-Am Woman

I call my mom and half of the time she speaks to me in Tagalog. I reply in English. It has been this way since I was a child.

Manila 2010: Me and my now 90 year old Lolo during a parade for Fiesta

I watched Past Lives a few nights ago and ended up sobbing for reasons I might write about later, but something that really stuck with me is the strong connection maintained between two characters because they were able to converse in their native language, Korean, with each other. As a former translator, I know the importance of language and like a symbiotic relationship, how it affects who you become and the inverse, how we shape it - most likely slow, over time, but change nonetheless. It’s beautiful.

Past Lives (2023)

I wish I could speak Tagalog better. I sound like a child when I open my mouth. I have no idea what proper grammar is in that dialect but I can tell you when something doesn’t sound right. I have always felt embarrassed visiting the Philippines. I look like I belong there and I smile just as much as they do, but the blank stare in my face when I respond “mabuti” says it all. I can’t continue in Tagalog and so they start speaking English.

Ilocos Norte, Philippines - Me and my Lolo on my dad's side before he passed

Getting older, I recognize it’s not my fault that I don’t know the language the way I would like. My parents never forced me to do so and I spoke English in school. It’s funny, being the oldest of five children, you notice the degree of Filipino skill declines with each sibling. And that’s okay. My parents were too busy trying to teach themselves English, it makes sense why they didn’t want to help me learn Tagalog. They didn’t feel that strong necessity to preserve their cultural identity when they were adopting a new one; a very niche one, to say the least. Metro Manila city kids to American Army family living in Germany? Me being articulate in Tagalog was not a priority.

Watching Past Lives, I can see that the guilt is not actually from my inability to express myself fully, I am now realizing that it’s because I am not able to connect with my family in a way that most families can. When I talk to my parents, we are meeting in a middle ground but I am not allowing them to be the complete version of themselves. They are communicating in a way a foreigner would understand and receiving a response from someone with a different upbringing. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s not by anyone’s wrongdoing; it's just the disconnect has become more apparent now that I have experienced devotion with someone who also knows that feeling and speaks to me in English, our native tongue.

During university, I turned in a paper on Flusser’s Theory of Communication and Media (and its application in the cultural intrigue of Squid Game). You can read about Flusser and the theory here and my essay below this paragraph. It’s a long theory but a basic principle in it states that one can only effectively communicate to the extent of the receiving party’s level of comprehension. For example, when two people utter two different languages to each other, there is no communication. But when one person can grasp what the other is saying, a message is conveyed. When the two have equal understanding of each other, then communication is considered at its most coherent. To me, this explains why those who are fortunate enough to have a proper education and are well read, tend to be the most empathetic toward others.

Michelle Ragay - Squid Game and Communication Theory
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It was a random assignment, but I think about this theory all the time, even outside the realm of casual conversation. In a frustrating argument, you’ll find yourself running in circles because the other person doesn’t seem to comprehend what you’re trying to say. I post an Instagram story and wonder if the people in my Viewer list get that I’m being ironic, not cringe! Countless romantic songs talk about how intimacy is like speaking the same language without words.

To become infatuated with someone who doesn’t share your native tongue indicates some level of understanding beyond linguistics; does love transcend language?

I would say yes, as is the case of me and my family. But I don’t want to leave it at that. I am so grateful for the life my parents have given me and like any relationship, I want to put in the work to show them I truly care. I want to speak their language. I want to understand them even more.

Someone once told me that it’s hard to learn a new language until you find affection with someone foreign. Then you do whatever it takes to become fluent. You impress their family, start using it more, maybe have kids and then talk to them in that.

I am married to Isaias who, like me, has parents who speak to him in a different language; for him, it’s Spanish. It's like I had a mindless journey with the Spanish language that somehow led me to him. Since the first time I visited Spain when I was ten years old, I was fascinated with the culture and how I could make out so many words even though I am not Spanish. Keep in mind, I’m ten, this was before I knew the history of Spain and the Philippines LOL. It’s likely there was some sort of deep, ancestral reminder of a country that had so much influence on my lineage. Nevertheless, I wanted to learn the language and I even told myself I would live there and marry a Spanish person.

I ended up with a Mexican man, but close, I guess.

I took Spanish classes in middle school and found myself daydreaming of Spain. In high school, I was excited to go back during Spring Break and after I graduated. I made out with Spanish boys and drunkenly flirted with bartenders to get free drinks. I had a blast but I couldn’t explain my draw to the culture, aside from the obvious colonialism. Once I left Europe and moved to the US, I met Mexican-Americans and my world opened up more. I liked hearing the Spanish language in a new way and through the classic Mexico filter.

The country of my blood shared words with a culture on the opposite side of the Earth. Spain is not clean from sin, of course, but feeling a sort of connection to a person I just met because we both say “basura” meant a lot as a girl who rarely felt relatable to anyone.

Mexican culture was my latest obsession. I never had (good) Mexican food growing up in Germany. We only had a Taco Bell on base and sometimes there would be a taco night with my dad’s unit, which was basically packaged tortillas, bagged lettuce, shredded ~Mexican~ cheese and ground beef cooked with a taco seasoning packet. I had a terrible impression of what Mexican cuisine was until I moved to Texas. My first experience with a real taco was pretty much like Squidward’s first time eating a Krabby Patty.

Quick shout out to this random spot in the South that I was very much enjoyed: La Jaliscience Taqueria in North Augusta, South Carolina - a.k.a. Jolly Science like my friends and I would say. Fuck man, this doesn’t have to be in this blog post but I loved that place so much. There was no air conditioning and a TV in the corner playing Mexican programs; it was perfect.

Like everything in life, things don’t seem to make sense until they do and my weird interest in Spanish proved itself useful in small senses, like helping someone translate in Disneyland or at a Cinco de Drinko fiesta. But the huge A-ha! Moment was when I met Isaias.

When I was in my last year of the Air Force, I was scrambling to get my life together. I knew I had to take advantage of everything the military offers before I separate. A part of that was getting my Associates degree. It was free, not super practical, but it was something to show I was not the biggest piece of shit and that I am probably smarter than a high schooler. My degree required college credits. One of my toxic traits is that I consider myself a luckier person and that I don’t need to study as much to pass a test, especially multiple choice. So instead of attending actual classes, I took CLEPs and Dantes which are pretty much tests that give you credit for an entire class semester/year. I passed all of them. Health. Sociology. Mathematics (much to the disbelief of my Afghan colleagues). Even fucking Computer Science! I’m not going to lie, I thought they were really hard and even I was surprised.

Anyway, the last one I needed was Spanish. This was 2019 and I hadn’t taken a proper Spanish class since 2009. My coworker Rob, who lived in Mexico for a year, helped refresh my memory for a day or two. I was confident, it was only for basic Spanish One.

On the testing day, I drove to the Education Center and was caught in typical Baltimore-DC traffic. I was late and they closed their doors until after lunch. Driving home and back was not an option with the traffic I just sat through so I decided to wait in the area and take my exam when they opened again in two hours. Next door was the ID card office and I heard some people inside. I can’t tell you why I did this next thing but I am happy I did.

I walked in and said “Does anyone want to have lunch with me?” Isaias, my now-husband who I never met before this moment, said he would.

I explained to him my situation and how I was going to take a Spanish test. I saw his ears perk up and the rest is history. Wanting to learn Spanish led me to the man I was going to marry and helped me communicate with his parents who don’t know much English. It’s hard not to believe that everything happens for a reason.

Me with my Spanish CLEP scores LOL

My Spanish is still pretty basic but the desire for improvement is there. If I can find motivation with my husband’s family, I am sure I can do it for the original loves of my life and my ancestors.

Learning the tiny bit of Spanish I know made me visit Spain over and over. It pushed me toward my husband and Mexico and drew me to more Hispanic countries. Yes, of course! Let’s do our Luna de Miel in Argentina and Chile!

2022 Honeymooning in Chile

I want that passion with the Philippines. I want to become fluent and grow the urge to travel there and experience life as a Filipino woman, because I am one. I can only imagine that the amusement I felt with Spanish would be ten times more intense in the place my parents were born.

Tagalog, English and German - The three languages that became the soundtrack of my childhood. Spanish came later, followed by Pashto. That last one has a soft spot in my heart.

Pashto is a language spoken in Afghanistan, a country I have never been to and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to visit. Even though I am fully aware of the danger, past and present, I have always wanted to go. I don’t know if it’s solely a me thing, but knowing a language to this level and not having been there feels incomplete, like a book missing half of its pages.

Language is culture and culture is language. They come together. How can you make sense of one without the other? They rely on and reflect one another.

Exposing yourself to multiple cultures is to open your heart in understanding more people in this world. I have always felt that travel is the best teacher, but to be a good student is to learn their language.

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Sep 23, 2023

This is my first time actually reading one of your blogs, which is ridiculous because I’ve seen the link to multiple. Besides being in awe of your writing skills(I’ve bullishly refused to get good at writing), its your story telling and emotional connection that had me dropping little tears before I’ve even crawled from under my covers. Glad your my friend Michelle 😬.


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