MANILA, Philippines – “As a feminist, it’s not enough to preach what you believe in. You should live it. So in my life, I try to do that as much as possible.”
Her surname is “Chia” and her family owns an appliance and electronics shop in Raon Street, Manila. She’s a Tai Chi and Qigong instructor. Her eyes are the kind that disappear when she breaks out into a laugh or giggle.
So even before she tells you about her family, you’d know that Irene Chia is every inch Chinese.
DEEP ROOTS. Irene (seated, far right) grew up in a very conservative Chinese-Filipino family. Photo courtesy of Irene Chia
We were introduced to Irene when she first shared her story of dealing with racist labels in our multicultural women feature. Her Filipino-Chinese narrative resonated with many women like her.
Irene is glad to share more about her story, particularly her struggles of growing up in a strict household. “My biggest struggle when I was growing up was my father. He was a very typical Chinese: conservative, very domineering… a ‘racist,’ you could say,” Irene recalls.
Like most Chinese patriarchs, her father didn’t think highly of his daughters marrying outside of the Chinese race.
“My father didn’t want us interacting with Pinoys. [For him,] they all seemed up to no good as long as they’re Filipino,” Irene continues. “No matter how exceptional one person is, if he’s Pinoy, he’s nothing.”
As expected, her father’s conservatism extended to his views about women. Irene says, “In terms of his values, he’s also very conservative when it comes to women. At a certain age, you should be married, with kids, and be tending to the store. He didn’t like [us] working outside anywhere else.”
Finding her voice
But Irene has always felt that her destiny could be different. “Even as a child, I wanted to be independent,” Irene recalls.
Growing up, the fourth child in a brood of seven, Irene didn’t have much of a voice. Neither did anyone, apparently, for their father ruled their household with an iron hand. The strict rules plus the suffocating parenting style – not to mention an escalating tendency of becoming violent – were too much to handle. She ran away from home when she was 19.
The reason might seem like a minor tiff: her dad caught her talking on the phone with someone he expressly forbade her to get in touch with — a Pinoy. This was actually the culminating point of an escalating “battle” between her father and her. But around that time, Irene was also being awakened to her rights as a woman.
EMBOLDENED. Irene's feminist principles were awakened in college. Photo by Libay Cantor/Rappler
While in college, she had begun getting involved with feminist organizations such as Katipunan ng Kababaihan Para sa Kalayaan (KALAYAAN). As her advocacy blossomed, she realized that she had to stand up against her father’s brand of anti-women discriminatory practices. So when her father told her to leave, she packed her bags and left.
She was just a teenager who was suddenly thrust into the world of adulthood, of rent, of looking for food and work. Fortunately, Irene found help — from other women.
“My second sister let me stay at her in-laws’,” Irene shares. “My dad didn’t know, but my mother did.” At one point, she even lived in the office of the Women's Education, Development, Productivity and Research Organisation (WEDPRO), another women’s rights NGO that she worked with.
“It’s actually other women who helped me out. When I left home, nobody ever told me to go back (home). The women really supported (my decision),” Irene shares.
It was hard being independent, but she never thought about giving up. “My parents were asking me to come home but I didn’t want to. My freedom is important. After a while, my father and I did reconcile and I would visit him and my mother on Saturdays. I would never give up my freedom even during the hardest of times.”
Though her father never fully accepted her decision, he eventually let her be.
Finding her spirit
Despite, or in spite, of these perceived challenges towards her conservative upbringing, Irene never completely let go of her heritage.
She came full circle when, as an adult, she delved into the Chinese art of Tai Chi.
“I felt a deep yearning to learn Tai Chi. I tried it and I really fell in love with it,” she says.
INNER PEACE. Irene encourages other people to practice Tai Chi regularly. Photo by Libay Cantor/Rappler
“I liked it because it’s very spiritual,” Irene says. “There’s probably the aspect that I’m Chinese, Tai Chi is Chinese, and it’s very close to my heart. Maybe it’s in the blood.”
She adds that it gives her inner peace, and helps her deal with stress. And as a Tai Chi instructor, she finds satisfaction in helping others discover these benefits.
Irene’s story is just one among millions around the world. Not everyone is lucky enough to find the same balance.
FOLLOW YOUR PATH. Irene stood up to stereotypes and carved her own destiny. Photo by Libay Cantor/Rappler
Her advice for other women is simple. “Follow your own path. Listen to your heart and you will know what your path is. Always strive to do something meaningful not only for yourself but also for others and for our country.” — Rappler.com
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