Talking Myself into Me
Learning a new language made me see the person I've been from the very start.
I first started learning French for kicks. At first I thought it was around 2014 or 2015 when I began casually studying the language, but then a quick look through my email inbox revealed that I had been learning the language as early as 2013. (You can see the screenshot above proving that.)
I don’t know why I decided on French among all languages. Learning Chinese would’ve made more sense since my paternal grandfather was from China. He did try to teach us the language when we were younger, and my older brother even studied in a Chinese prep school, but as a child, I shrugged off the idea and argued, what for? We already knew English. Blame the pride and lack of foresight of youth: amusingly, I’d end up working for a Beijing-headquartered company a few years later. I’d also grow to love Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Those cities represented important moments in my life that felt so ordinary as they happened, but I'd eventually have fond memories of them anyway.
The biting cold of Beijing winter in January that I had to endure so I could do the groceries at blt supermarket at Beijing Fuli Square felt so commonplace, so ludicrously pedestrian, and yet, carrying those two plastic bags with each hand as I climbed the overpass arises so vividly from memory. Meanwhile, I flew to Shanghai for a vacation I originally planned with an ex (whom I had just ended my two-year relationship with) for his friend’s bridal shower in Disneyland. I was the odd person there: their friend was conspicuously absent, yet there I was, the ghost from their friend's past — but I couldn't care less. My ex's friends seemed not to mind either.
And then there was that Honne concert in Hong Kong, which I watched with a person I was seeing before and reconnected with. In hindsight, it was a horrible idea, as I was still recuperating months after the breakup. Returning to one of the countries my ex and I traveled to just before breaking up felt confusing. It left me emotionally vulnerable and disgustingly needy, which I felt spoilt the friendship with my ex-date and made things awkward. (We’ve since unfollowed each other on social media.)
But I digress.
My mom used to work for the Manila bureau of the French media wire company Agence France-Presse. I think that somewhat influenced my interest in learning the language. As children, my older brother and I would go to her office and scan all the magazines on the common table. She would also sometimes bring home some glossies, which I also read excitedly, amazed by this different world that was unlike Manila or any other city I’ve visited in the Philippines. France, for me, was the height of sophistication and culture. Not that anyone needs to prove how soft power works, but I am a case study of how effective French propaganda has been.
My Francophilia would continue to burn from there: not intensely, not hot enough to burn, but warm enough to feel a presence. I would expose myself more and more to French culture, with films being the quickest entry point. The French embassy in Manila hosted annual film festivals, which I regularly attended with my press pass (I was a Lifestyle contributor for the Manila Times.) I was able to watch a lot of movies for free at Shangri-la Mall when they used to host them there.
In 2019, I decided to take the summer French class at UP Diliman. While what I learned during that time was not enough, I had used what little French I knew to explain our predicament to the Paris police after my passport and my friend Gretchen’s money got stolen in Gare du Nord.
Getting married to a French citizen was unplanned, but it was a happy accident. We ended up living in the south of France, where I am more determined than ever to crack speaking, reading, writing, and understanding French fluently. I find it rude when people refuse to learn the language of the country they plan to live in for long periods. I took the free French classes the government offers immigrants wishing to become nationals. After those ended, I immediately researched online tutor services, gladly stumbling upon Lingoculture, which lets people access unlimited French classes from different native teachers for a relatively affordable monthly subscription.
Sometimes, my husband would make these joking statements about my habits – for example, my penchant for traveling with a whole apothecary of skincare products. He’d say, “You’re European now; you have to learn to pack light.” Obviously, the ability to travel with just a cabin bag is not essential to being French or European, but that leads me to ask, what is?
Yesterday, I attended a weekend Zoom session by a friend and published book author Matt Ortile on how to write essays as persons of color. In it, he explained how people of color are often expected to write from a place of trauma as if victimhood is a crucial part of our identity. Why can’t we write from a place of joy instead? Why is there a market demand for our pain as people of color?
That resonated deeply. I’ve caught myself stopping a post because I feel that it’s too happy, it’s too celebratory, it’s too inconsiderate of the pain expected of people like me. As a gay Filipino man, I’ve convinced myself that I need to be the perfect representative of all queer Filipinos. I feel the need to apologize for privileges that I imagine to exist. I feel the need to say sorry that I exist.
It is an identity I am starting to move away from. When I began speaking French with native speakers, désolé and pardon were two of my most-used words. Pardon, I don’t speak French fluently. Désolé, I do not understand. Excusez-moi, I am an immigrant.
Tu viens d’ou ? People would ask. I’d say, I lived in London before moving here to Montpellier. Mais, quel pays d’origine ? They’d press on.
The other week, during my online class with my French tutor from Algeria, I told her how it annoys me how hard it was for me to travel to Europe with my Philippine passport when many White people easily enter the country without needing to prove their financial histories. “Why can’t we make it as hard for them as it is for us?”, I asked. She told me how Algerians hated the French so much after the country was colonized that they’d made it extra hard to get an Algerian nationality. I laughed at their idea of revenge.
There was something liberating about learning something with a fellow outsider. Maybe learning a new language, moving to a new country, and gaining a new nationality didn’t have to be a total erasure of who I am.
Maybe there’s a part of me that survives through, and despite, all the changes.