Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

31 January 2009

In Response to a Reader’s Comment

Shadows, by lonecellotheory, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.

First, the comment:

The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.

So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.

Discarded Traffic Signs, by The Joy Of The Mundane with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Babble On

25 January 2009

The Value of Minority Languages

2103512683_7bbf68822e_mLanguages are the commerce of life, the additions and subtractions of our days. Through them we communicate, but they often restrict us in what we can say, how we can say it. And when we can’t understand a language we baulk at the impediment to exchange, often without thinking much about whether there would have been any exchange anyway. People get uptight about minority languages in all countries, insist that they shouldn’t be part of the public conversation. To be an Australian, people will say, you must speak English. To be American as well, in the United States. But why? Surely a common language is convenient and translation for minority language speakers can be expensive, but so too are grants to sporting clubs, support for the arts, government-funded advertising campaigns, and so on. I’m sure you get the message.

We live in a world in which mutually incomprehensible languages are a fact of life. Voters in Nashville, a city of around 600,000 people, voted down an ‘English first’ proposal this week, which would have taken away translation support services for the 10% of the population who don’t speak English. Sure, Tennessee’s official language is English anyway, but this would have been a nasty jab at people who have recently arrived as refugees, and the long-term Spanish speaking population.

Read the rest of this entry »


And Now for the Bad News

22 January 2009

A Savage Beating Unpunished

Hope, by My Own Worst Nightmare, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Hope is a fragile emotion, smashed so easily on the jagged rocks of life. In my last post I wrote with a degree of optimism that the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong might just receive a little more attention in future, given a small increase in recent newspaper coverage. And that could still come about, because the case I’m about to describe might yet make the news. We’re working on it, and the circumstances deserve more coverage than I can attract here. But it just won’t come to the attention of the courts.

In early August last year I wrote about an Indonesian domestic helper who came to stay with me and my family after suffering repeated beatings at the hands of her employer’s wife. She was bruised from head to groin and had reported to both a local hospital and the North Lantau police station. We were confident that she would have her day in court, given the evidence of assault, an account of earlier sexual assault by her employer, and a witness not only to her condition every morning, but also to her being forced to work at another premises, outside the scope of her employment contract.

Read the rest of this entry »


Biting the Hand that Feeds

20 January 2009

More Domestic Helper Abuse in Hong Kong

In a manner of speaking, yes (Fatalist Palmistry), by nobleIgnbole, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)A face, a name, a certain movement of the arms – what is it about a personal presence that gives recollection the value of truth when mere words alone might not suffice? I’m often aware when writing about the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong that anonymity is both a blessing and a curse. It protects identities but dulls the terrible stories a good deal, to the extent that the posts could well appear as stale anecdotes, sliding down the screen. But once in a while the news becomes far more public – as it did last week.

The South China Morning Post managed to stagger past its usual neglect of issues out of the ordinary last week to run a piece on a domestic helper who was twice attacked by her employer’s dog in Causeway Bay at the end of December. It’s an important piece not so much for the content, alarming as that may seem, but for the fact that it ran as a small feature, spawned a follow-up article by the same author, of whom I have been critical in the past but certainly not now, and featured the helper as a person with expectations and limits that should have been respected.

The story, in brief, is this: in late December a Filipino domestic helper, Lilibeth Tumaca, whose picture appeared in the paper, was mauled by her employer’s dog after she was told to ‘familiarise’ herself with it by making it eat out of her hands. This happened in only her second day in the job and Hong Kong itself. She went to a doctor, who dismissed the wounds as minor. Then the dog attacked again and she was admitted to hospital. When she hadn’t returned to work by the seventh of January, she was summarily dismissed. The full story is attached in a PDF file – please read it if you’re interested.

Read the rest of this entry »


Grander Bailout

16 January 2009

A Plane Lands on the Hudson

Paseo de los Heroes, by nathangibbs, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)When faced with physical danger it’s far easier to panic than persevere. Yet all that stands between success and failure, heroism and disaster, is a clear understanding that a process must be initiated, a path chosen and quickly followed. Still, that “all” is an obstacle over which almost everyone will stumble, far too difficult for most of us to contemplate. But not for Chesley Sullenberger and his crew, who guided an Airbus A230 aircraft that lost the use of both engines shortly after take off from New York’s La Guardia airport yesterday to a successful landing in the Hudson River with no fatalities.

The choice must have been terrifying – guide the stricken plane to an airport in New Jersey, risking the lives of all on board and many more besides, or turn and treat the Hudson as a landing field, with whatever consequences that might offer up. But others can tell the story better than me:

Wall Street Journala comprehensive description of the landing

US Airways – official press release

CNN – coverage of investigation to come and accounts of the impact

Newsday – a short biography of the pilot

New York Daily Newsan extensive set of photographs

New York Timesaccount of the rescue

What’s most striking about the media coverage is the sense that everyone, from the pilot to the cabin crew, ferry captains, police divers and many others, were doing precisely what they were supposed to do, and everything they could do, and everyone survived. That’s a truly salutary lesson, given the profound gravity of the situation.

It should pay to understand that the extraordinary involves a great deal of the ordinary. Amidst the petty dramas of our lives – increasing rent, decreasing economic growth, misbehaving children, truant lovers or what have you – just getting the job done, focusing on the task at hand, is all that really matters. We don’t have the terror of a forced landing or the icy waters of the Hudson to contend with, we merely have to make decisions and follow them through. That doesn’t seem too difficult any more.


No Offence, No Defence

14 January 2009

Further Observations on a False Accusation

289/365 banging my head against a wall, by obo-bobolina, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)What happens when justice is done but punishment is impossible? Unlike cases in which no verdict is likely or the jury finding is improbable, when a person is accused of a crime and then cleared of any wrongdoing, there is – more often than not – something of a villain lurking somewhere just out of sight. Police investigations are often dropped for lack of sufficiently relevant evidence, but when there is no evidence of any sort to consider, and seemingly never was, who censures the accuser?

I recently wrote about a domestic helper here in Hong Kong’s mild-mannered Discovery Bay who was accused of sexual assault against a boy just under 3 years of age. This might have been a community horror story had not the employer suspiciously retracted the complaint and asked the woman back to work. That’s not the sort of thing you do if a complaint is even remotely true. But the worst aspect of this little saga wasn’t anything to do with the little boy or his capricious father. No, it was the disturbing fact that the complaint was withdrawn only 2 days after it was made, and in the meanwhile the accused woman had been incarcerated.

Locked up. In detention. Deprived of her freedom.

Read the rest of this entry »


That Old-Time Evil Ink

11 January 2009

One Hidden Peril of the Printed Word

Clarity, by Jon Wiley, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Dilemmas are easily encountered but rarely mastered – they just hang on in there, teasing with possible solutions just out of reach. They’re usually laden with a little irony, a little out-of-placeness, which suggests that perhaps you’ve somehow taken the wrong path, erred once too often, that the untenable situation is somehow your fault alone. ‘Choose a Path!’ they cry, but you can’t. Trust me, I know. In an age of new media and the electronic page, I live in a house of books. So far, no dilemma, and not entirely surprising for someone who reads, edits and writes for a living. But the printed word sometimes makes me sick. A quandary, yes?

Not, I should add, that I’m a moralist. I’m not perturbed by what I read. It’s just that the words can make me sick. Or, rather, the ink with which they’re printed. Our local newspaper, such that it is, makes me sneeze. I don’t mean a delicate little kerchew. No, no – it’s an Oh-My-God-He’s-Gonna-Die trumpet. Every day. So I’ve taken out a Web subscription and my wife reads the print version, kind of surreptitiously at the end of the lounge room, almost out of sight. We have strange reading habits.

Still no dilemma, but you would have to admit an amount of inconvenience.

So consider this, which is more to the point – I recently missed a book launch due to illness and the author kindly sent me a copy of the volume in the mail. I very much want to read it again (I edited it twice, so nothing of it is really new to me) because it outlines the sort of design philosophy that I think will be useful in running an editing department. This might sound like a long shot, but after you’ve exhausted all the sure things to get to a certain level, a few chances taken never go astray. Yet, and almost inevitably now, the book makes me sneeze. It also makes breathing difficult when I have it open.

What sort of ink do local printers use?

Read the rest of this entry »