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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, February 04, 2018

entry arrow3:48 PM | Language We Breathe In

When I was enrolled in Grade 3 at West City Elementary School here in Dumaguete, I found myself in a pool of pupils who were being divided into two groups—those who would be attending what they called “the regular class,” and those who would be ushered into a pilot program they called FL. How regular was the “regular” class? I had no idea. Perhaps they got regular recess food, I’m not sure. But FL meant “Fast Learners,” which had no meaning for me then, but all I knew was that it was under a bigger program of SPED, or special education, and we were part of an education experiment where grade school students were taught high school mathematics, high school science, high school humanities. We would have the same teachers from Grade 3 until Grade 6, and it was hoped that when we finally graduated, we would become exemplars of grade school teaching using secondary school materials.

But let me focus this trip down memory lane a bit to one school policy SPED was “notorious” for: its “English Only” policy. And my God we were indeed notorious. Not only did we get exhaustive lessons in the English language for four years running courtesy of a very capable teacher named Bennie Vic, but we were also taught to converse in the language exclusively. It was so immersive that most of us not only spoke English in the classroom, we spoke outside, on the streets, at home. And so, if my mother would ask me, in the local Binisaya, “Yan, adto sa tindahan, palit og bugas,” I’d reply in my perfect English: “How many kilos of rice do we need, mother?” which weirded her out at first—but she learned to accept that as part of my personality. Along the sidewalks that surrounded our school, there were also several stalls with various manangs selling things like plastic balloon—remember those?—and Coke in a plastic bag and assorted candies, and every time my classmates and I would approach them, we’d ask in perfect English: “Ma’am, how much is this candy?” They were amused for the most part, but when they would reply with something like “Tulo piso ni, dong”—you could imagine the look of panic on our faces. Because what did she mean by that? What is “tulo piso”?

One way with which our teachers enforced the “English Only” policy is through a game that we later called “The Badge.” Most other schools enforce a specific monetary-based punishment, asking pupils who would speak in the local language to pay 50 centavos or one peso for every word in Binisaya they’d utter. We didn’t have that. We had a game. What is “the badge”? A badge could be anything. It could be a bracelet—usually a bracelet—or a necklace, and it was a thing that gets to be given to the first person in the class who’d speak in Binisaya during a school day. Let’s say you haven’t had breakfast because you had to rush to your flag ceremony, and you carelessly turn to your nearest classmate, and say something like, “Wala pa ko ka pamahaw. Gutom kaayo.” Oops! Your classmate, being a tattletale like everyone else, would immediately turn to the teacher, and say, “Teacher! Teacher! Ian said something in the dialect!” And I’d be given that bracelet, that badge, and I’d have to carry it for the rest of the day—until I’d find someone else in the class who’d speak a word in Binisaya, and I can then gleefully pass it on. The last pupil to hold the badge at the end of the school gets the ultimate punishment: he or she gets to pay the fine. Usually a peso, which was a huge sum those days. And so we became masters of spying. If I held the badge, I’d have my close friends report to me anyone who’d say something in the local language—and I’d run to the teacher, “Teacher! Teacher! Regal said a sentence in the dialect!” We also devised ways for forcing people to inadvertently say something in Binisaya. We’d pinch someone, and when that someone says, “ARAY!” That’s Binisaya—and the badge gets given to them. For some reason, my classmates and I thought that the exclamation “Ouch” was also Binisaya—don’t ask me why. And so, when we pinched someone and they’d say “Ouch!”, the badge goes to them!

We had to find our way around “Aray!” or “Aguy!” or the much deadlier “Ouch!” But was what our English equivalent of “Ouch!” For some reason, we sort of agreed that the English equivalent of “Ouch!” … was “Owwch.”

And so, from Grade 3 until Grade 6, every time I’d hurt myself, I learned to say, “Owch!” I only started saying “Ouch” when I graduated, went to high school in Silliman University, and reclaimed the word for hurting.

It all seems funny to me now … but this was how I was introduced to the English language, and essentially how I learned to express myself, especially in writing.

There are many words for the likes of me, but one stands out: Inglesero. Meaning to say someone who speaks in English most of the time, not just for the ease in communication, but also for creative expression. I write. I have written about six collections of short stories, and truth to tell, I find it so much easier to express myself in the English language—I know its figurative uses, I know its idioms, I know its literary possibilities. If I were to asked to write in Binisaya right now, I’d probably be able to churn out a balak or two, even a sugilanon, but there will always be a feeling deep inside me that chides me that I don’t exactly have the appropriate tools to attempt writing in the local language. Which is quite ironic. Because this is the language I was born into, and yet we have been made to become estranged towards it, especially in the literary sense.

Our writing in English, of course, is an accident of history. In 1898, the Philippines found itself colonized anew by a new world power, the United States, which took as one of its task of colonization the teaching of American English. For many American administrators at that time, teaching the language was not just about education—it was a tool of pacification. They rightfully surmised that the more the native Filipino learned the language of its new colonial masters, the more they would be susceptible to American ideas. When the Americans first came to our shores, they were met with fierce resistance by Filipinos—and not just in terms of armed revolts, but also through the use of culture. We have poems and dramas from that particular period that vehemently decried American excursion to this country. My favorites would be the poem “Al Yankee” by Cecilio Apostol, and the drama “Hindi Aco Patay” by Juan Matapang Cruz, which considered the American adventure into the Philippines a tragedy for Filipinos that could only mean bloodshed. The Filipino American War that erupted, and lasted for at least a decade, was also a bloody affair, which killed millions of Filipinos. But after the first decade of American rule, resistance invariably went down—and much of that was partly because of the power of the new language, the lingua franca of American English. The link is easy enough to see: the more we learn this foreign language, the more we come to think in the cultural ideas that language came from.

There are of course many advantages gained in using English. To cite a couple of these, some scholars contend that it paved the way for a common ground for discourse in a country that has many native languages. Cebuanos learned to speak with Ilokanos, Bikolanos learned to speak to Ilonggos, all using English. This was prior to the popularity that the Filipino language now enjoys for most of the country. According to Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz, English also leveled the playing field in terms of writing between men and women. Male writers, because of the privilege of their gender, dominated Spanish writing in the Philippines. But with the coming of the Americans, both sexes had to learn the English language at the same time. By 1905, among the first poets in English, we had Maria G. Romero, who wrote “Our Reasons in Study,” which was published in The Filipino Student Magazine. By the middle of the 1920s, we had our first acknowledged classic of the short story form—and that is Paz Marquez Benitez’s “Dead Stars,” a story in English written by a woman.

The early generations of writers in the Philippines labored understandably in this colonial language, and because of their privileged status, these writings in English came to be considered, if one believed such early literary critics like Fr. Miguel Bernad, as the meat of Philippine literature, no matter how “inchoate”—even though frankly it wasn’t the main meat at all. As an aside, the writings in Tagalog, in Cebuano, in Hiligaynon, in Bikolano, and in other regional languages were rich and generous—but they were for the most part of the 20th century marginalized, particularly by the academe. For example, it was only in 1964, when Mga Agos sa Disyerto came out and was published, that writings in Tagalog were finally considered as something serious enough for study.

Part of the second generation of writers in English are four writers from Silliman University—Ricaredo Demetillo, Rodrigo Feria, Edilberto K. Tiempo, and Edith Tiempo. Among many others, these four essentially laid the foundation of much of the literary culture we have come to enjoy in Dumaguete City, and they wrote almost exclusively in English, and gained vast renown for their efforts. In Edith Tiempo’s case, she was later proclaimed a National Artist for Literature.

[Strangely enough, Edilberto Tiempo had written intermittently in Binisaya during the Second World War, and Edith Tiempo is known to have loved performing songs in Binisaya, as well as her native Ilokano, having been born in Nueva Ecija. They knew the intricacies and the beauty of the local languages. Mom Edith once told me her writing in English was purely an accident of history. It was the language she was taught to express herself well in, and it was the literary language that she had come to master the most. And while she wished she could have written in Binisaya or Ilokano, she felt it was far too late in the game to master a new literary language. She was a master of the poem in English, and she had already learned to imbue it with a Filipino sensibility particular to her.]

What this meant, for the most part, is that literary expression in the local language—in Oriental Negrense Binisaya, which we call “Binisayang Binuglas”—was relegated to the margins, unfostered, unstudied. I’m going to focus more on Negros Oriental in this consideration. Do a quick survey of our schools, and you do not find a single Department of Binisaya Language and Literature, nor do we have academic subjects that aim to study its linguistics and its literariness. We speak the language in our every day lives, but we do not know its grammar, and we scarcely read in the prose or poetry. We do not have local anthologies compiling its best writings, although that does not mean we do not have practitioners, because there are, but they exist only in the shadows. And in many anthologies that compile Binisaya works that do exist—they make the point of including works from Binisaya writers in Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor, and even parts of Mindanao—but barely anyone from Negros Oriental.

Part of the reason for this absence of Binisaya writings in Negros Oriental is essentially because of the widespread influence of Silliman University, an American university and its vigorous campaigns, especially in the early decades, of championing works written in English. But that’s only part of the story.

What explains for the most part our resistance to expresses ourselves in our local language? Why do we not see a lot of balaks, a lot of sugilanons and sugilambongs?

I stumbled on a possible answer in one of my Philippine literature classes a few years ago. Once I asked my students what was it about Philippine culture in general that prevented them from really appreciating it? To get to the heart of the matter, I asked them to give their descriptions of it in Binisaya, and little by little, I got their responses. Understandably, what came out was a slew of answers in the negative, and what amused me was the fact that a lot of the words they gave me started with the letter “b.”

Baduy. Bati. Barat. Bugo. Binutbot. Bisaya.

These are measures of standard, of course, which delineated for many what was good and what was bad. “Baduy,” most of all. “Kabaduy ani uy,” is the thing we say when we are displeased by something, irked by its lack of quality.

But that last word interested me. “Bisaya.” At face value, I got its context. For who among us here have not used this word to describe “baduy”? Let’s say a girlfriend shows off her new clothes for you, and you don’t like it—and then you say, “Bisaya kaayo uy. Pag-ilis didto.” Am I right?

But what is Bisaya? It is the word we give ourselves as a people, as a culture, as a language. Bisaya is us. Whatever happened along the way that a word we have used to describe ourselves as a people have come to be synonymous with the word “baduy”? How were we brainwashed to think of ourselves as the very synonym of something that’s bad?

And then I remember the badge system I had in grade school.

While on one hand I understand the good intentions of this policy—a policy still being enforced by many schools today—I cannot now help but think that it has also warped our own relationship with our native language, our native culture, and our local sense of self. When we were young, we learned to equate Binisaya with paying a fine, thus invariably molding us to think that Binisaya is bad—and hence baduy.

Paradoxically, an academic practice that taught us to be fluent in one language taught us to demean another one, a language closer to our heart, and molded Bisaya Filipinos with no appreciation at all for their culture.

But there’s also another paradox to this paradox, twisting our tale further. This immense immersion in English could also be the gateway for relearning an appreciation for the local. It could provide the spark, but only for the most discerning. The Tiempos founded the National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete in 1962, and also shaped the English Language Program and Creative Writing Program in Silliman University in the 1950s, immersing most of their students in the formal study of literature and creative writing, done almost exclusively in English. And yet many of the graduates of this program have later come to be experts and profound practitioners of writings in Binisaya. We have Merlie Alunan, Marjorie Evasco, Leoncio Derriada, Resil Mojares, Erlinda Alburo, Christine Godinez-Ortega, and Grace Monte de Ramos, among others, who not only have become champions of Binisaya literature, they have also become fervent practitioners of it. What gives? Did their immersion in the New Critical mode of literary writing give them a unique perspective that literary practice in the language of their homes was also something to be sharpened, to be considered seriously? I do not really know, but that feels right.

It took me a long time to find my way into literary writing in Binisaya. Of late, I have done some sugilanon, but it is the balak form that I most comfortable with. One thing I particularly love about Binisaya writings is the playfulness they often exhibit—an attitude you can call yaga-yaga, which limns humor even though the subject matter could be something serious, like in Cora Almerino’s “Unsaon Paggisa sa Bana Nga Nanghulga sa Asawa Nga Dili Kahibalong Moluto,” which talks about the darkness of domestic abuse, but foregrounds it with a funny take on cooking a human being, complete with a menu. This yaga-yaga attitude could very well be springing from the fact that most of our early balakeros were really men who, intoxicated with drinking too much tuba during a tagay session, would suddenly wax poetic about any subject under the merry sun.

That was exactly the reason how I came to write my first balak in Cebuano. I used to have a creative writing teacher from Canada, a woman by the name of Maya, who would take us to El Amigo, our favorite drinking place in Dumaguete, where she’d teach us the principles and practice of writing fiction and poetry over several bottles of beer. One time, while we prepared to do another writing exercise with her and just beginning to drink our first bottle of beer, Maya told us that she was going to ask us to do a particular writing exercise with us, to write a poem, during a free-writing session, in Binisaya. We protested vehemently, because we were suddenly made aware that our hold of the local language was so flimsy, we weren’t even sure if we had enough vocabulary to write an entire poem!

But she persisted, and so we grudgingly wrote—and at the end of the quick free-writing session, we found ourselves with the first balak we have ever written, much to our surprise. I didn’t know I actually knew some words that could constitute poetry, but there it was. I cannot put down that poem right now, but I’ve noticed that there were certain words there that absolutely defied the barest of interpretation to English. The word “lan-lan,” for example, which in Dumaguete Binisaya is a word you use when you take a spoon and you proceed to eat peanut butter or milk from a bottle with it. The closest English word for “lan-lan” is “lick,” but lick is “tilap”—and you can “tilap” the floor, but you can never “lan-lan” it. I realized that with just that word “lan-lan,” you have the action of licking combined with the element of pleasure, which does not have a direct translation in English.

This is Dumaguete's first ever TEDx, with writer Ian Rosales Casocot on "Language We Breathe In", sports psychologist Bing Valbuena on "The Ego is Most Challenged in Dragonboat," lawyer and LGBTQI activist Regal Oliva on "Quintessential and Queer," environmentalist and artist Ra'z Salvarita on "Artivism: Effecting Environmental Consciousness Through Art," diplomat Stacy Danika Alcantara on "Diplomacy and the City," and TV executive Oliver Amoroso on "Breaking Stereotypes: Promdi and Proud," all lecturing on "ideas worth spreading."

There’s also the word “uyog-uyog,” which means “shaking” or “bouncing,” which is good enough translation—but how unimaginative! If you take a look at the Binisaya word itself, “uyog-uyog” becomes something else. U-yog, u-yog. You pronounce it with gusto, and the word itself shakes and bounces.

And this is perhaps the greatest reason why I find there’s ultimate fulfillment in learning to write, to express yourself, in your own language: there’s no translation for the direct experience of living here, there can only be an approximation of it in English. Writing in Binisaya is writing that we can breathe in: it is our definition, it is our soul, it does not need translation to get to the heart of who we are.

Presented during TEDxSillimanU on 3 February 2018 at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium.

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