Slippery Definitions

Where’s the Culture in Multicultural?

Sliip, by MarkyBon, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Definitions are slippery things, often over-ruled by the shear weight of expectations. In responding to ‘yourfriend’ about multiculturalism in China I have relied on what is by and large an academic definition of ‘multicultural’ rather than what has more recently become a popular description of multiple cultures in the same political space. My multicultural country is one in which the majority culture absorbs, pays deference to and systematically tends to the health of minority cultures – an unrealised and perhaps unrealisable ideal, if the policies and presumptions of multiculturalism are anything to go by. ‘Yourfriend’, in contrast, has defined – a least implicitly – a ‘multicultural’ country as one in which multiple cultures exist: a statement of fact.

This is an interesting divergence not so much because it shows our different viewpoints (although that it does) but because it’ll allow me to consider some of the implications of what we haven’t quite managed to discuss, touching on the points that ‘yourfriend’ has covered and considering some of the things we’ve both missed. And, as ‘yourfriend’ implies in his final comment from last week, both sides are lacking useful definitions of ‘nationality’ and ‘culture’. These, unfortunately, aren’t really evident in the post by Professor Crane that I originally wrote about.

Ethnicity and Nation

I can, however, start by accepting the assertion that minzu, which I put forward as ‘nationality’, is more accurately translated into English as ‘ethnicity’. That doesn’t necessarily rule out xenophobia in China of the sort I described in my last post – as ‘yourfriend’ mentions of America, the creation of “ethnic people” can be debasing by itself. But leaving that particular issue aside as something I can neither prove nor disprove here, I’m interested in how ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’, or at least the concept of the nation, start to merge into one another in discussions about multiculturalism, and how the notion of culture floats on by, curiously abandoned.

Who ever talks about a multicultural nation? In English we usually discuss multicultural countries, even though we would refer to nations and nationalities at most other times, especially when comparing countries. But that shift isn’t apparent in, for instance, Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu, and neither is it in Tagalog, in which the words for nation, ‘bangsa’ and ‘bansa’ respectively, seem to have shifted in another way – from describing something similar to ‘race’, itself a slippery term, to meaning ‘nation’ and thus the many differences that the nation may contain. There are probably many non-Malay languages for which this is also true, and the politics of nation-state building are never far away it, so why not English? We might use Benedict Anderson’s notion of the nation as “an imagined community”, but it seems that the community, the nation, is often imagined as mono-cultural, or of one broad ethnicity.

So the notion of ethnicity sneaks in anyway, but what is it? As ‘yourfriend’ points to in China, the Han ethnic group includes distinguishable subgroups. In my original post I mentioned the incongruity of defining Cantonese people as Han, and in the Philippines, with which I am familiar through my family, there are 10 Malay ethnic groups and very many subgroups. Most people will accept a definition of ‘ethnicity’ as a distinct biological group, in which the members have similar ways of self-identification, share a language or use dialects of a common language and, at least originally, lived in geographical proximity. But then again that’s the same sort of definition many people will use for ‘race’, perhaps without the compulsion to include language. Webster’s dictionary, intriguingly, includes ‘racial’ background as part of its definition for ‘ethnic’.

Ethnicity, it would seem, is what you make of it – or in line with my earlier comment, what the state that controls your equally ill-defined nation makes of it.

Ethnicity, Race and Nation

To address one important point that ‘yourfriend’ made, this sliding between categories is probably what allowed Professor Crane to discuss the sometimes ‘racial’ and sometimes ‘ethnic’ designations of ‘Black’ and ‘White’ in relation to the possibility of multiculturalism in China. My reading of his post was that if China really is multicultural in the way I described above, then the ultimate test of that ‘fairmindedness’, to use an awkward shorthand, would be to see how foreign ethnicities/racial groups, or at a stretch ‘nationalities’, are likely to fare in perceptions of what it takes to be Chinese. Given the elusiveness of all the terms involved, I’m no longer sure that such is the case, regardless of whether it would be legitimate to include foreign and local ‘ethnicities’ in the same test.

Nightmare painting, by jelene, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)Now that leads me to the possibility of a Hong Kong Australian mayor of Beijing, which spends more time at the intersections of ‘ethnicity’, ‘race’ and ‘nationality’ than ‘yourfriend’ might imagine. I originally wrote “Hong Kong Australian” and not “Australian” alone, because I was writing whimsically about my daughter who is an Australian citizen of convenience but has a Filipino mother. My ancestry is English and Irish, and my wife’s ancestry is indigenous Filipino, Malay Filipino (on one side of her family) and Spanish and Chinese (on the other). So what is her ethnic group, her race, her nationality?

She was born in Hong Kong, will most likely speak fluent Cantonese well before adulthood, will probably never live in Australia and might even take Chinese citizenship if we remain here long enough. That’s not as uncommon as you might think. Of course, politically she could never be the mayor of Beijing, because to be a Chinese official at that level she would have to be ‘ethnically Chinese’, as is the case for high officials here in Hong Kong. But if she spent most of her life in Beijing, spoke the language and knew the people, there is no reason why she shouldn’t be as qualified as anyone else to be mayor.

Finally, Culture

Now we all know that none of this is going to happen, but my point is that certainties break down when you look closely at how a situation might evolve. The sticking point, again, is ‘ethnicity’, defined as how the state (and the Party) wants it to be defined. And there is a lurking shadow of culture, or rather the likelihood that an outsider, a foreigner, will not understand the culture as deeply as someone truly born into it. This is probably true, or at least perceived to be true, in all countries. But what is culture?

I originally defined ‘culture’ as:

a common system of signs and signals by which a group of people can function as a group of people. In a sense, culture is the sum of our presumptions, the net of our possibilities.

Now that’s not particularly helpful any more, is it? Clearly it overlaps too much with ‘ethnicity’ to make it a viable, standalone definition. Perhaps when the terms are boiled down they are synonyms, although culture seems to focus more on communicating rather than just being. Perhaps culture is the way that ethnic or racial difference is communicated daily, in ways made possible by imagining the nation as a community, as controlled to a greater or lesser degree by the state, depending on the locality.

What then, of a ‘multicultural’ nation? In my sense of the term it’s close to impossible, as I mentioned before, but all ideals are. Unfortunately, I now think it’s far closer to impossible than I previously imagined. And if we take the way that ‘yourfriend’ defines ‘multicultural’, as merely the existence of multiple cultures in the same space, then it suggests that differences will always outweigh similarities, and that the state will be more heavily involved in maintaining the situation than either of us has yet considered. In both cases the dominance, or attempted dominance, of the state over individual perception is daunting.

Snail on Target, by Jaysk, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)In closing I want to thank ‘yourfriend’ again for raising the points I’ve covered here, and those in the last post that I missed today. I’m not sure that we’ll agree on what I’ve discussed, but I very much appreciate the chance to develop my ideas further, to go out into the unknown and realise that there is yet more to consider, always. Many, many implications are rushing through my head, but they’ll just have to wait for another time and fewer words.

More than ever, it’s a puzzling world.

4 Responses to Slippery Definitions

  1. yourfriend says:

    I don’t think xenophobia can be said to be a strong awareness of difference. Xenophobia is just hatred of outsiders. You can be completely different from someone and still recognize their worth as neighbors, friends, allies, etc. In fact, the American and Australian forms of “multiculturalism” only serves as yet another way in which to subject minority peoples to the interests of the majority. The discourse only operates within the boundaries of “at what speed and volume should we mass assimilate subordinate groups to better condition them to the pursuit of our interests”.

    In China there is indeed a marked perception of differences between not only Han and their neighbors, but within Han groups. If you exclude the Cantonese on a whim, you have to exclude the Wu-speakers, Gan-speakers, Xiang-speakers, Hakka and Hoklo as well. These comprise about 500-600 million people out of 1.2 million Han which I will call “South China” for the sake of convenience.

    Interestingly enough, the South Chinese tribes have interacted with each other for a fairly long time, sometimes warring, but usually trading and engaging in diplomatic relations. One thing that sets South China’s “multiculture” apart from Australia’s is that it involves many peoples of different cultures working in close contact with relatively little conflict, but at the same time it retains a large degree of cultural “diversity”; inherent in the individuality of South Chinese subgroups.

  2. yourfriend says:

    As to why this difference exists, I would say it’s because the composite South Chinese subgroups recognize the worth of the others while maintaining their individual cultures. What binds them together is a common cause, whether it’s collective survival in the face of external threats (primarily invasions) or something less pressing.

    It is, in a sense, allegorical to a fairly healthy relationships between various human individuals. Now, from that example you can sort of draw a larger picture of the PRC when it involves North China and South China. Ideally, that is what “multicultural policy” should be; based around common sense and facing differences under the space of shared borders and common humanity but remaining separate as peoples if so desired.

    As for someone of Chinese/Spanish/British/Irish/Malay descent, they are part of the Chinese/Spanish/British/Irish/Malay culture. In a sense, they are now their own people. That is indeed the story of how different groups arose throughout history from common ancestors.

    If not, they can always join a more established culture via Anglo-Australian assimilation or Anglo-American assimilation.

    However, it does not suit the PRC’s interests or any of its constituent peoples to accommodate even more “cultures” at this moment. The premise behind the PRC’s “multiculturalism” is that the various groups have always been there (i.e within the body politic of the modern PRC), and they have grown accustomed to each other through thousands of years of interaction.

    To take a Western view of China’s “multiculturalism” would be to challenge the fundamentals of China’s society, and to insist that “blacks” and “whites” be added to the PRC’s ethnic makeup would be akin to suggesting that a company, family or other social group take in an outsider that has nothing in common with their interests or mutual agreements.

    I’m not speaking in principle here, but just on a situational basis. It can’t be denied that the “whites” have a poor history of handling ethnic relations, but that would require another thread.

  3. yourfriend says:

    Sorry, English/Irish

  4. Mike Poole says:

    Thanks for your comments again. I’m not sure that Australian multiculturalism even exists any more, at least not in the shape it did as a group of roughly coherent policies 10 years ago.

    Aside from that my only observation for now relates to the presence of multiple cultures within China. It’s certainly accurate, leaving aside my problem with the definition of the term ‘culture’, to say that they have “always” been there, but modern China is not eternal, and the thousands of years of interaction have been made possible by a succession of states. In other words, states – dynasties and the PRC – have expanded the boundaries of the nation over more than 2500 years from smaller areas in the north to its present limits, incorporating more peoples along the way. This doesn’t really contradict what you have written – it just puts it in a slightly different historical context, and a little more in line with what I discussed at the end of the post about the far reaching influence of the state in such matters – both in China and outside of China.

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