Profiles, Stories

This Children’s Story Hopes To Answer, “Am I Chinese or Filipino?”

That's It Pancit children's book

“Having two of many things is fun but sometimes confusing. How do I choose one culture over the other? Since there’s only one of me, how do I know who I am?” so shares Lily, the protagonist of the newly-released children’s book That’s It, Pancit!, released under Anvil Publishing. Like Lily, many Chinese-Filipinos, or “Chinoys” for short, have struggled with their identities as products of two different cultures. It’s a large part of growing up Chinoy, as we start questioning different parts of our lives, from who we are today to who we will be in the future.

For the minds behind That’s It, Pancit!, their callings came at different points in their lives. The story’s author, Patricia “Pat” Celina Ngo, was inspired to write from a longtime love for reading. “Growing up, books were a big part of my childhood. I would bring books with me no matter where I went and I would find great joy in losing myself in stories…I wanted to write stories that other people would enjoy losing themselves in, too,” she said. She started writing children’s literature in particular during her college days at Ateneo de Manila University, hoping to recapture the storytelling magic she experienced as a child.

“I was particularly interested in it because I wanted to write stories filled with wonder, curiosity, and imagination, much like the ones I used to read as a child. Perhaps it was also my way to retain a similar way of seeing the world. Becoming an adult can be a disheartening process, especially with all the challenges we need to face. Sometimes we are left jaded and we forget that many wonders still exist around us. I wanted to remember wonder. I wanted to remember that adventures are about perspective and that we need to keep imagination alive if we want to change things around us,” she shared.

That’s It, Pancit! author Patricia Celina Ngo

Even when she was still a college undergraduate, Ngo began pouring her stories and writings into her children’s literature, with her debut children’s book, Blanket/Kumot, published in 2016. She soon garnered attention for her works; in her sophomore year, she received her first Carlos Palanca Memorial Award with a 2nd Place prize for Poetry Written for Children for her Ordinary Adventures anthology. Ngo would go on to win two more Palanca Awards before graduating college in 2017. In 2019, she placed third in the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards for her short story “The Sky Painter.”

Despite her experience as a children’s writer, pursuing a sensitive topic such as Chinoy identity is an unexpected choice for a children’s story, and was an idea she confessed was daunting due to how loaded it was. This idea was birthed by Ngo during a consultation with panelists as a fellow in the 57th UP National Writers Workshop. “At first, I talked to them to ask about my workshop piece, but eventually we started discussing children’s literature as a whole. They prompted me to look around and find stories that haven’t been told in the Philippine market. They asked me to reflect on the stories I could best tell,” she recalled. In her reflection, an idea was forming in the back of her mind about a story about two cultures coming together – an idea that she began pursuing.

“I realized my Chinese Filipino culture was valid. It was okay that I had Chinese roots. It didn’t make me any less Filipino, because many ways of being Filipino exist.”

Ngo dealt with questions regarding her cultural identity growing up. Strangers marveled at how good she was at speaking Tagalog before realizing she was Filipino like them. “I could understand their confusion, because I had similar questions for years. I wondered if I had to choose between Chinese and Filipino cultures, but couldn’t figure out where to begin because both were such a big part of me. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized I didn’t have to choose.”

After taking a class on basic sociology and anthropology during her days in the Ateneo, she stopped thinking that cultures were pure and static. “I realized my Chinese Filipino culture was valid. It was okay that I had Chinese roots. It didn’t make me any less Filipino, because many ways of being Filipino exist.”

This personal realization gave her comfort and the drive to share it through writing, as she shares, “I thought that perhaps many people like me might have grappled with similar questions, and I wanted them to know that they were not alone in this. Of course, like culture itself, this question on identity does not have one answer only. People may find other ways to come to terms with this same concern, and it’s my hope that my journey can help them in theirs.”

This journey was translated to the pages of That’s It, Pancit! through the lens of the young Lily (丽丽). Lily loves being Chinese and Filipino – the food is delicious, the celebrations are grand, and the cultures are rich. However, when her peers begin asking her, “Are you Chinese or Filipino?,” the young girl begins pondering what it means to be Chinoy. It’s a short but nuanced story that’s not only written in three languages (English, Filipino, and Chinese) but also accompanied by luscious, beautiful drawings that bring Lily’s character and story to life.

That’s It, Pancit! illustrator Rebecca V. Yu

These illustrations came from Rebecca V. Yu, who worked on That’s It, Pancit! for over a year. Yu had designed book covers before, but this serves as the first children’s book she had illustrated. Her embrace of art as a career only came recently, as schooling set her on a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) path early on. Even then, thinking had always been a visual process for her. “What draws me to illustrating is learning how to bring out what I’m thinking and feeling, to be able to make others see and feel it too,” she shares.

Although she never met Ngo until the process was over, she received the story as a manuscript and design brief from Anvil Publishing. “Thanks to Pat, the manuscript already contained descriptions for what she envisioned would go on the page,” she says. At each step, she would communicate with their art director and editor for submission and feedback during the illustration process. “Whether or not [the feedback] came from Pat, I was never informed. I guess in this way, I was given the freedom to put my heart into the illustrations without worrying about whether the author approved of it. The descriptions within the script were a huge help because it let me know which parts needed to appear, and which parts I could have fun with,” she described the process. Ngo adds, “When making picture books, illustrators are co-authors, and giving them room to interpret the story and depict this through their art is important. That’s why I made sure not to be too specific while I was writing my illustration guide…I appreciate that they were also able to find a fellow Chinoy, because Becca’s experiences and illustrations gave the story new dimensions. I loved the details she included, like the typical dishes served in Chinese restaurants.”

Fun can indeed be seen in the colorful pages of the book, especially with the title’s namesake. “I loved illustrating the food! I knew I was going to love this story because of how huge the role of food is here. Like the spread at the Chinese restaurant, or the page about different kinds of pancit, and most especially the cover! Another favorite part was designing the characters. I got to go through a lot of old family photos.”

“I knew a lot of Chinoys who didn’t have a book like this as a child would be looking for themselves in Lily’s experiences. I felt I couldn’t let them down.”

The question on Chinoy identity could be seen particularly in the middle of the book, where Lily cautiously looks over at the two sides of her culture. On one end, she is enamored with the wonders of Chinatown dressed in her cheongsam and surrounded by delicious siopao and mooncake while a dragon flies by. On the other side, however, she jubilantly dances the tinikling while adorned in a baro’t saya with Quiapo church, scrumptious large pandesal, and colorful halo-halo serving as a backdrop.

Although she is also Chinese-Filipino (and an Atenean alumnus), Yu didn’t entirely share the same experiences as a Chinoy as Ngo, but the words given by the author were enough for her to understand what would bring the story of Lily to life. “The magic of Pat’s story is that you don’t need to have experienced every detail for you to recognize yourself in her characters. A lot of what happens to Lily, the main character, did not happen to me growing up, but the parts that were familiar were very powerful,” she shared in bringing the story of That’s It, Pancit! to the page, continuing, “The daunting part for me was making sure I was able to capture experiences that I knew were true but had not felt personally. I knew a lot of Chinoys who didn’t have a book like this as a child would be looking for themselves in Lily’s experiences. I felt I couldn’t let them down.”

Yu understands the weight of the story’s topic especially when directed to young children. “Children’s books in particular are so special because no matter how classic the story, a child reading the book is most likely reading it for the first time. That’s such an exciting thought for me. In a children’s book, the author and the illustrator have an equal hand in creating the story, and I saw right away that That’s It, Pancit! would be meaningful to a lot of families.”

For many families Chinoy or not, pancit is a favorite dish for all celebrations, but what made Ngo decide to anchor her protagonist’s realizations on this noodle delicacy? She recalls learning about the origins of the name – pian i sit, or “fast food” in Hokkien Chinese – during her time at the UP National Writers Workshop. When completing the story, however, it came back to her as a symbol to tie the entire story together. “Everything fell into place after that,” she says.

Illustration from That’s It, Pancit! by Rebecca V. Yu

Food is a big part of any culture. In Ngo’s case, she grew up eating a mix of Chinese and Filipino food at home and outside. “During this time, I remember seeing different types of pancit in both Chinese and Filipino restaurants. I wondered, is pancit Chinese or Filipino? I asked the same thing about taho, which I saw in Chinese restaurants and from vendors. These were milder versions of the bigger question: am I Chinese or Filipino?,” she shares, which she was thinking of what she could use to represent the uniqueness of Chinese Filipino culture through That’s It, Pancit!

“My story’s starting point is with what my character, Lily, had two things of, like names, birthdays, and languages. She also grew up eating dishes from two cuisines. Food is one of the most tangible forms of culture that kids like her have exposure to, so it made sense to have her find answers in a familiar dish. Lily knew about pancit very well. It was something that she regularly ate on birthdays because of the idea that eating noodles leads to having longer lives, so it was something very much part of her world,” she describes about how pancit became a large part of Lily’s arc. “As a writer, I chose pancit in particular because I like how the term evolved to mean something new, much like our Chinese roots grew into the culture we have today. Plus, many types of pancit exist. Similar roots eventually branched out into many different variants, and it was an apt representation of how many different forms of being Chinese- Filipino exist.”

Building on what Ngo said, Yu shared, “Lily’s story emphasizes the difference between two worlds – her Chinese heritage and her Filipino surroundings. Scenes with her Chinoy family could easily become visually rich because of all the cultural symbols in Chinoy culture, like the New Year’s Lion Dance, the restaurant scene, so one challenge for me was to make sure that when it came to the ‘Filipino’ scenes, they didn’t look empty or cold compared to the Chinoy scenes. One of my hobbies is painting little scenes of Metro Manila; so for this book, I had to study what gives life to our public spaces, and then sprinkle into it the ‘wonder’ that children’s books have while keeping the scenery distinctly Filipino.”

“As I was creating the world of the story, I looked again at my experiences and how being Chinoy has shaped them. I used to feel frustrated about it. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t seem to belong anywhere. Now that I’m older and understand things more, though, I was able to have a deeper appreciation for Chinoy culture.”

Wonder is an apt way to describe how, without spoiling too much what happens in the story, Lily eventually embraces who she is as a Chinese-Filipino. From the stories of her family, to the loud New Year’s celebration, to the rich mixture of pancit, Lily’s journey is one of curiosity, excitement, and joy in learning what it means to be Chinoy – something Ngo and Yu shared during the creative process of the story. “As I was creating the world of the story, I looked again at my experiences and how being Chinoy has shaped them. I used to feel frustrated about it. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t seem to belong anywhere. Now that I’m older and understand things more, though, I was able to have a deeper appreciation for Chinoy culture,” Ngo reflected.

Yu adds, “It would be enough for me for non-Chinoy readers to realize that things that might be gimmicks to them (Chinese restaurants, mooncakes, Chinese New Year) are traditions to us. To us, they mean family and childhood. It still surprises me when I meet Filipinos who have never been to a Chinese restaurant. However, I think Chinoys are lucky that Chinese have had a long history of living in the Philippines because these things are not just a new trend. Our celebrations are familiar to non-Chinoys even if not on a personal level… and are big enough that Filipinos and non-Chinoys are welcome, too.”

Illustration from That’s It, Pancit! by Rebecca V. Yu

Both Ngo and Yu acknowledge the importance of this story for young Chinese-Filipinos and non-Chinoys in understanding the evolution of culture through something as simple as a children’s story. “Today, people from all over the world constantly move around and form new cultures through interactions from different backgrounds. It’s important to remember that these new cultures are valid like their predecessors,” Ngo explains. For Yu, she hopes this bridges the divide caused by social and political conflict. “I know that a lot of older Chinoy families look down on their children mingling with, marrying, or even working for non-Chinoys. Current issues like the West Philippine Sea and Chinese businesses have made this conflict worse. I hope this book can move younger Chinoys to break down this divide — the book’s message is that both cultures brought us to where we are today. Right now, we need to protect the Philippines as fiercely as we protect our heritage because truly, it is our heritage too,” she explains. “For Chinoy readers, I hope they realize that while our roots are from China, we live here in the Philippines; we are Filipinos.”

Ultimately, the two wish the story would not only open the way for more Chinoy stories, but help fellow Chinoys who also help those who struggle with their multi-cultural identity.

“I hope that the readers of That’s It, Pancit! will help fellow Chinoys who had the same questions as I did while growing up. I hope that it provides them some comfort in knowing that they are not alone in dealing with this confusion,” Ngo shares, adding, “I hope to challenge the idea that culture has to be ‘pure’ by showing an example of how cultures constantly evolve and mix to form something entirely new. I want to highlight that no one definition or way of being Filipino exists.”

That’s It, Pancit! is published by Anvil Publishing, and is available through Anvil’s website, Lazada, or Shopee. You can also check out Rebecca V. Yu’s Behance for her portfolio.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply