Like dat... like dat!

I was getting my haircut one day at a Vietnamese-run hair styling salon at one of those ubiquitous corner strip malls. Two chairs away, there was this typical Filipina matron-immigrant, not the coarse type, probably a schoolteacher-type, who was also getting her haircut. Anyway, I was dozing off, as I tend to do when I'm in the patron's chair, and I heard an emotional exchange happening behind me. Apparently the Filipina's haircut was already done and they were moving on to the cash register, but she hadn't taken her bib off yet. There was a plaintive plea being aired: "I'll give you more tip, but I want my hair like that."
Like what? Like dat? No!! The Babel in the Beauty Salon. Are beauty salons the early breeding ground for call centers?  (Source:

Like what? Like dat? No!! The Babel in the Beauty Salon. Are beauty salons the early breeding ground for call centers? (Source:

Like what? Like dat?

Out of the corner of my eye I was trying to follow the little drama being played out. Like what, I wondered...since she wasn't pointing to a picture, but still pointing to her hair, which had already been given a fresh bob cut. "Like what?" asked the Vietnamese cutter; already starting to get irritated. Again, the Filipina matron made a cutting motion to her hair.

"Like dat," she replied once more.

"Do you mean shorter?" asked the stylist.

"No, like that!" she exclaimed and again making some strange simulated motion of "cutting her hair "with her fingers on her own head. "I will give you a nice tip, but I want it like that."

The stylist was getting exasperated. What the hell does she mean? And neither could I get what the Filipina woman wanted.

Finally, the Vietnamese figured it out: “Do you mean layered?”

"Yes!" exclaimed the Pinay. Hallelujah! (or however they say it in Vietnamese!)

"Well, why didn't you say so?" retorted the exasperated stylist.

The Pinay was tongue-tied and stumped because she couldn't articulate it. Back they went to the chair and, apparently, there was still some hair left to execute a “layered” cut.

When do you start to pick up the ways and intonations of your new country, without totally throwing your cultural identity out the window; and sort of feel at home and NOT be a constant stranger in the land you have already chosen to be your own?

In the meantime, I was shaken out of my own doldrums and ready for my final look-over. My Thai stylist whipped out her magic mirror and placed it behind my head. As I could see the fine delineations in the still-mostly-black back of my head, I ran my hand over the back and pronounced her work satisfactory. I was done, and the perturbed Filipina two seats away was finally getting what she wanted.

Coincidentally, just two days before, a cousin who is a nurse practitioner at an East Bay Kaiser location happened to mention to me that she had new patients; well, a family unit of a young couple and their child (the man was a graphic designer), who were FOBs (fresh off the boat) immigrants to California. They seemed to be rather inarticulate and uncomfortable speaking English. She said that if I didn't mind, she had given them my phone number in the hope that I might give them some solid leads in getting settled locally. I said I didn't mind.

She also elaborated that she had recommended that they should make an effort to speak more English at home and that watching TV shows and movies in English rather than sticking to the Filipino Channel, would improve their lot and get them to acclimate faster. Of course, I totally concurred with her recommendation. However, I never heard from that couple.

I mention these two almost back-to-back vignettes to illustrate a systemic problem with any immigrant group: How much do you stay in your comfort zone of familiar habits from the old country, and when do you shift gears to the language of your new homeland? When do you start to pick up the ways and intonations of your new country, without totally throwing your cultural identity out the window; and sort of feel at home and NOT be a constant stranger in the land you have already chosen to be your own? Of course, this dilemma is not unique to Filipinos and it happens in every immigrant community. It is more pronounced where the dominant language of the new land is nothing similar to one’s mother tongue.

This is a particular cause of mine. The unfortunate thing in this misguided insistence on hanging on to one's cultural heritage is that the sector of expatriates who shy away from great use of, let's say English (since I am domiciled in the US), is the same sector who needs the fluency and understanding of the language of their new land the most.

Articulateness and eloquence are assets in any society. One doesn't have to be a Soc Rodrigo or a member of the Oxford Debating Society to get by; but one needs a certain degree of articulateness, especially in a very voluble and uber-competitive society like America where having a "bubbly" personality will get you far.

This is especially true in the legal arena. Occasionally, I take on interpretation jobs for a little extra pocket money. (Interpretation is on-the-spot, contemporaneous “translation,” as opposed to pure translation jobs. The United Nations, summits, heads of states, conferences, court proceedings use interpreters; documents and manuals are the purview of translators.)

So, once I did some interpretation from Tagalog to English for a legal deposition. The most frustrating thing for both the opposing counsel (and me) was that the Filipina, a factory-worker, who was also the plaintiff, could NOT be exact in her "Yes" or "No" replies. There was always this qualified "Oo nga pero..." (Yes but...). There was never this solid “Yes” or “No.'” I was hardpressed to explain to the Anglo attorney (for the defense side) that this was an idiosyncratic quirk of Pilipino. It was driving him up the wall. And the Pinay, being the plaintiff, in my estimation, did herself no favors and did not bolster her case any with her ambivalent, namby-pamby replies--really through no fault of her own. Again, her mind was working in a Pilipino mindset and not in an English-language framework.

Another situation that drives me up the wall is the old-timer who persists in conducting the conversation in pure Pilipino. There is this food server at a turo-turo buffet counter near me who lords it over the others on the staff, like she was Lakambini or queen bee or what. She insists with a capital "I" on doing the food transaction in Pilipino. Why? I grew up speaking trilingually and we are in a new land where another language is the official medium of communication. It's like . . . we have to show our colors right here and now? Really? In a turo-turo setting where everyone is Filipino? Who are we trying to impress? It really turns me off in that place, even though they have a good selection of very greasy Pinoy comfort food. Most importantly, this is the new land you chose. If you are a naturalized citizen, you swore allegiance to, and it becomes incumbent upon you to learn the ways of the natives. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in Cebu, do as the Cebuanos do.

Don't people realize that with each opportunity that you lapse back into your mother tongue, it sets you back that much more? That when the opportunity to express oneself and one’s ideas in a new way presents itself, the choice comes up: Do I improve myself and acquire new skills? Or do I just fall into that old, comfortable and familiar territory instead of rising to the challenge articulating my thoughts in ways I never tried before?

In the international arena, another irritating example is in Internet fora like where English is the chosen medium for international accessibility. You will always find Filipino guys posting in Tagalog or what-have you, even after they're been told to follow netiquette, and that it is an international forum that uses English. Yet they insist on what I consider their backward ways. It gets so that other nationalities refrain from participating in the discussion, because the Filipino clique insists on communicating in Pilipino in total inconsideration of others. They do come off as, to use a colloquial term, quite baduy and provincial.

Which brings us to the biggest paradox of the moment. While Filipino immigrants, in whatever new homelands they choose, are forever torn between clinging to their old ways and/or taking the leap to adopt new ones diligently, nearly a million of their young countrymen back home are desperately polishing their unaccented English in order to land steady and lucrative jobs in the $20+ billion call center business in the Philippines. Huh??

Young Filipinos enjoying a moment off at one of the numerous call centers--the new economic lifeblood, in the old country where “English-only” rules, rule.  (Photo by Nacho Hernandez/Bloomberg Markets)

Young Filipinos enjoying a moment off at one of the numerous call centers--the new economic lifeblood, in the old country where “English-only” rules, rule.  (Photo by Nacho Hernandez/Bloomberg Markets)

It seems to be an upside-down, Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass world. To put it in clearer perspective, Filipinos who left the old sod to seek greener pastures probably would not have had to, had they just been a generation or two younger; they would now be tackling the challenge of speaking (Pacific-rim English, as I call it), or at least without the heavy Indian subcontinent tones. I once called United Airlines to clarify something and sure enough, I got "Jen" from Manila. (Once I spoke to a call center based in Johannesburg, South Africa. If Pinoys aren't careful, they will be losing this lucrative new field to other up-and-coming countries like South Africa.) 

My “beef,” as it were, all boils down to the need to reinvent oneself, or allow oneself the opportunity to acquire another “persona.” Challenge yourself and respond to an old US Army recruiting cliche, Be the Best You Can Be. Can you? Are you open-minded enough to accept the notion that you can have a new personality, a new "you" appropriate and in sync with your new habitat? That challenge must start with you, and if you can at least avoid sounding like those Pinoy used-car salespeople on The Filipino Channel, in the true professional world, then you're on your way.

I hope this does not strike the reader as smug. Far from the truth, if this short article causes just one expatriate Filipino to be hired because of improved articulateness, then this little rant of mine has done its job.  

Myles A. Garcia is a retired San Francisco Bay Area-based author/writer. His proudest work to date is the book "Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies" which begat the Plaridel Award-winning article (Honorable Mention), "Ten Best Kept-Secrets of Olympic Ceremonies" (this publication, January 15, 2014).  Myles is also finishing a play, "Love, Art and Murder," and belatedly teaching himself to play the piano.  Better late than never.  

More articles from Myles A. Garcia

Ten Best-Kept Secrets Of Olympic Ceremonies
January 15, 2014
The real stories behind those flashy Olympic goings on

Sochi Ready To Winter-Party!
February 4, 2014
The Sochi Games will feature two athletes Filipinos around the world can root for.

Love Baskets for Betty
July 8, 2014
The Jose Formoso Reyes story, or why the Philippine Commonwealth's loss was Nantucket's gain. 

The "Oldest" Filipino Film?
August 12, 2014
A film history buff’s rigorous sleuthing reveals the truth about “Luzon Lingerie.”

My Manila Movie Memories
September 13, 2014
Recalling favorite movie haunts in postwar Manila.

How To Marry A Millionaire Aussie/Pinoy-Style
November 3, 2014
Was Inday Rose Lacson-Teodoro-Kuan-Hancock-Porteous a gold-digger, a black widow? Wouldn’t we all like to know.

Before Elorde And Pacquiao, There Was Luis Logan
November 17, 2014
When boxing and perfumes mixed--the untold story of a most uncommon Filipino boxing champ, Luis Logan.