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April 21, 2010

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Mandarin for Manila

EVERYONE, it seems, is learning Chinese and trying to understand the China miracle. Filipinos are no exception and today around 40 scholarships students are studying Mandarin in Shanghai as well as economic lessons to take home. Cris Evert Berdin Lato reports.

When he was seven years old, Desi Dario Magnaye did not understand the importance of studying the Chinese language. Magnaye, now 27, recalls how much he dreaded studying grammar points and sentence patterns in a Chinese school in Davao, Southern Philippines.

He studied for 10 years, from primary to secondary school, hurdling one class after another. For someone who has no Chinese heritage, Magnaye found it even harder to belong in a class where last names are mostly composed of Ong, Lim, Chua and Ang. (Three-letter last names are common among Chinese Filipinos.)

"My Chinese teacher would ask me why my last name (Magnaye) was so long. I reminded him that I have no Chinese blood. That's why I have this long last name," he fondly recalls.

But now Magnaye is back on track studying Chinese, this time in Shanghai. Magnaye says he feels a tinge of regret for not realizing early on the value of Mandarin-Chinese and the advantages that fluency brings.

"(Noting the growing importance of China in the world), it is essential to learn Mandarin," Magnaye says.

"What made me fall in love with the language is the fact that you also get to be immersed in the culture while learning it. By affinity, I already feel the Chineseness in me. I now understand why my (Chinese-Filipino) friends way back in high school are hardworking and industrious. I am slowly getting to be like them," he says.

Magnaye is studying in the language program of the International Cultural Exchange School (ICES) of Fudan University. He is one of 37 recipients of the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation-China Scholarship Program (GBF-CSP) that sends young Filipinos on a one-year study trip to learn from China's economic miracle and take lessons back to the Philippines.

These 37 scholars, aged 20 to 29, are among 51 Filipinos currently enrolled under the Language Program of the ICES of Fudan, says ICES Vice Dean Wu Zhongwei.

More than 1,000 students are registered in the ICES both for the non-degree (Mandarin language) and degree (Chinese language and culture) programs. Six hundred are studying language.

Wu says enrollment of Filipinos for this spring semester is the highest ever, primarily due to the scholarship program.

The number of students from South Korea, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia, the United States, Europe and other countries continues to grow each year, says Wu, who has been with the university since 1993.

Asked about Filipino students' language skills, he says:

"Asians in general, and that includes Filipinos, may find it easier to learn the language because we already have a shared culture. This contrasts with students coming from the West. At first, it may be difficult but once we pass this stage, it will be relatively easy."

Primitivo Paypon Jr, 26, agrees that learning another language maybe easier for Filipinos.

"Filipinos are already accustomed to learning different languages, even at an early age," he says. "We learn our national language (Filipino), we learn English. We are also very welcome to different cultures," says Paypon, a program officer for a non-government organization in Manila, the Philippines, before he left for Shanghai to study Mandarin.

Paypon says studying Mandarin in Shanghai also means learning to be independent in most aspects of life. Paypon belongs to a big family where he has an elder brother, six elder sisters and a younger sister. His attachment to his siblings made him quite dependent.

Chinese Filipinos

But living in Shanghai for more than a month has taught him to stand his ground especially when he goes out of the foreign students' dormitory and talks to the locals - whether to ask for directions or to order food from a restaurant. He considers these instances as his "practical examinations," since he gets to practice and apply what he learns in class.

A Southeast Asian country comprised of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is home to more than 90 million Filipinos.

Chinese-Filipino families are common. They are mostly descendants of Chinese who migrated to the Philippines looking for a better living for them and their families.

These Chinese migrants later ventured into trading and are considered strong forces in business. Over time, they have established their names as successful entrepreneurs and businessmen in the Philippines.

Among them are Henry Sy, John Gokongwei Jr and Lucio Tan, owners of big companies such as SM Supermalls, Cebu Pacific Air and Philippine Airlines.

This history of migration and the sacrifices his grandparents made for their family are the main reasons Allan Ritchie Ngo decided to study Mandarin despite the mistakes and frustrations he has repeatedly encountered.

"Language is a means of communication - a means of connecting with people. If you could speak English, you could probably communicate with half the world. By learning Mandarin, you could probably add more than a billion people to that resume," says Ngo.

Ngo's grandparents were from Fujian Province. At home, his parents and two younger siblings speak the Filipino language, English and Fookien (southern Fujian language).

Ngo, an accountant, operates two franchises of a pizza chain. He plans to focus on the business when he returns home in July, while continuing his Mandarin education in the Philippines.

Kris Abegail Ong, 22, also loves the language. Her grandparents are also from Fujian Province. Her father is in the export and logistics business while her mother operates a restaurant. From them, she learned the value of perseverance and hard work, qualities which dominant among Chinese Filipinos.

"There was no business that was passed down to my parents. No inheritance. Nothing. They are both self-made people. They started from rugs, literally. They first sold rugs," she says.

But while most of these Chinese Filipinos have Mandarin background as early as primary school, they says learning the language continues to be challenging as Mandarin is not the type that can be stored in a hard drive and can later be retrieved.

For Jiao Tong University student Joanna Po Sy, it pays to speak the language more often although she notes it's extra challenging to study Mandarin in Shanghai since most locals speak Shanghainese.

She compensates for this by attending extra classes in the afternoon (apart from her language classes). Sy has 10 years of Mandarin background. She also studied in Beijing last year and chose Shanghai study for a change in environment.

After Shanghai

Tiffany Villamor, who studied Mandarin for 13 years in a formal school, says learning the language is a continuous process. "There are new words and phrases formed every day. Learning the language in the country where people speak the language is the greatest advantage. Shanghai is one of the most modern and developed cities in China and is a good place to learn," says Villamor, a physical therapist.

Language professor Ma Xiaoling has taught for eight years and says she finds Filipino students are often silent, not the first one to speak in class. But she says they are often warm and cordial to teachers and fellow students. She hopes to see more Filipinos studying Mandarin, apart from the Chinese Filipinos.

As the world is increasingly aware of China as an emerging power, Ma says she is seeing what she had hoped for, sooner rather than later.

ICES Vice Dean Wu says the Filipino students in Shanghai are ambassadors for both cultures.

"You are the ones who are able to see the real China, the real Chinese people. When you go back to your country, share your experiences here. We hope that these (stories) will encourage more Filipinos to come."

Indeed, young Filipinos are making the most of their stay here. Ben Secretario, 24, says what he has learned from language classes and lectures on Chinese economy, politics and culture will help him realize his project - making bamboo an economic driver for his hometown, Bicol, a province in Luzon, north Philippines.

His project, now in its initial phase, is aimed to produce bamboo boards and plywood. He also hopes to venture into textiles and food later on. For now, Secretario is focused in learning from the examples set by China.

"I want to learn more from China's example. The bamboo is an indigenous resource in Bicol as much as it is in China. I would like to learn from their best practices and apply it in the Philippines," he says.

Aspiring entrepreneur Paypon, on the other hand, is grasping everything he can to learn language faster. The language of business in the Philippines is Fookien and Mandarin and business will be easier if he can speak both.

And for Magnaye, who used to dread his Mandarin classes?

He plans to organize a Chinese Appreciation Camp when he goes back to Davao Christian High School in August. The two-week camp aims to make Chinese an enjoyable part of a young person's study life.

"I hope to help stop the cycle in which everyone graduates from high school without even realizing the importance of the language. As early as high school, they have to realize its importance of the language. I want to make them realize that learning Chinese can be enjoyable."


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