Silence, as I have been told by many, is powerful. But having lived in reticence was no act of strength on my part.
During the summer of 2008 my family and I migrated from Saipan – a small island of mango trees, coconut water, rainy weekends, and fire dancing festivities along the beach shorelines – to Canada. While the American colonization of Saipan during 1944 ensured that I would later be birthed as a native English speaker, my mother and father spoke Tagalog still.
Not long after my family’s arrival in Toronto we encountered the acrimonious demand to speak English.
We were at a mall in Scarborough, talking amongst ourselves in my mother and father’s native tongue, completely engrossed in a debate about something as inconsequential as where to eat, when a woman approached us. My skin tingled, alerted by her presence, as though she were a walking cluster of negative ions seeking to jump towards the first positive surface; I was shocked. There was no “hi”, “hello”, or “how are all of you today?” there wasn’t even enough space for her between our circled bodies, and yet, there was. There was always space for a white woman to speak.
Stepping between myself and my parents, the white woman said, “Speak English. This is Canada, not your country!”
For a moment, my mother, father, and I stood silent, trying to telepathically decide whether the woman was joking or not. As her righteous harrumph and hasty exit from our once effervescent home of words would have signified, the white woman was serious in her imposition of my family speaking English during private conversations. I watched as the woman walked away, shifting her weight from one leg to another in an almost uncomfortable manner. Even as she had disappeared from my line of vision, I could hear her voice in my ears and feel the static of her presence follow me around reminding me just how small I was.
The momentary silence followed us home that day, though my mother and father left it on the dinner table, tossing it out with the food scraps. They woke up the next morning with their native tongue still in place and a fonder, more vivid memory of peachy sunsets, monsoon season chills, rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves, tinikling rhythm footfalls, and traditional ballads. As for myself, silence became a practice of safety, its weight like a clamped hand over my shoulder reminding me of how a simple foreign word or a slip of the accent could sever my tongue and leave me bleeding from the mouth.
Reduced to nods, shrugs, “yes’s” and “no’s”, I shrunk even further into myself.
Not long after the incident with the white woman at the mall, the school semester begun. During my first week as a sixth grader, a teacher from the classroom across mine saw me on my way out for recess. Maybe it was the smallness of the school that made it easy for staff to decipher who was a new addition to the institution, but that teacher, having seen me, stopped me to ask if I even knew how to speak English. Even. That word, spoken like an accusation, by a jury that found me guilty before any display of evidence. That afternoon, I had gone home trying to learn how to not only quiet my tongue, but the movements of my body. I practiced the act of silencing my being until the early hours of the night, until I could no longer hear myself breathe, until it was the only thing left.
Shame was like an executioner; my mouth, my throat, my inner child, sentenced to death by some white man and woman who had perhaps gone home that evening feeling heroic.
A few months following these events, many similar instances occurred. Not being seen quickly came after trying not to be heard. I did not want the questions, the condescension, the expectant eyebrows raising towards me. I was tired of going home, searching every corner and space of my room for hidden ears before practicing words out loud. I was tired of the whispered conversations among my family outdoors. I was tired of the verbal acrobatics, my tongue twisting itself into indistinguishable knots, trying to sound like I’m from here. I was tired of hour-long rehearsals before participating in conversations with other children.
For many years silence became my defense. What could not be heard cannot be judged. Yet, what my mouth refused to say, my hands allowed.
Paintings, sketches, stories, songs, and one-sided conversations filled the journals and scrap boxes hidden beneath my bedframe. Everything I meant but could not speak into existence found its way on to paper. My resentment found its way on to paper. My anger, hurt, and shame found its way on to paper. My voice found its space on a page – had to find its place somewhere because being here does not mean you were welcomed. Because when a white woman tells you not to speak in your own language during private conversations they are not privy to, she is not only telling you that your behaviour is wrong, she is telling you that your kind is not competent, developed, and valuable enough to be brought into this society. When a white man tells you how to behave, they are not only trying to control and contain your diversity, they are detracting from the value of your cultural identity. When a member of the dominant discourse criticizes or “corrects” an aspect of who you are, they are promoting your disempowerment and that of your community’s. When home is a bed outgrown in a hurricane doused island more than a 48-hour flight away, all that remains is your skin, your hair, your eyes, and your tongue. Home, once taken from me, now lies in the speech of my mother and father.
This is how I speak English.
After moving from Saipan with her family at eleven years old, Erica Dionora grew up immersing herself in the literary world of fantasy and fiction. Coming from a Filipino background, she pursued a career in social work, hoping to one day serve newcomer families and youth such as herself.