Cross-cultural issues (2)

For a few centuries, many of the nations of Europe had enjoyed controlling vast areas of the globe occupied by coloured peoples. Their newly-acquired superiority in armaments had enabled this result. A sad consequence was that there evolved a view, supported allegedly by certain academics in the eighteenth century, that white people are genetically superior to all others. The lessons of history were thus ignored.

In Australia, an admirable ambition was to create a nation of white people where no man would deny any kind of work – such was the egalitarian principle which underlay this hope (the indigene excepted, as elsewhere). At the beginning of the twentieth century, the White Australia policy was legislated. Although Australia had little to do with colonialism (except briefly in New Guinea), the people had come to hold views which were patently racist.

However, by mid-century, the independence of adjacent nations had led to a gradual lessening of the colour bar, initially by permitting the arrival of (mainly) British-educated Asian students. Although we spoke good English (my matriculation was from London University) and behaved properly, our very presence and our comportment discomfited many of the locals.

The explanation was quite simple. We were intruding into ‘white space’ (as enunciated by academics). We were also violating the prevailing ethos of the superior white man, through our clothing, assumed wealth, educated speech, visible indifference to public rudeness, and our non-combative response to discrimination. For instance, my father had taught me thus: If someone spits at you, do not retaliate. Move on, but do not turn the other cheek.

We were also of foreign faiths; the effort by so many to convert us to Christianity was testament. Our foods were frequently described as ‘foreign muck,’ with some querying our preference for spices. We used to add chili sauce to guest-house food and to take-away fish and chips, and pies.

My university’s student council even conducted a survey asking how the respondent would react were his sister to marry an Asian (or words to that effect). Even some of our Australian friends might say something like ‘I don’t want many more like you in my country, although you are OK.’ They had clearly forgotten how Australia had been acquired.

The underlying ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ viewpoint was also manifest against the sudden arrival of large numbers of war-displaced refugees and immigrant Europeans. Yet, the main differences brought into the country by the Europeans were their accents and their preference for more tasty foods, with better bread. Australian cuisine then was very British (thereby dreadful from an Asian perspective.)

It was obviously difficult for so many of the locals to have their life changed so much, so abruptly. Yet, their governments had to go down that path. Initially, it was to obtain able-bodied workers to develop the necessary infrastructure. Later it was to avoid unwanted tensions with the emerging nations of Asia.

The reverse culture shock to the young Asians was confusion and a lack of understanding of the antagonistic attitudes and behaviour directed at them. ‘What’s it all about?’ was my thought when I was targeted in a fashionable public arcade on a Saturday morning. It took us a while to understand the reasons for this unacceptable behaviour.

Strangely, few Malayans studying in Britain experienced comparable behaviour. (Snooty chaps are, however, unavoidable everywhere.) The British people are far more tolerant of coloured people and the cultures they represented.

The isolation of Australia was clearly a cause. The principal cause was undoubtedly the enduring relationship between white invader and indigene. Curiously, governments will promise, from to time, to ‘bridge the gap’ between their indigenes and the mainstream. But the them/us divide seems to have a certain durability.

 

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Cross-cultural issues (1)

When people who had grown up or been acculturated in diverse environments come together, there may arise cultural tension, because of the manner in which human societies have developed over their histories. A strong distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ seems to be the basal layer of human relationships. What triggers these tensions?

Normally, one is born into a collective, and is sustained in that collective until maturity. Then one becomes one of the legs upholding that collective. In most of Asia, even modernised Asia, this collective is the extended family, in its various forms and traditions. In the Ultra-West, the modern nations of the West created in recent centuries by European migrants, the collective is the nuclear family. The boundary of the Asian extended family will include three generations. The boundary of the nuclear family of the Ultra-West is most unlikely to include even the grandparents.

The cultural underpinnings and traditions of the communalism of the East are quite clearly identified, and enforceable in a subtle manner. Those of the individualism of the West are somewhat amorphous, yet effectively coherent, and apparently binding without coercion (except in the matter of religious conformity).

The reality in both situations is that there is a sense of belonging to a ‘tribe,’ especially when the ‘elders’ of this tribe, the priests and politicians, work hard at keeping separate their collective from other collectives. This separation implies the exercise of power or the display of superiority, reflecting competition for resources, or minds and souls. Fanciful? Or a realistic perception?

Competition between groups (or tribes) of Primitive Man or hunter/gatherer or nomad would have been over resources. Shamans and other self-appointed priests and their subsequently developed institutions, and god kings, would have sought power (and probably wealth). Add tribal leaders, the politicians, and there could result that basal relationship between ‘them’ and ‘us.’

With the ending of colonial rule in India, Ceylon, and Malaya, young people from these countries entered Australia in the early post-war period with, as I observed, no prejudice against white people as a whole. I was certainly taught not to be anti-British, while remaining anti-colonial. We had grown up within extended families in multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural territories where mutual co-existence and tolerance were evident; and we were educated.

We were also adequately acculturated to be superbly confident about our historical and cultural heritage. We did not expect the treatment we received in those early days when we landed in Australia.

Why did so many of the host-people display oral prejudice and discriminate against us, apparently because of our skin colour? We were well-dressed, and spoke courteously, and in educated English?

Was that the trigger? After demolishing the cultures of the First Peoples of Australia, demoralising them, and pushing them into a dim background, and in spite of not having been a colonial ‘power’, was the Anglo-Aussie affronted by the presence of educated and confident middle-class coloured young people paying their way?

 

 

Cultures need not be competitive

Some years ago, childless couples in Australia were adopting babies from overseas. An Aussie woman opposed this practice. As she explained to the newspaper which published her letter, foreign babies bring ‘foreign cultures.’ The reality, of course, is that any foreign culture brought in would be in the baby’s nappy.

Culture refers to the ways humans behave consistently, traditionally; and the underlying values. I was brought up in a family and tribe of Hindus. Hence beef was not on the menu. We did not eat pork, although it was the main meat for our Chinese neighbours. We saw pork as hygienically unclean. Pork was not avoided because of religious beliefs, as with the Jewish faith and Islam.

During the racist White Australia era, Anglo-Australians complained about the odour of garlic, ginger, and curry spices used by Asian students in shared kitchens. The huge influx of Europeans soon stopped that. Young Aussies who had travelled overseas also took to Asian and European foods.

In the 1960s, I observed 2 young white Aussie girls buying from a food store owned by an Englishman the ingredients to be combined into curry powder. They knew exactly what they wanted. On the other hand, I bought a packet of imported curry powder. I had no idea of its ingredients. My mother had never told me; indeed, I had not been allowed into the kitchen.

Cuisine and clothing, as cultural markers, cross ethnic boundaries easily, in time. Prayer and associated religious rituals, while variable, are motivated by identical objectives – to seek succour from, and to express thanks to, God. Diversity in religious belief is not a barrier to close inter-cultural relations, as I have observed. Doctrine-bound priests may not agree.

In terms of day-to-day living, what differences in behaviour do we all display – wherever we are on the globe – which pose barriers to mutual tolerance inter-culturally?
British Malaya, with its ethno-tribal diversity during my development, was a multicultural nation-in-the-making. There was mutual tolerance, in spite of an original lack of a shared language. We lived our lives as guided by our respective cultures and, in time, through habituation, education, and some social interaction, became one people. Only politics can be a threat to social cohesion.

My own extended family includes Chinese, Malay, Indian, English, Burmese, Italian, and Anglo-Australian genes. We are the lamp-lighters to a new world based on a shared humanity, with any historical cultural tensions devoid of consequence.

 

The breakdown of family

The nuclear family is the core unit of society in those new nations carved out by European migrants in territories over the seas previously occupied by indigenous tribes. The latter, like the traditional societies of Asia and Europe (or parts thereof), were composed of kin family units.

These migrants would, in the main, have left established nations in Europe or sundry kingdoms or principalities, for religious, economic or official policy reasons (eg. Britain’s cultural cleansing of those deemed to be criminal, or otherwise undesirable).

The nation, as a territory-related people, is a socio-political construct (or artificially created entity), arising in Europe no more than five centuries ago. Presumably reflecting the schisms within Christianity, tribes of a coherent people, bonded by a shared religious belief, history, territory, language, other cultural traditions, and consanguinity demarcated the defining boundaries (both geographical and tribo-cultural) to ensure separation from non-congruent or competing tribes.

Purely as an aside, at its height, European colonialism extended the reality of nationhood outside Europe by establishing national borders. These boundaries created new nations, irrespective of pre-existing kingdoms or ethnic enclaves, often dividing peoples, just to achieve a balance of power between the European nations. The resultant tribal wars (eg. between India and Pakistan) may, however, have offered economic opportunities to the neo-colonisers of the modern day.

Migrating multitudes mixed people from source countries in the new territories in a manner not evidenced before. Without extended family support, necessary self-sufficiency developed. The subsequent eventual development of ethno-religious conglomerates probably resulted in loosely-knit communities.

However, the American scholar Francis Fukuyama has recently written about the great disruption to US society. Could one wonder whether the killing of the indigenes and the despoliation of their cultures has left some kind of debilitating residue in the national ethos? Be rational, obey the law, and look after your self-interest: these were apparently posited as a guide to a life expressing personal initiative in a land of opportunity.

Whatever the relevance of the above, Fukuyama’s analysis is shadowed by a casual but extended observation of Australian society.

In Australia, where individualism is somewhat leavened by state welfare, the author’s experiences and acute observations over six decades lead him to the following conclusions. The family unit, the fulcrum of society, and the vehicle for the transmission of the youth of the nation to their future, has been fractured. In the absence, or a substantive denial of available extended family, a breakdown of marriage or cohabitation of duration leaves children in a parlous situation. There is no kin back-up available in the main.

Since up to 40% of marriages are reportedly at risk, and since many, many fathers are allegedly denied continuing close relationships, as dictated by nature, with their children, what happens to the psychological needs of the children in broken families? Only recently has there been any admission that the children are adversely affected. Earlier claims that there is no evidence of damage did not seem credible, when one considers nature.

Yet, only the career needs of mothers, and their success in balancing motherhood and work, fill the media reports. The extended periods spent in professional care by babies and little children, the denial of their right to nestle at length in the arms of the mothers and, when older, to ask a million questions about all those interesting things out there, and to talk about all that, is never the subject of interest in the media. Why not?

Fortunately, in low-employment districts, the children are seen to be receiving the entitlements designed by nature.

Then, there is a perceivable diminution of mutual respect, the reported denial by many youngsters of personal responsibility to contribute to the operation of the family unit, the audible spoilt child in the shops, a reported increase in the number of single mothers, and the seemingly escalating exploitation of welfare (especially the disability pension) by able-bodied people.

Fukuyama identifies in his analytical book ‘The Great Disruption’ other evidence of social alienation (but in the USA). He instances mealtimes, now lacking the ‘structured rituals’ of yesteryear, when families ate together, with parents thereby enabled to offer information and counsel to their offspring and, reciprocally, for the latter to talk about matters of relevance to them. This reinforces the bonds of the family. Fukuyama also instances the risks of blending separated part-families, and the deleterious effects of broken homes on school learning.

Essentially, he highlights the imbalance between the wants of adults and the needs of children. Who speaks for the latter?

How could advanced, highly developed nations offering high culture, highly skilled professionals and artisans, and humanistic and ecological-minded people, allow the breakdown of family as described? Who is responsible for strengthening the family unit, and thus ensuring the society as we need it?

Is the ethos of individualism the sole cause of such societal alienation? Or, was there something in the rain? Without strongly-bonded family units, can society survive?

 

Who were we – Jaffna Tamils?

Who were we? We are Tamils from Jaffna in the north of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Currently, we are a world-wide diaspora. Both my father and maternal grandfather had migrated to British Malaya because of job opportunities there. An adequate knowledge of the English language led to administrative jobs in a country which was being filled rapidly by workers, traders and business men from all over India, Ceylon, south China, and the surrounding Malay lands. The bulk of the people whose mother tongue is Tamil are now found mainly in the south of India.

The Tamils of Ceylon are claimed by a Malayan historian to have originated in the Deccan in central India and, having spent some time in what is now Bangladesh, finally settled in north and east Ceylon. The south of Ceylon was settled by the Singhalese, also from India, about two and a half thousand years ago. The Tamils seem to have been in Ceylon for a minimum of a thousand years. Some Tamils claim two thousand years. After all, in ancient times, only a river might have separated Ceylon from India. The sea has clearly risen in recent millennia. It would also have risen much earlier through the demise of the last ice age.

Whereas Singhala (the language of the southerners) is one of the Sanscrit-linked so-called Indo-European languages of India, Tamil is one of the four Dravidian languages. These are now found mainly in the south of the subcontinent. The pockets of Dravidian speakers in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North-West India, together with the strongly-asserted belief by many that the purest forms of Hinduism are now to be found in south India, raise the probability that the Dravidians had moved south from the north-west of India when the Muslim Mughals, other Central Asians, and peoples further west moved progressively and en masse into the northern parts of what is now India. It has also been suggested that the peoples of the Indus Valley high-culture civilisation were part of this exodus when the river system which sustained them dried out.

The wonderful reality about the pundits of pre-history (that is, the times about which we know so little) is that nobody can be shown to be wrong, and everybody is potentially correct, about their theories as to what happened, and why. Now, not only the Indians but also other colonised or otherwise culturally oppressed peoples everywhere (eg the Africans), prefer to research their own histories as best they can.

For, European colonisers are alleged to have reinterpreted world history in order to reinforce the claimed innate superiority of white peoples over coloured peoples; the inferiority of all faiths other than Christianity (with its great variety of brands); and the asserted longevity of their technological skills, in spite of massive borrowing from diverse Asian peoples, especially the Chinese.

Returning to the story of my family, we Ceylon Tamils, through chain migration, soon dominated Malaya’s administration, especially in medicine, pharmacy, education, railways and the postal service. The Chinese immigrants went into trade or tin mining, in the main. The Indians went into trade, or indentured labour in the rubber estates. The other ethnic communities (then referred to as nationalities, in much the same way that all Asians were Asiatics to the British rulers) sought to fill any niche available, or to create one. The Malays, a charming and tolerant people, remained mainly on the land, ruled by their sultans. The latter were ‘advised’ by the British; that is, they did what they were told, or became replaced. On the west coast, the sultans’ titles, clothing styles, and ornaments of authority reflected the historical influence of Indian cultures.

British entrepreneurs developed the land and the economy to suit Britain’s export markets and import needs. Because Malaya was under-developed, they did not cause the kind of damage they perpetrated upon the established economies of India and Egypt. Fortunately for mankind, the British did not produce opium in Malaya. Their output in India was adequate to subvert the Chinese people.

Each ethnic community had its priests to provide guidance to their version of God or Heaven, although many Chinese seemed to restrict themselves to ancestor worship. They  had little red boxes outside their homes at which they prayed, lit candles and burnt imitation money. These, surely, must have assisted many to eventual success. Perhaps, some of our ancestors develop into spirit guides. We all prayed with great devotion, as insecurity was the mainspring of our existence.

Education for the children was, as ever, the primary driver for all. The children who could get into English-language schools (as I did) were naturally advantaged in being able to acquire academic or professional qualifications. Families lived frugally in order to achieve the savings necessary to fund this education. Thus, everyone was skinny, like the survivors of the Great Depression in Australia. Most of us could have done with more nourishing food.

At the end of World War Two, overseas study became the pathway to enhanced security and lifestyles for the whole family. All betterment was for the family, not just for the individual. The so-called Asian values, much derided by those who had lost their tribal leaders and an operational sense of tribe, clan, and extended family – mainly in the immigrant-created new nations of the Western world – are upheld throughout Asia. They stress the primacy of community, not of the individual. This recognises that one is born into a collective, is sustained by the collective, then contributes to the collective in reciprocity, finally moving on to another collective in another domain. One is never apart from that ultimate collective, the Cosmos.
(This is an extract from my book ‘The Dance of Destiny’)

Being ‘too black’ and a ‘coloured foreigner’

The White Australia policy had a sharp bite. Way back in 1949, Australia’s first Immigration Minister tried very hard to deport Mrs. Anne O’Keefe and her children. She was then married to an Anglo-Australian, and they had a cute little white baby. Mrs. O’Keefe and her daughters were Ambonese. They had been given succour in Australia, when her husband had died defending The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) against the Japanese invasion. I had been a neighbour of that family.

The family remained in Australia after the High Court’s intervention. Reportedly, the High Court found that the Minister’s earlier deportation of other coloured people, especially Sergeant Gamboa (a Filipino who had served in the US military in Australia), was unlawful. But the Minister had only been attempting to apply the law. However, it was the Australian public which had defended the O’Keefe family.

Yet, as I had observed over a number of years in that period, the prevailing public attitude towards coloured people was antipathetic. The antipathy applied to white foreigners (non-British) as well. However, when able-bodied European workers were sought and brought into the country, the Good Neighbour Councils (of Anglo-Australians) set out to make them feel welcome.

Educated, fee-paying Asian youth studying in Australia had to fend for themselves; they were however strongly buttressed by their religio-cultural heritage. Discrimination was overt. Oral slights were not uncommon. Yet, we remained untouched, even as we adapted to Aussie traditions and colloquialisms.

One tradition I liked was the evening barbeque over a 9-gallon keg of beer. The party ended when the beer ran out – from (say) 4am to 8am. My hosts were fellow-workers in the factory where I worked, and on the trams. I must have been the first coloured tram conductor in Melbourne.

Since the Aussies then described all coloured people as black (East Asians were yellow), I had to put up with being a ‘blackfellow’ or ‘black bastard.’ But my Asian friends and I just went with the flow, knowing that when the oldest generation of superior whites met their Maker, our lives would be smoother. That did happen. Only the ignorant yobbo continues to seek to protect white space by name-calling.

S.18 (c) of the Racial Discrimination Act, regrettably, emboldens the odd coloured new immigrant to feel offended and humiliated by oral abuse by the yobbos. That is not discrimination! Such immigrants should have been here in the 1950s. I remind them of my father’s adage: ‘The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.’

In the mid-1950s, although I had qualified as a research psychologist, I was told that I was “too black” to be accepted by Australians. (I am a very light tan.) Later, when I qualified as an economist, I was advised that “the Australian worker is not yet ready for a foreign executive, much less a coloured one.” The first incident was witnessed; she confirmed my story a few years later. The second event was reported to me by the Head of the Graduate Employment Unit of the University of Melbourne.

In spite of all that, I am quite proud of my adopted nation. It has evolved into a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, colour-blind polity. During my work experience in State and federal agencies, and in private companies (from factory hand to senior accounts clerk), only once was I addressed improperly. A fellow factory worker called out to me “Hey, Rastus!” He was obviously a book reader. The Australian worker does stand tall, unlike most of the workers in ‘emerging economies.’

My only complaint is about the overt discrimination during the last 5 years of my career (leading to early retirement) from a small but powerful gang, for whom the word mass carried great weight. This discrimination was clearly tribal. Yet, by being moved from here to there often, I had the opportunity to become very knowledge about all of the government’s migrant-integration and related policies.

From that nasty experience arose 6 books (refer amazon.com), and 44 in-depth articles (refer ezinearticles.com).

Destiny can work in shocking ways. I paid a heavy price for my learning, but it was worth it.

Has religion been used in a civilisational war?

When the buccaneers of the British East India Company gradually increased their control over the Indian sub-continent, from a small trading post to most of the principalities, they chose to adopt the mode of governance and lifestyles of the rulers they deposed. Many reportedly took Indian wives, and sent their tinted children to appropriate schools in Britain. (There, these very wealthy offspring were seemingly described as ‘having a touch of tar.’) That is, the buccaneers seemed to have adapted to India (with substantial benefit) rather than the reverse.

Then the British Government decided to replace the East India Company. Were certain politicians and their officials a little jealous, or were they horrified at their people going ‘native’? Probably the latter, as a claimed cultural superiority usually attaches itself to the militarily superior – a very human attribute.

The claimed innate (ie. genetic) superiority of the ‘white race’ was then extended to an organised despoliation of the cultures of India, especially its millennia-old religion. The denigration and destruction of the cultures of any people who had been invaded successfully or over-run enhances the control sought by the ambitious new arrival. European Christian colonisers did this rather well.

While I prefer to read history in 300-year rolling cycles (a useful statistical approach) – and this period corresponds to the 300-year circuit of planet Saturn – an examination of the intent and effects of European colonialism should desirably cover the totality of the 5 centuries that this human virus had effect.

Post-WW2 European neo-colonialism – including changing ruling regimes and some national or tribal borders – is a less-virulent infestation; and it too will pass when global governance becomes tripartite – and fairly soon. The newest empire, the hegemonic one, based on exceptionalism (on the one hand) and globalisation (on the other), will eventually fade away; planetary movements should have a role to play in this withdrawal. In any event, no empire has lasted more than 300 years (plus or minus a standard deviation of, say, 50). Look at the Roman Empire.

When the British invaded, for settlement, North America, New Zealand and Australia, they destroyed the First Nation Peoples in these territories. In Australia, according to the renowned Dr. Coombs, they demolished a long-established civilisation as well. Leaving aside for the moment the comparable depredations in other parts of the globe by other European buccaneers, in India, the British set out to damage to the longest-lived civilisation of mankind.

These were the prongs of this attack:
• Missionaries began to gather heathen souls to the bosom of Christ by rubbishing their traditional beliefs and practices
• The peoples of the sub-continent were also told that they prayed to a large number of ‘gods’, when the reality is that the so-called gods are deities who are representations of a single universal creator God – who is unknowable, but is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.
• They were also told that a superior ‘white’ species, the (mythical) Aryans had over-run and civilised the local ‘black’ peoples previously living there. This is false history!
• From about the 18th Century, European scholars claimed that, not only was the white ‘race’ superior to all other ‘races,’ but that no coloured peoples could possibly have contributed to the origins of human civilisation. These inferior races included the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and Indians (while the Christian Bible draws heavily on the Sumerians). Dear, oh dear!
• Some European scholars also decided that Hinduism could not go back beyond 1300 BC. This is the earliest possible origin of the Europeans’ religio-cultural ancestors, the peoples of  Samaria and Judea. No faith could apparently be older than that of the Jewish people. Furthermore, all learning was claimed to have originated with the Europeans’ intellectual ancestors, the ‘Greeks’ (viz. Athenians). Yet Athens was said to been established by the Egyptians, with many Athenians studying in Egypt. Pythagoras apparently studied there for 8 years.
• The Indians were also told that Hinduism had been derived from Christianity!

This religious war on India’s civilisation was not successful, despite a reportedly brutal rule by the Kaiser of India, leaving the Indians to sort out their caste and related societal problems after independence.

Contrary to Prof. Huntington’s theory that a war of civilisations is probable in the future, such a war began with the rise of European colonialism; and it continues virulently in the Middle East. What a waste of human lives and spiritual potential.