Philippine Daily Inquirer

‘Intsik’

- Michael L. Tan

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.

‘Beho’

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.

*** Email: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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