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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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..

 

Are all cultures reflective of a religion?

The brutal slicing out of the clitoris – we know what it is, where it is, and what it can do – of girls and young women has been claimed to reflect a cultural tradition. Was this practice derived from a major accepted religion?

The marrying off of a daughter as soon as she reaches puberty, reportedly to a much older man, has been claimed to reflect another cultural tradition. Which religion recommends or endorses this practice involving child-brides?

In another culture, a woman’s feet are bound, thus keeping them small and not particularly reliable for walking. (I have seen such women travelling by rickshaw in British Malaya.) Which religion endorses this cultural practice?

In an old culture, a widow is reportedly induced to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre by her relatives. Which religion’s doctrine requires this practice?

In Australia, I have seen a figure walk down a street covered from head to feet in what I think of as a walking tent. The gender of the occupant of the ‘tent’ was not clearly discernible. I have read in our media that some such persons have sought the right to drive a car along extremely busy streets, in spite of the probability that lateral vision may be compromised by the face covering. Which religion requires this practice of covering the whole body?

A focus by a religious sect on the ‘netherlands’ of women has resulted, in a secular nation, in a doctrine banning contraception and abortion. Is this cultural stance reflected in the doctrines of other sects of this religion?

In another nation, one’s caste (defined by one’s occupation) allegedly over-rides class. This means that, while one may be able to rise up the class structure, all the descendants of any one caste are traditionally required to be defined and treated as members of that caste. Is this cultural tradition supported by any version of Hinduism?

A culture defines the way things are done, by how they live, by members of a community. These ways do change, just as the underpinning values change through the generations. Immigrants know how cultures evolve in the nations they left behind, even as they seek to retain the cultures they brought with them.

The leaders of an ethno-cultural community may claim the primacy of their cultural practices in a multicultural nation, by seeking the legitimacy hopefully available within their religion. Regrettably, religion’s foundation (or core) beliefs may not sanctify all the diverse cultural practices of its followers.

What society is then left with are not only competitive religious sects and religions, but also ego-related competitive cultural practices. How then about adopting this principle – horses for courses?

This would mean that, in suburban Australia, where there is no risk of a storm involving a horizontal wall of sand many feet high cutting its way through (I have experienced such a storm well away from human settlements), there is really no need to cover one’s hair, face and body as if one is living in a desert.

We do not need child-brides, and such other ‘traditional’ cultures transplanted into this emerging cosmopolitan polity. In time we will rid ourselves of religious edicts imposed by historical controllers of humanity.

Revised cultural traditions will also enable a swifter tribo-cultural integration into (urban) Australia.

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’)

Tolerance of failure

‘Tolerance of failure’ behind declining results

Following my previous posts on matters educational, especially in a competitive global milieu, here are extracts from an article which brings out the issues. The contents of this article are consistent with previous news reports on Australia’s ranking on a global scale.

These who make counter-arguments claiming that Australian students are better ‘rounded’ than their counterparts overseas or their Asian-Australian cohorts, because the typical Aussie is more involved in sport, appear incredible. Equally questionable are claims in the local media that regular tests and exams are stressful. Could normal life be expected to be stress-free?

The article is by Pallavi Singhal in the Sydney Morning Herald of 29 Sept. 2017.

“The co-ordinator of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has linked Australia’s steady decline in all three test areas of maths, reading and science to the country’s “tolerance of failure” in schools.

Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s education directorate, said “It is perhaps too easy to do well in Australia” and that the country tends to accept that “some students will come out less well.”

“We asked students what makes you successful in maths, and many students in Australia said that it’s about talent, but if you asked students in China or Singapore the same question, you had the vast majority saying, ‘I can be succeed if I try very hard and my teachers support me’,” Mr. Schleicher said.

“In other countries, there is a belief that the education system is just not sorting them but that it can make a difference. There would be a much greater tendency for teachers to redouble their efforts for students who are struggling.”

The latest PISA results from last year showed that Australian 15-year olds are declining in both absolute terms and relative to their international peers. … …

“Australia used to be very good at the high end of the skill level but there’s been a gradual slide over the last 15 years,” said Mr. Schleicher. He said that the countries performing best “pay more attention to how they develop and retain the best teachers”. … …

“Australia needs to make teaching intellectually more attractive and provide better support and opportunities for the profession. … … “

Comment (based on nearly 70 years’ residence in Australia as an adult): The ‘near enough is good enough’ attitude held by many in the formerly closed and protective Australia is no more. Multiculturalism and globalisation require better planning and performance for survival.

 

Delaying learning through fads in education

Teaching a young child (say, 3 to 5 years old) or adults learning a new language has been successful through the phonics method. I learned my mother tongue, Tamil, as a 4-year old, and English as my second language from age 7 in British Malaya, through phonics. As an adult, I taught Indian shopkeepers in Singapore necessary English through phonics. Before that, I taught Chinese high school students basic English through phonics.

hen the pronunciation varied from the norm, all of us accepted the variations through memory. Yes, bough/ bought/rough/cough, row/row, and similar temporarily confusing sounds were memorised as idiosyncrasies in a slightly confusing foreign language. That the letter ‘a’ has a variety of sounds was no problem to me or to those I taught.

My wife and I taught our 3-year olds to read without difficulty in distinguishing between ‘sight’ words and ‘memory’ words. There are not that many ‘memory’ words in the English language of common usage. One can learn these without recourse to semantically unclear and confusing jargon phrases. I once read a short paper by a professor in education whose phrases were so abstract that a barrage of anvils was needed to be attached to them to obtain any operational meaning.

Then, when I found that my granddaughter could not read, even near the end of her second year at school (Year 1), I admit to having been disgusted. She had been taught by the whole-of-word method for 2 years, and could not work out the word ‘kingfisher’. I put her on the right track to reading, learning and enjoying books in two 20-minute sessions. How could a school hold back any child because of a sacred fad?

This bright child had been held back by a fad – which had been inflicted on little children for about 25 years, with the teachers bound by the edicts of their trade union, academics in education, and a certain arrogance by some teachers, when the right of teachers to decide how our children are taught had never, to my knowledge, been challenged. This arrogance did lead to a claim by some teachers that they should be free to decide what is taught. What arrogance! How would they know about the nature and needs of the society into which our children grow; and how our youth are enabled to fit into this future society?

We live in a global and competitive environment. Our children need to be as educated and as prepared for the real world as will be children from other nations, and who will be fluent in English. I do not detect that emphasis on excellence which is required to equip our youth for the real world, although a few educators and some politicians do their best.

Institutional prejudice – is it always racism?

An employer chooses not to employ a physically handicapped applicant who is able to do the job: is that racism? An applicant for a job who has a ‘foreign’ (ie. non-Anglo) name has, as has been known for some time, reduced chances of getting even an acknowledgement in the Western world: is that racism or just prejudice? What kind of prejudice – tribal? A coloured employee in a workplace is assumed by white visitors to be a low-level worker, frequently: this is obviously a culturally-conditioned perception. Does it reflect prejudice? Not necessarily. Is it institutional racism, since the trigger is skin colour?

Australia’s Racial Discrimination legislation, under Section 18(c), accepts that words can ‘hurt and humiliate’ a complainant. The legislation deems such words as discrimination as well, although no act disadvantaging the complainant in any way was involved. Is this trivialising the concept of discrimination?

Worse still, the oral abuse may have been triggered by the headgear (a turban, skull cap, or hijab), or other apparel, which identifies the wearer as different from the abuser’s people. Is this not religious or cultural prejudice?

Hitherto, it has been the residue (dregs?) of the White Australia supremacists who have sought to defend ‘white space’ (physical or cultural) from those not like them. However, it may not be long before Australia’s multicultural society produces non-white or non-Christian residents publicly responding to the yobbos who abuse them.

The term racism, misused as it has been to cover a wide range of prejudices, will proceed from being confusing to being ridiculous. The concept of races was coined by European colonisers, mainly the British. The white race was posited against all others. This mythical race was claimed to be genetically (innately) superior to the coloured races. Its weaponry was more powerful, and its greed excelled anything previously seen in the history of mankind. The buccaneers who sought to over-run and exploit other peoples would not have known about the cultural and religious advances of some of these other peoples.

Those who create legislation in the English-speaking nations of the world are now probably conditioned to the misuse of the terms race and racial. They may experience some difficulty in splitting prejudice into its correctly-defined categories.

One can only hope that the terms race and racial will follow that wondrous bird, the dodo. There have been no races on Earth.