“English is my third language but it’s the only language I know.”
In reviewing grammar and syntax to my students, I would often say this, usually when I’m commiserating with them. Standard English – the speaking, reading, writing of “educated” English fluency – isn’t easy for both non-native and native speakers. What’s weird about me is that, while English isn’t my first language, it’s the only one in which I’m fluent.
My parents are to blame, but they meant well.
I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and I’m half Chinese, half Filipino. It was 1972, the year when US President Richard Nixon visited The People’s Republic of China. While that visit would lead to the US pulling out of Taiwan in 1979, when I was born the US still had a military base in Taipei, the US Taiwan Defense Command. My Chinese biological mother – young, scared, and not married to the Filipino-American Navy man who was my biological father — gave me up to a Catholic orphanage to be adopted. After a few months in the orphanage, I was. Ruben Ramos, a young US Navy sailor, and Fely, his young wife, adopted me. Both Filipinos, they – through a mutual friend – also knew my biological father. (The US Navy Filipino community in 1970s Taipei, Taiwan, was small that way, as one could imagine.)
According to my mom Fely, “I would donate clothes to the orphanage next to the church, and when I saw you, you were the only one standing up in your crib. You were smiling and looking at me.”
Of course, I don’t remember any of this. I also don’t have any memories of my sister Wendy being born to our mom (Fely, that is) a year and a half later and anything else of the first four years of my life. All I have are faded photographs and the stories my mom and dad tell of that time in Taiwan.
Part of those stories are about Wendy and me picking up Mandarin Chinese from the radio, the television, and our playmates. Meanwhile, we also spoke Tagalog (the national language of the Philippines) and Ilocano (my parents’ Filipino regional language), especially since we would regularly visit our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in San Fernando, La Union, in the Philippines. Since English was and still is taught in Filipino schools, our parents also spoke English to us (granted, with a thick Filipino accent), so our Taipei household was a linguistic mash-up of Chinese, Filipino, and English.
In hindsight, being fluent in all of those languages would have been AWESOME. But then two occurrences happened: 1) Wendy and I spoke so much more Chinese than the other languages that our parents couldn’t understand us and 2) in 1976, our father, Ruben Ramos, was given orders to report for duty stateside, to the Naval Station Great Lakes, just north of Chicago, Illinois.
Worried that Wendy and I would be unintelligible in the States (especially since I would start formal schooling soon), my parents decided to speak only English to us kids, in preparation for the big move. So it was English from now on – from 1976, even to this day. (Even when my brother and youngest sister were born later – 1977 and 1979 respectively – my parents stuck with their “English-only” decision, to the mild bemusement of our bilingual California cousins.)
So when I began to read, it was English. But what’s funny is that the first solid memory of me reading was something that I wrote.
Like all young kids, I scribbled on any piece of blank of paper I found, including the end papers of my dad’s cookbooks and my mom’s blue airmail stationary (to their chagrin). I don’t remember exactly WHEN I began to read. But it was sometime during our family’s one-year stay at Great Lakes. I saw my first snowy winter stateside. My sister’s third birthday and then my fifth birthday came and went with large parties for both. My brother’s much celebrated birth and christening happened not too long after, and I started kindergarten in the following autumn. I got in big trouble for going to a classmate’s house to play Legos instead of coming straight home. Sometime in that busy year, I drew a picture.
You know those two-dimensional Egyptian hieroglyphics, where the people are only in profile? Well, I drew in profile a smiling girl in a white karate gi, jumping in mid-air, arms akimbo in what were meant to be killer karate chops. I drew a word bubble above the girl and wrote, “JUDO IS FUN!” in that word bubble.
I was maybe four-going-on-five or just turned five years old, and I have no idea where I got any of that from. My family watched a lot of TV, and the 1970s had lots of martial arts in its pop culture, what with David Carradine’s Kung Fu, disco songs like Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting,” and Bruce Lee movies. We didn’t have any comic books, but my mom bought these huge (two-foot tall) coloring books for Wendy and me, so I guess I copied them, learning how to draw. Also, Schoolhouse Rock! was a mainstay of Saturday morning cartoons on ABC from 1973 to 1985, so perhaps I picked up the comic convention of word bubbles and how to draw people from that (in addition to the actual educational purpose of Schoolhouse Rock!). Finally, my mom has been a Wheel of Fortune fan from the very beginning, seeing all that prize money won by ordinary American shmoes just for solving word puzzles, so that was always on.
Did I learn how to read from cheesy 1970s television shows, movies, disco music, and coloring books? My mom was busy caring for an infant (my brother Eric) at this time, when she wasn’t working part-time at the Solo Cup factory. My dad was busy being Navy. My paternal grandmother, whom we all called “Apo” (from apo baket, “grandmother” in Ilocano) and who had come all the way from the Philippines to help out my mom and dad, was busy running the house and keeping an eye on Wendy and me. So, yes. I did learn how to read from 1970s coloring books, disco music, movies, and especially TV.
This “TV taught me to read” memory is why I don’t worry when Daniel, my seven year old son, watches tons of Minecraft gameplay and SpongeBob on his iPad. I just make sure to turn on the “closed caption” at the same time and turn down the volume, so he’s reading.
Sure, it’s not Shakespeare, but that will come in time, like it did with me.
After a year (more or less) in Illinois, my dad got stationed in Charleston, South Carolina. One would think, considering that I finished the second half of kindergarten there, that I would remember what I did at school, including what I read. But I only remember the two things from that school. One was an assignment where the kids learned how to write a “letter” and mail it. It was a crayon drawing on construction paper, and we mailed it to ourselves, so it was also a lesson on memorizing our home addresses. The other was when I struggled how to draw a five-pointed star without making it look like the Star of David.
Instead of school, I remember other things. An older neighbor kid (he was a tall first-grader with white-blond hair and freckles) got us lost when he took a short-cut on the walk home from school. I didn’t know the way, so I followed him. We scrambled under wire fences and crossed muddy fields, and he got turned around along the way. Scared beyond thinking, we were relieved when a local woman on her bike came by, recognized us, and directed us back to our neighborhood.
One warm Sunday, my dad took Wendy and me fishing, straight from church. We didn’t even change out of our church clothes (dresses, always those scratchy, church dresses) because the day was getting away. We were in a small canoe-like boat (not very big) somewhere on the various tributaries feeding Charleston’s rivers. Although our dad may have caught some fish, the only thing we caught were bug bites from the mosquitoes.
Behind our house was a little stand of oak trees which, in my mind, felt like an infinite forest. I would wander around before dinner and look for squirrels who were always faster than I was. I’d hear the squirrels, chittering away above me, but would only find half-eaten acorns below.
Then, when I was six years old in the summer of 1978, we moved again. Back to the Western Pacific — this time it was Naval Air Station Agaña, Guam.
And Guam was where I fell in love with books.