Blurting out ‘ano’ to a Brit colleague
Don’t be sorry for being ‘Philippine’,” a colleague once told me. I apologize for my nationality at least once a day here in Bangkok, because I may look like one of them, but I’ll never be one of them.
Four months into being a fake Thai, and I’ve never doubted my English-speaking skills the way I do now. Every day whisks me back to 2008, when I was fresh meat at the meat shop that was the United States of America.
I was 18 then, forever known as a talkative and articulate girl. But I lived my first year as a faux Filipino-American composing sentences in my head before speaking.
In the expat-filled metropolitan paradise that is Bangkok, however, I’ve had my worst fear realized. I work as a teacher at a private school and I’m part of the foreign staff. I’m the only Filipino in the faculty room; the rest are mostly from Canada and the United States.
One time, I told a colleague: “The situation is getting badder.”
I tried to redeem myself in a heartbeat by following up with an “Of course, that’s not a proper word,” but her stunned look meant damage done. That’s just bad(der) for an English teacher!
As I write this down, I’m in the process of testing all the students from Grades 2 to 4 on their reading levels. The irony is in my face — this teacher needs her level tested, too, thank you very much.
The most interesting realization I’ve had from my recent twist of the tongue dawned on me while waiting for my Grab bike ride home from a night out.
I was talking to the same colleague who said I should feel no shame about my roots. A blue-eyed, blonde native of New York, she was telling me how she had to extra-simplify her English so that her students could understand her. Now she finds herself at times still speaking like that outside of the classroom.
I agreed, followed by a hard slap of reality. Let’s face it, even though we Filipinos are born and raised for the most part in Tagalog or another dialect and in English, our native Filipino tongue is dominant, and English is still our second language.
We were laughing as we realized the truth in my condition — I’m a “fake” native English speaker as well.
It took me years to accept how I sounded — to appreciate how my tongue rolled a different way; how I said words differently. Until now, though, there would be days when I’d be my own worst critic. Why is it that we look down on ourselves for our accent, for instance?
When the gorgeous Colombiana Sofia Vergara speaks, we swoon; when Michael Palin and the rest of the Pythons spit out their jokes, we love them all the more because of their English charm. But when a Filipino opens his/her mouth and we hear the all-familiar barok sound, we laugh?
Accents are just that — regional indicators, so to speak. Should accents determine the better race? Or intelligence, rank, social status?
As a precursor and defense to my worsening state, pretty much the whole staff at work knows my “accent” story. I would find a way to tell them, especially upon meeting, how the moment I arrived in Thailand, I went back to straight up sounding like an FOB (fresh off the boat); that whatever improvement I’ve had all those years in the United States abandoned ship the moment I docked in Siam waters.
Maybe the cracks are due to a faulty foundation. Did I just breeze through the complicated world of English speech and grammar and leaned on the deadly “If it sounds right, it’s probably right” rule?
Did I not read enough English-language books? Were my high grades in English my whole academic life a mighty pretense? I can only imagine my teachers from Miriam College and JASMS-QC shaking their heads and going “tsk tsk.”
Today I blurted out “ano” to a British colleague, because I was at a loss for words during a casual conversation. It’s all in the head, but my psyche, combined with insecurities of all sorts, has done a great job compromising whatever career and confidence I may have had these past four months.
Nonetheless, some of my desperate measures include Netflix—binging on mostly American movies and shows, Facetiming friends back in the United States, and constantly boning up on grammar through books (“Grammar Girl” is a lifesaver) and online.
I’ve also been feeding my deep curiosity for British humor through politically incorrect comedies from the ’70s. I credit Monty Python and the Flying Circus as a two-way solution to understanding the complexity of the English language from Mother England, combined with knee-slapping laughter.
Surprisingly, I always find myself back to my “normal” American-ish accent when conversing with tourists — as if I needed more proof that it’s all in my head.
Can something as simple as the lack of pride in your accent symbolize a lack of patriotism? A demented adherence, perhaps, to this perceived perfection and supremacy of the West?
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Anna Ven Sobreviñas, 28, lived in Quezon City until she was 18 before immigrating with her family to San Diego, California. She is now based in Thailand.
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