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Happy New Year

/ 05:18 AM February 01, 2019

I’ve been vocal with my position that Chinese New Year should not be a holiday in the Philippines, because this is a country where ethnic Chinese, including myself, are such a small minority—not more than 2 percent of the population, although it would be much higher if you consider Filipinos with Chinese ancestry somewhere along the line, including people like Rizal, former president Cory Aquino, even President Duterte.

This Chinese New Year holiday thing is purely commercial, a  kind of hangover from the world’s longest Christmas season, and a last attempt to get consumers to spend a bit more before another commercial creation, Valentine’s Day.

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Yet, I do appreciate Chinese New Year celebrations as cultural events to promote intercultural understanding, something that we have been doing in UP Diliman for years.

Dragon dances, Chinese traditional dances, are nice, but I do wonder at times how far they go in promoting intercultural understanding. (There’s irony in the “Chinese” dragon dances, which are now often rendered by groups that no longer have any ethnic Chinese performers. This year at UP Diliman, we’ve requested a group from Xavier School, which has managed to keep their students, many ethnic Chinese, interested.)

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Let me give an example of how the cultural events might have more impact. At UP’s Asian Center, the Indian Embassy has, on at least two occasions, introduced Filipinos to Indian dances—note the plural.  The first time, it was frenzied Bollywood dancing, and the second time it was Indian classical dances. Both times, the audience participated, with students and faculty jumping (literally) at the opportunity to feel, in the dances, the tradition and modernity of India. I’d like to see more of that for Chinese cultural events.

Note, too, that with or without cultural events, Filipinos have been picking up on some Chinese pop songs—not on the scale of K-pop (Korean pop), but still with enthusiasm. We are fascinated by things Chinese, including all those sometimes crazy gadgets you can find in 168 and similar malls.

There’s also interest in learning Chinese, the national language Mandarin (Putonghua) in particular. Often, this is motivated by a very practical interest: increased employment opportunities, not necessarily in Chinese companies alone but also in other international companies and NGOs (nongovernment organizations).

Local ethnic Chinese have consciously chosen to develop a Tsinoy (Chinese-Filipino) identity and culture, recognizing the importance of cultural roots, yet emphasizing a Filipino-ness as primary.

Just an example: This Chinese New Year, my kids will get angpao (red envelopes with money), but that’s about it; they’re not even eating tikoy. But I will take extra pains to remember, on that day, to have them light incense for my deceased parents and bow in front of their photos, an act of ancestral veneration (note veneration, not worship) that I consider an important legacy from our Chinese heritage. I will remind them that day, as I usually do in English or in Filipino: “Hey kids, did you light incense yet for Lolo and Lola?”

We fear what we do not know. I have friends who grew up near Binondo and remember their parents threatening them if they misbehaved: “Sige, the amah will get you!”—amah referring to old Chinese women, often wearing black and gray clothes and with tiny bound feet.

Now the nation is threatened with scenarios of war with China.

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There’s so much to talk about when it comes to Chinese and Filipino culture and, yes, about the  politics.  I know I need to write more about those issues and the discussions I’ve had, sometimes with tension, but always with respect for each other.

The other day, I attended my first UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) board meeting for the year, and when I entered the room I got several enthusiastic “Happy New Year” greetings. “Next week na,” one of them said, and I realized it wasn’t a happy new 2019 they were referring to but the coming Chinese New Year. I knew, too, that they were not greeting me because I was Intsik (incidentally, a much-hated term because it is often used more like a curse), but because I am Tsinoy.

I appreciated the Happy New Year greetings much more than the Chinese greetings (often using “kong hei fat choy,” which is the wrong language for local Chinese!).  Even more cherished was the spirit of the greeting, reflected in the warm, very warm hugs that we Filipinos are so good at.

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TAGS: Chinese, Chinese new year, culture, Filipino, Holiday, Michael tan, Philippines, Tradition
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