It was a Saturday afternoon. My family had been playing mahjong — a complex game in which players form sets of matching tiles — for an hour or two and we’d just finished a round. We shuffled the tiles for the next round, shifting the pink and white pieces around the length of the table for a few minutes. I wasn’t really good at the game: My brother and I had just recently been introduced to all the rules. My hands were still getting used to the feel of the tiles’ plastic, smooth against my fingers. As I stacked my row of tiles, the blank pink sides facing up, my mom spoke.
“You can pass this on to your children,” she said.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve thought and worried more about the idea of passing on something — like clothes, old dolls, recipes — to my own kids in the future. The actual question of having kids isn’t necessarily a subject of concern for me right now. But, if I were to have kids, I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pass an incredibly important aspect of culture: language.
My parents immigrated from the Philippines in the ‘90s. I was born in Chicago, which makes me a second-generation immigrant. I was raised speaking Cebuano (colloquially known as Bisaya), an official language of the Philippines that is closely related to Tagalog and mainly spoken in the country’s southern regions. We ate traditional Filipino food like adobo and lechón, practiced various holiday traditions like receiving ang pao — red envelopes — and occasionally attended Filipino parties where karaoke was the main event. But the presence of Filipino culture overall was lacking. Growing up in various states across the American Midwest, it wasn’t often that I found Filipino culture in places outside our home, save for the occasional trips to Asian grocery stores and the few times that I heard snippets of Cebuano when we’d go on vacation to New York City or visit our old friends in Chicago. Most of my extended family lived in the Philippines and those who lived in the United States were living in California, Washington or Texas, so any exposure to Filipino culture was limited to the confines of my house.
When I was still very young, my parents spoke to me in both English and Cebuano, aiming to raise me to be bilingual. As young children usually do, I learned quickly, but there was a problem: Cebuano and English mixed together in my brain and sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference between the two. In preschool, I tried to explain to my teachers that my favorite food was pancit — noodles — but 3-year-old me didn’t know how to convey that. In another instance, I babbled to my babysitter about being sick and throwing up. She didn’t understand me, because I kept using the word suka — to vomit. I didn’t realize there was an English equivalent.
After my teachers sat down with me and my parents to talk about my tendency to slip from language to language, my parents eventually started to use more English around me instead of Cebuano. I stopped mixing Cebuano words in my sentences. With no other Filipino children like myself at school, I hardly spoke the language at all. This isn’t a particularly unique situation. Many second-generation immigrants lose their ancestral language at some point. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, while nine out of 10 second-generation immigrants are proficient in English, only four out of 10 second-generation Asian Americans say that they can speak their parents’ native language decently.
I didn’t lose my grasp of the language entirely, I just kept listening but stopped speaking. I still know the words, and can fully understand spoken Cebuano, but I can’t speak it. While I can comprehend my mother’s instructions for help around the house or my dad’s sarcastic commentary on movies, the glottal stops of words like tuo feel strange in my mouth and my tongue stumbles over the language’s ng sounds.
I’m stuck, in a way, between being monolingual and bilingual. Any conversation with Cebuano that I hold now is stilted by the fact that I know what’s being said, but I can only respond in English. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself becoming more aware of how this holds me back, especially when I interact with my grandmother, whose knowledge of English is present but minimal. When I’m with her, there are often so many things I want to say, like how my day’s been, or that I’ve been working on a cool project at school. But there’s no easy way for me to get any of it across to her.
Due to my lack of fluency in Cebuano, I know I wouldn’t be able to pass on my knowledge of the language in the way that my parents could, especially with the likelihood of me continuing to live in the U.S. or some other English-speaking country. I’ve felt guilty about this for some time. Language has such an intimate connection to culture and Cebuano was one of the few things keeping me close to my Filipino roots. While my family still had Filipino-style meals and occasionally attended festivals hosted by Filipino-American organizations, I felt that language was something indicative of true connection to a culture. In some ways, I saw it as a tether.
At the same time, I’ve always questioned how strong of a tether I actually have if I can’t even fully speak my parents’ language. When I visit my cousins in the Philippines, I can’t help but feel a disconnect between us. At times, when we sit together for dinner, someone will say something that I don’t particularly understand and the others will laugh while I just listen, smiling as if I know what they’re talking about. They know both Cebuano and English and often slip between the two when they speak to me, but there are certain things — like jokes, references — that I can’t fully comprehend because I’m not a native speaker.
This inherent difference, of course, has never been something that anyone could change; it’s simply a result of the way things are — my parents decided to move to the U.S. while my aunts and uncles chose to remain in the Philippines. Regardless, it still makes me feel inadequate at times, like I’m not as “Filipino” as my cousins are. In a way, I suppose I’m not. I was raised an ocean away. Even still, I feel pride in being Filipino as much as I am American.
At times, though, I find myself struggling to fit myself into either category. Would the generation after me feel even more separated from Filipino culture? Would my parents feel disappointed in their daughter for not sharing their culture enough? It’s not necessarily out of the question for them to teach my future kids, but I’ve always seen that scenario as me admitting defeat.
That Saturday afternoon, when my mom told me that I could pass on mahjong to my children, it almost felt like a form of reassurance. It was as if she knew that I’ve felt guilty about my lack of skills in Cebuano.
As I sat there, I realized she was right — there was an entirely different facet of culture that I hadn’t considered. I’d been placing too much emphasis on language, when elements like Filipino delicacies, ang pao and even karaoke are just as important, if not more so. Even though language is definitely a large part of culture, it doesn’t encompass all of it. Certainly mahjong, a game that I’ve seen Filipino adults play at family gatherings and parties, could be considered a part of our culture. Perhaps culture doesn’t really have a hard definition, and there is no “checklist” of things that you have to be or have. Ultimately, feeling connected and legitimized in a culture is up to you.
I know that it’s impossible for me to give the next generation in my family the same experience that my parents gave me. I won’t be able to give them the language, and I might not know or even understand all of the Filipino customs. But I can share with them my own experiences and what I have learned. While I might not be able to teach them Cebuano jokes or show them how to make pancit, I can always pull out the old mahjong board with its pink tiles.