Joni Cham’s essay appears as a part of a special series featuring New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program fellows discussing their relationship with language. You can read an excerpt from Joni’s debut novel here.
I do not know what my first language is. It’s definitely not English, of that at least I’m sure. Sometimes I think it’s the Southern Min language, spoken in the southern province of Fujian in China. It is my mother’s primary language, and perhaps it was all I heard and dreamed in while I was in the womb, soaking in the books she read and listening to the songs she sang. My mother has always liked to read and sing. I probably got those interests from her. But during the first ten years of my life I was raised primarily by my paternal grandmother, who spoke to me mostly in Tagalog—formally called Filipino, it is one of two main languages in the Philippines—with a sprinkling of Bicol (one of the regional languages on the Philippine island of Luzon) and some Southern Min. It was in this language, or mixture of languages, that she would sing me to sleep, nurse me through my fevers (I was a sickly child), yell at me to behave (I was also stubborn), and comfort me through my various heartaches (I was very sensitive and would cry easily).
Growing up Chinese in Manila, my three older sisters and I were enrolled in Chinese schools from kindergarten to high school. Every afternoon we learned Mandarin by memorizing passages from decades-old textbooks. “Learn” is too generous a term. We did not really learn the language. We learned to pass tests in any way we saw fit, including by using cheat sheets, copying from classmates, etc. Or if those took too much effort, we did not bother passing the tests at all. We were taught math, science, and most of the other subjects in English, except perhaps for social studies and Filipino, which were taught in the Philippine language. English was, is, the medium of instruction in most schools in the Philippines, a legacy of American colonization (from 1898, when the US bought the Philippines from Spain with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, to 1946, when the Philippines gained its independence following World War Two).
What I most looked forward to were composition classes. As a young child, I never understood the collective groan from my classmates when it came time for composition writing. It was during these periods that I was most awake, filled with anticipation, barely able to contain my excitement. And it did not matter whether the composition was in Chinese, or Filipino, or English; I liked them all. Eventually, I would lose the ability to express myself in Chinese. Just as my English compositions came back one after the other with perfect or near perfect scores, and were sometimes read in front of the class to my embarrassment and pride, my Chinese compositions would remain mediocre at best, then begin a steady decline. Like many Filipinos of Chinese descent of my generation, I would not learn to read Chinese beyond elementary level, never mind to write it, despite the great pains parents took to ensure we grew up as Chinese as possible. And because I read mostly in English, to this day I have only written one story in Tagalog. If not for a requirement in a Filipino class in college, I never would have written it at all.
In our own household, my parents forbade us to speak Tagalog. We were to talk to them in the Southern Min Chinese language or they did not reply. Or if they did, it was followed by a barrage of lectures as to how stubborn we were for still insisting on speaking what is literally called, in Southern Min, the “barbaric language.” Perhaps subconsciously, English became both a neutral language and a language of defiance for me. Neutral as it was neither considered superior nor inferior to Chinese, and defiant as I knew that when my parents said, “Don’t talk in Tagalog,” they really meant, “Talk in Chinese,” and yet I would speak in English because speaking in English was not speaking in Tagalog. My parents, in spite of themselves, had to tolerate English. It could not be banned completely at home, as Tagalog was, because they knew the benefits it would bring in school and later on in the workplace. It would be in English that I would find the space in which to construct my understanding of both my reality and my fiction.
English became both a neutral language and a language of defiance for me.
Except for requirements in Filipino and Chinese classes, I read and wrote exclusively in English. Most if not all of the books I was reading were written by Americans for Americans, and so I started writing as if I, too, lived in California surrounded by blond-haired and blue-eyed cheerleaders and football players. Never mind that we don’t even play American football in most Philippine schools, or that I knew not even a single blond-haired nor blue-eyed cheerleader. The lingering effects of colonization must have run so deep that I did not think anything was wrong with this. And yet somehow I felt an unexplainable guilt at writing in the colonizer’s tongue instead of my own.
As weird as it might sound, it was not until I was a senior in high school that I discovered writings in English by Filipino writers when one of my sisters brought home a copy of Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Bamboo in the Wind, a novel set in the tumultuous days just before the declaration of martial law in the country. The shock of recognition almost knocked me out of my senses. It was the first time I had read a novel by a Filipino author. For some odd reason, it did not occur to me that books, other than textbooks, were being published in the Philippines. Filipinos like me were writing stories about Filipinos, set in the Philippines, and they were writing them in English!
I was amazed by the discovery but I did not know where to find other books by Filipino writers in English. Our high school library was small and did not carry them, or I did not know how to find them. As luck would have it, a mall opened within walking distance of my high school, and in it was a bookstore where I would go to salivate over books I would save every peso for. And then came college, where our university library boasted having one of the best, if not the best, collections in the country. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I obsessively read as many Filipino writers in English as I could find. There were so many—how could I ever catch up? It was exhilarating and liberating to no longer be appropriating a reality so far from my own. No more blond-haired, blue-eyed characters who lived in places I had never been to. Ironically, stories that were limited to the local scope were what made me see and understand more about the world and, as a consequence, more about myself.
Some of my favorites were the creative nonfiction of Kerima Polotan-Tuvera, Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo; as well as the fiction of Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Gregorio Brillantes, and NVM Gonzalez. And then I discovered stories written by Chinese-Filipinos, incluidng Charlson Ong, Paul Stephen Lim, and Jaime An Lim. It was overwhelming and I was heady with excitement with each book that I found. I finally understood what was meant by “writing what you know,” a constant refrain in workshops and writing lectures. It was what had been missing in my writing all along. It was a revelation to realize, quite belatedly, that I could write not only about the Filipino experience, but, quite specifically, the Chinese-Filipino experience. Growing up Chinese in the Philippines had made me feel isolated and different, and I suddenly had a space in which I could grow and mature. I had despised the added burden and pressure of having to learn Chinese, which had felt so unnecessary when I was young, but literature allowed me to delight in the opportunities that being Chinese presented to me as I discovered how to write my authentic stories, the ones that reverberated deep within me. I learned to embrace my very otherness, and as I found my voice, I started to view it as an advantage.
It was exhilarating and liberating to no longer be appropriating a reality so far from my own.
I would like to think that my debut novel, In My Mother’s House, is able to capture this voice. It is about the love-hate relationship between a mother and daughter amidst cultural and linguistic conflicts. The story is set in Manila and populated by Filipinos, Filipinos of Chinese descent, and Chinese people. It is written mainly in English, though the characters also speak in Tagalog and Southern Min. I no longer feel guilty about writing in a language that tastes foreign to my tongue, this third language that has taken root within my soul and consciousness. Someday maybe I will feel compelled to write in Tagalog and reclaim something I must have lost along the way. But for now I write in English, unapologetically, even as three other languages compete for prominence in my mind.