Relearning my native English in Manila*

My father made a decision in 1948 that would change my life forever. The family would move from New York City to Manila where we children would continue our education. My father and my American mother had come to the conclusion the we children needed to learn about being Filipino because we had already become sufficiently American. I resisted leaving New York and abandoning all my preparations in seventh and eighth grade for the long-awaited first foray to fledgling adulthood in high school. I had eagerly anticipated this chance to date girls as the first step to the great unknown “going all the way” in the Valhalla of male-female bonding called college. High school also meant getting a part-time after-school job to earn money to buy a second-hand car. Books, classes, lessons and, especially teachers, were secondary, a necessary detour on the way to an eventual nice job. In addition, I couldn’t imagine that education in such a faraway, unfamiliar country could offer anything comparable.

After arriving in the Philippines, I visited various schools with my father to choose one to enter. Here, I came face to face with the attitude of Filipinos toward education and teachers. Students acted differently in the class and at home from anything I had known in New York. Although the standard of education in New York at the time was quite high compared to the rest of the country, so I was told, I could not remember seeing the kind of fire in the eyes of my friends back home as we prepared to enter high school that I came to see burning in the eyes of Filipinos. I found that our earthy New York dreams of enjoying life and gliding through the necessary diversion of high school and college on the way to a nice job were mundane compared to the aspirations and determination of Filipino students I met who wanted to study to get on the right path to a good college and an interesting, satisfying career. Many were determined to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, or writers. Small talk often centered on grades, standings in class, how best to study, and who was smartest and destined for a bright future. Back home in New York the football stars, basketball stars and cheerleaders were the heroes in school. In the Philippines it was the brightest and most studious that stood out and won the admiration of classmates. Schools touted the top scorers in bar exams, medical license examinations, accountant license tests, teaching license examinations and even debating, short story writing or poetry contests.

Whereas teachers in New York were tolerated, in Manila they were almost venerated like saints and respected like leaders. Students addressed them as “ma’am” or “sir”. Strict decorum ruled the classroom, so discipline was seldom used or necessary. It took some getting used to for me.

It was made clear to me quite early on that girls were basically off-limits, at least for my kind of New York City thinking about them. My father initiated a campaign to bring me into line in preparation for starting my Filipino education. The first stage of the blitzkrieg assault on my New York sensibilities was to enrol me in an institution with only boys, Far Eastern University Boys High School. Next, it was drilled into my head that any New York type violation of the strict rules against socializing with girls could lead to a violent Filipino type ending at the hands of an irate father, brother or other male relative.

I would be lying if I said I took readily to the changes I was being forced through. I didn’t. I had been snatched out of familiar, comforting surroundings and plunked down suddenly in a hostile, unfamiliar one that demanded adjustments I did not know how to make. In this way, the Philippines was too different, too strange, and too demanding. Stubbornly resisting the attempt to change me, I shot back, why was I being forced to accept it? To justify my attitude, I surmised that the Philippines had to be inferior to the New York I knew. It had been a mere colony of the United States. How could it possibly match what America had to offer? Culture? Impossible, I thought, looking around me. Social development? Certainly not from what I could see in a city still recovering from the physical ravages of war. Education? I didn’t think so. I could not envision how I would be able to bear living through the next eight years of first high school and then college. My world had been turned upside down, but, finally, I resigned myself to accepting that I must learn to adjust.

Discipline in Philippine schools, particularly in the classroom, was quite strict. The teacher commanded absolute respect. It was not a practice reinforced by threats or punishment, but by a Filipino reverence for education and teachers. Students seldom addressed a teacher by name. It was always, “Sir,” “Ma’am,” or “Titser.” Students would rise as a teacher entered the classroom and again when the teacher would leave. A favourite teacher could enjoy the status of a semi-celebrity with all the attending fawning and gifts from admiring students. The atmosphere surrounding education made it easier for teachers to command respect and to demand from students the kind of performance necessary for good learning.

The most profound impact on me was having to change the way I used English. If I had stayed in New York and gone on to high school there, I probably would have ended up speaking English “widda Nuu Yok aksent!” The significance of learning English in the Philippines became apparent when I started English classes. The teacher in second year English, Mrs. Amelia Kison, after listening to me read a passage from the textbook, asked me with a soft, compassionate voice, “Amadio, where did you learn to speak like that?”

“In New York,” I responded, puzzled as to why she should ask. “Is there something wrong?”

Mrs. Kison replied, still in a gentle soothing tone, “Your pronunciation is very colorful and I imagine very New York. I have only heard a New York accent in movies so I cannot tell exactly. But, as you say you learned to speak that way in New York. I assume it’s a New York accent.”

I nodded in agreement, still puzzled at what she was trying to tell me. She seemed to notice my confusion when I tilted my head to one side.

“Amadio,” she continued, her voice embracing me gently as she told me the awkward truth, “as you may have noticed, all of us in the class, including me, speak English with an accent, a Filipino accent. So we sound quite different from the way you speak, which I understand is the way you learned to speak since you were a child.” Here, she paused for a moment, seemingly searching for the right words, “And, although we speak with an accent, you also may have noticed—at least, I hope you have, that we speak very precisely, pronouncing each word carefully, and in proper grammatical order. The reason we do this is because English is not our language. It is a language we learn. A language we must learn if we want to communicate with people outside the Philippines.”

With her second, slightly longer pause, I thought she wanted a sign from me that I understood so I said, “Yes, I’ve noticed how carefully people speak English. And everyone speaks Tagalog the way I speak English, not so carefully.” I wondered, still puzzled, if that’s what she wanted to hear.

Mrs. Kison clasped her hands together as if to steady herself, “What I’m trying to say is that just as we have to learn to speak English properly, you must also learn to speak properly. You must unlearn your New York English, or, at least, keep it only for use at home, and adjust yourself to speaking English as it is written in the textbooks.”

Her words dropped on me like someone pounding on my head, thump, thump, thump … “unlearn your New York English!” My head drooped against my chest because I felt that everyone in the classroom must be staring at me, jeering and laughing inside because even though I could pronounce the two “r”s in MacArthur and the “f” in Franklin D. Roosevelt better that anyone else, in the real American way, I, a red-blooded, American-born American made mistakes in English pronunciation and grammar. Could anything be as embarrassing as this? Then Mrs. Kison inserted an “and…” A big crushing, here comes the next blow “and.” “And?” I thought. “What more could there possibly be?”

“And, I’m sorry to tell you, you will have to learn to write more clearly.” She said in a voice so low and soft I thought for a moment she was going to rescind all that she had said.

My head fell more and my shoulders followed. My handwriting too? Next, she’ll criticize my hearing. I had noticed that Filipinos have much prettier, cleaner, more precise handwriting than mine (or of anyone I had known back home in New York, including my teachers). But, she didn’t have to show me up in front of everyone in the class. Now, what would they think of me. It had been slow going and difficult enough to win over many of them. What would happen now? At that moment, I heard a voice behind me whisper, “Hey, take it easy, buddy. Everything will be OK.” It was Jose “Jackie” Jacinto III who had spent a couple of years in New York with his family while his father was there on business. His English was the closest thing to American that anyone in the class could speak. His words soothed me and I could see from Mrs. Kison’s smile that she meant what she said in a good way.

Well, my English did improve rapidly. I had some advantages over the others because unlike them I did not have to think in Tagalog before deciding how to express myself in English. On the other hand, my progress in Tagalog was slow because I had to first think in English and then speak in Tagalog. It would take another year to be able to think in Tagalog when speaking. As for English, while I still had to learn to use grammar properly there were many things I knew from being a native speaker. nevertheless, with Mrs. Kison’s gentle, but firm and demanding prodding, and by emulating the better English speakers in the class, I came to use certain words in accordance with their originally intended meanings rather than their bastardization by American users. So, rather than switch unconsciously between “angry” and “mad,” I came to use them in the context that was initially intended for them. I learned from Mrs. Kison the use of words, not just the mimicking I had done in New York.

Mrs. Kison’s exacting teaching approach, combining the sternness of a drill sergeant with the empathy of a doting grandmother, forced me to see language as a means of finding the deeper significance of words and as an instrument for teasing out the delicate elements of beauty hidden in grammatical formats. I discovered the hidden power of adjectives and the sensitivity of verbs. In this way, I grew to appreciate the grammar I had detested so much in New York where it had been taught with the enthusiasm of preparing a ham sandwich with no mayonnaise or pickles. Plunging passionately into my English studies I began to express my feeling and emotions in writing, a credible handwriting that anyone could read with ease and even enjoy. For my writing, I discovered how to choose nouns and verbs to properly express myself in delicate situations. Thus, “lavatory” generally replaced “john” or “toilet” and “urinate” and “flatulate” took the place of my “piss” and “fart.” The biggest improvement of all took place in my swear language or cussing. I soon found that the “dirty” words I had expected to be allowed to use at last as I moved into teenage-hood were not used in the Philippines. It seemed people tended to resort to using expressions casting aspersions on one’s mother or other members of the family in order to insult someone. The most common and by far the most offensive was “Puta ang ina mo!” (Your mother is a whore!) or variations of it. Of course, with such a tinderbox type of insult, people tended to think carefully before using it. This gave them time to consider whether or not they really wanted to get into an argument with someone. Generally, both sides tended to back down and reach some form of agreement. This kind of training prepared me to think carefully before exploding into a conflict.

By the time I reached third year, I was at the top of the class in English language and English literature. After finishing high school in 1952, my father applied for a place for me in the Ateneo de Manila College, one of the top colleges in the country with an enviable record of teaching English. Here I enhanced my appreciation for the way Filipinos spent time patiently learning facets of the language that I, and many of my friends in New York, would have ignored. Almost everyone loved poetry and drama and would memorize difficult lines from well-known plays, such as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth or Edmund Rostan’s Cyrano de Bergerac. They also knew plays I did not know in Tagalog and Spanish and would often recite lines from poems by the famous Tagalog poet Francisco Baltazar, also known as Francisco Balagtas, especially lines from the epic “Florante at Laura” or pieces from Zarzuela plays. I learned to enjoy watching participants in a Filipino declaiming competition performing balagtasan, a style of debate conducted in rhyming and metered verse named after Balagtas. The passion for language cannot be manifested in this way in any other language. And so it was that I came to understand that Filipinos could master English in a way that no one else in the world could do, including native English speakers like me.

Eventually, in 1956 I completed the Filipino education that my father and mother had chosen for me, including learning to speak Tagalog and Spanish and returned to New York for graduate school. Nevertheless, it was the unexpected bonus of relearning and perfecting my native New York English in the Philippines that changed my life forever because it became the foundation for my career as an editor and book publisher. The most memorable payback came when I was selected to be one of the definitions editors of the first edition of American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. I dare say I have been the only Filipino to ever work as an editor for a major English dictionary. Ms. Amelia Kison and Philippine education of the 1950s, you have my eternal gratitude.

*Excerpted and adapted from my latest book Amadio’s Box: How I Became Filipino in the chapter on “Filipino Metamorphosis”.

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