Escher: Sky and Water

Do you speak “Chabacano”?

“I’m eat already”, the guy says. “You’ve eaten already?”, I say to myself. I look at him, intrigued. “I’m eat already”, he repeats. He looks down. I look from plate to plate. All the sailors are eating fish and rice. Except for him; he has no bowl. His part of the table is empty.

He looks up. He smiles. I smile. The others talk as they eat. They are speaking Tagalog. I don’t understand it but I can guess at the meaning. The numbers, months and many other nouns are the same as the ones I use. We were there for too many years. In the Philippines.

The guy starts speaking. I can understand what he says. Everything. Well, almost everything. “I’m eating already”, he says again. I know what he’s saying but it doesn’t match what he’s doing. “You’re not eating?”, I ask. “I’m eating already”, he concludes.

I decide to change tack. “Where are you from?”, I ask. “From Zamboanga”, he answers. Suddenly someone shouts out: “Chabacano.” The shout goes around the room: Chabacano, Chabacano, Chabacano. I start feeling uncomfortable. Are they making fun of him? Insulting him? Are they telling him he’s rude?

I look at him surprised. “I speak Chabacano: my grandmother taught me”, he explains. I understand that he’s making an effort to speak a basic Spanish and not leave me adrift on a sea of confusing conversations. I feel lucky.

We talk for a long time. About family, the sea, distance. He speaks in a Spanish I can understand but find strange and I speak in Castilian with a marked Catalan accent. Our vocabulary is almost the same but not the way we construct our sentences. In the end I get it: ‘I’m eating already’ is ‘I have eaten’. It’s late. I say goodbye and leave.

I get back to the office. I type in the word ‘Chabacano’. “Clumsy or crude and in bad taste”, is what I read first. But it is in the second definition I find something that surprises me: “Language spoken in the cities of Zamboanga, Basilan and Cavite in the Philippines, in which Spanish vocabulary and phrases predominate over the Tagalog or Bisaya grammatical structure.”

I investigate further. It is a creole language. It is also spoken in Malaysia. Almost one million people use it. It was created four hundred years ago, as a result of contact between local tribes, Spanish speakers and New Spaniards (Mexicans). It is an oral language although many people are calling for an end to the stigma of this rough and ready language and for the leap to be made to the written word.

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