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Sisyphus’ Lament

Anti-Chinese-Filipino slurs are invisible

When Dan Brown described Manila as “the gates of hell,” no less than the Metro Manila Development Authority chair protested. When Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao called his Filipino kasambahay (domestic helper) a potential enemy of the state, no less than our consul general there responded. Yet when a racial slur against Chinese-Filipinos is published mere days before Independence Day, no one speaks out.

No less than National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José wrote these hurtful words in his Philippine Star column: “[M]any of our ethnic Chinese will side with China so I will not ask anymore on whose side they will be if that war breaks out. I will ask instead my countrymen—they who are aware of our revolutionary and heroic tradition—the Filipinos who revere Mabini, Rizal, all those who sacrificed for this land and people: ‘What will you do now?’”

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Chinese-Filipino friends spontaneously asked if José wants to force us into internment camps, as 120,000 Japanese-Americans were during World War II. Such spontaneous responses from nonlawyers are bone-chilling. In 1944, US Supreme Court justices rejected Fred Korematsu’s challenge to the exclusion order that forced him out of California, citing unprecedented concerns regarding espionage and that “hardships are part of war.” It is one of very few decisions to validate government action based solely on race.

Justice Frank Murphy’s dissent used the word “racism” for the first time in a US high court opinion. Justice Robert Jackson, later US chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, framed how the crime “consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived.”

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Korematsu ranks among the most reviled of US judicial decisions, second only to the decision that upheld slavery, and senior government lawyers turned out to have suppressed the lack of evidence that submarines were lurking along the US West Coast and contacting Japanese-American sympathizers. US presidents since 1976 have denounced the internment as a national mistake. Wikipedia summarizes: “The forced relocation and incarceration [were] determined to have resulted more from racism and discrimination among whites on the West Coast, rather than any military danger posed by the Japanese Americans.”

My friends’ other reactions spanned indignation and befuddlement. One raised ethnic cleansing. Another quipped that his peers do not even cheer for China in basketball, much less a maritime border dispute. Another recalled her grandmother’s pride at serving as a nurse for Filipino guerrillas. The most pained reactions came from the youngest. Those below 25 could not think of a single pro-China friend. A student sent me a screenshot of Facebook users talking about attacking their Chinese-Filipino neighbors the moment hostilities break out.

My Chinese-Filipino friends would laugh at the thought of defecting to China. Studying in the United States, I felt I built rapport with my mainland Chinese classmates despite their impatience with my broken Mandarin. This illusion was shattered when they held a separate Chinese New Year celebration, inviting only Chinese-American students born in China. Later, one sheepishly explained that they did not find their overseas Chinese classmates Chinese enough.

Our mindsets were worlds apart. I found a coveted seat in Prof. Laurence Tribe’s constitutional law class (he taught President Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan) after a Chinese classmate dropped out, completely dazed after the first lecture on free speech. Similarly, none of my Singaporean friends see me as anything other than Filipino.

What shocks me, however, is how the racist slur seems invisible. I was deeply hurt when I first saw José’s words prominently quoted on Facebook by a former Cabinet secretary who I know as a great patriot, to the protest of his own Chinese-Filipino friends. One friend told me to calm down as there are tensions on both sides and he heard stories of Chinese harassing Filipino workers in China. I responded that José’s writeup features only Filipinos. A friend who graduated from law with honors saw the slur merely as a rhetorical question.

I cannot celebrate independence when I can be so casually told in public that I am less of a Filipino or a person solely because my grandparents were immigrants. Do we subconsciously insist on defining patriotism as an accident of birth instead of a lifetime’s conviction? How do we continually decry mistreatment of Filipinos overseas yet tolerate such vitriol at home?

We should all be more critical of what we read. I decried a former Court of Appeals justice proposing that a Philippine Islamic State in Syria might emerge because Congress may suspend separation of church and state in Mindanao, which is legally impossible. Last June 13, the essay “Religious police in the Bangsamoro?” implied that a Philippine Shari’ah legal system might sanction throwing battery acid on a woman’s face, yet failed to discuss our obvious constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Perhaps bigotry can masquerade as political commentary in a charming enough writer’s hands.

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Days after Independence Day, I invite my fellow Chinese-Filipinos to support our peace process. Who but our Muslim brethren will understand, more than we ever can, the pain of opening one of the country’s most respected newspapers and seeing a literary giant so casually and thoughtlessly slander one’s family and friends en masse, and have the entire country look on as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world?

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React on Twitter (@oscarfbtan) and facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: China, Chinese-Filipinos, F. Sionil Jose, Maritime Dispute, opinion, Racial Slurs, racism
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