‘A Filipino first, and a Chinese second’
I live a curious double life: foreigners see me as Filipino, but Filipinos see me as Chinese.
I often confuse Singapore’s taxi drivers.
Chatty ones invariably ask where I am from.
“Philippines” draws a sincere “…huh?”
Followed by: “No lah. You Chinese.”
Then, realizing I actually sound Filipino, the cab driver pronounces: “You Chinese Filipino.”
My childhood was just as mixed up.
I went to Xavier, Greenhills’ Jesuit Chinese Filipino high school.
We had Mandarin classes. I even wrote a one-act play my class performed.
We all had Mandarin names. How naughty you were is gauged by how well your old classmates remember your Mandarin name, from how often teachers scolded you.
On my first trip abroad, McDonald’s in Hong Kong seemed miraculous, in the days before hash browns were sold in Manila.
Two hash browns later, I proudly asked a staffer where the bathroom was, in my best Xavier Mandarin.
The Cantonese lady gave me a puzzled stare. My childhood self left pre-handover Hong Kong still wondering what was wrong with all those Chinese people.
Finally, I picked up Ilonggo words from my parents, which led to confused Filipino conversations. At some point, an Ilonggo kindergarten teacher assured me there was nothing wrong with me.
I also picked up Hokkien words from my parents, who do not speak Mandarin, which similarly confused my childhood Mandarin.
But for all the college term papers on Chinese Filipino teenage angst, my dual existence was fairly benign. In Ateneo, you were reminded you are Chinese when your classmates good-naturedly demanded tikoy every Chinese New Year and mooncake every Mid-Autumn Festival.
I did feel disconcerted watching a student production of Aurelio Tolentino’s “Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas.” I innocently asked Dr. Ricky Abad why the Chinese were villains, along with Spanish, American and Japanese colonizers.
He assured me the play did not mean me, and that Chinese Filipinos all the way to national hero Jose Rizal made great contributions to our country.
But after the emotional roller coaster of accepting how my country insists I am different, I was forced onto another emotional roller coaster of being told I was definitely not different.
As a high school tourist in Beijing, everyone on the street would good-naturedly smile and praise my Xavier Mandarin. So I played the Chinese card in Harvard Law School, claiming kinship with mainland Chinese, Chinese Americans, Singaporeans, Taiwanese and other overseas Chinese classmates.
But despite all the times I went to Boston’s Chinatown for cheap hot pot and stayed in the law library till 2 a.m. with the Chinese, I was deeply hurt to discover they had organized their own Chinese New Year party. Only a handful of Americans born in China were invited.
When I confronted the ringleader from Bei Da, he matter-of-factly told me I am not really Chinese. Indeed, Mandarin formally distinguishes huaqiao (Chinese citizens living overseas) from huaren (foreign citizens of Chinese ethnicity).
In Singapore, no one perceives me as Chinese, even though I am ethnic Hokkien like many Chinese Singaporeans. I get asked if I know someone’s maid, too.
The same is true of my Chinese Indonesian, Chinese Malaysian and Chinese Thai friends. It would be strange to identify them as Chinese, even the Chinese Christians from Muslim countries whose teenage confusion went beyond tikoy and mooncake extortion.
But I was reminded that my emotional roller coaster has yet to slow when my fellow columnist, dear mentor and great idol Prof. Solita Collas-Monsod wrote: “… a Chinese-Filipino will never ever state unequivocally that he/she is a Filipino first, and a Chinese second (meaning, his loyalty is to the Philippines).”
If only my idol and that paragon of human rights F. Sionil José knew just how unequivocal the world’s judgment of my Xavier Mandarin has been.
To quote “Heneral Luna”: “May mas malaki tayong kalaban sa mga Amerikano — ang ating sarili (We have a far bigger enemy than the Americans — ourselves).”
React: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan. This column does not represent the opinion of organizations with which the author is affiliated.
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