Words Unspoken: The Philippines Revisited

Kimberly Aglipay Published on January 25, 2016 In early 2015, my parents and I visited the Philippines and stayed at my grandparents’ home in Quezon City in Metro Manila. The last time I had been to the Philippines was in 2008, when I was fifteen years old. My ties to Filipino culture were shaped almost entirely through my family since I was born in Canada and I can count on one hand the number of Filipino friends I have. I was eager to seek a sense of belonging in the Philippines, but I also knew that I would encounter challenges on the trip. One of my older sisters who had visited just a few months before warned me that Filipinos from abroad just stood out. She said I wouldn’t even need to utter a word. Strangers could tell that I wasn’t from there. On daily trips to run errands or at the nearby shopping centre in Cubao, I would observe from my uncle’s truck how some of the locals dressed, and I tried to copy them by wearing casual outfits like them — jeans or shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. In spite of what my sister had told me, I still tried to blend in. I learned that trying to blend in included keeping my mouth shut; I didn’t want anyone to know that I couldn’t speak Tagalog. When salespeople tried to talk to me, I just smiled and nodded back, quickly breaking away to find my mother or father. I felt like a child again, seeking out my parents to protect me from the unknown. I also found myself searching for others who didn’t look Filipino, which wasn’t difficult to do in a popular shopping district. This was because I felt strangely relieved whenever I spotted tourists, for I assumed that they likewise didn’t know the language, or that they felt as out of place as I did. But more than anything, I felt relieved that everyone’s eyes would be on the tourists rather than on me. [caption id="attachment_1205" align="aligncenter" width="614"]Agilpay_IMG_29381 Photo by Kimberly Aglipay.[/caption] On jeepney rides back to my grandparents’ house, I would cover my nose and mouth like everyone else, even though the fumes didn’t bother me that much. In fact, the smell of gasoline combined with the heat and humidity felt comforting to me, as it reminded me of my previous visits. The first time we rode a jeepney after arriving in the Philippines, I sat in the front, near the driver. A jeepney fare is usually passed from passenger to passenger, with each person calling out bayad (payment) until it reaches the driver. When a little boy passed a fare to me so I could pass it along to the driver, I stared at the boy’s outstretched hand, afraid that trying to repeat “biyad” in my imperfect Tagalog would blow my cover. I took the fare in my hand and paused. I paused for too long, flustered with indecision. Should I give it to the driver? Do I have to speak? What should I say? My mom noticed my hesitation and motioned for me to the pass the fare to her. I did not dare utter a word. “Biyad po,” she said, quickly giving the fare to the driver. I felt all eyes on me and my flushed cheeks. I felt exposed, my secret uncovered. My parents were sympathetic. They had told me not to speak to the market vendors because they didn’t want the vendors to know we were all balikbayans, Filipinos who had emigrated to elsewhere, and in the Philippines only for a visit. I barely wanted to speak at all in public. I thought my parents felt ashamed that they didn’t pass on their language to their daughter. Keeping silent was my way of protecting them from judgment, too. When I did have the courage to speak English in public, I encountered looks that ranged from wary and uncomfortable to curious. Maybe what they saw was my privilege — the privilege of having parents who were able to migrate to another country, the privilege of growing up in a well-off English-speaking country, and the privilege of traveling to the homeland as a tourist. But I did not feel privileged. I felt ashamed that I had not insisted on learning Tagalog from my parents. My parents wanted our family’s English to improve, but I felt ashamed that this came at the expense of our proficiency in Tagalog. I understand now that when my parents immigrated to Canada twenty-six years ago, it was difficult for them to adapt to life in Canada and simultaneously preserve our Filipino culture and language. [caption id="attachment_1308" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Kimberly and her mother in the Philippines. Photo taken by Kimberly's family. Kimberly and her mother in the Philippines. Photo taken by Kimberly Aglipay’s family.[/caption] On one of our final days of our trip, my parents and I had bubble tea in Cubao. They wanted me to order for them. By then I had learned more Tagalog, and I was determined to continue to learn. I knew at some point I’d have to speak with strangers to improve. With some hesitation, I took a deep breath and walked up to the cashier. As confidently as possible, I used the few words I knew, and spoke in the Tagalog accent I was starting to work on. “Isa ng (one of) Taro, regular, tapos dalawa ng (then two of) pearl milk tea,” I said to the cashier, waiting for her reaction to tell me that my accent was off, or that I didn’t use a word properly. But the girl who took my order didn’t bat an eyelash. “Opo (yes), ma’am,” she said, and told me how much I needed to pay. I handed her the money and looked at the other people in line. No one was paying any attention to me. I breathed a sigh of relief, and looked around to find my parents. They were sitting at a nearby table, silently watching me as I re-gained a sense of pride, a sense of self.

Works Cited


Kimberly AglipayKimberly Aglipay is a fifth-year student at UTSC specializing in Journalism, and minoring in Human Geography. She is interested in exploring the ability and privilege that comes with certain forms of travel. As a journalist, she has written about everything from municipal politics and crime in Toronto to fashion, beauty and the Canadian wedding industry. She has been described by her friends as passionate, caring, and always friendly. When she isn’t reading fiction or the news, she enjoys bad jokes, drinking tea, blogging and singing karaoke (horribly).]]>


  1. Kim I never knew that that was your thoughts whenever you visit us here in the Philippines. But you know what, I really appreciate you because you are really trying hard to learn our Pilipino language. I’m happy hearing you say even few lines in Tagalog ( Filipino national language). Don’t be offended or shy whenever they look at you here in the Philippines speaking Tagalog in different accent like yours. Actually, it’s cute and cool to hear you saying Tagalog in your accent. We understand your situation Kim. Don’t worry I will be more than willing to teach you commonly used Tagalog words. whenever you visit us here…especially here in Davao…..(looking forward to see you again)

  2. Great job Kimberly! Firstly, your piece was extremely informative and relatable. When you discuss “i learned that trying to blend in meant keeping my mouth shut…” This reminds me of the time my grandmother visited me from Egypt. She would attempt to converse by speak fluent Arabic and I would respond in english or some form of broken arabic. By reading your piece, it is important to recognize the power of language and how that helps you blend in. At the same time, speaking in your parents’ mother tongue gives you a sense of identity and something you want to pass down through generations. From my own personal experience, when your upbringing is so different then that of your parents, it is difficult to preserve culture and identity. However, at first you felt like an outsider in the Philippines, but through the progression of your stay, you had re-gained a sense of self and a sense of pride. Overall, thanks for writing about your experience!

  3. Hi, Kimberly. This is a compelling story, and I like the way you expressed your feelings — for instance, “I felt all eyes on me and my flushed cheeks. I felt exposed, my secret uncovered.” It’s wonderfully detailed and very relatable. In addition, your position in your parents’ homeland is an interesting storytelling arc for me. From barely knowing how to speak the language to ordering bubble tea in the local language all by yourself, the storytelling captures the experience of improved cultural and social mobility. At the end of the story, you gain a sense of freedom and mobility by speaking Tagalog; I can imagine your sense of accomplishment and a big smile on your face.

  4. Hello, Kimberly. This is a wonderfully written piece with great detail. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and found myself relating to this experience of feeling strange and unfamiliar at my grandparents’ home. It is clear to me that you were not just trying to learn the language but also trying to gain more confidence. I also found it interesting that you seemed to want to remain invisible even in moments of pride and confidence, like in the final scene. And great photos — they really help establish your point of view.

  5. Hi Kimberly!
    I can identify with what you said about looking to your parents for protection while you were in the Philippines. I travelled to India in 2011 after not going back for 8 years and I was determined to fit in. I dressed in traditional Indian attire when I went out, but to my surprise, people still easily identified me as a foreigner. My parents grew up in India and despite their best efforts, rickshaw drivers knew my parents were from out of town and tried to charge my parents more than the regular fares. I relied heavily on my parents to respond to people on my behalf when they spoke in our language, Malayalam. This was not because I didn’t know the language, but I was afraid of my uncles and aunts making fun of my accent. My cousins in India knew English but were too embarrassed to speak in English in front of a Canadian, so they were reluctant too. I appreciate that you highlight the many factors that come into play when trying to assimilate into culture and I enjoy the anecdotes you weaved into your piece.

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