>A member mentioned something on the AA_discuss list the other day that made me stop and ponder. I stop and ponder about lots of things the folks on that list say – it’s a savvy list after all – but this point was slightly different.
The person asked “Why should it not be expected that Asians know a bit of their culture? Is that a bad thing?” My immediate mental response was yes. I thought about it a bit more, realised that it sounded way harsh, and teased it out. I ended up posting something to the list and I want to flesh it out here, with the clarity of a new day. This isn’t an academic exercise as such and, to be honest, it’s all over the place in terms of argument.
I think that presuming someone’s level of cultural engagement is a fraught exercise that often depends on stereotypical readings of race/class/gender. The example I know best, of course, is that of Asian Australians.
Heaps of people have written about that “Where are you from?” moment – heaps of them. Trust me on this. It pops up in many segments of diasporic literature and auto/biography. It captures perfectly the point of exclusion, that instant when how you look becomes why you’re not from here. This recognition of difference comes with a whole raft of cultural assumptions about someone of Asian appearance: language, food preferences, habits, politics, etc.
I know that everyone makes assumptions and judges others on external indicators – that’s a given. It’s how most of us make our way through this world. What’s at stake in the assumptions about ‘ethnic’ people, however, is the value attached to the judgments.
Being told repeatedly that I’m not a ‘real’ Chinese person because I don’t speak Chinese or don’t know my history (e.g. can’t recite the Chinese dynasties in chronological order) gets old fast. At the root of this assessment – which is often made by Asians and non-Asians alike – is the assumption that there is an authentic cultural package of ‘being Chinese’ that exists, and people are measured against it. I don’t think there are ‘real’ ways of being culturally Chinese. The very idea of ‘Chineseness’ is a bunch of attributes cobbled together to signify a certain idea of the culture. It’s often made up of traits that get showcased at Chinese New Year: non-threatening, folkloric aspects that many others have written about. Culture is a highly individualised entity and attempts to apply it to groups is something that is always problematic. Yes, there’ll be some consistencies (but probably as many inconsistencies). What’s to be gained by promoting a unified notion of it? Who wants this kind of easy shorthand?
There’s an expectation that, if you’re Chinese, you should be a conduit to knowledge and insight into Chineseness and Chinese culture. I really dislike it. Is this kind of cultural Svengali-ism expected of other groups who may look ‘Australian’ (read: white)? There are many, MANY people out there who know more about Chinese and Malaysian history and culture than I do. Does that make them any more Chinese or Malaysian? Why does my lack of knowledge make me ‘less’? To me, pointing out how someone rates on the cultural authenticity front is a totally bogus process. It’s just a constant underlining of the exclusionary impulse.
I take for granted this entire line of reasoning. It informs my research and my cultural politics. I’ve read theoretical books that have supported it, articles that affirm its key dynamics, but I’ve never written about it myself in any shape or form. Well, except as bitsy, chatty posts to the AA_discuss list. And now this scattered and rambly post. Cultural identity is such a complex issue and bringing essentialist principles to bear doesn’t achieve anything as far as I’m concerned (except show up vested interests in cultural gate-keeping).
Of course, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to know about one’s heritage and history, community cultures or whatever. Just as I think it’s a general good to know about other cultures and histories and languages. I like the idea of knowledge for its own sake and learning about the world and how one’s context differs. That said, shoe-horning supposedly more appropriate forms of knowledge onto someone because that knowledge is thought to match their skin colour isn’t helpful or desirable.
If someone wants to tell me about their community practices or family rituals, great. It’s not like I don’t recognise how important these elements can be to some people and their way of living. What I’d like to see, however, is a broader acceptance of various methods of engaging with culture and community.
No-one has no culture. It’s just that some forms of culture are seen as more valuable and readily packaged than others.