My Tsinoy dilemma

Kathleen Yu
What's the difference between a Chinese Filipino and Filipino Chinese?

My philosophy professor once asked my class, “Is a whale shark a whale or a shark?”

Most of the class picked up on the answer immediately: the whale shark was a shark with whale-like characteristics. I personally thought it was a stupid question; “whale” was obviously an adjective that described the word “shark.” But my professor wasn’t finished. “How do you know?” he asked the class, smiling. 

“We don’t,” one of the smart alecks in class declared, and we all burst out laughing. Our professor shifted the discussion to another topic, and I soon forgot about his strange question 

This amusing recollection came back to me several months later, on the plane ride back from my first trip to China. I found myself seated next to two Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) headed back to the Philippines from their respective stints abroad. One of the women had spent several months working at a butcher in Hong Kong, only to return home when her permit wasn’t renewed. She was a plump middle-aged woman, gregarious and engaging. The other, a short, thin woman in her early thirties, was returning from Saudi Arabia after filing an abuse complaint against her former employers. Both women took to each other immediately, and were deep in conversation even before the plane took off.

Relieved to be hearing the familiar undertones of a friendly conversation in Filipino (you can imagine how happy I was to be hearing them, after spending a week conversing in nothing but Mandarin), I quickly introduced myself and joined in their conversation. Both women stopped talking abruptly, obviously surprised by my awkward attempt at familiarity. Finally, the plump woman spoke 

“You can speak Filipino?” she exclaimed, obviously surprised. “But you look so Chinese!”

“I was born in the Philippines,” I explained. “Why wouldn’t I be able to speak Filipino?” The plump woman frowned, considering my words carefully. “You look like you have Chinese blood,” she finally said.

“Both of my parents are Chinese,” I continued. “But I was born in the Philippines. I’m a Filipino.” The other woman shook her head. “No,” she said. “You’re not a Filipino. Both of your parents are Chinese. You’re Chinese.” Her friend agreed.

Not Filipino?

“You’re definitely a Chinese,” she said. “You don’t look Filipino at all.” I frowned. How could I not be a Filipino? Wasn’t I a Chinese-Filipino, a Filipino with Chinese heritage? Didn’t that make me as “Filipino” as these two OFWs who sat next to me, wildly excited to be back in the country with their families again? How could they tell me that I wasn’t a Filipino when I was born in the Philippines, and I’d spent all 22 years of my life there?

I thought about it carefully, remembering my philosophy professor’s whale shark question. I finally understood what he meant when he’d asked the class, “How do you know?” This was the exact same problem I now faced, as I struggled to justify to these two female OFWs why I was a Filipino with Chinese heritage—and not a Chinese who just happened to be born in the Philippines. My mother would be able to explain this so much better, I thought wryly.

As the president of a Tsinoy nonprofit and one of the leading Chinese-Filipino researchers in the Philippines, my mother is something of an expert in these kinds of matters. She has done extensive research on Chinese-Filipinos living in different parts of the country, and found that so many of us shared similar characteristics with many of our Filipino counterparts—while also retaining some very unique “Chinese” characteristics.

We are like a smaller sub-culture within a larger, encompassing culture—we share a lot of characteristics with our Filipino counterparts, but we are also unique in our own right. As Chinese-Filipinos, we exercise a lot of influence on the Filipino culture as well. Many of our customs and habits—holidays like Chinese New Year and specialty dishes like siopao, siomai, and mami, for example—have already been widely adopted by the mainstream culture. This is primarily due to the sheer number of Chinese Filipinos currently residing in the Philippines. We are considered one of the biggest “Chinese” populations in Asia, comprising nearly 1.6% of the total Philippine population as of 2005.   

Prominent Chinese Filipino businessmen were also responsible for creating the “shopping mall culture” that many Filipinos are so proud of, setting up well-known chains like SM and Robinsons. Many of us are pillars in Philippine society, contributing widely to the advancement of arts, culture, and education. You’d only have to visit the Gokongwei Buildings at both the Ateneo de Manila University and the De La Salle University to fully appreciate how actively the Chinese Filipino community has contributed to advancing educational initiatives here in the country.

More or less

With all the positive contributions of the Chinese Filipino community, I find it hard to believe why those two female OFWs still felt that I was more “Chinese” than “Filipino.” Perhaps the biggest reason for this divisiveness is not because we are really very different from each other (my mother’s research has found that the Chinese Filipinos are actually more culturally similar to Filipinos than to the Chinese from Hong Kong and China), but that we as Filipinos have become so accustomed to identifying ourselves in terms of what makes us “different” and “unique” from the next group that we’ve forgotten how much more important our similarities are, how much more we can grow together if we focused not on the things that made us different—but on the common threads that bring us together

At the end of the day, my Tsinoy dilemma is not really a question of whether I’m more “Chinese” or more “Filipino.” Neither is it a question of the real difference between “Chinese Filipino” and “Filipino Chinese.” Rather it is a question of how Filipinos in general have chosen to identify with each other, opting to focus on the small cultural differences that make us different instead of finding the small, common threads that have long bound us together as one culture and one society. Because at the end of the day, we are all really just Filipinos—living together in one country and sharing the same resources. 

The sooner we learn to accept that, the sooner we can come together as one, cohesive society. – 

Kathleen Yu is a Communication Research student at the University of the Philippines Diliman and the Co-Founder and CEO of tech start-up Rumarocket. Her mother, Angela Yu, is one of the leading researchers of Chinese Filipino culture in the country. 

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