I hate the sound “nga.” The most basic of principles within Tagalog, and I have never learned how to say it. Out of all of the twenty-six letters, the language rearranged them to this, creating my veritable hatred for it. The frustration of never connecting with your culture over a single sound. One of the first words you learn to pronounce as a child growing up in the Philippines. I did not get that. I never got it. Am I separated from my culture if I cannot even begin to say my real middle name? This spiraling of unknowing leaves me miles away. My identity is unfinished. I have been made unfinished. If I were a book and you were to open mine, you would see a myriad of blank pages. My alienation from my own culture leaves me with streaks of red. If an alien were ever to look upon the earth, they would want to participate with the other beings but feel left out. This situation was left to me, to wonder and dream about, but never complete.
The constant reminders from family and friends of “Do you speak Tagalog? Can you understand it?” If someone were to ask me if I was bilingual, again, my answer would be unfinished. Sometimes I answer with “one and a half,” as understanding and being able to read a little bit is not equivalent to speaking and writing. Never complete. Daily reminders of me falling short of the expectation. I question if the people to blame are my parents for never fully teaching me, or myself. Why should I apologize for not understanding my cultural language? Nobody apologized for never teaching me. Instead of blaming the situation on the rain, it brings me comfort in tricking the brain that there is someone else at fault. I’ve been drowning in these foreign words, feeling lonely.
As I got older I unconsciously distanced myself away from teleserye shows and cultural events, like debuts. Growing up I found these shows and movies brought me comfort and I wanted so badly to celebrate my eighteenth birthday with a debut and to visit the Philippines for the first time. I was done spending lost time wondering and focused more on distractions. I filled my schedule up with activities, where my days were filled to the brim with Taekwondo, Kumon, drums, guitar, and swimming, alongside schoolwork. I learned that piling on work was not healthy, but I still put a barrier up to wall the difficulties away. A reversed emotional education made me forget how to smile. No longer did I remember how other things can pull at the tendrils of my heartstrings. These distractions were perfect for someone who preferred having no free time, but although it seemed like it was a match made in heaven, I was chained down to earth.
I reached a breaking point over quarantine, as all of my distractive activities were put on hold. Due to this, time spent with my Lola (grandmother) proliferated. She doesn’t speak English as well as my parents do, so it was refreshing hearing a familiar sound I grew up around. I helped her pass the citizenship exam, studying with her as much as I could, and in turn, she would just talk to me. My curiosity reached its peak and I began asking my entire family how they grew up. My dad told me of his three sisters, when he fell off of a roof one time, and how he would bring a single piece of paper to school and survive years off of that. Learning about their personal lives made me not only feel closer to them, but also to my cultural region. Instead of distancing myself even further as I had originally planned, I filled the language barrier with a new sound and I learned to stop chasing away “nga” and embrace the meaning of words presented to me. These newfound realizations allowed me to apply their meanings to my own life. Where before I practically did not know how to genuinely be happy, I saw the wondrous fresh start of “ngiti” (smile) and “tadhana” (destiny). My reality showed its true colors. Words with difficult translations sparked interest in me. I saw myself in these words. You cannot understand them without deep-rooted knowledge and understanding of the language and culture, similar to how my insides were painted red and my outsides were discreetly clothed with after-school activities, reading, and schoolwork. There is a difficult matter in understanding another person, especially with concealed red insides.
My name is Sophia Bernabe, and I learned the true journey of the color red. Viewing the world in this color because of anger is not entirely true. Anger may provide depth, showing where these unfinished pages fold and get wrinkly. There is this beauty to anger. There is beauty in recognizing that red is the color of humans. It is in our blood. When we laugh so hard our stomach hurts, our faces turn red. When we kiss too hard, our lips are streaked with red. When we hold onto others too hard, these marks turn red. When we love too hard, there is this excess of red that is left on our hearts and souls. Red is human nature. I am not an alien to my culture, I am a Filipina human being that tries every day to get to know it.
Sophia Bernabe is a Filipino-American writer from Fontana, California. Through her writing, she aims to amplify diverse heritages, ensuring that every country has a chance to tell their story.