Why Difference isn’t Difficult
Community is a difficult concept, meaning so much to so many people, changing with the times, shifting to suit events. There are constants, of course – a core around which notions of home and happiness revolve. But as recent events in my community have made very obvious, it may not be the things we’re most familiar with that bind us together.
What is a community? Is it about place, or people, or what people are doing both separately and together? Here in Hong Kong’s relatively secluded Discovery Bay we’re talking abut the community a great deal lately, about what we can do in response to Vicenta Flores’ disappearance and death. But the great difficulty is defining who ‘we’ really are. How do ‘we’ react, what do ‘we’ think, what can ‘we’ do? These are questions so very difficult to answer.
A community most obviously has a place, a locus – both a physical location and a focus. That’s the point at which we tie ourselves and our families to the earth and say ‘this is our home’. For many people that shifts and changes over time, and even at any one time we can be part of more than one community. People who live near me all belong to at least two communities in that sense – Discovery Bay and Hong Kong, the neighbourhood and the city.
But, of course, some people identify more with the neighbourhood than the city right now, so location is complimented by allegiance. It’s not just a matter of where we live – where we belong – but also of where we feel we belong. For someone to feel a sense of community they must feel welcome.
They must also feel welcomed, invited to be part of something bigger than themselves, something that just can’t be defined as, to give the example of Discovery Bay again, 16,000 people hemmed in by a mountain and the sea. Invitations are a form of communication, a way of saying ‘you are one of us’. And what’s interesting about Discovery Bay is the majority language is not the common language, the invitation for many is issued in a tongue not of their own.
As in other parts of Hong Kong, Cantonese is the majority language here but most people can speak English. That is true in other districts too, and English is still one of the official languages. But here the people who can speak to others in English would usually speak Cantonese, yes, but also French, German, Hindi, Ilongo, Japanese, Tagalog, Thai and other languages as well. The linguistic diversity in such as small place has the potential to atomise the community, and it does in many ways. But it also feeds back into the importance of English as a common language of necessity.
That’s one of the ways a community can be held together almost despite itself – a purely functional common language. But what are the things that can divide a community? In a sense everything I’ve mentioned – the location, the welcome, the language – can be both a help and a hindrance if it rubs against culture. No neighbourhood, no community, no country is truly multicultural. Various cultural influences dominate, others are suppressed.
Culture is what we reach for when we don’t like what we see, when we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Lawrence Green and Shawna Mercer offered an interesting observation when writing about communities and health research seven years ago. Communities often want knowledge of their current circumstances; they don’t always know their current state of affairs. My suggestion on a large scale is that a diversity of cultures in a small area is stumbling block to true community self-awareness. It means that self-knowledge is often out of reach. That’s obvious where I live, but it is not the final word.
When Filipinos meet and speak to Australians, when Chinese born overseas chat with English born here, when any number of small conversations across cultures percolate through the community, that’s when a common purpose forms. And troubling though it might be, crisis, or at least a sense of crisis, has the effect of multiplying those conversations, drawing people together, asking them to believe if only for a moment that they somehow belong that way.
The tragic visitation of SARS had that effect on Hong Kong as a whole in 2003. Now, in the microcosm of Discovery Bay, the realisation that Vicenta Flores – someone most of us barely knew, if at all – is gone has drawn some members of the community towards others. New conversations have started, tinged with sadness and confusion. As Vicenta’s family and friends begin their long trek back to what might pass as normal life, this community has changed.
But what seems more obvious now than ever before is that our differences, and not our presumed similarities, will keep us together.