New virus, old prejudice
“Beh, huwag kang lumapit diyan. Intsik eh, baka mahawaan ka.”
The urge to turn around and give my fellow passenger a piece of my mind was overwhelming, but instead, my eyes remained glued to the passing landscape below.
Years of riding the LRT on a Friday afternoon, when rush hour was at its peak, and all it took to get a wide berth of space in an otherwise jam-packed carriage was apparently to: 1) look Chinese; and 2) sneeze while the panic and mass hysteria surrounding the 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV) was at its peak.
One of my Filipino friends, after hearing this story, told me that I should’ve denied being Chinese to assuage the paranoia of my fellow passengers. But does that not speak horribly of the system we have promulgated, when the distinction between “safe” and “dangerous” lies on whether or not somebody vaguely East Asian turned out to be Chinese?
I understand fear, and I understand wanting to protect oneself from coming into contact with someone potentially infected with the virus. But that does not justify the racist scapegoating that puts the blame on the Chinese for their (or rather our, since I’ve apparently been lumped together in that category by perfect strangers solely on the basis of my chinky eyes and fair skin) “unhygienic practices” and “disgusting eating habits.”
The sad truth of the matter is that I should be used to it by now. I am, after all, Filipino-Chinese (Chinoy). Born and bred in the Philippines, I can’t count on my fingers how many times I’ve heard the racial slur “Intsik” being hurled onto my person or that of another.
All that this global health outbreak has managed to do is bring out that age-old subtle racism and xenophobia into glaring light. For some, the 2019 nCoV is nothing more than an excuse to justify the ancient practices of ostracizing and ridiculing not just the Chinese, but the Chinoys as well.
Both my paternal and maternal grandparents were Chinese immigrants, having escaped the rampant poverty of the then-communist Chinese regime and established roots in the island of Luzon, or Lu Shun Dao as it was more popularly known among immigrant Chinese.
My maternal grandparents were smuggled away in the dark of night from their backwater province in Xiamen, braving the rough waters and chilly winds of the open seas on something as fragile as a rowboat and arriving in the promised land of Manila with nothing more than P10 to their name.
My grandfather was 17 years old, my grandmother was 15. They couldn’t speak a word of English or Tagalog; neither could they read or write. They had no special skill to speak of. All they had were bucketloads of hard work and determination, as well as a stroke of luck.
My grandfather took on three jobs, working for almost 19 hours a day, seven days a week. My grandmother sold homemade fish balls while taking care of her children. They were extremely thrifty, eventually saving up enough money to establish a small business.
Many of my mother’s elder siblings were forced to stop school or become working students. My youngest aunt wore uniforms and clothes passed on from her five elder sisters, washed and mended repeatedly to the point of becoming practically see-through.
My father and paternal grandparents went through pretty much the same litany of hardships. Fast forward to seven decades later, and I, a proud third-generation Chinoy, while not rich, am living comfortably enough to not worry about my next meal or tuition — and thus allegedly on the receiving end of having stolen this comfort at the expense of the Filipino people.
I am very proud of my Chinese descent. I have a Chinese name, I celebrate both my lunar and Western birthdays. My first language is Fookien, and I enjoy watching Mandarin soaps and listening to Chinese music. I am, however, also fluent in Filipino — even more fluent, in fact, than some of my full-blooded but konyo Filipino friends.
I have no home other than here in the Philippines, and the first time I ever set foot on Chinese soil was three years ago, on a leisure trip. When I was fortunate enough to participate in international competitions, I proudly raised the Philippine flag.
When I first left my motherland for Australia, a land to which I had no ties, to pursue my bachelor’s degree at the University of Melbourne, I was extremely homesick, a stranger in a strange land. At university, I proudly introduced myself as a Filipino. There was no distinction between “Pinoy” and “Chinoy.”
So, the next time someone speaks in a language you don’t understand, or practices a belief different from yours, please tamp down the urge to tell them to “go back to the country where you belong.” Because you never know how much they love this country you consider solely yours.
* * *
Johanna Wileen Go, 25, is a third year medical student at the University of Santo Tomas.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.