“What are you?” asked the Filipina lady sitting next to me at the bus stop. She looked to be about my age—grandmotherly. She was talking with her female friend who had been telling her a joke in Tagalog, and she was laughing uproariously. Then, when she saw me smile, she translated the whole joke for me into English. I confess I didn’t totally understand but I laughed anyway. She was trying so very hard to include me.
I thanked her for translating the joke and then she asked me, ”What are you?”
It took a minute to understand what she was asking. Put to me, this question has been about gender, usually asked by children. People often mistake me for a man. But once I open my mouth I’m seen as female, and we had already been talking, so I didn’t think this woman was asking after my gender.
It’s the same question white people are admonished not to ask people of color. White people don’t get asked that question. It’s often assumed we have no culture. But this woman knew I came from somewhere, and once I figured out that she was asking after my ethnicity, I was delighted to answer.
“I’m mostly Swedish and Norwegian. But I’m third-generation so I don’t know either of those languages. I’m sorry to say my only language is English,” I confessed, embarrassed.
“What languages did they teach you in school in the Philippines?” I asked her. She told me they had learned both Spanish and English. I asked about Tagalog. She said they didn’t have to study that because they already knew it. That sounded like the argument of colonialists to me—Filipinas being taught the language of the oppressors but not their native language in school. But the main thing I thought was that this woman from the far reaches of the imperialist project got a better education than I did, at least where languages are concerned.
I’m the beneficiary of the American school system in a country and culture that believes we are the center of the universe, so there is no need to learn other peoples’ languages. Funding the football team was the primary objective of our school board in Yakima, Washington. Art, music, language and girls’ sports were seen as secondary. Or in the case of girls’ sports, completely unimportant. About this, as a pre-Title IX kid, I am still angry. I coulda been a contenda!
I know some things have changed since I was a student out there in education land in the 1950s and 60s. I sure hope so, because it’s this way of thinking that reinforces the xenophobia and nativism plaguing us now.