Today, I attended a friend’s PhD dissertation defense at the University of British Columbia Vancouver, where I am also pursuing my undergraduate degree. It was overall a very interesting experience for me, since I have wandering thoughts of pursuing my own doctoral degree and attaching Dr. to my name, as well as of how I may convey my interests and research to an academic audience.
One thing I would like to specifically focus and reflect on in this event are the actions of one of the academics sitting on my friend’s judging committee, who is a Filipino scholar. Before speaking on his comments regarding the dissertation, this academic spoke to her in Filipino, saying: you know, we don’t really get the chance to speak in Tagalog in these types of places, so why not speak it here?
I’m not sure how my friend felt about this gesture, but for myself, I felt very touched. Being surrounded by Filipino community members who had kindly made the time to attend the defense in order to provide support and learn more about my friend’s work, this small gesture carried such a strong and huge meaning. Our language, resonating in the room – carried with a slight Canadian accent, presenting place and temporal spaces – for me, my ability to understand his words. I quite honestly teared up a bit.
Indeed, speaking Tagalog or Filipino at my university is rare or at least not a usual thing. As I am doing now in writing this blog post, I usually express myself in English, as I am expected to in the institution and in a way, as I have agreed to, in navigating many different communities in my university wherein English is our common tongue needed to understand one another. Perhaps it is this rarity that makes hearing this language, my language, the language of my parents, my grandparents, my ancestors- such a powerful gesture. In an institution where I am expected to speak, write, and express myself in English – to hear an academic who I greatly respect speak in Tagalog and honour the community present and my friend with her work – this was really such a meaningful gesture.
While this may sound overly corny, I cherish my language a lot. I cherish each sound and syllable, holding these close as markers of familiarity, family, and home. I say this with the recognition that Tagalog isn’t spoken or understood by all members of the Filipino and FilCan diasporic communities here in Canada, and that the language itself is a political project with its own problematic aspects. I say this with the recognition of my own mixed feelings for it, as it simultaneously embodies familiarity and nonbelonging as its words, mixed with my imperfect accent, tumble out of my unsure mouth.
However, in that space and at that moment, those few words in Filipino meant so much. At that moment, they did not represent its problematic nature nor my identity crisis, but instead the recognition of Filipino communities and scholars, and their presence here in Vancouver and Canada.
There is much left to discuss here, particularly with regards to the fact that Vancouver rests on the unceded and stolen land of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Indigenous peoples, and that as immigrants to these lands, Filipinos and other diasporic communities must have a dialogue on what our role and responsibility is on these lands and to Indigenous peoples. This fact must never be forgotten, and we must continue to work towards this.
But, in that moment, this small gesture was, in my view, only embodying its immense meaning. It reminded me of the underrepresentation of scholars of colour and of the importance of language, in making voices and languages other than English heard in an academic institution – not just to study them, but to hear them and recognize the presence of the communities who speak them.
– Phebe Manaog
(Picture credit: mine, trying to represent language and silence. Very weird, I know.)