I am writing this in Xiamen, China, on an official trip that included having to deliver a lecture on the overseas Chinese of the Philippines.
Because I had so much work before leaving the Philippines, much of the preparation for my lecture had to be done here in Xiamen, including reading an excellent, newly published history book by Xiamen University professor Shi Xueqin, precisely about this topic. Inside the book was a photo of my father.
My father, who died last year, would have been pleased, but surprised to find he will be remembered for being the principal of Zamboanga’s Chinese school for a year, back in 1952.
My lecture included personal memories, jogged along by the huge file of photos in my computer. After my parents’ death last year, I began to convert more and more hard copies of photographs into electronic files that I could carry around on my phone and in my computer. I did this more out of sentimental reasons, but this Xiamen trip made me realize how important the photos were as well for academic lectures and research.
I thought, too, that this was a good way of doing All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day away from home, literally remembering the dead.
Many years back, I would have been part of the crowds trekking to cemeteries to spend the day. With traffic worsening, and with the remains of our departed relatives and friends now spread out in various cemeteries, memorial parks and columbariums, people are avoiding the cities of the dead in favor of, well, still a lot of traffic but being able to look forward to a beach or
Doing my remembrance of the dead here, albeit in an academic mode, I realized how important it is to give time during this “Undas,” conveniently Nov. 1 or 2 or both, wherever we might be, to think of and to talk about our deceased relatives and friends.
My talk in the university dealt with how social relationships are so shaped by cultural norms, by what is taught to us by our parents. Sometimes seen as oppressive—for example, almost absolute obedience required by the Chinese xiao, or filial piety—they do make sense when you think of how important it was for migrants, people so far away from home.
For the Chinese-Filipino, or Tsinoy, filial piety is tempered, less out of a sense of obligation or duty and more out of love and affection. The migration to the Philippines allowed our overseas Chinese to become less grim and determined, to be more open about emotions, especially affection.
The maternal touch was important in this transformation, the Tsinay having more independence and flexibility than older Chinese. Sons and daughters are loved more equally now; in fact, looking at the successors to our taipans (Tsinoy magnates), you will find that many are women.
I’ve seen the change, pushed by women themselves and passed on to the next generation of daughters … and sons. I think of my own family, where my sister and I had to conspire when she would date a non-Chinese. The Great Wall (the ban on intermarriages) is slowly crumbling, and it will be the mothers and daughters who will do the final transformation, without surrendering filial piety.
I was tempted, during this trip, to visit our lao jia, or ancestral village, which is only half an hour away from one of Xiamen University’s campuses, but there was no time. Yet, being in such close proximity made me feel, more strongly, the social and historical context of the Tsinoy and Tsinay.
At the beginning of the lecture, I apologized to the audience that I would deliver the lecture in English because my Chinese was not very good. Yet as I delivered the lecture, especially when I would refer to my parents, I found myself switching to Chinese, both in Mandarin and Minnan Hokkien, the local language of my ancestors, and the language used in Xiamen as well.
During the open forum, and after the lecture when students approached me, I found myself talking rapidly, speaking in tongues, literally, the mother tongues of our mothers and fathers.
I can see then why it can be important to actually go back to our hometowns during Undas and, better still, to visit the graves. I will get around to doing that in the near future in China.
Remembering the dead animates our lives and the present. As I talk in Chinese here, I do so as a way of inviting people to listen to me explain my Chinese roots, as well as my being Filipino.
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