To Know a Language

What does it mean to know a language? Is it to recognize it when heard? To think, “oh that couple was speaking Tagalog” when you pass by them on the street? (A rare occurrence because there’s no “Philippines-town” like there is a Chinatown, where sentences can actually be understood instead of simply recognized, and you understand Cantonese more than you do Tagalog, but can you speak either of your parents’ mother tongues?) 

What does it even mean to speak a language? To speak it alongside understanding it? One year during sleep away camp I met someone from Hong Kong—somewhere I used to go every summer to visit family before the pandemic hit. I told her I could understand some Cantonese. I could understand unlike anyone else in my class, and I was excited, a sort of barrier from the rest of the group, a secret language between the two of us, some form of solidarity. But what is the point of only understanding if I have to sputter back a rough translation of what she said—“did you say his head is big?”—to confirm if my translation skills did the job? She didn’t speak to me in Cantonese again after that. Now the only thing I can say confidently in my mom’s native language is “Can I have one Coke Zero please? Thanks.” A sentence I said to mock her at a restaurant in Hong Kong when I was seven years old, tones and nuances perfected. 


—— ୨୧ ——

I meet my mom when she was a child but we could not communicate—not only because she was a dream, not because no words came out of my mouth, but because we could not understand. Sometimes I think if my mom met me before she was my mom, she would be disappointed in her future daughter, no comfort of her own language coming from her own blood. Maybe if her past self had met me, the present would change, and I would be fluent.


—— ୨୧ ——

My dad grew up in New Jersey, a first generation immigrant who never learned his mother tongue. A grandmother, a lola, whom I don’t visit often despite living less than an hour away, is still there. There are maybe two or three other Filipino students who attend my school, but what does it matter if we never talk about Filipino culture anyway? 

We have family reunions from time to time, as the majority of my dad’s side of the family live in America. The lolas and lolos speak confidently in Tagalog, the only generation who lived in the Philippines. I don’t know much about the country, having only been to Manila when I was four years old for a wedding. I remember a pork roast on the beach, with a Santa Claus dressed in minimal clothing because of the sweltering heat. I remember balut, a “fertilized developing egg embryo that is boiled or steamed and eaten from the shell” according to Wikipedia, and I remember crunchy, greasy Jollibee’s chicken eaten in the hotel room, the bridesmaids dressed in purple dresses, me in a flower crown. 

When my father talks about his childhood, he talks about skateboarding, about rolling down that one steep hill and getting that one scar on his knee that never really went away. He talks about video games with his three brothers, and the dried and stringy boiled chicken his mother used to make. How his signature order at the Italian restaurant was lasagna, and how his father made him do a hundred sit-ups after eating at McDonalds. He lived the Asian American childhood, residing in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I can’t say anything to that, can’t tell him I wish I knew more about the Philippines beyond the food because he knows about as much as I do. 

And it might be hypocritical of me to ask for more. My mother placed me in Chinese school when I was in elementary school so I could learn Cantonese, could understand and speak—and now I don’t. 

Someone tells me I can always just teach myself, but it’s different. Different from growing up and simply speaking, simply understanding, simply knowing. Knowing a language lies in its simplicities, and the only language simple to me is English, so now I look on from across the table, staring blankly at my grandparents, stories untold, and no way for us to know each other simply.

Ines Alto


18 years old

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