What does Sarapen mean?

Penpen de sarapen
de kutsilyo de almasen.
Haw haw de carabao
batuten.

Sayang pula, walang pera.
Sayang puti, walang salapi.

That is a children’s rhyming chant from the Philippines. Specifically, it’s a Tagalog rhyming chant. There are different versions, but I suspect mine is slightly wrong. What can I say, it’s been years since I learned all this stuff. My brother says it’s “Sayang pula, tatlong pera” and so on, and my uncle adds the verse:

Sipit namimilipit
Gintong Pilak
Namumulaklak
Sa tabi ng DAGAT!

He also says that there are more verses that he can’t remember. But what does the rhyme mean? You got me, I only have a Grade 4 education in Tagalog. I think it’s a nonsense rhyme anyway. “Kutsilyo” is knife, “almasen” is warehouse (in Spanish), and “carabao” is water buffalo. The “sayang pula” verse makes no sense to me at all: Too bad it’s red, there’s no money, too bad it’s white, there’s no money? What is that supposed to mean? I originally remembered this as “oras pula” and “oras puti” or “red time” and “white time”, but no one else in my family remembers this version, so perhaps I just made it up.

My uncle’s verse is more intelligible. I don’t know what the first line means, the Tagalog is too deep for my pitiful Taglish to decode. “Gintong pilak” should probably be “Ginto’t pilak” or “gold and silver”. Then it would be, “gold and silver flower beside the sea” for the rest of the verse.

I know, this is really muddled. Still, this confusion helps to illustrate several points I’d like to make about migration, diasporas, and identity. First, my admittedly poor Tagalog language skills are not unusual for second generation Filipinos or for 1.5 generation people like me. This probably has to do with the fact that 1st generation Filipinos are already relatively proficient at English compared to other immigrants, and therefore their children have less incentive to learn Tagalog. The reason so many Filipinos are already fluent in English, though, is that the Philippines was once a colony of the United States. Even though the Philippines was officially granted independence in 1946, the colonial period still exerts a strong influence on events today. It’s common for ex-colonies to supply immigrants to the former colonial master — look, for example, at France, where Algerians are a significant minority, or look at the United Kingdom, where people from the Caribbean can be found in abundance. In other words, even today colonizers still profit from their former empires. In order to understand the present, one must turn to the past.

Now, second of all, you might wonder why I decided to name my blog after a Tagalog rhyming chant. I did it partly because of nostalgia for the Philippines. I remember my childhood fondly and the chant reminds me of it. This is something many immigrants do, which is, they construct a homeland of memory. People migrate for all sorts of reasons, but that migration is felt first and foremost as an emotional change. Weather, culture shock, downward mobility: that’s all important, but to many, migration is personal before it is anything else. Migration is perceived through personal differences instead of through larger structural and environmental differences (though we should not forget that the personal is political and that the individual is always caught up in the society at large).

My third and final point is on identity. I chose Sarapen to mark out my Filipino-ness. But why is being Filipino so important to me? Why did I feel the need to tell everyone on the Internet about it? I certainly didn’t tell anyone that I’m a gamer or a fan of V for Vendetta (until now, that is). And why mark out being Filipino and not being Canadian? Or Ontarian? Certainly, I feel as much of an Ontario Canadian as I do a Filipino Caviteño. But when you live in Canada, then most everyone you know is Canadian. Why would you feel the need to constantly point out that you’re Canadian as well?

Instead, as Stuart Hall observed, identity begins in difference. Instead of an identity being constructed positively from what is (Filipinos speak Tagalog, are from the Philippines, etc.), identity begins from asserting what it is not (Filipinos are not born in Canada, are not white, etc.). Having established what you are not, then you can establish what you are: a Tagalog speaker, an immigrant, a visible minority, and all the other things that make up being a Filipino in Canada.

A personal anecdote might help to make things clearer. When I was living in the province of Ontario, I never really thought about my Ontario-ness. When I moved to Nova Scotia, I suddenly felt very keenly that I was an Ontarian. Suddenly I started feeling a certain kinship with other people from Ontario, even though I probably wouldn’t have even given them a second glance back in Ontario. But talking to people who knew that Sudbury was in Northern Ontario and that Mike Harris had been a mistake as premier was all of a sudden a novel and worthwhile experience. I only started to recognize my Ontario-ness, though, after I kept coming up against the fact that I wasn’t Nova Scotian. Tantallon? Cape Breton? Are these real places? What were all these people talking about? It’s not that Nova Scotians were trying to make me feel unwelcome, it was just that they were coming from a different mindset, which made me realize how different my mindset was. And once I realized I was different, I started to realize in what ways I was different. And hence my Ontario-ness in Nova Scotia. As they say, there’s no one more Scottish than a Scotsman out of Scotland.

I’ll also note that identity is a problematic thing. Not all Filipinos in Canada, after all, are Tagalog speakers, and not all of them are immigrants. And not all Filipinos even actually identify themselves as Filipino. Once you start making claims about a particular identity, you start excluding certain people. If you don’t recognize that identity is not an objective fact, but instead a bunch of subjective claims, then you won’t see the differences and the hybridity that people actually live their lives in. No one is always and only Filipino, but they are also Canadians, doctors, children, Ilocano, and New Yorkers, sometimes all at the same time. That is what identity is — a shifting and ever-changing mass.

Well, that was certainly a long post. But as you can see, even something as simple as the title of this blog has hidden complexities. There’s a lot more that I could write about Sarapen, but this is probably enough to let you know just how complex social phenomena are. If the title of a blog is this complex, how much more complex is something like immigration? Too complex even for a lifetime of research. Even with how much I’ve narrowed down my project, I still feel that I could spend a lot, lot more time on my research. But that is how research inevitably is. I just hope I’ve given you some idea of a few of the issues that I’m thinking about.

4 Replies to “What does Sarapen mean?”

  1. i think…”sayang pula” means saya as in barong saya (the skirt won by women)…in red..and the “sayang puti” is the same in white color…

  2. Pen pen de serapen means friend, friend the seraphim (angel)

    This angel must be described as someone with a knife or a glass bottle container (almasen)

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