My ‘huan-na’ uncle
The term “huan-na,” used by local ethnic Chinese to refer to non-Chinese Filipinos, has sometimes been attacked because, supposedly, it means “barbarian.” After I first heard that many years ago, I made a very conscious effort to stop using it because, if indeed its meaning was “barbarian,” it was blatantly racist.
It was not easy dropping the term, because it is used so widely by local Chinese, many of whom are not even aware of that alleged “barbarian” definition. Just the other week a distant cousin, also Tsinoy (Chinese-Filipino) told me his understanding was that it meant peasant, which is why domestic helpers were called “huanna po,” literally, from what he knew, “a peasant woman.”
Just recently I was surprised, and pleasantly so, when in the course of doing research on Chinese-Filipinos, I found two very respected Minnan-English dictionaries where the word “barbarian” never shows up in the definitions of “huan,” and many other terms with “huan.”
[An important linguistic detour: Minnan is the language spoken by most of the ethnic Chinese who migrated to the Philippines. It literally means “south of the Min river,” where the ancestral villages of most local Chinese are to be found. There are variations of Minnan, one being Taiwanese. Minnan is also sometimes referred to, locally, as “Fookien,” “Hokkien” and “Lannang Oe” (our people’s language).]
Back to “huan.” The term, it turns out, refers more to someone or something foreign, or even different. The Minnan-English Dictionary compiled by Li Rulong and Li Zhuqing gives many “huan”-derived words. “Huan-na” itself is an expansion, “na” being a person (usually a younger one). “Huan-na,” then, is defined as “foreigner” and “indigenous people of South and Southeast Asia,” and “huan na po” is a “non-Chinese woman” or “a foreign wife taken by overseas Chinese while residing abroad.”
There are so many other “huan” terms that I had to choose only a few. Huan numbers, for example, mean Arabic numerals. Huan fertilizers are chemical fertilizers. Western cookies are called “huan na pia,” and even a Western-style building is a “huan na lau.”
I checked another Minnan dictionary, more specifically an online Taiwanese-English dictionary compiled by the Maryknoll Fathers, and it has fewer “huan” terms. But the closest to an ethnic (but not racist) label is its being used to refer to aboriginal groups in Taiwan.
Dictionaries aside, I would counter the racist argument around “huan” by referring to adoptions, common among local Chinese, of “huan-na” children. Both sides of my family had many such adoptions, and we never made distinctions among them.
The more dramatic of these adoptions was that of my paternal grandmother, who raised four children, two of her own and two from my grandfather’s “huan-na” wife, who had died when her children were still very young. Most admirably, my grandmother raised them as a solo parent, having been widowed early.
My father was particularly close to one of his “huan-na” half-brothers. One story he never stopped telling me was how, one night, they—just the two of them—were out in a remote village and this “huan-na” brother suddenly told my father to immediately go back into the house. It turned out there were strangers, all men, looking very menacing, who were passing by, and my “huan-na” uncle acted on strong “A-hia” (“kuya,” or elder brother) instincts, talking with the men and making sure they had left before he went back into the house. Remember this was in Davao in the 1930s, a frontier area then.
My father is usually stoic, but his eyes would mist whenever he spoke of this “A-hia.”
So it was, too, with my grandmother, with her stories of how she breastfed this “huan-na” child she had taken in, of how good a son he was, and of how she lost him when he was 20 years old, when he died of an infection after a dental procedure.
A last argument against “huan” as a racist term: Li and Li’s Minnan dictionary point out that even overseas Chinese are sometimes called “huan ke,” “ke” being visitors when they go back to visit China.
“Huan,” then, is really more of cultural difference. Someone may be “pure” Chinese (a funny term, because genetically there’s no such thing as “pure”) and yet be “huan” because he or she no longer speaks Chinese, or no longer “acts” Chinese.
I struggle with my children as they do their Chinese homework, with the pronunciation constantly being massacred. Sometimes, in exasperation I think, “They’re turning ‘huan.’” But then I catch myself: “Huan” or not, isn’t it more important that they grow into kindness and courage like their “huan-na” granduncle, who died too young, too good?
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