Go with a smile!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Assimilation of the foreigner part 1

Multiculturalism / assimilation.
There have been debates about having a lot of foreigners in our midst. I’ve always thought that

Now, it is not easy to get along with mainlanders. There are several reasons for that that I will go into, and many of these reasons are hardly their fault. But they’re a problem.

Somebody said that he was ashamed of the fact that Singaporeans had such anti-PRC sentiments. But then, when I thought about it, are there any havens out there where the overseas Chinese welcome the mainlanders with open arms? Does it happen in Hong Kong? Does it happen in Taiwan? Don’t kid yourself.

There are a lot of things to admire about many of them. I’ve met many mainlanders who are polite, driven, considerate and smart. And I suppose many of them are from backwards places, they’ve got an incredible lack of self-awareness. That wouldn’t be their fault and we probably shouldn’t harp on that. But here are the rest of the issues:

1. Natural selection
China is a tough place. Has probably been that way for the last 200 years. Even when you’re not having Great Leap Forward induced famines, Cultural Revolutions or WWII, it’s also pretty tough. You’ve had to muscle your way around, be a little more street smart, and do a lot of things to get around that the average mollycoddled Singaporean would find fairly discomforting. And when you add to that fact that those who eventually made it to Singapore have had to elbow their way to the top of the heap… There are many ways of making it to the top. But unfortunately, being conniving and using dubious methods are among these many ways.

2. Cultural attitudes
It’s part of Chinese culture, and you know that I’m not uncritical of Chineseness. If you want a thorough critique of what it means to be Chinese, you can go no further than the “True Story of Ah Q”.

It’s the psychology of being the middle child, or the second best. The burden of a glorious past. There was a period of time when China had a more advanced civilisation than the Westerners. But China blew it big time and allowed the Westerners to catch up. Now we know that we have one of the greatest civilisations in the world, but, as of now, not the greatest. Maybe that will change, maybe not. So the Chinese temperament with regards to the rest of the world, simplistically speaking, is fairly mercurial. You have this sneaky feeling that you’re supposed to be one of the best, but still you aren’t.

Chinese culture is fairly conformist and stifling. We all know that. They’re pretty stubborn about holding on to certain mindsets, and when those mindsets clash with yours – well you can see all the sparks flying everywhere. At the same time, there is this insularity and cultural superiority. Many people have commented elsewhere that the Chinese actually have a lot in common with the Americans.

There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, the Chinese idea of excellence is that you do one or two good things, and you do them really well. So you have Chinese excelling in Olympic sports, classical music, calligraphy. Manufacturing and transport infrastructure. Eerily, the same things that the Japanese excel in. Stuff that you can excel through plenty and plenty of practice and grinding it out. If you can shoehorn the mind into a perfectible excellence in a very specific task, Chinese people will excel at it.

Creatively, not so good, even though you know you just don’t want to bet against Chinese ppl succeeding in any given thing. Stuff that requires ingenuity and lateral thinking, we might have a problem with it. But we can overcome those problems. Thus: research and development, IT, good but not so good. Stuff that has to do with spontaneity and improvisation: jazz or soccer? That’s the Chinese Achilles’ heel.

3. Chinese clans / expectations
And this conformity comes with another side effect: people from a certain area have an expectation of what being Chinese means. But it really means you know what Chinese in your hometown are like. There is this great diversity in China that people are not fully aware of, even amongst Chinese. Collectively they’re living this fantasy that China is this great homogeneous nation, and all Chinese people are alike. Which is why, when they come into contact with a different group of Chinese, a lot of expectations are dashed.

So you have that fatal combination where people are conformist enough to not really learn how to deal with diversity, and a cultural shock from people whom you originally expected to get along with, betraying your long cherished notions of what it really means to be Chinese. It’s like having distant relatives that turn out, to your eternal shame, to be clowns. It’s a situation that can very easily degenerate into mutual contempt.

I’ve had one mainlander who’s lived here for more than 10 years, whom I get along quite well with, nevertheless telling me that Singapore Chinese food is “not authentic”. Well Singaporean Chinese, until this new wave of immigrants came along, are largely from a relatively small part of China. Mainly the southern provinces. So Northern Chinese cuisine is relatively rare in Singapore.

We’ve had a great foretaste of this. There were a lot of rivalries between different dialect groups in Singapore, so much that we had to have a Speak Mandarin campaign in order to take away the flashpoints between the dialect groups. Because they can really get annoyed with each other to a greater extent than between Chinese and Malay.

4. Little Emperors

China's one child policy purportedly has created a whole generation of people who are the only children of a family. Put aside the usual cliches that they are spoilt and pampered, I have heard that being the only child is like being a more extreme version of the eldest sibling. So they can also be headstrong and very rugged as well.

5. Breaking the rules

A lot of unwritten rules are broken. It is always an uncomfortble situation when somebody from a larger country is a guest in a smaller country. Would we expect the guest to know his place, when at the back of his mind, he's from a much bigger and mightier country than you?

We were brought up believing that the system would provide for us, that we could count on the system. They were brought up thinking that the way to get ahead is to game the system. Is it any wonder that our values are conflicting? We were brought up to treat Indians and Malays as, if not equals, then at least neighbours. Many ppl from China, when they come here - well you know what their attitudes towares non-Han minorities are like. You don't expect them to reverse that at a drop of the hat.

6. Benefits

Now I'm the beneficiary of a scholarship or a bursary. So it's not good form to begrudge others who are the same. But others won't think that way. And they could get really mad if it turned out that it isn't so much that many people from the mainland wanted to come to Singapore, but rather it was Singapore government officials going to China and visiting schools, and asking all their top students to come to Singapore and make life hell for our children.

I suppose the relationships that we have with all the other ethnic groups among the new arrivals are all different. But somehow mainlanders are the ones who get peoples' goats. There are many things that you would say about them that you wouldn't say about Malaysian Chinese and Indonesian Chinese. I suppose one factor is the assimilation problems.

Well the curry incident seems to bring into stark relief that one form of assimilation - the old style assimilation where you brought people of all races together has succeeded. And the outcome of a new facet of assimilation - of the mainlanders and Chinese - is still up in the air.

I think that foreigners are not only a good thing in Singapore (in spite of all that I've written) many people have pointed out that they are the only thing in Singapore, given that this city was founded in its current state by a white man, and populated by Chinese migrants, Peranakans, Malays, Indonesians and Indians. And in the years immediately following independence, Singapore has not accepted that many arrivals. Not too long ago, when Mao was still alive, mainlanders were the shadowy commie enemy. And then Singaporean Chinese and Mainland Chinese gradually drifted apart. In fact, as time went on, we became more westernised, even a little Malay.

So there was going to be quite a little bit of adjustment to do when both sides meet again following the year 2000, when the mainlanders started flooding in.

This little essay was a fragment that I penned many moons ago and it was sitting in my drafts folder, so I thought I'd just send it out. You can compare this to certain essays that have been published recently.


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