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There's no wrong way to be Chinese overseas

  • 08 March 2018


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.

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