Dear Charlie and Jack,

We’re going to the Philippines in May!  I think I’m crazy for deciding to travel without your Papa who just started a new bird conservation job last month (tweet, tweet!, chirp the birds) and therefore can not yet take his vacation days.  Can I handle traveling with you both?  Will this be worth it, especially considering Jack will not remember any of this trip and will likely just be a burden throughout? (Don’t take offense, Jack, because you really are quite a pain to take anywhere. Like a typical two year old, you never want to stay still and you holler with indignation every time I pick you up to prevent you from crossing a street or pulling down items from the shelves in the grocery store or whatever it is that you want to do that’s almost always going to cause chaos and destruction.) So why am I doing this?  I will tell you.

It is because you, Charlie, are at a point now where you roll your eyes at me when I ask you to speak Bisaya with me. Or worse, you just tell me, “never mind, Mama,” and stop talking to me altogether. You are no longer impressed or inspired by Star Wars’ C-3PO’s ability to speak a million languages.

It is also because you, Jack, in the last few months, have been developing linguistically but so far you do not show any appreciation or love or anything for Bisaya. Admittedly, this is understandable as you and I have not spent and do not spend much time together just by ourselves. Your Kuya Charlie, the one you play and spend time with the most, prefers to speak English with you. Sometimes, when I translate a word to Bisaya for you, you scowl at me and translate it back to English, prefacing it with an emphatic “No!” It makes me smile but also sad.

So I hope that by going to my hometown, Malaybalay, Bukidnon, by immersing you for three weeks in anything and everything Bisaya, you both would pick up a little bit more of the language and maybe start to develop a connection with and an understanding of this place and culture. You are, after all, half Bisaya.

Here’s the official website of Malaybalay where we will be for three weeks:  (


And here’s a youtube link showing a ride through Malaybalay.  (

Several people have asked me which language it is that I speak with you boys. When I tell them it’s Bisaya, a Filipino language, the answer confuses them. Understandably, they know only of Tagalog, the Filipino national language. Is it similar to Tagalog? they’d ask.  Is it Latin based? Is it indigenous? Does it use alphabets or does it have its own script? Would a Bisaya speaking person be understood everywhere else in the Philippines? What about the people who speak Bisaya (also known as Bisaya), what are they like?

I must admit that I “know” very little about this language as I never studied it like I did Tagalog or English (or Spanish or Italian). Does it have tenses? Contractions?  Conjugations? I don’t know.  As for how the Bisaya people are like, since I don’t really have an alternative with which to compare my experience of my identity, I would venture to guess that most probably we are like how other people are from other parts of the country or world– we have our strengths and weaknesses, preferences and biases, and good and bad sides depending on a whole lot of nature and nurture. But I am Bisaya and Bisaya is my first language so I’m an expert. So here’s a primer on being and speaking Bisaya. Let it not be said that I never explained to you what it is all about.

First, and simply put, I am Bisaya because I was born and grew up in Bukidnon, Philippines; I speak Bisaya because that’s what’s spoken in the area. That’s it. (I won’t get into migration and how this affected the region’s indigenous culture and language. That’s an altogether different discussion best left for another day. For now, let’s just leave this as is.) There are approximately 150 dialects/languages in the approximately 7,000 islands in the Philippines. Linguists differ on whether Bisaya is a dialect or a language and I’m not one to join the debate. Majority of the country speak Bisaya but it is not the official national language because, unfortunately, it does not have the privilege of being spoken in Manila, the capital of the country.

Speaking from personal experience, the Bisaya people are a smart, industrious, and creative bunch, in all sorts of ways. We love dancing and karaoke singing, especially at house parties where the audience is hostage. We are loud, crass, and feisty- back home, the men love a good street fight (buno!) and the women catfight like pros. We make the best and gentlest lovers- we cause eyes to flutter and roll in exquisite ecstasy. We are enviable because we speak three languages at a minimum (Bisaya, Tagalog, and English) and we speak them with no apology, like we own them, accents and all. We are loyal to our family and friends, always ready to lend the last cup of rice to him who is going through hard times. We know how to have a good time- at fiestas, we drink and eat from one house to the next. We’re good people.

However, to some people who are not Bisaya, especially those who live “up there” in the more sophisticated northern part of the country, Bisaya means unpolished, backwards, provincial, or, more aptly in our case since we live in the mountains, uncivilised. Bukid means mountain, which other people imagine as an unconquered jungle, where laws don’t apply, where people run around in loincloth, eat with their bare hands, and kill and copulate as they please. I remember attending a national conference in Manila when I was a senior in high school in 1991. During the meet and greet dance, I met this fair skinned young man wearing glasses, his black glossy hair smoothed back with lots of gel. He wore a white shirt tucked in a pair of Levi’s. I had in instant crush on him and was thrilled when he talked to me. He told me he was from Manila. He asked me where I was from and when I said “Bukidnon” he asked whether I lived in a tree house. And then he added that their maid was Bisaya.

(courtesy of

I have nothing against their maid being Bisaya. It is true that many Bisaya go to the cities to become helpers.  That, however, is not the only reason why we migrate to cities.  Unfortunately, that is the one Bisaya reality that is magnified and proliferated in Filipino movies. According to the movies, the hired help is always Bisaya who speaks really crunchy Tagalog and very basic, broken, and mostly laughable English. She is the thirteen year old girl who’s plucked from the provinces, maybe even sold by her parents, to serve the successful Don and Dona in Manila. Inevitably, she’s raped by the master of the house and gets sent back to the province, her swollen belly grotesquely out of proportion with the rest of her emaciated body. He is the seventeen year old boy who goes to the city with plastic bag of all his belongings and his head full of dreams of making money to send back to his family. He smells bad, his teeth are rotten, and his skin has “pagis” (I don’t know how to translate that. That’s the dusty markings on very dry skin.) He has no sense of style, he does not know how to match his shirt with his pants. Nobody wants to be seen with him. Except his fellow Bisaya.

Basically, to many people in the country, Bisaya means bad/ugly/undesirable/etc/etc. Even we have come to use this identification the same way. When something is not to our liking because it’s bad/ugly/uindesirable/etc., we say “Ka-bisaya nimo/ani oy.” or “Bisaya-a nimo/ani oy.” which would roughly translate to “how bisaya this is (or you are).”

But I’d like to think that times and people have changed. At the very least, the Bisaya now proudly claim all major and minor celebrities or events with some Bisaya connections:  boxing world champion Manny Pacquiao is Bisaya; US and Canadian choirs sing Bisaya songs (;  Russian singer (and a pretty girl) cover Bisaya songs. (  We are loved and appreciated for what we are.  And even when we self-deprecate, we lace our statements with pride.  Imagine that.

As for me, I mainly try to teach you how to speak Bisaya. Most likely the nuances of being Bisaya would be lost on you since you are here in America. But I tell you all these, nonetheless, because that is part of who you are, whether you like it or not.

I sure hope our trip to the Philippines goes smoothly…