Once upon a time we used to boast that the Philippines is the second largest English-speaking country in the world. Or so we would like to think. But I guess that was too many solar cycles ago, right?
Lately an alarm button was pressed because of the quality of English being spoken and written by Filipinos. So whatever happened? Ah, well ... we can blame everything and anyone from those who insisted that English was only a second language and that being makabayan meant recognizing the National Language as the medium of instruction in all levels of education.
So I guess that was how words like sinturong pangkaligtasan or salipawpaw na sumasagitsit came into existence. Cute, to say the least. But I still feel a bit uncomfortable calling a chair as salungpuwet or brassieres as salungsuso.
Then again, when one really gives considerable thought, the imperative to be able to speak and write proficient English is not really such a big deal. ( To prove my point lest I be accused of being self-defeating by writing this blog in English and claiming its inconsequential use, allow me translate: Kung talaga namang tutuusin at bibigyan ng wastong kaisipan at pagmumuni-muni, hindi naman talaga malaking kabawasan sa pagkatao kung hindi siya dalubhasa sa wikang Ingles. There. Impressed? Naks!)
Indeed it has become a standard measure for the Filipino to be able to speak in English ... or at least try with great effort and even blood-letting determination.
I will provide considerable excuse (or even license) to our beloved call center agents (aka the customer service representatives) who have to literally impersonate Americans while dealing with them over the phone so as to given an illusion that the service is being rendered somewhere in the armpits of the American Midwest and not at the wee hours of dawn across the Third World Pacific.
Those trained, studied and mastered put-on accents are doing so because speaking wersh-wersh is part of the tools of the trade. But hearing a whole pride of such specimens of nocturnal professionals can be completely discombobulating. Or even mind-boggling.
(Once I was in an elevator at ELJ Building in the ABS-CBN Compound and found myself tightly squeezed in between twelve to fifteen call center agents all talking in crisp and varying twangs of American English. For those precise moments from the fifth to the ground floor, I was certain that I was in the Twilight Zone.)
However, what is even more disturbing if not dismaying is when Filipinos are forced or even feel that they are being pushed to the edge of the cliff to speak the Queen's Language. Last Sunday provided two exceptional examples of such nerve-wrecking, mind-bending and soul-wrenching events.
OK, I will confess: one of my guilty pleasures is watching Project Runway.
Of all the reality shows, this is one that (somehow) provides some real challenge and measures degrees of innovation, creativity and ... ta-ra-raaaan ... intelligence. And besides, I like Heidi Klum far better than Tyra Banks because there is something a bit more sincere with Seal's ex-missus than Miss Bank's acerbic syl-la-bi-ca-tion each time she says to the girls that one of them will not have the chance to be A-me-ri-ca's Next Top Mo-del. I guess it has got something to do with Ms. Klum's Nordic origins ... and Ms. Banks desire to be Ms. Congeniality under the influence of uppers.
When a local version of the show was mounted, it was --- to say the least --- a commendable effort.
Over and above the gay twittering and bitching of the local top designer wannabes, there is always the teddy bear charm of Rajo Laurel and the schoolmarm refinement of Joji Lloren reminding us that, yes, there was a time when the real Candida and Paula existed outside the walls of Intramuros.
But somehow there is something that is so particularly disturbing about the third edition of the show. Unlike the first and second which were particularly engrossing, the most recently launched season has something quite wrong about it.
Something seems to be amiss and I was banging my head against the wall trying to figure out why watching an otherwise favorite show of mine is now as enticing as fulfilling a dental appointment for a scheduled root canal.
OK, I will forgive Tweetie de Leon as a host because she is just starting out in this resurrected career and still lacks the spontaneity and humanity that she used to possess when she was still Faye in OK Ka, Fairy Ko.
I will even let Apples Aberin behave like a Fashion Gestapo when she tries to assert her point and terrorize the contestants. I still remember that comment given about her by one of the earlier fashion neophytes describing her as a model who got lucky. Bwahahahahaha!
If I can withstand all these little minus factors, then what is bugging me? Then it MUST be the contestants, right?
I do understand that in a reality show extra effort must be invested to come up with a memorable personality amid a line-up of the usual suspects. Each and every one of these fashion apprentices must try to win recall points from the audience even if one or two really look like they need extreme make-overs or have regular consultations with a professional life coach. Catching the attention of the viewers is a must if you want to have a career after so many weeks of being under the media microscope --- and being gay isn't enough. You have to be gay na gay or (as proven by this present group) on the eve of premature dementia.
But then upon discussing this serious problem with fellow Project Runway enthusiasts, we arrived at a common conclusion: it's all right to hear Rajo, Joji, Apples and Tweetie (even if she is reading from cue cards) speak English ... but the contestants are something else.
We all agreed that this batch of aspiring designers is such an assortment of characters that they might as well have been a menagerie. That's good for the interest of the show ... until they start speaking ... in English. That is when you want to switch channels or beg Rajo to suggest to producers to have the contestants' lips double-stitched.
When asked to explain the designs they created while standing on the elevated runway, the moments that follow are torturous. It is somewhat uncomfortable to see someone grope for words to encode thoughts especially in explaining design aesthetics of a dress put together in a day from materials purchased from Carolina's.
But to watch and hear some philosophize-slash-agonize over the agreement of subject and predicate ... or simply to pinpoint a subject in a whirlpool of dependent clauses ... that is tantamount to indeed having a root canal ... without anesthesia. During the first few sentences, you cringe. By the time Tweetie signals the end of the discussion, you realize that there is a substantial difference between compassion and masochism.
We ask ourselves a very simple question: Bakit ba hindi na lang pagtagalugin ang mga nilalang na yan, ha? Kahit naman tatlong boteng agua oxigenada ang ginamit sa buhok ng mga yan para maging blonde, Kuya ... Pinoy na Pinoy pa rin ang mga hitsura nila, di ba? At saka, teka ... One's proficiency in the English language has got nothing to do with the degree of creativity that can be exhibited in a friggin' dress, right? That is why some of them look like they overdosed on Imodium each time they tried to speak in what sounds like a language derived from the planet Uranus.
It is bad enough that you have to deal with someone with the hairstyle of Theda Bara ...or another who is already dressed for December 21, 2012 ... but do we (the audience) have to hear them turn the English language into tattered hemlines?
As if I had enough of bad English on a Sunday evening ... that is, until I realized what was showing in the other station.
Annual beauty pageants are such hilarious fiestas --- really. And we Filipinos have an insatiable appetite for such glamour fests especially now that our crop of beauty queens almost ended up with the crown on their well-teased lacquered big hair. It is already a part of our summer tradition --- like a rite of passage comparable to the circumcision of boys hitting the age of puberty --- to over-indulge in over-made-up beautiful Filipinas parading in swimsuits and all dying to represent the archipelago in the international beauty showdowns.
Watching beauty contests can be such a guilty pleasure too.
Unlike a reality show like Project Runway Philippines, the big beauty contest is not necessarily a celebration of restraint in taste. Oh, no! This is one big event where all the young girls are made to dress like they are going to a South American prom, wearing gowns that are wish-fulfillment of every gay fashion designer armed with a sketch pad, thimble, needle and six yards of jersey or industrial satin. They are all made-up as if there is no longer any remaining tomorrow or (for some) as if their faces were readied by some of the more famous establishments lining Araneta Avenue and associated with crematoriums.
I am not even going to talk about all that hair and all that costume jewelry. Someone once said that it is only but fitting that transgenders be allowed to join such pageants because, after all, even real women are made to look like transsexuals in such events because of the way they are made up and dressed. A friend commented, "Is this a beauty contest or Ru Paul's Drag Race? WTF are they wearing???" I said that such outfits are de rigeur in contests where the sashaying of the hips is tantamount to the movement of chiffon or the glitter of bead work. The same friend punctuated the argument saying, "Eh, kaya naman pala karamihan nagmukha nang mga bading sa Santacruzan sa Tondo."
But, if you ask me, the real highlight of any Philippine beauty pageant is not the swimsuit competition (Note: just how many variations of Shamcey's tsunami walk can there be?) or even the evening gown contest (Note again: nobody does it better than Ms. Raj!). It is the Q&A portion where the real taste of the pudding is in the tasting of the answer.
Let it be said: the Q&A portion of any major beauty contest is the frontrunner contender for the Best Comedy Performance of any Living Creature, Animal or Vegetable, in any TV season for the year.
To hear these coiffured, perfumed, sequin-encrusted young ladies attempt to answer questions ingeniously planted and distributed to the distinguished members of the Board of Judges ... is the biggest laugh-a-second you can have for more than fifteen minutes. This segment of the contest has become the highlight ... especially if one has such strong sadistic tendencies or is fixated on the public humiliation of women over-indulging on lip gloss and hairspray.
To hear these young ladies answer mind-boggling, earth-shaking, life-changing questions like: "If you can be president for a day, what will you do?" or "Why is it more fun in the Philippines?" is definitely far better than watching any tired slapstick comedy on tv. Unwittingly, these ladies end up being funnier than either Ai-ai de las Alas or Pokwang while looking like Vice Ganda. The Q&A portion is far much more surprising than any reality show ... especially when the girls answer in English.
When one of the girls was assigned Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel to provide the question, the honorable representative was so benevolent enough to say that she would deliver the question in both English and Filipino. Moreover, she gave her contestant the chance to answer in any language that she felt more comfortable. Bravo, Risa!
But guess what? The girl still chose to answer in English and attempted to break the world record in grammar gymnastics ... where the single and plural no longer exist as far as verb agreement is concerned. In the vernacular, tumumbling ang sagot ni Ineng as if to prove once and for all that you cannot teach a parrot the art of conversation despite the fact that it sounds like it can talk.
Of course, I get it.
I get the fact that these young ladies must be short of peeing in their undies from sheer nerves having to face hundreds and even thousands of people filling the venue and just waiting for them to commit a blunder so that they can jeer. Of course I understand that these girls are young and are not used to facing such crowds, added to pressure of competing for a contest that will hopefully change their lives. Of course I know that for some ... this is the final step for their dreams to come true even at the end ...it turns out to be a nightmare.
But what I do not understand are two things:
(a) Why is GOD always involved in the answers?
This is a beauty contest, Ladies ... and not a challenge as to who gets to join the first batch to be beamed up by the Rapture. And aspiring to work for an international beauty organization has got nothing to do with spirituality ... but everything that matters to Donald Trump.
(b)Why can't you just speak in Filipino? Better yet ... why not Cebuano, Ilonggo, Waray, Ilocano, Pangalatok? In which Holy Book is it said that you can only speak English in order to prove to the world that you have credibility and respectability?
Is it not said over and over again (to the point of tediousness) that there are such people as translators who are professionally hired to interpret what is being said in one's native language to that being used as the medium for the event?
Invoking God is that extra embellishment to add the dimension of the spiritual while wearing a swimsuit and earrings the size of the chandeliers at the Heroes Hall in Malacanang. That is a matter of taste and prerogative and even drama. Add pretentiousness and false piety to the list.
But then mangling English for the sake of impersonating the use of the language is ...scary. No, it is dangerous. It is dangerous in the sense that wrong signals are being sent about being true to one's self and forcing the use of a language for the sake of sounding sophisticated and knowledgeable. Yet the moment chaos enters the construction of sentences, a fate worse than death awaits.
Viral videos posted all over the net capturing that awkward moment turning into a celebration of stupidity can be damaging ... and will never go away. For some poor innocent girl who did know any better, to have a moment of blunder looped and archived in the annals of the internet is a curse that will last nearly forever.
This is all because we are conditioned to believe that you are only as good as you can spokening English. We are made to believe that this is the most basic measure of the intellectual capacity and credibility of anyone seeking a position of acceptability. We think anyone who can sputter English with such elan and eloquence automatically demands respect. That works as long as you understand what you are saying ... and not merely babbling to prove to the world something or someone you are definitely NOT.
In the process we forget that it is our language that defines us. It is our language that defines our mindset, our way of conceiving as well as perceiving the world.
To be the next great Filipino designer ... or to be the woman who will embody the Filipina in an international arena, English has got nothing to do with first finding who you are ... and being proud of it. It is good to know and master English ... but it is far more important to be a Pinoy first.