Digital painting by rondeevb posted on www.deviantart.com
Due to an unexpected turn of events, I am sitting with a middle-aged woman in a cab.
In a language my heart knows so well but my tongue alienates, she asks, “Nalpas mu mo’y ihkul mu?”
With ease, I reply, “Ohm. Mun-ngunowa’ mo, anti.”
Swiftly, I comb through my memory for a name, but I find none.
Embarrassed, I ask, “ngane eh bo’y ngadan mu, anti?”
She mentions her name, and every syllable discharges a hundred memories.
A distant relative, a childhood playmate’s mother, I remember now.
From petty topics, the conversation goes complex, and I find myself drifting away from the discourse.
My tongue, unable to merge meaning with words, resorts to code-switching to make up for my failure to speak my mother tongue fluently.
Ifugao and Ilocano seesaw inside my mouth, and for the first time, I feel ashamed of knowing more than one language.
Along with two official languages and two more regional languages, I have spent twenty-six years using bits and pieces of my mother tongue but have never actually cared to fully master it.
Years of usage has allowed me to wield every consonant and vowel so that I sound “native”.
But perfect articulation alone is never sharp enough to pierce through the natural flow of discourse.
For years, I have equated language learning with survival. But I know I’m not the only one.
Frustrating how the tongue never makes it to adulthood before it gets molested by some foreign language.
We treat our native tongue as if it was a snake’s skin we could carelessly shed after perfectly dressing ourselves with a language that is never ours.
We split our tongue and hiss words that preach self-loathing.
When inferiority complex coils itself around one’s identity, it is convenient to grab the sandpaper and rub the roughness away. And that is why we decide to learn how to speak the English language impeccably.
See, we, humans, tend to stitch pretty wool to our skin to fit in this sad world of commercialism.
But this lion of a body, this tongue so fierce it could summon the spirits of the dead, these feet that have walked mountains and fields, should never serve as a sacrificial animal to appease the pocket.
As I speak my native tongue, every word feels like gravel in my mouth. I taste my own blood, but I’ll never spit it out.
There are no grand metaphors to romanticize the hardship of life, no euphemisms to sugar-coat the gross.
What it has is simplicity, authenticity, and the mysteries of life passed down to us by the gods.
Words are harsh-sounding, and some get stuck in your throat, yet every slur in between syllables resembles the curves of the rice terraces.
A friend, whose first language is Arabic, has once said he feels like a warrior when he tries to speak Kankanaey, his mother’s mother tongue. And I praise him for saying that.
Another friend, whose mother tongue is Ilocano, has just said that Ifugao, and all other local mother tongues, is the language of the gods. And I praise him for saying that.
And so when the cab stops, I look at her and say, “hitu tau mo, anti.”