My Father, In Ilocano

I’ve been living in Baguio for nearly eight years, and I’m ashamed to say I only know a handful of phrases in Ilocano. I’m spoiled, because nearly everyone speaks in English or Tagalog or a mixture of both. Yet I have Baguio in my veins, for my father was born and raised here. All the more reason I should be speaking Ilocano, right?

In a way, my dad was “old school” in bringing us up, because he wanted us, his kids, to be fluent in English. He spoke to us only in English, his accent as clipped as the Belgian priests and nuns who educated him at SLU. It served him in good stead in his 40-year career with an American multinational company, and when he retired he left at the peak of his career, as the company President. Not bad for a poor boy from Baguio, who used to repair his rubber slippers using tires salvaged from the army surplus or junk shops. English was the language of success, and since his mother tongue was Ilocano, he never chewed me out for my average grades in Tagalog class.

But there was something of the formal in the way he spoke to me. The vocabulary he used seemed to keep me at arm’s length, and I felt that in spite of the explicit nature of the English language, I was left to decipher things on my own. I remember being scolded by him at age eight, and hearing words like “considerate”, “responsibility”, “judgment”. I was raised with English as my first language, but the use of it left a psychological divide between us, a dissonance of the heart.

My siblings and I heard our father speak in Ilocano only when he was playing mahjjong with his five other siblings and their old nanny, Manang Gining. Both the language and the game were a secret code they shared between them, and I remember watching them play, trying to decipher the mystery. They never bothered translating either the language or the game for us. I suppose their meetings were  too sporadic and they wanted to maximize their time together, with my Tito Boy a geologist with Lepanto Mines, my Tito Bobby a doctor based in Cheshire, Connecticut, Tita Becky working hard to build a school  with her husband in Agoo, La Union (now known as Polytechnic Colleges of La Union). Like us, both Tito Ric and Tita Lee lived in Manila. The most they ever taught us was “Wen, Manong”, “dijjay banger”, and “ngarud”.

Before the 1990 Baguio earthquake and the Mt. Pinatubo eruption a year later, we frequently traveled to Baguio as a family. I remember my dad driving his red Cressida at top speed, getting us from Quezon City to Baguio in three hours flat. I could never really sleep during the trip, but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the scenery, watching the bucolic Philippine landscape zip past in a blur of cool green, making our way through his prized Beatle’s cassette box set, which included their original German recordings from the time the band was based in Hamburg. As our car on snaked its way up Kennon Road, we would joke that we were entering “Ilocoslovakia”, because Ilocano sounded as guttural to our ears as German did.

When I was hired at the age of 21 to join the original cast of Miss Saigon in Stuttgart, Germany, I was told that part of the reason I got the job was because I did well in the German-speaking part of the audition. (The German umlaut—ü and ö—sound very much like vowel variations in Ilocano.) I think most Filipinos have a good ear for language, because we have about 200 dialects on these 7,100 islands. A friend of mine from Sagada once said that in the Cordillera, the dialect could change from mountaintop to mountaintop. We listen to each other acutely for the meaning behind the words, making us fundamentally a psychic people.  

After 56 years of living in Manila, my dad finally moved back to Baguio with my mom, fulfilling a lifelong dream of retiring in his beloved hometown. He loves walking to Session Road, doing his errands on foot, taking a taxi home when he gets tired. Once, I accompanied him to the grocery store, and I listened to him making casual conversation with the cashier. He looks and sounds relaxed in Ilocano, his smile warm, his tone jocular.

Afterwards, we went to Baguio Market, looking for specific supplements his doctor in Manila prescribed for him and that he couldn’t find in the malls. He knew where to go, he told me, because his aunt and uncle used to have a stall in the market. As we walked down Session Road, he would point out the ghosts of his childhood. “That’s where the bakery used to be, where my father and I would buy bread…We sometimes ate at Star Café …” He would also point out where things had stayed the same, and we made plans to walk around Baguio again after the rainy season, this time with a video camera, so I can capture the stories that spontaneously pop up in his memory. It’s a Baguio I have never known, but one that fills me with nostalgia nonetheless, because my father holds it inside him, a memory that somehow still lives because he is still alive to recount it.

“Naimbag nga bigat.” He goes through several stalls before he finds one that has some of the supplements he is looking for. I pick out only a few familiar words—apay ngay, mabalen, casjjay, agpayso. “Agyamanak.” Again, as he speaks easily with the vendors, I sense the emotional register of Ilocano in my father’s psyche, and I feel a longing to get to know this part of the man I have known all my life, who in some ways remains a mystery to me. I make a promise to myself to learn Ilocano, a little more than bassit.

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words,” wrote Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. I don’t pretend to hope to ever completely understand my father, but I want to try, to bump against the truth of who he is, even just a little, even for the briefest of moments.