Depiction Of Transnationalism Through The Interaction Of A Teenage Girl And Her Grandmother In Border Lover By Merlinda Bobis

In her work entitled “Border Lover”, Merlinda Bobis encapsulates the Filipino experience of transnationalism through the lens of a teenage girl. She writes about the interaction and exchanges the girl has with her grandmother on her annual visit, depicting the effects of diaspora on the girl, including the way she deals with cultural collision and collaboration. Through her work, the author has managed to create a relatable scenario to Filipinos, portraying the juxtaposition of two different cultures as well as how the Filipino migrant deals with being the point of intersection between the two. This analysis shall tackle the character of the narrator, with regard to transnationalism, identity, and in-betweenness.

With globalization affecting a significant number of countries around the world, transnationalism has become an inevitable phenomenon. In this analysis, transnationalism is defined as “the condition of cultural interconnectedness brought about by international transactions”. In Border Lover, this transnational migration was for the girl’s studies.

From transnationalism begins the girl’s contact with the Other, which then brings about various changes in her identity. Bobis utilizes language to present such changes. Through the narration, one can distinguish the merging of two cultures – Filipino (particularly, Bikolano) and Australian. The infusion of native words in the dialogues of a purely English text showcases two realities present in the girl: how she is a product of transnationalism who has managed to create a third identity that caters to both her cultures, and how, as a consequence of this hybridization, she cannot separate one from the other in an attempt to live out one culture in its pure form. Code-switching is evident throughout the text as the girl, in her narration, uses phrases such as puso ki batag, daeng problema, pagpapakaraw-karaw baya, anong pakiaram ninda, and hilinga baya among others. In addition, she recognizes the necessity for English in a foreign country, whilst trying to convince her grandmother that she has not changed by saying, “the mouth is still your granddaughter’s, of course”. This shows how the girl, the active actor in transnationalism, recognizes the changes brought about by the phenomena. Moreover, it portrays the earnest desire of the girl to show her grandmother how her home culture is still intact and existent, even amidst the incorporation of a foreign one.

Kivetana’s Theory also plays a crucial role in delving deeper unto the character and identity of the girl. The author touches upon this theory as the girl ponders about how her language has become fragmented and mixed up, which also reinforces the previous idea.

This theory presents language in two forms: the semiotic and the symbolic. According to it, semiotic is the language concerned with the prosody of language, lacking in structure and denotative meaning. On the other hand, symbolic is the language formed by recognizing surrounding cultures outside that of the speaker’s mother and developing an identity separate from her.

The subtle use of this theory, tied with the narrator’s mention of this being an epiphany, implies how the girl’s transnational identity has become the “identity-in-process”. Through her stay and travels between her home country and Australia, there are a multitude of cultural experiences she gets from each, mostly that from the foreign country. As such, she has created a third identity that is accustomed to living in the Other’s territory but is also close to home. The “in-process” facet of this identity lies in the continuous evolution of her language and her oscillation between the mother tongue and foreign tongue (as well as culture).

With the hybrid identity, the girl now becomes the point of intersection between the two cultures she has been exposed to. This creates a feeling of in-betweenness for her due to the cultural tensions that arise, especially during her stay with her grandmother who is not so open to ideas and customs beyond what she has grown accustomed to.

While the grandmother may have intended to remind the girl of her Filipina roots, her efforts instead led to the girl questioning her blended identity, which at this point, seems undistinguishable and impermanent. The girl arrives excited to be back in her hometown. This is clear in her comparison of scenery between landing in the Philippines and landing in Australia, emphasizing the color and diversity when it comes to the Philippines, while Australia is just a boring succession of “…eucalypt, eucalypt, and…eucalypt”. The grandmother’s initial demeanor helps this perspective flourish more, as she prepares the girl’s favorite food: banana heart. However, the cultural gap between grandmother and grandchild did not sit well with either of them; the grandmother’s bewilderment at the girl’s mention of new terms such as “thesis” and “feminism” leads to her verbal disapproval of the girl’s seemingly distant attitude, brought about by her exposure to a culture separate from what she was born into. This is evident when the grandmother says to the girl that “You are no longer you, and you know that…”. The girl is aware that her identity is hybridized, but is nevertheless disheartened by her grandmother’s failure to comprehend this. She is exposed to both cultures and as such, would want both cultures to collaborate instead of clash. Her subtle ways of introducing Western ideas to the grandmother prove how she wants her to listen in order for her to, just like the girl, find common ground and overcome the separation between both cultures, without having to bring her there. This was, however, rejected by the grandmother, causing the girl to stop trying altogether.

Other symbolisms present in the dialogue also hint to the in-betweenness the girl feels, such as how she wishes to “turn her heart inside out” in order to find her way home. Home, however, is indeterminable given the fusion of both cultures. Additionally, in line with this premise, her identity is made up by and belongs to both. She becomes the individual at the border that separates these two countries and cultures and, ironically, is where both of them meet. The title of the text, Border Lover, may be derived from this premise. Taken as a whole, it can be inferred that the girl loves both countries and cultures, given where she is at. To her, Western culture is empowering, yet also apparent in the text are her efforts of showing her grandmother her loyalty and patronage to her roots.

Overall, Border Lover presents transnationalism using the relatable Filipino story of a teenage girl and her grandmother. It tackles how this inevitable phenomenon affects both its active and passive actors, with more inclination and depth on the active character. It showcases how the collision and collaboration of the two cultures that the girl is exposed to has created a new identity, which drives her to introduce each of these to one another in order to overcome differences. In doing so, the girl finds herself lost in the irony of proving faithfulness to her roots and uplifting the culture that has intellectually and socially empowered her.


  1. Ong, A. (1999). Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham, NC, NC: Duke University Press.
  2. Sadehi, C. T. (2012). Beloved and Julia Kristeva's The Semiotic and The Symbolic. Theories and Practice in Language Studies, 2(7), 1491-1497. doi:10.4304/tpls.2.7.1491-1497.
09 March 2021
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