This year, I’ve thought a lot about language and how we use it, and gained appreciation for the fact that Tagalog (as with other Philippines languages I’m sure) has an incredible ability to develop multiple meanings for the same word or phrase, like “walang hiya”.
My favourite anecdote comes from my mom, who often talks about this one time she asked her friends whether they were going downstairs for lunch. As the story goes, her non-Filipino colleague sitting nearby looked so confused when she asked “Bababa ba?”
That story used to make me feel uneasy, and I’ve realized it’s because if I were in that situation, I would likely have felt a little ‘less than’ my non-Filipino colleagues - strangely but surely ashamed, very much “hiya”, that my language sounded like baby babble.
Perhaps like some of you, I’ve learned how to live with varying degrees of shame: over the way letters roll off my tongue, how the apartment smells when I crave eating dishes like pinakbet with bagoong, or how I’m making it on my own. I’m ashamed to admit these things bother me, and I often wonder why.
I didn’t grow up someplace that encouraged me to speak my mind. “Mahiya ka naman!” (or “Be ashamed of yourself!”) was something I often heard the grown-ups say, if it looked l was about to do something that was out of line or considered unacceptable behaviour. To avoid being told that, at school I recited facts from textbooks and followed everything the teacher said, and at home that meant obeying the elders I respected, without question.
In the Philippines, I learned to blend in with the crowd because no one wants to be that “walang hiya” who stands out and becomes the subject of everyone’s tsismis (gossip). And since the adults around me didn’t (or couldn’t) talk about what was really on their mind, despite the hardships I could see they experienced - that culture of never losing face runs deep - I got to believing that what I felt and what was on my mind didn’t really matter, either.
But eventually I wondered: why did I really care so much about what other people thought of me?
Slowly, after moving to Canada, I learned how to speak up - in college classes, at work, and in different kinds of social situations. I gained the confidence to talk about previously touchy subjects, like my identity and sexuality, and to do things like apply for the job that I wanted instead of the job that I needed.
I don’t think I could have started my podcast if I didn’t become this version of “walang hiya”. By listening to amazing stories from Filipino people all over the world, about the history of our traditional foodways - those ingredients, dishes, and practices that are fading away - I gained a newfound appreciation of the culture I grew up wanting to forget. Through the podcast, I’ve learned that when we make space for our stories - for respectful dialogue to share our perspectives and listen intently, without worrying about whether our actions could be perceived as shameful or not - it becomes a lot easier to speak up, in our own voices, and understand that there’s nothing to hide.
Over the last three years I have been going to therapy and counselling, and it took the pandemic to truly make me realize there’s no shame in admitting that. There’s tsismis in this bag and that’s totally fine. No one person can handle everything, and when I lost the person who always cheered me on, it felt like my life came crashing down. It took a long time for me to say I needed help in the first place because I’ve always been the eldest daughter who just knew how to “deal with it”. What right did I have to complain about things that bothered me, when the people I loved already had so much to worry about?
I kept coming back to this question, learning over time that the support I needed was valid, and I wasn’t going to be a burden on anyone. It took awhile to understand that asking for help with editing audio files, running errands, quitting cigarettes, and generally believing in myself wasn’t a sign of weakness, and didn’t make me a failure. I’m determined to let go of this odd inability to ask for help - “wala nang hiya-hiya!” as they say - because there’s really nothing to lose.
As I continue to build the relationships that have gained new importance for me this year, I end it with gratitude, because I can share a part of it with you. It’s like having a little chat with a chosen family, who I can be unabashedly myself around. Living this version of me, with all the cracks on display, would really make me “walang hiya” or without shame for who I am...and isn’t that what really matters?
About the Author
Nastasha Alli was born and raised in the Philippines and came to Canada in 2007. For her writing at the intersection of food and diaspora communities, she won a Food Sustainability Media Award from the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Her work has been featured on CBC Radio and her recipe published in a "top cookbook of 2018" by the San Francisco Chronicle. She talks about Philippine food history, traditions and culture with guests from around the world on her Exploring Filipino Kitchens podcast.