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Being Chinese-Filipino: Ethnicity, nationality, and the confusion that excludes

Chinese-Filipinos have been in the spotlight recently. A few weeks ago, renowned writer F. Sionil Jose declared that should a war break out between the Philippines and China, Chinese-Filipinos would most likely take China’s side. While reactions to F. Sionil Jose’s comments are still making the rounds, a particular Chinese-Filipino graduated from the University of the Philippines (UP) with a 1.004 GPA, the first student to obtain such an achievement since World War II. Despite this remarkable feat, Tiffany Uy has not been spared from criticism. Many have said that the country should not be proud of her because she is not even Filipino, although there have also been many who spoke in her defense.

The online debates and verbal sparring surrounding Uy’s achievement raise two points of concern: the explicit and strong racist sentiments in some of the reactions; and the confusion regarding ethnicity, nationality, and more importantly, belonging. As a Chinese-Filipino, I have had my own share of racial slurs and stereotyping. Like many others, I grew up learning to ignore offensive, racist comments hinted at me or at fellow “Chinoys.” Many Chinese-Filipinos have learnt to take off-putting, stereotyping humor in stride, especially when no hatred or malice is intended. This is not to say that we are “butthurt” or defensive. Some stereotypes turn into light, funny jokes and do not offend, degrade, or dehumanize (we sometimes joke about them ourselves). Some stereotypes persist in the media, such as overused representations of Chinese-Filipinos and intermarriages turned into Romeo-and-Juliet drama, but those we try to understand or brush aside with a laugh.

However, there are more extreme racist comments that can hurt. While we stay non-confrontational when we are told to go back to China, and we silently forgive those who use “ching-chong,” “chekwa,” or “intsik beho,” there remains a feeling that we have just been degraded and dehumanized, and that we don’t belong in Philippine society. These comments can be infuriating to many Chinese-Filipinos who have worked their way up in school, at work, or in other areas of life; their skills, talents, and sheer drive and hard work overlooked and their accomplishments forcibly reduced to social connections, as though these comprise the only form of capital that puts them at an advantage.

With such comments and statements showing blatant racial prejudice, including those thrown at Uy via social media, it should come as no surprise that some Chinoys are conditioned to feel excluded, even though they always identify themselves as Filipino in citizenship and nationality, and see the Philippines as their homeland. Feelings of exclusion may compel them to avoid calling attention to their Chinese-ness by not speaking Chinese or by refusing to engage with, or practice traditional family customs, possibly to the dismay of parents or older generations who want their children to appreciate their cultural background and history. It would also be quite heartbreaking if the ongoing cycle of racism will push some Chinese-Filipinos to hate themselves for their ethnicity.

While comments against Chinese-Filipinos might indeed be rooted in negative experiences with some Chinese-Filipinos, the point of this article is to caution against hasty generalizations – that “some” should not be elevated to “all,” and that negative experiences should never justify racism and reductionist ideas against an individual or an entire ethnic community. Otherwise, the wheel of hatred will continue its destructive work of degrading, dehumanizing, and excluding the other. Beyond anger, irritation, or frustration against experiences of prejudice and racism, I have also long sensed a persistent confusion among people whenever they ask me, “Are you Filipino? But you are Chinese.” At times, I raise my eyebrow when people seriously and immediately assume that I am on China’s side with the Spratly Islands dispute, or when, upon meeting me for the first time, their initial question is always, “Are you allowed to marry a non-Chinese?” as though this is all that matters to them, or to me.

The trouble with identifying a person by physical features or by cultural heritage alone is that he or she is reduced to only one dimension of what could be a multi-dimensional identity. Thus, when people view Chinese-Filipinos simply as Chinese, they forget that many of them were born and raised here in the Philippines, that they have embraced Filipino culture while sustaining their Chinese cultural heritage, that they have pledged love and loyalty to the country and to the people. Limiting the Chinese-Filipinos to just being Chinese overlooks the contributions of the ethnic Chinese to Philippine society and to its different sectors, from the arts to the economy, and even in civic action. To put it simply, they forget that Chinese-Filipinos are Filipinos.

Identity in academic discourse has been defined in many ways, and is still an ongoing conversation. Many scholars in the social sciences will assert that it is complex, fluid, multi-dimensional, and most of all, continuously constructed over time and space, through one’s daily experiences and everyday realities. Insisting that a Chinese-Filipino UP graduate is not Filipino because she is Chinese is a reductionist assumption that one’s identity is either black or white, fixed and immutable. There is a need to understand that Chinese-Filipino identity is more than just being Chinese. In fact, even notions of Chinese-ness could vary to some extent. Many Chinese-Filipinos never considered choosing one over the other, to be Chinese or to be Filipino – they have always lived with both as inextricable parts of their sense of self.

For instance, in many Chinese schools, Chinese-Filipino students learn both Chinese and Filipino culture and history, and they learn both Mandarin and Filipino, aside from English. Many of them grow up recognizing they are both Chinese and Filipino, mostly culturally Chinese, and Filipino in nationality. They embrace both Chinese cultural heritage and Filipino culture as their own. They sing the national anthem with the belief that the Philippines is a country worth dying for, a country worth staying for, while appreciating their ties to China because of culture and history. When they are made to feel that they do not belong, that they are not Filipinos, some then begin to ask themselves why they were raised to love the Philippines when they are treated as second-class citizens, or worse, as though they were never citizens in the first place. It is this kind of confusion that is alarming and damaging because it reduces the Chinese-Filipino to just one aspect of his or her sense of self, as though that one dimension is and should be the sole basis for defining who the Chinese-Filipinos are.

Featured image taken from this site.

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