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It’s time to break ‘Filipino Great Wall’

Fourteen units. I had only 14 units left to complete the requirements of my undergraduate degree this semester. Finally, I thought, I had the luxury to take an extra class and fulfill one of my goals in college: to learn one foreign language (or at least the basics).

My first choice was Mandarin. I thought it would be practical to learn the language spoken by more than a billion speakers in the world.

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Everything was planned, but then I ended up taking Nihongo instead. I discovered that the only Mandarin class that would fit into my schedule started at 7 a.m.  It was sad, but learning Japanese proved to be equally fun and fulfilling. I’m enjoying writing Hiragana, and we’ll start Katakana soon.

Nonetheless, the desire to learn Mandarin never dies! I know that the University of the Philippines’ Department of Linguistics offers extramural classes, and I want to give it a try.  I don’t know, but ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated with the rich Chinese culture, which I observed as I grew up in the quiet town of Daet in Camarines Norte.  We have a former governor, a priest, a mayor, a vice mayor, councilors, dentists, doctors, and other prominent persons with surnames that are unmistakably Chinese. Certainly, generations of Chinoys have been assimilated as an indispensable part of our society.

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I am sure that at one point in grade school, we were taught about the smooth-sailing relationship between the Philippines and China, from the time of the barter trade between our datus and Chinese merchants. Thousands of years have passed and things have so changed that what comes to mind now when we talk about ties between the two countries are nine-dash lines and flags with yellow stars set in a red background hoisted in the disputed Spratly Islands.

In one of his columns in the Inquirer, UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan pointed out that even the term “Intsik” was probably originally meant to insult the old Chinese ambulant vendors. It has become clear to me that the relationship wasn’t as smooth-sailing as we were told. And the conflict continues to this very moment.

I remember talking to a friend about the Filipino delegation at an international mathematics contest abroad. My excitement turned to disappointment when I showed him the pictures of the students and he said, in a questioning tone, “Philippines? Eh puro Chinese and Chinese schools naman ’yan.”  Perhaps this is the “Filipino Great Wall”—the isolation and stereotyping of the Chinese among us, as though they were not “true Filipinos.”

But then this is hardly new. Sangleys, the term used for Chinese immigrants during the Spanish era, were concentrated in areas where the authorities could put them under surveillance because of the threat that they might instigate rebellion—hence Binondo in Manila, Parian in Cebu, etc.

So despite the professed admiration for the successes of Chinese-Filipino tycoons, we cannot deny that some of us raise our brows when we hear news of Chinoys, like UP Diliman summa cum laude graduate Tiffy Uy, making a name for themselves. It’s hugely ironic that while some of us swear by Chinese practices such as feng shui, and go wild over lucky charms, Chinoys are still generally regarded as the “others.”

This aspect of Philippine-Chinese relations gradually became one my interests aside from my obsession with the natural sciences. The interest heightened even more when I learned that like Jose Rizal and President Aquino, there is Chinese blood running in my veins.

Judging by my looks, hardly anyone will believe me if I say that I am of Chinese descent. I do not have the “typical” look of a Chinese. And unlike others who are fully aware of their Chinese-ness, I cannot declare anything beyond the fact that I am descended from a Chinese mestizo on my father’s side.

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But save for the customary observation of the Lunar New Year, burning incense sticks at the altar, placing an image of Buddha side by side with an image of the Santo Niño, and wearing red on special occasions especially birthdays, we are much like the typical “pure Filipino” families. Ironic it may seem, but as we slowly discover our Chinese roots, we have become more grounded, more mindful all throughout our journey that we are Filipinos loyal to our motherland.

Does our Chinese ancestry make us lesser Filipinos? Surely not. I was raised in a family steeped in Filipino values that are not alien to the Chinese. These values are love for the family, courtesy and respect for elders, and the importance of hard work. Both embrace the value of peace.

During the diaspora at the beginning of the communist regime in China, the Philippines became a refuge for those seeking a place to start anew. Today, whenever our country faces calamities and other crises, Chinese-Filipino volunteer fire brigades, nongovernment organizations, and civic groups are always present to lend a helping hand to their fellow Filipinos.

So who is a Filipino?

While there is a legal definition of who is a Filipino, the issue of the “Filipino Great Wall” poses a serious question: Have we all been able to welcome the diversity of our population? Is the question about the race? Is it about ethnicity? Or is it about the openness of one’s heart and mind to identify him/herself as Filipino, speak as a Filipino, and act as a Filipino?

I hope that one day my friend will be able to recognize that those “Chinese students” who represented our country are truly Filipino, just like him. And that we can fully embrace both the good and the not-so good sides of the two cultures and all the other cultures of our country’s diverse population. We need to break the “Filipino Great Wall” and make the Philippines a better place for the Chinoys, the Muslims, the Lumad, and all other Filipinos.

Christoper Jan B. Landicho, 20, is in his fourth year as a geology student at the National Institute of Geological Sciences, University of the Philippines Diliman.

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