Thursday, December 29, 2005

7 Searching for a cultural identity

Though the author has had some very funny ideas about different cultures , there has never been any doubt about the Chinese cultural identity, even if people always mistake the author for Korean, Japanese, American Asian etc. Even though like most contemporaries, the author hated Chinese class in school - probably more'cos of the pressure to achieve perfect grades or advance/acceleration course credits than any animosity for the language. The author's probably never gonna write poetry in Chinese, there's this sense of happiness that you can comprehend another language, that even though the land of your ancestors is miles away, you haven't lost all sense of your cultural identity.

Yet it's kinda weird 'cos the author doesn't think in a Chinese fashion, it's more of a translation exercise. Apparently, according to parents, the author was great at Chinese and the various dialects as a kid (probably 'cos of the grandparents) but Mom's reading programme drastically altered that . Though Dickens was a pain and Austen made the author think that the English were very weird people - it's not recommended that kids read serious reads before the ubiquitous enid blytons or be allowedto read pulp fiction at the age of 9; the author is proof of that folly- it was fun and the author thought in English and a style that was foreign . Yet, the culture that the author was brought up to aspire towards was so diametrically in opposition to the cultural values and traditions of the Chinese race . This merely resulted in the author, like so many foreign diaspora , being a foreigner to both cultures ; not quite immersed in either culture , yet having an understanding of both at some level. Frankly, some culture specific references are mystifying; be it the passion for cricket, the fad of traffic cone -napping (a drunken pasttime?!) or the Chinese brand of socialism or what could have prompted the more devastating aspects of the Cultural Revolution

This is the reality of the ideal of (a simplified) melting pot - you either subscribe to the illusion of blending with the larger social set or end up standing alone

However, those who blend too well risk losing part of their identity; many have heard of that NRI friend who returns to Mumbai for the first time in his adult life and is so traumatized by the culture shock that he returns to the States on the next available flight and when asked says there were too many indians in Mumbai. Whether you laugh or cry at that story depends on which side of the cultural divide you stand on

With culture comes cultural stereotypes and we're not talking about those who can't tell Arab from Sikh, but the perception that certain cultures are socially backward in their thought or conventions. There was a student of Middle Eastern origin who was typical guy's guy, hardly the type you'll expect to evoke "aww" from the gals; that he disproved when he led a family of very lost ducklings out of the quads to the nearby university park, much to the "aww, how sweet" and amusement of the gals and the dissing of the guys. This was the same guy who purportedly expressed views about women which were less than, erm, progressive and dismissed as typically Arabic

So what's your cultural identity?

The author wishes to thank Modern Renaissance Guy for his great photos which he has kindly permitted to be reproduced in this post, you can view more photos at his blog

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the relevance should be pretty obvious if you read the post