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There's no wrong way to be Chinese overseas



There's nothing that will get people's backs up like telling them they're doing something the wrong way. And telling them they're doing their own culture wrong is asking for confrontation.

Main image: Chinese New Year celebration in Melbourne (Chris Phutully/Flickr)Cecily Huang's article 'What Australia gets wrong about Chinese New Year' caused social media conflagrations and conspiracy theories aplenty. Its similarity to this Guardian article is notable and not just a little eerie.

There were many comments about the Mandarinisation of Chinese culture and accusations that the writers had been influenced by the Chinese government. The explicit tone of both pieces is that there is one correct version of Chinese culture — and the Chinese diaspora in Australia and the UK weren't doing it right.

I had a few moments of pleasure imagining telling my mother that, according to this correspondent from China, she's doing Chinese New Year all wrong. My mother has an excellent range of Cantonese epithets.

As well as being culturally and linguistically bigoted (the elements and greeting derided as inauthentic are of Cantonese origin), these articles demonstrate a deliberate ignorance of the way that cultures actually work. Cultures aren't hermetically sealed — they change with time, context, location, and generations.

What constitutes a particular group's culture could be contentious even for those within that one group. For many Chinese Australians, there is a huge amount of variation in our views on sociopolitical issues and the ways cultural rituals are enacted (or not). Who we see as part of our community can vary widely. Given all this, there is no version of Chineseness from which others are only derivations or deviations.

Successive Chinese governments have attempted to wield political and economic power through diasporic Chinese communities by categorising them as 'overseas Chinese'. This implies that these groups have only a contingent status where they are and that, ultimately, there will be a homecoming to China itself.


"Cultural rituals adapt to new locations and exist more as a continuum of change than a hierarchy of authenticity."


This dynamic appeared again most recently when China's President Xi Jinping was reported as rallying Chinese 'sons and daughters abroad' to the national cause. These rhetorical moves demonstrate how constructed the idea of Chineseness is, and how ludicrous such a call to action is when applied to communities that are many generations removed from any notion of China as a motherland. The effect the call may have on those who may at some point actually go home to China would take a whole other article to explore.

There are many who continue to assume that Chinese groups are monolithic in all things: appearance, politics, custom, and language. This is brought home to me on a personal level when I receive Chinese New Year letters from my local political representatives using Chinese characters. I don't read Chinese characters. Their attempts to engage with me result only in alienating me — both because of the language issue and the fact that they seem to think I'm so politically unsophisticated that this kind of shallow outreach would sway my vote.

What I might experience and enact in Australia for Chinese New Year, then, is no more 'real' or 'inauthentic' than what happens in China, Malaysia, Venezuela, or the UK. Cultural rituals adapt to new locations and exist more as a continuum of change than a hierarchy of authenticity. Benedict Anderson posits the idea of 'imagined communities' when talking about nationalism, and there are those who push elements of diasporic cultural nationalism in an attempt to force similar group identifications or judgements.

The question to consider always is: what is to be gained, or lost, by defining a group's cultural practices as authentic or inauthentic? There is no right or wrong in the ways people may practice their own cultures, but there can be a lot of wrong in how people might judge them for it.



Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), anetwork for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.

Main image: Chinese New Year celebration in Melbourne (Chris Phutully/Flickr)

Topic tags: Tseen Khoo, China, Chinese New Year



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Existing comments

What amazing inanity, ignorance and presumption (based entirely on your name) on the part of local political representatives to send you New Year greetings written in Chinese characters, Tseen. Pretending to understand Chinese culture, no doubt. To me it is an invasion of your privacy and a pathetic attempt to win your favour at the polls [because you are incapable of thinking for yourself, perhaps??] I hope you wrote and told the sender that you didn't read Chinese characters and that you were an Australian. Also smacks of a certain condescension or racism on the sender's part. Hope you didn't vote for the idiots !!!!

john frawley | 08 March 2018  

Hi John F. - thanks for your comment (and readership!). It's a technique pollies have used everywhere I've lived. My mother (who speaks fluent Cantonese) also doesn't read Chinese characters - she gets one, too! Occasionally, it's a politician of Asian heritage who thinks that they can leverage our 'connection' because we both have Asian cultural backgrounds. It's clumsy at best.

Tseen Khoo | 08 March 2018  

Years ago my family went to a greengrocer whose family name was Hunt, and also a grocer whose family name was Lee. One was Irish, the other Chinese. Would you like to take a guess as to which was which?

Bruce Stafford | 08 March 2018  

Good John F. When I was a Colombo Plan education officer my Cantonese students used 'Goodhope" from my full name to call me 'Mr SEE Yeung-seen'. I was charmed when I received mail from them with Chinese characters of my name in the postal address. Yours, Yeung-seen []

Kevin Smith | 09 March 2018  

So how well is Chinese culture doing with its integration of Australian immigrant culture in China? Oooops! Too soon? Would anyone forgive me for being more concerned about Syrian or South Sudanese integration than Chinese integration at this stage in Australia's history? It's a bit like trying to appease the spoilt child!

AURELIUS | 09 March 2018  

Minorities pose two possible problems for others and for themselves. 1. They may be suspected of being potential fifth columnists the more the totalitarian cultures or governments of their countries of primary origin make claims of blood and loyalty upon them. The totalitarian state of China and the totalitarian culture of Islam are examples. 2. They may make relations sensitive between their host nation and the country of primary origin. This is seen in the difficulty between India, where Sikhs pose a separatist problem, and Canada, where many Sikhs, who have been joining and becoming influential in the mass parties, are ambiguous about the issue. Either way, it causes an inconvenience for those members of the minority who wish to leave those sectarianisms behind but really can’t because somebody will be reminding them from time to time, in the sight of the unimpressed majority, that blood is thicker than water.

Roy Chen Yee | 11 March 2018  

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