Saturday, March 8, 2008

Debating that damn diaspora dilemma

Yesterday I was in a taxi with a couple friends. One of those annoying screens was in my friend’s face – the kind that is attached to the back of the passenger seat and is impossible to turn off (though you can sometimes turn the volume down). I have resorted to covering the damn thing up with a piece of paper when the going really gets tough (such as in one travel show, particularly painful, where a Chinese interviewer asked an American tourist in a European country who was eating some fried street food if she was worried about her weight). Anyway, our taxi’s TV was showing a kind of game show. One of the contestants was a Chinese-American, and he described himself as American. “Oh no!” said my friend (who is Chinese). “He is Chinese, not American!” She proceeded to get rather upset about this, while the two of us looked on, rather bemused. Apparently she was offended by a number of things, including: 1) He opted to describe himself as American rather than Chinese; and 2) His mother apparently didn’t teach him to love his homeland, as she should have done. The idea that someone born and raised in the U.S. should not call himself an American is strange to me; to her, that a (ethnic) Chinese person would not call himself Chinese is what is strange.

As can be expected, the discussion turned to what exactly she believed a Chinese person to be (as far as I could tell it boiled down to race), and, subsequently, what an American believed an American to be (not an easy topic to sum up, but suffice it to say that, for me, inclusion into the “nation” of America does not rely on homogeneity but, to the contrary, includes and embraces diversity).

Chinese newspapers will periodically publish editorials or pseudo-reports exhorting overseas Chinese to come home and help the motherland. However, it is important to remember that the inclusion of the Chinese diaspora in the Chinese nation is not a new phenomenon. Its origin can, at least in the way we understand it today, be traced back to the late 19th century, when Sun Yatsen and Kang Youwei battled for support from overseas Chinese, especially in America, for their respective nationalist projects (revolutionary versus reformist). During this period Chinese intellectuals were working out just what the Chinese nation was exactly (a never-ending question, but a lot more contested then than it is now), and overseas Chinese were appropriated into the narrative (the fact that many of them were wealthy and could contribute to various revolutionary or reformist projects certainly had something to do with it). What did it mean to be “Chinese” and why were overseas “Chinese” included? Race was a big determinant, and much of the concept of race that became so important in Chinese nationalism had as its origin European notions of social Darwinism and racial superiority. The linkage of geography and nation was important as well. These aspects of Chinese nationalism have been extremely well documented and I won’t get into them here.

One thing I do want to mention is a point that another (Chinese) friend brought up: the Chinese idea of hometown, which, I believe, is much older than the 19th century, might have also been fused into the messy conceptualization of “nation.” The Chinese word for hometown, laojia, doesn’t really mean hometown, at least not the way English speakers understand it. For me, my hometown is Muncie, Indiana, because that’s where I grew up. For a Chinese person, her laojia is the place of her ancestors, meaning she might never have set foot in it at all. (Wenlin, a Chinese dictionary, has this definition for laojia: “1. Native place; old home; one's original home. 2. Hell.” I’m really not sure how to interpret that last definition. Too much time with the in-laws?) Your laojia is not simply where you grew up. It’s where your grandparents grew up, or even older generations: it is the geographical home of your family. It’s possible that this idea of “hometown” worked its way into the Chinese idea of nation, and into the modern meaning of “homeland” (zuguo).

If local ideas such as laojia did find their way into Chinese nationalism, that might change the scope of the debate somewhat. I do think that, when discussing Chinese nationalism, historians sometimes put too much emphasis on ideas of nation that, more or less, originated in Europe, and it might be worthwhile to spend more time thinking about concepts of community that survived past the dynasties. Only one thing is certain: as a stimulant of lively conversation, those unbelievably irritating TV screens on the backs of passenger seats just might have some use after all.


JoYce said...

I want to explain why laojia means "hell" to you. We avoid mentioning 死 in Chinese conversation. So we use "回老家" to express that one is dead. Thus, the definition is hell.

Sam said...

Oh that's interesting! Makes sense... So dying is like returning home... very poetic.