“Even though my Chinese roots are different, it doesn’t make me any less Filipino.”
No matter who you are, there is a fact that every person comes across this question at least once in their life: “Who am I?” Of course, this is especially true for members of a diasporic community, who have taken hand-in-hand the heritage of their past and the society of their present to create a unique sense of identity that they can call their own. For Chinoys, it is a question that many have spent their entire lives struggling to answer.
It is no surprise then that, even now, we find ourselves attempting to do so.
Introducing the new weekly documentary program CHiNOY TV Presents: Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart #1CH1NOY, CHiNOY TV aims to explore the modern Filipino-Chinese identity through dialogues with eight Chinoy personalities in the country. Among these is three-time Palanca Award winner and children’s literature author Patricia Ngo.
Sharing her experiences of growing up with a multicultural background, Ngo has creatively depicted the Chinoy narrative in her latest work That’s It, Pancit!. The picture book tells the story of Lily, a young girl who struggles to define who she is as both a member of a Filipino and Chinese family.
“[Lily] is Chinoy, and she has two of many things,” Ngo explained. “She has two names, two birthdays, and two New Year’s celebrations. This leaves her excited but a bit confused because she’s not sure who she is. If she has two of many things, but there’s only one of her, what does that make her?”
Ngo, as a Chinese-Filipino writer, has spent her entire life pondering the answer to this question. In an interview with CHiNOY TV, Ngo reveals her take on what it means to be a modern Chinoy, sharing stories of her childhood and the values she has learned along the way.
On blending harmony: Writing That’s It, Pancit!
Growing up, Patricia Ngo seldom saw Chinoys being represented in popular media, which she attributed as one of the reasons for why she was not quite sure what being Chinoy meant. And if she herself didn’t understand her identity, is it really shocking that others didn’t as well?
“There are people who don’t necessarily understand that side of you. Whenever I visited another country and met another Filipino they would be surprised to hear that I could speak Tagalog. They would ask me when I learned it and how I knew a language that wasn’t mine. But in my head, of course, it was mine! I lived in the Philippines all my life. Of course, Tagalog was also my mother tongue,” Ngo shared.
But despite her claims to be Filipino, Ngo was hesitant to say where she stood in the jumbled puzzle that was her cultural identity. It was only when Ngo started pursuing her undergraduate studies at the Ateneo de Manila University that she discovered that culture was not a static thing to be defined. “Cultures keep changing just as people do. I learned that [being Chinoy] was just one way of being Filipino. There are many ways to do so. Being Chinoy was a valid way of being Filipino.”
Since her own experiences growing up were markedly different from what others recognized as traditionally Filipino, Ngo wanted to be able to deliver this message to the younger Chinoy generation. This opportunity came prime for the picking after Ngo attended the U.P. National Writers Workshop, where panelists suggested that she look for stories that have yet to be told in the Philippine market.
“It reminded me of an idea that I had at the back of my mind of a girl with two cultures — a girl like me who had two of many things,” said Ngo. “I wanted to communicate with my audience and show that, ‘Hey! This is how I understood my identity. This is what it means to be Chinoy.’”
“Chinoy culture is a good embodiment of harmony — how we are able to take from two different cultures and make them into a unique blend,” she continued. “That’s It, Pancit! is a way of celebrating that harmony. I think it’s extra important now, given that we live in a world where everyone can be a citizen of anywhere, that we are constantly getting different trends from different countries. It doesn’t mean we stop being who we are. It doesn’t take away from your identity and your whole essence of being.”
On balancing bravery and filial piety
That said, Patricia Ngo’s being able to tell this message with her own personal writing is also a journey that took courage to pursue. After all, her dream of being a full-time writer is not something that is often encouraged upon, especially from the perspective of the ever-so practical Chinoy community.
Ngo shared: “I did my best to be brave when I started out with writing. Many people would dissuade me from writing. They would say that it’s something that’s not really lucrative, something that would be hard to do. And I admit it. Those worries also got to me, sometimes. [For That’s It, Pancit!], I was worried that no publisher would want to publish a story on Chinoys. Because I have never seen a story about Chinoys before, especially marketed for kids.
“But I believe that bravery was worth it. One person mentioned that she was glad this book existed now — that she could read it to her kid — because it was a book that she had wanted before. There are people who also talk about the power of representation. And I think that’s sometimes what bravery is.”
To clarify, bravery here does not mean going against the wishes of your elders when chasing after a not-so “typical” career (read: in the eyes of Chinoys). For Ngo, bravery co-exists together with filial piety and a loyalty to her roots.
“I think that filial piety is best built with trust. Because my parents trusted me, I was able to understand why they wanted the things they wanted for me. I was able to be more open about listening to the things they wanted to teach me,” explained Ngo, with regard to her decision to take on a writing career. “I understand that my parents have my best interests at heart.”
On recognizing loyalty and empathy
For Patricia Ngo, one cannot define what it means to be Chinoy without facing one’s family. Just think, for example, about the many organizations and associations in the country that are attached to entire Filipino-Chinese clans. Loyalty, in Chinoy circles, runs especially deep.
“When I think about loyalty, I really think about my family. I really value my family. I want to make sure that I can help them and be with them,” said Ngo. “Loyalty to my culture is also quite important to me. I want to make sure that I don’t lose that part of myself. I want to make sure that the culture is not lost by writing stories about them and helping other people understand what our stories are.”
“When I was writing That’s It, Pancit!, the value that I really wanted to highlight was empathy. I think that empathy is extremely important, especially today where people often misunderstand each other,” she continued.
One of the most important goals that Ngo has for her writing is to not only share the stories of the Chinoy community but also to help others understand them — to provide them value, voice, and representation; a goal which she shares alongside CHiNOY TV’s Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart #1CH1NOY campaign.
“I think that this campaign is really important in bridging the gap between whatever miscommunications we might have with other cultures and other people. There are times when people misunderstand what it means to be Chinoy. They don’t understand that the Philippines is still our home, and that we are still Filipinos, even with our different experiences. There is no one way of being Chinoy.”
At the end of the day, Patricia Ngo believes in the importance of Chinoy stories. That is why she continues writing. With That’s It, Pancit!, she maintains: “You don’t have to worry about you not being Filipino enough or Chinese enough. Your Chinese roots make you who you are, but the Philippines is your home. And no one can take that away from you.”