We Are America

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Sometimes I wished I was an only child. People with siblings can agree with me on this when I say that having siblings is seeing them once a week even if you live in the same house. I feel like being an only child means less responsibility especially from the standpoint of older siblings. But having siblings isn’t always bad; I was able to grow up with two siblings who stayed at my side my entire life. There’s my sister who’s twenty-two and my brother who’s fifteen. I’m sixteen and the middle child. I have different relationships with both of them, but my brother was the closest to me and the one that I could count on the most. I figured this out when I went on a trip to the Philippines and Japan.

There are about 170 languages spoken in the Philippines, and Tagalog is the main one. Ironically, I can only understand Tagalog and am not able to speak it; my brother is in the same boat as me, but as time went on, he would get a little disconnected from the language and was only able to understand simple sentences. This would pose a problem in the Philippines. Although many were taught English in schools in the Philippines, it’s a lot easier for many to understand and speak Tagalog. I was nine, and my brother was seven when we went on the trip to where my mom’s side had come from before coming to the United States. Bataan, Philippines. Our relatives were super hospitable, and I felt like I was coming back to a second home. The only problem, of course, was the language barrier. It wasn’t a problem if my relatives spoke Tagalog to me, but it was difficult for them to understand me since I only spoke English; sometimes my mom had to step in to translate what I was trying to say. For my brother, I sometimes had to translate things for him so he could understand what our relatives were saying.

To our relatives we were these Americanized little boys who lost touch with their own culture. They didn’t condemn us for it, but like any family member, they made jokes about it. “Speak Tagalog!” they’d say. After saying something very simple in Tagalog my cousins would jokingly ask, “Do you understand?” I bet it was really funny to them, but my little nine year old heart was a little hurt, and I could only imagine how my brother felt. I would ask myself, “Why am I not like them? Why can’t I speak Tagalog? Am I too American?” I felt disconnected from my own culture and thought that I’d done something wrong my entire life for not knowing how to speak Tagalog.

Five years passed by, and it’s been a while since our month-long trip to the Philippines. This time, my family planned a week-long trip to Tokyo, Japan. Compared to the trip to the Philippines, the language barrier was a lot bigger because no one in my family knew how to speak Japanese. This wasn’t too much of a problem because we mostly went to touristy places, so everywhere we went there were people that sort of expected people like us. They’d have menus or signs available if it were restaurants or attractions so that we could just point to communicate. Although there weren’t too many problems, there was this one instance where it was only my brother and I, and we were having a hard time communicating to a waitress at a cafe. To paint a picture, my family and I had been walking all day because it was the only way we could get to places in Japan; cars drove on the left side rather than the right, so driving definitely wasn’t an option, and we had no idea how to call a cab. Our feet were extremely sore, and our throats were extremely dry because we had been walking all day and drank all our water. Logically, we looked for a place to rest. My family and I had walked into this cafe, and my brother and I assumed that we could just seat ourselves, but it was one of those fancy cafes where you needed to be seated by someone. As my brother and I sit down at the only two seats that we saw open, we’re approached by a woman who starts speaking Japanese to us. I panic and have no idea what to do, when all of a sudden my brother starts speaking Japanese. He said, “Ni hon go ga wakarimasen,” which I will never forget. It translates to “I don’t understand Japanese” and I was shocked that he knew that. The waitress ended up using an iPad to explain that we had to wait, but we ended up leaving the cafe because there weren’t enough seats. 

I still admire my brother for what he’d done at that moment. It was the last thing that I’d have expected him to do because he didn’t even know how to speak Tagalog! I may be overreacting because it was only a simple sentence, but it made me proud in a sense that even if he was one of the most American Filipinos that I knew, he overcame that language barrier and was able to speak a language that he didn’t even understand himself. He made me realize that it’s okay to be as American as you possibly can. Who cares if I can’t speak Tagalog? It doesn’t make me any less Filipino. I decide how much of my culture I want to indulge in because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I’m more Filipino or more American. It’s crazy that my brother, who can only speak English, taught me to appreciate my own identity of being Filipino. I feel that because of him, I’m lucky to have siblings. Being an only child would suck.

© Joshua Eugenio. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person's teacher.