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Identity and Meaning for a Filipino of Chinese Descent

by JOSH AHYONG

WASHINGTON — It was right after Philippine History class that I was caught off guard yet again. While I was collating my notes for the afternoon, one of my Filipino classmates approached me with a radical question. My history Professor watched at my struggle; someone, for the nth time, had asked me again, “If China and the Philippines go to war, whom will you side with?” It sounded like a simple question – with an answer like yes or no. But, there is more to the question than you think because it is an identity struggle.

I am Chinese-Filipino; I am of Chinese decent but born and raised in the Philippines. In the Philippines, I am fondly called “Tsinoy” or sometimes, the derogatory term, “Intsik.” Currently, 1.5 million Chinese-Filipinos reside in the Philippines. Sangleys, Filipinos who can trace their ancestry to China, are 18-27% of the Philippine population. Even our most renowned hero, Jose Rizal, has traces of Chinese blood that runs through his veins. But make no mistake, almost all Chinese-Filipinos in the Philippines are culturally Filipino, though we still maintain a few traditional rituals and customs passed down from our ancestors. Many of us still speak the Southern Chinese dialect – Hokkien – and still retain the physical features that separate us from the Filipino majority. Aside from this, what else then makes us different?

My statistics professor in undergrad used to joke that if he met a Chinese-Filipino student; it would be another Tan, Chan or Chua for a last name. The influence we have over the country’s economy is no joke, however. Chinese-Filipino families run most of the largest national corporations. The Sy family owns the SM Group of companies, which include an array of malls sprawling all over the archipelago. The Gokongwei family controls many important companies like airline Cebu Pacific and foods company, URC. We are known for being wealthy and entrepreneurial.

Many of our fathers, mothers, grandparents and great grandparents migrated from China to the Philippines to escape poverty and war. They came to do business.  They came before the Spaniards. They came during the colonial era. They still come even today. Life was not always prosperous for many of the Chinese-Filipinos. In Spanish colonial days, they were at the bottom of the social hierarchy – cast out as dirty pariahs and left to do demeaning jobs. Yet, in what would be a story of success, many of them would rise to become the wealthiest in society today.

But how does a question of sides concern my identity as a Chinese-Filipino? If I respond that I would side with the Philippines, people may say that I betray my roots, my heritage and my ancestors. If I respond that I would side with the Chinese, people may say that I betrayed my country and my fellow Filipinos.  War is an extreme. Yet, when I think about it, the question becomes more and more relevant as time passes. Headlines in the newspapers about the standoff between China and the Philippines become more frequent since the election of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino.  Recently, the Philippines signed a Defense Treaty with the United States. Some people frequently comment on websites denouncing the Chinese and the Chinese-Filipinos. The escalating conflict between China and the Philippines is not dying down. Thus, an absurd question suddenly turns relevant and I, for the shallow reason of race, am now caught in the middle.

Many people think of race and ethnicity as a singular form. You can be Chinese but not Filipino. You can be American but not Chinese. I find this quite absurd. I realized from this conflict that a person’s identity is not bound by a singular nationality, race, religion or political view – but from an acceptance of diversity. You are not what others say you are. You are, instead, what you think of others. Acceptance of how different the world is from yourself is your citizenship. Acceptance of how different races can come together in your race and acceptance of the beliefs of the population is your religion.

Therefore, I admit my answer to the question from my current standpoint is an easy way out. What is the purpose of war when there is no boundary from China and the Philippines? We created states from nationalism. As we learned in our core class, nationalism is but a fabrication of our imagination. It is a product of nothing more than human thought that tries to create an identity. Our identities are merely a fallacy.

We have to learn how to think about other people’s point of view. Why is China so aggressive? Why is the Philippines so defensive? When we learn how to think of the situation from two vantage points we break down this wall of radical nationalism and turn our identities to merely labels.

Therefore, being Chinese-Filipino is not about living the stereotype of being wealthy and entrepreneurial. It is not about being different in physical appearance from the rest of the Filipino population. It is an appreciation that two sides of the same coin can coexist. It is about turning one single identity into a melting pot of so many different and contrasting things. Filipinos and Chinese can coexist – history has proven it with how the Sangley population has spread throughout the archipelago.

Why can’t the countries of these two races coexist as well?

My only answer to whoever asks this question would be this: if only you could be Chinese-Filipino as well, then there would be no need for such a question, or problem to begin with. What I fear is that mankind’s biggest problem is not that we are violent in nature or evil but that there are many things we do not know or we cannot simply comprehend.

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2 Comments on Identity and Meaning for a Filipino of Chinese Descent

  1. Very well written! As a Filipino-American in China, this article resonates with me and I’m sure with the greater Filipino-Chinese community that hopes for warmer relations between these two nations. I’m sure our studies will prepare us to help navigate this relationship!

    Thank you kapuso,
    Cheers from Nanjing!

    Leowil

  2. Nice article but based on everything I’ve read the indios were at the bottom of the totem pole in the Spanish period

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