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F. Sionil José and the crime of being born

/ 12:14 AM July 30, 2015

National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José has scared me since I was in high school. Reading his recent columns in another paper and his commentary in the Inquirer (7/26/15) practically accusing all Chinese-Filipinos of possibly collaborating with China felt like déjà vu.

Imagine being in high school and reading José’s warning of pogroms if Chinese-Filipinos did not act properly, whatever that meant. Imagine José calling for your Chinese-Filipino high school to be closed, even if “Chinese” schools have followed the national curriculum and admitted non-Chinese-Filipino students since the 1970s.

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I had no idea what a pogrom was, but you cannot blame me for panicking after looking the word up. How could a high school student even visualize the Holocaust happening in the Philippines of the 2010s?

Naively, I could only think to approach my teacher after class. I was so uncomfortable it took me a while to get to the point.

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“Ma’am, w-what is your take on the current anti-Chinese sentiments?” I eventually asked. (I did not use the term “Chinese-Filipino” then.)

“Saan nanggaling iyan (Where did that come from)?” she replied, surprised.

I sheepishly tried to explain what I could understand from José’s sentiments, and my teacher thought them unfounded. I went off reassured that I would probably not be entering a gas chamber anytime soon.

Years later, I find that nothing has changed. José is still proclaiming the same racist bias against Chinese-Filipinos like me, this time with our territorial claim against China as the pretext. I am several years older now but he still scares me. Perhaps you need to belong to an ethnic minority to understand.

Chinese-Filipinos are so easy to stereotype. How easy for our countrymen dissatisfied with our economic condition to blame the minority who allegedly “control 60 percent of our economy,” according to José. I wish a student from a middle-class family like me controlled 60 percent of our economy. Maybe I would be less uneasy.

Recall our Spanish colonial period, when ethnic Chinese, who had mostly not yet converted to Catholicism at the time, were segregated into Manila’s Parian. Our colonial masters cultivated a distrust for them, making them an easy scapegoat. I would like to believe that we have moved past that time, when the ethnic Chinese were Sangleys and the ethnic Malays were Indios, and no one had yet thought that we are all part of a single country.

It seems inevitable for longtime prejudices to resurface. They reappeared to me as jokes over drinks last year with my schoolmates. In jest, one of my peers said Chinese (not Chinese-Filipinos) like me would naturally support China in the dispute in the West Philippine Sea.

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I reflexively shouted: “We’re on your side!” I unthinkingly began explaining how my grandparents consciously chose to call the Philippines home. Being a typical Atenean, I was about to make a bombastic speech about cultivated fears from our colonial past when my friends reassured me it was just a joke.

I can relate with the Inquirer’s Oscar Franklin Tan when he concluded in his June 29 column that “words can wound as much as bullets.” A joke can feel like that. I feel the same way when I read José’s racist columns, except it is clear he is not joking.

When José calls for Chinese-Filipinos to shout their loyalty from the rooftops, I feel as though I am under constant scrutiny just because I happen to have Chinese blood. What have I ever done to José or to any other Filipino beyond being born?

Growing up, my parents taught me that we have to live proud of many things: our family’s good name, our heritage, our country. Perhaps they explained this to me through a slightly different lens given my grandparents’ history, but I imagine what they taught me is not too different from what my peers’ parents taught them.

Our generation does not need to grow up proud of racism. Boying Pimentel, in his latest rebuttal to José (Inquirer.net, 7/28/15), recounted stories from the 1940s of racial violence across the United States against Japanese-Americans. The public paranoia sent unjustly branded “traitors” into internment camps. The workers’ dissatisfaction with the Japanese dominance over the automobile industry in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in American auto workers smashing Japanese cars and in Chinese-American Vincent Chin’s death. If we allow racist sentiments to validate hate and violence, can we be proud to call ourselves Filipino?

I am afraid to have the kind of society José implies that we do. Do citizens like me have to live constantly questioned whether we belong in our own country? Does someone like me have to live with a public reputation imposed by José that I am likely a traitor?

Let us turn this around: Do Filipinos with no Chinese blood have to live under the constant fear that their countrymen who happen to look a little different are secretly plotting to destroy our country? Do we have to live in this atmosphere of hatred and distrust created by the ravings of a novelist living in a twisted caricature of a forgotten decade? Do we want to give our nation’s enemies the satisfaction of seeing us turn on each other when we feel endangered?

I want to believe that we have a future where racial distrust is but a relic of the past.

I want to believe that our greatest fear is not of each other but of failing to live up to the responsibility of being Filipino.

I want to believe that we are better than F. Sionil José and that we can build a far better country than his racist world.

Joshua Cheng is a junior at Ateneo de Manila University where he is the vice president for publications of Ateneo Celadon, its Chinese-Filipino cultural organization, and the editor in chief of its Elements (formerly Chinoy) magazine (http://elements.ateneo-celadon.org).

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TAGS: China, Chinese-Filipinos, F. Sionil Jose, racism, territorial dispute
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