Why is my reflection someone I don’t know? On language, culture, and being a critical applied linguist (by John Wayne N. dela Cruz)

We are all plurilinguals (Piccardo, 2019).

This is a quote from one of my courses in Fall 2020, one that has resonated with me profoundly. It’s a line that I keep hearing in my head, and a lesson that I’ll take with me beyond this course’s online classroom (thanks for that, COVID-19!). For the final course assignment, I decided to take inspiration from this quote: to create a digital collage, and to write a blog post to go with it. Through the digital collage and post, I wish to unpack this quote by asking and responding to the question: if I am a plurilingual, how so and in what ways?

I first aimed to address this question by reflecting on how plurilingualism intersects with my identity as a critical applied linguist, an English as Second Language (ESL) teacher, and a multilingual immigrant to Canada from a previously colonized nation, the Philippines. To do so, I thought of creating a meme, through which I would exercise my plurilingualism by drawing from my entire linguistic repertoire to engage in “a process of dynamic, creative ‘languaging’ across the boundaries” (Piccardo, 2019, p. 185) of my known language varieties. Also, by using digital and visual resources to respond to the questions via meme creation, I meant to follow what Vogel and García (2017; as cited in Kleyn & García, 2019, p. 72) describe as translanguaging: an act of privileging not only one’s own dynamic linguistic repertoire, but also one’s fluid semiotic practices of meaning-making.

As such, I set out to create a “John starter pack” meme (i.e., digital collage; see here for examples) that would respond to the question that prompted this creative task. I used various texts, languages, and visual representations of the languages and cultures in my repertoire to envoice and entextualize (Canagarajah, 2013) the many things that have shaped and continue to shape my sense of self as a linguistic/cultural being, an applied linguist, and an educator. In other words, I wanted the starter pack meme to allow my voice to be heard by meshing various semiotic resources to meaningfully communicate my identities and thoughts (Canagarajah, 2013).

Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?

I included cultures and languages that people see in me, and those that I have come to see in me. Drawing from the transformative nature of translanguaging (Kleyn & García, 2019) and translingual practices (Canagarajah, 2013), I used popular characters from Disney to transform my unique personal experiences and identities into representations that I think most readers would easily understand, if not also relate with:

  1. Asian (Mulan): most often than not, people contest my Asian-ness because they think Asian only means East Asians. A previous white anthropology professor even publicly insisted during a class that I was Chinese(!). And while I recognize the Chinese heritage and culture that is present in contemporary Filipino culture and communities, I identify as a proud, brown, Southeast Asian. Interestingly, my parents worked and lived in Hong Kong for some years before and after I was born, and so when they came back to the Philippines for good, I did grow up hearing and learning some common Cantonese expressions such as ‘thank you’ (多謝; dòjeh), ‘hurry up!’ (快啲啦!faai di laa!), or ‘let’s eat!’ (食飯啦 !  sihk faahn laa!);

2. Pacific Islanders (Moana): I had in the past had encounters with people who insisted I was a Pacific Islander. While this isn’t entirely incorrect, it’s also not entirely true; besides, I come from the province of Tarlac, the Saskatchewan of the Philippines (e.g., think rice fields and plains), and not from the more maritime settings in the country;

3. Hispanic (Miguel from Coco!): Aside from the fact that I am often mistaken for a Latin person, someone also once insisted my French has a Hispanic accent. I’m almost entirely sure this was a case of accent hallucination since I don’t speak Spanish (check out these studies in the United States and Canada for more nerdy details on accent hallucination). That said, my last name definitely doesn’t help;

4. White/Western (John Wayne): After the United States (US) colonized the Philippines, which for a time was part of the US commonwealth, compound English names replaced previously popular Spanish ones, and you’re left with some trans/plurilingual name like John Wayne dela Cruz. The name is so not monolingual that a white peer once saw my compound first name, mistook it as my full name, and asked if I had white parents;

5. Japanese (anime): I included this because I consume so much anime and manga, to the point that I have been picking up Japanese words and phrases. I chose to include this meme in my meme (I know, so meta… ha!) because the Mangekyō Sharingan (literally, kaleidoscope pinwheel eye) is a powerful eye technique that can see through opponents’ movements and deceptions, hence this is why it is depicted as being used for watching anime while reading subtitles. In the starter pack meme I intentionally had this meme face the baybayin script tattooed on a person’s arm for reasons I discuss below in item 6;

Malaya (free)

6. Last but most importantly, the Filipino flag and the baybayin: This script is the pre-Hispanic writing system that some indigenous Filipino communities used. Through colonization, the baybayin was replaced by Latin script from the Spanish language, which is why Tagalog is now exclusively taught and used with Latin script. Hence for me, trying to learn the baybayin today is an enduring narrative of both loss and hope.

I chose these images and texts to specifically touch on the tensions and negotiations between what is expected of me culturally and linguistically, coming from a very collectivist and filial Filipino culture (i.e., Mulan, dishonour, and the ancestors; Moana and her village), yet coming of age in a highly individualist and independent Canadian society (i.e., John Wayne; ‘Western’ film genre). Moreover, these images and texts also communicate the shame, guilt, and realization that someone like myself—though a product of colonial history—has chosen to study, acquire, and teach colonial languages. This self-confrontation has been rife with internal and external conflicts. Indeed, recollecting the discrepancies between plurilingual/ translanguaging theories and neoliberal realities that Kubota (2020) and Jaspers (2018) explicate, I find myself having a moment of Mulan-esque Reflection: “Who is that [boy] I see, staring straight back at me?”

As a generation 1.5-er, my “John starter pack” narrates a continuing, unfinished story of self-knowing, expressed by the ellipsis in the meme’s subheadings. The meme’s centre piece of baybayin tattoo spells out “malaya“—the Tagalog word for “state of being free.” Yet, I find my inclusion of this word in and of itself ironic, because I often wonder: Am I ever truly linguistically and culturally free from my nation’s colonial past? How about from Canada’s? My name, John Wayne dela Cruz, echoes this history, which I argue is an ongoing present, and potential future. The colonized and colonial languages I speak, research and teach—Tagalog, English, French, Ilocano, and Kapampangan—also contest the very notion of freedom. Nevertheless, this blend of languages and cultures in me—who is now both insider and outsider in various cultural and linguistic circles—constantly puts this freedom to the test in my daily life as an academic, a pedagogue, and a person.

To end on a lighter, optimistic note, I did consider the inclusion of the baybayinmalaya” and the anime character reading it using his Mangekyō Sharingan a funny, little personal way of #resisting the continuing colonial privileging of English (Cushman, 2016) in many societies like Canada. Through my watching of anime in Japanese with English subtitles, I have found a way to authentically appreciate multimodal Japanese meanings in its full glory via Japanese art styles AND speech, instead of being filtered completely through the English language (i.e., via dubs). Similarly, through this meme, I have ultimately found an outlet to unpack in what ways exactly am I plurilingual, by making and expressing meanings not only in a plurilingual and translingual manner, but more importantly in a decolonial manner (Cushman, 2016).

And perhaps, at least for now, this reflects freedom. My freedom/ang aking kalayaan.


Canagarajah, S. (2013). Negotiating translingual literacy: An enactment. Research in the Teaching of English, 48(1), 40–67.

Cushman, E. (2016). Translingual and decolonial approaches to meaning making. College English, 78(3), 234–242.

Jaspers, J. (2018). The transformative limits of translanguaging. Language and Communication, 58, 1– 10.

Kleyn, T., & García, O. (2019). Translanguaging as an act of transformation. In: L. C. de Oliveira (Ed.), The handbook of TESOL in K-12 (pp. 69-82). John Wiley & Sons.

Kubota, R. (2020). Promoting and problematizing multi/plural approaches in language pedagogy. In S. M. C. Lau & S. Van Viegen (Eds.), Plurilingual pedagogies: Critical endeavours for equitable language in education (pp. 303-321). Springer.

Piccardo, E. (2019). “We’re all (potential) plurilinguals”: Plurilingualism as an overarching, holistic concept. Cahiers de L’ILOB, 10, 183–204.

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