thoughts on multi-culturalism

two events this week that have me thinking about the global mix in shenzhen.

event number one: a group of elementary teachers from xishuangbanna (yunnan) visited the school. this was interesting on several counts. first, they arrived in “native” costumes which they wore the entire week. as far as i could tell, they weren’t wearing traditional clothing, but actual costumes that one would wear on stage to perform one of china’s 56 ethnic groups. these costumes included christmas garland and plastic flowers to adorn the women’s hair. nevertheless, several of the han teachers told me that this is how ethnics dress, even when working in the fields. when i expressed sceptism, it was as if i had challenged something fundamental about being chinese.

“no, you don’t understand,” one of the teachers said, “they really are this simple and honest [my translation of the constant use of “朴实” to describe our guests].”

then, at dinner, the han official who led the delegation admitted that the yunnan minorities prefer to wear western clothing. he added that he constantly encouraged them to maintain their tradition in the face of modernization. now why ethnic minorities should be any different from the han, who don’t wear traditional clothing except when waitressing or making an artistic statement, i don’t know. however, i sensed that the official and his han audience felt an intense yearning for the minorities to be traditional.

so, during picture taking, the han all wanted their pictures taken with the minority teachers in costume. indeed, the han teachers borrowed the minority teachers’ hats for the pictures. for their part, the minority teachers wanted their picture taken with me, who wore chinos, a bright shirt with scalloped sleeves, and a hot pink scarf.

second, two fifth graders got into a fistfight because a mainland student called a korean student “hanguolao (韩国佬).” the teacher who reported this event to me was shocked.

“i thought our school was innocent and naive [my translation of “天真,简单” to describe children],” she said.

i was more surprised by her shock and obvious distress than i was by the fight. not surprised by the fight because (a) i’m a foreigner and so have more understanding of how foreigners experience chinese stereotyping than do chinese, (b) i read my students’ journals and know that many students have naturalized their mutual resentments through cultural difference, and (c) some little boys do try to resolve problems by fighting.

i was surprised by the teacher’s shock because i hadn’t realized how separate many of our teachers remain from the foreign students and teachers at the school. our student population is half foreign (including hong kong and taiwanese students), and there are eleven foreign teachers at the school. yet, it seems many of the han teachers really have no idea about the strangers in their midst. (this is of course the inverse on the foreigners who have no idea where they are!)

the xishuangbanna visit has me wondering about the ways in which we deploy stereotypes to bring coherence to new experiences that might otherwise open new understanding. for the xishuangbanna delegation as well as for the school’s teachers, this visit was something new. however, tourism to xishuangbanna informed how the minority teachers self-presented and were received. this emphasis was confirmed in the songs and dances that the teachers performed during their stay. most of the songs had already been translated into mandarin, and the dances were all “typical” of a generalized minority rather than specific to any one minority.

the fighting boys have me wondering about what lessons we are actually teaching our children. both knew the character “lao” was less human than “ren”. both experienced themselves as culturally distinct even though both had been classmates for several years, communicating in native mandarin. and neither had been taught more appropriate ways of handling conflict other than name calling and punching.

the other thing that i’ve noticed is that with the influx of foreigners and more ethnic minorities in shenzhen, there is emerging a more coherent sense of what a stereotypic shenzhener is: primarily mandarin speaking but fluent in cantonese; hip and urbane; aware of europe and america rather than the rest of asia. indeed, as far as i can tell, hong kong is no longer the shining star it once was and shenzheners are aiming to build a city that is vaguely western. previously, the fact that most migrants were han chinese from other provinces (or cities in guangdong) meant that most residents self-identified through hometowns. however a generation later, their children have a sense of themselves as belonging to an overarching chinese community that is defined mandarin (and therefore most do not think of themselves as being from guangdong), urban culture, and global dreams. this new identity is being simultaneously defined against stereotypes about rural china, guangdong, ethnic minorities, and large number of asian sojourners, whose presence is everyday stronger.

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