Chinoys Share what Studying in China did for their Cultural Identity

By Tiffany Vernice Uy


We Chinoys have a lot to appreciate about our history and identity. This is not only because we are people of diasporic Chinese communities, but it’s also because we’ve essentially grown-up imbibing two different cultures – Chinese and Filipino. Because of this, the question of being “truly Chinese” or “truly Filipino” may be something any of us might have thought about at least once or twice in our lives. For some, it may be thought as a compromise between conflicting cultural standards and norms, but for others, it may be a combination of two cultures into an entirely new one.

However, would we think about this matter more if we were to somehow find ourselves living among locals in native Chinese-speaking countries instead of only living among our fellow Chinoys? What would then happen to our personal understandings of each of our own Chinoy identities? Could anything about it change, or will it just stay the same? We ask 3 particular Chinoys who’ve had the opportunity to study or have immersion in China about their experiences being Chinoy in their ancestral homeland.

To feel Chinese or Filipino at home in the Philippines

Before getting to know the experiences these Chinoys had while being in China, we first get a brief insight on how they perceived themselves back home in the Philippines before they went to stay in the mainland.

For Ivy, a 22-year-old university student, she had always considered herself primarily as a Filipino. Although she has attributes that are Chinese (e.g. being able to converse in Mandarin with her family from a young age, being logical when it comes to handling finances), she explains, “I considered all the cultures and traditions that my family had or that I grew up in, and I concluded that my attitude and my attributes are more Pinoy.”

For Kristine, a 34-year-old working professional, she recalls how she used to ponder over her Chinoy identity growing-up. She recounts how her parents back then only allowed her to speak with them in Fukien, although she was aware that they live in a place where Tagalog and English are the common languages. “Looking back,” she adds, “I now understand why my parents did that, and I’m grateful that I can speak Fukien and am able to connect with other Chinoys with our unique experiences.” 

Similarly, Ann, a 22-year-old professional worker, says that she neither felt that she was just Chinese nor just Filipino at home. She would rather describe herself more as a Chinese-Filipino, which she thinks is its own unique thing: “We were raised in an environment with both and neither [cultural] influences.”

To feel truly Chinese or not while staying in China

Back in 2018 and 2019, Ivy’s experience adjusting to her student life in Zhuhai and Guangzhou affirmed her beliefs on her cultural identity. While she was taking courses in Language (Mandarin) and Business, she felt like the Chinese part of herself was in full bloom as she was assigned to be a foreign student representative to the school. At meetings with other student group representatives, however, she started losing confidence in her Chinese skills whenever she would listen to the school admin and the other students speaking in Chinese. She did know Chinese and spoke it very well, but the locals were speaking a different kind of Chinese that she was not yet familiar with. At other times, she would feel pressured when it was her turn to speak in the meetings. “Ito pala yung difference of growing up in a Chinese-speaking household and being exposed to situations where you have to converse with actual Chinese citizens on the spot,” she recalls back then, remembering how quickly she was forced to adapt to the way the locals spoke while finding herself forgetting some Chinese words from time to time.

On the other hand, despite being compelled to be at par with her Chinese companions, Ivy was still able to see herself as truly Pinoy. Most of it came from her realizing how different her natural personality was to that of the Chinese locals, noting that she grew up having a Filipino mindset. In other cases, it came from observing how differently people there tend to treat her upon realizing that she is actually a foreigner, accommodating her like the visitor she is.

As for Kristine, who had taken a semester’s worth of Language Studies (Mandarin) in Shanghai back in 2009, she recounts meeting and getting to know Euro-Chinese people along the way. For her, this period studying abroad was also a period of coming back to her roots. She realized how being Chinese by blood intrinsically connects her with others who are ethnically Chinese too, be it through the smallest of things (i.e. loving KTV and Chinese food) to the more personal ones (i.e. how Chinoys are expected to help out in their family businesses just as the Euro-Chinese she had met had been helping out in their family restaurants).

However, there were also parts of her experience that made her feel otherwise: “Maybe because of my looks, I was almost always assumed as a local until I started speaking in a non-local accent.” In that line of thought, she adds that she felt like a “fake Chinese” rather than an actual one as her classmates and teachers would only refer to her as a foreigner of Chinese descent.

Finally, Ann, too, studied Mandarin in Shanghai for around 5 months last 2020. Upon asking if she felt like she was a “true Chinese” from that experience, she gave an unsure reply: “I mean, of course, by the end of the semester I spent there, I felt like I have adapted more to the local Chinese culture, but I’m still pretty much a foreigner there.” She also admits that Shanghai, being a melting pot of different cultural influences, felt like a new place she was just discovering for herself, noting that her ability to, as she puts it, “semi-speak” the local language was more of a major plus for her.

Ann, just like Ivy and Kristine, recalls how she could really tell for herself that she was not from there based on how she talked to the locals. Her accent and wording always stood out. One time, a car service driver even thought she was from Singapore or Taiwan when she spoke to him. That’s how different she was from the locals.

Setting apart Chinoys from Chinese locals through culture

Being Chinoy truly goes deeper than simply being just Chinese or just Filipino. This is clear in the differences between Chinese and Filipino cultures.

For Ivy, she noticed that the Chinese locals she met did not have the same concept of bayanihan as she had; they were not really the type to approach strangers willingly and lend a helping hand like most Filipinos would do. During her stay in China, this difference became apparent when Ivy noticed how people around her did not help her one single bit as they saw her struggling to carry her heavy luggage up the stairs to her dorm. This is not to put Chinese locals in a bad light, but it is rather to show that Filipinos are indeed known to be really hospitable towards anyone and everyone, which is something that Ivy had already come to expect much of from Chinoys like herself.

For Kristine, the Mano Po culture is definitely one thing that sets Filipinos apart from the mainland Chinese, being that people in the mainland do not practice mano or blessing their elders. “And thinking how it is a title of a film franchise made to understand the Chinoy culture is kind of weird. Apparently it isn’t a Chinese culture. But growing up in the Philippines, we were taught to respect our elders and greet them that way,” she notes.

How “Chinoy” would be explained to Pinoys and Chinese locals

If any of us were to explain what a Chinoy is to a Pinoy and to a Chinese local, how would we do it? Would our approach be different for each type of person? In Kristine and Anne’s case, they think that they didn’t have to explain what a Chinoy is to the Chinese locals they met. For Kristine, the only exception would be for times when locals would ask about her family history and hometown. She does, however, find explaining to a Pinoy a tad more frustrating, having to clarify that Chinoys are not just people who can indeed fluently speak Tagalog but are also Filipinos who were born and raised in the very same place as they were. 

For Ivy, if she were to describe what a Chinoy is to anyone, she would prefer to say that it is to be Chinese-Filipino. “For me, it is being Chinese first before Filipino, acknowledging na yung roots ko is still from China. But then, I am also Filipino. I imagine it as a cup of juice: the cup is my Chinese heritage, while the juice is my Filipino one. Being Filipino is actually something one chooses, while being Chinese is a fact I cannot change.” So, instead of stating it as a conflict between two cultures, she would state it as something to be grateful for — to get to be BOTH Chinese and FIlipino.

In the end, it is clear to these Chinoys that the experience of staying alongside people of their ancestral homeland supported their identity as being both Chinese and Filipino rather than made them base their identity merely on what they are by blood. So, whether or not any of us have had (or will have) similar experiences as they did, the opportunity to continue realizing and appreciating how unique being a Chinoy can be is indeed something we can always look forward to in each of our journeys of self-discovery.

About the Contributor:

Tiffany Vernice Uy is a fresh graduate from the Ateneo de Manila University with a love for animals and movies. She considers her faith, family, and friends to be the things most important to her.

Special thanks to Caitlin Tan, Ivy Yi, Kristine Yao, and Ann King in the making of this article

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