Filipino culture

My family’s huan-á-pô: Filipino, Filipino-Chinese, and the lines drawn between

Lance Spencer Yu

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My family’s huan-á-pô: Filipino, Filipino-Chinese, and the lines drawn between

Marian Hukom/Rappler

When you condense an entire people – thoughts and hopes and dreams and all – into syllables, you reduce them into what they are not

Lí mài chù-ì,” my father told me as I moved to help with the dishes, “Ī chí-sī huan-á-pô.”

(Don’t mind her. She’s the maid after all.) 

I was young, maybe eight years old, and I was fresh from learning in Sunday school that it was good to lend a helping hand. So help I did. After dinner, I had headed straight to the kitchen, only to be met with that reprimand. And my yaya – as I’d call her, to the disapproval of my Hokkien-speaking father – simply nodded. 

Ako na bahala diyan (I’ll take care of it),she said, taking the dishes from me.

I remember how tired her eyes looked, creased from age and labor. I remember my father’s scornful tone, lined with declarations of this household’s power dynamic. I remember my own confusion. 

But it wasn’t the first time I had heard these ideas. In catered dinner parties and around decorated dining tables, cousins, aunts, uncles would gossip about how terribly inept their huan-á kang-lâng – Filipino employee – was, and oh, have you heard how so-and-so had, God forbid, married a huan-á!

It wasn’t the last time I’d hear it either. After a law exam where my friends and I did well, I wondered aloud how we’d managed to do it. One of them threw a cursory glance over my classmates and said – as if its implication were obvious – “Huan-á.” The implication, of course, being that we were not. We were lán-nâng.

“Huan-á” (番仔), the Hokkien word that most Filipino-Chinese use to refer to Filipinos, actually translates to “foreigner.” The proper, clunkier word ought to be “hui-li̍p-pin-lâng” (菲律宾人) or “Philippine people,” but perhaps due to its brevity or perhaps something else, “huan-á” has gained mainstream use. Meanwhile, “lán-nâng” (咱人), which is what Filipino-Chinese use to refer to each other, literally translates to “our people.” 

But words are never just words. When you condense an entire people – thoughts and hopes and dreams and all – into two syllables, you reduce them into what they are not. Over decades, the word “huan-á has become loaded with a derogatory taste. We are our people, the words seemed to say, and they are not, branded instead as foreigners in their own land. 

And the space between us widens.

At home, the same words are spoken, with the same lurking undertones. To them, my yaya is a huan-á-pô, as if to say she is foreign, and therefore, unknowably different. An ideal huan-á-pô is a docile, unambitious servant. Someone who knows their place. After all, it’s a cardinal sin for a huan-á-pô to be ké-gâu; a know-it-all, a pakialamera. Inanimate obedience is a virtue.

While my yaya lived with us, she was accepted and accommodated only insofar as she was useful around the house. The line of absolute hospitality was never crossed. The delicate tension of surrendering part of one’s home while also not offering too much to the Other always hung in the air. 

Home, sweet home: that place which proxies as the racial battleground between lán-nâng and huan-á

In some of my earliest memories, I would linger around the kitchen, watching as my yaya worked – deft hands knifing the scales off fish that would soon be lunch. I would ask her how she knew to pick the freshest catch, or the precise points to cut and clean out the belly. And she would tell me how, in a blend of Filipino and her native Ilocano.

It got to a point where, as a child, bits of Ilocano words would color my sentences – fascinating for me, dreadful for my parents, who understood nothing of what I said. My parents went so far as limiting my conversations with the househelp, fearing I’d pick up Filipino or Ilocano as my main language and “ta̍k-pái ēng huan-á-ōe” (always use Filipino.)

It was one of my relative’s great worries that one of us would become too “localized” and lose the ability to speak lán-nâng-ōe, Hokkien. And so universal is this fear among proud, old Filipino-Chinese families that they have a word for it: “huan-á gōng,” literally a stupid foreigner, or someone who has forgotten their language, their roots. 

This aversion towards the Filipino language cut deep into me growing up. I had detested learning Filipino. I feared Filipino. For a time, I had even bought in the delusional superiority that seemed so obvious to many Filipino-Chinese. I, too, had begun to view my yaya as a mere huan-á-pô.

In retrospect, I feel terrible. I could have done more to resist this pervasive racism. I could have chosen to see the common humanity in my yaya’s eyes, the same that glimmered in my mother’s, my grandmother’s. I stood passively by, listening as my relatives would attribute her faults to a supposed intrinsic inferiority of her race.

Careless around chinaware?  Huan-á. Unable to set aside savings? Huan-á. The worst offenses called for the worst slurs: “Puro utang na lang ang alam? Chhàu-huan!” they would say, pulling out a word that literally means “smelly foreigner” or “barbarian.”

What I now understand are mere mistakes or even effects of a disadvantaged socio-economic position, my relatives would once tell me were the natural failings of huan-á. Sometimes, I would argue that a person can only do so much to climb out the depths of poverty when deprived of the educational and economic privileges that they take for granted. But they simply shook their heads and shut me down with one word: Huan-á.

I’ve come a long way in unburdening myself of this prejudice. But the past weighs on me. 

When Alex Tizon first shone a light on the story of Lola, who he called his family’s “slave” in modern America, most of the world – in its decidedly Western ethic – declared it all monstrously unjust. To some, the story was about just another kasambahay.

But whether or not something is normalized by society, what’s wrong is wrong. To quote Tizon, “I was ashamed of it all, including my complicity.” Yet, perhaps shame isn’t the appropriate emotion. In the closed world of lán-nâng, there was no shame to be had at ordering those below you. So perhaps the more appropriate emotion is frustration.

Entitlement is a poison that sadly runs deep in Filipino-Chinese circles. The dismissive way that they treat their huan-á-pô sometimes extends to a general resentment for huan-á. It pops up in other places. Just think of the walls they build around their own children to keep would-be suitors without the right family name at bay.

When I asked the older generation what motivates this sort of prejudice, they said that they’re merely “preserving” Filipino-Chinese culture by keeping Filipino influence out. Perhaps we might understand why heritage means everything to them if we consider the unique position of the Filipino-Chinese. Dispossessed of their homeland and culture, and voluntarily exiled in a country where they are a minority, they cling to their language and their small community as the only remnants of a lost cultural identity. My own grandfather, fleeing the spread of World War II in China, fled to the Philippines in the proverbial small boat with little more than a suitcase and the clothes on his back.

Stripped of any reminders of their home, they protect what they deem is the last repository of their culture that holds the community together: Hokkien. And in the process, they shut others out.

But for all these musings, I am no closer to understanding who my yaya is beyond the role that my culture seems to dictate. I can attempt to rebuild the facts. Her name is Corazon. She comes from Ilocos Norte. She has three daughters, the youngest of whom my parents would sometimes invite to the house in a display of generosity.

But the truth is, I don’t know her. Her identity was lost in the fear that who she was might “infect” who we were. 

When I think back to that moment years ago, a young boy wanting to help his yaya, I wish I hadn’t been taught to see her as a huan-á-pô. No. I wish I’d been taught to see in those tired eyes the dignity of labor, of shared humanity, of what it means to be a Filipino. –

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Lance Spencer Yu

Lance Spencer Yu is a multimedia reporter who covers the transportation, tourism, infrastructure, finance, agriculture, and corporate sectors, as well as macroeconomic issues.