Reflections of a Tsinoy expat: Six wonderful months in PH

Dec. 15, 2015 marked the start of my six-month teaching/research grant in the Philippines. It is also my longest continuous stay since I left home in 1996 to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. In the 20 years since I graduated, I had taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, obtained American citizenship, reapplied for Philippine citizenship, published my first book, obtained tenure and taught for 12 years.

I always had this desire to use my skills and talent to help bring about a closer relationship between the Chinese and the Filipinos. I decided to major in history and focus on research on the Chinese in the Philippines. In my first book, Chinese and Chinese Mestizos of Manila: Family, Identity, and Culture 1860s-1930s, I examined the historical factors that led to ethnic tension and conflict.

While I am very happy where I am presently teaching, nothing compares to teaching a course in a Philippine university about the history of the Chinese in the Philippines. So I applied to US Core Fulbright Scholars Program for a teaching and research grant, and was fortunate to obtain it. The grant entailed teaching a course at the Ateneo de Manila University, my alma mater. It was a combined undergraduate and graduate course with eight undergraduate and 12 Master’s degree students.

In 2015, I edited the book More Tsinoy Than We Admit and this became the main textbook used in class, supplemented by readings from various experts in the field. Essays included Edgar Wickberg’s groundbreaking piece on the Chinese mestizos, Teresita Ang See and Go Bon Juan’s essay on Chinese participation in the revolution against Spain; Raquel Reyes’ study of Chinese accused of sodomy in 17th century Manila; Caroline Hau’s insightful analysis of the “Mano Po” and “Crying Ladies” movies; and my own essay about my visit to my father’s ancestral home in Jinjiang, Fujian province while an exchange student at Xiamen University.

To ensure that students read the two essays assigned per class meeting, I gave a quiz the beginning of each class. Students were also assigned a role to play in the reading discussions. For example, one student would play the role of the facilitator, while another summarizes, and yet another would be the “connector” who finds links in the themes or topics of the readings to other readings or to current events.

The discussions were often stimulating, if not impassioned, and I learned a great deal from the insights and stories my students shared about their own experiences. I learned that the term “Great Wall” pertains to the opposition of some Chinese-Filipino parents against their children forming relationships with Filipinos; and that Chinese schools continue to face the challenge of making Mandarin-language learning palatable to their students.

The students at Seng Guan Temple.

I organized a field trip to Manila’s Chinese Cemetery, Seng Guan Buddhist Temple and the Bahay Tsinoy Museum. While at the Kaisa Heritage Center, the students had an hour-long conversation with Ang See, executive trustee of Kaisa Heritage Foundation, and Meah Ang See, director of Bahay Tsinoy.

At the end of the semester, the students were required to submit original research papers on the topic of the Chinese in the Philippines, and I must say that some of the papers were first-rate.

Compared to my students at UMass and the Five Colleges, the Ateneo students are comparatively smarter and easier to handle. There was a special synergy in teaching Filipino students who can relate more easily to the topic being discussed. More importantly, I felt that teaching the history of the Chinese in the Philippines to Filipinos had more direct impact not only on the students but on me as well, since what we were discussing was immediately relevant to what was going on in and around the Philippines.

Indeed, teaching at Ateneo was one of the high points of my Fulbright grant. The other component of the grant provided me time and resources to conduct research for my next book project, about the social history of the Chinese in the Philippines during the early American colonial period.

In the past few years, I had been collecting newspaper clippings and articles from early American colonial period newspapers that talked about the Chinese in the Philippines. For instance, during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), there was a report from The Manila Times on Feb. 27, 1900 that 20 Chinese were beheaded in Daraga, Albay province by “insurgents” who then paraded their heads on poles to the “fierce shouts and cheers” of the local populace.

Another news article, dated March 15, 1902, from the Manila American reported that as the possibility of the Chinese exclusion act being implemented in the Philippines loomed, many Chinese were being smuggled in through agents in Amoy and Canton who charged exorbitant fees for a passage to Manila.

The students at Bahay Tsinoy Museum in Intramuros, Manila.

The Chinese were smuggled on board a ship from Hong Kong dressed as sailors to avoid detection, and once in the harbor of Manila Bay, a banca would be sent out to the ship at night to “sneak” the Chinese onto shore “under the very noses of the harbor patrol.” These and other stories will form the bulk of my next book, and will deal mainly with marginalized individuals, such as laborers, criminals, women – people who we do not usually read about in history.

The decision to focus on less well-known personalities or individuals in my next book comes from a desire to expand our knowledge of the history of the Chinese in the Philippines.

Being in the Philippines allowed me to gather feedback from people who share my research interest in history and the Chinese diaspora, including some faculty members from Ateneo’s history department, as well as scholars from East and Southeast Asia who attended the conference on “Coping with transnational crisis: Chinese economic and social lives in East Asian Ports-Cities, 1850-1950” organized by the History Department of the City University of Hong Kong last June 10-11.

One big advantage of being in the Philippines for six months was it allowed me to connect and network with many scholars who shared or appreciated my research interests, which doesn’t occur in Western Massachusetts.

In all, I gave 11 lectures during my six months’ stint. The Fulbright grant provided travel money which enabled me to give lectures in Zamboanga, Cebu, Bacolod and Iloilo. I also presented papers at conferences in Jakarta, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Each lecture provided an opportunity to reach a broader audience outside the classroom – from members of the UP Chinese Students Association to the De La Salle University Debating Society; from teachers of University of St. La Salle in Bacolod and Iloilo Tiong San High School to Ateneo de Zamboanga University; and from other Fulbrighters assigned in Southeast Asia to scholars from different Southeast Asian universities.

Taken together, these lectures allowed me to reach more than 900 people from a broad range of backgrounds. I would never be able to replicate such an experience in the U.S., where interest in my research is limited to people in academia.

Ateneo students on a field trip to the Chinese cemetery in Manila.


The six months allowed me to affirm some life choices I have made. To return or not to return to the Philippines?

After a painful breakup in 2012, I was thrown into a mid-life crisis about what to do with my life. Living in a part of the US where population is homogeneously white and life is at a very much slower pace had been a struggle for someone like me, who is accustomed to living in big cities and in a more heterogeneous society. In other words, it was a lonely and alienating existence.

Furthermore, while I love my job at UMass/Five Colleges, the satisfaction of being able to directly apply or share my research has been minimal, as fewer people where I live are directly interested in the study of the Chinese in the Philippines and my job primarily involves teaching undergraduates, not graduate students who could potentially share my research interests.

The question of whether I wanted to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond dogged me. I started consulting people about living and working in the Philippines. I discovered that unless I work two or three jobs, the salary I would be making teaching at a university in the Philippines would not afford me the kind of lifestyle I had envisioned for myself.

Furthermore, it would not give me the time to research and write. To make things more complicated, before I started my Fulbright, I met someone and we started dating seriously.

True, the six months of living, teaching, lecturing, writing and traveling in the Philippines met if not surpassed my expectations. I had never felt more connected and at home in the last 20 years than I had during this brief stay in the Philippines.

Ironically, I came to realize that I am more effective and appreciated by being away. A certain cache is attached to being “stateside.” But more importantly, I am able to focus on doing research and writing in the US.

What I dearly miss most is being close to my family (all six sisters and their families) and being able to share my knowledge and feel that I am somehow making a contribution to the betterment of Philippine society.

So, I have decided that for the next five to 10 years, or until such time that I retire from teaching in the US, I will spend my winter (December to January) and summer (June to August) breaks in the Philippines.

This way, I would be able to continue giving lectures on my research and/or teach a short-term/summer session graduate course at Ateneo or at another university, not to mention being close to my family and enjoying our beautiful country.

For now, this decision would give me the best of both worlds. — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 29, no. 3 (July 5-18, 2016): 16,14.