thoughts on cultural purity

Yesterday, I lived the disconcerting in between-ness that is my present status in Shenzhen, which in turn has led to thoughts on assumptions about cultural purity and language as a symbol of cultural belonging.

My in between status is a result of the fact that  I am able to function somewhat competently in Chinese contexts. Yesterday, for example, I needed to register at my local police station. When I went to ask  our foreign liaison where I needed to go, she was helping a colleague pay his bills. Indeed, she had a notebook full of the account data that one needs in order to enjoy running water, electricity, heat and gas in a modern society because paying bills is a  task that most Westerners cannot do for themselves in Shenzhen. In this case, I was more “Chinese” than my Australian colleague because I could not only pay my own bills, but also visit the local police station by myself.

Incompetence is one of the defining features of being foreign in Shenzhen. Indeed, the difficulties that Westerners experience when learning Chinese amplifies the mutual experience of difference. Thus, institutions that want to globalize hire liaisons to help foreigners do things like pay bills and register at police stations. In turn, westerners experience the effectiveness of this help as a sign of cultural difference. Smooth interaction means “no difference,” while convoluted and choppy points to incompetence, i.e. cultural  difference.

Moreover, the level of difficulty in navigating from incompetence to competence seems to be a useful measure of lived cultural difference. In other words, relative levels of incompetence marks the experiential distance that we often feel in cross-cultural interaction. Thus, Chinese and Westerners see me as somewhere in between, classifying my relative foreignness based on how smooth my interaction with Chinese people  is. Close Chinese friends frequently comment that I don’t seem foreign at all, mentioning that my accent is clearer than many Cantonese speakers, while many Chinese acquaintances use me as a yardstick to measure how far they’ve traveled the other way.

And yet. I have all sorts of pop-psychological theories about what this level of incompetence does to Western psyches, including the fraying of tempers and increasing rigid ideas about what is “the way things should be done,” but my point du jour is that relative levels of in/competence enable us to assert and maintain fictions of cultural belonging and exclusion simply because we feel relatively skilled in a given situation.The rub of course is that any interaction is a composite of many different skill sets and thus, the skill set we choose as a sign of cultural competence is a means of drawing a line between us and them, even when the line is irrelevant to any issue other than our cultural identity.

Yesterday, for example, there was a middle school student also hanging out in the office. One of the Chinese in the office said to him, “Say hello to Mary Ann. Don’t worry, she can speak Chinese.”

Student looked disbelievingly at me and then back at colleague.

“In fact, her Chinese is better than yours,” she goaded him.

“Really?” he asked her, but now focused more intently on  me.

“Go ahead and test her knowledge (考验),” she continued.

“You want a child to test my language skills?” I interrupted. “What’s that about?”

“Ai,” my colleague said with a laugh, “you’re still a foreigner after all.”

I didn’t pursue the topic because the bill payer had left and I could get the address of the relevant police station. However, this exchange has me wondering about what kind of boundaries my colleague was trying to establish and why. After all, she wouldn’t have sent this child to the police station by himself, but had no qualms about giving me responsibility for going.  Perhaps, he was an Overseas Chinese and she wanted to humiliate him into trying harder to learn Chinese. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it hurt me to have my place in the world – and for many purposes my world is Shenzhen – undermined, especially through an inconsequential exchange such as this. It made me feel insecure because at any moment what I might be trying to communicate could be dissolved simply by calling attention to my real linguistic incompetencies. In fact, the underlying message I received is “you don’t belong here” and short of interrupting the conversation, I’m not sure how else I might have intervened to assert my claim that I belong here, too.

We all share various sets of skills and incompetences, and we all deploy them to construct boundaries between “us” and “them”. Indeed, most of us are comfortable when these boundaries aren’t questioned. So in Shenzhen it seems that generalized Western incompetence in things Chinese and the concomitant Chinese desire to adapt their behavior to Western standards allows both Chinese and Westerners to feel “at home” in the world. Of course, whether or not that home is comfortable or not is another question. And that’s the rub. Because I live so obviously in between “us” and “them,” my in betweenness presents opportunities to those who wish to change these boundaries and threatens those who don’t. Consequently, many of my conversations are nothing more than a negotiation of how I differ from my interlocutor’s perception of what a foreigner is or should be in a given situation.

More hopefully, I am coming to understand my in betweenness as an instructive metaphor for the human condition. The boundaries that define us as people(s) really are where we make them through what we do and do not choose to learn and what we do and do not choose to make salient. Moreover, how and when and why we make these choices constitute invitations to and rejections of our various interlocutors. Thus, even if we didn’t choose where we come from, consciously or not, we choose who we’re with.

11 thoughts on “thoughts on cultural purity

  1. You write well about our linguistic identity, no matter how good we get at the language.

    I don’t agree with Peter Hessler, that people shouting hello should be perceived as a mocking catcall, but it’s just a reminder that there’s a limit to how integrated we can be.

  2. This is a thoughtful comment. Thank you for sharing this.

    I like the neutral way you describe the problem without using emotive language: each person has her own notion of boundaries. And part of living in a another culture is that your notion of boundaries is so different from those around you.

    A common situation of boundary conflict and accommodation is college roommate conflicts and accommodations. It’s a psychically tiring process to go through, to be forced to discover, negotiate and navigate the different boundaries that two people have about space, time, noise, smells, socializing, drinking, sharing of clothing and food. Some roommate relationships become hellish, others are accepting and supportive.

    I guess the rough analogy to cultural interaction is whether someone can move from being “just the roommate” to something else – friend, partner, buddy. At what point in accommodation, understanding, negotiation and adaptation does a foreigner move to becoming a non-foreigner in Shenzhen?

    Perhaps that might happen when foreigners who can speak the language and navigate local life “like a native” are no longer rare birds. In a place like Hong Kong where there are now many foreigners who have grown up, gone to local schools there and speak Cantonese like a native, they are treated by most (but not all) locals as native. This is becoming more common.

    For example, this young HK woman’s vignettes of her experiences with cultural and linguistic boundaries are fun to watch:

    “[A] is for Asian”

    “Chinese Vs 英文”

    “Made In China (Branded For Life)”

    She is not ethnically Chinese at all, but completely “culturally Chinese” (well, Hong Kong Chinese, anyway). I think this will become less and less unusual as time passes.

    Much as how a Chinese-American can grow up in the U.S. and become completely culturally American, but will still run across people in the U.S. who will ask her where she learned to speak such good English, I think we will see, in time, more non-Chinese who will grow up in China, become completely culturally-Chinese, and will attract attention as this is so unexpected for so many people.

    This will happen more if foreigners in China will send their kids to local schools where Chinese is the main language of instruction, and not international schools or overseas boarding schools.

    • dear perspective here,

      Thank you for your insights and the videos.

      I agree that the negotiation of boundaries is ongoing and highly idiosyncratic. What also interests me in debates about who is culturally what is the extent to which difference gets coded as “cultural”, “personality”, “politics”, “class” — precisely because the labels we give our boundaries not only shapes how those boundaries are valued, but also addressed: in a roommate situation, for example, do we think of personality differences as malleable or not? Likewise, how malleable are cultural differences? And if we see the differences as political, does this mean we are called upon to maintain and uphold unchanging principals (i.e. “hard and fast” boundaries)?

      Yet as you indicate, the vastness of the questions notwithstanding, we actually negotiate difference interaction by interaction, which leaves room for creative accords…

  3. maryannodonnell,

    thank you for your reply. I really like the neutralness of your approach and precisely your effort not to label the boundary, as you seek to find out what is really going on with a relationship rather than to fit the conflict into pre-existing categories.

    Btw, I’ve admired your blog since the one you wrote about the “cultural politics of guan” (管) a couple of years ago.

    My favorite bits here:

    “how do the cultural politics of panopticism (so glossed) differ from the cultural politics of guan (to be glossed)? in shenzhen, guan refers to practices of taking charge, ranging from teaching a student how to hold a pen through organizing social events to directing traffic and enforcing laws. like panoptic methods, guan practices target human bodies. teachers routinely hold a student’s hands when she is learning to write; the organization of events often entails mass calisthenics or the performance of many bodies in coordinated action—at our school, marching is considered one of the signs of effective pedagogy; directing traffic and law enforcement both entail the placement of bodies with respect to each other within a given environment. this is important: like panopticism, guan authorizes certain forms of violence in order to bring bodies into alignment with society. both tian’anmen and currently, tibet are examples of guan. moreover, like panopticism, guan practices presuppose constant monitoring. the image of chinese students doing homework, while their mother, father, and grandparents watch and intervene exemplifies guan.

    however, unlike panopticism, guan practices draw legitimacy from the understanding that disciplining bodies is a form of caretaking. in this sense, guan requires the physical presence of those who guan and those who are guan-ed. as such, there are many instances of people excessively guan-ing those in their charge. excessive guan-ing makes for tiring social relations. both the guan-er and the guan-ed find themselves in constant negotiation. for many teachers and students at my school, for example, guan-ing a student’s homework is a necessary evil. nevertheless, guan is unquestionably better than the alternative, which would be “not to guan,” leaving the child to do whatever she wanted to, but failing to help prepare her to take high school and college entrance exams. a similar logic characterizes many chinese criticisms of the government. if schools collapse in an earthquake; it is a result of a failure to guan. if those who failed to guan continue in power, it is also a failure to guan. hunger, unemployment, social unrest—all are symptoms of governmental failure to guan.”

    Worthy of being reposted and reread.

  4. If one has money and belovedness, then there is no need to answer to anyone else’s expectations and one can go their own private way and custom design a modern international Chinese cultural environment for one’s circle of family and friends.

  5. “In fact, her Chinese is better than yours”

    I have heard this so many times. And also what follows. I think the best way is to answer in Chinese that your language skills are not SO good. That way you can assure both parties self-confidence: you answer in Chinese, so your friend is right; but you also accept it’s not that good, so your friend won’t have to question your position (saying you don’t belong there) in order to assure the other kid’s.

    • hi 嚫仔南,

      Thanks for the suggestion. I have tried being polite. The difficulty I find is that it is not a direct conversation. Had my friend chosen to introduce me to the boy, saying for example, “叫阿姨好,” then both the boy and I would have known how to begin a conversation and in what language. She might have told me his name and why he was hanging out in the office. Then we could have spoken about that topic. However, instead, she chose to draw a line between us and then wonder why we didn’t talk to each other.

      Also, I’m curious when and where you have been told that someone’s Chinese is better than yours. Do you hear it in Barcelona? Or is it upon return to China? In other words, is your situation part of being the child of immigrants or part of the ongoing negotiation of what it means to be 海龟?

      • Since I am not Chinese, what happened to me is actually the same. I may be talking to someone in Chinese and then, a different person who doesn´t know me would comment: “Oh, he speaks Chinese?”, then my friend would answer: “He actually speaks it better than you” (which, btw, is not true in any way x.x). In such a situation I tend to minimize whatever social preassure may experience the second party -saying that it´s not that good-, since I also don´t like to be told in such a way that makes me feel questioned my belonging to a determinate place.

        What is going here, I believe, is, first of all, a “negotation” that is meant to end as a “draw” (no-one wins, so the receiver should not accept the appraisal but withdraw from it). Secondly, “his/her Chinese is better than yours” usually works as an introduction, so you may not meant to actually answer it literally (you can just ignore it and say hello to the other person, the most possible scenario is that this person will praise your Chinese, so you would have to show some modesty). This could also be related to the first sense: if your friend is introducing you by pointing out something particular about your person (“Look, not just another 外國人, this one can actually speak Chinese pretty well”) and you should not actually answer to it, then your reply accepting it may result inappropiate (不宜).

        Of course, some people would also look for a way to assure their position in a particular situation, and pointing out your “foreignerness” is an easy way (in this case, your friend would be assuring the other kid´s, rather than yours, but he could also be joking). However, maybe due to the ethnic variety in China, I found most Chinese open and tolerant towards foreigners who “behave” in a “Chinese-way”; most of my friends would usually say “他們老外……” instead of “你們老外……” (afaik, this would rarely happen in Japan).

        Btw, this topic would rise now than I’m in Barcelona, but also, not to such extend, when I was in Shanghai. Currently I’m living in Barcelona again for some months, but my relation is basically within the Chinese community.

      • Hi again, 嚫仔南,

        It’s interesting and helpful to take these comments as an alternative form of introduction. I also understand that it’s easier to defer a desired interaction than it is to say straight out, “You speak Chinese and I want to talk with you.” In an earlier comment, perspectivehere suggested that these awkward moments would dissolve as more Chinese-speaking foreigners grew up and/or lived long-term in China, as in Hong Kong, for example.

        In Shenzhen, I am less of an oddity than I was 15 years ago, but I remain “strange” in ways that I am not when I visit Beijing and Shanghai because there are far fewer Chinese-speaking foreigners in Shezhen than there are in Beijing, Shanghai, and even Guangzhou. I’m guessing this is because Shenzhen attracts foreigners here to do business, while the older cities attract those foreigners who are (also) interested in Chinese culture.So in most cases, I’m the first Chinese-speaking foreigner people here have met, even among the college-educated. In addition, Shenzhen’s population is overwhelmingly from the interior, which means that most have had far fewer opportunities than their peers from the big cities to meet any foreigners, let alone those who have extensive experience in some corner of the country.

  6. I am half Chinese and half white. I have been interested in identity issues for some time and have researched them as a grad student in sociology. From my experience and research, I found that people gain a sense of security and self-esteem from belonging to social groups. When someone shakes up their notion of who belongs to that group, this makes them feel uncomfortable. Thus, many Chinese in China and elsewhere cannot accept that a white looking person such as myself could be “ABC,” (American Born Chinese) although I think of myself as a kind of ABC. For them to accept that a “white” person could be Chinese would destroy their whole logic of what is Chinese, and would therefore destroy a big part of their sense of self. Since I prided myself in being Chinese American, my first year spent in Mainland China was very difficult because I wasn’t viewed as even part-Chinese American, but simply as a foreigner. Eventually I learned to stop debating my identity with Chinese people because it is a losing battle, and I realized that it was meaningless anyway.

    Shenzhen people do not want to think of you as Chinese because this would force them to question the exclusivity, and therefore the value, of their own identity as Chinese. What actually makes someone “Chinese” and whether ethnic identity should matter as much as it does to people is a whole different topic for discussion.

    • Hi Henry,

      Thank you for joining the conversation.

      Like you, I’m interested in the ways both attributes and skills can be deployed to create forms of social belonging. Clearly as someone who doesn’t share the physical attributes of most around me, I’m in favor of skills as a marker of my commitment to belonging to various groups. However, I’ve found that gender and age and nationality do actually help me craft interesting relationships because they have given me access to a range of experiences, good and bad. Nevertheless, my skin colors (I’m freckled and sport a range of tans, pinks, and browns) are frequently what people who don’t know me use to place me in their cognitive maps… “White woman in Shenzhen must be an X”. And I’m not. And being misrecognized hurts as long as I let it.

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