Growing up Tsinay

I am Filipino, of Chinese descent.

There’s a term for this: Tsinay, pronounced “Chee-nigh.” (According to, it’s a “slang term of reference for a Chinese Filipino woman, or someone with similar facial features. Tsina / Tsino + Pinay”).

My last name is Lim, which is traditionally a Hokkien name. I do not know the exact details of the generation in which my name was introduced into my family, but it is something that will always be a part of me. I’ve learned to embrace my cultural heritage over time.


Checking the right “race” box on applications has always been complicated for me — I was never Filipino enough, because I was born second-generation American and I was one of the few Filipinos who didn’t have a Spanish or island-influenced last name. I even looked “chinkier” than my fellow Asians, but I was also tanner. I always claimed being Filipino, thinking it would make things easier on explaining where I came from.

The ironic thing is, I only ever had two or three Filipino friends outside of my family. I really didn’t involved with the Filipino community until I was much older, in high school and college. Growing up, my family would often take us to Chinatown. We would eat at Hop Kee, Wo Hop, or somewhere else in Blood Angle. I was always taught to be friendly and respectful to people here because I was told they were the ones who would understand me the most culturally.

I straddled two, three worlds at once every time I visited Chinatown. I ate with metal chopsticks in public and a fork-and-spoon in private. I dressed professionally every day at an early age, because “every day is a business opportunity.” I almost went to Chinese school. I actually made up for that by taking Mandarin for a year in college. I remember hating these visits as a kid because they would last late into the night and I just wanted to go home and be comfortable again. I didn’t feel like I belonged to any culture growing up, and I constantly felt like spending so much time in Chinatown just made that feeling even stronger.

I guess I’ve been trying to reconnect and make sense of things now that I’m older.

Now, I eat xiao long bao almost as often as I eat chicken adobo (which is weekly). I’m terrible at remembering characters when it comes to writing anything in Mandarin, but I do my best to practice speaking to others. I get a lot of weird looks but I still try. I eat moon cakes during Mid-Autumn Festival until I’m exhausted of them and don’t need to eat them for another year. I celebrate Lunar New Year for two weeks (because for some reason celebrations actually last that long up here), taking every opportunity I can to eat with friends and family community-style, crack open confetti cannons, and watch the lions dance in the streets. I know the Chinese culture is far more and far deeper than these tiny facets alone, and that’s why I do my best to get as engaged with the culture as possible when I can.

My boss and some of my closest friends here in NY are Taiwanese and Cantonese. We share stories of how we all grew up and lots of times they’re actually quite similar. One of them jokingly calls me “Lucky Cat.” On the real though, these friends are the biggest hustlers I’ve ever met, because they have always work hard and put their family first no matter the circumstance. I’ve learned a lot from them about how to carry myself through difficult times.

Maybe this is just me but I think it’s really important to stop assuming that just because you’re 90% of one particular ethnicity, you’re not still 10% of something else.

We live in a world that is so vast and mixed at this point, a different culture is bound to be somewhere in your blood. But it’s up to you if you decide to embrace that part of you. I decided to become more aware of my Chinese origins because I wanted to be true to myself after all these years, and understand why I grew up the way I did.

There’s still a lot more to find out and I know I’m not there yet.



That’s the most exciting part!


One thought on “Growing up Tsinay

  1. Agreed! I’m of mixed descent and in a mixed marriage, and the more I learn about other cultures, the more I want to adopt as my own! It’s wonderful to live in such a melting pot. And hello, the food 😉

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