In the last few years, I’ve pondered why those of us in the Filipino diaspora feel the need to joke about the Filipino accent and Philippine languages.
I was scrolling through Twitter a while ago when I came across a clapback to a TikTok that poked fun at Tagalog words like “bulaklak” (flower) and “kili-kili” (armpit). In the original TikTok, played 13.9 million times and liked by 2.3 million people as of writing, the creator used an exaggerated accent when told the Philippines has “beautiful people, beautiful language”.
It was embarrassing to watch. Though as a kid, I would have found the video hilarious.
Growing up in Canada in the 2000s and 2010s, there wasn’t widespread representation of Filipinos in Western media, much less in the sphere of comedy. So second-generation comedians riffing on their parents’ accents and their cultural differences felt like common ground I could stand on.
Are all jokes about Asian and Filipino accents problematic, even if we're the ones telling them?
An example of a comedian who claims to use an Asian accent as humor to connect with their audience is TikTok creator Karen Ip. She shared that the experiences she finds funny just so happen to coincide with her culture as she lives in a “very Chinese household.”
According to Ip, her content is for fellow Asians. But when we consider the double standard—how some accents are deemed acceptable and even attractive while others are decidedly not—is this how we want to relate to one another?
Let's be honest: accent jokes can ridicule our ancestors and relatives.
When it comes to jokes about Filipino accents, the common ground is built on a “hiya” (shame) cultivated by centuries of colonialism.
Jay Oliva, director of the Netflix animated show Trese, proclaimed that it was empowering and a relief for the Filipino American cast to be able to use Filipino accents. Yet admittedly, he also didn’t want people to sound like his mom, who he says has a heavy accent.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder if subconsciously, having a heavy accent meant something negative to Oliva, as it might for other Filipinos.
We have to ask: if the Filipino accent is a source of our hiya, whose accents do we praise?
I’m a hopeless romantic. And yes, that means I belong to the subset of “Women Who Love British Period Dramas”. My childhood weekends regularly involved swooning at British heroes and their posh accents. I know I’m not alone in that.
“We tend to think [Britain] is this universal monolith of high status, and that’s probably vestigial of post-colonial heritage that we have,” psychology professor Glenn Geher says, adding that once an American visits Britain, they can see that’s not true. “There’s plenty of class differentiation there.”
In middle school, the same people who would listen more acutely to a British narration for class would make fun of the accent of our South Asian substitute teacher.
On one hand, I found the accent of Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy to be dreamy and elegant. On the other hand, as a kid I would make fun of my dad’s pronunciation of the number “three,” despite him being the reason I’m educated at all.
It is because of the powers that be (i.e. colonialism, colonization, and Eurocentrism) that we consider “broken English” and its pronunciation as a marker of intelligence and education… or rather, the lack of it. So often it’s forgotten, many immigrants learn English as their second or third language. That is a massive feat!
Not only do immigrants learn another language later on in life, but they must do it while dealing with the other hardships of resettling in another country.
An accent is actually a sign of brilliance because it means using the sounds of your native language while speaking another.
The dichotomy and double standard is so telling.
We’ve allowed colonizers to condition our minds with whose art and voice matter and whose voices literally sound more powerful and enticing.
What if we united in celebration of our Filipino accents instead of uniting in our shame?
I remember showing my mom a YouTube video years ago of a Filipino American comedian making fun of their parents’ accent. She sat there, stone-faced. When I asked her why she wasn’t laughing, she said she didn’t find it funny; to her, it was demoralizing and alienating.
Not everyone may feel this way, but it's enough that some of our fellow Filipinx, Filipinas and Filipinos do. What if there was another way to consider our accents? What if we could share in something new?
Besides, the Filipino accent we tend to think of is only one kind. There are so many languages beyond Tagalog and when we amalgamate them into “the one where you switch the ‘f’s with the ‘p’s,” we aren’t accurately depicting our homeland.
I think back to that TikTok… bulaklak is one of my favorite Filipino words. For me, its syllables encompass, and even mimic, the blooming of petals more accurately than the English “flower.” When I attended Lakas ng Loob: Spoken Word Poetry Workshop for Filipinx by Cambio & Co., it was the first word I wrote down for the prompt: “What is your favorite Filipino word?”
Our accents and languages can capture just the right turn of phrase or emotion. Even its translation can be an opportunity for delight. Many times, my parents will pause and ask each other “wait, what is that in English again” when they speak to me. When they finally come across the suitable word, they light up. So do I.
There is wonder and satisfaction in that moment, not hiya.
Ultimately, our Filipino accents tell our stories.
Looking back, it wasn’t a very conscious decision to sound like the white Canadians and Americans I was exposed to all my life, but I do remember vaguely someone pointing out my Filipino accent as a kid. I realize now this was around the time I stopped watching teleseryes with my mom and grandparents. I created more distance in myself… from myself.
At the same time, when I returned from my stay in the Philippines, my mom asked me why I sounded more Filipino even when speaking in English.
Yeah, okay. This was my way of trying to feel a sense of belonging in my own community and relatives while away from home but when I came back (hello, code-switching), it also felt weirdly empowering. To this day, I’ll slip into my accent again when I’m angry or excited.
When my dad says “three” or “Thomas” differently than me, it doesn’t bring shame anymore. Instead, I feel this warm kinship.
This is who I come from. This is where I come from.
If I could, I would tell my younger self the reasons our Filipino accent isn’t shameful.
François Gouin writes, “Is not the accent the signature of the soul in the phrase?”
There is beauty in all 170+ of our languages. What if we replaced our shame with joy? What if the stumbling over English is the persistent echo of our ancestors’ voices?
Is that not a healthier and sturdier foundation to stand on than hiya when we share our stories with others?
Before writing this, I sat around a table with my parents and we talked about that TikTok and how it felt when I grew up making fun of their accents.
There was a lot of that hiya. But there was also pride in our roots. They shared with me their favorite words in Tagalog.
Continuing the conversation, self-reflecting, and finding lasting joy in our community through the celebration of our accents is a form of resistance. It is a defiant “no” to the white supremacist and colonial narrative that our accents are not smart, sexy, or pleasing to hear.
Further, it is a resounding call to listen past "smart" or "sexy" labels and to pay attention to what we actually have to say.
There are so many more storytellers who look like me now. Online, on-screen, or on the page, we can truly share our stories with nuance. We do not have to settle for mocking accents.
After all, a great story is like a bulaklak, it blooms from authenticity.
My story goes like this: I immigrated to Canada when I was about to turn five. In preschool, I was given a medal for proficiency in English. I am a Creative Writing & Publishing graduate. I still love English.
I just wish I could tell the kindergartener version of me that she could love English without being ashamed of being Filipino.
She could love storytelling in both my languages.
Cover photo by Junessa Rendon.
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