Drawing the Fine Line with Languages: Filipino or Chinese?

Allan Ngo.

Every overseas Chinese have dealt with this problem in one way or another.

Being immigrants to our newly adopted country, The Philippines, our ancestors must adapt to its lifestyle, culture and of course – its language. Over time, they have come to learn the Filipino language and made it part of their own identity.

A healthy mix of the Chinese dialect — Hokkien and the local Filipino language is common among the older generation Filipino-Chinese. One problem though, this doesn’t necessarily translate to the succeeding generations of Filipino-Chinese.

Unlike our ancestors, we didn’t grow up in the Mainland. Thus, we were not exposed our ancestral culture, tradition and language to the extent that they did. Hence, we naturally would adapt to our immediate environment especially with the language – Filipino.

You would think parents and grandparents would understand this predicament, right? But they have a way of giving you a dose of guilt and shame, deliberately or otherwise, by making you feel inadequate because of your inability to communicate in Chinese.

There is a layer of disappointment whenever they have to translate their sentences to Filipino or English when they get your confused look of “what did you just say?”

This begs the question… where is this fine line between adopting your local language and preserving your own?

What languages I actually use (and to whom)

Personally, I speak a mix of Filipino and English 90% of the time. I only use my small arsenal of Hokkien vocabulary with my parents and grandparents as well as their peers.

I couldn’t really imagine speaking in straight Hokkien to anyone of my peers. That would seem the most unnatural thing to do, with the exception of using it as a secret language.

I believe this is true with majority of the Filipino-Chinese. You could only imagine how limited our capacity to communicate in our ancestral tongue is.

Coming from a close family, it does bother me when they say “These children always speak in Filipino, they don’t know how to speak in Chinese anymore” followed by a hint of disdain and disappointment. I consider my siblings and I pretty obedient kids and we definitely love our parents a lot. And it definitely sucks when you feel that you have let your parents down.

It sometimes led me to wonder, “What’s wrong here? Is it really my fault?”

Chinese father holding his child.

Whose fault is it?

I don’t think it is really anybody’s fault.

As a kid, you don’t really think about your ancestry. You don’t consciously think about what language to use for which situation and to whom. You will use anything just to get what you want, right?

We naturally gravitate to the language that we could communicate our needs and wants most effectively. As a baby, that just consisted of crying and pointing.

In a country where we comprise just roughly 1-2% of almost 100 million people and where the primary teaching methodology in school is in English, one could easily see that’s where we gravitate towards.

For me, it is simply a matter of evolution.

The current generation right now is:

  • More educated – There are plenty of Filipino-Chinese doctors, lawyers and other professionals now than ever before.
  • More involved – Despite being a minority, Filipino-Chinese have been very influential in the economic, social and political affairs of the country

When it comes down to it, we could be functional, productive and successful without ever knowing how to speak Chinese.

But are these enough reasons to say we don’t need to learn Chinese anymore?


Filipino or Chinese

Here is the funny thing. I have lived my entire life in the Philippines but people would always associate me with my ancestry rather than my nationality. They would ask “Chinese ka? (“Are you Chinese?”) to which I reply yes.

I have been to China as well and have been asked from which Chinese city I came from and I would simply tell them I’m a Filipino. Usually taken with a look of “Is this guy kidding around?”

My point is — we are neither just one nor the other.

Because we are both.

And the PUREST way we associate with our dual identities is through language.

Isn’t that the association we make with people and their respective nationalities/ancestry? He is German/Spanish/French thus he can speak its language. His failure to do so would boggle your mind right?

Thus to say that we can make do without the Chinese language is like saying we are leaving the other half of our identity — HOLLOW.

Let us not forget the reason we are in the Philippines in the first place. Our ancestors needed to leave China to provide a better life for their families. They migrated with the little possession they had and were simply fueled by their big hopes and dreams.

Language is the fiber of their community as a group and identity as an individual. And to simply treat the Chinese language as an after-thought is like disregarding their struggles and our history.

GBF Filipino Day at Fudan University

Which Chinese to learn? How do I fit it in my life?

All of us want a sense of approval from our respective families by improving our Hokkien. But I believe what they would truly be proud of is that if the current generation proactively pursues the study of Mandarin Chinese, as it already has an established system of instruction and has wider reach internationally, thus creating limitless possibilities for them.

I will be the first one to admit that my Chinese (Hokkien) is really just mediocre at best. I truly envy my peers who are really fluent in it. Subsequently though, I have discovered that all these languages need not be a source of struggle or insecurity by knowing their place in my life.

What I mean is I have accepted that Filipino and English will always be my mother tongue, and Chinese (Hokkien or Mandarin) would always be my second language. By simply understanding and accepting where to place them, the sense of competition among these languages will most likely dissipate and be replaced by a blanket of harmony among them.

Drawing the fine line

Finally, to answer the question “Where is this fine line between adopting your local language and preserving your own?” I say this. The image a fine line conjures is that of division and separation. As something that must not be crossed.

I believe there isn’t a fine line.

As we can see from the word “Filipino-Chinese”, there is indeed a line between the two. But it is not of division or separation but of connection. We must embrace both identities and must substantiate each with proper respect by learning and accepting its culture, traditions and language as our own.

This is my take on things. Do you have struggles with your native and ancestral language too?

Allan Ngo blogs at Money in Mandarin.

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  • BruceTutty

    As long as we can all communicate, that’s all that matters. The rest will pass away with time.

  • dim mak

    Learn mandarin of course for utility purposes. This coming from a Cantonese guy btw. What’s Filipino anyway? Isn’t it tagalog or something?

    To be brutally honest, Filipino language and heritage are worthless. Especially when you can be Chinese. Assimilate the locals, don’t get assimilated yourself.

    Dick thing to do, but China wouldn’t be China without the cultural supremacy. Consider it.

    • Dick thing to say, dim mak.
      If someone lives in the Philippines, knowing its language and culture are far from worthless.

    • Jack

      Chinese suck more white dick than any other Asian. Chinese are more apt to sell out to whites than any other Asian you crackkker loving bitch.

  • jon

    If the children don’t speak chinese, it’s because the parents didn’t do their job well teaching them. Dumb parents.

    • Actually, people learn language as much or more from their friends, as opposed to their parents…

      • Michael B.

        People learn from education, family, school, environment. These kids learned filipino and english from school and environment. What did the parents taught them?

        I talk by experience. I’m a “laowai” raising my 7 years old kid in a 100% chinese environment (city, school, family). Because i am spending one hour per day teaching my original language to him that he can feel at ease with his peers when we travel back to my hometown.

        If these kids don’t speak fluent Hokkien or Mandarin, it is the parents choice. They should not let them feel this “dose of guilt and shame”. They are freeing themself of guilt by blaming their own kids.

        • @Michael B.

          I think you hit it right on the head. I agree that it must be a conscious decision from the parents to teach them a second or even a third language. Your decision to spend one hour a day with your kid is indeed a prime example of that.

          I think this is something parents do not necessarily think of. Kids nowadays are more exposed to media, both traditional and social, than ever before. Most of which are in English and Filipino. Thus, they must make sure to channel part of this attention to a language they want their child to learn early on.

          There is the issue of the teaching methodology of the traditional Chinese schools here which is a totally new discussion in itself.

        • Andy

          It is also up to the child, although unfortunately most choose to assimilate rather than to embrace their heritage.

          In my case, as a kid I was sent to live with relatives in the U.S., and those relatives were really pro-Western and even wanted me to speak English in their home. But I absolutely refused to, and always spoke our native language with them. Also when communicating with my friends (most of whom were first generation immigrants from Eastern Europe) I would often use my language or one of theirs (which are rather similar), avoiding using English as much as possible. Most of my friends though were more comfortable communicating in English, and their skills in their native language declined over time, as they became more and more assimilated. I on the other hand won the battle against assimilation, and gloriously returned to the motherland after finishing HS, despite relatives begging me to stay in the U.S.

          Then again, this is thanks to the fact that I always looked down on Americans and their “culture”, and was innately very ethnocentric (although Westerners no doubt would consider these to be faults rather than a virtues). Not to mention that unlike immigrants, from the very start my mindset was that I am there only temporarily, and will inevitably return to the motherland sooner or later, so there is no need for me to adapt to local customs.

          • @ Andy

            You do have quite a strong resolve as a child to defy the norm stand up for what you believe in.

            Although I have to say that there are merits to learning and understanding another country’s culture and language. It allows us to expand our understanding of the world as well as our tolerance for others especially since globalization is upon us.

            But having said that, A strong sense of identity and pride in one’s own heritage is definitely admirable.

      • @Danny – You make great point about friends. Plus, friends and peers really create the desire and willingness to actually use the language. Looking back, if all my friends spoke Hokkien or Mandarin, that would definitely be a gamechange for me personally.

        Parents are really vital in equipping the children with the language skills as @Jon points out, but if the school and their peers don’t create an environment for this to thrive. It will be harder for it to flourish.

  • As much as I love and serve my Philippines, I have honestly accepted that I am not a good and confident Filipino speaker.

    Here’s the deal: I was born and raised in one of the regions in the Philippines which has it own native dialect (most regions have their own strong native dialect), was sent to a Protestant Chinese school for both primary and secondary education, even if we are not Filipino – China (where English was the primary medium for learning and teaching, Filipino as one academic subject to learn, and Mandarin and Hookien as foreign language arts) and thrive in an English-speaking multi-national company. Suffice to say that I was trained and wired to think and speak in English in all circles of engagement and interaction – educational, professional and social.

    Does it make me less of a Filipino?

    I don’t think so.

    But I believe that appreciating, understanding, learning, and speaking my own language will make me a better Filipino. Thus, I am resolved to think and speak in Filipino. After all, our multi-cultural race has ingrained in us a unique skill in learning and adapting to diversity.

  • MeThinky

    “To be brutally honest, Filipino language and heritage are worthless. Especially when you can be Chinese.”

    If it is so worthless why did they have to go to there then? Sounds to me that they are leaving worthless China for something greater. Nothing is lower than a person who claims to leave a country for a better opportunity in another country and then when they arrive there they boast about how great their country/culture. Such jealousy and envy for those of a greater and superior country/culture.

    • It is essential that one appreciates the beauty of his identity be it by country of birth or by ancestry. Each one has its own merits. In the long run, a person will probably lean to one side more than the other but it is impossible to distinctly separate the two because in one way or another, this mix of culture, heritage and language has formed our habits, beliefs and behaviors.

      @MeThinky is right. Putting down a country who provided much opportunities to you just because China has been growing in recent times is unfair. Times has changed and the life in China back was truly difficult. Enough for many of our ancestors to uproot and seek greener pastures elsewhere.

  • Bao A.

    Right now, it doesn’t really matter which country you came from or were brought up to specialize a specific language or even just to learn it. Our parents’ and grandparents’ disappointments were justifiable – they are Chinese, you came from their line; ergo, you are Chinese too so they want you to at least feel that part of it. A lot of history and learning are hidden behind the meanings of languages. If you are a foreigner learning a foreign language, you may know how to speak, read and write it, but it is rare that you will even know the importance of that language. To the older generation, it is about the roots.

    To the new generation, it is about your ability to converse in any language on any topic. I was born and raised in the Philippines. I am fluent in Filipino, English, Hokkien and Mandarin then a bit of Cantonese. When I moved to the U.S, I couldn’t say my English is THAT good for me to feel comfortable talking to people here. Americans have their own way of speaking and really, however good your grammar was, you’ll end up twisting it when you come over.. just because English in the Philippines was taught to be used “officially.” To say something, you tend to lengthen your speech to explain some points. English here is different. They don’t want to listen to a long composition. They want you to get to the point and that makes a big difference.

    Now, going back to Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese in particular, I am able to use my Chinese here too because of the many Chinese co-workers that I work with. They are pleased that I am able to communicate with them and vice versa. Knowing the Chinese, they tend to trust you more if you are able to communicate and show them your sincerity. That is why even if my Chinese co-workers come from either Taiwan or China or even Vietnam, we are in very good terms. In short, language can get you anywhere and can bring you better friends.

    Believe it or not, I have Filipino co-workers too. Incidentally, I found out that many Filipinos who came to the US have become or are quite a different breed. They tend to have more the Western attitude which is “to each his own.” Filipinos here will only truly help full-blood Filipinos. But then again, it is incorrect to generalize so given that scenario, it is just better to give yourself an opportunity to learn the “other” language and have that option to lean towards the better choice (or if you’d prefer, the lesser evil).

    Politics aside, learn as many language as possible. The world is huge! Sometime later, you would want to be somewhere in your life – in Germany, France, US, Singapore, etc. The more fluent you are in a language, the better you will be able to survive and adapt – which is the very basic of being human.

    • Well said @Bao A. I think this was really well said

      “A lot of history and learning are hidden behind the meanings of languages. If you are a foreigner learning a foreign language, you may know how to speak, read and write it, but it is rare that you will even know the importance of that language. To the older generation, it is about the roots.”

      Unless you have truly experienced growing up in that kind of culture it is really hard to fully grasp the deep roots and meaning of a language. To the credit of foreign language learners, there are quite a few who really indulge themselves in the culture and have an even deeper appreciation of the Chinese culture than even those with Chinese blood. Of course, this is more of the exception than the rule but it does happen.

      Amazing insights on being a multilingual in the US. You’re point of view is very enriching. I have also noticed that also when speaking with talking to Americans, they do speak with brevity and direct to the point.

      I agree with this point.

      “They are pleased that I am able to communicate with them and vice versa. Knowing the Chinese, they tend to trust you more if you are able to communicate and show them your sincerity.”

      Language does tend to do that. Especially one of your ancestry. Aside from your appearance, this tends to be your golden ticket to gaining their trust as you become really a part of them rather than an outsider looking it. I would also feel the same way if a foreigner would be able to speak Filipino/Chinese as well. One tend to feel more connected to someone who can communicate in your language.

  • Kevin

    As a chinese who has been in the Philippines for more than 4 years, i’ve had this “overseas Chinese” sentiments menioned in the article. I think I’d be very disappointed if my children cannot speak the language right coz i’d consider them “forget where they come from”. Nevertheless, I think my children can never understand the importance of it. I always believe chinese Filipino here are hybrid, like Prius. They have combined the best parts from chinese and Filipino mentalities. Also, language is heavily associated and evolved with its culture. Thus, I agree with Allan that if u cannot speak the language, you leave the other half of u HOLLOW.

    • The Prius analogy is a very interesting analogy, Kevin. Yes, overseas Chinese usually are a hybrid of their new mother country and their Chinese ancestry to varying degrees.

      The key there is what you said about taking the best parts of both cultures. Because assimilation is certainly unavoidable if you have lived your whole life away from the Mainland.

      Having said that, the local overseas Chinese population (especially the younger ones) here still lacks proficiency to confidently speak fluently. Learning your ancestral tongue (Hokkien/Mandarin) does require more conscious effort from the part of the learner as well as his parents.

      But the pay-off is worth it not only in terms of possible economical benefits (i.e. job qualifications, business opportunities etc) but also a deeper understanding and appreciation of one’s culture and identity.

  • 奇峰

    小弟, 你真不懂你自己。

    • 吊丝,大陆鬼子真不懂礼。

  • Lin

    If you are of Chinese descent born in Philippines, you can acknowledge you are a Filipino just don’t forget you have Chinese blood.

    • Pure Chinese

      These is a difference between citizenship in the paper and citizenship in the law. Some pure Chinese have Filipino citizenship in the paper, but all pure Chinese are true Chinese by heart.

  • wacky

    hi there, i am interested in the issues regarding overseas chinese but i know so little about chinese filipino, like you know when we talk about overseas chinese in english forum like this usually chinese (asian) american do all the talk, and when it comes to chinese in SE asia (where 75% of OC live) it has always been about chinese malaysian, singapore or indonesian and sometimes thailand, i rarely hear about chinese filipino.
    there are some questions i want to ask you ( i have some conflicting report about chinese filipino)
    1. i red an article that say 80% of chinese filipino live in manila but then a couple of weeks ago i bumped into an article that say cebu city is a chinese city where almost everybody has chinese blood hence there is no chinatown in cebu. so can you explain to me about this
    2. chinese filipino consist only 1% of the total population, but then i also read that chinese surname like lim and tan made it to the top 10 most common surname in Philippines a couple of years ago. i wonder if the number is actually larger than what has been reported
    3. i also hear about chinese mestizo, can you tell me about them, how similar they are to chinese peranakan of malaysian (if you know)

    thank you

    • Hi,

      Thanks for the interest on the topic. I agree that when it comes to overseas Chinese, its mostly those countries that are often mentioned. Probably due to the economic relevance of their country + the size of the Chinese population relative to the Philippines.

      Sure, I’ll answer your questions the best I can.

      1. I’m not too sure about the 80% in the first place. But I’d say majority of the Chinese Filipinos live in Metro Manila. This has something to do with Manila being the major trade hub way back during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, a span of 300 years, and the Chinese Filipinos being concentrated to certain areas for settlement and livelihood. But the Chinese population has spread all over the country over time.

      I have been to Cebu and would have to say that there are really plenty of Chinese Filipinos there. In fact, the sponsor of a scholarship I got to study Mandarin in China is from Cebu and is the 4th richest man in the Philippines. Cebu is similar to Manila in the sense that it’s a major trading hub in the central region of the country (Visayas). They even have a “Beverly Hills” (literally called that) where the more affluent Chinese Filipinos live.

      2. In terms of pure Chinese Filipinos, I have read in several reports that it is around 1.3% of the population. Would you have a link to that report? In my humble opinion, I think Tan and Lim could be the top 10 of Chinese surnames but definitely not of the entire Philippines.

      3. Chinese Meztizo is usually referred to people who have mixed Chinese and Filipino blood. Our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal is a popularly known Chinese Meztizo. Our current president, Pres. Benigno Aquino III, has Chinese blood as well. I’m not familiar enough with Chinese Peranakan of Malaysia to comment.

      • wacky
        • wacky

          how does it fell like being an overseas chinese in china??
          my personal experience was that most of the chinese people did not really accept overseas chinese as fellow chinese but did not really regard OC as foreigner either.

          and how may chinese filipino are studying at your university??
          because i never met any, most of the students at the university i went to are chinese thai and chinese indonesian.

          • Hi,

            I think the list of surnames on the second list is more accurate.

            For the most part, being an overseas Chinese in China is a nice experience for me. Of course I don’t speak Mandarin like a native, so it’s amusing to watch them guess where I come from. It’s a good conversation starter. Not being viewed as a foreigner is a good thing for me, at least I don’t command the attention from the hawkers who want to sell things to me at a super expensive price. I simply blend in.

            Hmm… when I studied in Shanghai, there was a bunch of us Chinese-Filipinos since it was a scholarship for a big group of 30+ people. Other than us though, there were only a handful. Chinese Thais and Indonesians do outnumber us roughly by a ratio of 7:1 by sheer number. So I think it’s natural to find more of them.

      • Alice S

        Peranakan means Malay-Chi mixed race ppl.

    • Alice S

      I had a classmate. I live in New Zealand. I thought she was Filipino but she says she has a Chinoy great grandfather and her surname is Lu.

    • Pure Chinese

      There is a difference between pure Chinese and mixed birth between Filipino and Chinese. Pure Chinese comprise about 1% of the total population living in the Philippines, while mixed born comprise about 10% to 50% of the total population living in the Philippines. Although different source give different percentage of mixed born, people usually accept the percentage 20%. Actually, about 50% of pure Chinese live in Manila.

  • Pure Chinese

    Are you pure Chinese? I do not think so, but if so, I think you are one of the extremely few pure Chinese who would not speak very well in Hokien and who would accept himself as a Filipino. The concept of loyalty for pure Chinese is indivisible. This is one of the reason why China does not allow dual citizenship.

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