There is a quiet that only really exists late at night, after the kids are asleep and the dishes are done and the hyperfixation and hyperavoidance of my ADHD has passed out until tomorrow, and I am hesitant to go to bed then because it is so brief, so fleeting, to have that silence.
The left side of my brain wants to make a dumb analogy, like “these moments are special and temporary, like the McRib being available or the US electorate caring about what New Hampshire has to say.” The right side of my brain tells me to go to sleep, and the now empty cup of coffee on my desk tells the right side of my brain to prepare for disappointment.
We’ve been in Barcelona now for twenty-one days, exactly three weeks. In some ways, it is a radical change, and the culture shift, language change, and oceans-distance from most everyone we’ve ever loved makes for occasional bursts of disorientation, moments of surreality that take a few minutes to return from. My Spanish/Castellano skills are not sharp enough to allow me to easily slide from one language to another quickly; I need time in a conversation to “rev the engine,” and so I’ve adopted a series of meaningless small talk at the beginning of every social interaction to allow my brain to catch up to whatever situation my stomach or my ass has gotten us into.
If I’m being honest, though, I’ve been doing that my whole life. “Bullshit-small-talk-as-filler” is probably one of the few things I do very well, and in English its role is the same as its been in Spanish/Castellano, which is: stall the conversation until I can figure out what the hell is going on. There is a small, but noticeable, sense of disorientation at the beginning of every social conversation, until my head remembers who I am talking to, what I’m doing here, and which topic we’re discussing. In Barcelona, the disorientation is just a wee bit longer for me than in English.
English wasn’t my first language, it was Tagalog. Officially now called Filipino, it’s the language I heard the most until I was 1 or 2 years old, when we moved the US from the Philippines. My first few years in the United States, I had a soft mish-mash of English and Tagalog when I spoke, which I think made me hesitant to speak much when I was young. I have no way to know for sure, but I suspect it also contributed to my extreme shyness as a boy. I remember trying to use Tagalog words with American classmates and failing. Or maybe I was just a quiet, shy kid, so who knows? Anyway, this isn’t really about me, not anymore. It’s about my daughters.
We’ve moved to Spain and our kids don’t speak the languages yet. We’ve been told that they will pick up Spanish and Catalán quickly, and I really hope that’s true. I also know that there is a sense of alienation they’re going to have now, of not understanding their classmates and teachers, and of the push to silence and solitude that the alienation exerts. “They’re not really understanding me, I’m not really understanding them, maybe I won’t try and share what I’m thinking.” It’s probably never gonna be that explicit a thought, because thoughts live in the brain and the alienation doesn’t live in the brain, it lives in the stomach, because that’s where you feel it. It lives in the bottom of your mouth, because that is where your tongue hides when it doesn’t know if its efforts will be useful. It lives in the floor, because that’s where your eyes go when they are tired of meeting confused or impatient looks on the children around you.
Of course, I don’t know if my kids are going to experience any of this, I hope not, and more than hoping, my wife and I are trying to make it a smooth and non-traumatic for them as we can make it. They attend a school where the kids and teachers speak German, which the kids already know and understand, but there are no native English speakers in their classes and the truth is that the tiny threads of friendship are knitted by words and kindness, and the words they share are going to be limited even if the kindness isn’t.
If luck and fortune favors our efforts, they’ll be proficient in three languages in a few years. If luck doesn’t favor our work, they’ll be comfortable in a more limited number. And however many book languages they may speak, there is the chance that they’re learn the language of loneliness here. Such is life, I suppose, and such is the risk we exposed them to when we moved them here, away from Home. I hope and trust that the benefits of our lives here will outweigh the risks of alienation, the emotional risks that come from being immigrants in a different land. Maybe it’s inevitable that the language of Loneliness is part of their linguistic patrimony, maybe not. We can only work and pray that Loneliness is not their first language, and that they will only speak it in broken, incomplete phrases.
It’s been 42 years since we left the Philippines for a new life in the United States, and in our time in Spain I’ve been struck by how brave and daunting the move must have been for my parents, and for countless others, to make such a move. I have internet, Facetime, Zoom. I speak with my parents every day, my kids speak with their grandparents everyday on video. My parents didn’t have that; they had once-a-year calls back home, and they missed every holiday, every wedding, every funeral. I never had a relationship with my grandparents in life, just a pastiche of stories in two dimensions. I don’t remember their voices.
And I don’t speak their language.
In grade school, they priority was for me to learn English. I spoke it before school, as my parents were fluent in English, but the goal was to learn to speak with other Americans, to drop the words they wouldn’t understand from my daily usage. Gatas became Milk, and then became Skim Milk (thanks, 80’s health marketing). I stopped using Tagalog; I put it down, and have never picked it back up.
When I’ve visited the Philippines since then, my wonderful cousins have taken care of us. Much of the Philippines speaks English, but there is still a gulf between myself and the nation of my birth, and I’ve perpetuated that gulf by not (re)learning Tagalog. I’ve taken classes in Tagalog in my early 20s, but, like my relationships and careers in that time of my life, nothing lasting came of it. I look at pictures of me as a baby, of the stories of the things I used to say, and it seems like a frosted glass panel between me and my childhood, between me and my cultural heritage.
This sense of alienation is not unique to me, I know. It’s the story of immigrant kids, of third culture kids, all over the world, and we’ve made decisions that have made our kids into characters in that story. I’m over the moon to be here in Barcelona, to be able to give our kids opportunities for growth and life that, in our own way, continues the journey that my family and my wife’s family has been walking for generations.
I also know that the alienation is also backwards looking; our parents endured displacement, moving, cultural shock. My father rarely speaks the language of his youth, Waray-Waray. My mother rarely, if ever, speaks in Ilocano. We’re generation and generation of people doing our best to push our children into new worlds, new opportunities, new places to grow into. We’re lobsters, molting to grow and I can’t help but think of the shells I’ve left behind. And to think of the shells of my life that my daughters will need to shed to become the people they need to be.
At heart, language and culture are tools. Vitally important tools, of course, but tools, And as we work to give our children new tools, as we work to add onto the toolset our parents gave us, we try hard to pass on some knowledge of the older tools in the drawer. Because the full set of tools are what are going to give them the best chance of making a home, a life, wherever fate takes them. And I hope that whatever home they build with those tools, that we support them and earn a spot in that home; a spot for us, for their grandparents, and for the lives and cultures and histories that delivered those tools to them. And I hope that when the time comes for them to forge new tools, they have the wisdom to keep the tools that need to be kept, to discard the tools they cannot carry, to know that all the tools, necessary for their lives or not, were given with love and hope for the future.