Why I Write about Culture Clash: Part 1
Photo from a paper placemat at a chain focacceria in Barcelona called Buenas Migas.
The Nuances of Being American
I was raised at a point where cultures clash. My parents left the Philippines in 1971 shortly before President Marcos declared martial law. They landed in California, where some of our other family members had already settled. Six years after they arrived with my four older siblings, my fifth sibling was born, then three years later, I was born.
So I am American and yet I grew up around a language other than English: Tagalog. I’m not saying that having English as your first language makes you more American — but growing up in a bilingual household is a unique experience. It makes English-speaking Americans feel that you are somehow exotic or other.
It wasn’t just language that made my experience different, though. There was the food, customs, and cultural expectations. No, my parents were not the stereotypical Filipinos who want nothing more than their children to be nurses and doctors (though I still find Jo Koy’s jokes on this matter hilarious!). They generally let me walk to the beat of my own drum, but I still got immersed in the things that make a person Filipino.
So even though I have never been to the Philippines, I tell people I’m Filipino when they ask, but I was not taught the language. I heard people speaking Tagalog all around me when I was growing up, but then they’d generally turn to me and speak in English. Of course, when I got older, then sometimes extended family members would try to talk to me in Tagalog and then once they realized I couldn’t answer, they’d turn to my parents and talk to them ABOUT me in Tagalog.
I’ll admit it, if I was truly driven to learn the language, I could have. I would have. But to be honest, whenever I made an effort, it was sort of half-hearted. And then I realized that I had somewhat of an emotional block against learning Tagalog. Why?
Maybe because as a teen and young adult, I was talked about in that language. I’ve come to associate it with being excluded or feeling like I didn’t quite belong (though I belonged enough to eat the lumpia and do a little code switching with my tiny vocabulary).
Windows to Other Worlds
I’m a trained language teacher, so I always feel that I should know best how to approach the task of learning Tagalog. But, through my MA TESOL training and experience as a teacher, I know that the affective filter is real. The affective filter is a sort of subjective blockage to learning: some have a high affective filter because they are afraid of making mistakes, for example, while others might have a high one because they don’t like the sound of the language they are learning. In other words, a high affective filter makes it harder to learn while a low filter makes it easier.
So I’ve been talked about in Tagalog my whole life, and I guess that might be why I write about culture clash: because I liked to write about all those awkward tensions that come up when languages create barriers instead of bridges. This could be why I was drawn to becoming a language teacher. It is also why I was driven to start writing my current work in progress, Heads or Tails. When I came back from Barcelona for the third time, I knew I had to share what I had experienced there, because I had my own unique view of the place, different from other expats and immigrants. My story of how it was to be there is just one in millions, worth telling because everyone has a different experience living and working abroad, and every story has its gems.
Heads or Tails is a fictionalized version of my time as an English teacher in Barcelona. It is full of examples of why culture clash is a beautiful thing.
Stories Thrive on Conflict
Yet I don’t know if the term culture clash really describes the life experiences I’ve had with two or more cultures coming together, though. The word clash conveys conflict, dramatic tension, and incompatibility. When I say ‘culture clash,’ it doesn’t sound like a good thing. But maybe that ‘clash’ is musical, the kind of forceful sound that comes when two metal cymbals crash together. Maybe every type of clash like this is a miniature big bang that brings worlds into existence, in combinations never before seen.
The story of Heads or Tails is a peek into what happens when one person struggles with the many facets of deciding where home is: the protagonist, Blaise, constantly questions herself: should I stay in Barcelona, or should I go back home? Where is home? Which career feels like home, and am I really the English teacher that I became when I came to Barcelona, or is there something more for me to do in this life?
Those are her inner conflicts, but on the outside, there are the tensions that come with the lifestyle she has chosen: being limited to those jobs where employers are willing to pay her under the table, remaining in the EU without a visa, dealing with the difficulties of not having all that comes with citizenship in that Catalan capital. And then there’s the task of getting by in another language and culture, navigating intercultural relationships, and a thousand other things big and small. Even something as simple as how she drinks her coffee says something about her preferences and culture.
Culture in a Cup
In America, coffees are large; in Spain and other parts of Europe, they trend smaller. In Heads or Tails, the subject of coffee comes up over and over again, as in this excerpt:
He took a microscopic sip of his cafe solo. Blaise wondered if the coffees were small in Morocco, too, or if he had just adapted to drinking the tiny beverages here. “I see you like cafe solos, too,” she said to him.
“Yes. It’s the best coffee. If you really like the coffee, nothing needs to be added.”
Chloe shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s like saying you don’t like the bread if you add tomato. If that’s true, then I guess Catalans don’t like bread since you see pan con tomate everywhere!”
He threw his head back and laughed, a quiet stifled laugh that showed up as blood in his face. They chuckled along with him, wondering why he found that so funny. “Ha! I like you! You’re very funny,” he said as he gazed at Chloe with unreasonable intensity.
Coffee is one of those things that has crossed so many cultural boundaries. It’s one of those signs of globalization, just like the fact that English has permeated so much of the globe. Language, coffee, music, and yoga are some of my favorite things that have infused cultures around the world. Do these things dilute the cultures they spring up in? Maybe a bit; or maybe they just add to their constant transformation, since, like the Sagrada Familia, culture is constantly under construction. That is why I write about culture clash, because that clash is part of the construction of cultures as they move through time.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, with more sneak previews into my work in progress and a peek back at my first novel.