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.

 

A personal morality beyond inherited culture?

In one situation, the driver of a military tank seeks to avoid crushing the intrepid individual obstructing his path. He does this even as this individual repeatedly blocks the evasive moves attempted by him. The individual is unharmed.

In another place and time, a heavy vehicle is reported to have been run over the individual obstructing its path. The driver had allegedly been directed to destroy the home of this individual, as official policy. Should he have avoided harming the individual?

Was the difference in morality influenced by tribalism? In the first situation, the two persons shared a nationality. In the second, there was a significant difference in both ethnicity and religion between the two persons. Even if the second driver was influenced by a subconscious tribal prejudice, one which identified the defiant individual as ‘not one of us,’ should a sense of a shared humanity under Heaven claimed to be imparted by all the major religions have led to an ending which did not involve a dreadful death?

There are, of course, tribes and tribes. In those nations created by immigrants (the prominent ones being the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), political parties represent the tribes of primary relevance. Cultural tribes co-exist beneath this umbrella. In the rest of the world, it is cultural tribalism which guides, if not controls, societal conduct. A tribe can be defined as a people joined together by a common origin, a shared language, religion, and the cultural values and practices which have evolved over time.

Where the extended family reigns supreme, as in most parts of Asia – even modern Asia – tribal traditions will be upheld. Unlike the nuclear families of the Ultra-West, (the four principal nations mentioned above created by immigrants), the extended family is there to provide support to each individual. This support may be psychological or social or financial. Such support counter-balances the obligations which bind the individual to the collective. And it is the conglomeration of extended families which constitute the tribe.

And, as long as tribalism reigns supreme, with religion the main glue bonding its components, inter-tribal prejudice may manifest itself.

Against this background, the contrast identified in the opening sentences above raise a significant question: is there not a need for, and an expression of, a personal morality even when tribal prejudice prevails? The answer? That one needs a conscience beyond the imperatives of tribal prejudice and religious ignorance..

 

Social cohesion and ethnic diversity

With the invasion of Europe by very large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, a major policy issue for European nations is the successful integration of the new arrivals. Australia has successfully integrated its post-war immigrant intake, who worked hard to contribute to their chosen home, even as they benefited from being transplanted.

In sequence, Australia took in needed able-bodied workers, as well as war-displaced persons, from Europe; middle-class Europeans from the Levant; light-skinned East Asians (preferably Christian); humanitarian entrants from Indo-China; and (eventually) coloured immigrants and refugees. All of these settled in (or are settling in) smoothly.

“ It is an undeniable fact that Australia’s immigrants have never been denied the right to pray as they wish (other than to avoid disrupting their workplace); to eat their own kind of food; to speak their own language in public (the Aussie yobbo in the street excluded); to dress traditionally; to celebrate their national festivals freely; and to retain those of their cultural practices which are not inconsistent with the law, institutional practices, societal values, and behavioural norms of the host population.

They are thus required to accept Australia’s Constitution and the related institutions of government; of law, order and justice; the equality of genders; freedom of speech; and equal opportunity. They are also required to respect the nationally accepted cultural practices and social mores of not only the host nation but also of all the other cultural communities in Australia. They are further required to discard imported cultural practices such as spitting in public spaces, clitoridectomy, and such other practices which have been traditionally anathema to their host people. In the event, what other rights might immigrants or their descendants need?” … …

“The bid for a parallel settlement service, and (later) an inter-cultural relations policy, both to be controlled by ethnic community leaders reflected, in my view, an assertion of a newly-created right, rather than a need.” … …

“A parallel settlement service, delivered by language-specific ethnic social workers and controlled by ethnic community leaders, was essential, it was asserted. So, millions of dollars were spent for years in providing grants to ethnic communities under this new approach.

The ethnic grant-in-aid (GIA) social workers and, quite separately, GIA directors met regularly, in order to exchange experiences. As Chief Ethnic affairs Officer for Victoria I did attend a few of these meetings. I sensed that the social workers were pleased to be able to have a dialogue with an official who was a fellow-immigrant. Migrant Resource Centres (MRCs), being multi-ethnic in scope, were serviced in the English language by employees of ethnic descent. I wonder if the social workers manning the MRCs were aware of the apparent anomaly.

State-wide ethnic-controlled councils were then established to ‘coordinate’ GIA and MRC policies and practices. Naturally, a national body (FECCA) had then to be established. State governments also got onto the stage, offering career paths for some, including the odd freelancing academic. Ethnic employment through State or Federal consultative or advisory bodies became quite fashionable. Anglo-Australian federal public servants and I in DIEA (the Department of Immigration & Ethnic affairs) managed the machinery so established.” … …

“For a few years, I was responsible for the allocation of millions of dollars annually on the settlement services provided by this parallel structure. But I was unable to have anyone actually delivering the services tell us about the components of the services they delivered and the efficacy of these services. Basic data were not collected, because these workers said they were too busy. Process was all.” … …

“Mainstreaming, whereby all official agencies would now employ, where necessary, foreign language workers to deliver migrant settlement services (as before), was rejected by one and all in the industry, especially the State agencies established as multicultural policy. Even some academics took up the refrain, although I was not made aware of any research underpinning their assertions.” … …

“As for multiculturalism, the term is a big mistake. Even if the original intention was to encourage the ‘ethnics’ to remain in a separate sandpit, or just to garner the so-called ethnic vote, the refreshed recent emphasis on this term is a policy error.” … …

“What should be of great concern to one and all was the recent public statement by a spokesman for the newly established multicultural body in 2011 that he wished to ‘order’ (so said the news report) certain people to carry out a certain action. It was the tone of the alleged statement that reminds us that people from authoritarian cultures do need time to adjust to Australia’s egalitarian politico-social ethos. It also highlights the imperative of ultimately integrating strongly divergent cultural communities and individuals into one Australian people.”

The extracts above are from the chapter ‘On multiculturalism’ in my book ‘Musings at Death’s Door.’ (2012)

 

Some interesting aspects of multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is just another term for ethno-cultural diversity. The world over is largely multicultural. When that term was temporarily linked with the term policy in Australia, a vision of a separate sand-pit for ‘ethnics’ did arise, for some. Here are some interesting facets of experience.

“When ethnicity was in vogue, I asked publicly whether I, Australian by citizenship, Malaysian by birth, Ceylon Tamil by distant ancestry, and Indian by culture (Hinduism) could identify myself as an ethnic; and, if so, by what criteria. Even the academics were silent! What of those who are the products of marriage across nationalities or ethnicities? More and more of our young are marrying across parental cultures.” … …

“Cynically, I did ask some of the ethnic community leaders who were second or third generation Aussies if they spoke their mother tongue fluently; and with whom (other than their mums) did they speak. Did they read books, see films and attend plays in that language; dress the way their ancestors had back ‘home’ (except for multicultural festivals in Australia); and celebrate their tribal cultures in any meaningful manner? I also asked if their communities reached out to other ethnic communities as equals.

Then there is the issue of some Australia-born descendants of immigrants going back to their tribal lands to fight a traditional, or even a new, enemy. Further, if integration is rejected by them, would that affect their right to call on the equal opportunity that is available? And since social superiority is given little air in Australia, how would ethnic superiority be viewed? I believe these questions to be relevant.”… …

“In the early 1980s, I once observed 3 teenagers on a tram. Their heads suggested 3 different European regions of ancestral origin. They were dressed almost identically, and their speech accents were identically Australian. This was evidence of integration. Travelling through the city, observing, I saw few turbans, skull caps, head scarfs or face covering. Careful immigration selection was the explanation. Why is the situation different now?” … …

“By and large, were tribal leaders, that is, the priests and politicians, to keep away from the fields of cultural interaction, we the people will eventually reach out to one another? How so?

Excluding the exploiters, there is an innate human tendency – displayed so satisfyingly by children – to do so. In Australia, thanks to the public education systems, by the third generation, youngsters will feel, and behave as, part of a whole far wider and deeper than the family or an ethnic community. The gestalt effect will take over.

How does this work? Good immigrants will tend to retain their values almost intact, while modifying their behaviour as appropriate. Those of their children exposed to Australian values through the public education system will move a step or two away from parental values and practices; reciprocally, parental perspectives may also change, become less parochial. There is good evidence that this happens. The third generation is not likely to be influenced by the values of their grandparents, as peer group values begin to back up values inculcated through public education, socialising, sport, and habituation – unless the priesthood intervenes. Do religious leaders, their schools, and other institutions hinder integration?” … …

“Ingrained prejudice cannot be changed by propaganda. For instance, again in the 1980s, a senior public servant, an icon of his political party, denied accommodation in migrant hostels to British immigrants, thereby denying the most important on-arrival assistance the nation could provide to needed immigrants from other countries as well. The Minister did not note this denial. Are Ministers adequately awake when reading briefs?

This senior public servant also cancelled the planned posting of a Moslem employee to an overseas migrant selection office, and the promised promotion of a Hindu employee to a senior position. But he was not a racist; only a tribal. Tribals tend to look after their own, by discriminating against those who did not belong! And some burbling about the Eucharist!

Racism and tribalism (I have suffered from both in Australia), cultural and religious prejudice, and the ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ attitude, like the ubiquitous bacterium or even crime, cannot be totally eradicated. The young priest who, in the mid-1960s, kept 5 Roman Catholic women away from their Protestant neighbour, is unlikely to have changed.

However, education, habituation, and media scrutiny will moderate extreme behaviour. Strengthening citizenship as a commitment to the nation and its values, as a measure of successful integration, will yet continue to make us one people out of many.”

The above extracts are from the chapter ‘On multiculturalism’ in my book ‘Musings at Death’s Door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society’.

An ethnic approach to minority communities

Emeritus Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki, an eminent sociologist, and Chairman of the federal government’s Ethnic Advisory Council, said (in a published article) that the policy of grants to ethnic groups pays disproportionate attention to one of the many dimensions of multicultural policy. It promotes “an ethnic approach to minority groups”, by emphasising the things that divide us, instead of the things that bind us. The policy also extends the scope of equality of access (to the nation’s resources) to the equality of outcomes.

The need for some short-term affirmative action or positive discrimination “specifically targeted to refugees and other victims of oppression” is, however, not denied by the professor. He went on to say that wooing the ethnic vote “represents a grave distortion of multiculturalism for all Australians. It measures the success or otherwise of multicultural policies by the amount of special funds and programs directed specifically to ethnics, irrespective of whether they lead to a cohesive or fragmented society”.

He says also that multiculturalism is seen here as an instance of public policy developed for the benefit of minority groups and not as Australia’s legitimate response to the demographic reality of our society.

This view is confirmed (also in a published article) by Sir James Gobbo, an eminent community leader (later Governor of the state of Victoria), when he says that the philosophy of multiculturalism “calls for respect for differences but not their perpetuation at public expense”.

I am grateful to these two eminent leaders (with whom I once had a close and warm working relationship) for articulating my views so succinctly and in such a timely manner. But stacked against the three of us in our approach to funding for ethnic groups (and implicitly to the plural service structures so endowed) and the divisiveness of such an approach, is a multitude of ethnic leaders. Of course, these claim to speak on behalf of their people.

However, it is difficult to know if their constituencies are consulted regularly and whether, in any such consultations, each community has considered how its grandchildren will relate to the grandchildren of other Australians, and to what kind of nation they will belong.

(This is an extract from my first book ‘Destiny Will Out: the experiences of multicultural Malayan in White Australia, written in 1994. Following Prof. Zubrzycki’s positive review of the book, he wrote to me a personal letter. He said “I agree with everything you have said, except on the issue of voluntary euthanasia.”

All the reviews of the book were fabulous. Refer book pages for Raja Arasa Ratnam on amazon.com’s kindle books. Refer also my other WordPress posts on multiculturalism. To me, multiculturalism simply defines ethno-cultural diversity; no policy is needed.)

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’)