By MARIA ELLIS
We Filipinos are easy to please and nothing delights us more than a non-Filipino trying to speak to us in our language, even if it is only to say, “Kumusta ka?” (How are you?). Our faces light up when we hear those words uttered, especially if it is with real warmth. When someone goes beyond the stock greeting phrase and comes up with more sweet sentences in Tagalog like “Maganda ka,” (You’re beautiful) or “Mahal kita,” (I love you) we are completely charmed, whether or not the would-be flatterer (usually male) means, or even knows, what they’re saying. After all, who would blurt out ‘I love you’ to someone they’ve only just met?
Never mind that it is not a heartfelt compliment. We see it as a well-meaning attempt at congeniality, an attitude on our part that reflects our own friendliness, which we are supposedly famous for as a people.
One person who is just beginning to discover this admirable Filipino trait is the new envoy to the Philippines, Her Excellency, Ambassador Laure Beaufils. In an interview on Filipino TV Europe, she said, “Ang una kong alam ay palakaibigan at mabait at nakakatawa ang mga taong Pinoy. (My first impression is that Filipino people are friendly, good-natured and funny).
Yes, you read that right. The ambassador speaks Tagalog! How did she learn our language? She says, “I started late 2019, and I’ve loved it. I’ve been very lucky to have great teachers, so it’s been a good deal of fun too. As you would expect, there have been frustrating times when one feels one is not progressing but I’ve persevered!”
As if to prove how much effort she put into her Tagalog lessons, she adds, “Mahalagang matuto ng wikang Tagalog para puwede akong makipa-usap sa mga Filipino. Mas madaling makipag-kaibigan at makipa-ugnayan kapag marunong ako ng wika. Dagdag pa rito, mas madali ring maipahayag ng mga Pinoy ang kanilang tunay na damdamin kapag marunong ako ng salitang Pinoy at kapag marunong ako ng wika, mas maiintindihan ko ang kultura ng Pilipinas.”
(It’s important for me to learn Tagalog so I can speak to Filipinos. It’s easier to make friends and relate if I know the language. In addition, it would be easier for Filipinos to express their true feelings if I speak their language. Knowing Tagalog would make me better understand the Filipino culture).
Hinting at what she has to go through in learning the language, the British ambassador shows her sense of humour when she says, “Syempre, sobrang hirap ito para sa akin. Dapat akong magtrabaho parang isang kalabaw.” (Of course, this is very hard for me. I need to work like a carabao).
When asked what other languages she speaks, Ms. Beaufils replied, “Well – that depends on whether you mean languages that I speak well or not! I’m fluent in English and French and then the rest is… more challenging! When I was in my early 20s I lived in Cambodia and so I learned a bit of Khmer – but that’s a tough language. And in Ethiopia I learned some Amharic – again, tough. Before I went to Jordan, I learned some Arabic – I loved that but it’s another really hard language and it takes a good year and a half of full time training to speak it fluently. So I’m still stuck at the ordering-things-at-the-restaurant-level.”
That may be the case, but how many of us could claim they can order food and drink in six different languages? And speaking of food, has Ms. Beaufils tried Filipino cuisine yet? She reveals, “I’ve tried a lot and there is still a lot I’m eager to discover.” Switching into Tagalog mode, she says, “Natuto ako ng maraming bagay tungkol sa Pilipinong pagkain. Gusto kong tikman ang lechon at chicken inasal. Pero hindi ako sigurado sa sisig at sa balut.” (I’ve learned a lot about Filipino food. I’d like to try lechon and chicken inasal. But I’m not sure about sisig and balut).
Ambassador Beaufils has spent three months in the Philippines so far and says she loves it there. “I’m so lucky to be here. I’ve been made to feel incredibly welcome and I have no doubt the next four years are going to be great fun. Of course the Covid restrictions are such that I’ve not been able to get out and about the way I would normally have done – and I’ve not been able to meet people face to face the way I would have preferred. I’ve been to the coast twice already, which is stunning – so I really can’t complain.”
The new ambassador’s credentials include a bachelor’s degree in Economics and International Relations and master’s degrees in Business Administration and Gender and Development, respectively. Her previous posts show a highly accomplished civil servant – FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) Development Director for Jordan, Iraq and Palestine; Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria and Head of Mission to Lagos; head of the UK Department of International Development in Rwanda and Burundi; the lead adviser to the British Prime Minister in his role at the United Nations’ panel on post-2015 development agenda. Ms. Beaufils also ran the DFID’s (Department for International Development) Department for Overseas Territories. She also worked for the UK mission to the UN in New York as first secretary responsible for development.
Having managed a programme on economic development in two African countries, and having seen the extent of poverty first-hand in those parts of the world, Laure Beaufils has gained an insight into this global problem. She says, “Poverty remains a massive challenge across the world – as does inequality. Sadly, both have increased over the last 18 months because of Covid-19, and indeed the debilitating effects of climate change. The current challenges are immense and the World Bank projects that there could be an extra 150 million people living in extreme poverty by the end of this year. The real life impact is huge.” But she notes that, “this should not make us lose sight of the fact that poverty has reduced significantly since the 1960s. At the time, about 80% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today that number has been reduced to nearer 10%. We should not be complacent. But we do know that poverty is not inevitable; we do know what works.”
Another significant issue on which Ms. Beaufils has expert knowledge is climate change, having previously led teams working on a strategy to tackle it. She ponders on its impact saying, “It is the greatest global challenge and if we don’t address it, all of our lives will be affected. So we must all wake up to this and act. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) that the UK is hosting in Glasgow in early November is absolutely essential in this regard. We see it as the last chance to stick to 1.5 degrees of global warming. We’ve been working incredibly hard with the UN, countries across the world, businesses and civil society to raise ambitions on reducing emissions and committing to net zero emissions. In the UK we are doubling our climate finance to £11.6bn over the period 2021 – 2025.”
Undoubtedly, Ms. Beaufils represents the image of a strong, focused and independent woman from the affluent West. We asked her what her perspective is on the status and character of women in poor countries. Are they really weak and helpless as perceived? She replied, “One should not generalise of course, but across the countries I have lived and worked, I have found women to be first and foremost strong and determined. Of course – across the world, and not just in poorer countries, there are challenges and threats to gender equality. Violence against women and girls is a problem. Lack of access to quality education is a particularly significant challenge – and one that the UK is working hard to overcome. But, despite the fact there are lots of structural challenges to equality, I fundamentally disagree with the categorisation of women as weak – their courage is apparent across the world.”
Ambassador Beaufils will remain in her diplomatic post in the next four years. Career-wise, she muses on future possibilities both for herself and her family. “Right now I’m focused on the next four years and making the most of the amazing opportunity and honour of serving in the Philippines. When I come close to the end of those four years, I’ll look at what jobs are out there and will apply to what seems like the most interesting. I’ll also want to apply for a job where my husband can work and my kids can go to a good school – it’s the sweet spot between professional satisfaction and family well-being that I’m looking for.”
At present, her main goal as British Ambassador is to broaden the Philippines-UK relations, and she expresses this in her fluent Tagalog saying, “Gusto kong mapalawak ang relasyon ng UK at ng Pilipinas at mapalalim ang ating ugnayan. Gusto kong sabihin na masaya akong makilala ang bansa ninyo at magtatrabaho ako ng mahusay para sa mga mamamayan ng UK at ng Pilipinas para mapabuti ang relasyon natin.” (I would like to expand relations between the UK and the Philippines and to deepen our connection. I’d like to say that I’m happy to get to know your country, and I’ll work hard for the citizens of the UK and the Philippines to enhance our countries’ relationship).
This married mother of two from North London who has lived and worked in nine countries, and now on her tenth, has this to say about her enviable multicultural experience. “I’ve always been fascinated by the different countries in which I have lived and have always wanted to immerse myself in their culture. I have found that when one is genuinely interested and respectful of different cultures, people welcome you with open arms.”
Indeed, Ambassador Beaufils has been welcomed with wide open arms in the Philippines. Our kababayans may well make a Filipino of her in the next four years.
We wish Her Excellency, Ambassador Laure Beaufils all the success in her new role.