Monday, April 23, 2018
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Bisayang Ilokano

I met my new medical anthropology students last Saturday and asked them to introduce themselves, including their ethnic identity. As expected, the “ethnic identity” part stumped them, the very word “ethnic” itself tending to be associated with indigenous peoples. I’m not a “native,” my younger students used to say. But graduate students do understand that “ethnicity” means “culture,” which we all have. The problem is we don’t think enough about it.

The students who grew up in Metro Manila had more difficulties describing their ethnic identity. Even if their parents might have come from particular provinces or regions, the ties with relatives in the “province” may have been weak.

Familiarity with a language besides Tagalog-based Filipino was also important to identify one’s ethnicity, but this became complicated if parents spoke very different languages—for example, Kapampangan and Ilonggo.


The place where one grew up in tended to be the most important determinant of one’s ethnic identity. In our age of constant migration, we should no longer be asking “Tagasaan ka (Where are you from)?” but “Saan ka lumaki (Where were you raised)?” But even then, our changing times do create more complications. Two students—one who grew up in Metro Manila and the other in Baguio—had difficulty thinking of themselves as “Metro Manilan” or “Baguio-an,” reflecting the fluidity of urban identities. I saw a sign recently in my own hometown that read “I am a proud San Juaneño,” but I have yet to hear that actually said by someone, the weaker “taga San Juan” (as with taga Maynila) still being the norm.

Overseas migration does change the picture, too: If a Filipino grows up in San Francisco, California, I think they will say they’re “from San Francisco” but still may retain “I’m Filipino,” and maybe even “I’m Ilokano.” Distance from one’s home country sometimes leads to greater consciousness of one’s roots.

After last Saturday’s class I did realize that I have never really talked about my own ethnic identity or maybe ethnic consciousness, so here are some reflections.


Ethnic Chinese

I do notice that with age, I do say more frequently that I am ethnic Chinese, or that I am Chinese-Filipino. When I was younger, I still used “Intsik” occasionally, but have realized it is so very offensive to many ethnic Chinese, so I have dropped that completely.

People do ask, constantly, “Tagasaan ka?” and I know they mean a home province in the Philippines. I have been tempted at times to answer, “Nan An, Fujian,” because in China, people ask me as well where my lao jia (ancestral home) is. I never lived there, and have visited only once, so there is no “Nan An” influence, at least not directly, on my identity.

I am actually more comfortable replying to “Tagasaan ka?” that my father grew up in Davao. My mother’s side is more confusing: Her birth papers show she was born in Tayabas (Quezon), but she grew up in Manila.


We are what our summers were, meaning that in cultural terms, we are shaped by where we spent our summers.  Those with ties to parents’ home provinces were fortunate to go home, taste local food, learn the local language.

I did spend many summers in Davao but my paternal grandmother was a Buddhist devotee confined to her temple. Thus, my visits were very insular, with very little interactions with non-Chinese, so those summers made me more Chinese. (You can read about her temple and my summers in “The Davao We Knew,” which, I just learned recently, won a National Book Award.)

On my maternal side, some summers were spent in Baguio but there were more vacations in Claveria, Cagayan, where my mother’s family had logging concessions. (Yes, bad, bad karma, which I have to make up for through several lives of environmental activism.) Those were exciting summers because we had mountains and the sea, but again, there were ethnic and class barriers and I don’t remember learning any Ilokano there.

Appropriately, after I finished college I got involved in social action with the Catholic Church, and my first assignment was in Davao as a base, to cover Mindanao. So I went around, exposed to the melting-pot communities, falling asleep in the bus in Marbel hearing Ilonggo and waking up to hear Ilokano (in Tacurong). Cebuano was a lingua franca and I did pick up the language, although when asked if I can speak “Bisaya,” I always excuse myself with “gamay lang (only a little).”

After Mindanao, I was assigned to cover Cagayan Valley and Montanosa (now the Cordillera Administrative Region), where Ilokano was the lingua franca. Again, I always apologize with “basit laing” when asked if I can speak Ilokano. Yet that “very little” Ilokano is often enough to create a bond.

More than language, though, I’m realizing there is a bit of the Bisaya and of the Ilokano in me. From the times in Mindanao, I did pick up a kind of joie de vivre, an exuberant love of life that translates into more animated storytelling (kuwento-kuwento), complete with body movements and facial expressions, laughing (or crying) with more abandon when I’m with “fellow” Bisaya.

But sometimes, too, the Ilokano takes over, characterized by a more stoic view of the world. Life in Cagayan Valley and Montanosa was tough, even harsh. People were very practical and yes, more frugal and thrifty. The difficult environment shapes an Ilokano temperament, particularly a dry but still witty sense of humor. The thrift affects even speech—the less said, the better—but what’s said is often more poetic.


When I think of myself as a cultural hybrid, I think of Nanay Remy, my foster mother in Butigue, a tiny barangay in Paracelis, Mountain Province. She was originally from Nueva Ecija, a Tagalog who married an Ilokano and settled in Paracelis. She was always busy with her kids and a little store, but somehow bonded with me and other visitors from Manila because she could speak in Tagalog. I once asked her how proficient she was in Ilokano and she laughed, telling me how she had been married seven years but never used Ilokano until one day, something her husband’s family had done caused her to be very upset. She opened her mouth and gave it all to them, thunder and lightning unleashed…in Ilokano. I’ve learned, with time, for all the claims to stoicism, the Ilokano can also be quite emotional, with some of the most vulgar curses…as well as some of the most romantic love songs.

I can be emotionally thrifty, like the Ilokano, sometimes even overdosing on the stoicism because the Chinese temperament is that way, too. But being stoic does not mean withdrawal. I can still engage people by being quietly observant. When the situation calls for it, I can draw from a rich reserve of the affect, be Ilokano in terms of vivid, colorful and eloquent language, but accompanied by facial and body choreography learned from the Bisaya.

Because of migration, tourism, urbanization, romantic entanglements, and marriage, we stand to gain from making ourselves more multicultural, opening ourselves to new possibilities in the way we look at, and respond to, the world.

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