OPINION: Why fear the unfamiliar?

Amir Mawallil

Posted at Apr 18 2017 04:37 AM

Local police in Cebu City have advised residents to report “suspicious-looking persons” and “unusual activities” as a safety measure. Upon receiving a call from a hotel staff, operatives of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) in Cebu City immediately responded to the report as a precautionary measure.

The “unusual activity?” Speaking in a “different language.”

Ten people, all government officials from Basilan, were assisted by the aforementioned hotel staff as they checked into the hotel. They were in Cebu for an official meeting at Sugbutel in the North Reclamation Area of the city. The different language the staff heard was most probably Yakan, a language widely spoken in the island province of Basilan by the province’s major ethnolinguistic group also known as Yakan.

I grew up in Mindanao, spending my younger years in Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga, where most people can speak in at least two languages other than English and Filipino. I learned to speak in Tausug before I even knew how to speak in Filipino, and my friends can speak Ilonggo, Chavacano, or Yakan as effortlessly as they can speak in Filipino.

In Manila, I hear Maguindanaon and Meranaw every once in a while, and every time, I hear the words of my people. I hear friends in government speaking in Waray or Bisaya interspersed with Filipino and English during casual conversations in between events and meetings in Cotabato City.

We all speak a different language, and yet we never looked at each other as a threat. We are all part of a multilingual community and, by extension, a multilingual country.

Not once did I think of calling the police, no matter how unfamiliar the language was. To me, hearing a new language is an invitation to learn more about other people and their culture. The Philippines is home to more than a hundred languages, governed by different sounds and grammar, making the Philippines a home to thousands of unique stories that can only be told in one’s own tongue.

This is why I find it curious, if not troubling, how one could think of calling the police just because he heard a new, unfamiliar sound – how one could assume danger right off the bat instead of engaging in conversation and asking what the language was and what stories it holds.
What does it say about the country we live in if at the slightest indication of difference we cower in fear? What does it say about the relationships we share with the people whom we share a country with? What does it say about our future when our present is characterized by suspicion and fear, instead of solidarity and empathy and mutual understanding?
I’ve long accepted that there is so much work that needs to be done when it comes to interfaith and multicultural understanding, given the geographical and historical divides that we are yet to bridge and reconcile. This latest episode of prejudice and profiling is a reminder that the differences continue to exist even in the things we take for granted, things like language, and these are no exception when it comes to the things we need to understand and embrace together.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.