On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West

On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West

On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West

On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West

Synopsis

In this major new book, leading cultural thinker Ien Ang engages with urgent questions of identity in an age of globalisation and diaspora. The starting point for Ang's discussion is the experience of visiting Taiwan. Ang, a person of Chinese descent, born in Indonesia and raised in the Netherlands, found herself "faced with an almost insurmountable difficulty" - surrounded by people who expected her to speak to them in Chinese. She writes: "It was the beginning of an almost decade-long engagement with the predicaments of 'Chineseness' in diaspora. In Taiwan I was different because I couldn't speak Chinese; in the West I was different because I looked Chinese". From this autobiographical beginning, Ang goes on to reflect upon tensions between 'Asia' and 'the West' at a national and global level, and to consider the disparate meanings of 'Chineseness' in the contemporary world. She offers a critique of the increasingly aggressive construction of a global Chineseness, and challenges Western tendencies to equate 'Chinese' with 'Asian' identity. Ang then turns to 'the West', exploring the paradox of Australia's identity as a 'Western' country in the Asian region, and tracing Australia's uneasy relationship with its Asian neighbours, from the White Australia policy to contemporary multicultural society. Finally, Ang draws together her discussion of 'Asia' and 'the West' to consider the social and intellectual space of the 'in-between', arguing for a theorising not of 'difference' but of 'togetherness' in contemporary societies.

Excerpt

'On not speaking Chinese', the opening chapter of this book, was first presented in 1992 at a conference in Taiwan. the conference organizers said it was up to me what I wanted to talk about. I was elated, of course, for I had never been to Taiwan before, but when I started to prepare for the event I was suddenly faced with an almost insurmountable difficulty. Imagining my Taiwanese audience, I felt I couldn't open my mouth in front of them without explaining why I, a person with stereotypically Chinese physical characteristics, could not speak to them in Chinese. in anticipation, I wrote this essay, which is now also the title of this book.

My scholarly work until then had mainly focused on mass media and popular culture - globally ubiquitous phenomena which fascinated me deeply but the analysis of which did not really implicate my personal identity (although I did make it a point, in the mid-1980s, that I liked watching Dallas). To all intents and purposes it was an academic pursuit which I could articulate in an 'objective' voice. in Taiwan, however, I felt that I couldn't speak without recognizing explicitly who I was and responding to how I was likely to be perceived by the people in this country. I expected much questioning, which turned out to be more than warranted: again and again, people on the streets, in shops, restaurants and so on were puzzled and mystified that I couldn't understand them when they talked to me in Chinese. So my decision to present a semi-autobiographical paper on the historical and cultural peculiarities of 'not speaking Chinese' resonated intimately with this experience. It was the beginning of an almost decade-long engagement with the predicaments of 'Chineseness' in diaspora. in Taiwan I was different because I couldn't speak Chinese; in the West I was different because I looked Chinese.

The politics of identity and difference has been all the rage in the 1990s. All over the world, people have become increasingly assertive in claiming and declaring 'who they are'. This book is perhaps a symptom of this trend, but it is also a critique - not in the sense of dismissing identity politics altogether, but by pointing to 'identity' as a double-edged sword: many people obviously need identity (or think they do), but identity can just as well be a strait-jacket. 'Who I am' or 'who we are' is never a matter of free choice.

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