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The Multilingual Liar

My wife and I were watching Terrace House last night as I was folding clothes. The screen was just on my periphery and I could just barely read the subtitles. Despite my attention being distracted by my chores, I try to keep up with the conversation and read what I can. I do this, so I can remain engaged with my wife who is invested in the show. I commented, “That’s sad that Hana just sees Kai as a friend.” This surprised my wife. From her angle, she thought there was no way I could’ve read that, and also, my eyes were on the clothes I was folding, not on the side of the television, which she tried going to and reading the subtitles, and she had trouble doing. She suspected I actually understood Japanese.

She spent about twenty minutes insisting that I understood Japanese and that all of these years I was just feigning ignorance. I must’ve been interested in Japanese culture and learned some of the language.

This is not the first time she accused me of knowing Japanese. And for the record, I don’t speak nor understand any Japanese. I have good eyesight and a decent intuition which I use to read subtitles and follow conversation, that’s about it.

But then she accused me of pretending not to speak Tagalog either. She said that I sometimes feign ignorance when a Filipino speaker was on television. Now, I’ve never done this ever. And I’ve explained it to her many times: I can speak Tagalog. This is the reason why so many Spanish words are familiar to me. What I cannot understand and what I’m truly ignorant in are the many other languages that Filipinos have. So when a Korean documentary goes to Palawan and they start interviewing the locals, I don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying all of the time. And this is the same with Filipinos we encounter in the country. I don’t necessarily understand the depth of their conversations when they’re speaking Ilocano or whatever dialect.

The thing is, she think I should be prouder of my Filipino heritage and not be too proud of being Canadian. After all, I’m ethnically Filipino and have spent most of my living life in Korea much more than I have in Canada. Let’s explore that.

First off, I say I’m Canadian because I chose to be Canadian. It is something that my mother dreamed for her family and one that we worked on being. Why should I not say I’m Canadian. I may not be a Canadian by birth, but I am by will. And as for loving Canada more than let’s say the Philippines or Korea. I spent my teens in Canada, my most crucial formative years. You know how the songs you listen to in your teens will be the songs you will listen to for the rest of your life. The same goes for culture. The shows I watched, the friends I made, the way I talked, not just the songs I listened to… these are all that I will carry with me because it happened in that crucial time in my life.

And no, I don’t actively despise nor feel shame for being Filipino. Heck, I just wrote several essays on the Philippines a few weeks ago. It’s just that the memory of being in the Philippines are much farther removed from me. I have like one friend from my childhood that I still keep contact with. I lost touch with many of my cousins from the Philippines. The last time I was there, I felt alien. I was practically foreign. Add the fact that whenever the Philippines is in the news lately, it’s often bad news or something about the country being backwards (like electing the son of the former dictator). Who wants to talk about that?

And so when my wife complains that I always point out that something is Canadian, it’s because I find it interesting that something or someone Canadian is out in the mainstream or out here in Korea despite the greater influence of America. It is part bemusement and part love of Canada. When I hear Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” in a Korean bus, how can I not point out such an obscure song making it in Korean airwaves. And of course I don’t do the same with Filipino things because they’re not as ubiquitous as Canadian things. And as for pointing out something or someone is Korean… I am in Korea! That’s kinda redundant. And of course when I mention that the lawyer that justified torture for George Bush is actually a Korean, my wife is barely interested. Nor does she care if I mention that Sandra Oh is in a movie.

This is in contrast with an experience I had with my best friend growing up. I wrote about it once, but it bears repeating. I was still a permanent resident and not a citizen. We were in English class. Somehow, I mentioned that unlike her, I was not Canadian, that I was still Filipino. She said, “bullshit.” “You will be Canadian soon enough, and in many ways, you already are.” That was such a welcoming feeling into a society that I still remember it to this day. I don’t think my friend realizes how much Canadian patriotism she planted deep inside of me.

Now as welcome as I have been in Korean society, I don’t think people ever truly considered me Korean. I am forever grateful to be in this country, but I doubt if I would ever get past the label of being a foreigner.

So what does this whole rant amount to? Well, from last night, I am reminded that my wife thinks I’m extremely duplicitous and that I could maintain a lie for years, hiding my knowledge of Japanese and Philippines language, despite being an intermediate Korean speaker for the longest time. Also, she believes I am not proud of being from the Philippines. Don’t I sound awful?

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