I have always been fascinated by the power of communication. The thought of people conversing, exchanging and understanding ideas through a systematic method of communication has always left me enthralled. I see languages as bridges that possess the power to transcend differences. Ultimately, this love of languages is what inspired my decision in selecting my major: Communications. However, my experience with communication hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
When I was 14 years old, my family had to move from the Philippines to California for a few months. In California, I was enrolled at the local middle school and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. With the change in countries, I was definitely experiencing cultural whiplash. I went through a number of hurdles: going to a coed middle school, taking the bus, and not having to wear a uniform. I had to adjust from a completely restricted Catholic perspective into a more liberal mindset. Being in America, I needed to remind myself that I now resided in a country inhabited by a multiplicity of cultures, which meant that I had to be mindful of what I said and how I would say certain things. Despite the adjustment in time zones and cultures, I managed.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the reception I had received from my peers. During homeroom, my teacher asked me to stand in front of the class as she introduced me and told the class where I was from. As my teacher spoke, I made a quick but sufficient mental scan of the room. My classmates looked at me from head to toe, seemingly taking note of everything from my stick-straight dark hair to my pink ballet flats. It was an unnerving feeling knowing that the people I stood in front of were trying to place me into a category. Who knew that preadolescents could be so quick to judge? In the Philippines, I was accustomed to people being nice and accommodating to new students. Nice and accommodating are not words I would use to describe my reception in California. I was automatically given a label. Not only was I the new kid, I was the new Asian kid.
I have never been able to fully comprehend what being in the Asian stereotype entailed because the term Asian is so broad. I understand that I am from Asia and so technically by virtue of origin I am, for all intents and purposes, Asian. But to the other kids, being Asian had a meaning that went way beyond my geographic origin. In their minds, they pictured an Asian as a short person with black hair and almond eyes, who spoke with thickly accented and broken English. I have heard that was the image conjured when people thought of Asians. I assume that because of my being Asian, and by the imaginary transitive property of nationalities, that was what they presumed about me too. I found this thought hilarious, especially since none of those kids had ever heard me speak before making their presumptions.
When I did speak to a girl in class, the first thing she said was a phrase I’ve heard one too many times in my life. She said, “Wow, your English is so good.” Her expression conveyed utter shock as if the possibility of an Asian speaking English well was inconceivable. The follow-up question was one I could never politely answer, “How come you don’t have an accent?” The first response that always comes to mind is “I’m sorry, am I supposed to?” which I think some might take offense to; so, instead I’ve always chosen to merely shrug my shoulders, smile, and say “I don’t know, but thanks.” For a while, I was content with the knowledge that the people I conversed with had accepted my manner of speech.
I felt completely gratified at the acknowledgement that I did not fit into the Asian-broken-English stereotype. But my feelings changed when show-and-tell day came and I chose to present a training video from my gymnastics gym in the Philippines to the class. My coach held the camera as he instructed me throughout the routine. I thought it was cool to show my American classmates a few tricks that I had learned before coming to America. But their attention wasn’t on the little girl on a balance beam; it was on my coach’s voice. I heard several muffled giggles in the front row, a few snickers scattered in the middle and a lot of “what did he say” and “Dude, I have no clue” dispersed in the back. The relief I felt when they approved of how I spoke dissipated and I found myself feeling extremely self-conscious of my coach’s enunciation, or lack thereof.
I couldn’t believe it, but I was beginning to feel ashamed of my coach and what he represented, the Asian-broken-English stereotype. He reinforced the stereotype from which I was trying so hard to break free: the stereotype of an Asian with incomprehensible English, incapable of being understood. I was feeling a cacophony of emotions. I was embarrassed and angry, but mostly confused. My peers were having a difficult time understanding how my coach spoke in the video. But as I watched myself on screen, I didn’t see a little girl incapable of comprehending the instructions delivered to her. There was no conflict between his instructions and my execution; we had a perfect understanding. So, why was I able to understand him while my peers struggled, jeered, and made jokes? Was it really a difference in language or an incongruity of perspectives? It was strange how we were speaking the same language, but hearing different things.
When the clip ended, I heard one of my classmates say “thank God she isn’t that kind of Asian.” I ignored this mean-spirited comment as my teacher asked the class if they had any questions for me. One girl in the front asked me what kind of jump I did—the only gymnastics-related question I received. I told her it was called a switch leap. The inquiries that followed weren’t quite as civil. The worst one was, “I think you have natural ability, but don’t you think you could be better if your coach wasn’t so dense?” I wanted to take the high road, say no and move on, but curiosity got the better of me and I asked, “What makes you think my coach is dense? Not that you need to know, but he graduated from a good university with honors. So, what makes him dense?” The audacity of my question surprised her and she said “Nothing, I guess I just assumed from the way he spoke English that… Nothing.” My teacher decided that on that note, show-and-tell was over and she dismissed the class.
If I wasn’t that kind of Asian, then what kind of Asian was I? The thought still swirled around in my mind. I asked myself over and over, “was that their first impression of me?” Before hearing me speak, did they place me in the Asian-broken-English stereotype? If I did embody that stereotype, would that make me dense? The gratification from their acceptance soon morphed into mortification as I wondered why I subconsciously craved validation from others to prove to myself that I didn’t fit into that stereotype. Months passed, my family returned to the Philippines, and I was left with an uneasy revelation: whenever I would travel outside of my country’s borders, I would always encounter people who would initially place me in the Asian-broken-English stereotype.
Through time I have learned that the Asian-broken-English stereotype persists. Though I do not belong to it, I was categorized in it. I have never considered myself an exception to this stereotype because there are times when my Filipino accent does slip out and make an appearance. There are also instances when my brain translates responses in English from Filipino, which occasionally leads to incorrect syntaxes. However, I have learned to see past the accents, the grammar issues, and the stereotypes. The manner of a person’s articulation does not presuppose that person’s intelligence. Classifying people based on accents or preconceived ideas of how a language should be articulated is regressive. Language is a powerful tool that grants us the ability to transmit ideas regardless of geographic origins. The obstacles I encountered in California did not render me fearful or cautious with my English; they made me resilient. The difficulties I endured in middle school have made me steadfast in my goal of tearing down the cliché. I persist in the face of adversity; I am that kind of Asian.