In another thread, I told Snoopy that I would post about people being “more Chinese” or “less Chinese.” We had had this discussion some time ago after ChineseMom was banned from his wife’s site for obviously cultural reasons, and then we had it again years later, possibly in our Cultural Attraction thread, which is closely related to the topic on hand. Snoopy feels that there is no such thing as “more Chinese” or “less Chinese.” He feels that if you’re racially Chinese, that’s it; you’re Chinese. But as I mentioned to him in a follow-up post, Chinese really isn’t just a race; it’s a culture. Yes, an Asian person is racially Asian, but when we say that a person is more Chinese or less Chinese, we’re talking about his culture. Since I’ve been on a language binge, I thought I’d explain this by posting another excellent video by the polyglot Steve Kaufmann. (Apologies in advance if this runs like a stream of consciousness…it’s tax season (among other things), and I’ve been under time constraints.)
At around 1:50 in the video above, Steve talks about emotion and empathy with PEOPLE as the primary motivator and determinant of how well a person can learn a language. He says that when he studies a language, in his mind, he becomes a part of the culture of the people whose language he is studying. He says, “When I learn Chinese, I see myself as Chinese.” He’s obviously not talking about race; he’s talking about culture. As a student of languages, I can relate–when I study Japanese, I become a part of that culture. I bow, I express agreement in culturally appropriate ways, and I see things through a Japanese perspective, even if I’m not Japanese, even if Japanese people don’t want me to be Japanese. That’s the culture we’re talking about when we say “more Chinese” or “less Chinese.” You need to love the culture whose language you’re learning, but in order to really master the language, you have to be one with that culture. You have to join it in your mind. When you join it, you become its defender and proselytizer because it’s a part of you.
Now what does it mean to be Chinese? At the highest level, it means that you can speak and read fluent Chinese. You can read a newspaper, you can discuss politics, and you are well-read in the Chinese classics. It means you live in China or Taiwan. It means you eat Chinese food, remove your shoes before entering the house, respect your elders, and are familiar with traditional Chinese customs and etiquette. It means you know Chinese history. It means you are familiar with Chinese institutions, both new and old. But most of all…and this is the most important aspect of being Chinese–it means you love Chinese people and are intimate with Chinese people. This will likely hurt the feelings of the personal-is-not-political crowd, but most likely it means that you married another Chinese person, because you love the culture in that person and how you interact together with the culture. It means you go on vacations with Chinese people, that you love speaking Chinese, and that you’re comfortable walking into a room and introducing yourself to Chinese people. It means you understand Chinese jokes–in Chinese–and that you’re able to make jokes yourself that Chinese people find funny. It means you understand cultural and linguistic nuances and can express those nuances in your own words. It means you want Chinese culture to thrive and live for another 3,500 years. You’re proud of that culture, and that culture is close to your heart.
Now of course, people fall onto a spectrum of Chineseness. For example, there are people who are technically fluent in Chinese, but they can’t read well or they don’t understand intermediate specialized jargon. Or some people don’t remove their shoes before going into a house. Or some people don’t eat Chinese food. Or some don’t understand Chinese humor. As much as we may want to protect the feelings of these people, it’s undeniable that these people are objectively less Chinese. It doesn’t make them bad people or lesser people, but the Chineseness in their culture, objectively speaking, isn’t as strong. Now if you can’t stand being around Chinese people and hang out mostly with non-Chinese people, then that’s very un-Chinese. You can’t say that you’re culturally Chinese (or Japanese or American) if you don’t hang out with people from that culture. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. You may have cultural affinity for another culture, or you may prefer to love your ancestral culture from a distance. Or you may even hate your ancestral culture. But let’s not pretend–a person who chooses not to associate with people from his ancestral culture is estranged from that culture. You can’t say that he’s “as Chinese” as someone who lives, breathes, and loves the culture with other people from the same culture. It’s the same deal with America. If someone supports interference with our democratic elections, or if someone calls for the destruction of our way of life, or if someone is against free speech, we call that “un-American.” Cultures exist.
Like most cultures, Chinese culture has its faults, and one of our biggest faults is our cultural chauvinism against ourselves. Steve Kaufmann obviously speaks Chinese well, but even if he didn’t, Chinese culture tends to be more welcoming to a White guy who can three words in Chinese than an ethnic Chinese person who speaks Chinese with a slight accent or who has too much experience living in the West. That’s an unfortunate part of our culture. But that’s what it is. If you can’t accept it, then you’re less Chinese for not being able to accept the culturally stupid things that Chinese people do. Sorry. That’s just the way it is.
As I said above, we all fall on a spectrum. I remember long discussions during college with immigrant college students from China who said that when they go back, they don’t feel like they belong. Some people shun them (see the paragraph directly above), and they don’t feel like they fit in with the people. And these are people fully fluent and experienced in the language and culture! These are people who were raised in China, people who are irrefutably much more Chinese than I am. There’s no shame in their being “less” Chinese–in many cases, these immigrants had richer life experiences than those who stayed in China, but there’s no doubt that that culture, specifically Chinese culture, exists.
So that’s my opinion on the matter. Chinese culture is Chinese culture, and Chinese people are Chinese people. There are many aspects of Chinese culture, but the most important aspect is one’s affinity towards the people and ability to fit with the people, which necessarily indicates an affinity towards the language, an affinity to use the language, and an affinity to talk to and make friends with more Chinese people. We need to call it what it is. There’s no shame in choosing your culture or changing your culture, but if we’re going to work harder to understand culture and (maybe in certain instances) preserve culture or explore culture, we have to call it what it is.