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Imagined Communities

Written By: tommy.york on October 25, 2007 2 Comments

Chinese 10AX’s book is, unlike the book I used in high school and now used in Berkeley’s regular Chinese track, willing to tackle an incredible range of politically apt and controversial topics. At times, these topics directly address the complex social factors that defined my experience as a white student taking Chinese while living in the Bay Area. At times, these topics cover issues incredibly important to American policy today. Perhaps what makes the material so engaging for me is that I’m an outsider to traditional Chinese American society.

To generations of Cantonese immigrants in San Francisco, I will forever be “白鬼.” This phrase is the almost comical “white devil” used to describe white people. While I’ve never heard the phrase used as a slur, I’ve heard it many times in passing. Psychologically, it estranges to excludes one group of people from a protective and guarded minority culture. I always lack the confidence to respond with even a “谁是白鬼?” or “说什么?”, two phrases I could easily manage in my limited Cantonese lexicon.

But to the new wave of Chinese immigrants, I am I represent a modern generation of American leaders, businessmen, and students who are striving to emulate on a personal and professional level the political and economic interconnectedness of China, Taiwan, and America.

Most recently, Lesson 23 addressed international trade and human rights. Two hypothetical characters voice a dialogue in which one argues for developing countries’ human rights: “对一个开发中的国家来说:老百性有饭吃,有衣服穿,才是更基本的人权.” - “To a developing country, the most important civil rights are for the common people to have food to eat and clothes to wear.” The other hypothetical character retorts with a concise translation of “Give me liberty or give me death” – “不自由,宁可死”. While one character argues that the United States should not trade with China thanks to their human rights policy, the other argues that American has no right to be the “国际警察.” or world police.

Lesson 22 ostensibly simply discusses bilingual education, but really discusses the Chinese-American integration process. One viewpoint is that Chinese-American kids should learn English to integrate more fully into society, while another argues that “为了适应社会上一般人德生活而放弃自己的文化和语言,这太可惜了”- “It’s too bad to have to give up one’s culture and language in order to adapt to the mainstream life of a society.”

Underlying that chapter is a central theme of all the book’s readings: two opposing viewpoints that define a cultural conflict. One viewpoint is the “沙拉盘,” the Salad Plate. It’s thesis is that immigrants should never yield their culture and lifestyle, even to the extent of creating different noninteracting homogenous groups. The opposition viewpoint is the “熔炉,” or the Melting Pot. It’s thesis is that immigrants should adopt American culture as their own and abandon their heritage.

Perhaps language defines the debate. In Chinese, Chinese Americans are simply “华裔”. The phrase is best conceptually translated as “Chinese Abroad,” though it literally translates to Chinese descendents. There’s nothing American in that label. In English, Chinese Americans are Chinese Americas. At least linguistically, they are the same conceptual level as Irish Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc.

These questions of culture and distinction show up again and again.

What’s most frustrated me about undergraduate life at Berkeley has been the division of our society into arbitrary spheres of Imagined Communities. While mainstream Greek fraternities have a disproportionately small number of American Americans, Berkeley has plenty of ΛΦΕ’s, ΣΦΩ’s, αΚΔΦ’s, and ΣΟΠ’s to compensate. Why the distinctions? Why the so-called mainstream Greek community and it’s Asian American subculture? Even in ASUC clubs, we have similar distinctions. Why the Asian Business Association and not simply the Business Association? It’s not as if this process is limited to Asian Americans and Whites. Instead, it’s a pervasive theme on one of the most socially conscious and progressive campuses in America.

These questions of social anthropology are difficult, but I feel powerless to make any prescient observations or recommendations. I have no solutions. I graduated from a high school school that felt truly multicultural. Now, I feel as if I’m in a world of growing social and cultural walls. The higher the walls get, the more I feel like an observer without a community of my own. Perhaps that awareness of the imaginary nature of these walls makes me unwilling to participate in some frustrating natural division of our society into social groups by race.

Anyway, glad to put up a bit of my own on Found in Translation. Props to chigaijin and anyone else out there who’s willing to start taking Chinese in college. The journey is long, but 老子’s famous quotation will help: “千里之行,始于足下.” It’s often translated as “The Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” but often the 下 character is taken more literally: “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand.”

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2 Responses to “Imagined Communities”

  1. chigaijin on: 27 October 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Wow, I had no idea there was so much…content, in a language class. Even a language/culture class like Chinese 10.

    And Yes, I entirely agree about the arbitrary separations in the fraternities and clubs. Racism may not go away instantly, but it certainly won’t disappear when even nonracist people self-segregate. I mean *destroying serious tone*, what the heck?

    Interesting about the difference between “Chinese Abroad” and “Chinese-American”. Partially I think it’s because of the focus; one term was invented in China, the other in America, so it’s somewhat directional. To America, “Chinese-American” forms one of many non-west-European immigrant groups. (However culturally inaccurate the term “Chinese” may be, I’m sure it’s at least not any worse than “Hispanic”. But that’s a separate problem.) To China, such emigrants are seen as just that, people leaving. Because America’s always been a country of immigrants, it’s not too surprising that people are termed by their supposed origin. But a booming country with emigrants hardly cares, linguistically, where the emigrants go.

    I’m sure many people agree: I just don’t see Salad Plate and Melting Pot as two choices but as opposite ends of a gradient. Even if sometimes it’s hard for people to find a comfortable place in the middle, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist.

    Mm and finally thanks for noting me; as a 1A student I’m just proud I can read “老子” *grin*

  2. sml on: 12 November 2007 at 9:18 pm

    “The higher the walls get, the more I feel like an observer without a community of my own.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. Studying a language lets you step into a culture all right, but you won’t truly become part of it until you ostensibly become fluent. And with a language like Mandarin, that could take a decade or two. Until then, we’re left to deal with struggle with the very difficult questions of “belonging” and linguistic/cultural identity for which there are no clear-cut answers.

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