Why I don’t care about the politics of multiculturalism

I haven’t been writing here for years by choice, and I’ve had zero interest in saying anything here for the longest time, but I have been writing and posting in a private forum. Being the lazy bastard I am, I’m copying and pasting what I posted from that forum over here.

Oh yes: I’m back and blogging more soon.

Let me start by saying the idea of multiculturalism is often misunderstood and paraded as a great thing. The politics of multiculturalism, however, are not so great.

What I have learned is that it is easier to glean concepts in this from narrative rather than theory because there are more examples to draw from and it is not so nebulous. This is why I am sharing parts of my narrative to illustrate some points.

As an Asian American, especially having attended university and graduate school on the west coast, a hot spot for multiculturalism, it is quite baffling for me that people act like it can only lead to good things. Let me tell you that for the good things of being exposed to other cultures, there are funny ideas I do not agree with such as exoticism of cultures based off of people’s looks or creating Otherness both to project onto other individuals and onto oneself.

I can’t recall the many times people said I was not a “real” Asian (whatever the hell that means) because I am not a “pure” northeast Asian, or that because I hold my chopsticks differently, that I am a failure as an Asian. These criticisms came from other “Asians” who  from one extreme lump everyone into one nebulous group called “Asian”, cultural groups with individuals whose heritage come from countries like China, Indonesia, Taiwan (they make a distinction and assert it, especially in Southern California), Korea, India, and the like that somehow because of geographic proximity are supposed to be the same when they immigrate to the United States. On the other hand, you have people who will declare their pride in being Taiwanese Americans but hate being called Chinese, or people asking strange questions like “Are Filipinos Asians? Aren’t they Pacific Islanders?” (the answer is yes, they are Asian, and no, they are not Pacific Islanders). For the sake of avoiding a tired narrative, I am excluding examples of racism I experienced from non “Asian” groups (whites particularly) because that’s a tired one that I don’t need to retread.

The multicultural aspect there for me basically means “Feel free to look different but don’t you dare think differently from others!” when you are presented with the illusion of free choice when creating your identity and is limited between to the two extremes with nothing in-between or beyond that dichotomy. Other people discard their heritage and focus mostly on their citizenship. I was often reviled by others because I questioned these politics in Asian American circles. It’s a kind Cultural Marxism, which is what a lot of these so-called “diversity” politics have become, to the point I find myself wondering if people have missed the point of Avenue Q’s song, “Everybody’s A Little Bit Racist (Sometimes)”.

The influence of my own views came from (take your pick) being either someone who has less confusion about identity because he lived in his two heritage countries (China and the Philippines), or has more confusion because of living in three countries of ethnic heritage.

The Third Culture Kid I shall quickly define here:

The “third culture” to which the term refers is the mixed identity that a child assumes, influenced both by their parents’ culture and the culture in which they are raised. While Useem first used the term during the 1950s, it was about forty years later that third-culture kid (sometimes spelled without a hyphen and often abbreviated TCK) emerged in the mass media.

TCKs move between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity. The first culture of such individuals refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated, the second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, and the third culture refers to the amalgamation of these two cultures.

This is what I am classified as both for having grown up in several countries by the time I reached high school. It also has an extra layer of complexity being surrounded by individuals like me from having attended an international school for expatriates, consisting of military brats, missionary kids, corporate kids, diplomat children, and rich locals. In my day, it was an alienating experience because before the Internet, I was just considered strange. With the Internet, it becomes an ostracizing experience because the natural assumption is that I’m a spoiled rich kid, not helped by BuzzFeed articles talking about how the TCK loves to travel and actually embodies many of the Millennial stereotypes that are universally abhorred, and a privileged kind of individual rather than the TCK, which also includes refugees, mind you.

Yes, we grow up with a kind of third culture, but our views on diversity do not all reach the same point: I have seen people from the same family develop completely different personalities even if they went to the same schools and countries growing up, with one person becoming a hardcore patriot and her brother a jaded individual who embraces life as an expat because he isn’t an expat in his own country yet he feels like one without the privilege or the benefit of a doubt for not knowing obvious things people who have grown up there do that only a foreigner would not know. Just because we grew up exposed in different countries doesn’t automatically turn us into progressives or liberals, and just because someone is not well-traveled doesn’t mean they will be a conservative. I can only think of the arguments I have gotten into with rich TCKs I’ve met whose whining sounds more like a rich kid complaining they don’t get to go to Europe and America in the same year and them trying to act like I understand and am of the same ilk, which I am not. It is made worse with social media creating echo chambers and people not meeting qualified individuals to help them through their development or their struggles with identity.

The expatriate life I have really varies based on my life as an NGO development worker and Peace Corps Volunteer in addition to being an international school kid.

My experience in development in the early days was that running into foreigners in places like Timor-Leste (East Timor) or in Manila before the 2000s was that you met someone who was one of the few crazy people to wind up away from “home” and you immediately bonded because very few people “get” you or the life you live. More often than not people did think we were crazy (and most of the time weren’t wrong) because that identity crisis and the amalgamation of habits and norms couldn’t be pegged to a nationality, which means we are either considered universally rude because there’s no consistency to expect and we don’t match our nationality or ethnicity, or we are considered insincere because we are too polite, and worse, some of us strive to become our national stereotype because a bad identity is better than no set identity in where we came from, let alone what we consider “home” due to having no place we felt comfortable connecting to our sense of self.

That isn’t even multiculturalism as I would call it. That would be cultural exposure. The multicultural politics I ran into in California meant someone starts asking me where the Filipino community is and why I say I’m also Chinese when I don’t look Chinese or people speaking to me in Tagalog much like someone says “Ni Hao” or “Konnichi wa” to be cute to the respective cultural group speaking those languages–multiculturalism again overlooking an individual’s key experiences and associating stereotypes of race, assuming more about my personality because of how I look. Is that racism? I don’t think it’s the kind of racism that’s killing people, but a small part that glosses over complexity in each individual, and yet citizenship seems to trounce ethnicity. But do remember that the barbarians in Rome eventually became idolized and people began adopting the dress and the norms of the barbarian, to the point it was hard to see who was a citizen of Rome or a barbarian who wished to be Roman. Alas, again, I digress and must move forward.

Even in my days in the Peace Corps, I found that not everyone who goes in will come out an open-minded global citizen as many may proudly declare upon repatriation. I met someone who became far more bigoted against black people and hated living away from America when he was in Tanzania. I meet other foreigners who take residence in Indonesia or Thailand and other places from their homes in the UK and New Zealand and the things that come out of their mouths don’t sound like their eyes have been opened from living abroad. Then the young Millennials writing for Matador look like fools to believe they are not without prejudice themselves, for a keen reader will find each of them exoticizes each country and culture to avoid looking like the bigoted and ignorant Ugly American, and also likely to sell more print.f

I am reminded of a cultural competence test we were assigned at the beginning and end of Peace Corps service, one which I managed to gain notoriety for somehow bizarrely having balanced views compared to my fellow corps members. Some of the first year volunteers overcompensated and lost themselves too much into their culture to avoid being the Ugly American, others resisted and quit because they wanted to be the true red white and blue Yankee who refused to offer even the basic amount of respect to the host culture. The results warned people who yield too much lose their identity and develop resentment, whereas those who refuse to adapt end up isolated, and a balanced individual knows how to create boundaries that are healthy and respectful of the host culture without deciding to give up and surrender to the Borg or becoming a maverick who demands directions to McDonald’s and a pack of Coors, and a ticket to Disneyland.

 

These days, most people I meet when living abroad don’t care if I sound like them (my accent is a bizarre mix of both sides of the Atlantic, and can codeswitch into a thick American or thin British one). I’m just another denizen and they aren’t going to treat me any better anymore because to them, I’m just another guy who decided to move overseas because they see me as a loser who couldn’t make it back home or that I’m another lost soul trying to find himself in another country, or whatever projection they make. Frankly, I can’t give a black damn because I just like being overseas and America stopped being my country when Gen-X handed the torch of pop culture hegemony from the Baby Boomers to the Millennials (because we never held that torch, we were always the counter-culture rebels, but that’s a story for another day).

So multiculturalism for me is a nebulous concept (I apologize for using the narrative and examples more than the direct statement of intent) made worse by its politics. My experience with it has shown that it’s not the great thing many declare it to be because the real world has shown that real individuals do not magically all become one hive mind as a result of exposure to different cultures, and merely looking different or living in other countries won’t magically transform you into a balanced or awakened spiritual individual.

If anything, I personally find that living abroad transforms you into more of who you really are when a mirror with a different frame is shown to you, and living in multicultural environments won’t automatically mean that those encounters lead to anything significant changing–some people isolate themselves further even if their neighbors are all of a different ethnic group.

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