Monday, June 30, 2008

Lost in Translation

Published June 30, 2008

President Gloria Arroyo’s US visit may be controversial back home, but I give her credit for something that I believe no Filipino chief executive has ever done: She spoke Tagalog during a joint press conference with an American president at the White House.

It probably doesn’t mean much in the sad, painful history of US-Philippine relations. And its impact probably has been offset by what comes across as Arroyo’s embarrassingly overeager bid for attention from the US presidential candidates.

But her speaking in the native tongue was worth it, if only for the dumbfounded look on George W. Bush’s face when Arroyo suddenly shifted to Tagalog, especially since it came after his pseudo tribute to Filipino Americans whom he apparently thinks about only at dinner time.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” was all Bush could say after Arroyo’s greeting in Tagalog.

Even in a small way, what Arroyo did was a rare affirmation of Filipino nationhood in international relations in which language can be a subtle but powerful weapon. And it actually was a surprising move from a president who has not exactly been known for sensitivity to issues of national pride, once even endorsing the training of “supermaids” as a way to ease the country’s economic problems.

The issue of using Pilipino in international diplomacy actually came up ten years ago, when Arroyo’s predecessor, the disgraced former President Joseph Estrada, vowed to use Tagalog and an interpreter in dealing with foreign governments. Estrada had said he wanted to follow the lead of other nations who negotiate treaties and conduct diplomacy in their native languages.

“The Japanese, the Chinese and other Asian countries speak their dialect (when dealing with other countries) -- I don't see why we Filipinos cannot speak our own dialect,” he told me in an interview in his home, when I covered the 1998 elections for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Estrada eventually got too embroiled in scandals that led to his downfall to pursue what would have been a dramatic shift in Philippine presidential politics. But when he made the vow, many were impressed, though a few were horrified.

An operations manager at Speechpower, which trains Filipinos to speak and write better English, said it would be a setback to the country’s reputation as an English-speaking nation.

“We’re moving toward globalization and then all of a sudden we have a president who needs an interpreter,'' Doris Salvacion told me. “We expect much from our president. They would be good role models if they would be able to deal with other people in English. Then we could say, ‘Ah, our president speaks well.’”

But Danny Javier of the Apo Hiking Society, who made the song “American Junk” famous, said it would “instill more pride in being Filipino.” Poet and screenwriter Pete Lacaba, who wrote poems in English before shifting to Tagalog, called it “a positive move.”

John Gershman, a political scientist based in the East Coast who is fluent in Tagalog, said using Pilipino would even be smart diplomacy. That’s because Americans have always had the advantage in negotiations conducted in English because “they are able to define terms and concepts in their language.”

But by using Tagalog, he added, Estrada “can force the Americans to translate their objectives. Since he understands English, he'll be able to understand better what they're trying to say -- but the Americans won't have a clue as to what he and his panel are discussing among themselves.”

Good old Erap was even more cunning.

“In our negotiations with the United States our panel (members) always speak in English -- so if they commit a mistake they cannot correct it,” he told me.
Bursting into laughter, he shifted to guttural street Tagalog. “If you speak in Tagalog and you make a mistake,” he said, “then you can later take back what you said. You can blame the interpreter (by saying): ‘Hey, that's wrong. That's not what I said!’”

Fortunately, of course, he never got the chance to try a stunt like that.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bush's baffling salute to Filipino Americans

Published June 26, 2008

Filipino food has not gained as much attention and praise in the United States as cuisine from Korea, China or Thailand, but Pinoy cooks and chefs have long occupied proud and important niches in US society, whether in the restaurant industry, the military or even the White House.

Still, there was something oddly disconcerting about President George W. Bush paying tribute to the contributions of Filipino Americans – particularly those who serve his meals at the White House.

"I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that -- in which there's a lot of Philippine-Americans," Bush told President Gloria Arroyo during her recent visit to the White House, where the head chef, Cristeta Comerford, is Filipino.

"They love America and they love their heritage. And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the -- of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House."

In the video of the exchange, you can then hear Arroyo, who is off camera, laughing.

"Yes," she said.

Bush continued, "And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madam President."

“Thank you," she said.

Bush's remarks were immediately picked up by the liberal Web site, Huffington Post, where readers were naturally amused, embarrassed, outraged.

"What an utter embarrassment," one reader wrote. "The buffoonery ends 01/20/09."

"It takes great skill to so utterly mangle what should have been a great compliment," another said. "And yes, beneath it all, it is quite notable that the current White House chef is both the first woman in the position and a naturalized citizen originally from the Philippines."

"Kitchen help and servants in the White House! THAT'S what he thinks of these hard-working people!" another said.

One reader wondered what the fuss was about: "Hmmm, my wife is Filipino and she wasn't offended. But then, she doesn't think there's anything wrong with telling a Filipino that he makes a good dish."

The comment underscored how touchy this issue could be. After all, millions of Filipinos have moved overseas to work as cooks, kitchen help, domestic helpers, construction workers and nurses – and they've done so proudly and with honor and are actually keeping the Philippine economy afloat. As has been stated repeatedly, overseas Filipino workers are heroes.

But another reader who responded to the last remark also hit the nail in the head on why many Americans would feel embarrassed by what their president said – and why Filipinos everywhere should be dismayed.

"Dude, President Bush basically told the president of the Philipines that he loved the Filipino people because his only context was the one that worked for him. She should not only be offended, she should be disqusted," the reader said.

Bush has, of course, uttered many more jaw-dropping and sometimes offensive statements in his foreign dealings that many Americans have simply learned to ignore or endure. He once demoted Pope Benedict XVI by addressing him as "your eminence" instead of "your holiness," mixed up Austria and Australia, referred to Greeks as Grecians and asked the president of Brazil, "Do you have blacks too?"

But one must give Bush credit when he wore a barong during a visit to the Philippines five years ago. He was also following a family tradition. More than 20 years before, in June 1981, his father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush arrived in Manila, put on a barong and met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

Then again, that wasn't exactly a visit many Filipinos remember fondly.

"We stand with the Philippines," the elder Bush told the dictator. "We love your adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes. We will not leave you in isolation."

Two decades after Bush the elder's controversial remarks, it was the younger Bush’s turn to make a statement that left many scratching their heads.

"America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people,” he said.

But it quickly became pretty clear that he didn't really completely get that story.

For Bush also declared before his Filipino hosts that the United States "liberated the Philippines from colonial rule" -- conveniently forgetting that our homeland was once an American colony.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Monday, June 9, 2008

The odd way my sons say 'Tatay' in Obama's America

Published June 9, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - Visiting friends and relatives are usually amused or puzzled that my sons call me ‘Tatay,” and their mother, ‘Nanay.’ Not “Daddy” and “Mommy” or “Papa” and “Mama.” That’s also how some of our friends’ children call their parents. It’s our way of reminding them -- and us – of who we are and where we come from.

My wife Mara and I even went a step further. We decided, even before our first son, Paolo, was born that Tagalog would be our children’s first language. A few friends and family members thought we were nuts. “Why teach them a language they most likely will not use in America?” they asked.

But for me, that decision was based on a practical reason: I didn’t want my kids to get mad at me. That’s because when I moved to America nearly 20 years ago, I encountered young FilAms who were disappointed, even angry, that their immigrant parents never taught them Tagalog or other Philippine languages. They felt cheated. I didn’t want my boys to feel that way, and wanted to make sure that they would never be able to say to me or their mother, ‘You denied us our heritage.’

Still, I understand why immigrant Pinoys in the past insisted that their children speak English and that they shed as much of the “old” ways as possible. They wanted their children to fit in and not stand out with a thick accent or bad grammar or “strange” customs. They wanted them to be “genuine” Americans -- whatever that meant. To become otherwise would make life harder for them, even dangerous. After all, only about a half century ago, one could still find signs in a few California cities saying, “Absolutely No Dogs or Filipinos Allowed.”

But times are changing in America. Being from a different country is no longer as big a liability as in the past. And having a strange-sounding name -- like Barack Obama -- is no longer an insurmountable hurdle to moving forward in life. Just last week, a black man who is also a son of an immigrant from Africa, and who grew up in Southeast Asia and in a state dominated by Asian Americans just became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. And he could very well win.

Beyond all that, our decision to teach our children Tagalog was also encouraged by experts who said it was okay and even smart to have children learn as many languages as possible – because it actually makes them smarter. Pediatric experts said so. Paolo’s doctor said so too. Then there’s our own experience. Mara and I grew up bilingual (she’s actually trilingual, being competent in Waray) and we turned out okay.

But I won’t lie. Having our first son, Paolo, speak Tagalog as a first language was tough for him and for us. I thank the children’s book publishers and authors back in the Philippines for writing and publishing more works in Tagalog. But there were times when I had to read to Paolo at bedtime when I had to do some on the spot translation as he insisted, “Basa sa Tagalog, Tatay.” (“Read to me in Tagalog, Tatay.”) So I had to quickly come up with such lines as, “Pumunta si Barney sa zoo kasama ni Baby Bob.” (Barney went to the zoo with Baby Bob.)
When Paolo started going to day care, being exposed to a world of English-speaking kids turned out to be an overwhelming experience for him. After picking him up in the first few weeks, Mara was surprised at how talkative he was in the car. We later found why: He was apparently so intimidated by his English-speaking schoolmates that he simply kept quiet the whole day, and then made up for the hours of silence by blabbing endlessly when her Nanay came to take him home.

During his first few visits to Manila, however, Paolo felt like he was in heaven. Once, when we took a walk around my old neighborhood in Cubao and came across a group of children playing in the street, Paolo, his eyes wide open, exclaimed, “Tatay, nagtatagalog sila!” (“They’re speaking Tagalog!”)

Of course, his Manila-based cousins found it strange to have a Stateside cousin who spoke English with a thick Pinoy accent. My nephew, who was then a student at Ateneo High School, and who naturally spoke English with an Arrneow accent, asked me, “Tito Boying, bakit ang barok mag Inggles ng anak mo?” (“Why does your son speak English like Barok?”)

Eventually, we found out that the experts and our instincts were correct. Just a few months into his kindergarten year, Paolo was speaking fluent English. I still remember the moment when, as I was getting into my car after dropping him off, I realized: ‘He hasn’t spoken to me in Tagalog for a week.’

In fact, Paolo, who is turning 9, now only speaks to us in English, though he still understands when we speak to him in Tagalog. On the other hand, his younger brother, Anton, who is turning 3, is, like him when he was younger, fluent in Tagalog, and “barok” in his English. Which has led to some amusing exchanges at home.

“Don’t mess with my Legos, Tonton,” Paolo would say.

“ “E kuya, I just ano – uh - maglaro naman tayo,” the smaller one would respond. (“Let’s play.”)

Paolo still calls me “Tatay.” But he now pronounces it differently, with the accent on the last syllable. As in “atay” (liver) or “ “patay” (dead). He does the same thing with “Nanay.” Visiting friends and family are even more amused by that of course. (I joke that he is saying it with a French accent.)

Anton still gets the accent right, but we expect that eventually he’ll follow his kuya’s lead.

Which is all fine with me and Mara, for at least we know the seeds of Pilipino are planted firmly in their consciousness. And if they choose later on to do more with it and other aspects of their Filipino-ness, many of the ingredients are there for them to dig up and use.

It will be their choice.

And if Obama becomes president, it could become a much easier choice to make. Perhaps a choice that is even celebrated in a society with a painful history of rejecting those who are different -- but which is now evolving into a community where people with strange names, who come from strange lands and who speak strange languages are not just welcomed, accepted and embraced, they at times can even have the seat at the head of the table.

Last week, as Obama was giving his incredibly inspiring speech after clinching the Democratic Party nomination, I told Paolo to sit down with me and watch the broadcast, telling him, “This is important. Something big has just happened.” I later found out that a colleague at work, who is white, had done the same thing with his son and for the same reason.

Whatever happens in November, our world has already been turned upside down. And for that, I won’t mind the odd way my sons call me “Tatay.”
It’s Father’s Day on Sunday. To my fellow Tatays around the world, a toast to all of us!

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel