Slippery Definitions

4 February 2009

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.

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Why Multiculturalism?

1 February 2009

Response to a Response

Get to the Point. By boliston, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)In response to both my last post and my original post on multiculturalism and China, ‘yourfriend’ has written a number of perceptive comments, arguing that multiculturalism as an ideology (not to be mistaken for a country being multicultural) is not a viable concept and thus not applicable to China. Other points, including a more accurate definition of Chinese ‘nationalities’ as ‘ethnicities’ and a critique of Professor Crane’s original argument are well worth reading, so I’ll reprint the three comments here with very minor editing (mainly the correction of a mistake that ‘yourfriend’ pointed out). If anyone else would like to offer comments on the topic, please do – discussions such as these can be crucial ways to learn. I’ll reply tomorrow.

Correction: I’ll have to reply on Tuesday, given that I have a course to attend tomorrow night. In the meantime, what do other readers think of multiculturalism, and – as ‘yourfriend’ asks in a more specific manner – how can or should we define nationality and culture?

First Comment – Response to the Original Post

The post makes less sense to me each time I read it. China is already multicultural, why the debate on whether “whites or blacks” can be “Chinese”?

Multiculturalism is a pretty loosely defined ideology, and there is no sense in using China’s current “multiculturalism” to make an argument for expanding it to include “blacks and whites” in China. I came to think that you didn’t have much of an appreciation for the ethnic and regional differences within the PRC, but I might have been wrong. I apologize if I am.

I question the quote by Crane here:

If Chinese multiculturalism does not deepen, if whites and blacks and other racial and ethnic groups cannot become Chinese, China will discourage the very people it has invited to understand its language and culture; and in the process it will be limiting the global market for its cultural products and undermining its world-wide political influence.

This is very speculative. The global market for Chinese cultural products is not very large; and especially not for genuine Chinese cultural products. At least to Americans, they consume Americanized cultural products created by “ethnic people” for the sake of novelty … very debasing, and all-around an unpleasant trade.

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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.

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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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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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A Time to Mourn, A Time to Reflect

22 April 2008

Sadness and Resolution in Hong Kong

The main body of this post is a modified version of an update published earlier today on A Death in Hong Kong. Anyone reading Greetings Earthlings! who would like to know more about the Discovery Bay community’s response to Vicenta Flores’ death can go there – it’s currently being updated twice a day. I’ve added further personal commentary here.

Memorial Service for Vicenta Flores

A Moment of PrayerVicenta Flores’ memorial service was held last night, 21 April, at the Discovery Bay International School on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Led by Father Henry Cabral of the Discovery Bay Catholic church and Sister Aida of the Catholic Centre in Hong Kong’s Central district, the service reflected on Vicenta’s life and the many difficulties faced by Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong.

Vicenta’s sister Irene spoke briefly in Tagalog, offering her thanks to those in attendance. She also asked anyone with any information about her sister’s disappearance and death to come forward. Her grief was obvious, and she soon broke down crying for the first time since she arrived in Hong Kong.

Here’s a brief video clip from the beginning of the service, as people were still coming in. The crowd eventually spilled out the hall doors.

The South China Morning Post reported on the service this morning, and included Father Henry’s comments on the degrading and dehumanising way domestic helpers are often treated here in Hong Kong. He also expressed his reluctance in saying that, but the necessity that it should be said.

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Just One, or More?

21 April 2008

Other Unexplained Filipino Deaths in Hong Kong

Ace Investigations, by Jeremy Brooks, with Creative Commons licenceNot every death is a tragedy alone. Sometimes the passing of one person draws attention to those of others, and the unanswered questions pile on top of each other. One of the most troubling aspects about Vicenta Flores’ death in Hong Kong recently is that she was not the only Filipino domestic helper to die in April. She was the third – another two women, reported as suicides, died on the day Vicky went missing.

Three deaths and so little fuss.

How does this happen with relative ease? Allow me to suggest a reason deeply embedded in the structure of Hong Kong life. The relationship between domestic helpers, mainly Filipinos and Indonesians, and their employers in Hong Kong rests on the sharp edge of suspicion. While this by no means covers all employers, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence from helpers pointing to constant surveillance, allegations of theft and general disregard for the conditions of labour contracts.

My sister-in-law is expected to work past midnight when she starts at five in the morning, to give one example that I can verify. A family friend was recently accused of stealing her employer’s jewellery and dismissed not long after without any investigation from the Immigration Department, to give another. Dismissal without reasonable cause, incidentally, is a breach of the labour contract – but it seems that any excuse will do.

...unanswered prayers. by underbunny, with Creative Commons licenceThis situation, added to the almost incidental ethnic segregation I mentioned a while back and obvious differences in social standing, make for constant malcontent. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Filipinos are furious about the three deaths. Writing on his blog yesterday, activist Aaron Ceradoy asked “When will these stop? How do we make them stop?” It’s a cry of desperation, a prayer into thin air.

Filipino migrant worker groups are now asking the same questions, and will be holding a rally on Sunday to express their indignation. The presumption is that the greater part of Hong Kong society just doesn’t care.

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