Multiculturalism is a Lie Part 2: Californication and Talking to City-Slickers

It’s refreshing to talk to a certain kind of person who is well-traveled, one who understands that their assumptions about people on a group and individual level go right out the door whenever they meet someone new. So far, I’ve gone through Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, and Bangkok in the past few months, and next week I will be in Colombo. There’s a lot I do have to say that only reinforces my last post on the lie that is multiculturalism now: it’s better to be an outsider and recognized as one by both others and by yourself than it is to be an outsider trying to fit into cities and societies that pride themselves on the falsehood that is diversity.

There’s always a conversation I have had with other Third Culture Kids and non-TCKs who are well-traveled that flows well, where we don’t need to explain things, and know exactly what we’re all talking about, that political correctness is a joke and prison, and that the saying “It is what it is” is completely unacceptable when describing and defining the world and its peoples.

I’m thinking right now of my experiences in America, and people I’ve met living in Singapore, Australia, Canada, and other so-called “diverse” communities. Here are a few things they’ve said or that have been told to them:

1) To my cousin in Australia, who did NOT root for Australia’s teams during the World Cup a few years ago, he was called “un-Australian” and his response was that he’s Canadian–why should he be Australian? Even outside of being a Third Culture Kid, what is it that makes people assume he wants to be Australian?

2) For me to live in America, I’ve been told by people in San Francisco that I am “too closed-minded” because I don’t have a hyper-liberal worldview or political leaning, by many Americans and American Christians that I am “unacceptably and sinfully acting and should act the same way as people in the country or city I am living in act and already be aware of it” since I am living there, or that I am “too mean” because of my openness and directness. My realization is that Americans don’t enjoy being criticized or hear ideas that run contrary to their definition of worldliness, diversity, or multiculturalism. Funny enough, some grad students who took the same university placement exams for our master’s program couldn’t understand the word “hubris” or “facetious” and assumed I was mean when I used those words to describe my outlook.

3) My friend in Singapore raised her hand in a classroom lecture when the question was asked if anyone used condoms, and found it puzzling that she was immediately ostracized for her readiness to answer openly and honestly a question that was asked. It was then that she realized that it was perceived as bragging by her peers.

4) A friend who lived in Korea who happens to be white and American is accused of being a guy with a fetish for Asian women, and other people accuse him of being ignorant because he doesn’t like K-Pop. It doesn’t leave room for him having grown up there and speaking the language, under their definition, since they think that “all white men with an interest in Asia only care about the women they want to steal” which is itself a flawed argument when there are plenty of expat aid workers I know who love the country and culture but won’t date the women.

5) Similarly to #3 and #4, when I talk about my interests and practice in parkour, martial arts, and photography, Americans and Australians in particular immediately have grand ideas about these things–that if you talk about it, you must be good at it, and if you aren’t at a certain level of professional practice that they see on television, you are a liar and “complete bullshit” in their eyes. It was pointed out to me by friends more than once that Americans especially hear “I do parkour” and they think you can do wall flips, but that only shows they don’t understand the style or difference between it and free running (which is flips, but that is not parkour, it’s derived from it). When they hear “I do martial arts” they think I’m a tough guy fighter or a wannabe who watches too much UFC trying to sound cool. Or, because I am not recognized as an actor or photographer, I am not either of them–they assume that you must be in Hollywood or have your photos in National Geographic to make that claim. I suppose that means you can’t be an actor if you do community theater or that you may not be interested in making money off of your art. The truth is, I am open about what I do, regardless of skill level or professional aspirations, and Americans and Australians have these funny assumptions that you only should talk about things if you’re good, summarized by “Put your money where your mouth is” and I am doing all these things–I just don’t believe I can’t talk about what I do regardless of skill level.

6) A common statement I hear from expats in Sydney, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and other spots is that “the world comes to them, so they know foreign culture well.” It is not uncommon for me to hear Americans say that and how American President Obama’s childhood in Indonesia means nothing because the world has changed and he was only a kid–that they grew up in immigration hub cities and don’t feel very worldly. What they don’t realize is that London, Hong Kong, and Singapore have immigrants too, but just because there are plenty of Indians in those cities does not mean they (the locals) understand Indian culture. They don’t seem to realize people overseas act very different than when in their native environment.

7) Likewise, a friend from Kansas talked about how he was treated a lot better as an Indian than he was in California. We realized that though he may have been one of the only Indians in his town, he was one of many Indians in California. When you are just another Indian face, you are assumed to have the same values, personality, and history as the other Indians in California, to the point you are assumed to act like them and enjoy their kinds of parties–even if your family comes from another Indian state. When you are the only Indian in your town, people who haven’t had that exposure have more questions and curiosity since they don’t know a thing about India or Indian people, which he prefers to the know-it-all assumptions of the fake diversity in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One thing we all have to realize as travelers is that multiculturalism in these countries of immigrants is that though everyone is not originally from there, the assumption is that they will eventually want to become American or Australian. If not, then they are tourists and should eventually realize “the beauty of their multicultural utopia that brings people from all over the world together, black, white, and yellow” as part of their propaganda.

I like to distinguish between multicultural environments and multicultural societies when talking to people. Multicultural societies are like America and Australia: they assume you are going to eventually be an immigrant or take in their nonsensical worldview, and pride themselves on being open, but when their view is questioned or criticized, you’re seen as closed-minded while their country is constantly highlighted as the successful country people all over the world want to immigrate to. Multicultural environments are like Bangkok and Tokyo, where the expats are people who are on vacation or working, but they will never be Thai or Japanese no matter how much of the language they pick up, even if they have ethnic heritage from Thailand or Japan. As such, when dealing with farang/gaijin in each city, there is a certain level of leniency that is offered because they don’t know how much the outsiders know or understand about local culture and taboos. Compare that to the multicultural societies in America and Australia like in California’s major cities or Sydney, and you are expected to follow a certain level of political correctness to “respect” all races and religions and ideas.

I once had an argument with one of my Chinese-American friends. I kept smiling and listening to him, and he got angrier. I had to explain that in Thailand, we don’t get angry or give sour faces because it offends the other person, and it’s to convey we’re trying to make the situation lighter, that we don’t want the person to react to our offense or get defensive if we are mad at them in a disagreement. He told me he thought it meant I didn’t care and wasn’t listening, that I was being condescending, and that I should know that because I am in America. There we go: because you are in a country, you should know. I suppose I ought to be angry with him for not knowing that people in Thailand don’t like the fact he sits the way he does with his legs crossed because he is pointing the bottom of his feet outwards in their direction, and it’s disrespectful. Though we were in the states at the time, I’m technically from Thailand by looking at me and he should know this if he expects me to know how America is since I’m in America. But the truth is, we don’t know, we learn as we go along, and people in multicultural societies are actually not as open as they think they are since “the world comes to them” as mentioned earlier.

I am not open because I want to wear the badge of being “open-minded” but because I am forced to open up and consider other perspectives the more that I travel outside of my comfort zone. I don’t even consider myself open-minded, I like to think that I am critical-minded, because I don’t need to be friends with everyone, but I can mingle with all and choose whom I want to have as a friend.

So you can send me to the sticks in the middle of East Timor and I can get along well with locals since I’m an outsider who makes an effort, but no matter how much effort I make in a multicultural society, there will be parts of me that will never be accepted, and having an American accent makes it even harder for people to remember hey: I am not American, despite my passport. There are too many assumptions in multicultural societies to allow for outsiders to exist and remain as they are both by choice and by subconscious habits ingrained from their times abroad (like how I always bow when shaking hands or never have an angry face when arguing with someone, even if many young Americans think it’s weird). These assumptions do not exist in monocultural societies, whether they are all Burmese locals in Rangoon or Bangkok’s expatriate hub which is still distinctly Thailand–yet friendly to outsiders visiting their glorious kingdom.

So the next time anyone gives me a problem about being weird in a multicultural society, I wonder what their definition of “normal” is since they seem to make it up as they go along (that is, whatever is supposed to be normal). If someone calls me a liar for being open about my interests and passions, I shrug and say that I’m open because it’s how I get to know people, memento mori, remember you will die one day, and that the pretty Chinese Canadian, Taiwanese American, and French Asian backpackers I have met were girls I only had as much as one day or as little as one short bus ride to get to know each other with. I don’t take relationships for granted no matter how short of a time I meet someone, and it freaks out people in multicultural societies because they take their faux openness and “diversity” for granted, since they assume it’s another person living there, not another outsider on an adventure who isn’t from there. But that’s precisely why they take things for granted: “the world comes to them” and therefore they think that life is handed to them, as opposed to going out and having to get a life like all of us who travel. So I guess I’ll have to keep traveling.

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5 responses to “Multiculturalism is a Lie Part 2: Californication and Talking to City-Slickers

  1. Just a note regarding the Indian in Kansas. While that’s a happy consequence of him being the only one there, there are also cases where being the only one of a kind in a homogeneous society makes them the target of the whole community just for being different. It’s sad, and SHOULD instead encourage curiousity and an open mind, but I think more often doesn’t.

    Regarding the rest, I like the overall spirit of it. There is an odd pride to people who live in multicultural centres. New Yorkers consider themselves apart from the rest of the U.S. and not in the way Texans do, but hold themselves as more cultured than the rest. And that may well be, because it is a city with people from lots of places… but it’s still not the same as travelling. And this is because, despite everything, New York is still America.

    Like, I love London, but you can’t just go to London and meet Indian people there and assume that you are well exposed to Indian culture. You get a taste of it, a version of it, but it takes a lot more to get well exposed.

    I think the perverse pride you see though, is kind of a Californian thing, or also a New Yorker thing. I haven’t met any Londoners so far who say “It’s awesome how multicultural our city is! I don’t need to travel anywhere!” There are anti-immigration Brits and worldly Brits and ignorant Brits, among others, but it’s somehow difficult to imagine “Yeah I don’t need to go anywhere.” It probably helps that British people travel rather more than your average American, even if it’s only to Torremolinos.

    I’m partially tempted to make a sweeping generalization that there’s an enduring “Well, I don’t HAVE to travel” feeling to Americans. They already don’t travel as much, internationally, and perhaps they want to justify it. I don’t know.

    • Oh I don’t doubt that that happens–I had the experience you describe about being the only Asian in a white or black party. And yes, lots of Americans have that “I don’t have to travel” feeling–which is why when I meet them living overseas instead of vacationing, we all have the same idea: stay away from vacationing foreigners or ESL teachers because they are embarrassing. For some reason, lots of Americans take pride in BEING ignorant–one guy replied “I could care less about what the rest of the world thinks about me or America my homeland” in response to me pointing out that parochial “world comes to us” reasoning. I just corrected his grammar and moved on (it is supposed to be “I could hardly care more”).

  2. the pride in ignorance thing i can never fully grasp…just like pride in not having traveled, and I have to say, I encountered both more in NYC than anywhere else.

    and as the “Indian from Kansas” i wasn’t the only, just one of few, but few enough that the point it true – dealing with ignorance can be easier than people who think they know everything. but i was in a midwestern city (Kansas City)…i think my experiences had I lived in the countryside would have been completely different (and probably a lot more negative)

    • Thanks for clarifying! I just had to use it, and thanks for letting me keep the example there.

      Pride in ignorance as I understand it is that they don’t think it’s ignorance–they think their understanding is at such a high level coming from a diverse urban area, that they made a quantum leap and believe they have reached the final level of diversity, where people think NYC is the world because people from all over are there.

      And yes, as you and Dan pointed out here–the countryside probably would have been a lot more negative, I’ve been the only Asian in a white community before, and though most of the response was curiosity, I did have three kids tell me to “go back to China” to which my dad responded facetiously “He’s Russian!”

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