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?

 

 

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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?

 

Some issues of multiculturalism

“In 1995, The United Nations International Year for Tolerance (and the twentieth anniversary of the enactment of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act), the then Prime Minister of Australia claimed that there is in Australia ‘no language not spoken, no culture not understood, no religion not practiced.’ It must be true; it was in the news. In any event, this means that we the most culturally diverse nation in the world; or is it only linguistically diverse?

The Office of Multicultural Affairs also told us then that multiculturalism is a policy for managing the consequences of cultural diversity; that this policy confers upon us two rights and a responsibility. The rights are: to express and share our cultural heritage, and to equality of treatment and opportunity; the responsibility is to utilise effectively the skills and talents of all Australians.

The Office also identified certain limits to Australian multiculturalism: that we should have an over-riding and unifying commitment to Australia; that we should accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society, viz. the Constitution and the rule of law; tolerance and equality; parliamentary democracy; freedom of speech and religion; English as the national language; and equality of the sexes; and that we have an obligation to accept the rights of others to express their views and values.

All this is eminently reasonable and sensible, except that bit about ‘managing’. In addition, the chairman of the Australian Multicultural Foundation (Sir James Gobbo), an ethnic community leader of great competence and renown, said (also in 1995) that he looked forward to ‘the day in the not too distant future, when our cultural diversity and our policies of tolerance and respect in handling this diversity will be so much a part of the fabric of society, that we shall no longer need to use such words as multiculturalism and ethnic’.”

“This view parallels the mature view (also expressed in 1995) of the President of the Czech Republic that the best hope for a peaceful multicultural civilisation in the world is to understand and insist on ‘the shared spiritual values of our cultures’.”

“Another outstanding ethnic community leader (Emeritus Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki) questioned (also in 1995) whether the term ‘multiculturalism’ is now out of date. … … ‘Many cultures, one Australia’ has greater attraction for him. While supporting the thrust of current multicultural policy, he raised two important issues: that ‘not all traditions, cultures and customs are necessarily equal’, and that wooing the ethnic vote throws the policy ‘out of balance’.

Where ‘some minority values are totally inconsistent with fundamental values of the dominant Australian culture’ (eg. where ‘the family takes the law into its hands to redress a wrong done to one of its members’), ‘it would be nonsense to say that every culture is equally valued and therefore legitimate’.

This is an extract from my book ‘Destiny Will Out: the experiences of a multicultural Malayan in White Australia’ (1997)

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’)

Observing babies with joy

Every baby, at birth, is a miracle. Fully formed, ready to go – but not quite! Baby birds sit in their nests and squawk – perhaps only when they sight mum returning with food. These nesters will eventually fly away from their perch. Ground-hugging baby birds, like the plover, will practice flapping their flight-wings while standing on the ground. I once watched with interest a young plover falling onto its back repeatedly while flapping its wings. Eventually, it flew.

Baby animals, immediately after birth, get on to their feet with some effort. When they get their joints in synchrony, they move around, but close to mum. I once saw (on tv) a baby elephant walk over confidently to observe more closely a few birds fossicking on the ground. Soon, however, its mama wandered over and gathered her baby back.

What is fascinating to observe is a young animal make friends with a young one of another species. There are so many such examples. A giraffe and a sheep do, however, seem a strange friendship. I once saw (on tv) 3 different young animals moving together as companions. I also saw (on the internet) 3 cheetahs approached by a tiny baby deer while they were resting. It then nuzzled up to one of the big cats. Eventually, the cheetahs got up and walked away!

I have always felt, perhaps quite unfairly, that animals are better ‘people’ than human beings. Surely, it is only hunger which leads carnivores to attack other animals. Since hunger may be the prevailing condition, carnivores may create an incorrect impression as perennial hunters. Apart from some power-seeking or mischief-making, is co-operation not the modus operandi for the rest of the animal kingdom?

Human babies seem to be the only exception in the kingdom of fauna as needing a lot of time to become motile. They do remain on their backs for a long time. What are they thinking as they observe all? When placed on their bellies, after a few weeks they will lift their head to check out their surroundings. This seems to be the first action intimating purpose.

A little later, when lying on their backs, they will suddenly sit up straight but without any use of their limbs. We adults can’t do that, unless we have developed our core abdominal muscles through exercise. How do babies suddenly display muscle strength?

When my baby daughter was only a few weeks old, I sat her up with cushions on 3 sides, next to a window, in order to take photos of her. She was calm while listening to me. Then, in walked my wife, whose voice and words conveyed so much love. The baby became very excited, and tried to move towards her mother, with such joy on her face.

It was an incredible experience – especially for a product of a ‘stiff upper lip’ Asian culture. In that culture, after a babyhood of being cuddled and spoilt, there was thereafter neither words nor touch to demonstrate the close family bond. The compensation is that the extended family is always there, and could be relied upon.

Through that early bonding, each of our babies grew up into adulthood with confidence; so I believe.

Individualism vs. communalism in modern societies

Society is that highly organised and integrated collective of individuals, organisations and institutions which, in any civilisation, has specified roles, functions, and responsibilities to enable arms of that civilisation to operate as efficiently as possible, while offering security, social stability, good governance, and practices for the furtherance of its youth into useful future roles, within an evolving environment which is necessarily potentially destabilising.

Without such a structured entity, humanity would probably operate in a chaotic manner. Unlike the physical and chemical world, where there can be found coherent patterns of stability within the observed chaos, there is no basis for assuming that similar stability would underpin any chaos of humanity. Indeed human chaos is underpinned by social instability through unfettered selfishness. The events of recent history throughout the world support such a conclusion.

In those 4 nations which I describe collectively as the Ultra-West (viz. the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), which were developed through successive inflows of immigrants from Europe (including Britain), it would have taken quite a while for society to be formed in each location. By necessity, the earlier arrivals had to be self-sufficient in finding a place for themselves and settling down. It would seem that, by the time each society had achieved a necessary stability, and by the very nature of the circumstances of settlement, an ethos of individualism had permeated the psyche of the people. Church attendance may have been the exception. Any sense of communalism which may have prevailed ‘back home’ may have been weaned by new necessary lifestyles.

There may be a flip-side to this development. Did societal alienation then evolve? Through a deficiency in support from one’s extended family (assuming there was one in proximity), a degree of communal support may have been necessary. That is, officialdom may have had to step in to some degree to alleviate extreme hardship, in a material sense. But what of the psychological bulwark available to some degree in more traditional societies?

Francis Fukuyama, an American scholar of renown, wrote in depth of the deterioration of society in the USA, a civilised nation. The USA is a leading member of the Ultra-West. Australian society appears to be following the USA. While Australia is heavily committed to welfare while ruled by the ethos of individualism, it is gradually becoming acclimatised to American culture, business practices, and the philosophy of governance.

This spirit of individualism seems to have engendered claims for more and more personal rights. Taken to extremes, traditional respect for others may be diminished, if not ignored. Conflicts over relative individual rights can occur. In Australia today, surnames and addresses indicating respect for age, position, or relationship have given way to the universal use of first names.

Rights breed rights – even in the open! The proliferation of claimed rights, aided by those using the courts to acquire yet more rights (even for unlawful asylum seekers) can be juxtaposed with the reality that rights are not set out in the Constitution, or a Bill of Rights, or official policy statements in Australia. This results in all manner of societal difficulties, primarily because of a lack of corresponding or counter-balancing personal responsibilities towards the collective.

Some consequential effects of enhanced access to claimed personal rights are the suffering caused to children through the impermanence of marriage and cohabitation, a fear of empty streets (casually brutal attacks by louts or a threat to children), the serious abuse of generous welfare and free medical services, a denial of personal responsibility (eg. acquiring skills to enable employment or to re-locate to centres offering employment), and escalating demands by the well-off for ‘middle class welfare.’

In the light of the above, the unavoidable conclusion is that, at least in the USA and Australia, modern society does not generally offer the cohesion and mutual kin and community support of traditional societies. Does not such support implicate a certain spirituality inherent in mankind to look after one another? Unless governments step into the vacant shoes of extended family, could not escalating personal rights without matching responsibilities be seen to lead to social alienation and to the deterioration of these societies?

Would not weak social bonds and an uncertain sense of community indicate a diminution of valuable social capital?