Multicultural China?

24 September 2008

Not Yet, But Maybe Soon

The notion of a multicultural society is difficult for many people to accept, and not only because they yearn for the purity of a singular description. If a city, a region or even a country is multicultural, how do we define its multiculture? Of the many definitions proposed for culture, perhaps the best is that it provides 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.

So the coexistence of more than one culture, as distinct cultures in themselves, would seem impossible in the same society. As a policy, multiculturalism has always stumbled at this hurdle, failing to satisfactorily negotiate the hazards of divergent cultural practices, discrepant ways of living, juxtaposed against each other.

Perhaps that’s why the Chinese government calls minority ethnic groups ‘nationalities’ – it skirts the issue, places them at the edges of supranational life, with their own cultural spheres only loosely connected to the Han whole. Conceptually, assimilation isn’t an issue because minority cultures either continue at the margins or disappear as the centre expands. There’s no room for compromise.

This is quite obviously a case of xenophobia, but so then are the many failures of coexistence in Western societies. Allow me to give a brief example that involves not ethnic cleansing – nothing so extreme – but merely the pursuit of everyday life.

Over the long decade of recently ended conservative rule in Australia the government shrank back from adequately contemplating how a mess of cultures – at once singular and interdependent – could satisfy the dominant culture’s need to be recognised as the universal Australian culture. People in the majority no longer considered themselves British, as my grandparents did, but were encouraged to maintain the sort of systematic biases that allowed them to go about their cultural lives in much the same way.

The newly elected Labor government has done little to reverse this myopia. Australians tend to accept that they live and speak and write in a multicultural society without much considering the multiples beyond cuisine and unusual faces glimpsed quickly on sometimes crowded streets.

So we have much the same situation in two very different countries, which suggests that despite an enormous amount of chest thumping around the world – both in an out of academia – very little has been done to reconcile the urge for an illusory national unity with the accidents of history that people every country with groups never quite fitting the norm. It is within this climate of disguised cultural indecision that Professor George T. ‘Sam’ Crane at The Useless Tree asks an intriguing question. Can a black man ever become Chinese?

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Déjà Vu All Over Again

21 September 2008

Australia Looks Back at Asia

Australia has long dithered at the edge of Asia, unsure of what ‘engaging’ the region might really mean, unaware that the consequences of indecision will be slight and that the many unknowns of history will also feature in the days and years to come. It would be no exaggeration to claim that those who lead national life – the politicians and other public figures, the tricksters and the trained – consider Asia as a commodity to be had, to examine and to discuss in abstract, and distracting, terms.

During the 1990s the presumption, or perhaps the aspiration, that Australia was a part of Asia, an aspect of how we Australians imagined and defined ourselves, took centre stage in the debate about national identity and what it yet could be. But few asked what that really meant, and if the thing we called Asia – that particular configuration, that way of understanding – could ever exist at all.

In Australia, Asia is often an unexamined state of mind lurking somewhere beyond geography, well apart from the tangible and the touchable. In a sense that shouldn’t be surprising because much of the Australian continent is far removed from the region, and only the recent decline in airfares and the advent of budget travel have made voyages beyond national boundaries widely affordable. Australia is a sparsely inhabited continent, and its major population centres have little direct contact with the peculiar cities further north.

Save for Darwin, which is as close to Indonesia as you can get before you actually get there and consequently bustles with regional interaction, the commerce of multiple cultures and the faces of many other nations, migration to Australia’s state capitals has largely failed to shift the continuum of national life away from the Anglo-Irish veneer placed so forcibly over the many indigenous cultures that welcomed Asian sojourners and traders well before the savage white people came.

So even the aspiration of an ‘Asia within’ is still largely wide of the mark. What remains is a shadow play of ideologies, a to-and-fro of assumptions about place, circumstance and destiny. After the Labor government tripped over its own hubris and fell in the middle of the 1990s, the conservative Liberal-National coalition pushed Australian perceptions of Asia back to what it imagined they must have been in the late 1940s, and the 1950s and 1960s.

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Lucky? Not Likely!

10 September 2008

On Australian Exceptionalism

Of the many defining characteristics that Australians cling to in an often uncertain search for national identity, the notion that they live in the Lucky Country endures with little effective criticism. The precision with which the term is used – Australia is the Lucky Country and not just a lucky country, one fortunate land amongst many – precludes not only a comparative appraisal of whether it really is a reasonable description at all, but also any historical understanding of how the term came into being, what it might have obscured and the extent to which it will influence the future as that uncertain time forms on the edge of the present. The country is lucky, always, and there’s nothing else to say.

Of course it’s not uncommon knowledge that the term in popular usage is something of a misnomer. When Donald Horne used it in his book of the same name in 1964, it marked the epilogue of an extended inquiry into a mindset and a manner, what it meant to be a particular type of person at a particular time. As Horne’s subtitle read, he was writing about ‘Australia in the Sixties’, less nationalistic than it had been, somehow different than what other people thought of it, but a little forlorn, worried at the edge of Asia. He described a people content with their lot, but not imaginative enough about others, or even about how things could be different for themselves.

What worried Horne the most was the absence of a public life, a debate about what might happen next, what just might be happening now. In a sense that’s not surprising because the Liberal-National coalition had been in power since 1946 and Prime Minister Robert Menzies had only just retired after 17 years in his second stint at the top. It could well be a maxim of Australian political history that federal governments both create and maintain public discourse, gently prodding much of the populace to speak of certain things now and ignore other things then.

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Origins and Alternatives

1 July 2008

Regional Life and the Importance of Rugby League

The Spinifex Cafe, by marsta, with Creative Commons licenceThe regions of Australia house around half its population. These are places variously removed from big city life, often without the sort of opportunities and the sheer mass of people that make metropolitan living the advantage that it is. Mention in a job interview that you were educated at Anonymous University in Innocuous Town and you’ll never compete with an Oxford graduate or even someone who attended a well-known public school in Sydney. Perception is everything, and the regions are largely out of sight.

But consider for a while the flip-side of this argument. What could it be that makes the regions somehow important to national life, aside – of course – from their mineral wealth and agricultural benefit? What is it about small towns or smallish cities that can enrich a country’s intellectual endeavour? The answer, or at least the way in which we seek the answer, could well surprise you.

This is a story about rugby league.

From the mining towns of northern England just before the last century began, rugby league has spread only to the British home countries, Australia, the Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea and, in fits and starts, to France. As much as I love the game it’s difficult to imagine it alongside football as a global sport. Rugby league is a quintessentially regional pursuit, and it was born when working class players could no longer afford to beat and barge in the amateur game of union.

Although it has made efforts to expand, and has its own World Cup of sorts, it tends always to contract back to its traditional areas of support. In Australia, since its inception in 1908, those areas have been New South Wales and Queensland.

Hong Kong is my home now but I grew up in Townsville on the eastern coast of Queensland. It’s a big town or a small city, depending on where you’d place a population of 150,000 on a scale of minute to metropolis. When someone leaves town they inevitably head to the state capital Brisbane, and some beyond. They’re spoken of in tones that don’t quite, but almost, suggest defection.

“Where’s Dave living now?”
“He’s gone Down South.”

Pause, and then the conversation begins again.

So the scene is set – we have our regional attitudes and our game. How could that enlighten the country? Well, it happened like this.

Origins of Boxing, by Pankration Group, with Creative Commond licence In 1980, drawing on an innovation in Australian rules football – quite another game altogether – rugby league experimented with a state of origin format in its yearly series of representational matches between the powerhouse New South Wales league, based in metropolitan Sydney, and the poor-brother Queensland league in regional Brisbane. The idea was to bring home the Queensland players who’d moved Down South, to have them represent the state in which they first played – and in most cases grew up – for just one game. Where you lived would no longer matter, where you belonged was what counted.

The format, applied only to the final of three games in the first two years, became the enduring symbol of rugby league in Australia, the pinnacle of the sport. From 1982, the State of Origin series, now devoid of the standard representational format, produced names and feats that will live on in the sport as inspirations for its players, and comfort for its fans. The deep maroon of Queensland, the sky blue of New South Wales, these are the gangland colours of eastern Australia, worn but three times a year.

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A State of Mind

31 May 2008

Mental Health and Human Rights Part 1

Shame, by FredArmitage, with Creative Commons LicenceNot all stories go away when the last interview is conducted, the last comment noted, when the final connections fade. Some linger because they defined a moment, or a decade – a vital arc of time – and remind us of a shame that’s never really shifted. They need to be retold because other people should know, have to know. I recently met a very well-respected psychiatrist for whom I’ve been editing almost eight years now – the vagaries of operating over the Internet simply meant we’d never crossed paths in all that time. I mentioned in passing that I grew up in Townsville, the second largest city in Queensland, northern Australia. He responded with a question: did I remember Ward 10B, the psychiatric wing of the Townsville General Hospital, did I know what happened there?

I did, and I also recalled a more recent echo.

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Thoughts on a Cosmopolitan World

24 May 2008

Can We Get it Together on Planet Earth?

Blue Marble (Planet Earth), by woodleywonderworks, with Creative Commons licenceThis Earth, our only home, is an enormous place. For more than 580 million square kilometres it ranges from the deepest pressured depths of mighty oceans to the tallest mountains, where oxygen is almost as scarce as footprints in the snow. In the few habitable parts we’ve scattered around 5,000 variously defined ethnic groups, which sounds like quite a few. But they’re shared between only 195 countries, separated by politics, yes, but also the inability to travel, the unwillingness to communicate. We presume that the Internet is drawing us closer, and that could well be the case for those who can afford to use it. But a more startling reality is that over half the 6.7 billion people on Earth will never leave their immediate surrounds. Most are far too poor, some too localised. And those who do move out often find a world hostile to difference.

So much for a single human race.

Speaking to members of migrant worker groups in Hong Kong today I learned more about the seemingly never-ending stream of cases that feature employer maltreatment, false accusations of theft and disturbing sexual abuse. It would be easy to dismiss these unfortunate circumstances as a direct result of an exploitative foreign labour system, and I’ve certainly argued in that entirely valid direction before. But underlying them all is something else besides – an inability to understand that a worker from a poorer country is not somehow deficient herself, that one locality is not inherently superior because it is richer.

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Indigenous Australians Offered Apology

13 February 2008

But is Being Sorry Enough?


At 9 this morning Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd addressed parliament with an apology on behalf of his compatriots for the removal of indigenous children of mixed descent from their families. He said sorry, and then he said it again. But in asking all Australians to look towards a mutually beneficial future he left unsaid the continuing dilemma of Australian sovereignty.

Rudd’s apology came 11 years after the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission released its report on the government-mandated abductions, entitled Bringing them Home. Until late into the 1960s, illegitimate aboriginal children who could pass for white were forcibly taken into state care and fostered into more ‘suitable’ homes. The oft-stated rationale was the imminent ‘death’ of the ‘aboriginal race’ – eugenics meets harsh paternalism.

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