Why Making Tawad Is the Only Reason I Want to Learn My Mother Tongue

Bargaining, I am convinced, is a superpower. Growing up in southern California, I would be entranced by my mother’s seemingly magic abilities to work down a seller to half price, even if we were just garaging on a Saturday morning. My baby hapa heart was thrilled. Even though by the time I was born she’d lived as long in the States as she had in the Philippines, her proficiency in the dark arts of tawad had been as pristinely maintained as Jane Fonda’s cheekbones.

It wasn’t until this year when I dropped everything to pilgrimage to the homeland that I really understood that bargaining is essential to the heart and soul of Pilipinx life: the palengke and tiangge (open markets). At the tiangge, the pearl stalls gleam with South Sea luster, glass cabinets, and blinding florescent light bulbs. I squeal in delight at the attainable luxuries that I may call native to my motherland. This, I am convinced, is where Filipina women forge their magic—trading aggressive banter for enormous baroque pearls that would give Sophie Buhai a run for her money. This, I decide, is my happy place: the place where priceless beauty and steely wills are celebrated amongst savvy businesswomen.

And yet try as I might, I have resigned myself to the fact that I might never gain the same satisfaction as my relatives from making tawad with the pearl vendors—from ruthlessly slashing at prices and volleying shock and awe at your suki in pursuit of that coveted best price. The buy-in to this exchange is fluency in Tagalog (bonus points if you speak Cebuano). I am woefully guilty of speaking neither.

I have learned much simply by observing what my Tita considers a perfectly valid spectator sport. The trick (well actually there are several) is to take ownership of the thing before you even ask for first price. You must envision yourself in them so passionately that your suki cannot imagine them going to anyone else. Once sufficiently attached to it, you go for half price, and you hold the like the diva you are until she exclaims, “Hay nako, I cannot even pay the divers with the prices you ask for!” And then you know she likes you. In return, she scribbles hasty figures on paper and keeps her voice low, so you know she’s betraying the informally agreed-upon price of her fellow vendors. You leave spending twice as much as what you planned on but still convinced that your champagne South Sea opera strands are worth far more than the price at which you bought them.

The final price might be the ultimate prize, but the familiarity with which that dance is performed is what makes the transaction ang sarap—so yummy. Since I don’t speak, I ask my Auntie to negotiate on my behalf. I chip in where I can, embarrassed of my role as the smiling, oblivious hapa. I can feel them talking about me. I flush, furious that I cannot clap back and advocate for myself. My Tita translates: “It’s your nose that gives you away.” (And here I thought it was my accent.)

The experience is nothing short of humbling. At home, I might be known for my loud-ass voice and feisty impression of the Olivia Pope Stomp-Walk™, but here the women I want so badly to joust with reduce me to a stutter. I am not worthy of their banter so long as my verbal signaling still screams WEALTHY WHITE(ISH) WESTERNER. I walk away, pearls in hand but heart in knots.

It’s enough to single-handedly motivate me to learn the language—a motivation that has never been so present and so urgent—and my chest begins to burn with a furious need to connect with these women. It’s weird—why would something so simple and off-key as haggling light a fire under my ass to learn Tagalog, and not something more intimate like say, connecting with my own mother? I realize quickly it’s because my way into my mom’s brownness is through clothes—her pearls, her bespoke vintage made by the Titas back home, her penchant for designer outlet sales. I realize my connection to my heritage is largely material, defined by the balikbayan boxes I bring home full of textiles, home goods, and jewelry.

And so I decide to intentionally make the spaces I inhabit and the clothes that I wear my brown space. If I don’t feel it inside me, I am damn well going to find it outside of me, (read: hoarding opera strands like nobody’s business). It’s funny, in the moment I don’t think I quite understand that learning a language is a life-long commitment, but I do realize it’s a way in to my family history that I didn’t have before. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

Figuring out how to live my best hyphenated life has always been the struggle. I am still uncomfortable with how little I have to show for being the hyphenated Pilipina, and most days I feel as authentic as a night market Prada. It occurs to me as I pass by counterfeit Kylie lip kits and Ralph Lauren knock offs that the tiangge is my happy place because it is the closest I will ever get to an authentic Pilipinx experience. Vendors crow “Ma’amsir,” at you as you pass by, middle-aged women tout their Louis Vuittons of both dubious and authentic origin, and whole families replenish their wardrobes with bargain-priced deadstock. It’s not the mango-slinging streets of the local palengke, but the spirit of it gets damn close.

And as I sit in the traffic, brooding in my pearls as we crawl through Manila’s twisted streets, I realize my experience at the tiangge is strikingly demonstrative of hapa duality. It’s like wanting to make tawad but having the words stuck in your throat. You understand how to speak but without the courage of having done so. It’s the space between having played the expression in your head a hundred times and being able to execute it flawlessly. The squeak you make instead—the moment you crack from the pressure like you’re suki’s somehow morphed into a blinding apparition of Beyoncé—that is living your hyphen.

 

Written by: Lindsey Twigg

About the Author: Lindsey Twigg is a behavioral technician, theatre professional, and lyrical poet based in Santa Barbara, CA.  She writes vigorously about hapa identity, the female body, and the importance of wearing pearls.  She’s a friend of the pod, a hoarder of (coffee table) books, and a connoisseur of very large pants.  You can find her ramblings about fashion on her blog, The Filipino Grigio.