— “It was truly a Southeast Asian word, soft as its people and well-understood from Marang to , to Sulawesi, to . It describes a love bound to sadness, a tenderness trembling on the edge of tears, a passion from which pity could not be detached….”
That was the late Gopal Baratham, a Singaporean writer, explaining why he chose “Sayang” as the title of his love story and novel, published in 1991. I can see why he was inspired by the word, which does have many meanings in the languages of, and the Philippines.
In Bahasa Malay and its fraternal twin, Bahasa, “rasa saying” is the feeling of love. It is also a term of endearment, used to refer to a loved one, as we do with our “Honey,” “Mahal,” “Labs.” Yet, the word does have one other meaning familiar to Filipinos: When a Malay or Indonesian goes “sayang sekali,” it means “what a pity!”
In the Philippines, we’ve only kept that last meaning. We sigh our “saying” — what a waste, what a pity — in many contexts, from having to throw out uneaten food, to having put in time, effort and money for a task, or a person, and getting nothing in return. It figures, too, in love when it is hapless, unrequited or — let me sigh again — betrayed.
Explore, with me, this thing called love, through a linguistic excursion in our part of the world, and I’ll show all that isn’t that contradictory.
The English word “love” is too simplistic. “Sayang” is more powerful in describing love, not as one emotion but as a confusing mélange of joy, bliss, euphoria, all fluidly intense and constantly threatening to spill over into fear, despair, even rage. Baratham was, incidentally, a neurosurgeon and I wonder if he thought of how “saying” explores the complex neurological wiring that is love.
Early in love, we say in English, we’ve fallen. Maybe we say we fall because we let down our defenses. Swept up by love, we say we fall. In Tagalog, we are more specific in saying “nahulog ang loob ko” — my inner self has fallen. By locating love as an inner feeling, we declare it to be deep, and consuming. Note that famous, or infamous, “utang na loob,” anemically translated into reciprocity, gratitude. “Utang na loob” is compelling in the way it binds people’s “insides.”
Conversely, when we describe falling in love as a falling of our inner selves, we come close to describing ourselves as captivated, captured, kidnapped, held hostage. Happy in love, we also admit fear and trepidation.
Why does the ebullient Filipino turn inwards when it comes to love? Perhaps it’s because we take love’s risks quite seriously. Across cultures, we know love has its risks, its costs. Why do you think our “mahal” (also used inand ) means both “love” and “costly” … and the English “dear” means both “love” and “expensive”? Mahal magmahal, it’s dear to want to dear, and be held dear.
But I’d suggest we take love’s risks even more seriously than others because in Southeast Asia, we have to negotiate this love, and in Southeast Asia, women have the upper hand, at least during the stage of courtship. The titles in a 1950s album of Ruben Tagalog love songs, presumably sung by men, are revealing: “Awit Ko’y Dinggin” [“Listen to My Song”], “Sa Gitna ng Dilim” [“In the Darkness”], “Kay Lungkot Nitong Hatinggabi” [“How Sad, This Midnight], “Di Ka na Naawa” [“You Have No Pity”] and “Umaga na Pala” (It’s Morning), and I’m sure this didn’t mean a good morning.
Even today, our love songs can be bleak, often on the brink of despair. I wonder again if this is because our love songs are almost all written by men, and men know that courtship can be an uphill battle in the Philippines. Ironically, because men are perceived as unfaithful and treacherous, Filipina mothers warn their daughters: don’t say yes unless you’re sure the man loves you more than you love him.
Even when a relationship moves into “m.u.” (mutual understanding), we can never be sure. In the 1990s, “mutual understanding” meant you were now in an exclusive relationship; these days, I am told, m.u. only means the two parties have expressed and accepted each other’s intent, an agreement to try the possibilities of a relationship. There is some kind of commitment, some kind of favored status, but m.u. also means you can still see other people.
I actually think today’s m.u. is probably healthier, better than the way young people used to fall in and out of love every other day. Today’s m.u. is perhaps more mature in the way it acknowledges that when we fall in love, our body’s hormones and assorted chemicals go berserk, confounding and blinding us to the reality that the passion of initial love is actually quite tentative. We might end the day madly in love, whispering “Sayang, sayang” in its Malay/Indonesian meaning, and then wake up the next day, suddenly wiser and go, “Sayang, sayang” in the Filipino sense.
Note how, in Tagalog, we differentiate two extreme feelings, “dalamhati” and “lualhati.” Both words are related to terms found in Malaysian and Indonesian languages as well. “Hati” is, alternately, the heart or the liver, referring to the seat of our emotions. “Dalam” means inside, so sadness is that feeling you have inside you, languid and lethargic. “Lual,” on the other hand, means the outside, graphically situating the pleasures of joy as radiating outwards.
Both “dalamhati” and “lualhati” figure in Filipino love, and tell us something about how we handle Cupid. In English, we warn people in love: “Be careful, use your head and not just your heart.” Our languages suggest a wiser alternative. The admission of having fallen, “nahulog na ang loob ko,” acknowledges too that our “loob” will shelter that love. Still fragile, budding love needs to be introspective, even sad in its uncertainty. It’s almost as if we fear that proclaiming love to the world, even in whispers, endangers its prospects. But that might all be for the better: gently sequestered, love is more securely nurtured.
The many meanings of “saying” show how we play on “dalamhati” as a kind of defensive pessimism, but which eventually shows itself as “lualhati”: We smile, and the world knows.
Our part of the world does not make the sharp distinctions between head and heart as we find in the West. Our “hati” — whether heart or liver — is not just about emotions. Inand you often see street signs that read “Hati2″… that’s “hati-hati,” literally heart-heart, or liver-liver, but which actually means: Caution. When we say we fall in love, “nahulog ang loob ko,” we are being “hati-hati,” cautious, but not in a cerebral way. Instead, we feel our way around, “pakapakapa,” through love’s maze-ways.
The word “saying” captures those meanings: You are my loved one, but permit me too some defensive pessimism. Deep down, we wonder about the risks we’re taking, but we allow ourselves that mad fall. No pain, no gain. It’s “sayang,” too, if we don’t dare “sayang.”
By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Philippine Daily Inquirer