Philippine Daily Inquirer


- Michael L. Tan Saudi Arabia · Belarus · Austria · University of the Philippines Diliman · University of the Philippines, Diliman · Mandarin · China · Iceland · Belgium · San Juan · Fujian · Hong Kong · United States of America · Quezon · Makati · Xavier School

LAST NOVEM­BER Tessie Ang See of Kaisa para sa Kaun­laran talked to me about a com­plaint she had re­ceived from the mother of a UP stu­dent. The mother, a Chi­nese-Filipino, was up­set about the ti­tle of two cour­ses of­fered by the lin­guis­tics depart­ment at UP Dil­i­man. The cour­ses are In­stik 10 and 11, both of­fer­ing Pu­tonghua or Man­darin, the na­tional lan­guage of China.

It was the “Intsik” that up­set the mother, and even­tu­ally, sev­eral other Chi­nese-Filipinos who came up with a pe­ti­tion for a change of the course name be­cause the word has many pe­jo­ra­tive con­no­ta­tions, tan­ta­mount to racism. Tessie Ang See even­tu­ally for­warded an ar­ti­cle “Intsik Pol­i­tics” by Mer­ryan Jim, re­flect­ing on an in­for­mal sur­vey of “about a hun­dred peo­ple,” where, Meryan said, “80 per­cent found it (Intsik) of­fen­sive.”

Tessie Ang See wanted me to check out the mat­ter since the lin­guis­tics depart­ment is un­der the Col­lege of So­cial Sci­ences and Phi­los­o­phy. I said I would look into the mat­ter, and promised a col­umn which could be used to elicit com­ments from read­ers.

I talked to the chair of the lin­guis­tics depart­ment and she said it was go­ing to be dif­fi­cult chang­ing course names and that the course dated back to the 1920s, when the word had no neg­a­tive mean­ings.

Chang­ing a course name at UP is in­deed te­dious. It goes through de­lib­er­a­tions at the depart­ment, col­lege or in­sti­tute, a clus­ter com­mit­tee (con­sist­ing of sev­eral col­leges), a uni­ver­sity com­mit­tee and fi­nally the Uni­ver­sity Coun­cil. Pro­po­nents are grilled, asked to de­fend their pro­pos­als from the ra­tio­nale down to punc­tu­a­tion. The whole process takes at least a year.

For the Intsik cour­ses, we would need ev­i­dence that the name is of­fen­sive and dis­crim­i­na­tory to the eth­nic Chi­nese.


I have mixed feel­ings about this is­sue and wanted to give both sides of the de­bate. On one hand, I grew up on the re­ceiv­ing end of Intsik as an ep­i­thet, pag­mu­mura in Filipino. Walk­ing to or from Xavier School in San Juan, whose stu­dents are pre­dom­i­nantly eth­nic Chi­nese, I would have ur­ban poor kids chas­ing af­ter me chant­ing, “ Intsik, intsik, tulo laway” (drool­ing saliva). That in­sult was in­tended to go with “ Intsik beho”—“beho” be­ing a Filipino cor­rup­tion of the Span­ish “ viejo” which means old. I sus­pect that term was used to taunt poor old Chi­nese men, prob­a­bly am­bu­lant ven­dors.

I don’t look too Chi­nese, but I am sure I got the “Intsik, Intsik” be­cause I was wear­ing the Xavier uni­form. That “teas­ing” up­set my fa­ther enough to for­bid me from walk­ing to school, mainly be­cause he was wor­ried it would lead to more un­to­ward in­ci­dents. For him and many other eth­nic Chi­nese, the jeer­ing only re­flected a deeper re­sent­ment against the eth­nic Chi­nese.

De­spite hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced the neg­a­tive side of “Intsik,” I ac­tu­ally use the word oc­ca­sion­ally, be­ing part of a younger Chi­nese-Filipino gen­er­a­tion that thought we could re­claim the word and re­store its orig­i­nal mean­ing, which was ac­tu­ally one of re­spect. The word is de­rived from “ in chiek,” which in Hokkien/Min­nan Chi­nese (the lan­guage used in the part of Fu­jian prov­ince from which most lo­cal Chi­nese come from), means their un­cle.

Moro, Igorot

I think of the way Filipino Mus­lims have reap­pro­pri­ated “Moro” and peo­ple of the Cordillera us­ing “Igorot,” the two terms once hav­ing very neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. To­day, “Moro” and “Igorot” are terms used with pride, even at­tached to the names of lib­er­a­tion move­ments fight­ing for au­ton­omy (or, more ex­tremely, se­ces­sion).

Yet when I do use “Intsik,” I oc­ca­sion­ally get ad­verse re­ac­tions and sur­pris­ingly it comes more of­ten from non-Chi­nese who are shocked by my use of the term. One time a grad­u­ate stu­dent, a non-eth­nic Chi­nese but who had stud­ied in Xavier, said his grand­mother told him sev­eral times to avoid the term.

Af­ter Tessie Ang See talked to me, I be­gan to be more con­scious about pub­lic sen­ti­ments. I’ve asked many peo­ple and al­though I have no sci­en­tific sur­vey to back me up, I’d say feel­ings are about evenly split be­tween those who feel we can live with the word, and those who would want to see it ban­ished for­ever.

I’ve also tried to lis­ten more care­fully to what peo­ple are ac­tu­ally us­ing in daily con­ver­sa­tions, and I have to say I don’t hear “Intsik” very of­ten. When it’s used, it’s not in the con­text of taunt­ing. The word that seems to be used more of­ten now is “Chi­nese,” and this isn’t an up­per-class phe­nom­e­non.

Even be­fore Tessie Ang See talked to me, I was on the alert af­ter the bloody Au­gust in­ci­dent in­volv­ing the hostage-tak­ing and killing of Hong Kong tourists. I was won­der­ing if the killer had been mo­ti­vated by Sino­pho­bic or anti-Chi­nese feel­ings. When the INQUIRER fea­tured tran­scripts of the ex­changes be­tween the hostage taker and the po­lice, I read through the doc­u­ments to find out what term he used to re­fer to the hostages, with the hy­poth­e­sis that his use of “Intsik” might re­flect this Sino­pho­bia. He ac­tu­ally used “Chi­nese,” and not “Intsik.”

Of course, his use of “Chi­nese” doesn’t prove he wasn’t anti-Chi­nese ei­ther, but the in­creas­ing pref­er­ence for “Chi­nese,” even among peo­ple who don’t nor­mally use English, is strik­ing. If we do try to change the name of Intsik cour­ses at UP, we would have to con­sider al­ter­na­tives. Would we have Chi­nese 10? Or would it be Tsino 10 or Wikang Tsino 10? I’d be cu­ri­ous at how peo­ple feel about “Tsino,” which I feel also car­ries a slightly neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion, based on the way I’ve heard peo­ple use it.

The furor over “Intsik” re­minds me of how “Chi­na­man” is con­sid­ered a racial in­sult by Chi­nese-Amer­i­cans. Like “Intsik,” it was not so much the word it­self than the tone with which it was used by non-Chi­nese Amer­i­cans. Note that “Chi­na­man” is also some­times used by Filipinos, even by Chi­nese-Filipinos, who are ap­par­ently obliv­i­ous to its neg­a­tive mean­ings in the United States.

Write me about your feel­ings around “Intsik” and your own pref­er­ence—“Chi­nese,” “Tsino,” “Tsi­noy” (also an evolved term, mov­ing away from Filipino-Chi­nese to Chi­nese-Filipino to em­pha­size a Filipino iden­tity). Also com­ment on the Intsik course ti­tle, and al­ter­na­tives, if you feel it should be changed. When you e-mail me, you don’t have to give your name but I’d ap­pre­ci­ate it if you can tell me if you’re eth­nic Chi­nese or not, and how old you are, so I can get a bet­ter feel of the feel­ings of par­tic­u­lar seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion.

On a lighter note, I want to re­mind ev­ery­one that Feb. 3 is Chi­nese New Year. So if you for­got to send gifts to some friends last Christ­mas, here’s your chance to make up. Or this can be an ex­cuse for one to splurge some more at the week­end mar­kets. There’s the Sid­cor tiangge, which has trans­ferred from the Lung Cen­ter to Cen­tris, right at the MRT sta­tion corner of Que­zon Boule­vard and Edsa. Over at Makati there’s the Le­gaspi mar­ket in the morn­ing and White Space on Pa­song Tamo Ex­ten­sion in the af­ter­noon.

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